Spoilers of course.
If I was of a mind to, I’m sure I could nitpick Twice Upon a Time to the point where I’ve sucked any sense of joy from it, but what would be the point of that? Well, I suppose the point would be to completely miss the point, so let’s try not to do that. Instead, let’s talk about why Twice Upon a Time is such a lovely farewell to Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.
(Not as lovely as Matt Smith’s farewell Christmas Special four years ago, but still perfectly lovely.)
And I want to start with what was, to me, the most surprising element of the episode, which was the inclusion of Rusty the Dalek. Good old Rusty, the Good Dalek, who made his initial (and until Twice Upon a Time only) appearance in Peter Capaldi’s second episode Into the Dalek.
The concept of a good Dalek has been around since at least 1967 (check out the Second Doctor story The Evil of the Daleks), but it wasn’t until 2005, during the first series of the newly revived Doctor Who, that the phrase “Good Dalek” took on a new, sinister, and not so subtle connotation. In the Ninth Doctor story Dalek, the eponymous character (the sole Dalek survivor of the devastating Time War), in a gripping exchange with the Doctor where the Dalek learns of the Doctor’s genocidal violence and hatred of the Daleks, bluntly admonishes the Doctor “You… would… make… a… good… Dalek.”
The clear implication here is that the Doctor, our brave and funny and wonderful hero, is as full of hate and anger as his most evil and despicable enemies. This is, of course, a comparison that can only be taken so far, since the Doctor is full of wonder for the infinite diversity of life and the universe, and the Daleks want to wipe all diversity from existence, but the point remains that the Doctor’s hate is deep and scary and worthy of note.
This background is very important in order to have the necessary context for understanding Rusty the Good Dalek, because when Rusty first appears in Into the Dalek, it’s in service of revisiting and recontextualizing the original “you would make a good Dalek” moment. To make a long story short, the Doctor attempts to “rehabilitate” an injured Dalek (that would be Rusty) by showing it the beauty of the Universe as seen by the Doctor, but the Dalek sees beneath all that beauty and discovers the Doctor’s intense hatred of the Dalek race. Rusty effectively imprints on this hate, and thus Rusty the Good Dalek is born, and he hatefully glides off to pursue his newfound mission of destroying every Dalek in existence.
But not before leaving the Doctor with this parting shot: “I am not a good Dalek. You are a good Dalek.”
Which is clearly a nod to the original “you would make a good Dalek” criticism of the Doctor’s character, but the implication is now different. What before meant “you would be very good at being a Dalek because you have such hate and are so good at dealing death” now means “you are a morally good Dalek, because though you have hate and are good at dealing death, you are tempered by compassion and try to do good.” In other words, “you would be good at evil” has transitioned to “you are good, not evil.” A rather telling moment, considering that this is still very early in the characterization of the 12th Doctor, when he was still rather caustic and cold and fully in the throes of self-doubt and questioning “am I a good man?” Well, of course you are, you idiot; even a Dalek can see that.
And now we can get back to Twice Upon a Time, where we again meet Rusty, but this time the difference between The Doctor and The Good Dalek is glaringly stark in its contrast.
Rusty the Dalek has sequestered himself away like a miserable hermit, steeped in grotesque ugliness, subsisting on his shriveled core of hate as though its poison were his only sustenance. The Doctor, on the other hand, is now at a point in his development where he is fully espousing a message of kindness and love. Hate driven by hate for hate’s sake versus hate that is a by-product of love and kindness. Two beings that were almost aligned in temperament have taken opposite paths and have now become reversed reflections of each other, highlighting how far the Doctor has transitioned from cold pragmatism and doubt to warmth and wonder.
Emphasizing the 12th Doctor’s transition from his beginning to his ending in this way is so very fitting, because this Christmas Special is all about transitions. The obvious transition is clearly the regeneration from Peter Capaldi to Jodie Whittaker, but the theme of transition runs through the entire episode.
I’ve already talked about Rusty, and how he serves as a foil to show just how much the 12th Doctor has changed, but we also have the transition from life to death as embodied by the Testimony beings, who are thematically about transitioning from one state to another, but more specifically are about mirroring the Doctor’s impending regeneration. The Doctor’s companion Bill makes a return appearance as a Testimony avatar, but she is not really Bill, but instead Bill’s memories, saved who knows how long ago upon the occasion of Bill’s death, prompting this copy of Bill to argue that she is the real Bill, because what is a person if not their memories? Just as the Doctor always faces a drastic transition from one person to another, he is still always the Doctor, just as this Testimony avatar is still really Bill, even though she exists now in a different state.
These Testimony avatars are, of course, made of glass. Looking in the glass, reflections of selves, gazing into the mirror, mirroring the Doctor’s inevitable acceptance of becoming yet another reflection of himself. Thematically speaking, these avatars could not have been constructed of any other material.
We also have a transition as signified by the appearance of the 1st Doctor, played brilliantly by David Bradley, who is kind of reprising his role as 1st Doctor actor William Hartnell, who he played in the wonderful biographical film An Adventure in Space and Time (by all that is good and decent in the universe, please watch it if you haven’t yet).
I don’t want to delve too deeply into the controversy surrounding the portrayal of the first Doctor in Twice Upon a Time, so I’ll just say that, even if you find the 1st Doctor’s characterization as sexist to be out-of-character, we should all be able to recognize that the 1st Doctor is being used here to demonstrate Doctor Who‘s transition from a time when sexism was more commonplace and accepted than it is now. The 1st Doctor enters the scene as a character straight from the 60s, with 60s sensibilities about women being the weaker sex, and ends up being reminded by the 12th Doctor that “you can’t, you, you, you can’t say things like that,” which doesn’t just signify how far Doctor Who itself has come, but also the 12th Doctor, who would never have been concerned with such social niceties when he was newly regenerated.
All these thematic and plot elements about transition are at the heart of what makes Capaldi’s farewell so lovely, because they’re all about acceptance of change, and acceptance of loss, and acceptance of the future, and letting go. At this point, beautiful moments like the return of Clara’s memories, and the Christmas Armistice, and the hug with Bill and Nardole, and the reveal of the Captain’s identity, are just icing on the cake.
Now for the big and final transition of the episode. The regeneration; not just a transition from one Doctor to another this time, but a transition from a male Doctor to the first female Doctor, a transition that, no matter how you personally look at it, is a big deal, because like it or not, we live in a gendered society where gender is a big deal.
I said at the beginning of this writing that I was not going to nitpick, but it turns out that I lied.
First, let me say that Jodie Whittaker is amazing. I have been immensely impressed and entertained by her appearances in shows Black Mirror, Trust Me, and particularly Broadchurch.
Let me also say that I am very excited by the prospect of a woman taking on the role of the Doctor, and am completely on board with this change.
But now let me say that, damn it, I was really hoping for a bit more than two words. It was already too long a wait for the Christmas Special, and now another long wait before Whittaker’s first proper episode, and all we get is two words? And part of me wishes that new showrunner Chris Chibnall, who wrote Whittaker’s first scene, would have made a choice other than the Doctor crashing the TARDIS… again. Partly because I’ve grown a bit weary of current regenerations wreaking havoc with the TARDIS (something new please), but also because it was too easy of a setup for all the sexist “women are bad drivers” jokes that inevitably followed. Likewise with the 13th Doctor being overjoyed that she is now a woman, which does go a bit against the grain of the newly regenerated Doctor usually reacting critically to his new face or features, but even worse, gives more fuel to the sexist “see, the show is just pandering the feminists now” crowd.
But these are such petty nitpicks that so pale to Whittaker’s infectious grin and her joyful exclamation of “oh, brilliant,” that I choose to read her first appearance as a challenge to all fans to live up to the 12th Doctor’s final words, “Doctor, I let you go.”
Long live the Doctor.