The Doctor Who Christmas Special: Twice Upon a Time—An Allegorical Reading

The Whoniverse is about to change—we all knew that. Peter Capaldi’s run as the titular character is ending, show runner Steven Moffat is leaving, and Jodi Whittaker will become the first female doctor in the show’s long history. This last bit, you may have heard, has been the subject of much discussion among the Whovians, many of whom have been, to put it more mildly than the 12th incarnation of the doctor would, worried. Moffat sent a message to these folks in his and Capaldi’s final episode: These “worries” are unfounded, and antithetical to his vision of the long-running science fiction program. Thus, in addition to nostalgically looking back to the past, Twice Upon a Time cleverly sets up the show’s future.

Twice Upon a Time picks up where the last season ended. The Doctor is dying, but refusing to regenerate. He ends up at the South Pole where he encounters the First Doctor (who is masterfully played by David Bradley). The two doctors have to solve the mystery of glass-like avatars who are stealing the memories of the dead to unfreeze time, and return The Captain (Mark Gatiss) to World War One, his proper place in the timeline. On the one level, it is the perfect vehicle to send off Capaldi’s doctor: The aliens’ ability to access anyone who has died allows for sentimental appearances from old companions, and the presence of the First Doctor—and his Tardis—invites the kind of allusions to classic Who one would expect from Moffat’s swan song. On another level, however, Twice Upon a Time can be read as an allegory for the state of the Whoniverse, and Moffat’s final statement about what it can and should be.

This allegory is accomplished through the juxtaposition of Capaldi’s doctor with the original doctor. Throughout his tenure, Capaldi has been compared to Hartnell’s version of the character. He was older, grayer, darker, more alien than his most recent predecessors, and his episodes were replete with more classic Who references than theirs, as well. And, indeed, when seen next to each other, they are indeed similar. They have both arrived at the same place with the intention of stopping their regeneration.  Both are considering dying rather than letting someone else become The Doctor. However, when presented with the mystery of The Captain, they are forced to at least temporarily postpone this plan and work together. It is in this partnership that the differences between 1 and 12 are revealed.

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Despite the episode’s nostalgic tone, the humorous banter between Capaldi and Bradley carries much of the episode. From the opening sequence, where the two doctors argue over who is THE

Doctor, the subject of the Doctor’s identity is hinted at at the forefront. Is the original the best? Or is the latest version, the culmination of years of experience and growth, superior? At the beginning, it seems like 1 is in charge. He gets the better of the exchanges, and seems to be more comfortable in the role of leader. He identifies himself as “The Doctor” and calls 12 his “nurse” in one particularly funny scene. As the show goes on, however, 12 ascends to the leadership role. Ultimately, it is he who solves the mystery, and it is his plan that provides satisfying, Christmassy resolution to the Captain’s predicament. The first doctor fades into the background and Capaldi is left alone on screen, first for his teary reunion with certain past companions (spoilers) and then for his powerful final monologue and regeneration scene.

The shift in power in the Tardis is accomplished through the progression of the above-mentioned banter. While the First Doctor seems to be getting the better of the battle of wits early on in the program, as it progresses, his jokes begin to fall flat. His views on women, and their role in the Tardis, are at best anachronistic, and at worse offensive. He professes, among other things, that the women are fragile (made from glass) and that it is the female companion’s role to “tidy up” the Tardis. These comments are met with rebuke from the 12th Doctor, as well as from Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie), who makes her return in this episode. As the First Doctor’s worldview is revealed to be out of place in time, the 12th ascends, representing what The Doctor does and should currently believe. The First Doctor’s anachronistic sexism echoes that of a certain segment of the fan base who would reject the 13th Doctor, the first female incarnation, without giving her a fair chance. The First Doctor may not be happy about the upcoming change—either in the context of the show where he is about to regenerate for the first time or in the context of the allegory where his refusal to regenerate reveals his reluctance to progress—but then he would not have been happy sharing the Tardis with Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, Clara, or Bill, none of whom would be doing his housekeeping. Imagine how he would have felt about Captain Jack Harkness, then consider if you’re being close minded about The Doctor’s gender.

After Capaldi’s regeneration, we get our first, brief glimpse of Jodi Whittaker as The Doctor. Though she is on screen only briefly, she appears comfortable in the role. Her only line of dialogue recalls the 9th Doctor, and her fall from the Tardis into open space may symbolize the endless possibilities that come with a new doctor and new show runner.

There are no monsters in this year’s Christmas episode—no Cybermen, no Zygons, no Weeping Angels. The only Dalek who appears is, nominally, on the Doctor’s side. Even the glass avatars of the dead—the supposed antagonists of the episode—turn out, to The Doctor’s consternation, not to be evil. What, then, is the doctor fighting against? In the end, it is his fear of the future, his fear of change and the unknown, things the whole Whoniverse encounters every time the Doctor regenerates. These fears are cleverly alluded to in Capaldi’s final speech. Early in the monologue, he says (and perhaps it is Moffat speaking through him), “Yes, yes, I know they’ll mess it up without me,” and then implores the new doctor to “wait a moment. Let’s get it right.” He then offers his advice for being a successful doctor: “Never be cruel, never be cowardly. And never ever eat pears! Remember – hate is always foolish…and love, is always wise. Always try to be nice and never fail to be kind.

As long as The Doctor is able to, “Laugh hard. Run fast. Be kind,” everything is going to be ok.

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A. A. Rubin lurks in the shadows. You may have thought you saw him in the back of the bar, or going into the subway station, but when you looked back, he was gone. His fiction has appeared in Pif MagazineScrivener’s Pen, and The Hopper Review. His short story “White Collar Blues,” which originally appeared in Skyline, was nominated for The Carve Magazine/Mild Horse Press Online Short Story Anthology Award by the editor. His debut graphic novel will be released by Golden Bell Studios next year. He can be reached at: birdman33@gmail.com and on twitter as @thesurrealari .

 

 

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