Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor grew on me slowly. Gruff and abrasive, he was almost the complete opposite of my then favorite Doctor, Eleven. Twelve seemed to care less. He was more alien than any of the other Doctors in the reboot. This, in part, led to a rough first season eight with only a few standout episodes like “Listen.” The next season, nine, was much better. Capaldi’s Doctor had found his footing. He did care, he just showed it in a different way. There were a number of episodes, including “Heaven Sent” — an episode that focused entirely on the Doctor — that showed the strength of Capaldi’s acting abilities and the essence of his Doctor. Now it’s time to say goodbye to Twelve.
It seems weird to say, but the plot of the Doctor Who Christmas special isn’t that important. Steven Moffat didn’t give us a complicated plot filled with intricate details and an evil villain that required the Doctor to suit up one last time to defeat. We don’t have a villain at all. Instead, this episode is all about letting go. Of both the Doctor and the showrunner. That theme runs throughout the episode.
We ended season 10 with the Doctor stopping his regeneration and meeting a surprise guest in the form of the First Doctor. The Christmas episode begins with grainy archival footage of the last episode of William Hartnell, the First Doctor. As he talks to his companions, the black and white footage morphs into color with David Bradley, who played the First Doctor in the 2013 TV movie, An Adventure in Space and Time, seamlessly taking over. He, too, is on the brink of regeneration but stops it at the last moment.
At the South Pole, these two versions of the Doctor meet. “We have a choice: either we change and go on. Or we die as we are,” the Twelfth Doctor tells his counterpart. This is the crux of the episode. Both Doctors have their reasons for not regenerating but that refusal has consequences. Something we soon see when time freezes and a British World War I Captain walks onto the scene. We flash to 1914 Ypres, where the Captain, played by Mark Gatiss, is stuck in a crater getting ready to kill or be killed by a German soldier before time stopped for him. He emerges from the crater only to be taken by strange glass people before being released in the south pole with no idea of what’s happening. He joins the two Doctors on an adventure to see what is stopping time.
In the meantime, the First Doctor slowly comes to the realization that he’s meeting his regenerated self. It took awhile but he finally got there. The First Doctor is like someone’s grandpa, filled with judgemental statements and borderline problematic phrases. Our Doctor is constantly trailing behind him asking him not to say things like that anymore. One of my favorite sequences involved Bill telling the First Doctor that she too has experience with the fairer sex. Second only to the First Doctor telling Bill she was going to get a smacked bottom if she continued with her bad language. But that’s getting ahead of myself.
The TARDIS is taken into the Chamber of the Dead where they meet the ‘villain’ of the episode — the Testimony. They are aliens from the distant future who harvest memories from people at the point of their death. They picked the Captain up before his death for this purpose and were in the process of returning him to his timeline when an error in the time stream pulled him out. In exchange for returning the Captain to them, the Doctor gets to see his last companion, Bill Potts, again. When he last saw her, she was a Cyberman sacrificing herself for people she barely knew. It seems unbelievable that she’s standing there, whole in front of him and he doesn’t believe it. Instead, he thinks that she is some kind of duplicate.
The Doctors ultimately make a run for it, taking Bill and the increasingly shocked Captain with them. Twelve decides that they need more information on the Testimony. He visits Rusty, the Dalek he went on a miniaturized journey through in season eight, for it. This was the Dalek who looked into the Doctor and found him to be a ‘good Dalek,’ not a good man. It’s an interesting choice that Moffat would bring him back when the Doctor is struggling with regenerating or fading away.
We find out three things on this trip. First, that the Testimony aren’t evil. Second, that the First Doctor is afraid of regenerating. Third, that Bill is now part of the Testimony. She is only Bill in the sense that she is all of her memories. I couldn’t help but wonder what that meant for the Bill that went traveling with Heather. This Bill was sent because the Testimony wants to understand the Doctor and through her conversation with the First Doctor and her memories, they get a better idea of who he is or, more importantly, how he sees himself. Despite the common arrogance of the Doctor, he doesn’t always see himself as the essential hero people see him as.
With no enemy to fight, what is there left to do? Both Doctors trying to die in the same place at the same time created the time error that brought the Captain to them. They need to return him to the moment of his death. He asks them to look into his family. That’s when he reveals that he’s the ancestor of the Lethbridge-Stewarts. This is an episode of callbacks. The First Doctor told Bill that life isn’t a fairy tale. Bringing a man back to die perfectly illustrates that. But this is also our Doctor and our Doctor occasionally can cause a miracle. The Captain was meant to die but the Doctor brought him back a little later than he disappeared; just in time for the Christmas Armistice of World War I. As the soldiers sing Christmas Carols and raise flags of peace, the Captain is saved.
“You were right, you know,” Twelve tells the First Doctor. “The universe generally fails to be a fairy tale but that’s where we come in.” This is what is what the Doctor does, snatches victory out of the jaws of death.
The First Doctor was afraid, but watching the Armistice and what the Doctor did for the Captain and realizing who he would become, he found himself ready to change. Bill laid it out for him earlier, “Perhaps there’s just some bloke. Wandering around. Putting everything right when it goes wrong.”
One returned to his TARDIS and began the cycle. Our Doctor wasn’t so much afraid as he was tired. He lost not one, but two companions who depended on him, trusted him, and ultimately died in ways that he couldn’t prevent. He spent billions of years as a prisoner in his own confession dial, placed there by his own people. He watched his oldest friend and enemy turn away from after he pleaded for help. He spent so much time saving lives and saving the universe. Isn’t it time for the Doctor to rest? That’s the question he asks Bill and Nardole (after he shows up). That is the question he’s been struggling with all episode. They try to convince him that he’s necessary to the universe. The Testimony tries to convince him, giving him one last gift — the memories of Clara. He embraces both Bill and Nardole and then they fade away leaving him alone at his request.
Alone in the TARDIS, the Doctor says his last goodbyes. He realizes he can’t just fade away. The universe needs him. Before he goes, he gives one last familiar speech.
“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 but never fail to be kind… Laugh Hard. Run fast. Be kind. Doctor, I let you go.”
And in a flash of light and explosions, Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteen stands in the tattered clothes of her predecessor. Rather than comment on a new strange body part like the other Doctors after their regeneration, her first words are ‘Oh, brilliant.’ The episode of Doctor Who ends with her falling out of the TARDIS which soon disappears. And that’s it — the end of Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner and Peter Capaldi as the Doctor.
Doctor Who is expected to return in Autumn.