"Doctor Who" Regenerates, But Not Before Revealing Most Important Lesson

The 12th Doctor is just memories now... but aren't we all?


The 12th Doctor is dead, long live the 13th Doctor. But also, as the latest Doctor Who Christmas special underlines, long live the 12th Doctor too – and the 1st Doctor, and all the Doctors. More epilogue than grand finale, “Twice Upon a Time” is about as quiet and contemplative as a multi-Doctor regeneration story could hope to be, and it gives star Peter Capaldi the ideal stage to say farewell to a role he has made his own these past four years.

Spoilers ahead for the Doctor Who Christmas special, “Twice Upon a Time.”

The story is a direct follow-up to the past season’s finale, “The Doctor Falls,” in which a dying Doctor refuses to regenerate on the grounds he just can’t face being someone else all over again. It’s also a sequel – or interquel, if we want to get technical – to the 1st Doctor’s 1966 departure story “The Tenth Planet,” which the opening recap reminds us was a whopping 709 episodes ago.

More than anything, “Twice Upon a Time” feels like further expansion on the Doctor’s big speech to the two Masters in “The Doctor Falls,” in which he laid out why he does what he does.

“I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because, because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun and God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do, because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind.”

“Kind” is the defining word for the 12th Doctor. It’s what moves him at the Christmas Armistice in Ypres, and it’s part of his final advice to his next self. That the incarnation who began his existence so prickly and aloof would end it as the champion of kindness speaks to just how much this Doctor grew and developed over this three seasons.

It also underscores the defining brilliance of Peter Capaldi’s performance. A lifetime ago when he was first cast in the role, he was best known as Malcolm Tucker on the political TV comedy The Thick of It, where he played a profoundly amoral, profoundly profane spin doctor for whom the only thing more terrifying than his scowl was his smile.

The early 12th Doctor carried over aspects of that character, but he gradually warmed up as he came to realize showing his true self – the stated reason for his older face, per his debut story – didn’t mean being remote and brusque, but meant being unashamedly, unreservedly kind. Capaldi grew to play the Doctor’s kindness as the most urgently honest expression of himself, and in doing so made his Doctor vulnerable and open in a way none of his predecessors ever really attempted.

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It makes sense then, even if it’s never entirely dug out of the subtext, that the Doctor would be so unwilling to die and be reborn all over again. As he tells Bill and Nardole – or their memories, at least – his endless life is like an empty battlefield, one where only he is left to keep fighting. The only reward he could hope to have is the hard-won knowledge of who the Doctor is, and there’s no guarantee his next self will see things the same way. The Doctor can live on if it means the universe continues to be saved, but he still has to die.

Set against that final sacrifice, the ultimate stakes of “Twice Upon a Time” are remarkably small. The Doctors’ mutual refusal to regenerate creates a paradox, but the monstrous aliens are neither monstrous nor alien, the spy in the camp really is just the Doctor’s best friend back for one final adventure, and there’s no grand plot to foil.

“It’s not an evil plan,” a shocked Doctor observes when he learns what Testimony actually is. “I don’t really know what to do when it isn’t an evil plan.”

If we want to track what the Doctor actually accomplishes here, it may not seem like much: He returns Mark Gatiss’s World War I captain to the Ypres battlefield a couple hours later, in time for him and his German foe to both be saved by the Christmas armistice. Two small, unimportant lives saved, that’s all.

But it also serves as the answer to the question the 1st Doctor tells Bill he left Gallifrey to find, and it allays his concerns when Testimony showed him the kind of person he would become in the future.

“So that’s what it means to be a Doctor of War,” the 1st Doctor says, realizing his role will not be to make war, but to stand and protect those whom the war comes to claim. Just for a moment, he can see in his future incarnation what Bill says everyone who meets the Doctor can see: that this is the person who knocks around space and time, making sure good triumphs over evil, against all the odds.

“You were right, you know,” his older self replies. “The universe generally fails to be a fairy tale. But that’s where we come in.”

Back in the classic series timeline, it’s four short stories after “Twice Upon a Time” from the younger Doctor’s perspective that his immediate predecessor will declare there is evil and corners of the universe that have bred the most terrible things, and “they must be fought.” Suffice it to say, the younger Doctor is nearly done running from his destiny as the universe’s defender, even as his older self is desperate to lay down his burden.

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Given the relative lack of action and the various heart-to-heart conversations about what being the Doctor means, I’m tempted to call this story “meditative.” But this is also always going to be the story in which the 1st Doctor threatens to give Bill a smack bottom, so it sure as hell isn’t just meditative.

The inclusion of the Doctor’s original incarnation provides plenty of laughs, with some embarrassed acknowledgment of the show’s less progressive past mixed in. I don’t remember William Hartnell’s 1st Doctor being quite as bad as David Bradley’s version is at his worst here, but, yes, this is all pretty much fair.

The 12th Doctor’s reaction to his predecessor’s behavior reads as the show’s reaction in general: His outdated attitudes and comments are massively embarrassing and worth chiding, but his future self doesn’t try to pretend this isn’t who he used to be.

Having the 1st Doctor here also seems to free showrunner Steven Moffat from the pressure of making some grand statement about the incumbent Doctor’s whole era. That’s part of what sank the portentous, frequently incomprehensible “The Time of the Doctor,” his previous regeneration effort for Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor. The 1st Doctor’s general disapproval of everything his future self does – his TARDIS desktop theme, his sonic screwdriver and sunglasses, and his electric guitar all come in for criticism – lets this story adopt a lighter touch in encapsulating everything Capaldi did in the role.

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It’s as though the over-the-top spectacle of a multi-Doctor story and the over-the-top spectacle of a regeneration story cancel each other out, just letting Doctor Who get on with one last adventure with the 12th Doctor. There are callbacks – the return of Rusty the Dalek from this incarnation’s second adventure rather underscores how far the character has come – and there are the expected quips from a Doctor who never abandoned his spikiness even as he grew kind. He is Scottish, after all, which I say with the greatest possible respect. “Twice Upon a Time” goes for profound, but it also goes for fun, and the success of one aids the success of the other.

Not that the story resists some swansong flourishes. There are all the returns, as Pearl Mackie comes back as Bill, and both Matt Lucas and Jenna Coleman make cameos as Nardole and Clara, meaning the 12th Doctor’s full roster of companions is represented in his final moments.

Coleman’s hastily inserted cameo – Moffat has already acknowledged they had to shoot her appearance at the last minute to work around her Victoria filming schedule – could play as an unnecessary self-indulgence, but then there’s that look on the Doctor’s face as he realizes he has all his memories back. This isn’t just to bring Clara back for the sake of bringing her back: The show underlines just how much all these people meant to the Doctor in shaping who this version of his was, and it’s all there in Capaldi’s expression.

As for Bill’s presence here, it will frustrate those who hoped for more concrete resolution to her story after “The Doctor Falls.” It’s left murky whether the “real” Bill is still traveling the universe with Heather, but then the point this story makes again and again is being the “real” version of someone doesn’t matter, that a person is merely the sum of their memories. That probably isn’t especially compelling to those left dissatisfied by her earlier fate, but we still get an extra hour of Mackie playing a character who is, existential questions aside, absolutely and unchangingly Bill. That’s what counts, really.

Then there’s the regeneration, in which the Doctor makes the unprecedented decision to address his future self. This feels right, just as it felt right when the 9th Doctor declared both Rose and himself fantastic, or when the 10th Doctor admitted he didn’t want to go, or when the 11th Doctor promised never to forget when he was him.

But the 12th Doctor is different: He’s the incarnation whose aged appearance and aloof demeanor loudly declared he was done pretending to be somebody else, except then he actually had to figure out who he even was. Across three seasons and 41 episodes, the Doctor found himself, so much so his merely being himself is enough in the end to convince the 1st Doctor his is a future worth living.

The 12th Doctor learned hate is always foolish, love is always wise, and that one should always try to be nice but never fail to be kind. That’s a lesson worth learning, and one worth imparting. The 13th Doctor will have all her own new lessons to learn, but if she can carry that forward, then her predecessor’s work will truly, at last, be done.