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Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat’s final Doctor Who was surprisingly graceful and generous

In the series’ 2017 Christmas special, everybody lives — and Jodie Whittaker makes her debut.

Doctor Who
The 12th Doctor faces his fate.
BBC/BBC Worldwide

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for December 24 through 30 is “Twice Upon a Time,” the 2017 Christmas special of BBC America’s Doctor Who.

Reduce “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances,” the 2005 two-parter that marked Steven Moffat’s first contribution to the then-recently-rebooted Doctor Who, down to a single moment, and you’d almost certainly land on Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor’s wide grin as he exclaims “Just this once, everybody lives!”

He’s just averted a major alien crisis and saved countless lives in the midst of World War II London, and his sheer joy at the thought that nobody had to die in order for the day to be saved marked the moment when (for me, at least) the series went from something I watched with casual interest to something I was really into. It was the new series’ conception of the Doctor in a nutshell: traveling all of space and time to put things right, like something out of myth or legend.

The episodes also marked Moffat’s arrival to the series, which at the time was run by Russell T. Davies (who had revamped the very old series — which had aired from 1963 to 1989 on its first go-round — for a new millennium). Fans greeted Moffat’s every episode during the Davies era with increasing delight. He seemed to understand perfectly how the Doctor behaved, and his puzzle-like plots were a perfect match for the sorts of clever sci-fi that was Doctor Who’s stock in trade.

There’s been plenty of water under the bridge since those early days, but it’s fitting that “Twice Upon a Time,” the 2017 Doctor Who Christmas special and Moffat’s final contribution to the series as its showrunner (he took over for Davies during the “new” show’s fifth season), nods all the way back to that early two-parter. Just this once, everybody lives.

“Twice Upon a Time” is a rather subdued hour for such a major tentpole in the series’ run

Doctor Who
The Doctor pilots the TARDIS toward parts unknown.
BBC/BBC Worldwide

“Twice Upon a Time” is a regeneration episode of Doctor Who, which is to say that it doubles as a fond farewell to the actor exiting the role of the Doctor and a quick introduction to the actor entering the role for the new stretch of episodes to follow. (The Doctor, in case you didn’t know, can regenerate into a new form if the character sustains heavy enough damage to “die.”)

Regeneration episodes are curious beasts, because, technically, the Doctor will still be around, just with a new face, but everybody (especially the Doctor) acts like the Doctor is leaving forever, because that’s basically what’s happening — the new actor will bring their specific flair and personality to the role, so it will be like a new character has taken over the show, even though one technically hasn’t.

If that sounds confusing, it’s really not. Indeed, the regenerations are the primary reason Doctor Who was able to evolve from British children’s educational programming to a 50-years-old-and-counting genre TV standard with fans all around the world. The show was always science fiction, and it had always had time travel and visits to alien worlds baked into its premise of an alien in a stolen spaceship gallivanting about the cosmos. But the regeneration aspect has meant that any time the show seemed to be creatively flagging, it could recast its main role and jet off in another direction.

It has also allowed the series to attract top-flight talent to its main role, because if an actor of Eccleston’s caliber wants to play the lead for 13 episodes only, he can do just that.

Indeed, the four men who’ve played the Doctor since the series rebooted — Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, and Peter Capaldi — have all enjoyed incredibly healthy non-Doctor careers. (The woman taking over for Capaldi, Jodie Whittaker, has already led an incredibly successful career that can only rise to another level now that she’ll be the first woman in Doctor Who’s history to play the title character.)

But the regeneration aspect also means that Doctor Who’s regeneration episodes end up trying to play big emotions for the show’s viewers, who may be sad to see their favorite Doctor leave the program (barring cameos in the occasional special), even if those emotions probably shouldn’t hugely affect the character. The Doctor knows that regeneration comes with the territory of being a Time Lord. Theoretically, this should make the Doctor more likely to risk their life, since they can always just grow a new body.

But regenerations happen rarely enough that they’re always a big deal, and “Twice Upon a Time” is a doubly big deal, because Moffat is simultaneously turning over the showrunning keys of Doctor Who to his successor, Chris Chibnall, for season 11. (Chibnall and Whittaker previously worked together on Broadchurch, a terrific collaboration that suggests great things for the new Doctor.) The last time Moffat wasn’t running the show was during the production of “The End of Time,” Tennant’s farewell episode, which aired all the way back on January 1, 2010.

Moffat’s seeming inability to give an interview that doesn’t involve him somehow inserting his foot into his mouth (especially as it pertains to casting a woman as the Doctor), as well as the increasingly tired trappings of his puzzlebox plotting, have made him an ever more embattled showrunner. For as much as I like Whittaker, I’m almost more excited for Chibnall to take over just to see if anybody has anything new to say about the Doctor, beyond Moffat’s portrayal of the Time Lord as the greatest being who ever lived. (And bear in mind I’ve liked more Moffat seasons than I haven’t.)

But you know what? Moffat fights his usual instincts in “Twice Upon a Time,” and the result is a muted swan song that’s pretty darn good.

Everybody lives

Doctor Who
David Bradley plays the First Doctor.
BBC/BBC Worldwide

One of Moffat’s pet tropes when it comes to Doctor Who is the idea that a functionally immortal being like the Doctor would lose essentially everything over the course of the character’s long, long life. Traveling companions would fall by the wayside. Even the face in the mirror would change, over and over again. Moffat is also obsessed with the way the Doctor can think their way out of any problem.

Both of these problems have too-often caused Moffat’s two Doctors (Smith and Capaldi) to wind up in situations where everything is so massive that the human-sized scale of the story gets lost. Where Davies used the Doctor’s human companions to keep the character’s exploits grounded in something recognizable, Moffat uses the companions as what amount to emotional sparring partners. Any time Smith or Capaldi’s versions of the Doctor got too high and mighty, there was a companion at the ready to remind them that the universe was about more than high-stakes gambling between near-gods.

What’s notable about “Twice Upon a Time” is that it returns to the more openly emotional tone of Moffat’s early Doctor Who scripts, when he was a writer-for-hire on Davies’s version of the show. The 12th Doctor (Capaldi) battled off his old foes the Cybermen in the season 10 finale, and in “Twice Upon a Time,” ailing and aware that he’s about to “die,” he stumbles around Antarctica, hoping he might avoid regeneration entirely. While there, he runs into the very first Doctor (David Bradley, taking over for William Hartnell, the actor whose ailing health necessitated the invention of regeneration in the first place), and then a World War I soldier, a British military captain who’s been yanked out of time for reasons nobody quite understands, stumbles upon the duo of Doctors.

The ultimate solution to the mystery is small-scale enough to let the rest of the story breathe. The soldier turns out to have been taken by a far-future project dedicated to pulling people who are about to die out of the timestream, creating digital replicas of their selves and memories, and then reinserting them into time, so they can die as they were supposed to. The real crisis is whether the 12th Doctor will allow himself to become the 13th Doctor. We know he will — we’ve seen Whittaker’s picture plastered all over the media — but it’s still a journey Moffat makes emotionally satisfying.

The reason is simple, too: Moffat returns to his original conception of the Doctor, who might be a near-god, sure, but is also someone who simply wants to put certain things right. The Doctors change just a few little things and returns that soldier, who was to face a German bullet, to a point in time just a few hours later, on the brink of the famed Christmas Truce of World War I, where both sides laid down their arms and gathered for a day of laughter, games, and carols.

It’s a real-life version of a day where just once, everybody lived, if only for a 24-hour period. And that means the captain (revealed to be the grandfather of a famous recurring character from the original Doctor Who) lives, too, saved by the Doctor’s ingenuity. Everybody living in this case has very little to do with Capaldi’s Doctor, who only saved one man, after all. But it means the Doctor, finally, can find his way toward her new life.

Capaldi is one of the most accomplished actors to have played the Doctor, and the show’s ninth season, structured as a long series of two-parters, was my favorite season run by Moffat, largely thanks to Capaldi’s portrayal of the man as something very near to Rick from Rick and Morty — an old man who’s a little cold, and a little aloof, but often stumbling toward the right answer anyway. And it was enormously powerful to see Whittaker step into a role of such power and gravitas in “Twice Upon a Time,” even if only for about 30 seconds (as the 13th Doctor was sucked out of the TARDIS after a freak accident), but it’s too bad Capaldi never quite got the recognition he deserved in the role. (Or, maybe, to put it more accurately, it’s too bad the show’s cultural cachet seems to have collapsed roughly when Capaldi took over the role.)

Still, there’s a strange generosity toward the future in the way Moffat ends Capaldi’s time in the lead role, especially for a writer who so often had very certain ideas of who the Doctor was supposed to be and what Doctor Who itself was supposed to be. After all this time, he hasn’t forgotten what the Doctor can stand for, what the Doctor can mean — a sudden light in the darkness, appearing as if from out of nowhere, saving one life or many. The Doctor isn’t just an alien. They’re the idea that just this once, everybody might live.

Doctor Who will return for season 11 in 2018. Watch the Christmas special on BBC America on-demand.

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