Doctor Who Christmas special review: Twice upon a Time offers a warm embracing hug of nostalgia but is less than gripping

David Bradley and Peter Capaldi sparkle, and Steven Moffat bows out with a magnificent adieu from the 12th Doctor

Twice upon a Time

★★★ Tempus fugit – especially if you’re clinging on to the coat-tails of the Time Lord. It doesn’t seem so long ago that Zoë Ball was introducing live on BBC1 the actor who’d be playing the 12th Doctor. It really doesn’t seem long ago either that I was standing alongside Peter Capaldi on the set of An Adventure in Space and Time, gazing into the Tardis control room as David Bradley deliberately fluffed his lines playing William Hartnell as the first Doctor Who. But that second vivid moment was in February 2013, almost five years ago as I write, before Capaldi had been cast as the Doctor. In that time, his spell in the Tardis has come and gone, and he’s shared the screen with Bradley, who’s returned not to play Hartnell but a bona fide version of the original Doctor.

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Twice upon a Time is a momentous hour of television. It signals the end of days in so many ways. It’s the end of the Capaldi era, while scrolling back to 1966 and cautiously rewriting the close of the Hartnell era. It’s Steven Moffat’s last gasp after eight cracking years as showrunner; 12 years writing for the series. His staunch fellow executive producer Brian Minchin is also moving on, as is stalwart producer Peter Bennett. Murray Gold signs off after a dozen years composing every note of the score, and Pearl Mackie has popped back for a final wave goodbye. More significantly, this episode marks the end of the lead role being a male preserve. A farewell to a tradition of Doctor Who.

Doctor Who crew 2017

[On set in June 2017: brand manager Edward Russell, executive producer Brian Minchin, actors Nicholas Briggs, David Bradley, Pearl Mackie and Peter Capaldi, lead writer Steven Moffat, director Rachel Talalay]

Quite how Twice upon a Time will play out with a mainstream BBC1 audience on Christmas Day is hard to gauge. In my childhood of the 1970s the Doctor Who Christmas special was always a longed-for repeat of the year’s most exciting and highly regarded story. The Daemons! The Green Death! Genesis of the Daleks! Families would gather round for a second chance to see these five- or six-part serials edited into a feature-length omnibus – what Radio Times billed as a “complete adventure”. Those repeats often attracted higher ratings than the original transmissions. Then as now a Christmas special should showcase the very best of Doctor Who; they must entice, engage, even enrapture passing punters.

Twice upon a Time may fail to do so. Peter Capaldi and David Bradley sparkle with the double-Doctor banter but the story is less than gripping. There’s hardly an abundance of adventure, action or suspense. Back in the summer we were treated to the 12th Doctor’s heroic last stand – as he saw off the Cybermen, the Master and Missy in the cataclysmic series ten finale. So this special is a hard-won victory lap, a stay of execution with not one but two regenerations on hold, a jab at the pause button so deliberate even snowflakes are held in suspension. It can’t convey much peril when the four principals – Doctors One and 12, Bill and the Captain – are all already as good as dead. This strange story is about how they accept the inevitable.

Twice upon a Time is, though, a warm, embracing hug of nostalgia for people who adore or are even just a little bit curious about this 54-year-old programme. It takes us back to the grainy black-and-white world of 1960s television, “…709 episodes ago…” the caption tells us. (A different figure appeared on the work-in-progress preview, until yours truly from Radio Times piped up, queried the tally, and it was amended.)

I get a little surge of joy that on Christmas Day 2017 the BBC1 audience will glimpse clips from 1966’s The Tenth Planet of William Hartnell and Michael Craze, both long dead, and my very alive pal Anneke Wills. The lamentable recast versions of companions Ben and Polly are kept mercifully brief, but in a coup of televisual magic a monochrome Hartnell transmogrifies into Bradley in HD colour. The first Doctor rematerialises right before our eyes.

This is a huge indulgent treat for fans, although a few will cavil that his character has been revised, made to seem more old-fashioned than he was. But it serves to highlight how attitudes have changed and how far the Doctor has come. The first three Doctors were sometimes deeply patronising. That was part of their charm. David Bradley has charm all of his own and imbues his version of the Doctor with oodles of magic. He captures the essence of the first Doctor more than an ailing, bloated Hartnell could muster in The Three Doctors (1972/73) and is far superior to Richard Hurndall, the sparkle-free replacement in The Five Doctors (1983).

I’m not sure we need Capaldi’s line “Your face, it’s all over the place.” The attention to detail is remarkable. Bradley is a few inches taller than Hartnell was, but the Edwardian costume is authentically re-created. There was a failing in the wig department; on set, on camera and in Radio Times’s super photoshoot the old Doctor’s supposedly long white hair had a nasty yellow tinge, as if he smoked 50 Rothmans a day. The FX whizzes went through the final edit painstakingly retouching Bradley’s wig to lighten and whiten it.

Doctor Who 2017 David Bradley

Nor do I need notes from Bill and the first Doctor on variations in the police boxes’ exterior dimensions and windows between 1966 and now. But hey, whatever butters your parsnips! I’m more thrilled by what’s on the inside. Capaldi’s Tardis interior remains the finest yet built and I’ll miss it when it’s dispensed with. And the original Tardis control room has never looked more gorgeous, gleaming-white, a triumph of 1960s design given a loving 21st-century polish – the indented walls, control column, even the chair, ornate clock and astral map (from The Web Planet) all in place. Last summer, I was delighted to stumble upon the astral map at the studios in Cardiff.

As this is Moffat’s farewell, it’s only fitting that he involves his chief mucker Mark Gatiss. He’s top-hole and rather touching as the mysterious Captain plucked from the Great War, out of his depth and out of his time. The temporal anomaly plotline doesn’t bear scrutiny but he’s a sensitive soul, almost a Siegfried Sassoon figure – until he identifies himself as the Lethbridge Stewart paterfamilias. (Gatiss clarified that Archibald Hamish is the grandfather of the beloved Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart from 20th-century Who; thus great-grandfather of Kate Stewart in modern times.)

What I treasure is the mature morality of this tale. For once, there are no bad guys. The Dalek could pass as one of the few “good” Daleks. The soldiers at Ypres don’t really want to kill each other and they establish a Christmas truce. (This sequence isn’t as tearjerking as some would have it; it’s sanitised; no one looks convincing cold, miserable or wounded.) The Testimony isn’t malign. To the Doctor’s delight he realises it’s a healing entity, a force for good.

The glass avatars are a clever metaphor. What are human beings if not as fragile as glass? What are we if not the sum of our memories and, when we’re dead, what others remember of us? This pays off with the Doctor getting a parting gift from Bill: the restoration of his memories of Clara. I’m sure many little ones will be choked to see Jenna Coleman’s cameo. I love the group cuddle for 12, Bill and Nardole before they vanish and he’s left alone in an empty embrace.

Moffat gives both Doctors the motivation to regenerate and live another life. There is goodness out there worth cherishing and “the Doctor of War” can have no rest while the cosmos needs him.

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Peter Capaldi has been my ideal kind of Doctor. Senior, crusty, steely, funny but with anguish burning through those wizened eyes. I’m sad to see him go and would have gladly watched him develop under another showrunner. Tom Baker stayed around for seven series and went through several distinct phases.

The Doctor’s final adieu in the Tardis is magnificent and the only part of the episode that truly moves me. It acknowledges the past while looking to the future. He begins by talking to the Tardis but is soon addressing his next self, the coming era that will be out of his and Steven Moffat’s hands. “Hate is always foolish and love is always wise. Always try to be nice but never fail to be kind.” It underlines Moffat’s philosophy for this silly old programme that both he and Capaldi have adored for more than 50 years. I especially love how it places the mystery of the Doctor back in the hands of younger viewers with the notion that no one but them can know his true name. “Children can hear it. Sometimes if their hearts are in the right place and the stars are too, children can hear your name. But nobody else. Ever. Love hard. Run fast. Be kind.” The perfect parting message.

Steven Moffat is a man with kindness in his soul. He’s always been helpful to me and a friend to Radio Times. I just searched back for our earliest correspondence and found emails from 2007 about whether to name Sally Sparrow in print ahead of the transmission of Blink – an episode I knew at once was destined to become an all-time classic. He’s written so many outstanding episodes: from The Empty Child to Silence in the Library, The Eleventh Hour to Heaven Sent. He’s cast excellent Doctors, chilled us with the Weeping Angels and teased us with Missy and River Song. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed his era as showrunner. His love of – his passion for – Doctor Who is unquestionable, and remarkably after eight years it remains undiminished. For all this I admire him.

Steven has been, to use one of his favourite words (though he’d never use it about himself), awesome. I can’t wait to see what he turns his mind to next.

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For now, I’m bracing myself for a whole new volume of Doctor Who. Once upon a time there was a showrunner called Chris Chibnall and a 13th Doctor played by Jodie Whittaker…