We may be just scratching the surface here …
“Twice Upon a Time” wrapped up Peter Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor in glorious fashion and introduced his successor, Jodie Whittaker, as the first female incarnation and 13th overall of the Time Lord. But it also brought back the First Doctor (“the original, you might say”) and offered a new twist on the character’s iconic origins.
Since the earliest days of Doctor Who, running away has been a, well, running theme. We’ve known that the First Doctor (then played by William Hartnell but portrayed by David Bradley in “Twice Upon a Time”) stole an obsolete TARDIS for some reason and went on the run from his fellow Time Lords. The natural assumption, and the one showrunners and writers have focused on, is that he was running away from something. Let’s explore that, first.
Legends and lore
Throughout Doctor Who’s original run (1963-89) and even into its still-running 2005 revival, the television series has heavily implied that the Doctor and his granddaughter, Susan, were running from stagnation, fleeing a stale society of “ancient, dusty senators” whose accumulation of knowledge has rendered the need for exploration and adventure largely extinct.
In many of the original Doctor Who novels of the late ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000’s, a darker impetus is implied: the Doctor and Susan may have been running from a tyrannical regime or even genocide, and she may in fact have been a “natural-born” Gallifreyan as opposed to the regenerating, “loom-born” master race literally woven from the advanced technology of the Time Lords. This would explain the Doctor’s distrust towards his own people but opens up even more questions. While these books aren’t considered official canon, ideas from them continue to appear in the relaunched series, and many of their authors have gone on to pen scripts that have gone before the camera.
In last year’s Series 9, Daleks creator Davros, echoing another thread first woven in the Doctor Who books, seems to deduce that the Doctor’s knowledge of a Gallifreyan prophecy of a “Hybrid” is what drove him to flee his homeworld, but this idea is largely discarded as a red herring — one of many.
‘The real world is not a fairytale!’
“Twice Upon a Time,” in serenading the departing Capaldi’s take on the Time Lord, flips the script in more ways than just turning the Doctor into a woman at the end. A nontraditional Christmas special but maybe one of the most poignant and wholly human, it dares to ask the question of what the original Doctor thought he was running towards, while not dismissing the idea of fleeing something else entirely.
“You’re the one who stole the TARDIS and ran away,” says the Twelfth Doctor’s latest companion (or at least the image of her), Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie). “Why did you do it?”
“I’m sure your Doctor has explained,” First says, trying to change the subject.
Bill: “I’m not even sure he remembers.”
First: “There were many pressing reasons…”
Bill: “I don’t mean what you ran away from. What were you running to?”
First (impressed): “That’s rather a good question!”
Seeming to really take Bill seriously for the first time, the First Doctor rewards her curiosity:
“There is good and there is evil. I left Gallifrey to answer a question of my own. By any analysis evil should always win. Good is not a practical survival strategy. It requires loyalty, self-sacrifice, love. And so, why does good prevail? What keeps the balance between gold and evil in this appalling universe? Is there some kind of logic? Some mysterious force?”
It’s not a universe-shaking revelation in a universe as often shaken as Doctor Who’s, but it’s a nice new dimension pregnant with possibilities to explore in the show’s new era. Of course, as Capaldi leaves so does showrunner Steven Moffat; Chris Chibnall and his Thirteen Doctor may have other things on their TARDIS agenda, but they’d do worse than to include this life-affirming goal among them.
Bill’s supposition, to the haunting and ethereal strains of the rarely heard (these days) Tenth Doctor’s character theme: “Perhaps there’s just a bloke. … some bloke, wandering around, putting everything right when it goes wrong.”
The Doctor scoffs this away — real life is no fairytale, he admonishes the silly girl. But she’s undeterred, and incredulous at what she’s learning about her best friend.
“You dash around the universe trying to figure out what’s holding it all together and you really, really don’t know? Everyone who’s ever met you does. You’re amazing, Doctor.”
‘Never forget that.’
While the Twelfth Doctor is holding back death, or (worse?) yet another new life cycle, long enough to re-learn that not all time-tampering aliens are the spearhead of a villainous plot, his first incarnation — similarly on the cusp of regeneration or permadeath — is learning what it means to be the Doctor who will get to that lesson, even if it will have to be done the long way round.
Capaldi’s Doctor entered the universe questioning whether he was actually a good man. It seems fitting that by encountering his predecessor, he kicks off a lives-long exploration for himself of the power of good in an “appalling universe” and, at the same time, gains enough of an appreciation for this power to give into at least one more lifetime in its service.