Identity and Memory in “Twice Upon a Time”
by Kristin King
One time, the Star Trek crew cheated death with the transporter. Our hero dissolved in atoms, presumably dead, but luckily, the transporter still had his pattern. After I saw that, I began questioning every single use of the transporter. Did it move somebody from place to place or did it destroy one body and create a clone, with all the same memories? Does consciousness continue or cease?
From there it’s not hard to wonder: is the person who wakes up in the morning the same as the one who went to sleep at night? My consciousness ceased, for a time, as my unconscious mind pruned memories and integrated what remained into the semblance of a whole?
What remains the same, sleeping to waking? What makes a person themself? Is it memory? Or is it something else?
Doctor Who turns out to be the perfect show for pondering this question, and showrunner Stephen Moffat took full advantage of this opportunity during his tenure, culminating with a deeply philosophical regeneration episode, “Twice Upon a Time.”
Who emerges from regeneration? Outgoing showrunner Russell T. Davies gave this problem to Stephen Moffat when the Tenth Doctor said, “Even if I change it still feels like dying. Everything I am dies. Some new man goes sauntering away… and I’m dead.”
The Eleventh Doctor had a new perspective in his final episode, with this tearjerker: “It all just disappears, doesn’t it? Everything you are, gone in a moment. Like breath on a mirror.”
But he followed up optimistically:
“We all change, when you think about it. We’re all different all through our lives. And that’s okay, that’s good. You’ve got to keep moving. As long as you remember all the people that you used to be.”
That need to remember plays a huge role in many of the character arcs during Moffat’s tenure. Amy Pond loses family members to a crack in time but regains them once she remembers — and she saves Rory as well, and finally the Doctor. Next, Clara’s theme from the beginning is “Run, you clever boy, and remember me,” but the Doctor ends up making mistakes (including the mistake the Tenth Doctor had made in erasing Donna’s memories), and he must pay the price by forgetting Clara. And finally, Ashildr, becomes immortal but her human mind cannot possibly remember everyone she used to be, and she finally simplifies her identity to “Me.”
The question of the Doctor’s memory also plays a crucial role in the episode “Heaven Sent,” in which he must repeatedly undergo the horrific procedure of fleeing from a monster until mortally injured, then annihilate his own body to create himself anew — by throwing a switch that looks uncannily like the TARDIS takeoff control. And yet, although his body is destroyed, some part of him remembers.
“Twice Upon a Time” concludes Stephen Moffat’s exploration of memory and identity with a mysterious entity, Testimony, that manipulates both memory and forgetting. Testimony removes people from time just before their death to copy and thus preserve their memories, and then makes them forget the event and returns them to the moment of death. But the First and Twelfth Doctors accidentally interrupt the proceedings and end up trapped in a frozen landscape in which nothing can change. Not even a snowflake can move: when the Doctor tries, it simply returns to its place of origin.
And then Bill appears. But is it Bill? Or is it a copy of Bill, trapped by Testimony in glass just as surely as the snowflake is trapped in midair? The answer, for her, is yes to both. Testimony-Bill asserts that she has all Bill’s memories, and she is Bill’s memories, so she is Bill. Identity is memory.
The Twelfth Doctor disagrees. At the same time, though, he has his own past self to make sense of. He enjoys meeting the First Doctor and remembering who he used to be. And at one point, when the First Doctor makes a keen observation, the Twelfth lays claim to having made it. (“I said that!” protests the First Doctor. The Twelfth dismisses it: “Same difference!”)
In the end, of course, the question of identity has no answer. When the Twelfth Doctor is ready to regenerate, he gives explicit advice to the next Doctor. “I’ve got a few things to say to you,” he begins (in a Tom Baker voice). And then: “Basic stuff first. Never be cruel, never be cowardly. Never, ever eat pears. Remember: Hate is always foolish, and love is always wise. Always try to be nice, and never fail to be kind. . . . Laugh hard, run fast, be kind.”
He finishes up with heroic grace: “Doctor, I let you go.” The statement gives us the emotional effect of resolution, but it’s also quite ambiguous. Who is the “I” that lets go of the Doctor? We could all ask that question. Who is “I”?
And so the Doctor regenerates, going out in flame right along with his partner the TARDIS. And Stephen Moffat has cleared the worktable for the new showrunner and for the new Doctors, whoever they may be.