Reflecting on Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time

A month or more ago, I wrote a wishlist for the Doctor Who Christmas special.  Twice Upon a Time aired just a few days ago, and featured the last Doctor Who story for Peter Capaldi as the lead character and Steven Moffat as lead writer and showrunner.  It was a real mixed bag of a project, with some elements that worked beautifully, and others that left me a bit disappointed.

Reviewing the list, I see that I definitely received the following items:

#2 – No More Missy – The Season 10 closer, The Doctor Falls, provided the best possible finale for the character that I could have hoped for, and so thankfully, she didn’t show up again here.

#3 – Clara – And just as I mentioned, it wasn’t actually Clara from the last time we saw her, but rather just her return to the Doctor’s memories.  Although that was a bit strange, considering that the glass people can apparently manifest as anyone, I’m not sure why they bothered to show up as both Bill and Nardole but only had Clara appear in the Doctor’s mind.  It felt like it was obvious that Jenna Coleman wasn’t on set at the same time as Peter Capaldi, so they had to make do with what they could, but I don’t know if that’s really it or if it was just a strange creative choice.  Either way, it didn’t quite pack the punch I’d hoped for, but it was still good to see, and to have the question of whether the Doctor never remembers Clara resolved.

#5 – One Last Continuity Patch – Not the any of the ones I was guessing, but the show brought up the big question of why the Doctor let Gallifrey in the first place.  While leaving room for other factors to be considered, it established that the Doctor left at least in part because of a philosophical question about why good triumphs over evil in spite of all of its disadvantages.  Also, the story brought up the issue of the First Doctor not wanting to regenerate, and thus holding it back for as long as he could.  Now, we discover, it’s his encounter with his future self that helps him to accept the fact that his first lifetime is over.

#8 – Not Too Much “Rompiness” – This refers to the business of purposefully inserting a bunch of spectacular running around into a story, which most Christmas episodes have been guilty of.  A bit of fun adventures is always fine, but the Christmas specials have often overplayed this element, I guess in an attempt to keep things light.  In Twice Upon A Time, the only such scene is when the two Doctors, the Captain and Bill descend from the alien spaceship while clinging onto the TARDIS for dear life.  It’s a bit silly, but very short.

#9 – Not just a “best of” album – There were a few things, such as the surprise appearances by Nardole and Clara, and a visit back to Rusty the Dalek, but you’d be hard-pressed to look at that and say that the show was a sweeping survey of all of the best of either the 13th Doctor or Steven Moffat.  Indeed, who would ever consider Nardole or Rusty part of the “best of” anything?

#10 – The End of an Era – This was a vague request, and it’s hard to know whether we hit it or not.  As I already mentioned, Steven Moffat wisely didn’t try to close out his time as showrunner by including references to every thing he’s ever done on the show.  But at the same time, the show does feature several elements that are fitting for his last episode.  The inclusion of the First Doctor in a way that bookends Moffat’s Doctor’s last story is one, while another is having Mark Gatiss (a frequent collaborator with Moffat) as a guest actor.  The fact that the show is largely about memory also reflects back upon Moffat’s entire tenure as lead writer, as that has been one of his favorite themes all along.  Finally, the Doctor’s closing speech to his future self, about not being cruel or cowardly, and being kind, seems to sum up at least Peter Capaldi’s era on the show, if not Moffat’s.

But in spite of all of this, I didn’t get everything I wanted.  In theory, that’s okay.  Most of us don’t really know what we really want.  And so not getting everything is often okay, if what actually comes is even better. But was it, in this case?  Let’s see…

1. A more satisfying conclusion to Bill’s story – Well, we did get a more satisfying farewell with Bill, as in it was one in which the Doctor actually participated in.  But the nature of Bill in Twice Upon a Time, an artificial life form made up of her memories from before her death, just highlights how silly her departure from the TARDIS actually was.  Seriously, she left an unconscious Doctor lying on the TARDIS floor, without even a note to say she’d been saved from being a Cyberman and run off with an attractive sentient pile of oil. It was so ridiculous, so undercutting as far as drama was concerned, and also generally repetitive (reminding us needlessly of Clara’s ultimate departure), it really is one of Steven Moffat’s weaker contributions to the series.

Can you imagine how derogatory it would be for a female character to be written out because she fell for some hunky guy she barely knew, who was really an animated pile of oil as well?  I think if not for Bill’s sexuality, this story would never have been written.

4. Not that much time on the “Captain” – I was worried that focusing on the Captain would take away from the focus on the Doctors, but that was never really a problem.  Mark Gatiss delivered a good performance and his character turned out to be an effectively human grounding point for the whole story, in factl.  The reveal at the end of his identity is one of the episode’s best points, in fact.

6. Ben and Polly to be deeper but still consistent – Not at all, it turns out.  Ben & Polly aren’t really even in characters in the story.  Their only appearance, it seems, is in recreations of sequences from The Tenth Planet (First Doctor William Hartnell’s regeneration story) that have since been lost.  That’s all okay, though, since the story contrived to take place “in between scenes” of The Tenth Planet, there wasn’t really any room or reason to include Ben or Polly on any additional level.

What I should have been concerned about was the First Doctor’s consistency.  Overall, the character was used well and David Bradley does a good job, although he doesn’t really “fool me” into making me feel like I was watching the actual First Doctor.  But I really hated the running joke of the Doctor making all sorts of non-PC, old fashioned and embarrassing comments about the role of the women around him.  Obviously, it’s a self-aware way of referencing that TV in the 60’s, including Doctor Who, suffered from some of the limitations of its times, but unless I’m completely mis-remembering the show it seems really inconsistent with the First Doctor himself.  The worst moment was the Doctor and the Captain sharing their knowing “good ol’ boy” chuckle with one another about all their experience with women.  Maybe I missed something, but it seems to me to be completely inconsistent with anything Hartnell’s Doctor ever said, and seemed to be  there only because the show wasn’t sure how else it was going to work in a reference to Bill’s sexuality.

7. The Doctor to go back! – One of the most moving things I can imagine for an old-school Doctor Who fan like myself would be to see the Doctor revisit his granddaughter Susan, whom he left on post-war earth in the 22nd century, and I thought this episode would have proved to be the perfect opportunity.  Indeed, even if that hadn’t been the focus of the story, I was hoping that there’d be some discussion between Doctors about the way they’ve regularly shed themselves of their connections to the past that would have brought up the regret of saying goodbye to Susan.  The current Doctor could have “gifted” his younger self with a working piloting of his ship to recovery-era earth, where he could have caught up with Susan (played by either the original Carole Ann Ford, or even better, by Bradley’s co-star Claudia Black) and had a poignant sequence before he left and got on with his life (and death).  Alas, alas, it was not to be.

11-13. Moffat’s best script ever, Peter Capaldi’s best performance & the Unexpected – I group these together because these were really the most important things on the list, and if the show could have succeeded in them then all the other stuff wouldn’t really have mattered.

Twice Upon a Time is a decent script, but falls way short of Moffat’s best.  I’m not sure what his best is, I don’t think Twice Upon a Time would even make his top 10.  The lack of any sort of real threat is a bit disappointing, and if you’re going to callback to just one major thing in your show’s history, then Rusty the Dalek is not what I would have chosen.  And the idea of the Doctor deciding to live again would have been more meaningful if it had made any sense that he contemplating letting it end; that idea was never fleshed out, so his ultimate reversal came across as an afterthought.

Similarly, though Peter Capaldi’s performance is always good, there is nothing in particular happening here to make me feel like we’re pushing to new heights.  His final speech is meant to be his big swansong, but instead just comes across as a rehash of other similar speeches that we’ve seen in many of his episodes.

And that, ultimately, is part of the show’s biggest disappointment to me, which is its absolute disinterest in making something so dramatic as a regeneration completely unsurprising to me.  The Doctor regenerates, standing up, in his TARDIS, just like he has now the last four times.  The regeneration damages the TARDIS, just like it did the last time a lead producer left the show.  And the TARDIS spirals out of control, just like it did the previous two regenerations.  The only thing that is remotely unique here is the fact that the Doctor is female, which of course was well-publicized beforehand, and that she starts to fall out of the TARDIS–that gave a small new wrinkle to the situation.

However, I don’t want to be Mr. Grumpy-old-fan who is disappointed that everything didn’t turn out the way he wanted.  There were some fun scenes along the way and overall it was great to see the First Doctor again.  I enjoyed the two Doctor’s relationship, and I’ll miss Steven Moffat’s ear for witty dialogue.

And if I’d included as an item on my wishlist for a fantastic Christmas moment, I would not have been disappointed.  The sequence where the confrontation between the Captain and the German soldier plays out is almost worth the price of admission, all by itself.  Taking one of history’s most surprising and inspiring incidents and turning it into a brilliant denouement for the show, a true “hope out of hopelessness” sequence, will go down as Steven Moffat’s final masterstroke for the series.  If it wasn’t for the pesky regeneration that the show had to include, it would have been a beautiful ending for this year’s Christmas special.

There’s more to say, to eulogize Steven Moffat’s contribution to Doctor Who, and I’m full of thoughts about the Testimony Bill’s assertion that she is as real as real Bill because all we are is a collection of memories, but I think that will have to wait for another day.

For now, we’ll just say that Twice Upon a Time didn’t hit all of its notes perfectly, but still gave a lot to enjoy, and of course we’re all excited to see what the future brings!

 

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