Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Doctor Who - Twice Upon a Time - A Mess of Sentiment and Self-Indulgence

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My review of the previous episode: The Doctor Falls.

I feel like if you looked up the definition of placeholder in the dictionary, this episode would be right there.

That's not entirely anyone's fault. Steven Moffat always intended Peter Capaldi to regenerate at the end of series 10, but when incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall refused to start off on a Christmas episode, it was left to Moffat to come up with some reason for Peter Capaldi to stick around for an episode.

As it is, he pulls a few good moments together and coats the rest in sentimentality and a boatload of nostalgia. That's always an enjoyable experience, I guess, if you shut your brain off. If there's anything clear at the end, it's that Doctor Who is desperately in need of new ideas, and Steven Moffat is out of gas.

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Here's the plot: we meet a villain; the gang flee to meet a random minor character from a mediocre early Capaldi episode; the Doctor finds out that the villains are actually benevolent. The Doctors regenerate.

The end.

The only real conflict in this episode is whether the Doctors will choose to regenerate. Much of the story's humor comes from the First Doctor's shock at seeing what he will become - an intergalactic superhero with a big mouth and a flashy TARDIS. The First Doctor doesn't want to continue because he wants to remain himself, to maintain control over his destiny. His case for this sounds a great deal like the death with dignity argument, and gives the story's aspirational glance at his future an It's a Wonderful Life vibe.

Ultimately, he finds that inspiration by seeing his future self save one life, messing with time a bit so an iconic Christmas moment can save the day. Bill's claim that the Doctor holds the universe together is a little overblown (that's a case of mistaken identity - Christmas isn't about the Doctor, y'know, but it is about someone). While this trick worked in Day of the Doctor, saving just one human and spouting platitudes about music isn't powerful enough to really pull off the character development for either character.

*Steven Moffat materializes in a time machine called the RETCON (Rewriting Every Thing Connecting Overarching Narrative)*

"But he's the Brig's granddad."


Well...okay, that's not a bad argument.

Image result for doctor who twice upon a timeIn the end, the Twelfth Doctor, too, accepts his role in the universe. But it's a dull, half-hearted acceptance. He knows all of his companions are dead or Nardole, which is a pretty depressing reality. He's just got to keep going. It's valiant, but in a small, grim way - anti-climactic after the dramatic finale to series 10.

That's strange for an episode which is generally very upbeat. Peter Capaldi is living his fanboy dream. Bill brings her fun energy to the story, but it's still cheap to bring her back and not give her a character arc. All she does is react to the Doctors. (Now that is sexist.)

David Bradley is enjoyable as the First Doctor. He's clearly having a great time, playing the straight man to Capaldi's goofiness and employing a little of the First Doctor's naughty sexism (it wasn't that ubiquitous, but yeah, it was that hilariously bad). He doesn't work, though, largely because you simply can't recast the Doctor with another actor. The Doctor's not a part; he's an actor. (I'm going to write more about that).

Doctor Who hasn't done regeneration stories well in a long time (nothing matches the final 25 minutes of 1969's The War Games if you ask me), but I usually find the actual moment of regeneration emotional. Not so here. The story didn't have any momentum and deleting the villains removed any actual stakes, so the actual tension of the change, and the dread inevitability that permeated the final moments of Nine, Ten (if you skip that horrid 30-minute epilogue as I do), and Eleven's regenerations is missing. Moffat is on total auto-pilot. He's barely trying.

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The whole episode is a raving self-indulgent mess, with Capaldi soliloquizing to his heart's content. I'm puzzled to read all the reviews delighted with the story's emotion - it's nothing but emotion, which is the problem! Capaldi delivers a long string of inspiration-poster-quotes and then explodes in a scene almost identical to the ending of The Doctor Falls. It's horrible and sad, because Capaldi deserved better. Moffat's written damn good speeches for Doctor Who before. This wasn't one of them. It's almost entirely recycled Capaldi Biggest Hits. It's like Moffat knew Capaldi had to have a final speech, so he pulled some stuff from the archives and perfunctorily stuck it in a blender. It really needs an editor.

And doesn't that just sum it up? Poor Steven Moffat. He needed an editor.

Closing Thoughts on the Moffat Era

But you know what? It's the end of an era. So let's not end on that note. Because, despite this trainwreck of an episode, Steven Moffat is one of the best writers the show has ever had. He was consistently the best writer in the Davies era, and has delivered some of the show's most beautiful and compelling stories in his own era. He's a truly brilliant writer, and has been a gift to the series. His failures as a showrunner have been numerous, but he also gave us Matt Smith's brilliant Doctor, and 7 out of my top 10 New Who episodes are Moffat episodes (The Empty Child, Silence in the Library, The Eleventh Hour, A Christmas Carol, The Girl in the Fireplace, Heaven Sent.)

The final Jodie Whittaker scene, showing almost nothing of her character (unlike the best of these scenes) and recycling the Matt Smith exploding TARDIS sequence doesn't make me optimistic about Chris Chibnall. The show needs new ideas - the only new idea he's shown is what if...the Doctor...was a woman! And that won't carry the show.

Shout out to Murray Gold. Rumor is he won't be returning for series 11, which is sad. He's really grown immensely as a composer. It's mind-blowing that the man who composed this dorky sci-fi music also composed this Beethoven-esque virtuoso score.

As for Capaldi, he was a rough sell for me. I despised his first season, and he only partially won me over in series 9. But he's had some incredibly fine moments, and his mellower self's dorky optimism never fails to get to me. He's fully given himself to the part and it's admirable.

Here are my top 5 Capaldi moments. (My top 5 episodes? From worst to best: Listen. Robin of Sherwood. Mummy on the Orient Express. The Husbands of River Song. Heaven Sent.)

5. The moment I decided yep, okay, he's the Doctor.

4. What should  have been Capaldi's final speech, from The Doctor Falls.

3. I love all of The Husbands of River Song, but there are two standout moments, so I'm going to cheat and include both. The first is a lovely, moving ending to the River Song saga. And then Peter Capaldi's funniest moment in the series.

2. Going to cheat again and say all of Heaven Sent, which is really one long Capaldi moment.

1. An obvious choice, but Capaldi really does it all here. He has to sell the idea that he's persuading a stone-cold terrorist to step down. He does it flawlessly. He's a force of nature.

Doctor, I let you go.



  1. Thank you for a great article. I was willingly taken in by all the sentimentality of the episode. Unfortunately, I had not watched the last three episodes of the season so I was unaware of the fate of Billy and what had lead to the Doctor's refusal to regenerate. When you think about it, those circumstances and his lives so far are a total contradiction to his pre-regeneration statement, "One more lifetime never killed anyone".

    We are in absolute agreement on the disaster that is Capaldi's first season for which I blame the writers. I think it is more accurate to refer to it as Moffat's disastrous Series 8. It is as if they had nothing thought out for the Doctor to say. It felt like they just gave Capaldi the instruction to just be rude and disagreeable. Okay, ACTION!!! Along with the insufferably long story arc of Clara staying or going or staying or going, the combination was hard to watch. The only genuine piece of character development seem to show up in "Mummy on the Orient Express" in which we see a pragmatic Doctor with little sympathy for the victims as they alone see their approaching death (NPR review).

    The two insights into the coming season 11 were the only word spoken by the first female Doctor in reaction to her "sex-change", "Brilliant" and the TARDIS litterally shaking out the Doctor and the contents of the TARDIS control room, books and all, as if to say "we are starting all over". The Doctor's first word was her eager acceptance of being a woman for the first time as opposed to #11's shock when he felt his long hair, "I'm a GIRL, NO!!!!!" and his relief when he found his adam's apple. Still no word on her disappointment on not being ginger.

    1. Agreed on Mummy on the Orient Express - it was the first to attempt to explain why the new Doctor was grumpy and short - he's trying to be practical.

      As for Jodie's first scene, I was hoping for something more. Colin Baker started the trend of previewing the Doctor's character, shaking us up a bit. But I guess they're banking on the generous good will Jodie's already generated - and the relative ambivalence after Capaldi's mixed run - to keep their cards close to their chest.

  2. Where's my comment? (Check Spam Box)

    1. Have tried to find a spam box unsuccessfully. There aren't any filters on my comments section so maybe it just ate it.

  3. Speaking of soft spots, I've been a huge fan of Mark Gattis since first seeing him in 'The League of Gentlemen", a dark sketch comedy program set in Royston Vasey. He was one of a team of three writers/actors who played all the parts. The other two have also appeared on DW in "Silence in the Library" Steve Pemberton as Strackman Lax and Reece Shearsmith in "Sleep No More" as Gagan Rasmussen. In looking up a few things I've learned that Mr. Gatiss has written a great deal with and without S.Moffat.

  4. Great review, Always love hearing your responses to episodes.
    Interesting how you didn't like season 8. I really really liked season 8. It really worked for me, and I reckon its the best season of New Who ever. The whole single story-line format, with only one 2 parter at the end, the teasing of Missy plus the Doctor and Clara dynamic suddenely changing. And I thought season 9 and 10 went downhill from there. I loved how short and sharp the Doctor was. How grumpy he was, it was perfect. By hislater seasons I thought he became too much like the 10th and 11th Doctor sometimes. This whole "get the job done" attitude he had in series 8 was so refreshing and different to anything I'd really seen on Modern TV, where most characters have to be overtly sentimental and caring to be heroes.

    1. Series 8 does seem to appeal to certain people. My friend Varad is a great fan of the Series 8 Capaldi Doctor - he found his brusqueness hilarious.

      I'll admit that my sensibilities are shaped by the rest of the show - Capaldi is very unlike any of the other Doctors except the sixth Doctor. And we all know how that turned out. It's so at odds with the show's generally goofily optimistic ethos, which didn't help. The relationship between 12 and Clara was interesting, but so dysfunctional that I found it difficult to like either of them. Plus, Capaldi spent the whole season navelgazing and pondering his true identity. All these things combined to make me really hesitant to welcome Capaldi's Doctor. I do appreciate the season more in retrospect, but the issues still bother me.


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