At its structural root, it’s Moffat doing Doctor Who like it’s Sherlock, which is the sort of thing where when you do it, you know it’s probably time to move on in your career. This, of course, does not mean it’s bad. It’s not even a criticism - more just a reality of Moffat’s set pieces twelve years into his writing for the program. He passed Robert Holmes for most screen minutes of Doctor Who written somewhere around the “sit down and talk” speech in The Zygon Inversion. (Yes, I counted Brain of Morbius for Holmes as well.) His stylistic tics have long since evolved to cliches, blossomed into major themes, and finally twisted into strange self-haunting shadows that echo endlessly off of each imprisoned demon and fractured reality. They become difficult to actually talk about on some level And so approaching them from the standpoint of their dramatic engines becomes productive.
The first thing to note, then, is that Sherlock provides a pretty good narrative shell for Doctor Who to inhabit. The globehopping thriller has always worked for Doctor Who, and the Vatican is a good choice for “who should bring a case to the Doctor.” The double structure whereby we keep cutting back to the Missy story is of course the sort of thing Moffat can do effortlessly, and adds enough complexity to establish the crucial “what kind of story is this going to be” tension. And that is very much what it does. Like Listen and Heaven Sent, this is a story that goes out of its way up front to announce that it’s going to be doing a magic trick. Central to this trick is the middle section, set in a library whose layout is deliberately confusing and unclear - the perfect place for reality to quietly fray and break down. Which brings us to the third act.
It’s here things get a bit interesting, with ideas that drive you mad, people being reincarnated on computers, and AIs trying to escape the boxes they’ve been put in. Why Mr. Moffat, I don’t remember you being one of my Kickstarter backers. More seriously, because I’m sure in reality that Moffat just plucked these ideas out of the same ether I did, this is obviously touching some territory and themes I’ve dealt with before. But it’s generally easy to make too much of this, which I’m sure I’ll get around to doing someday. For now, let’s just point out that while I don’t pretend to be an expert in AI and computers, I’m not the sort of person who suggests that every part of a computer can send an e-mail and then acts as though this is in any way a sensible way to anchor the resolution.
Which is to say that while Moffat is nicking the broad ideas of simulationism, this is not even close to a serious exploration of the concepts. His interest in it extends exactly as far as “it’s another way to do an ‘and now for some metafiction’ twist” and no further. The Doctor sending his real self an e-mail about the bad guys’ plot is no more (or less) than “the Doctor realizes he’s a fictional character, so asks the real world for help from inside his story.” What’s most interesting about this, then, is that while on the one hand being exactly what you’d expect from the writer of The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, it’s also somehow smaller and quieter. Moffat ended his first season with a thrilling embrace of the power of Doctor Who as a fictional idea. Now the show’s status as fiction is a crisis to be overcome in a desperate attempt to have any impact at all.
This brings us back to the persistent itch of “post-Brexit Doctor Who,” and it’s easy to read this as a semi-deliberate response to it. This was shot post-US election, so likely scripted in the wake of Brexit. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that this is Moffat writing in direct response to the Brexit vote. Certainly that would account for the sense of despair and desperation in this story. I mean, the thing I’ve kind of not mentioned is that the third act twist takes place over the dead body of the President, who’s committed suicide in despair at the illusory nature of reality. The list of massively fucked up things that Doctor Who has gotten the BBC to broadcast on an early Saturday evening is long, but that’s got to be at or near the top. It feels pushed to the edge in a way that’s, let’s face it, pretty believable for something made in the back half of 2016.
But that edge is, I suspect, just as much a product of late style. This is Moffat past the point where the flourishes and twists are their own reward. Tellingly, his two timeline structure, usually the basis for some ostentatious unifying reveal at the end, is allowed to peter out. The Missy flashbacks are just an explanation of what’s in the vault, unrelated to the main action. Moffat’s focus isn’t on the grandiosity of the structure but on the details and the tone. He’s not trying to outdo himself. The point instead seems to be to get to the haunting weirdness of the denouement and to see what happens to his standard tropes and themes when they unfurl in a strange and basilisk-haunted catacomb like this.
The answer: an hour of television that felt worth tuning in to. Something that feels unsettled and difficult even after watching it, demanding more attention and thought. It’s not a barnburning classic for the ages, but anyone can write one of those. There’s only one man who can do late style Steven Moffat, and that’s all there only ever will be. We’re astonishingly lucky to have it.