So that’s the Moffat era. There’s a very small number of stories we might compare this to, and most of them are unenlightening. Understood as a multi-Doctor story, it is simply perplexing. As a regeneration story, it’s similarly perplexing, but at least Time of the Doctor (and I suppose technically The Tenth Planet) provides a vague point of comparison. Which leaves The End of Time, the series’ sole other example of a Christmas special showrunner/Doctor send-off. Here to, Twice Upon a Time looks odd, but at least the contrast is consistent. Davies talks in The Writer’s Tale about his discarded initial plan for Tennant’s regeneration, which was to do a self-consciously small episode with none of the epic grandeur you’d expect. And so Moffat, finding himself with an extra episode after the bombast of World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls, takes up Davies’s discarded idea for a story in which the Doctor waits around to die and there’s no actual villain.
On one level, this confirms that Davies had a good idea there. Going small in regeneration stories works, as Time of the Doctor (which I’ll defend to the bitter end) demonstrates. Yes, it only works if there are also regeneration stories that go the other way (and Time of the Doctor at least had it both ways), but a small and intimate regeneration story is a move that works and works well. Indeed, it’s worth noting that the previous time Moffat thought he might be on the way out, he had similar instincts, penning a River Song farce. The trouble is that in Twice Upon a Time, the quietly striking impact of going small works to cover up a myriad of fairly aggressive faults.
This isn’t surprising. We’re two Christmas specials past The Husbands of River Song. For all its genuine heights, it’s clear that Series 9 was the natural endpoint of Moffat’s tenure, and that Series 10 was essentially the television equivalent of a bonus disc of album outtakes and remixes. This is nowhere near Moffat’s best work, but we had no right to expect that given the circumstances. But none of that gets rid of the persistent sense of “will this do?” underlying the entire thing. There’s a persistent misjudging of weight through the entire thing. I don’t think there was anyone who, when making a list of the ten loose threads from the Moffat era they hoped got resolved in Twice Upon a Time, would have picked Rusty the Good Dalek. (Indeed, I’m pretty sure the Dalek Eternal would have appeared on more lists, if only because I’d have picked it.) Likewise, the return of Clara was an obvious delight, but going from that to the return of Nardole is clearly just sequencing the emotional beats in what’s clearly the wrong order. And it’s notable that virtually every Twitter and Tumblr quotation of Capaldi’s regeneration speech simply omits the detour about the Doctor’s name.
And then, of course, there’s the big one, which is that it’s not entirely clear why David Bradley is here. I mean, he’s generally delightful in the part, turning in a performance that is clearly not William Hartnell, but that feels believably like the First Doctor. But his narrative role is, charitably, fuzzy. He has no real agency in the plot, he doesn’t seem to actually be involved in Capaldi eventually deciding to regenerate, and he mostly seems to be there to let Moffat go “oh, you think I’m sexist?” Which ends up being odd, because while Moffat isn’t entirely off base in critiquing the social justice credentials of the Hartnell era (the “jolly good smacked bottom” line is a direct quote, after all), he both inflates it to a ridiculous straw man and fails to have it really comport with his reconceptualization of the Time Lords as a genderfluid species. (Harold’s misogyny in The Doctor Falls could at least be handwaved as “well yes, he’s evil,” but there’s really no plausible reason why the First Doctor would go full m’lady.) And past that, it’s just a weird “doth protest too much” on Moffat’s part. His feminist credentials are well-proven for anyone willing to expend more effort on the question than reading Tumblr or the Guardian. He didn’t need to go out shitting on the Hartnell era to prove this point, and nobody who still thinks he’s a sexist is going to give a shit that he has.
And yet for all that it’s about as easy to enumerate the faults of Twice Upon a Time as any other Gatiss or Whithouse story, on the whole this worked. The glass people who freeze time are enough of a mystery to drive the first forty minutes, the cheeky thrill of switching TARDISes and the contrived Dalek provide shots of energy at the right spots, and the emotional beats of the denouement, though they don’t all land solidly, are enough to take it over the line. It’s on the whole pretty good. Which, I mean, is hardly a surprise. The last time Moffat wrote outright bad Doctor Who was… well, arguably The Return of Doctor Mysterio actually, but over the whole of his era the list of his stinkers remains short. Certainly shorter than Chibnall’s. He can write Doctor Who in his sleep, and so a bit longer than he wanted to is no gruesome task. He doesn’t go out with anything close to his best work, but hardly anyone does.
- Let’s start the bullet points with the big shill, since this is the only big Doctor Who post we’re going to have before March. What’s in March, you ask? Well, TARDIS Eruditorum. There’s a new finished era of Doctor Who, after all. Right now it’ll just consist of the thirty-five posts on the actual televised stories. But if the Patreon goes up by another $39, it’ll include a full complement of Pop Between Realities, Home in Time For Tea, You Were Expecting Someone Else, and Outside the Government posts. I’ll have an inventory of what those will be in the next couple weeks.
- Right. Moving on to the normal bullet points. One obvious fix to this story that would have made it work better on its own terms would be to have Susan fill BIll’s role. The Doctor (and the audience) just saw Bill, and so the impact of her as a psychopomp is lessened. Whereas her presence would make almost all of the First Doctor material, along with the idea of pushing Capaldi’s Doctor to regenerate after all. There are a myriad of reasons why it had to be Bill instead – folding in The Tenth Planet is already a massive ask of casual Christmas viewers, Moffat needed someone more than just the Doctor to be the modern show’s viewpoint on David Bradley, and it would have been insulting to have Clara there for the farewell but not Bill. But Moffat ends up trading those problems for another set.
- Bradley is firmly in the tradition of playing a fan memory First Doctor. For all that the visual morph in the midst of the “have you no emotions” speech works – and while it’s (deliberately) uncanny it really does – his delivery of the line lacks any of Hartnell’s mannered theatricality. (On a related note, the oddness of lapel pulls in widescreen demonstrates the soundness of Hartnell’s “television is small” logic.) But as a transformation of Hartnell’s character into something that’s actually built for the high density/low subtext structure of modern television, it’s effective. The moments when it becomes awkward to think of him as the First Doctor are generally Moffat’s fault, not Bradley’s.
- Adding to the sense of “huh, really?” around the return of Rusty is the fact that Moffat is recycling the mid-episode jaunt to find the ____est _____ in the universe (which turns out to be a Dalek) from The Pilot.
- Murray Gold music over the Hartnell-Troughton regeneration is a deeply bizarre experience. As are the First Doctor’s last words getting changed to a Moffat catchphrase. One last bit of naughty graffiti over the show’s mythology.
- I haven’t talked much about Rachel Talalay, but she’s typically magnificent. For all that she’s methodically against having a style beyond servicing the material, she has very distinctive approaches both to exterior landscapes and spooky, haunted spaces, both of which are on display here. I generally love her spooky, haunted spaces (she semi-redoes both Heaven Sent and Hell Bent between the Chamber of the Dead and the Weapon Forges of Villengard), but I actually don’t love her exteriors, which have been a weak point for me since Death in Heaven. Still, she’s mostly phenomenal here – her handling of Mark Gatiss’s “I’ve stopped being ready to die” scene is a particular masterpiece. For Chibnall not to bring her back would be like failing to bring back any of Harness, Mathieson, or Dollard.
- Oh, enough ragging on Chibnall. Is Jodie Whitaker’s “oh brilliant” the best-delivered first line of any newly regenerated Doctor ever? I think it might be. Against my better judgment, I’m excited…
Ranking (Pre-Eruditorum rewatch)
- Kill the Moon
- Hell Bent
- The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion
- World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls
- Dark Water/Death in Heaven
- Face the Raven
- The Girl Who Died
- Mummy on the Orient Express
- The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar
- Heaven Sent
- Thin Ice
- Last Christmas
- Deep Breath
- The Husbands of River Song
- Twice Upon a Time
- The Eaters of Light
- The Pilot
- The Woman Who Lived
- The Pyramid at the End of the World
- In the Forest of the Night
- Into the Dalek
- Empress of Mars
- Robot of Sherwood
- The Caretaker
- The Return of Doctor Mysterio
- Time Heist
- Sleep No More
- Knock Knock
- Under the Lake/Before the Flood
- The Lie of the Land