Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time Review
Ugh. This review is a little late, because I’ve been spending a wonderful festive season with my family in Spain and frankly can’t think of much less I’d rather do than spend an hour repeating for the ten thousandth time exactly why Steven Moffat is a terrible showrunner and why Peter Capaldi’s run on Doctor Who has been perhaps the most consistently unlikeable in recent memory, but here we are. One last time. Let’s do this thing. Moffat starting out 2017 with some fuckery, and he’ll end it that way, too.
Twice Upon a Time is a bad episode of Doctor Who. Now, I can see why people don’t think that – it’s a fabulously directed hour of TV, courtesy of Rachel Talalay and her spectacular eye for what makes Doctor Who occasionally so visually stimulating, but this episode was thinner than my self-restraint around fancy Spanish truffles has been the last few days: ostensibly set around the meeting of the First Doctor (as played by William Hartnell, as played by David Bradley) and the Twelfth, and picking up on the story of a WWI soldier who was plucked from his apparently inevitable death and brought to a mysterious facility that harvests something from the dying. Okay, that plot holds at least some promise, even if it does feel oddly small-stakes for a story that should be as big as this one, this one that brings together Capaldi’s plot into a theoretically elegant denouement.
But then, I think one of the biggest mistakes Moffat has made in his run is landing the regeneration of his Doctors right in the middle of Christmas Special episodes. Now, as I said a couple of years ago, Christmas Specials are to be consumed when you’re a little drunk, drowsy from too much food, and can take in the barest, broadest emotional stakes imaginable: you can do funny, you can do goofy, you can even squeeze in a little bittersweet here and there. But Christmas Specials should be easily consumable for even the most casual Who viewer (and yes, this is just me waving my finger about and applying my standards to stuff that no-one asked about, but since you’re reading this review on my blog, you really should have got on board by now). So dumping a big pile of densley-layered character tie-ups in the Christmas special has never felt like a good idea to me – Matt Smith’s exit was actively pretty weak thanks to the frantic attempts to seal up all the loose corners of his story as well as provide something appropriately Christmassy, and Capaldi’s ,while a little better, suffers from the same problem.
Because really, this episode isn’t about much at all. Yes, the Doctor goes to this mysterious facility and comes across Bill (who is just sort of there for some reason, despite running away to be with her wet lesbian lover at the end of last season), and then stumbles upon Rusty from Into the Dalek because for some reason that episode is really well thought of despite being a pile of bollocks, and then sort of twats about a bit with David Bradley’s pleasingly idiosyncratic but also incongruently sexist First Doctor (why would he hold these attitudes if he had access to all of time and space the same way Capaldi and his predecessors did?), and then they dump the WW1 soldier (who is, almost inevitably, the father of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and, almost inevitably, is played Mark “Nepotism” Gatiss)) back in the field only for it to be revealed that it’s the Christmas Armistice because oh shit, aye, it’s Christmas, isn’t it? The villains aren’t villains at all but rather thin excuses for the episode to dredge up previous characters to say goodbye to the Doctor. Clara turns up, calls Peter Capaldi a stupid old man, and then buggers off again; the episode tries to invoke my goodwill by using the Bad Wolf theme and fails. Peter Capaldi decides he wants to die and then changes his mind. There’s a big, lazy, hammy speech (don’t be cruel, eh, Doctor?). He regenerates. I breath a sigh of relief as Jodie Whittaker gurns into frame; at last, it’s over, both this episode and this run as a whole.
It’s just…flat. It feels like the episode had a bunch of plot points it wanted to hit and built a half-arsed story around them, and then tossed in the First Doctor because hey, people liked that shit when Moffat did it for the Fiftieth Anniversary, didn’t he? I really wanted to be able to bid farewell to Moffat on a misty-eyed high, to be reminded of all the good that there was in his run – because it is in there, if you look hard enough, though it’s been obscured by the recent atrocious awfulness of the last couple of seasons. But Twice Upon a Time is just terrible; poorly written, laying claim to a plot so thin it barely exists, and making Capaldi’s exit feel like a relief instead of a tragedy. Saying goodbye to a Doctor should feel hard – it always has before this – but there were more than a few moments in this episode where I was actively wishing for the show to get on with it and introduce Jodie Whittaker already. Trying to blend the completion of a high-stakes character arc with the very specific notion of a Christmas special didn’t work the first time and it doesn’t work now.
But it’s over now, and that’s a good note to end the year on for Doctor Who: that our long national nightmare is finally at an end and the show can step into hopefully greener pastures. You’d think that the endless fuckery that the last few years has subjected me to might have made me cynical towards Doctor Who by now, but it hasn’t. I’m exceptionally excited about what Chibnall and, more importantly, Jodie Whittaker will bring to the role. Doctor Who might have let me down over the last couple of years, but I, for one, am more than ready to see what it holds for the future. And you know what? I’ll let Moffat off with this one. Because at least he had the good grace to bow out at last. I won’t have you this time, Steven.