13 December 2021: not really a review of Flux added.
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TWICE UPON A TIME
Twice Upon A Time is an episode freighted with significance, drawing to a close as it does not only the tenure of the Twelfth Doctor but also the reign of showrunner Steven Moffat. Big, big stuff. And with Twice Upon A Time Moffat has handed us a priceless gift: he made it so annoying that any regrets we had about the end of either tenure were snuffed out faster than a candle on a mountain bike.
And that's a shame, because mixed though they might have been with many other emotions, prior to viewing this episode we really did have some sadness about the departures. Yes, even the Moffat one. (This is the part where we are measured, balanced and statesmanlike, so don't blink as it doesn't last long. And yes, we meant to do that.)
Obviously, between the two of them it's a lot easier to feel boohooish about Peter Capaldi leaving. We haven't been quite as enraptured by his Doctor as a lot of people, granted. While Peter Capaldi basically Doctors like a boss at every opportunity, those opportunities haven't come often enough for us. There's been far too much writing that grated against his Doctor's personality and even more than just didn't seem to get what that personality was. There was some squirmingly ghastly comedy, he was vulpine and dark for a while, then it all seemed to be an act, but nothing was consistent for long and none of it hung together. Nor did much of it truly exploit Capaldi's talent, and given that they had an actor who can kill it like few others, it's a crying shame that far too often they used a diamond to prop up a wobbly table. As a result, the Twelfth Doctor doesn't top the list of our favourite Doctors, but only a yoghurt would deny that he is nevertheless way, way up there and, when given the rare opportunity, is spine-tinglingly, hair-raisingly brilliant.
And Steven Moffat? In the hiatus since the end of the last season, we found to our astonishment we were actually quite sad at the thought of his leaving. Some of that's about our lack of optimism about his successor, but much of it Moffat has earned all by himself. We're hardly going to deny that Moffat has disappointed us far (far, far, far, far, far) more times than he's entranced us, but balanced against that, Moffat's tenure has included a number of our favourite episodes of the entire series. And that, by a long way, ain't nuttin'.
We're not going to go into a long peroration about all Moffat's faults here. Not only have we done that at tedious length multiple times in the past, this episode gives us an opportunity to visit many of them again, so we'll get to that part later. But despite all of those drawbacks, what we've always liked about his approach to Doctor Who storytelling is that, in a global sense rather with any particular episode, he aims high. Obviously it would be nice if the vast majority of the episodes thus aimed didn't fall to earth with an ignominious thud, but, and we mean this sincerely, big points for trying. We'd far rather watch something that tried to do something big and failed than see a mediocre, hackneyed plodder.
Of course, the ignominious thud part isn't exactly ideal. And that's what's been so frustrating about the Moffat years: he can do it, yet time and again success has slipped through his fingers So many episodes start with a hook that's quite grippy, only to fall over themselves. And time and again they suffer from the exact faults that have plagued their predecessors. Moffat's tenure is an object lesson in why it's a bad, bad idea to a) have the showrunner also writing and b) have a showrunner too powerful to listen to criticism. Checks and balances, people. Checks and balances. Because what has ultimately sunk the Moffat reign is Moffat's own ego.
Which brings us rather pertinently back to Twice Upon A Time, so we're going to stop being statesmanlike now. You know how we were coming into this with some regret for the end of the Moffat era? Well, our regret swiftly morphed into a raging desire to kick open the TARDIS doors and boot Moffat out through them.
Ego. It's ego, ego, ego, stamped all the way through it. If you sat down to watch Twice Upon A Time under the impression that this was going to be an episode with the usual accoutrements, such as plot or an actual reason for existing, you would have been sorely disappointed. He's already tied everything up and there's literally nothing left. As a result, what this actually is is a self-congratulatory tour around the greatest hits according to Moffat. It's nothing more than a giant spangly epitaph.
Even that wouldn't be so bad (yes it would, but work with us here) if in arranging said self-congratulatory tour, Moffat hadn't also repeated almost every mistake he's made all along. It's as if he's made a glass avatar of himself-as-Who-writer and puked into it all the crap that's been driving us up the wall these many years. The result is a distillation of pure Moffaty horror.
We start by referring back to The Tenth Planet. Then the old footage morphs, all clever-cleverlike in that maddening Moffat way, into a modern recasting, and we felt our blood pressure shooting up. Whoops, that didn't take long. We really, really don't like recasting of anyone and especially of Doctors. David Bradley is a terrific actor, but he's not an impersonator: as a result, Bradley's Doctor, try valiantly though he does, can only be a faint copy of the original. (The irony, given the theme in this episode about whether the glass avatars are real or not, fair smacks you in the face.) There are a hell of a lot of people who'd love to see earlier Doctors and other characters who are no longer with us again, but we can't, because they're gone. We'd much rather leave them and their legacies in peace than paste in copies.
Down at the South Pole there's another Doctor also refusing to get on with his regeneration. Despite an ersatz Doctor, this part rings of genuine Who, because the South Pole set is absolutely rubbish. (Dead flat with weird ice pillars? Hmm. Apartments for penguins?) In a piece of astonishing wankery, the First Doctor appropriates the Fourth Doctor's speech about being the original Doctor, after which a soldier looms out of Moffat's signature snow. Guess who? Yep, it's Moffat's best bud Mark Gatiss, here for a last desperate grab at the Whoniverse before the next showrunner shoves him down the steps and slams the door in his face forever. Hopefully.
Roll titles, and we're at Ypres in 1914. We hope the later plot development here wasn't meant to be a surprise, as we all yelled "Christmas Truce!" in unison. Cue transparent being (glass? They called it glass? Isn't that a bit unimaginative?) and the soldier is whisked out of time.
There then follows the kind of badinage that always seems to encrust multiple Doctor stories, this a lot more leaden than most. Sigh. Then somebody grabs the TARDIS and ooh look, Bill's back. Sort of. Because as we all know, Moffat can't leave anybody who's gone….gone. It's like they're all lashed to the TARDIS with bungee cords. Her story's over. Why is she here? Why, later, is Nardole here? Why is Clara here - again? We really wish someone would forcibly tattoo the definition of diminishing returns on Moffat's eyeballs.
And come to that, why is the soldier here? Sure, it's a jolly for Gatiss, but other than that, he wanders round adding absolutely zero. Until we find out that his name is Lethbridge-Stewart and, by an arcane piece of Whoery we won't bore you with, therefore the Brig's grandfather. Yep, it's another Moffat signature: sacrificing any semblance of plot or common sense for what he thinks is a massive zinger that leaves the rest of us utterly underwhelmed. Not to mention that he in any case gave the game away with the mention of Cromer. And in this case, he's also plaited into the strand another dollop of ego. Not content with grabbing the Cybermen origin story in his previous episode, here Moffat decides to fling in a reverse Kill Your Own Grandfather scenario to claim the circumstances that allowed the Brig, a pivotal character in the Whoniverse who met all seven of the original series Doctors, to exist. Wow.
Someone half-inches the TARDIS and for a moment it looks like an actual plot is under way. The Doctor asks Bill what he should do and she responds: "Do what you always do. Serve at the pleasure of the human race." Er, what? The pleasure? Of the human race? We were convinced this was the moment when Bill would be unmasked as a villain, but instead the Doctor gives a half-smile in a yeah, good one, Bill kind of way. In what universe would the Doctor let that pass unchallenged?
Glass Lady blows some bubbles with former Doctors in (man, so we wish we were watching one of those episodes) and - watch out, here comes another Moffat fave - flings accusations at him including his being the Doctor Of War. What, again? This time, however, it all fizzles out into the Doctor actually being against war, or something. All of that, for this? We never thought at any stage or for a single second the Doctor was anything but, so why did he drag us all through that stuff in the first place? it never made any sense.
In a desperate attempt to inject some movement into this thing and make it look like something's actually happening, they slide down some chains and trot into the First Doctor's TARDIS (formerly resident at The Doctor Who Experience, if we're not mistaken). Then we got really annoyed. It's badinage time again, but this time it's a whole lot of guff about how sexist the First Doctor is compared to modern times as represented by Bill and the Twelfth Doctor. The sheer witlessness of this is beyond belief. They don't seem to be able to get through their heads the difference between the real-world sixties of the First Doctor's episodes and the actual character of the First Doctor. We've already seen this in this episode, with the Doctor bewildered by modern slang, tech developments and the like, and the sexism stuff doubles down on it, but it makes no sense at all. The Doctor himself is hardly some old codger trapped in the past. Like all the other Doctors, he's been all over the universe in all time periods. Even his South Pole scenes from The Tenth Planet are actually set in 1986. Teeth-grittingly annoying.
Then we pop off to Villengard to find databases that are larger than the Matrix's to figure out what's going on. Well, scuse us, but we would have thought the Matrix, given that it spans time, would easily outstrip the bloody Daleks' rigout. Khaleds a-go-go, for no particular reason except good old fanwankery again, and we're with the Doctor in pretending the ghastly dialogue critiquing the jolly good smacked bottom never happened.
The greatest hits tour continues with Rusty the Good Dalek (yawn) and they discover the Testimony grabs people out of time just before their deaths and slurps up their memories. Remember the Teselecta? Yeah, more or less like that. Again, we thought the plot had finally got started, but much to our surprise, the Doctors' reaction is to declare that for once there is no evil plot. Really? Grabbing someone's memories without consent seems pretty appalling to us, not to mention squirting them into a glass vase and walking them around. Horrific. (We know they do the memory thing in the Matrix too, but at least the Time Lords are down with it.) They didn't bother to debate this in the episode, so we will: we vehemently disagree with Bill that our memories are all we are and that therefore the glass copy of her is basically identical to her former self: these beings seem to be made solely of memories, with no opportunity to learn from their experiences or develop any further. They're basically walking museums of the person as they were just before death and no more. Brrr. They make our flesh creep.
Given that the Big Bad turns out to be (according to them) OK after all, any pretence at a plot is now completely out the window. The Doctor plonks the Captain back in his shell hole, but moves his timeline a couple of hours to make sure he survives, thereby ensuring the later birth of the Brig. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Back it up there. The Doctor can shift time around like it ain't no thing now? Not people in time, but time itself? The entire universe shifted forward a couple of hours to accommodate Grandpa Lethbridge-Stewart? Without temporally breaking anything else? Y'know, we kind of suspect they didn't really think that through.
Blah blah bungeeing companions, and finally everybody's now happy with their regenerations. The regeneration thing is clearly meant to be the actual plot, but there just isn't enough justification in here for the Twelfth Doctor's attitude. If you're going to claim the Doctor wants to die because he's tired of mislaying people along the way, you'd better have done some serious spadework, as the Doctor's unending curiosity and zest for life are among his most defining features. Nul points. The Doctor makes a Trust Me On The Sunscreen speech which rambles in every direction and mentions being kind three times. We were behind the sofa by this point, so we can't be entirely sure, but our impression was that it was truly terrible.
Eventually it draws mercifully to a close. (Except for the new Doctor, of course, but that's for next time.) Well, thank God that's over. What particularly galls us is that having completed his dull, deeply flawed paean to his ego, Moffat then has the effrontery to visit it on the rest of us. He knew he'd finished his story in the previous set of episodes, and his only solution was to throw together this…thing. We're only glad, given here in New Zealand we live in the future, that it didn't have the power to ruin our Christmas.
If you're looking for a magisterial summing-up at this point, you're out of luck, because having sat through that dreck again we're far too irritated to be even-handed. The best we can manage on that showing? Good riddance. We only hope that given time and some deep breathing to clear the red mist, we'll once again be able to see the good in the Moffat era as well as the bad.
AND THEY BOTH DIED HAPPILY EVER AFTER
Moffat's always said Doctor Who's a fairytale, and here he is insisting on it until the bitter end.
1/10 SEE ME AFTER CLASS
Maybe they should get someone other than the runner to write the captions. "709 Episodes ago"? "south pole"? Ugh.
THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY
The Doctor bangs on about the asymmetry in the glass Bill's face, but what's it got to do with anything? We'd have thought real people would be far more likely to have asymmetries in their faces than something generated.
If ever there was an episode in which Murray Gold directed us in what to feel, by God it was this one. The music was more of a character than the actual characters. Fitting, as this was his last episode. That's...sad...