So. I suppose it’s a good sign that I care enough about Doctor Who at this point that I feel the necessity of writing up my reaction to Twice Upon a Time, the Christmas special that serves as the final episode for Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor as well as Steven Moffatt as the showrunner.
It made me cross.
OK, so the rest of this is pretty much all spoilers. I mean, not only plot spoilers, which may or may not ruin a person’s enjoyment of the thing, but tone spoilers and, well, enjoyment spoilers. I don’t mean to say that people who enjoyed the thing are wrong—heck, enjoying things is good, and I certainly find it very irritating when people try to spoil my enjoyment of things I enjoy. I’m going to try to explain the things that were active Sources of Viewer Irritation for me about this show and about the entire Moffatt Era (as we must call it) of the show. And I’m doing this in the face of reviews that as far as I can tell, in the wide sources anyway, are almost entirely positive. So, anyway, read further at your own discretion.
Digression, before I begin: I saw Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi recently, as well, and while I had successfully avoided plot spoilers, I had been loaded up with tone spoilers. These were actually, for YHB at any rate, the reverse of spoiler, because they actually improved my enjoyment of the movie. Several people have written about enjoying the movie more the second time through, in part because it played so strongly against their expectations that they were bewildered and disoriented. I wasn’t expecting specific plot points, but I was expecting certain kinds of things to happen or not to happen, and so the things that actually did happen worked just fine for me. I throw this out there as a sort of anecdata point on the complicated issues of spoilers, trigger warnings and Sources of Viewer Pleasure and Irritation. End Digression.
The previous episode ends with the Doctor having decided not to regenerate. There doesn’t appear to be any really specific reason for it, but when he swallows down the regeneration, he says “I don’t want to change again. Never again! I can’t keep on being somebody else.” The TARDIS then deposits him at the South Pole, where he comes across his first incarnation, who is, similarly, saying “I will not change. I will not! No, no, no, no. The whole thing’s ridiculous.” One could infer that the motivating factor is the fear of change, in the First Doctor’s case because it is unknown and in the Twelfth Doctor’s because he is exhausted by it. Is that what is going on? I don’t know. I didn’t know at the end of The Doctor Falls, and I don’t know now. But those were the lines.
Not a Digression, but the first interjection about Big Themes of the Moffatt era that I didn’t like: For a show with a lot of teenage fans, the handling in the current series of the running theme of suicidal ideation is somewhere between horrifically irresponsible and just plain horrific. I’d have to go back and watch episodes (or read transcripts) to know how far back it goes, but the tenth series, anyway, has an awful lot of people deliberately choosing to die. Most of them don’t actually die, of course. It’s possible that Mr. Moffatt chose to include suicidal ideation and eventual it-gets-better-ness to make a point to the viewers, but if so, it was shockingly incompetent in its execution. More likely, I suspect, is that Mr. Moffatt didn’t actually intend to write an investigation of death wishes and suicidal tendencies, or even think about the implications of those themes. Either way, it bothers me. A lot. End Interjection.
Well, anyway, this episode starts where that one left off, with the question of whether the Doctor will regenerate, doubled down with two Doctors. And, of course, we know that the Doctor will regenerate. We know that the First Doctor regenerated, because we have seen it, and for all that they are willing to rewrite bits of that history (or put up with flawed continuity through sloppiness) they are surely not going to rewrite the First Doctor regenerating into the Second Doctor. And we know that the Twelfth Doctor—the current Doctor, whose future we have not yet seen—is going to regenerate because they’ve cast another actor in the part. They’ve announced it and everything. So we already have the answer to the question. Now, I don’t absolutely object to that—after all, there are lots of stories that begin with plot questions that we really know the answers to. All it means is that the real question is not will the Doctor regenerate? but How will the Doctor regenerate? Specifically, in this case, how will the Doctor (and the other Doctor) reconcile themselves to regenerating? Potentially, this is an interesting question, and one we haven’t addressed before. Regeneration has mostly been accidental (a response, for instance, to falling from a great height, or contracting Spectrox toxaemia, or being in a spaceship that crashed on the surface of Karn) so even if the moment has been prepared for, it isn’t really a question of character and choice. So, fine. The question of the episode is: what will happen so that the Doctor, or rather both the Doctors, change their minds and choose to regenerate?
And the answer is, pretty much, nothing.
Well, and for the First Doctor, he sees a moment when the Doctor (himself in the future, you understand) saves someone’s life, and that’s pretty cool, and a reason to continue, I suppose. I suppose it’s possible that the First Doctor, not having ever regenerated before, could fear that his next self would not be, as the Twelfth Doctor might say, a good man, and that this moment of cleverness and generosity is enough to allay the fears. So that’s all right, even if we might have liked something more clear, perhaps in dialogue.
But the Twelfth Doctor doesn’t, at that point, seem to have made his decision. After that point, he asks his companions (or, rather, the memory-shell of his companions) whether he can ever have peace, ever have rest.
Not another Digression, but the second interjection about Big Themes of the Moffatt era that I didn’t like: I don’t know if this counts as a theme, but the main thing that I really, really loathed about the Moffatt era was the constant unearned heartwrenching goodbye scenes. When I was ranting about Last Christmas one of my main complaints was that Clara got to have what was at that point the sixth final goodbye scene between her and the Doctor. There are at least two more in the subsequent season. [My Perfect Non-Reader and excellent researcher and fact-checker reminds me that the Last Christmas one was not the sixth but the eighth, because I totally forgot two of them from the eighth season.] And each one of those ten is presented as if it is the real, final, absolute goodbye scene which should totally induce tears and whatnot. Then they haul her back out for another goodbye in the last episode, which is fine and I wouldn’t find irritating at all if it weren’t the eleventh bloody goodbye between the two of them, for the sake of everything good. Similarly, Bill Potts, having died and whatnot, and then having revived by the Doctor having died, gets to come back and have another goodbye scene. How often did Rory die? How many goodbye scenes did the Doctor and Amy have? I don’t know how other people reacted, but I was pretty much fed up with the multiple-goodbye bit with Rose back when Russell T Davis ran the show, and that was, in retrospect, only moderately overdone. In the Moffatt era, death (Danny! the Brigadier! Kate! River Song again!) had to be assumed to be temporary, and permanent farewells were never even close to permanent—but each scene asked to be taken seriously anyway. So cranky, I am. End Interjection.
So, there’s the Doctor, having said his final goodbyes to the memory-shells of his companions, and he goes in to the TARDIS and pretty much just shrugs and says well, what the hell and regenerates. I’m going to reiterate that the whole question of the episode was what would happen to make the Doctor reconcile himself to regenerating rather than suicide, and the answer, the actual answer, I mean he actually, literally, really verily and in truth says “I suppose one more lifetime wouldn’t kill anyone.” And then he goes into a Soliloquy, which he does very well despite it being pap and nonsense, and regenerates. That’s it.
Not yet another Digression, but the third interjection about Big Themes of the Moffatt era that I didn’t like: again and again, during the Moffatt era, we are presented with a seemingly-insoluble problem. How does the Doctor get out of the Pandorica? How can we restore Rory from non-existence? How can we fight someone we can’t even remember seeing? The Doctor gets shot to death and his body burnt, with no possible regeneration, how does he get out of that? What about the entire time-space continuum being destroyed, that definitely happened. And the whole, er, whatever happened with fake-Amy baby-Melody and so forth, that stuff. And the Zygons, and finding Gallifrey, and the all the corpses in England becoming Cybermen somehow. Oh, and Bill becoming a Cyberman, too, nearly forgot about that. Yeah, and the Monks doing that thing where they convince everyone that all of history is wrong. And the solutions to the insoluble problems always struck me as insufficiently clever to live up to the problem—in fact, they were often obviously awful solutions that wouldn’t have worked at all, or that were just variations on somebody loved someone enough to make it all right. It was… wearisome. So in truth I wasn’t expecting any actually clever or meaningful answer to problems at the beginning of episodes. I still hoped, it’s true, but I didn’t expect. End interjection.
So if we ignore the bit where there’s a problem and a solution, how was the episode? Well, pretty good, I guess. Peter Capaldi is a terrific television actor, and it was fun watching him do his thing. I like Pearl Mackie and her character Bill Potts, so it was pleasant enough to spend more time with her. I’m a big old Whovian nerd, so I really enjoyed the Old Who callbacks, and even if I’ve only every watched two First Doctor stories I thought that David Bradley did a fine job of playing the First Doctor, while also being entertaining in himself.
Not a Digression again, but the last interjection about Big Themes of the Moffatt era that I didn’t like: look, the treatment of women and other female characters, and the treatment of feminism as a subject, have been irritating. No era of the show has really done well (although really during the entirety of the 1970s the show was probably as feminist-thinking as anything on television, which is not saying a hell of a lot but is not a thing you could say about the show during the 2000s or 2010s, now, could you?) but these last few years have been just awful on that front. I know that there are people who like the show who have turned away from it on just that account, and while I don’t myself have high expectations for anything on broadcast television in terms of equality and representation and general wokosity, I can’t blame them for not wanting to turn in to be irritated twelve times a year. And I have had a sense, I don’t know if it’s correct, but a sense that Moffatt himself thinks that he is just hella woke. And that’s irritating, too. So the gag running through this show that the First Doctor is patronizing and chauvinistic seems, to Your Humble Blogger anyway, to be his final comment that people should stop complaining because the Doctor is ever so sensitive now, compared to nineteen sixty-six. And, well, yeah, he sure is. Yep. There has certainly been some forward movement over the decades. Also, bite me. End interjection.
There were some lovely bits of visual filming: a WWI battlefield with time stopped, a terrifying tower in a rubble-strewn landscape, the melding of the old footage with the new. Actually, I must say, the visuals have generally been really impressive throughout this era, which has been a nice thing. And I liked Mark Gatiss’ character—I don’t accept his identity as canon, because leave that family alone already but it was a nice little low-key guest star spot for him. And I really liked the end, with the Doctor all disoriented, flung out without anything but what’s in her pockets, and the TARDIS all exploded and gone.
I am genuinely eager to see some new episodes, in fact, which I have not been for quite a long time.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,