You can understand Twice Upon a Time as a profound disappointment. I don’t want to, but you can make a very clear case that it is.
An adventure that wasn’t really an adventure, fighting a threat that was actually unthreatening, shoehorning such an obtuse level of fanwank as material from a missing* episode and the most stealth cosplay of Mark Gatiss’ life.
Turning Expectations Around
By about the end of Twice Upon a Time, I realized that Stephen Moffat had written the anti Xmas Special. I like to think of it as one last, light-hearted experiment in Doctor Who writing before Moffat moves on from the show after nearly 15 years.
So what, judging by each year’s Xmas Special in 21st century Doctor Who, are the typical expectations? Primarily, I’d have to say an epic scale. They’re usually massive in scale or intensity. Sometimes, they contain major narrative developments for the show – regenerations, companion introductions, companion departures, companion re-introductions.
The Xmas Special model – huge, exciting battles against intense evils, and all the drama and pathos that implies – was a creation of Russell T Davies. Drama and pathos is what he does.
By the end of the relatively short Davies years, his pathos was overpowering to the point of frustration. The 20 minute outro to The End of Time, where David Tennant’s Doctor mysteriously appears to all his old companions as he holds off regeneration, remains excruciating to watch without poking fun at it.
Moffat has dialled down the reliance on pathos in Doctor Who. He’s done it with narrative and continuity events like restoring Gallifrey so the Doctor can breathe as a character again. He’s also done it with a new approach to the show.
Moffat’s Doctor Who is more cerebral – It's still a family sci-fi anthology adventure show, of course. Its stories tend to conceptual complexity, more dense continuity, and pushing what Doctor Who stories can do.
Cerebral approaches to narrative have their advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that the show has engaged in more complicated narratives in individual episodes and over whole seasons or more.
A terrible disadvantage is that the show has engaged in more complicated narratives in individual episodes and over whole seasons or more. For every triumph like Silence in the Library, The Impossible Astronaut, or Extremis, there are shit-shows like Let’s Kill Hitler or The Lie of the Land** where all the conceptual, character, and narrative elements collapse.
** Yes, I know Toby Whithouse wrote this episode, not Moffat. But I mention this because the production schedule of the 2017 season meant that Whithouse got the call to finish Moffat’s story – and it was obvious from his episode that he understood none of it.
Moffat’s ideals for building Doctor Who stories and narratives take advantage of the possibilities for more dense, detailed engagements with television in the 2010s. Fans of the show benefit from easy repeat viewing, returns to the show on DVD and streaming platforms.
*** Or erased.
I think this might be why – in addition to inconsistent scheduling and the 2016 gap year – Doctor Who’s domestic broadcast ratings have fallen so sharply this season. It’s tougher to follow the show as a casual viewer. You’re now going to understand the full depth of what’s happening if you watch Doctor Who in the same way that you watch Strictly Come Dancing.
It’s why I actually have high hopes for the Chris Chibnall years – Broadchurch showed his skills at keeping a tight narrative together, as well as how much he’s grown as a writer and producer since his early years on the sometimes brilliant sometimes horrid Torchwood.
Twisting Conventions Until They Explode
Yes, Moffat has shifted Doctor Who’s tone, for the most part, away from overt pathos to a more multifaceted emotional storytelling. But the Xmas Special has resisted this most powerfully.
An Xmas Special is, by its nature, event television, as I said. Moffat’s best Xmas episodes have been big event stories – regenerations like Time of the Doctor or major character events like The Snowmen or The Husbands of River Song. When he’s done an Xmas Special simply because it’s Xmas – Last Christmas or The Return of Doctor Mysterio – they stink.
It openly turned the epic expectations of Xmas Specials, regeneration stories, and multi-Doctor stories upside down. First, look at the storyline.
We have Doctors meeting through crossed wires of time tracks or some other temporal technobabble. The first major escalation of the adventure is Capaldi’s confrontational speech to Testimony – it’s exactly as we expect from such an adventure up against creepy CGI glass.
But all those expectations of epic battles are deflated when the Doctor discovers the central motive of Testimony – they really are just time-jumping archivist historians. Their intentions are good and they’re no threat to anyone.
Second, look at the relationship between David Bradley’s Doctor and the current cast. There’s a little meta-fictional joking – the “smacked bottom” joke, Bradley’s horrified reaction to Capaldi’s cyber-goth TARDIS interior, his and Captain LS’ stunned reaction to Bill’s homosexuality. All as we expect from Moffat going meta.
But the point of Bradley’s appearance, thematically, is emotional and ethical. It has nothing to do with plot or transformation of continuity, like the last multi-Doctor story Day of the Doctor.
The Doctor Falls. He’d spent nearly a thousand years guiding the Master to become at least a joyful traveller instead of a super-villain. But he saw only betrayal.
The Master’s redemption in that story fit with the theme, established in Extremis, that the most profound good is unwitnessed and never remembered. We saw the Master’s redemption on those terms, but the Doctor never did. So he kept trying to refuse regeneration, feeling that all his effort in the world was wasted.
Bradley’s Doctor offered Capaldi’s a contrast that showed him what his nihilism amounted to – fear. Bradley’s Doctor was refusing to regenerate because he’d never transformed before – he was afraid of remixing his personality. It was an immature fear, the fear of a very young, almost childish man – I don’t want to grow up.
It contributed to showing Capaldi’s Doctor what it meant to regenerate – to grow, transform, and change. This time, more radically than he had ever before.
Testimony’s mission demonstrated the importance of memory and knowledge, while the story also made a problem of whether memory was all you really needed to constitute a person. Was this story’s Bill really Bill because she was made from her memories?
That last moment was – as Testimony and the two Doctors both accomplished – giving Captain Archibald Lethbridge-Stewart enough of a sense of hope that he wasn’t really to shoot the wounded German soldier facing him in the crater.
There was a telltale shot in that last Ypres sequence, a closeup of Mark Gatiss’ thumb refusing to pull back the safety catch of his pistol. It lasted just long enough for him to hear the carols of the Christmas Truce – the one moment of hope in all the terror of the First World War.
As Bradley’s Doctor said, the Christmas Truce was a moment that demonstrated what it truly means to be a “Doctor of war.” Someone whose influence can replace nihilism with hope. Thanks to this feeling of hope that shattered Captain Lethbridge-Stewart’s, the Doctor’s old friend Alastair would have grown up with his grandfather.
Celebrating that hope – a feeling that we definitely need to motivate us through what will be more coming terror and violence in 2018 – is what Doctor Who is ultimately about, at its best. By overturning the expectations of an Xmas Special of epic battles and pathos, Stephen Moffat gave us one last moment of Doctor Who at its most inspirational before the new stories begin.
See you in the Autumn.