Friday, 29 December 2017

Twice Upon A Time

Chapter The 74th, in which a swansong goes horribly, horribly wrong.

The original Doctor meets the latest Doctor at the South Pole, when both are at the point of regenerating but resisting it, and they team up in a desperate action-filled race against time while they hold back death. Incident after incident is overcome, as they defeat Daleks, Cybermen and various other Big Bads to save the universe, all the while being careful not to interfere in the events of the Doctor's own past. Through this, the two Doctors find a begrudging accommodation for each other that masks a real affection, and end up facing their separate fates as wiser individuals... Or maybe I nodded off after a few minutes of talky bollocks and dreamt all that, but it would have been better, wouldn't it? Instead, all action is suspended for an hour until the new showrunner takes over. There's a lot of talking in different rooms. So much talking. A First World War soldier and Bill Potts appear somehow, and there's presumably something significant that happens somewhere along the line, but it's convoluted and unclear. Then, the Doctor regenerates into Jodie Whittaker, and it's exciting for a split second, and then it's over.

To say I was disappointed by Capaldi's swansong is putting it mildly. As such, I'm going to reiterate that I was disappointed by Capaldi's swansong over and again in different ways in every section of this blog as a form of therapy; maybe eventually I'll come to terms with it. After the first watch on Christmas day, I watched the recording again in a quiet moment during the days after Christmas. On second watch, without the weight of expectation, it was still shit. In fact, knowing that it didn't amount to much no matter how long it went on, made it excruciating to wade through.

First-time round:
It was a couple of hours after the BBC1 broadcast, on the evening of December 25th 2017; the whole family gathered round, old school style, after the traditional turkey and mince pies feasting, and the playing of newly unwrapped board games, and watched the episode timeshifted on the PVR. This was myself, the Better Half and three kids (boys of 11 and 8, girl of 5), plus two grandparents. This is the biggest audience an episode of Doctor Who has had in our house on Christmas Day (or any day) for a good few years. I put this down to excitement about the new female Doctor, and I hope it endures for next year's series, which I wish was starting sooner quite frankly.

I really hated it. Nothing happens. Stupidly. It must be hard to make nothing happen stupidly. The Better Half was losing patience before me, even ahead of the beginning credits, but I was still giving it a chance. Second time round, though, I found it irritating that early on too. There's a lot of pointless nattering. Mark Gatiss turns up as a soldier out of time and no one ever asks his name, so any twist about his identity is immediately telegraphed. We then flash back to this nameless soldier during his time in Paul McCartney's Pipes of Peace video. No matter how important a historic event this day and year of the war was, it's become so crowded a locale (every one from Sainsburys to The Farm has parked themselves on this battlefield over the years) that it can't help but seem somewhat risible.

There's a timing malfunction (always the two most thrilling words to grace a Doctor Who script - who needs 'alien invasion', eh?) and we're back to where we started with the Time Lord nattering to himself. Then, all three go into the TARDIS. Ten minutes have passed, and the only significant action by any of the characters is that they've retreated inside the TARDIS. At this point, I'm wondering who in their right minds apart from really hardcore fans (i.e. even worse than me) would give a toss about anything being discussed. I'm also really conscious that Capaldi needs a haircut. I can't be engaged if I'm noticing that sort of stuff. In the TARDIS there's an interminably long trivial scene about brandy and the decor. Then, Moffat seems to be confusing some attitudes displayed by William Hartnell as played by David Bradley in a bio-pic with those of the first Doctor as played by David Bradley now. But even the real Hartnell himself, reportedly quite old fashioned in his attitudes, wasn't as bad as the character depicted here. Did the Doctor ever expect Polly to dust in the TARDIS? Where's that come from? It may seem like a bit of fun, but this is one of my heroes being trashed.

Ten more minutes of chat and an arbitrary change of location informs the audience that something called Testimony is harvesting people's memories at the point of their death, which is a vague, conflict and excitement free concept. But it does introduce Bill Potts again, or a duplicate of her. It's not very clearly foregrounded, but it looks like the dramatic question presented is whether to give up the soldier to his death or not, maybe in exchange for Bill. Despite being talked around for swathes of everyone's precious Christmas day, it's still not clear or tangible because no one has gone to the effort of making the dilemma visual. Next are some flashbacks from old episodes to show how bloodthirsty the Doctor is (a trick Moffat seems to have played 100 times now) and another arbitrary change of location. We're only a third of the way through and my soul has died. From this point on, it's just more of the same really: natter, natter, change location arbitrarily, trash reputation of the first Doctor, more brandy, another Mark Gatiss dopey comic double-take, rinse, repeat. There's a detour which ties up a loose end that literally nobody cared about ever: what became of Rusty, the malfunctioning Dalek that was in one episode three years ago. And it carries on.

There is some investigation, but no sense of urgency or escalation at all. And any facts uncovered are pointless; the Testimony project or collective or whatever turns out not to be evil, so the story doesn't actually have anyone driving it forward either for good or bad, it was all just some stuff happening. And it keeps happening, for ages, until both Doctors decide finally to regenerate for a reason that's somewhat underwritten. Bradley's exit is odd, as Ben and Polly don't reappear (and they should do), but Capaldi gets to see his old friends again, and does a speech that's this time somewhat overwritten. Jodie Whittaker is great in her brief moment as the new Doctor, and the cliffhanger ending is good, but it isn't enough to save things. 

Both Peter Capaldi stories which see an aspect of the original classic series returning (the writer, the first Doctor); both feature battlefields, soldiers who go through some timey-wimey weirdness, and an armistice between previously warring sides.

Deeper Thoughts:
Looking back, looking forward. I'd said last time that I expected to be done with looking back over Capaldi's tenure, and I do think I've said all there is to say about that. I forgot, though, that this story also marks the end of Steven Moffat's tenure. Not that I haven't said a lot about him too over the years of doing the blog, but there's probably more to be said, as he's just been so inconsistent and uneven for me that it has felt like there have been several different Moffats running the show over the years. One thing that has been broadly consistent is that he can't bring himself to write anything simple. There should be no shame in doing a straight-ahead big tent pole alien invasion, zap 'em defeat 'em action adventure story. It is the bread and butter of Doctor Who, and can certainly be more enjoyable than something overwrought or overthought (not that I don't enjoy some of the clever clever ones too, but not all the time). When the pressure's on to produce something big, it must be difficult, and Moffat faced the most pressure ever, as he had to write the 50th anniversary show where expectation was at its highest. But he pulled that off with aplomb. Then, with the following story he had the comparatively minor challenge of doing his first ever regeneration story, and The Time of The Doctor was markedly less successful.

Like Twice Upon a Time, The Time of The Doctor gets itself tied in knots trying to be an elegy rather than just being an exciting adventure for the overfed holiday audience. Neither has any story per se, just a long repetitive sequence of events delaying the inevitable final moment, plus some continuity tidying and speechifying. This is frustrating when we know the same author can sometimes cram enough plot for whole seasons of Doctor Who into one 45 minute segment, but for some reason if it's a swansong, he's happy for people to just stand about talking. It's doubly frustrating this year, as Moffat had really turned things around after a moribund patch and delivered the most interesting season in years, and triply frustrating when he has all the potential of David Bradley's First Doctor to play with, and just squanders it. This is the roller-coaster ride that Doctor Who fans have been on since 2010

Looking forward, things look much more promising. I'm so used to overblown post regeneration dialogue that I was convinced Whittaker would add something silly about her hair or kidneys to spoil her well-judged and well delivered first word and a bit, but luckily Chibnall resisted. Less is more. The Doctor is separated from the TARDIS and falling to her doom. Roll credits. Nice. Similar but different enough to the last regeneration handover point, when Moffat took over from Russell T Davies, to be homage rather than rip off. If I ever watch this again, I suspect it will only be these final two minutes or so. That's a shame, as Capaldi, Bradley and Moffat himself deserved better. Anyway, dear reader, have a very happy new year in 2018. See you back here in January for more randomly picked stories - it can only get better from here.

In Summary:
Here's a fan edit suggestion: the Doctor, having just defeated the Cybermen at the end of The Doctor Falls, has visions of Bill, Clara and Nardole, does his nice speech about never being cowardly nor eating pears, then regenerates into Jodie Whittaker, and she gets her great first line and cliffhanger ending. The Christmas special would only be four minutes long, but one could use the rest of that time to eat mince pies or play the family at Cluedo. And that would be nice, wouldn't it?


  1. As with you I feel that the Christmas battlefield had been rather done to death. I think the main issue is that there just wasn't enough story to fill the time and leave the regeneration to the last couple of minutes, while at the same time giving everyone a "Christmas suitable" story.
    As you know from our previous conversations I'm not a fan of Capaldi's time as the doctor, nor of Moffat's tenure as show runner really; I feel his talents are much better as a writer. But at least this regeneration episode was better than the sweet, sickly, puke inducing Tennant one with the cringe worthy "I don't want to goooooooo"!
    Is it a classic? No, but for me it was "good enough", which is about how I view Capaldi's time as the Doctor, "good enough"!

  2. By the way, Happy New Year to you and your family Stuart; see you sometime next year I'm sure.

    1. Thanks for the comments, Trevor. Watching this one made me interested how Tennant's End of Time will be on re-watch when I eventually get there. Happy New Year to you too!

    2. Hmm. Yes, you're right. I still cried though, a lot. And I really didn't see the Christmas Armistice coming. I had forgotten about Rusty, but that's my problem.

    3. David, I'm glad you got some emotion out of it (and a lot of people did, I'm probably just be dead inside!); don't, though, beat yourself about forgetting Rusty the Dalek: everyone forgot about Rusty!! They might as well have brought back the Skovox Blitzer...