Thursday, December 28, 2017

Testimony Of A Lackluster Doctor Who Christmas Special: "Twice Upon A Time"

The Good: Performances are good, Some of the jokes land
The Bad: Dull plot, Forced sense of conflict, Many of the jokes do not land on a character level, Failure of chemistry
The Basics: "Twice Upon A Time" is fairly pointless, nostalgic Doctor Who that belabors a character conflict that cannot possibly go in a surprising direction.

One of the worst aspects of changing the actor who plays The Doctor in Doctor Who is that who the new Doctor is rapidly becomes the most spoiled information in science fiction at its time. While that might not usually be an issue - and the announcement of Jodie Whittaker being cast as the next Doctor was made months ago - it usually means that the final episode of the current Doctor must be treated with some finesse. After all, Doctor Who viewers already know who to look for at the episode's climax, so the episode's writer and director has to make it interesting to the viewer to get there. Sadly, for Steven Moffat's final episode as showrunner for Doctor Who, "Twice Upon A Time," he forgets all about subtlety and finesse.

Instead, "Twice Upon A Time" quickly establishes a ridiculous premise that the viewer knows cannot possibly come to pass as Peter Capaldi's Doctor refuses to Regenerate. "Twice Upon A Time" attempts, vainly, to get the viewer to believe that Capaldi's Doctor might well be the final incarnation and that rather than regenerate, The Doctor is ready to die. The instant failure of suspension of disbelief quickly turns to a joke-filled love note from Steven Moffat to his own prior works as "Twice Upon A Time" packs in references to prior Doctor Who episodes Moffat wrote and/or produced, like "Into The Dalek" (reviewed here!), "The Pilot" (reviewed here!), and - most recently - "The Doctor Falls" (reviewed here!). Despite the flashback nature of the very opening of the episode, "Twice Upon A Time" picks up right after the final scene of "The Doctor Falls."

The First Doctor, following an incident with the Cybermen, takes the TARDIS to the South Pole, where he refuses to Regenerate. There, he encounters the latest (Peter Capaldi) incarnation of The Doctor outside his TARDIS. The First Doctor, considering death instead of Regeneration, seems to be enough to stop time for everyone but the two Doctors and a confused World War I Captain who suddenly appears there. After a brief flashback to explain how the Captain arrived at the South Pole - after encountering a mysterious, glasslike form of a woman - the two Doctors and the Captain retreat to the TARDIS, where the First Doctor is critical of its style and upkeep. The TARDIS is abducted and taken aboard another ship. The First Doctor leaves the TARDIS and is miffed by how The Doctor is referred to as The Doctor of War. The current Doctor, recognizing the reference and Bill, who appears from a room on the ship, leaves the TARDIS and begins to question his Companion.

Bill is confused when she cannot find Heather (who she recalls rescued her from the Cybermen). The Doctors investigate the ship, which belongs to the Testimony. The Testimony is a time-traveling library that goes into the past and extracts people in the moment of their death, downloads their memories, stores them and then returns the significant individual to their moment of death. The two Doctors, Bill and The Captain retreat to the First Doctor's TARDIS, where they begin a quest to find who the Testimony's template is based upon. To that end, they travel to the center of the galaxy to access the biggest database in the galaxy and The Doctor encounters "Rusty" the Dalek who rejected the rest of the Daleks. There, The Doctor learns about Testimony and he and the First Doctor return to Earth to face their destiny.

"Twice Upon A Time" hinges a lot on the viewer having an expert level knowledge of Doctor Who which, admittedly, I do not. As a result, I feel unqualified to discuss the quality of David Bradley's performance. Bradley mimics some of the obvious mannerisms of William Hartnell's Doctor - based on the archive footage I've seen in prior episodes and clips - but whether Bradley gets the character's voice and attitudes right is something I am not qualified to evaluate. The unfortunate aspect here is that the First Doctor spouts a lot of racist and sexist lines and mannerisms that might have been a sign of the times in the early 1960s when the show began, but make no sense for a character from Gallifrey. Unless when The Doctor was born on Gallifrey black women were maids, for example, some of the jokes fail to land on a character level.

Even as a person only marginally fluent in the current (2005 and up) Doctor Who some of the episode's "big surprises" fail to land. The identity of The Captain is hardly surprising and outside his lineage and being miffed when The Doctor references "I" after referring to the World War, the character is somewhat pointless in "Twice Upon A Time." The Captain's presence is an obligatory nod to the history of the franchise, as opposed to a vital character in his own right.

"Twice Upon A Time" belabors the humor while poking fun at inconsistencies and issues within Doctor Who. The First Doctor calls the sonic screwdriver absurd and questions how The Doctor could wear sunglasses indoors. The Doctor repeatedly crow's Missy's early line "you know who I am" to the First Doctor and Moffat and director Rachel Talalay use the opportunity to play with un-armored Daleks. But the First Doctor's sexism and the jokes predicated on outdated attitudes quickly wear thin.

Thematically, "Twice Upon A Time" is all about people who are too afraid of death desperately trying to run away from their inevitable mortality. The First Doctor and The Captain are not ready to die and are afraid of what might come next and The Doctor recognizes that his life is on an exceptionally short fuse and he tries to solve one last mystery before his death. But the significance of any discussion of mortality and acceptance of it is lost because the viewer already knows The Doctor's decision. In fact, we know the First Doctor's decision (to regenerate), that Bill is already dead, and that the Captain is not a significant enough character to care about his impending demise. So, "Twice Upon A Time" ought to be The Doctor's acceptance of life and his determination to regenerate and continue, but it meanders around fairly pointlessly until it gets to where it always had to.

The theme of "Twice Upon A Time" offers a natural opening for David Tennant's Doctor to make an appearance and it is disappointing that he is only in archive footage. Tennant's Doctor essentially begged for more time before his end and thematically, that fits "Twice Upon A Time" exceptionally well. The lack of an appearance by River Song - technically, she never dies, so that makes sense, save that Moffat already brought an image of her back once following her demise - is similarly disappointing.

Finally, the plot conceit of "Twice Upon A Time" builds into something painfully familiar. The "tour around the Best Of" idea wears thin and when a long-gone character appears, it quickly reminds viewers of just how limited Steven Moffat's writing has become. The "dead character living for an adventure" conceit was, essentially, the whole concept behind Clara's final exit with Ashildr.

The result is that Moffat guts much of his own creation on his way out. After finding amazing chemistry for The Doctor and Bill, they return stiff in "Twice Upon A Time" and the regeneration into the first female Doctor occurs without any reference to Missy or commentary on why The Doctor would regenerate as a woman this time (did it just not occur to him before?!). The result is something of an obligatory bridge episode that lacks a spark or genius and merely muddles through to the inevitable.

[Knowing that single episodes are an inefficient way to get episodes, it's worth looking into Doctor Who - The Complete Tenth Season on DVD or Blu-Ray, which is also a better economical choice than buying individual episodes. Read my review of the final season of Peter Capaldi as The Doctor here!

For other Doctor Who Christmas episodes, be sure to check out:
"The Return Of Doctor Mysterio"
"Voyage Of The Damned"
"Last Christmas"


For other Doctor Who episode and season reviews, please visit my Doctor Who Review Index Page!

© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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