For about 45 of these 60 minutes `Twice Upon A Time` only occasionally sparks. The scenario is rather thin, the gags slightly laboured, the visuals a vague mashup of familiar looking things. For something shown at the heart of Christmas Day there is a distinct lack of fun. The performances are excellent but it feels as if the actors are doing their best with flimsy material. Then the final segment delivers the sort of emotion, hope and symbolism we might expect from something as momentous as a Doctor’s finale topped off by one of those to -be -treasured Peter Capaldi speeches. And then a new Doctor! Hopefully people stayed watching that long…
Of course this is the episode Steven Moffat didn’t want to write under these circumstances but given that I feel he might have tried to make it more accessible to a wider audience. `The Doctor Falls` had written this incarnation into a corner and it would have made perfect sense for him to have regenerated at the end. The fact that this wasn’t possible has given Moffat a difficult task. However as viewers we must only judge what we see on screen regardless of the circumstances behind the scenes, something Moffat in particular doesn’t always appreciate. Its like those talent show contestants who want you to vote for them because “I really tried my best”. Sorry, but that’s not relevant to the public.
The result of this situation, perhaps inevitably, is a story designed for fans though being fans of course they may not like it. And the less committed viewer may simply be bored. It’s not that the plot is complicated, it’s just insular, relying on either a knowledge of or interest in the way the show functions, the passing of the torch from one Doctor to another. Usually this occurs after something momentous- an almost un -surmountable enemy, a noble sacrifice – but here the reason for the story seems to stem entirely from the series’ minutiae itself. As it turns out there isn’t even an enemy at all, the ultimate realisation of Moffat’s constant refusal to examine the antagonist as a narrative function. Had he not done this in so many previous stories it might have been an interesting aspect to use but the misunderstood alien is up there with malfunctioning technology as one of the writer’s go-to excuses for not having a Sutekh or a Morbius in his canon. If ever a story needed that, it’s this one.
Instead we have the Testimony; creatures who record people’s memories after they’ve died. Again death is a looming presence with Moffat even if he rarely kills off characters properly and it does feel as if we're going over old ground. There’s a lot you could do with this idea but it is used simply as a device to have two Doctors meet and bring back Bill Potts plus add yet another unlikely strand to the Lethbridge Stewart story. Moffat discovers a moment in `The Tenth Planet` in which this could happen but faithful though David Bradley’s performance as the first Doctor is the tone of the character is not quite right. Bradley captures the mannerisms without lapsing into lapel clutching parody but the first Doctor simply did not display such un PC sentiments as he does here even if William Hartnell himself might have. Also I don’t buy the thin explanation for his reluctance to change. “Fear” says Bradley looking unconvinced himself by the idea. Not only that, but the current Doctor’s jibes seem uncharacteristically bitchy (what was that he says about always being kind? Later however when they talk between themselves on the battlefield the results are more in keeping with what you'd expect.
The story is on stronger ground reuniting the Doctor with Bill if only because both actors work so well together. Pearl Mackie has a special quality that this story needs though the way the Testimony toy with the situation in the first half seems odd if they’re not evil. The Doctor seems slow to realise how Bill can be here once he finds out what is happening. The use of glass as a symbol of people being merely the sum of memories is interesting but there’s not really enough time to go into much depth about why the Testimony do what they do or indeed who they are.
Instead there’s a rather pointless encounter with Dalek creatures scuttling about like giant spiders and an actual Dalek used only as a sort of super Wikipedia- surely its about time the Doctor got the Universal Internet on his sonic? To be enjoyed though is a measured performance from Mark Gattis whose first World War Captain is pitched perfectly between shock and fascination.
Visually there are some strong moments, notably the suspended snowflakes and battlefield while the all too briefly seen Dalek `spiders` are very creepy too. What really keeps you interested in this story however is Peter Capaldi. His energetic, multi layered performance is superb throughout and might convince us that the narrative is stronger than it is. On this form he could have done with some powerful enemy to spar off- some counter to his Doctor’s optimism and talk of kindness. Without that balance his words are no more than eloquent poetry. It was often said of Russell T Davies that he would sacrifice plot for emotional scenes and as his tenure has developed Steven Moffatt has resorted to a similar approach except sometimes there’s hardly any plot at all. I suppose on this occasion we can forgive him some indulgence and to be fair he doesn’t milk it as much as his predecessor did.
The good notes really start when we arrive back in 1914 and a lovely recreation of the famous armistice. At least Moffat doesn’t go so far as to claim the Doctor started it though there is a cringe worthy reveal about the Captain’s name. Then there’s a pleasing return of the Doctor’s memories of Clara. I’ve wondered about that whole thing - was it just her he’d forgotten or the whole set of adventures? Once back in the Tardis alone Peter Capaldi is in his element with a speech that takes in advice to his successor, the idea that only some children would understand the Doctor’s name and a personal mantra going forward. It’s gorgeous, lyrical material which Capaldi delivers while walking around the console room. As with everything he’s done from last year’s Xmas special Capaldi has been up there with the best of the Doctors. Then in a fountain of fire he is gone and we begin a new era with just a broad, child like smile and two words. Two words though are sometimes enough. “Aw brilliant” says Jodie and you think- yep she will be!