Twice Upon A Time is the final “swansong” of Moffat’s most would agree too long tenure as the head of the BBC’s flagship science-fiction show and is very much the product of the last seven inconsistent years of the show. The nearly hour long affair is a piece that ranges from heartfelt character moments to schlocky melodrama and from fine acting to forced writers ego-stroking.
To begin with I would normally talk about the story but here I can say I honestly had no idea what was actually going on in terms of the episode’s narrative. The episode sees the two Doctors end up together with a First World War Office (who we’ll get back to later) as targets of a group known as the The Testimony. Over some very confusing events it turns out the Testimony aren’t nefarious at all but rather a group dedicated to collecting the memories of the dead at the time of their death and recording them for all of time, a perfect record, and giving them the chance to live again in glass forms. While this is an interesting idea it’s never really exploited because the episode doesn’t seem to know what it wants to focus on, instead trying to focus on Bill and the Officer, Bradley and Capaldi, Capaldi and a Dalek, Bradley and Bill, and so on. It’s a hot mess that never really gels together sadly in terms of plot.
The character moments however are more frequent and are largely landed because of the talent behind them. David Bradley and Peter Capaldi as the First and Twelfth Doctors respectively are truly wonderous to watch in the roles as they perfectly encapsulate these two very different men, Bradley as this grandfatherly if stubborn man and Capaldi as this more serious but somehow still free spirit. They’re backed up of course by the return of Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts, the only companion of the Moffat era without a real bad moment, and Mark Gatiss as the Officer. Mackie once again shines as a foil to Capaldi, balancing the worst of his character and bringing a much-needed levity, while the carefully restricted and sparsely used Gatiss is able to bring the best of his acting ability to show (which has always been far superior to his writing). Altogether the cast, with even Nardole and Clara making surprisingly pleasant cameos, really are the reason the episode punches above its quite patchwork writing and instead make you want to see what they’ll do in the next emotional scene which culminates in an emotional scene as both Doctors part ways to regenerate where Capaldi says farewell to his friends before attempting to leave his successor some parting advice on how to be the good Doctor people need, the question he was so disturbed by when he first appeared on our screens four years ago.
The episode of course is not just the end for the showrunner or our lead star but also composer Murray Gold, who has been responsible for much of the feel of the show for the last 12 years with his rich and distinct musical styles for each of the Doctors and their Companions. This last episode sees him tour all the way through from 2005 to the present with the big orchestral scores of the Moffat era combined with the more ethereal style used during the Ecclestone series to create a fantastic best hits compilation of tones. While I’m sure he could’ve continued going maybe a change here could also see the same creativity start afresh once more.
Where the episode really falls down however, just like with much of the last four and a half series, is Moffat and his continued need to put his mark on the show and it’s time to talk about the Officer and his identity. In the last few minutes of the episode the Officer, who’d been transported away from the Western Front of Christmas 1914, is revealed to be none other than the Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart’s grandfather who the First Doctor agrees to keep an eye on. Yes Moffat has now narratively inserted himself as the reason the Brigadier is ever a part of the Doctor’s life. The episode ending as a random act of kindness to some random forgotten soldier in a war filled with forgotten soldiers would’ve been an incredibly moving moment and a cornerstone of the Doctor’s story, helping the forgotten who to the universe are unimportant, but instead it becomes yet another instance of forced egotism on the show by a man who has become obsessed with fiddling with other people’s work rather than building on it.
The inclusion of this WWI scenario in the episode does end up coming across as more ham-fisted than poignant too in part because it’s three years late to the party with now many shows having used the Christmas Truce of 1914 as a story element. What could’ve been memorable and fresh is now safe and overdone which again is a damn shame given the talent on display trying to work with it.
The episode also sees the placing of Bradley’s Doctor at times more as a representation of 1960s values than as the character he’s portraying itself. No doubt this was meant to be a display of just how far the show has come over the last 50 years, with both the Officer and Bradley shocked at Bill’s LGBT+ status, but it instead ends up badly showing up Moffat’s failing when it comes to modern values over his tenure. Many of his decisions, especially regarding women and ethnic minorities, have been derided as tokenism in part due to their obsession with the Doctor himself rather than as fleshed-out characters in their own right, and while Bill’s creation last year was a step forward it was still too little too late with it taking seven years for him to cast a BAME person in a main role when his predecessor did it in half the time and her LGBT+ status being a mere speck compared to the wide-range of sexualities seen in the RTD days (who can forget Captain Jack). Just earlier this month did Moffat try to blame his lack of modern values on Brexit attitudes in the audience which was a poor attempt at shifting responsibility more than anything else.
It was always going to be unlikely that we’d have gotten a finale that would live up to Moffat’s truly wonderful first series and a half in charge of the show (the moment where it starts the sheer decline can be measured from River Song’s “revelation” as Amy’s daughter onwards) that was fresh and unique after a fantastic but running on fumes fourth series under Davies but Twice Upon A Time ends up being a far more honest representation of the Moffat era as a whole; a finely acted and put together sci-fi show that nearly always manages to succeed in spite of its many narrative failings.
But we shall always regret never seeing Capaldi truly shine without that handicap.
Edit: Fixed the Officer from Father to Grandfather. Ego on display remains the same.