Twice Upon a Time was 2017’s Christmas episode of Doctor Who, and, glory be, Stephen Moffat’s last episode ever. I remember astonishingly little of it.
I remember that the First Doctor was in it, because Stephen Moffat liked to fuck around with Doctor Who mythology for no discernible or interesting purpose. (Oooh, but using the past tense just then felt so good.) I remember the First Doctor being outrageously and obviously sexist, for, as Andrew Rilstone points out, no internal narrative reason: this isn’t an episode that’s interested in the history of the Doctor, it’s interested in the history of Doctor Who, and TV was outrageously and obviously sexist in the 60s, and so the First Doctor is sexist. This all feels like Moffat’s final dig at those pesky feminists who pointed out time after time that his female characters are always enigmas, romantic interests, cyphers with no lives of their own – anything but fully human. “Look,” he says, “this is what real sexism looks like! I’m much more enlightened than this!”
To which the only possible response is: fuck off.
Or, more politely: if you have to go back to the 1960s to find stories more sexist than yours, you’re doing something wrong.
What else? The World War I Christmas truce, “it never happened again, any war, anywhere”. (For what it’s worth, this isn’t actually true: there were Christmas truces in 1915, and unofficial truces up and down the front throughout the year.) Rusty the Good Dalek, for no discernible reason. An invisible glass woman. A project to record the memories of the dead, which goes nowhere interesting. Yet another fucking suggestion that Bill is romantically interested in the Twelfth Doctor. And the appearance of the Thirteenth Doctor, crashing the TARDIS as is traditional, and causing a tsunami of “women driver” jokes among the misogynists of the world.
The human brain’s wired to retain narrative; the reason why I end up writing more about plot than anything else is because that’s what I remember a month or two after I read or watched or heard whatever I’m writing about. That I can only remember fragments of Twice Upon a Time therefore suggests something about its approach to narrative; viz., that it has none.
Moffat’s never really been interested in stories as such, the work of plot you have to put in to reach the climax, the building of emotional investment you need to get to the payoff. He’s interested in set pieces, in gimmicks, in moments like snowglobes; in pretty pictures. And, in that sense, Twice Upon a Time is Quintessentially Moffat.
I think, structurally, what the episode’s trying to suggest is that the Twelfth Doctor will always exist somewhere in time, as will the First Doctor, like a picture, or, indeed, a TV show. A frozen and asynchronous now. Ceasing to be in the future does not negate your being now. This is an idea that’s always been latent in Doctor Who, and, indeed, in most time travel narratives which see the past and the future as places you can visit at will. If people who have died still live, in a place you can access, have they really died at all?
And it’s an interesting idea. Of course it is, to us humans who live in the flow of time and always want to escape it. It’s just that Moffat-Who is not especially capable of dealing with it in any kind of profound way. After all, the analogy between regeneration and death only goes back to David Tennant’s time on the show; before that, the emphasis is on the beginning of a new life, not the end of an old one. Moffat fails to make a case for why it’s so important that the Twelfth Doctor’s memory sticks around; he’s consistently failed, in other words, to build our interest in, and empathy with, the character, because he’s consistently failed to tell stories.
You cannot build a story out of set-pieces. You cannot build a character out of moments.
Let us hope for better things from Chris Chibnall and Jodie Whitaker.