World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls/Twice Upon a Time

Story No. 300-302 Masters! Cybermen! Regeneration! Oh my
Production Code Series 10, episodes 11-13
Dates June 24, July 1 and December 25, 2017

With Peter Capaldi
Written by Steven Moffatt Directed by Rachel Talalay
Executive Producers: Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin.

Synopsis: The twelfth Doctor doesn't want to regenerate.


Wherein Moffat goes out with a bang by Aristide Twain 30/4/19

Series 10 of Doctor Who is a strange beast indeed, unconstrained as it was by the mess of continuity in which Moffat had tangled his era before then; I am not one of the decriers of Clara Oswald as a companion, but carrying her over between Series 7 and Series 8 was definitely a mistake if Moffat wanted Series 8 to be the drastic change he promised to the press back then. With Series 10, however, River was dead, Clara was good as dead, the Time Lords' storyline was over (clumsily so, but over) and the Silence were a thing of the post.

An era nearly all its own, then, was Series 10, and so it was quite a task to end it, for it would have to simultaneously bring closure to the Capaldi Era, to the Moffat Era, and to the 'Series 10' Era (we might call this, less unwieldily, the Vault Era, after the Macguffin/mystery box of that season that precipitated all events therein). Quite a tall order: even its closest next-of-kin, Russell Davies' The End of Time, only had two 'ends' to wrestle with, the Davies Era and the Tennant Era. But, by Rassilon, Moffat pulled it off.

What the three-parter of World Enough and Time, The Doctor Falls and Twice Upon a Time ended with the most elegance was the Capaldi era; it is a curious game of narrative echoes that is played here with Series 8, whose themes, amusingly enough, come across with more strength in those three episodes than they did in that season itself, for we are now free of the burdensome Clara/Danny subplot. What is the Testimony if not the 'light side' of the Nethersphere, for one? The cold, uncaring atmosphere of the Exodus Hospital and the underlying body horror it embraces, though it cannot improve upon it, for it was already the best part of that episode, is extremely reminiscent of Danny's experience in the Nethersphere in Dark Water/Death in Heaven. Like in Dark Water/Death in Heaven, one of the Doctor's most loyal companions resists Cyber-programming to instead help save the day (and the new story does much more with the idea than the ill-explained Danny and the Brig's preposterous cameo in Death in Heaven possibly could); Twice Upon a Time's conclusion even sees a better redo of the Doctor's salute to the Cyberbrig, in the form of the heart-tugging, half-remembered farewell to Captain Lethbridge-Stewart. Missy's back, of course, and we finally learn quite how John Simm's Master weaseled his way out of his apparent doom at the end of The End of Time and how he regenerated into her. (Quite a twist it is too; the way both Masters go out is a surprise, but it is also the first time I and many others find ourselves wishing this Master death will stick, at least for a longer while than usual.)

And does it need saying that, also like the Series 8 finale, it is a Cybermen story? Well, one thing does need saying, it is that it is a substantially better Cybermen story; in fact, it is perhaps the best Cybermen story in the entire revived series, and I would not hesitate to call it one of the best Cybermen stories in the series' history, period. It is at this point a truism that the Mondasian Cybermen are a stronger, ghostlier design than the New Series Cybermen; thank heavens that Moffat listened to Peter Capaldi on this point, and I will never forgive the BBC for the fact that Capaldi never got to write or direct one of his own episodes in earnest. They are recreated here in full, with the improved 21st-century craftsmanship to make their designs seem as polished as they can be, and the wizard that is Nicholas Briggs doing a pitch-perfect impression of their hauntingly inhuman voices. The decision to finally create an official 'Genesis of the Cybermen' story is strangely at odds with the decision to finally confirm the fan theory that the various breeds of Cybermen, all originating from different planets, are in fact 'parallel evolution' so that there is no definitive origin to the Cybermen; does it not diminish the grandness of seeing what is billed as the origin of the original Cybermen? But one supposes that, while writing such a story, the last thing Moffat wanted to do was piss off Big Finish fans and their sacred cow Spare Parts, hence this peculiar decision. I nitpick, but it really doesn't detract much from the overall experience.

As an end to the Moffat era, it only brings back a few, tastefully chosen nods to the past. The clumsiest is the Clara scene, of course, but better that than leave poor Chibnall to deal with that half-remembered remnant of a plot point. The return of Gallifrey is of no great consequence to the plot, but it does tie into the Master's storyline. And the ending of TUAT has the Doctor fully coming to terms with the fact that he is, or will be, the War Doctor.

As a grand finish to Series 10, it is slightly weaker; Pearl Mackie's intensely lovable Bill Potts is given a competent goodbye (give or take the poorly explained mechanics of her amnesia in TUAT), but the same cannot be said of Nardole, left behind on the Colony Ship without so much as a decent death scene; the farewell he eventually gets in TUAT asks more question than it answers. Though I'll admit it is strangely fitting that that strange little bald man should leave the series as he entered it, an inexplicable oddity who obviously has many more things to do than answer questions about his fascinating, but ever-tantalizingly-off-screen backstory. I had not made the connection until I began writing this, but with his uncertain past and species, his constant stream of contradictory anecdotes about both and his wisecracking nature occasionally undercut by surprising competence, Nardole is a little bit like a gender-flipped Iris Wildthyme come to the screen at last. In the old tradition of bringing back something from the pilot in the finale, Heather from The Pilot returns, but she might as well not have bothered, for, while the effects on her are as superb now as they were then, her nature has been shamelessly and inexplicably altered beyond recognition from the fairly simple concept presented in The Pilot. (Stephanie Hyam's acting is competent but painfully reminiscent of Maisie Williams as Ashildr, as if Bill's final method of departure wasn't already too much like Clara's in Hell Bent.) The one plotline Moffat seemed really interested in wrapping up is of course Missy's, and, as I said upthread, he achieved the inconceivable in giving a proper, definitive and entirely appropriate end to the Master story.

The acting throughout is nothing short of superb; Peter Capaldi, given no less than three last great monologues over the course of the serial, is utterly marvelous from start to finish, handing in one of his best-ever performances as the Doctor. I wish with all my heart that he could have stayed on a season more, as had originally been his plans; but if he had to go out, he did so on as high as a note as possible. John Simm's Master, finally freed of the drums! Drums! Drums!!! that Davies had burdened him with, comes into his own as a classic-style, smooth, yet utterly heartless Master; he is not very much like the character in Last of the Time Lords, let alone the degenerate, ravenous madman of The End of Time, but he is excellent in what he tries to be. Mark Gatiss, guest-starring for perhaps the last time, is playing a role securely within his comfort zone but acquits himself of it with great skill subtlety; the story would not work without him.

What of David Bradley as the First Doctor? He is not William Hartnell, it must be said, not even close. I continue to be puzzled by the accusations thrown his way that he is doing a poor impression instead of acting, for he even avoids the one trait that any lazy impression of the First Doctor would be guaranteed to include, that is to say, endless "Hmm! Hmm!"s. None of that here; what we have is a second Richard Hurndall, filling a First Doctor-shaped mold with his own characterization. Bradley's Doctor is significantly older and gruffer than Hartnell's or even Hurndall's, with none of Hartnell's memorable unearthly smiles - when the Bradley Doctor smiles, it is as a genial old grandfather, not the quasi-magical trance of Hartnell, who always seemed to delight in knowing slightly more than everyone around him, not in the sense of feeing superior to mere mortals (though there was that, too) but rather of simply enjoying his own genius. So then, Bradley is not Hartnell - but, like Hurndall before him (or, why not, Peter Cushing?), his is an entirely valid and extremely entertaining take on the First Doctor character, and one who enjoys great screen chemistry with the Twelfth Doctor, too. It is a pity about those much-decried sexist remarks, of course, but they are not nearly as distracting as the internet might make you think (for every one, there is a flurry of excellent lines), and it is not hard to find potential explanations (my favorite would be Paul Cornell's, which suggests the Doctor is being a bit of a scamp and deliberately trying to embarrass his older self).

Murray Gold's music is not at its finest, the way it undoubtedly was in other past specials, but he does hand in a few last great pieces, most notably the indescribably sad song known as 'While There's Tears, There's Hope', played over the Doctor's apparent death at the end of The Doctor Falls, the mournful clarinet variations of 'This Is Gallifrey' that accompany the unfolding of Missy's tragedy and the more classical redo of 'The Shepherd's Boy' that accompanies the Twelfth Doctor's last stand against the Cybermen. Even more than Capaldi, even more than Moffat, it is he who will be sorely missed next season. Add to that Rachel Talalay's moody, cinematic direction and Moffat's unfailing ear for dialogue - on top of the plot, which we have already agreed is quite good - and it should be no surprise that this three-parter stands as one of my favorite New Who stories.

Oh, and a post-scriptum to silence those who decry Twice Upon a Time as a content-deficient orgy of continuity, the culmination of Moffat's tendency to rely too heavily on lore to keep the fans' interest: let me make a confession. Twice Upon a Time (and removed from its context at that) was the second-ever Doctor Who episode I ever watched. And I loved it. Of course, I could not possibly have made any sense of it if I hadn't browsed the Tardis Wiki a little bit in the weeks prior as I tested the waters of Who, but critics will simply have to learn to live with the fact that we now live in an age where even non-fans are going to be checking the Wiki, and so one shouldn't begrudge the screenwriters for trusting that they will do so.