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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Capaldi’

It says something about the much vaunted-flexibility of the Doctor Who format that a relatively traditional-looking story like Kill the Moon can have as its companion piece something as weird and atypical as In the Forest of the Night and it not seem that peculiar. Kill the Moon is stuffed with planetary bodies, space-suits, spaceships, gribbly alien monsters, and the star-faring destiny of the human race. Forest, on the other hand (no, I’m not typing that title out in full over and over again, sorry), has some trees and wolves and magic golden fairies. Or something.

forest

Given that Kill the Moon drew heavy flak for its charmingly nonchalant attitude to basic physics, I’m curious to see quite how Forest is received – not just for its magic golden fairies, but for its peculiar world where trees can grow, not just overnight, but without anyone noticing, and to defend yourself from a solar flare all you need are a few extra trees flooding your atmosphere with surplus oxygen. (This in itself overlooks the fact that the principal effect of solar storms/CME events is its impact on our technology, rather than flesh and blood.)

I rather suspect people will cut Forest a lot more slack, quite simply because Kill the Moon has spaceships and aliens and technology in it, and this week’s story just has a load of trees. In short, Kill the Moon is positioning itself much more explicitly as an SF story, and as a result inviting us to judge it on its science content, while Forest is full-bloodedly going for that mythic, fabulous (in the technical sense), fantastical vibe.

I am not particularly inclined to be nice to Forest simply because it is a fantasy, as this season is really making me realise that I don’t really enjoy Doctor Who as an out-and-out fantasy (trains flying through space, etc), but much prefer it when it retains its SF trappings. Note I say trappings, and note also that all my Doctor Who reviews are tagged ‘fantasy’ rather than ‘SF’. The awkward thing for me is that I would never describe the series as actual SF, but – at a push – something more like science fantasy, which is to say it’s something that uses an SF rationale to explore fantastical concepts.

It’s curious, looking back on Steven Moffat’s scripts from before he was showrunner, that most of them are couched very firmly in a strong SF framework: most of them include spaceships or other planets, and revolve around strange alien technologies. Spaceships and alien races, per se, are a little thinner on the ground in the show these days – Moffat’s template from the series seems to have been derived from his most atypical episode, Blink, which is much more of a fantasy. (To say nothing of the cut-up narrative form.)

So, anyway, Forest is pretty much a pure fantasy story in a fairy-tale tradition: little girls lost in the forest, big bad wolves, tree spirits, and so on. You may like this or you may not. This is something subjective. As, I suppose, is the story’s sentimentality – particularly the final beat, which is massively sentimental. We’re told virtually nothing about the girl who disappeared, who she was or why she went, and yet we are invited to derive a big emotional moment from her sudden return. The script doesn’t provide any emotional context or detail – we are invited to project whatever we like onto the scene, based on vague generalisations about the positivity of family and motherhood.

But, again, your mileage may differ. Same with the story’s vague attempts to say something about the nature of modern childhood (apparently kids should go outside more, or something). However, what I think is objectively flawed about this story is that, as a piece of Doctor Who, it is lamentably light on genuine jeopardy.

At one point Nelson’s column nearly falls on the Doctor and Clara. Later on, a tiger turns up and growls at them and the little girl with the laboriously symbolic name. Apart from this, no-one is really in any danger at any stage in the story. There is, I suppose, a vague sense of menace and mystery, but the whole story is too much predicated on the Doctor not knowing what’s going on for this to really be sustained. And it’s a prime time BBC fairy tale, so you know none of the kids are going to get eaten.

As usual, I must qualify all this by saying that Peter Capaldi is, as usual, brilliant as the Doctor – and Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson aren’t bad either. The scene counterpointing the end of Kill the Moon was immaculately written and played, and there were some genuinely funny bits along the way.

But overall this was a story which felt like it didn’t quite know what it wanted to be – not rigorous or honestly realistic enough to work as SF, or even science fantasy, too soft-centred to really function as an adventure, and nowhere near dark or menacing enough to even be a good fairy tale. It looked nice and the acting was mostly solid, even from the kids. I suspect the images will linger much longer than the story, though.

 

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I don’t usually pay much attention to other people’s reviews of Doctor Who, especially the new stuff – but, and to go off on a tangent almost at once, it has increasingly seemed the case recently that the official review column in DWM has been paying attention to what I write here, either by answering the points I raise (Robot of Sherwood is apparently not the ‘worst episode ever’ – obviously I beg to differ) or cribbing some of my own observations (e.g. the one about the current theme arrangement sounding like Telstar). This isn’t a carp, Graham, but – just between the two of us – it’d be great if you could sneak a name check for this blog into the next set of reviews. Go on, you know you want to.

Now where were we? Oh yes: Mummy on the Orient Express, which has received generally positive reviews from both friends and those few online outlets I vaguely pay attention to. Possibly I am guilty of prejudging this episode, but I didn’t find it grabbed me as much as the previous week’s, despite having more of a sense of fun about it and a somewhat better plot.

I think this is partly because – well, here’s the thing. There’s nothing wrong with a high-concept episode made with one eye on the visuals that will accompany it, but I don’t think this should overpower the reality of the scenario or the plot itself, and I do feel this was happening here. A futuristic reconstruction of the Orient Express I can buy, but not the visual of a steam train flying through space on ‘hyperspace ribbons’ or whatever they were supposed to be. That’s an ask too far for me in what’s still supposed to technically be an SF series, especially when the fact that the train was in space was fairly incidental to the plot – it could have been a force-shielded train travelling around a planet with a hostile atmosphere and the story could have unfolded in exactly the same way.

In the same way – well, look, if you’re going to do a Doctor Who story about killer Egyptian mummies (and that’s ultimately what this was) you’re really setting yourself up for a fall, simply because you’re actively inviting comparisons between your episode and Pyramids of Mars. That’s pretty much the definition of a no-win scenario, because Pyramids of Mars is the work of the cream of Doctor Who‘s A-team operating at the very top of their game. And it also illustrates the point I’m trying to make. Here are the Mummies from Pyramids of Mars:

mummies

Very different from the Mummy on the train, aren’t they? Less obviously horrific, and less authentically a proper Egyptian Mummy. There’s something weird going on with the face, not to mention that convex chestpiece. But, as it turns out, there’s a very good reason why these Mummies don’t look quite like a proper Mummy – in the fiction of the episode, they are revealed to be robots, not embalmed cadavers. As a result, I think it gives the whole story a touch of verisimilitude, rather than just relying on visual cues for its excitement.

On the other hand, we have the Mummy from the train, which is as perfect a representation of a classic Hollywood Mummy as one could wish for. Which, for me, just begs the question of why – this is, after all, supposed to be some kind of alien warrior, and there should surely be some hint of that in the realisation of the beast. Otherwise the story is basically just playing dress-up with visual cues, rather than trying to create a convincing self-contained universe.

mummy-on-the-orient-express

While we’re on the topic of Pyramids of Mars, let’s talk about the characterisation of the Doctor (again). No complaints about Peter Capaldi, obviously (more Pertwee-esque than ever in his costume choices this week, and on a similar note I wish I could find some way of commenting on how cute Jenna Coleman looked in that 1920s outfit than simply saying ‘wasn’t Jenna Coleman cute in that 1920s outfit?’), but… well, look, the Doctor has alien values and can sometimes seem callous.

Let’s step back to 1975, or possibly 1911, where the Doctor and Sarah have just discovered their friend Laurence Scarman has been murdered:

The Doctor: His late brother must have called.
Sarah: That’s horrible! He was so concerned about his brother.
The Doctor (clearly preoccupied by a deactivated Mummy endoskeleton): I told him not to be. I told him it was too late.
Sarah: Oh! Sometimes you don’t seem…
The Doctor: Human? (regarding the Mummy) Typical Osiran simplicity…
Sarah: A man has just been murdered!
The Doctor: Four men, Sarah. Five, if you include Professor Scarman himself, and they’re merely the first of millions unless Sutekh is stopped.

And this lovely understated character moment is pretty much all they have to say on the subject (Uncle Terrance, in his novelisation, has a typical go at softening up the Doctor by suggesting he is simply hiding his real feelings of grief, but none of that is there in Tom Baker’s performance). This week, on the other hand, felt like the latest in a long series of episodes primarily about the Doctor’s niceness, or lack of it, with long sequences of dialogue only present to allow this to be discussed. I felt like shouting ‘Come on, give it a rest!’ at the screen as the episode went on. Again, rather than choosing a story and then developing it in an organic-feeling way, it seems like they are just selecting a set of cues (emotional this time) and constructing the plot to emphasise them.

Possibly I’m just too in love with an old-fashioned style of storytelling. But it does seem to me that one of things distinguishing Old Doctor Who from New Doctor Who is that what was left as implicit subtext in the original show is dragged centre-stage to become an actual theme in the current version (or, to put it another, it still feels like fanfic – high quality fanfic this week, but fanfic nevertheless).

Apart from all this the rest of the story was a mixture of good and bad stuff, probably inclining towards the good. Most of the guest performances were decent, with even Frank Skinner thankfully understated, although some of the dialogue and line readings were a bit too 2014 to really be convincing. I’m still not sure what’s going with Clara’s characterisation – is she supposed to seem as unreasonable and manipulative as she’s coming across at the moment? Any moral high ground she may once have occupied has slid out from under her feet, and it’s hard to see how she will be able to criticise the Doctor in future without seeming like a dreadful hypocrite. Still, I’d rather they made kick-Clara episodes than kick-the-Doctor ones, all things considered, and next week’s offering looks rather intriguing.

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I came across a very interesting article earlier this week about some of the various travails to which long-running franchises are prey. The writer discussed in particular The Simpsons and X-Men, arguing that both series have created a vast fictional mythology with dozens of characters (even before you consider the wider Marvel Comics universe), both have large (if dwindling) fanbases, and both are nowhere near as good as they once were. (I think you may be able to guess where I’m going with this.)

The main thesis of the piece was that in the case of both Simpsons and X-Men, the main problem is that they are now under the control of people imposing a misguided vision of what the series was actually supposed to be in the first place. The Simpsons, when it was truly great, was less about it being anarchically post-modern, and more about its very traditional narrative virtues: consistency, characterisation, world-building. In the same way, the classic Byrne-Claremont X-Men stories are not really about vast hyperbolic storylines and outrageous superpowered battles, but are instead the ongoing, almost soap-like saga of a bunch of well-defined characters with a particular genetic quirk, their lives and their relationships.

I was rather impressed by the fellow’s thinking and it did lead me to wonder if the same kind of analysis might be illuminating when it comes to Doctor Who. It certainly meets the mythological requirement, and while I’ve no idea of the state of the fanbase (even the very word seems to me to imply a degree of homogeneity that I’ve never seen any evidence of), I would certainly agree that the show is not really at its best at the moment – although I suspect we might disagree about whether the Golden Age was at its peak in 1976 or 2008, to name just two possibilities.

Of course, this leads us to the question of what kind of programme Steven Moffat thinks great Doctor Who is, and how he could be mistaken about this. Certainly, watching The Caretaker I was very aware that – for some of the time at least – this was absolutely not a straight drama. In fact, would it be completely ridiculous to say that, these days, Doctor Who is a comedy-drama series? One of the problems with Matt Smith’s final episode was that it was studded with comedy set-piece moments, most of which were completely irrelevent to the plot, and Moffat himself is fond of talking about the character as ‘silly old Doctor Who’. I couldn’t find it in my heart to describe Drivel of Sherwood as anything other than an attempted comedy.

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The Caretaker seemed to me to be even more up-front than usual about its assault on the chuckle-muscles, and while I was initially very unsure about this, it outflanked my scepticism through the novel tactic of actually being genuinely funny – the joke about the Doctor assuming Clara’s boyfriend would be his own one-time lookalike had me laughing out loud at length, something which the series hasn’t been able to make me do in an age.

And then I was confounded again, as the episode suddenly started working as a drama too. Let’s be honest, the monster this week was a bit of a Maguffin – although I am inclined to admire the subtle way in which the Doctor’s responsibility for its presence was left largely implicit – but the scenes between the Doctor, Clara, and Danny had a genuine sense of heft and significance about them the series has too often lacked recently. After many episodes off in Moffat’s timey-wimey fantasy world of ‘romantic logic’, it felt as if Doctor Who had crashed back into a space where decisions carry real consequences with them and bittersweet endings are not just things to be contrived for when the companion departs.

So on the whole, the episode rather won me over. I am still, however, increasingly coming to think that – no matter how brilliant Peter Capaldi’s performance, and he has been uniformly good so far, even with the weakest material – we are not getting the Time Lord we have been advertised. I wrote the other day about the nature of antiheroes, the character who fights for a good cause without being a conventionally good person, and there have been touches of this in the Doctor’s character sometimes, in the past. With all the talk of Capaldi as a difficult, old-school Doctor, I thought we would be seeing this explored a bit more, but I don’t think this is honestly the case.

Capaldi’s Doctor is an odd, angular character, who can be abrasive – but it seems to me that this is not primarily because he is an alien being with a different set of priorities and emotional responses – the ‘Olympian detachment’ of which Tom Baker, who epitomised these qualities most successfully, sometimes spoke. The Capaldi Doctor is not distant and difficult solely as a result of being an alien. He is distant and difficult simply because he has very poor social skills, which is a different matter entirely – he does care (observe his delight when he believes Clara has fallen for his human lookalike), he just can’t express it very well. To put it another way, this is not a quality of the Doctor, but rather one of his shortcomings, and as such it does feed into the theme of the season so far, which is that the Doctor is a horribly flawed man who really doesn’t like himself very much.

I’ve spoken before about my misgivings about this idea and so I won’t rehearse my disquiet about it here again. I will just say that I would hope that the makers of the series might find some way of expressing just why it is that the Doctor is worth watching and caring about, why he really is a genuine hero, without endlessly qualifying it this way. Perhaps that’s the difference between Moffat’s current conception of what Doctor Who should be and my own.

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Okay, for anyone who’s been following along: the trip to Spain was very nice, thanks, although obviously I got sunburnt (the birthright of any Englishman abroad, surely). Thanks to a little research, I did actually manage to have a brief tour of locations from The Two Doctors in the heart of Seville – not that I would necessarily have recognised any of them had I not looked them up in advance. At least it went better than a similar look round Gibraltar in search of locations from The Living Daylights, the next day, mainly because I neither had time to prep properly or look around on my own.

One of the advantages of being abroad and cut off from iPlayer was that I got a definite sense of the critical reaction to Listen before I actually watched it (I suppose I could achieve the same by just not actually watching the episode on transmission and hanging on for a few days – yeah, like that’s going to happen). The response was generally positive (though, mystifyingly, you could really say the same of Farrago of Sherwood), and this was oddly relaxing, even though I know I’m wildly out of step with many elements of mainstream Who fandom nowadays.

I can’t help feeling that doing a ‘normal’ episode was a heroic gesture on the part of Moffat, as it arguably constituted a no-win scenario for the guy – muck it up and he would just hand more ammunition to people crying out for him to get a move on and, er, move on (yes, that’d be me), produce another Blink and the same people would just be calling him the 21st century Christopher Bidmead or Eric Saward: much better suited to simply writing one or two scripts a year than actually setting the programme’s creative direction. I do still have a certain fondness and respect for Moffat, so I was expecting to take the latter line.

Actually, this is not the easiest response I’ve ever written, as I’ve only seen Listen once so far. Normally I’m quite happy to watch an episode twice in the space of not much more than 12 hours, but this one had such a strong and unusual flavour to it, and elements of it hung around in my head for so long, that I’m almost reluctant to watch it again too soon: I want to savour and reflect on the first impression it left on me.

Most of which was very positive indeed, I have to say. I could, as the kids say, totally get with a Doctor so fierce and driven by his desire simply to find things out, even if his obsession in this episode initially seemed to whip itself up out of nowhere. I liked the pace of it, the talkiness, the strength of the atmosphere created by the story. I especially liked the fact that throughout I had absolutely no idea where it was going. In short, if this was to become the house style of Doctor Who from now on, I would be a much happier person.

But, alas, I have to address the final third of the episode, which – wouldn’t you guess – I had Issues with. These fall into two main groups, at least one of which is heavily spoiler-infused, and so here is a nice picture from the episode to give you a chance to avoid them.

listen

The canon-cop stuff first, which is possibly less important: I know the story was at pains to point out that the TARDIS’ final journey of the episode was a freak occurrence, and usually safeguarded against, but is anyone remotely convinced by that? If the past (or future) of Gallifrey was this easily accessible by TARDIS, surely someone would have hit upon it before now. As far back as the 1980s the people at FASA had shrewdly deduced that getting access to the past of Gallifrey would be one of the Master’s main objectives. The value of the chance to pop back and warn previous generations about things like the Vardan-Sontaran invasion or the Time War would surely have occurred to other Time Lords, as well. Like most people I had assumed that the inaccessibility of Gallifrey’s future and past was a ‘physical’ barrier, possibly connected to the Time Lords’ privileged position as the effective gatekeepers to the time vortex. I suppose you could argue that this was a self-imposed ban and the Time Lords aren’t there to police it any more, but I don’t buy this, unless TARDIS travel into Gallifrey’s own past is so tremendously dangerous that even a race as self-serving and devious as the Time Lords were reluctant to risk it. Even then, the Doctor has taken humans into their own planet’s past without apparent risk on innumerable occasions, so why should it be any different for natives of Gallifrey? I fear this is once again Moffat writing something for the benefit of a particular episode, without considering the wider implications for the rest of the series’ universe.

I’m also becoming a little concerned about the running theme of this series, which seems to be a concerted attack from all angles on the character of the Doctor as we know him. The fact they’ve chosen to do so after creating such an old-school version of the character is especially worrying.

Look at it this way: Deep Breath is largely about Clara (and to some extent the Doctor himself) questioning if he’s really still the same person. Into the Dalek was primarily concerned with the Doctor’s capacity for prejudice and hatred. The episode which is not to be named depicts him as petty and stupid. Listen is partly about his obsessive, dangerous curiosity, but much more about the fact that he is motivated by the need to conquer his own fear. Self-doubt, prejudice, hatred, pettiness, stupidity, fearfulness: an odd suite of characteristics to focus on in your protagonist.

It may just be that they’re looking for new angles on the character, but come on: there’s a whole new Doctor to play with, you should hardly be short of those, and they don’t all have to be negative, surely? And let’s not forget the lessons of the past – thirty years ago they experimented with a less openly-heroic Doctor, a more (apparently) flawed version of the character – and what resulted was arguably a prime factor in getting the series cancelled for 15 years.

It all leads me to wonder just how committed everyone involved is to the Capaldi Doctor – could it be that they are all just covering themselves, keeping their options open preparatory to a quick and – oh dear – More Radical recasting of the part? I do hope not, not least because – in this episode in particular – Capaldi has really shown he has the chops to be a truly iconic Doctor. Hopefully the next few episodes will give us a slightly more positive take on the character.

 

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Regular readers and those who know me well may be surprised to hear this, but my record in the matter of New Doctor Debut Episodes is not great. In reverse chronological order, the roll of dishonour runs as follows.

  • The Eleventh Hour: missed it on original broadcast. I was in Sri Lanka, where the internet is so atrocious I could never afford to spend long enough in an internet cafe to watch the whole episode. Eventually saw it all the way through nearly a month later.
  • The Christmas Invasion: saw it. Actually forced virtually my entire family to watch it at my brother-in-law’s grandmother’s house (this was back in the days before my brother-in-law pronounced that Doctor Who was ‘occult’ and thus not welcome on any TV he was watching).
  • Rose: saw it. Well, I was hardly going to miss this one, given the length of the break leading up to it.
  • The TV Movie: missed it on TV broadcast. I was on holiday in a TV-free environment at the time. That said, I had of course bought it on tape the day it was released, the previous week.
  • Time and the Rani: saw it. Whether actually watching Time and the Rani is ever something to be proud of is another matter.
  • The Twin Dilemma: missed all but the last five minutes of the first episode due to not having a watch at the time and getting quite involved in watching Quo Vadis on the other side when it was broadcast. The shame, the shame.
  • Castrovalva: missed the odd-numbered episodes due to being forced to attend meetings of a religious paramilitary organisation on Monday nights. Said organisation reliably shifted the nights it met on throughout the early 80s to ensure I routinely missed half the Davison episodes on first broadcast. Possibly this is why I have such an antipathy towards organised religion these days.
  • Robot: missed it, probably. I was rather less than a year old at the time, so my memory is not entirely reliable.
  • Spearhead from Space, Power of the Daleks, An Unearthly Child: missed them, definitely, but I have the good excuse of not actually existing when they were broadcast. I did faithfully catch the repeat of An Unearthly Child in 1981, though (and in 2013, come to that).

This is quite a poor record, for someone who for decades has lived and breathed Doctor Who. Recently, of course, I have found myself perhaps living and breathing it less than in previous years, mainly because – as documented at some length in these pages – I have become increasingly unimpressed by the storytelling since the beginning of Matt Smith’s second season. The show’s hold over me remains undiminished – I become as instinctively transfixed by any casual reference to the series in my presence as ever – but I have increasingly got the sense that I was giving more to the series than I was perhaps receiving in return, and also that the programme was more and more being made for other people, not me: that the day was coming when it would in truth not really be for me at all.

Perhaps this was why I found myself initially a bit reluctant to fully engage with the looming arrival of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor: too many previous disappointments and the awareness that despite all the talk of a new direction and a different sensibility, the recasting of the Doctor was the only significant change in personnel from the last Matt Smith episodes.

Of course, one of those episodes was The Day of the Doctor, which I genuinely enjoyed, not least because of the experience of seeing it at the cinema. So when it was announced that Deep Breath was also going to be shown on the big screen, I found myself booking a ticket almost reflexively. As this one isn’t in 3D, the Phoenix – my favourite Oxford cinema – was able to join in with the fun, and this was where I went to see it.

Due to not reading my ticket properly, and perhaps also a small case of brain failure, I turned up at the Phoenix about an hour before the episode started: but with their typical creativity the Picturehouse staff had mocked up a set of TARDIS doors at the cinema entrance, organised a menu of somewhat dubious-sounding Doctor Who-themed cocktails in the bar, and – most striking of all – had engaged the services of a replica Dalek which was on sentry duty in the foyer when I arrived. The black and shocking pink colourscheme was perhaps not entirely authentic, but otherwise this was a spiffing fan-built casing, and it was nice to speak to the Dalek’s handler in the full knowledge I could talk about Ray Cusick and Terry Nation’s contractual affairs and be pretty sure he would know what I was on about.

And seeing the reaction that the Dalek got from other people either arriving at or leaving the cinema was, well, really lovely: selfies by the dozen and everyone smiling. This was all before the Dalek’s operator got inside, and it did make me remember that, when it comes down to it, Doctor Who isn’t actually about me sitting in my garret complaining about Steven Moffat’s plots and trying to work out what year The Seeds of Death is set in, but families and young people enjoying something which brings them together, entertains, and – one would hope – enlightens them, a bit.

My new-found epiphanous bonhomie was dented a bit when I had to help lift the Dalek up the stairs so it could get to the actual auditorium – the irony was not lost on any of us – and the prospect of the entire event being cancelled due to the Dalek getting jammed in the auditorium doors briefly seemed a distinct possibility. (I learned later the casing took some structural damage from being forced into such cramped quarters.) But this was averted and the cinema soon filled up with a genuinely broad cross-section of society, all of whom seemed equally entertained by the Dalek until the main event got under way.

As you probably know, the cinema screening was accompanied by a number of bonus items. Probably the least essential was ‘Doctor Who Extra’, which is essentially an ultra-cut-down, even-more-enthusiastic version of the old Doctor Who Confidential. Rather more fun, though containing a high percentage of Zoe Ball, was the Q&A beamed from the Odeon Leicester Square, which opened with Capaldi, Coleman and Moffat rising from the pits of the earth like Reginald Dixon and his organ, and was perhaps most memorable for the Doctor and his showrunner arguing about whether or not the Tenth Planet Cyberman design is any good (I’m with Peter Capaldi) and Steven Moffat’s reaction to the suggestion that a live link-up to One Direction might be in the works.

The oddest element was the opener, which was another comedy item from Strax, this time giving his guide to the Doctors. Considering Mark Gatiss was practically banished from the Doctor Who family for making irreverent jokes about old Doctors back in 1999, to have lines like ‘the third Doctor was half-man, half-granny’ and ‘the fifth Doctor showed a grasp of the basic principles of camouflage, by having no distinguishing features whatsoever’ beamed across the nation was rather startling.

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But what of the episode itself? Well, starting with a few rather cosmetic and peripheral issues: exactly how big was that tyrannosaur supposed to be? (It was a tyrannosaur, wasn’t it?) To be able to fit the TARDIS down its throat without choking, it would have to be three or four times bigger, at least, than any specimen known to science – getting on for Godzilla (or, given the setting, Gorgo) proportions. Then again Doctor Who‘s grasp of facts when it comes to dinosaurs has always been shaky. It was with great relief that I realised that the theme music had reverted to its original, non-mucked-about intro, though on reflection I do think it sounded a bit too Christmassy: heavier on the bass for the next arrangement, please.

This story wasn’t as radical a reinvention of the series as The Eleventh Hour, and perhaps less obviously successful as a result. Still, the inclusion of more low comedy business from Strax (the newspaper gag is admittedly funny) and some 50 Shades of Green stuff between Vastra and Jenny should have appealed to the Matt Smith fanbase. This story seemed to be spending a lot of time actively soothing people who might be thinking the new guy was too old and remote for them, as opposed to just letting him be himself. Given that apparently Peter Capaldi has not yet been confirmed for a second year, I sense wariness from the BBC on this topic. Perhaps this was why the episode made such a big deal about Clara’s own doubts and eventual acceptance of the new Doctor, and why Matt Smith was wheeled on to give his seal of approval: an unimaginable decision on any other such occasion, and surely a risky one in that the last thing Peter Capaldi would want, I expect, was to potentially be upstaged by his predecessor in his debut episode.

He hardly needed it, for me at least. I am aware I am biased as I am, as you can probably tell, a fan of the old-school style Doctors anyway, but I thought Capaldi rocked the house down: not as unremittingly dark and spiky as I had expected, but angular and unpredictable and alien when he needed to be, and subtly vulnerable at the end of the episode. My only concern is that a lot of his dialogue was functionally interchangeable with the kind of lines Moffat routinely gives Sherlock Holmes: the conceptual distance between the two characters seems to be getting smaller and smaller. Much potential for a truly great Doctor here, given a chance and some decent material. (My take on the ‘why did I pick this face?’ issue: the Doctor remembers it as the face of a man who needed saving…)

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My overall impression of this episode was very positive, but this is more in terms of its tone and atmosphere than its nuts and bolts. I liked the dingy and macabre steampunk overtones – all the hints of an old enemy, plus the presence of the Chinese droid in the cellar, almost led me to expect the bad guy to be someone from Talons of Weng Chiang, but alas no – plus the more relaxed and character-driven pace of it. Set against this I feel obliged to point out the story was reliant on a blatantly unresolved plot device – exactly who is Michelle Gomez’s character, beyond being arch-villain the Mistress of the Nethersphere? (And yet another woman apparently with designs on the Doctor…) Not to mention the fact that Clara’s big scene (fending off the Half-Faced Man’s threats) was predicated on her either forgetting or declining to make use of the fact she had heavily armed back-up outside who could be summoned in seconds.

Largely recycling elements of The Girl in the Fireplace struck me as a questionable choice: it’s a quick and easy scenario for people in the know, but possibly a little baffling for anyone not as familiar with that episode as the likes of me: I discussed it with a family member who isn’t one of the faithful and he confessed to finding it somewhat confusing. But then again, as usual this episode wasn’t really driven by the plot but the characters, and in that sense it was very much business as usual.

So, much cause for optimism there, in terms of the tone and the new dynamic between the characters. It will be interesting to see if the new, more measured pacing survives into regular-length episodes, and if the quality of the plotting genuinely improves. But as I say, for the time being I am hopeful.

 

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Okay, in the course of this piece I’m fully expecting to find myself in some fairly abstract and definitively trivial areas, so let’s start with a nice simple, easy question that cuts straight to the matter we’re here to discuss. Observe, please, the picture below with the five gentlemen in it.

Now: do they look the same, or different? And if so, why?

cybeflavours

It’s not actually a trick question, but it does lead us into some fairly peculiar (and, to me, quite interesting) areas connected with how people – fans, mainly – engage with and think about Doctor Who. I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for ages but always shied away, simply because it is such an esoteric area. But now it seems to me that it has a certain relevency, simply because some Doctor Who fans are worrying about, essentially, a very similar question. Observe the second picture below.

Now: do these two men look the same, or different? And why?

twocaps

The key question here is basically this: how realistic is the Doctor Who TV series in how it represents the events of the stories it depicts? As you can see, straightaway we’re off into the depths of the Fan Zone, as the question presupposes the actual existence of Who-world as something separate from the TV series that created it. It’s not real, of course. It’s a meaningless question. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that we can’t have a go at answering it.

Many visual aspects of Who-world have radically changed over the years, one of the most discussed being the appearance of the Cybermen, as documented in our first picture. This is largely due to improvements in costume-making, of course, and changing standards of what is perceived to be credible to the audience of the day. The Cybermen of The Tenth Planet look very different to those in Nightmare in Silver – to the viewer, at least. But do they look different to the characters in the story?

Let’s choose a slightly different example and consider the destruction of Earth (or a close lookalike). The demise of Earth in The End of the World is a great-looking special-effects triumph, of course, as convincing as such a thing can be. The destruction of Mondas in the first Cyberman story, on the other hand, more closely resembles a blob of polystyrene melting off the end of a stick. In story terms, the two events are almost identical – but their realisation is vastly different. Yet, in terms of the fiction, it’s safe to assume that they would have appeared the same to observers within the universe of the story. So isn’t there a clear gap here between the events of the story and how they are presented to the TV viewer?

I think there is. The real question is when we are dealing with this gap, and when we can take what we see on screen at face value – in other words, how can we tell when a change in Cyberman design between stories is intended to represent an in-universe change, and when it simply represents an improvement in costuming or creative choice on the part of the production team?

As I say, this is not a question many people are likely to lose sleep over. I would have said it was mainly an issue to dedicated continuity cops and writers of fictional history. The first widely-distributed attempt to tackle this problem was David Banks’ history of the Cybermen in his book of the same name – and Banks does take the design of the Cybermen as being a true representation of their in-universe appearance, the appearing and disappearing ear-muffs on a number of designs leading him to postulate a whole series of dynasties of different sub-species of Cybermen cross-pollinating with each other. If you simply assume that all Cybermen look more or less identical no matter what their origin, writing this sort of history becomes a bit easier, but the results are much less interesting.

Changes in Dalek design over the years have mostly been less obvious – the two most recent updates excepted – but nevertheless they have taken place. I haven’t seen a concerted effort to write a Dalek history incorporating the shifts in design, the main issue being that the two main designs from the 20th century series – the small, light grey ones first seen in The Dead Planet, and the larger, darker-coloured ones first appearing in Day of the Daleks – seem to appear almost at random (if viewed from an ‘historical’ perspective), with the dark greys being the first Daleks created in Genesis of the Daleks, but also appearing in 2540 (Frontier in Space, et al) and the final years of the original Dalek history (Destiny of the Daleks, et al), while the light greys show up in the 22nd century (The Dalek Invasion of Earth), the year 4000 (Mission to the Unknown, et al), and the last days of the original Dalek Emperor (Evil of the Daleks).

One could go on and on – the number of fingers possessed by Sontarans varies between stories, the Silurians look very different in their first two appearances, and so on. Changes in the appearance of gadgetry and places also abound, particularly the sonic screwdriver and the TARDIS interior.

However, while most of these (possibly superficial) changes go unremarked-upon in the 20th century series, major changes in the TARDIS usually do. The peculiar TARDIS interior decor of The Time Monster is referenced in the script, the switch in control rooms at the beginning of The Masque of Mandragora likewise. The new console in The Five Doctors is lovingly showcased in the opening shot of the story.

It’s a rare example of the 20th century show acknowledging this sort of change. One of the things that makes the 21st century programme (particularly under Steven Moffat’s curatorship) subtly but distinctly different is the way in which these changes are not just acknowledged but foregrounded. Another change in TARDIS interior is a significant element of The Eleventh Hour, while Victory of the Daleks is a bit of a watershed moment: not only do two clearly different models of Dalek appear in the same story for the first time – the story demands that they really are as different as they appear to the viewer – but this fact is central to the plot, it’s what the story is on some level about. Nightmare in Silver attempts something similar by including two different makes of Cybermen at different points. It would seem, then, that the gap between the fiction and its realisation is no longer present in the current show – or, if it is, it’s much less obvious.

But what about when it comes to casting? There are many actors who have racked up numerous Doctor Who appearances playing different parts every time. Are we to suppose that – to pick an example at random – Supervisor Lowe from The Invisible Enemy and Laurence Scarman from Pyramids of Mars (both played by the inestimable Michael Sheard) really were spits of each other? The Doctor doesn’t comment on it and under the standard conventions of TV one isn’t surprised by this. No-one comments when a character in The Macra Terror is played by different actors in different episodes, after all; this sort of thing is standard in soap operas too (though it’s something that happens relatively rarely in Doctor Who – perhaps the very existence in-universe of the idea of regeneration, where characters can be ‘visibly’ recast, makes it difficult to ‘invisibly’ recast them like this).

There is the odd moment when the show seems to be winking at the audience about this, though – one comes quite early on, in a missing episode from The Daleks’ Master Plan, when William Hartnell makes some tongue-in-cheek ad libs about a particular character seeming oddly familiar (the same extra had previously appeared in The Crusade) – but no-one comments on Steven Taylor’s uncanny resemblence to Morton Dill, for instance, the sixth Doctor’s potential sideline as a Commander Maxil lookee-likee, or Amy Pond’s doppelganger in Pompeii.

On the other hand, there have been times when casting a previously-used performer as a regular has resulted in an in-universe reference to this. Romana admits to copying Princess Astra’s appearance for her second incarnation (mainly because they’re both played by Lalla Ward), while Smith and Jones gives us the biologically unheard-of phenomenon of identical cousins to explain Freema Agyeman’s appearance as different characters in two stories set in the same time and place.

Which, I suppose, brings us to the question of what reference – if any – they are going to make to Peter Capaldi’s previous appearances in Who-world when he appears as the Doctor. Some people – I say people, I mean fans – are actually fretting about this, complaining that having seen Capaldi as Caecilius in Fires of Pompeii and Frobisher in Children of Earth they can’t now accept him as the Doctor. Others are engaged upon heroic attempts in continuity-copping to explain the similarities.

Well, I can’t believe they’re going to go that far in the TV show, but I wouldn’t bet against a little reference or two just as a nod to the fanbase. Then again, I may be wrong. One of my issues with the current version of the series is that it does sometimes feel like high-class fanfic, or something inspired by browsing through the DWM lettercolumn or Q&A page from thirty years ago: Why not do a set of stories about the Doctor meeting someone out-of-sequence? Why not do a story set entirely inside the TARDIS? Which is the most advanced type of Cyberman? And so on. It seems to me that the current show’s willingness to do episodes actually about changes in monster design and the in-universe reasons for this is a sign of somebody’s fannishness running out of control. I’m not sure all the stories have been strong enough to justify these conceits – and if they’re going to continue in this self-regarding vein, that’s something that needs to be addressed.

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As they say in Rome, after a fat Pope, a thin Pope. Anyone wondering what the sound of thousands of men in early middle-age sighing with a combination of relief and joy is had the perfect opportunity to find out on Sunday night, as a generation of veteran Doctor Who fans were delighted to discover that their hero was now back to being older than them again.

There has been a colossal amount of coverage of a piece of news which boils down to seven words: Peter Capaldi is the new Doctor Who. More, in fact, than seems possible, or at least sane: but I suppose this is the modern reality of the show, which is a moneyspinning brand for the BBC as much as it is a fantasy drama.

What do you mean, you're sick of seeing this photo?

What do you mean, you’re sick of seeing this photo?

I mean, even I, who love and think upon the show more than is sensible, thought that devoting thirty minutes of live TV to the announcement was a little bit OTT. Possibly this is mainly because I have an allergy to the brand of brainless, manic enthusiasm which is Zoe Ball’s default setting – but I defy anyone to honestly suggest that the announcement programme wasn’t just twenty-five minutes of pap and filler leading up to a revelation which can’t have shocked anyone who’d been following the news last week.

Ah well. Peter Capaldi, eh? A good choice, surely; but also a very different one and thus a very interesting one. Before I dive into all that with some pointless, empty speculation of my own (everyone else is doing it), it is quite interesting to survey all the ways in which Capaldi’s casting is being analysed and deconstructed.

This is mainly down to the fact that the Doctor is yet again a white male – and back to being a distinctly mature figure (though a quick comparison of photos of William Hartnell and Capaldi will instantly show you that being 55 in 2008 is a very different thing to being 55 in 1963). The chorus of militants who, to judge from their utterances all summer, seem to think that having a male Doctor is a flaw in the programme, are still there, emitting the odd grumble, while the reliably contrarian Daily Mail, ever alert to age-related controversies, have managed to dig up some fans complaining that Capaldi is ‘too old’ – a particularly priceless comment being ‘Very very disappointed! The Doctor meant to be someone young (sic), both matt and David were very cute and funny doctors, and now they give us an old guy, no offence to the new guy he may be an amazing actor but he just doesn’t fit the part’. This was from ‘Fara23’. I am going to stick my neck out and guess that a) Fara23 is a young lady and b) her all-time favourite story probably isn’t The War Machines.

But you know what? I’m sort of reminded of Andrew Cartmel’s contribution to OUTSIDE IN: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers (still on sale at only $24.95), where he sat down to examine the racial politics of The Talons of Weng-Chiang but eventually concluded all the arguing and fretting about this was just refrigerator noise – the only thing that really matters about this story is that it is brilliantly written, acted, and directed (except perhaps for the rat). It’s the same with Peter Capaldi being cast as the Doctor – his age, accent, class, ethnicity, and so on really is very secondary to the fact that he’s a brilliant actor of exactly the right type.

Even so, and even given that we know virtually nothing about what he’s going to do with the part (it’s amusing that every fan seems to automatically assume that any new Doctor will be playing it darker than their predecessor – wishful thinking I suspect), adding to the refrigerator noise is irresistible. Capaldi’s not the first Scottish Doctor – and it’s easy to see why he wasn’t approached when David Tennant moved on, the two of them are a little too similar in appearance and energy – and it’s debatable as to whether he’s more or less of a household name than Christopher Eccleston was when he was cast. The real talking point arising from this announcement is, inevitably, that of Capaldi’s age.

As I said, 55 now isn’t the same as 55 in 1963, but he’s still at least 15 years or so older than every other full-time Doctor cast in the last 40 years, and the question is simply one of how much this will inform his performance and the nature of the show. On the face of things Capaldi looks like much, much more of an old-school Doctor than anyone else this century, and in an odd way this is actually makes him quite a radical choice.

I can’t imagine a Capaldi Doctor having the same quasi-romantic relationship with his companion that characterised David Tennant and to some extent Matt Smith’s takes on the character, and this will be a major departure: I suspect a lot of the new fanbase (the ones I probably wouldn’t get on with if I met them) really gets off on this sort of thing. Also, Christopher Eccleston famously found the schedule of making the programme gruelling; it made David Tennant ill – so how is an actor approaching 60 going to deal with it?

What I draw from this – and I may well turn out to be totally wrong, as usual – is that we may be in for a really radical shift in the dynamic of the series: rather than the dominant, central Doctor of the 70s series, with a single companion, could we be in for a return to a different style of storytelling – three or more regular characters, and a more equal division of screen-time between them? This would lighten the load on Capaldi, for one thing, and allow for the soapy nonsense to take place between the various companions.

It would be a bold step, but I think the series at present needs to take one, and it might even inspire Steven Moffat to raise his game a little and go back to thinking in terms of proper storytelling rather than gimmicks apparently inspired by fanfic and early-80s issues of DWM. He might even think again about doing longer stories, which I’m really starting to miss. But, as I say, it’s much too soon for any speculation to be worthwhile and so I shall stop. At the moment all we know is: Peter Capaldi is the Doctor! And I for one am very happy that he is.

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Refrigerator Noise Update:

1. It really does seem to be a fact that everyone automatically assumes that any newly-cast Doctor is going to play it darker than their predecessor: a friend whom I didn’t have tagged as much more than a casual Who watcher came up to me at a party (yes, it was that night of the year) and basically said ‘So – Capaldi! Going to be darker, isn’t he?’

As I said, it’d be foolish to make predictions so very early, but I’d be a little surprised – there’s a limit to how successfully dark you can make the lead character of a Saturday night family adventure series. Also, it kind of presupposes that ‘dark’ is all Peter Capaldi either wants to do or is capable of doing: in short, it’s a form of typecasting.

But even so, why this default presumption of a dark Doctor? Is it what the dedicated fans really think they want, and if so, why? I think it really must be what the fans are after, but it would be unwise to assume a single reason for this, for there is not a single breed of fan. For the older fans, it may be that they still have the strongest memories of Doctor Who as the terrifying experience it was in their childhoods, an incredibly potent brew of monsters and menace. Naturally they are going to associate the best of the show with darkness. Many of the new generation are probably of that age where they still spend time in their bedrooms writing poetry revealing how unfair life is, and a brooding, dark hero would probably appeal to them too. I suspect that both groups are still a little sensitive to accusations that being a devotee of a fantasy adventure TV series is quite silly, and anything which gives the appearance of gravitas will be fine with them, too. I still suspect the twelfth Doctor will end up being a lighter shade than most people are anticipating.

2. Saw my first op-ed piece crowbarring the announcement of Capaldi-as-Twelve into a supposedly serious piece of political analysis (from the London Evening Standard). I don’t have it to hand, but the thesis was that casting a more mature Doctor may influence politicians into thinking that more seasoned patriarchal figures may be acceptable. On average, British political party leaders have got a lot younger over the last twenty years (not unlike successive Doctors, of course), but I am dubious as to whether my show (wonderful as it is) has quite enough clout to convince veteran politicos to revert to electing an older generation as their candidates to lead the country. If nothing else the piece shows just how massively newsworthy the show remains, which must on some level be a good thing.

 

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