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Posts Tagged ‘Season 34’

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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‘The time-travelling companions crash-land on the moon, where they find a mining base full of corpses – while spider-like creatures wait in the dark, ready to attack.’

Over the last few weeks I have found my weekly Doctor’s appointment has increasingly become a bit of a trial – yes, I know I say this every week – even to the point where a supremely promising-sounding episode description like the one above (completely authentic, by the way) only triggered wariness and cynicism in me.

It sounds a bit too good to be true, doesn’t it? It has that classic Doctor Who ring about it, possibly because of that felicitous combination of the words ‘crash-land’, ‘mining base’, ‘corpses’ and ‘spider-like creatures’. This is despite the fact that, on closer reflection, it’s hard to say exactly which previous era it brings to mind – the hard SF setting doesn’t really fit with most of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes period, while the hard-core horror of the corpses and spiders doesn’t bring to mind anything else. It definitely transports one back to around 1975, anyway, and some arbitrary and unreal junction of the Pertwee and Baker tenures.

ktm

The episode itself seems to collude with this idea at first, cramming in a couple of, to my experienced eye, blatant (to the sane eye: incredibly obscure) references to The Ark in Space , but as it went on it became increasingly clear that this was a more generally retro episode, acknowledging a few different periods in the show’s history. But before we got to that, there was that extremely unpromising opening to get through, built around the idea that the Doctor is somehow unreasonable in refusing to tell a child she is ‘special’. I’m sounding horrifically Daily Mail-ish, I know, but when did it become obligatory to tell everyone they were ‘special’? I don’t feel ‘special’. I don’t think I am ‘special’ (not in any positive way, at least). I was hoping the Doctor would come back with a snappy quote from Gilbert and Sullivan – ‘if everybody’s somebody, then no-one’s anybody’ (a line I only normally wheel out when teaching indefinite pronouns), but clearly that’s not where the BBC1 audience is at on a Saturday night these days. Hey ho.

After this, though, Kill the Moon turned into a rather superior piece of current Doctor Who, coming as close to being genuinely scary as any episode I can remember (I should mention I am quasi-arachnophobic, something else which I occasionally think I may owe to Doctor Who: specifically the part two cliffhanger to Full Circle, but I digress). Watching the sequence with the child stranded in zero-G, with the spider scuttling up the wall towards her, I was genuinely astounded this was going out at prime time on a weekend – I know the series is currently in the latest timeslot it’s ever had, but did they know that when they were assembling the episode?

Being quasi-arachnophobic, I am rather ambivalent about the way that the spiders ultimately proved to be only an incidental scare, the episode shedding its Apollo 18 influences to become another moral dilemma story, this one recalling The Waters of Mars not just in its aesthetics but the Doctor’s refusal to take an active role in a key historical moment. I must confess to being slightly confused – are we supposed to agree with Clara about the Doctor’s behaviour in this episode? Is she in fact, right? (In other words, was this intended to be yet another kick-the-Doctor episode?) I didn’t have a problem with it – I thought it was morally defensible, and very much in tune with the way the character has often been presented in the past (right back to ‘You must help yourselves’ from Tom Baker in The Seeds of Doom, and beyond). I expect less ancient viewers may have a different opinion, of course. If this is the case, then the writers arguably fluffed their own intentions, although for me this was only to the story’s benefit.

There was a lot of other interesting stuff going on in this story, too. It’s odd that the orange-and-yellow E-suits first seen in The Impossible Planet have now become standard-issue whenever TARDIS-travellers visit a hostile environment. It can’t be that the Doctor is just re-using the same suits he picked up then, because he could only have acquired two (his own and Ida’s), and there were three in this episode. Either he bought a job lot offscreen somewhere, or the TARDIS is somehow manufacturing its own new suits copying that particular design. One wonders why, in the case of the latter: you’d expect Time Lord technology to have come up with a much more sophisticated solution.

I am anticipating many complaints about bad science in this episode – the spiders being described as mono-cellular prokaryotes, for example, when they’re very clearly highly differentiated organisms – but the central conceit of the episode does actually match up with the series’ mythology, albeit an element not really mentioned in over forty years. The real-world Moon probably isn’t a giant egg, as we are virtually certain it is the remnant of a vast glob of matter smashed out of the Earth by a collision in the primal period of the solar system. In Who-world, however, it’s still technically canon that the Moon approached Earth out of deep space and was captured by its gravity at some point in human prehistory (I have written at length elsewhere about why I think this must have happened about 35 million years ago). So that was nice. The idea of a newly-hatched creature being ready to lay another egg, apparently the size of its own, moments after its birth, is still absurd, though.

I suspect the Moon-2 element was just inserted in an attempt to explain why, in the light of the Moon’s destruction in 2049, the Doctor has ‘previously’ been able to visit the Moon in 2070, 2540, and whenever-it-is that The Seeds of Death is supposed to be set. This was well-intentioned, but we have surely reached the point where any single, coherent history for Who-world is becoming an impossibility. We’re only a few years away from a 2018 which will be utterly unlike the one in The Enemy of the World, and this is before we even get onto the increasingly unresolvable problem of giving Who-world a coherent 21st century.

Off I go again: we now have Kill the Moon, set in 2049, at a point at which the human race seems to have abandoned space exploration (prior to the episode, at least). This doesn’t even match with The Waters of Mars, set in 2059, in which Adelaide Brooke is supposed to have dedicated her career to space travel, and – according to background detail in that story – her crew have backstories which similarly don’t tally with what we see here. That’s before we even get to The Moonbase, set in 2070, in which there has supposedly been a gravitron station on the Moon for 20 years. This must, of course, be Moon-2 now, but it seems rather unlikely, knowing Moon-2 is also a giant egg, that people would fly straight up there and start building bases (let alone penal colonies, and the like) – unless Moon-2’s development was quietly terminated.

This doesn’t even begin to address the problem of The Seeds of Death, which has to be set at some point in the 21st century, prior to the human race establishing any colonies on other planets, and when space travel has been abandoned in favour of matter transmission. Obviously it has to be prior to the Martian mission of the late 2050s, but how is its technology supposed to tally with that of Kill the Moon? Did humanity, at some point in the next 35 years, develop transmat tech and ion-drive spaceships and then abandon them for refurbished NASA space shuttles? The only other option is to fit it into the impossibly small decade-long gap between Kill the Moon and The Waters of Mars, and that just doesn’t work. So, to conclude: while this was another strong episode, and while the Moon-creature survived, the same cannot be said for the concept of a single unified history of Who-world: this episode really seems to have killed that dead. I expect I will still continue to interfere with the corpse, though.

 

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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.

care

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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Well, much in the manner of Time Heist itself, let’s not muck about, and cut straight to the chase: I didn’t hate this episode, but neither did I especially like it either. At the moment I am having to remind myself that Doctor Who is in many ways like a supertanker – once you turn the wheel, it takes a very long time for any course change to become manifest. Thus Matt Smith’s first season is the one most strongly resembling any of David Tennant’s, even as Graham Williams’ first year as producer contains a couple of stories which could conceivably have made it into one overseen by Philip Hinchcliffe.

So in light of this, it’s not really surprising that some of this year’s stories resemble those from recent seasons: any of the more glitzy and lavish futuristic ones, to be honest – I’m thinking of Rings of Akhaten, Gridlock, you know the sort of thing. Nor that the story unfurled at the sort of headlong, manic pace that we were promised the series would be moving away with the new Doctor.

(The problem with my optimistic analysis concerning why this some of this season is less different than advertised is that it’s predicated on the idea that the regime of the show has in fact changed, when arguably it hasn’t: just changing Doctor doesn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of the general style of the series – you only have to look at the Eccleston and Tennant series, which develop pretty seamlessly, to see that.)

Anyway, there was a lot of running around and spectacle in Time Heist, and to be perfectly honest neither I nor any of the people I’ve spoken to have managed to find any flaws in the plot, but then again I haven’t really found myself inclined to dig too deeply into it. Not surprisingly, there was a definite Sherlock flavour to the plotting this time around, although I do think it suffered a bit from being crammed into a 50-minute timeslot. There was a lot to follow and perhaps not quite enough reasons given as to why we should make the effort.

Still, the episode was not without moments of interest for the more thoughtful onlooker. The roll-call of famous villains rapidly scanned through at one point in the story promises a veritable feast of Easter Eggs – I think I spotted the Gunslinger from A Town Called Mercy at one point, but much more interesting was a fleeting appearance by Abslom Daak, Dalek-Killer. It would be fun to speculate as to the degree to which this now makes Daak and his various escapades canonical – not very much, I strongly suspect – but if nothing else it’s a nice tribute to the late Steve Moore. Just as long as this doesn’t provoke the Slaves of Kane to re-release their dreadful Daak-themed disco record.

teller

The closing twist concerning two monsters being in love with each other did not do a lot for me, not least because the show already played exactly the same card last year at the end of Hide. One friend of mine has already been rather scornful as to the prospects of Mr and Mrs Teller, given there are only two of them left to rebuild their entire population, but given SF has a long history of this very same trope – to say nothing of the way Doctor Who has indulged in it in the past, too – I’ll let it pass happily. I’m less inclined to overlook the way Mr Teller effectively murdered numerous people for the bank and was completely let off this, but that’s just me: I’m just a bit of a puritan about these things (don’t get me started on Willow from Buffy being given a pass for a horrible, brutal, cold-blooded murder).

And, finally, when the dust settles and people start to give reasoned verdicts on the Moffat era of Doctor Who, I think one of its more unexpected additions to the mythology is its idea of a Doctor who seriously doesn’t like himself. This first really showed up in Amy’s Choice, with the Doctor’s self-hatred made manifest as the Dream Lord – but it’s recurred since then, not least in Time Heist‘s revelation that the Architect whom the Doctor hates so much is really… well, anyway. It’s not quite in the same league as previous episodes built around the Doctor’s various foibles and character flaws, but even so. It would be great to get an episode which didn’t seem to feel the need to qualify his heroism or put him down somehow. Normally I would have said that Gareth Roberts could be relied upon for something like that, but at this point in the year, all bets are off.

 

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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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If you’re the kind of person who wanders t’Internet seeking out the views of complete strangers on new episodes of massively-popular mainstream audience cult children’s TV series, then you probably spotted the little in-joke towards the end of Robot of Sherwood, where the succession of images of Robin Hood from down the years concluded, not with Kevin Costner, Richard Greene, or even Jason Connery as you might expect, but with a youthful Patrick Troughton from the BBC’s 1953 version of the story.

The odd knowing quote from Douglas Adams excepted, this is – as far as I can recall – the first time it’s been implied that any of the principle creators of Doctor Who actually has, or had, a parallel existence in Who-world itself. In theory, then – and I hope I’m not inciting fanfic in the impressionable here – the Doctor could go back and meet Patrick Troughton, or indeed any of the others. (What a terrible idea for a story.)

This, of course, begs the question of how the Who-world version of Patrick Troughton spent his time between making The Viking Queen in 1967 and Scars of Dracula in 1970. Unless, of course – as Remembrance of the Daleks implies – there is an actual Who-world version of Doctor Who which uncannily reflects the Doctor’s actual life. The fact that the fourth Doctor was never mobbed in the street or pursued by groupies seems to suggest otherwise, though.

The Virgin books actually answered the question of what was running on Saturday teatimes in Who-world by creating a show-within-the-show entitled Professor X, although I don’t recall Patrick Troughton being on the list of Professors: the only one to make it to even the borderline level of canonicity the Virgin books achieved was Frankie Howerd, who was apparently the third or the fourth Professor X (he appears at one point in Paul Cornell’s No Future). No doubt it is only a matter of time until we hear of the stupendously-successful Paul Abbott-curated 21st century revival of Professor X starring Alan Davies and someone from S Club 7.

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You may well be thinking I am spending a lot of time obsessing over one tiny detail of Robot of Sherwood and not talking very much about the rest of the episode. Well, this episode got an unexpected and unwelcome piece of extra publicity last week when it was announced that a decapitation had been subtly recut: in the light of recent events, the BBC felt it had to act to protect the public’s sensibilities.

Well, I have to applaud them, but I have to say that I’m not sure the re-edit was entirely successful. If we’re talking about preserving public sensibilities, I would have cut slightly deeper. I would have cut probably about another forty-five minutes from the episode and shown a repeat of The Time Warrior instead so people would get an idea of what medieval-set Doctor Who actually looks like.

Yes, I’m prepared to be the one swimming against the tide on this one, but the last episode I remember taking such an instant and violent dislike to was Midnight. These days I can see the merits of Midnight, but I can’t imagine the same thing happening with Robot of Sherwood. It’s not the case that this is a badly-realised story like… well, you can probably take your pick from the 20th century series… or a badly-plotted story like The Seeds of Death (bracing myself now for another argument about that one) or Nonsense of the Daleks. It’s just that this is a well-produced, decently-acted realisation of a really, really terrible idea.

I am aware some people have been cooing over the episode for its witty deconstruction of heroic cliches and its ongoing reappraisal of the Doctor’s character, but I am quite sure you could have made an episode including all of those things, but without the broad, crass slapstick and the children’s-TV-level acting and plotting. To begin with I thought the idea of putting Capaldi’s sour and curmudgeonly Doctor into a frothy Matt Smith-style romp might actually work quite well, and the first few moments of the episode were not too bad. (I was amused by the tiny touch of the TARDIS shell resealing itself after the arrow was pulled out, which explains a few things.)

And then the spoon came out and I could’ve sworn I felt the internet rising up in fury – but no, it’s just me. My problem with the spoonfighting sequence isn’t just that it doesn’t make sense – in order to be able to do this, the Doctor would need levels of superhuman strength and co-ordination beyond the wildest dreams of Terrance Dicks, not to mention an adamantium spoon – but simply that it makes the Doctor look silly. The main problem with the whole episode isn’t that its 12th century is almost utterly unconvincing, or that the plot is largely ridiculous, but that it makes the Doctor look petty and childish and stupid. An arrogant or flawed Doctor I can get behind and find interesting, but not one as foolish as we got here.

Why would you make an episode which undercuts the authority and dignity of such an established protagonist in this way? It’s almost as if they don’t actually like the Doctor, or – in a continued attempt to woo the Smith audience – feel the need to show that he can be silly and absurd too, in the right circumstances. All I can say is that I felt slightly embarrassed on Peter Capaldi’s behalf: you wait half your life for your dream job and then get handed a script like this. The sense of disappointment must have been crushing.

Ho well. At least next week is the somewhat-feted return of Steven Moffat to a non-event episode, and the trailer does look promising. Almost anything would be an improvement, though.

(For the two or three strange individuals who actively look forward to and seek out these rants every week: I am unavoidably in Seville for the next ten days (the idea of doing a Two Doctors location tour has occurred to me, obviously). Reaction to Listen will probably appear around the 18th. Sorry.)

 

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You know what, two weeks in and that new arrangement of the theme tune is already beginning to be gratingly shrill: it’s almost starting to sound like how the music might have been realised back in 1963, had Verity Lambert hired the Tornadoes to do it.

I am getting ahead of myself. The most obvious thing to say about Into the Dalek is, obviously, that the plot makes more sense than that of Asylum of the Daleks: but then I would imagine that many of the home-brew stories written at home by primary-school children make more sense than Asylum of the Daleks. Beyond that, well, you can look at the story as a piece of narrative carpentry, and then on a more thematic level – and I suppose it’s a point in Into the Dalek‘s favour that the theme of the story is so completely realised, which isn’t always the case.

But first, the woodwork. Steven Moffat has been in charge of Doctor Who for a fair few years now, so I suppose that we shouldn’t be surprised if an element of repetition begins to appear: certainly there was quite a lot in this story that I felt I’d seen before. Obviously a huge amount of Dalek, but also bits and pieces from a bunch of other stories.

Is it too soon to declare the new Dalek Paradigm dead, by the way? Not a sign, not a mention of them anywhere in this story – can we have the Dalek civil war from the Experience walk-through declared canon and just say the bronze Daleks blew them all up? The use of the bronze Daleks in this story may simply have been down to the availability of prop casings, but possibly also for aesthetic reasons – I shudder to imagine how garish and plasticky the inside of the tellytubby Daleks must be.

Interesting, also, that there was no attempt to locate the Dalek menace in this story, either in terms of space or time: they finally seem to being back to their old status as a general-purpose threat to lifekind. The only real question, then, is surely why they haven’t actually conquered the universe, given this is the same breed of super-advanced Daleks that fought the Time Lords to a standstill in the Last Great Time War.

Apart from that I thought the plot was fairly decent, if a bit gimmicky: someone should tell Moffat that there’s a generation of children growing up who haven’t seen an old-school Dalek story, and he might be able to profitably lay off all the soaringly high-concept nonsense for a little while (perhaps exhibit B in favour of regime change). My main criticism was that it wasn’t really made clear what the purpose of the mission into the Dalek was – people were actually saying things like ‘this Dalek has been damaged so badly it has become good’ so it did seem strange that they were apparently intent on fixing the damage, and it also robbed one of the story’s reverses of much of its shock value.

And were we not promised that this year we would be back to standalone stories? Is Michelle Gomez going to be in every episode as the mad woman with the brolly? At least she was less of a plot device this time around. I was alarmed to come across a rumour that her character – the Mistress – is a new version of the Master, which as long-term readers will know is something I would have a deep-seated and intractable objection to, on principle. Fingers crossed good sense will prevail, or that at least there will be acceptable wriggle room.

On the whole, though, this did feel rather like a Matt Smith story, without much of the thoughtfulness or atmosphere of Deep Breath lasting very long into it: unless you count the bookending scenes with Danny Pink. Samuel Anderson is clearly a performer with screen presence, but his stuff did feel a little forced and obvious – if this is a man reduced to tears merely by remembering his experiences as a soldier, is he really psychologically capable of doing a stressful job like teaching?

Still not quite sure what to make of the new Doctor’s character. The spikier and more Scottish he is, the more I like him – but many of his scenes when alone with Clara seem to suggest that this is just a front and underneath he is really as soppy and fluffy as Matt Smith ever was. Giving a Dalek a cutesy pet name is pure eleventh Doctor – I laughed very long and hard at the suggestion from a friend of mine that the name ‘Rusty’ indicates Moffat has some sort of fixation with his predecessor as showrunner.

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Given this, it is a bit odd that the theme of the story is that the Doctor is clearly not a perfect hero, but a man with prejudices of his own, someone occasionally in thrall to his darker emotions. The irony, of course, is that a man who hates Daleks and has no time for soldiers is a good Dalek himself – as nice a reformulation of ‘fascist liberalism’ as you might wish for. Again, I thought some of this was a bit overdone, especially the Doctor’s rejection of the Zawe Ashton character – it’s almost too obvious to mention, but at least one of the Doctor’s closest friends was a career soldier, after all – but it did provide a strong thematic core to the episode.

And, as I’ve seen pointed out elsewhere, what’s the problem with hating the Daleks? The Daleks are, after all, essentially a sentient, highly technically-advanced equivalent of the ebola virus, intent on and capable of wiping out everyone in their path. This is their nature; they are anathema to everything we believe in. Maybe it’s as irrational to hate the Daleks as it is to hate a virus, but there’s nothing wrong in seeing them as a threat to be eliminated as quickly as possible. Things being as they are, I am happy to overlook the potential inconsistency in the nature of the Daleks, or at least the lack of a mention of the fact that their charming personalities are largely the result of genetic engineering, with no need for some sort of high-tech commissar within the casings themselves (which, by the way, are much hollower on the inside than I would have expected).

But anyway, on the whole another episode which I enjoyed more than I wanted to scream at. I have more or less come to the conclusion that any Steven Moffat-overseen episodes I genuinely love are going to be highly-unusual flukes rather than regular occurences, but this series is doing okay so far: I’m curious to see how they handle doing a funny one next week, but curious in a positive sort of way.

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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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