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Posts Tagged ‘Steven Moffat’

Current issue of DWM, the ‘Ask Steven Moffat’ column. A reader (who may not want their name appearing on my sordid and increasingly monomaniacal blog, so I won’t repeat it) asks:

Do Time Lords have a pronoun to refer to [someone] who has changed gender…?

Which is a reasonable if slightly fannish question, and indeed the whole issue of gender pronouns has been addressed in the past by proper SF writers (Ursula le Guin being the most obvious example) who have dealt seriously with societies which exhibit a degree of gender-mutability.

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Of course, Moffat is not a proper SF writer but a comedy writer, and so the answer we get is as follows:

Oh, gender pronouns. To hell with gender pronouns, can somebody make them illegal. What are they for? What do they add? Every time I have a conversation about [the Michelle Gomez character supposedly sharing identity with a classic character from the series] I fall to my knees, sobbing from the pronoun effort… She/he, him/her, his/hers, I’ve developed a hand slash reflex for the forward diagonal. It’s like Kung Fu round the office. I’ve injured two people and destroyed a water cooler.

Ho ho ho. Yes, quite funny, but failing to answer the question in any meaningful sense – and note, if you will, the curious spectacle of one of the UK’s best-remunerated, highest-profile writers, complaining about a part of speech which serves to add clarity and elegance to the language he primarily works in.

Yes, failing to take the subject seriously and opting to go for a laugh instead. Do I even need to add anything? Oh, go on, I will.

Reading between the lines, I don’t think Mr M even wants to talk or even think particularly seriously about this particular area, for all that he is the prime architect of giving it whatever spurious legitimacy it currently enjoys. Hidden in his answer seems to me to be a tacit acknowledgement of all the difficulties and absurdities implicit in this concept he has now dumped on Doctor Who. Gender pronouns – it may not seem like a big deal, especially if you’re a native speaker of one of those languages which doesn’t have gender pronouns, but for me it’s long been one of the main reasons I violently recoil from the idea of changing character genders.

We’re talking about fictional characters in stories, and they only really work, only really connect with viewers and readers, if they are in some way capable of being identified with. Note the way in other pieces of SF that robot and computer characters are routinely referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’ regardless of appearance or behaviour (R2-D2 being a great example). Only animals and monsters get referred to using the gender-free it. It’s how English works and (more importantly) how people’s minds work, I think.

It’s perfectly fine to talk about an abstract, indefinite person using the ‘he/she’ formula – ‘the successful candidate will use his/her skills to try and arrest the ratings decline’, for instance, from a job advert perhaps. But you can’t use ‘he/she’ to talk about a specific individual, because it goes against all the usages of English and our understanding of how the world works. On some deep level it doesn’t feel like it makes any sense.

This doesn’t mean you couldn’t tell a very thoughtful, most likely literary SF story about aliens who routinely exhibit gender mutability and the difficulty humans have in coming to terms with their society and language. But in that case the gender-mutability of the aliens – their very alienness – would be the point of the story.

Do I need to say that the Doctor is not a very alien alien? His origins are alien but he himself behaves in a very human way – with the sole exception of his regenerative powers, which are ultimately just a postmodern plot device, the main differences between him and his human friends are ones of degree rather than kind. He is stronger, more knowledgeable, more intelligent, but for the most part (excluding the odd plot device power) he still acts and reacts in a very human way (it was seven years into the series before he was definitively identified as non-human, which should tell you something). He is arguably rather less alien than a character like Mr Spock, whose origins are probably not as otherworldly (Spock is definitely half-human, whereas the Doctor…), but whose personality and behaviour are definitely more alien.

It’s not the Doctor’s narrative role to be that kind of Alien, but to saddle him with the whole ‘his/her’ baggage and the implied concepts of inhuman weirdness are at odds with the way the character has been presented and developed for over fifty years. Furthermore, it would transform him from a concrete, identifiable character into a sort of abstract narrative blob which I suspect audiences will find it considerably harder to connect with and respond to.

(Then again, in the same column, Moffat acknowledges the power of headcanon. Whether he would be quite so keen on it if he knew I was using it to ignore every episode he’s exec produced since December 2013 is another question.)

 

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When you run with the Doctor, it feels like it’ll never end. But however hard you try, you can’t run forever.

I suppose it probably says something about my advancing years that I still think of a TV episode rapidly closing in on its eighth birthday as ‘comparatively recent’. But then again, we are talking (once again) about Doctor Who, where – in my mind – anything made this century is comparatively recent, and in order to count as ‘really old’ you’re talking about something made more than fifty years ago.

I’m talking about Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, one of those rather inelegantly-titled full-length Doctor Who stories from the middle of 2008. I know I haven’t gone back to the show a lot recently, and don’t write about the comparatively recent stories very much (and the very recent stories not at all – note I am still just about capable of recognising recent stories as being, on some level, Doctor Who), so what has brought on this dip into the flowing stream of recent remembrance?

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Well, it was this year’s Christmas show, which rather to my surprise I found to be very enjoyable, in complete defiance of my expectations. You can complain all you like about Steven Moffat’s tendency to turn Doctor Who into a comedy programme, and of course I frequently do at great length to anyone who’ll listen, but when he’s actually setting out to write a comedy that suddenly seems a bit pointless. As a comedy, the Christmas show was sparkling stuff, but also – and this was what really surprised me – I found it very moving, particularly in its closing stages.

This was mainly because, for me, the episode was paying off on so many emotional themes that had been running, one way or another and on or off, since 2008 and the story with the Library. It tapped into the great affection I have for the stories of the mid-late 2000s, in much the same way that by far my favourite moment of the Viking story, and possibly the whole season, was the flashback to The Fires of Pompeii. And (I’m suddenly aware I may be starting to sound like Anton Walbrook during his wonderful ‘truth’ monologue from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) I suddenly felt a great desire to go back and watch the story again – having seen its end, to watch its beginning. Or, having seen its beginning, to watch its end.

I won’t deny there is a touch of the master artist in the way Moffat and his team have closed the circle so brilliantly, but that’s more to do with how the whole River Song storyline unfolded during the Moffat regime. There was no sign of that at the time, or really very little, and yet I still think this stands up as one of the greatest and most sophisticated stories of 21st century Doctor Who.

The Doctor (looking remarkably like David Tennant) and his friend Donna (looking not unlike Catherine Tate) find themselves summoned to the Library, a planet-sized repository containing specially-printed copies of every book in existence (the ‘specially-printed’ thing turns out to be absolutely vital to the plot, and note the casual finesse with which Moffat inserts that fact into the story very early on). Yet the place is deserted, except for some ominous, seemingly self-propelled shadows, and some equally odd security camera drones. Then others arrive: a team of space archaeologists, drawn to the site of this legendary disaster where thousands vanished in a single day. Leading the group is Professor River Song (looking very similar to Alex Kingston), a woman who seems on peculiarly intimate terms with the Doctor – which is especially odd, given he has no memory of ever meeting her before…

Even at the time, close followers of Doctor Who were aware that this story was making its debut at a time when the series was gearing up for one of its periodic transformations. The announcement that Moffat was going to be showrunning was made at just about the same these episodes were broadcast, or perhaps very slightly earlier (I know I was coming to the end of my Italian sojourn at the time, which dates them fairly precisely). I believe that it was actually on the set of this story that Moffat had to bluntly tell David Tennant to make his mind up about whether he was staying for another year or not, as he had to start writing what would ultimately become The Eleventh Hour the following Monday.

And watching it again now, one can’t help but wonder how much of it was written by Moffat with a view to setting up the River Song storyline for when he eventually took over. It would be surprising if there wasn’t at least an element of that going on, even if the implied ‘you think this guy’s good? wait until you see the next one!’ subtext is rather self-aggrandising.

At the time, though, I remember commenting that it was entirely possible that River Song would turn out to be a one-off character, and the whole mystery of the Doctor’s implied future here would turn out to have no more substance than the similar plot-thread in Battlefield. Hey, say what you like, but I’m never afraid to be wrong.

I have to say, furthermore, that this story kind of nonplussed me the first time I watched it. From way back in around 2004, I was always pretty certain that of all the writers on the revived series, Moffat was going to be the one to watch, and the brilliance of the one with the gasmasks, the one with the clockwork robots, and the one with the statues only served to confirm that (I’m happy to say that I was flying the flag for The Girl in the Fireplace ahead of the likes of Doomsday as soon as the episodes aired).

But this one? This one felt odd and different. Moffat’s first two scripts were just examples of brilliant ideas, executed with a laser-like precision, while Blink… well, Blink‘s another kettle of fish entirely – like City of Death, one of those genius Doctor Who stories that doesn’t sit entirely comfortably within the bounds of the series. The story with the Library – well, it’s carefully constructed so as to make things very clear it’s not just a story about a spooky library. It opens with that sequence of the little girl (in an apparently contemporary home) talking about her dreams of the Library, into which the Doctor and Donna abruptly crash at the end of the teaser, and that sequence very clearly sends up flags to the attentive viewer: not everything is as simple as it seems.

Rather than a single idea, by the end of its first instalment, the Library story seems to have exploded with an embarrassment of creative riches, concepts and plotlines bursting off in all directions. It is very nearly breathtaking – no, it is breathtaking. The concept of the man-eating shadows owes a little, I suspect, to an early X-Files episode, but the way Moffat uses them to service the grotesquely surreal concept of the Doctor and company being chased by skeletons in spacesuits is, once again, masterful. The conceit of the dead surviving as ‘data ghosts’ just seems like a bravura attempt at creeping out the audience, with no hint being given of what a huge role this will have in the resolution of the story.

And this is before we have even got to the second episode, which introduces the idea of the ‘data world’ of the Library properly, and with it rather more philosophical issues than one is wont to find in the average episode of Doctor Who. What does it mean to be real? What does it mean to exist? Is the world into which Donna is transported actually a ‘real’ place, in some way? If so, why does it operate according to the fractured logic of a bad dream? The rules there resemble those of a surreal Sergio Leone movie: if something isn’t in frame in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the characters are unaware of its existence even when they’re standing right next to it. The limits of the screen define their world, in just the same way that the editor’s technique shapes Donna’s existence.

It’s a very grown-up conceit from a story which ventures into some very strange and dark places, and which surely pushes at the limits of what a family show can get away with – never mind the horrible images of grinning skulls behind space helmet visors, the various scenes of young children either vanishing or accidentally ‘switching off’ their parents are simply messed up. I can see some kids getting quite traumatised by this sort of thing.

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In the end, of course, Moffat’s legerdemaine gathers up all of these threads and contrives a story where no-one actuall dies, and everything comes together in a very satisfying way – the shadows, the empty library planet, the data ghosts and the little girl all turn out to be fundamentally connected in a wholly satisfying way.

The only thing which feels arbitrarily added in, of course, is the element which gives the climax of the story its great power: the mystery woman, River Song. It’s strange to watch the story again now – the first few times, of course, one’s viewpoint character was the Doctor, but now it’s just as easy to see the story through River’s eyes, knowing who she is and what is to come for them both.

I must confess to being equally nonplussed by the end of the story, the first time I watched it – but then this was very late at night, after an extremely long day largely spent making flights on budget airlines between southern Italy, central Germany and Manchester (though I should report that Stuttgart is an extremely pleasant city on a nice day). It was only a bit more than a year later that I paused to watch a repeat of River’s final scene and found myself so profoundly moved by it (it is one of the very few scenes in Doctor Who which consistently makes me cry when I watch it – for the record, the others include the Master’s death in Last of the Time Lords and Tom’s cameo in The Day of the Doctor): not just by the performances of the two actors (though David Tennant, need it even be said, contributes as much to the scene as Alex Kingston), but by the awful pathos of the basic ideas involved – she dies for him, in the full knowledge that he has no real idea who she is and is thus unable to say goodbye properly. He watches her die for him, knowing who she will be in his future, but with only a vague theoretical idea of their relationship, no emotional substance. I mean, as an actor, how do you think yourself into that kind of situation? Where do you get your references? You really can’t say too often how much effort David Tennant is putting into every single episode he appears in.

It’s that moment which the most recent episode taps into for so much of its own wallop, which (as I think I said) may explain why I enjoyed it so much. The story with the Library is Doctor Who soaring, going all cylinders, and (again) with retrospect, it’s very easy to see it all as Moffat figuratively proclaiming that this is what the programme can be, and will be, all the time now that he is in charge!

…sigh. And here we are eight years later, and I have watched most of the episodes of the most recent series only once apiece, and most of those with a dull sense of anger and frustration, and I do not own a single Capaldi episode and doubt I ever will, because I am not spending my or anyone else’s money in support of a so-called curatorship that has as little grasp of or respect for the classic characters of the series as Moffat’s seems to. If, as seems standard, Capaldi only does three series, and if, as seems likely, Moffat insists on imposing his own ideas about Time Lord identity, then very soon I will not be watching the programme at all, because it will have stopped being the programme I have loved for the vast majority of my life.

And I wonder just what went wrong, and how we got from The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink and the story with the Library, to Dark Water and that story with the Daleks being overthrown by their own renegade plumbing. And I wonder if I will ever really understand Steven Moffat, and how the same person can write both. But, I can’t deny it: those Eccleston and Tennant stories are sublime. Those stories alone put him on the list alongside Robert Holmes, Terrance Dicks, Malcolm Hulke and the other immortals. It makes perfect sense that he should have been invited – even begged! – to oversee the series. I can recall my own excitement and anticipation when the great handover took place. Those were good days. The programme was on a high, and it felt like it would never end.

But nothing lasts forever.

 

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This last week has been a pretty good one, but also a slightly odd one. (Much of what follows is quite personal, an area which I generally try to protect the general population from, so I almost feel the need to apologise for much of what follows, partly because it makes no particular point or argument, partly because friends of mine have almost certainly already heard me articulating some of what is to follow.)

The most recent series of Doctor Who finished last weekend. I watched all the episodes, because the reflex to do so is still there, but the vast majority of them were on catch-up and the ‘of course’ which would once have accompanied the first clause of this sentence is, you will have seen, conspicuously absent. Looking back, I’m not sure which is more surprising: that the series as a whole should be so weak, or that I should be so indifferent to it.

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(As noted up the page, this is a personal view. You may personally have loved every episode of the recent run and genuinely believe it to have been a golden age in the history of the series. If so, I respect your right to hold this opinion and wish you well. I hope you will extend me the same respect, at least.)

Then the new issue of DWM turned up in the middle of the week, and while I was flicking through it at work something very odd happened. I had one of those moments of clarity you sometimes hear about: there I was, reading about the tenure of Peter Capaldi, a brilliant, brilliant actor, who is doing a terrific job of playing the lead role in my favourite TV series, with a new co-lead on the way along with a jolly-looking festive special, and I was feeling almost completely indifferent to it. And this filled me with a sort of anguish and a cold fury I can barely put into words. Just to reiterate: Doctor Who is not currently making me angry. Current Doctor Who doesn’t make me feel much of anything, beyond occasional moments of annoyed irritation and very occasional moments of surprise when it shows brief flashes of the old magic. But the fact that I feel so dislocated from the series makes me very angry indeed.

Can I make you understand just what a big deal this is for me? I’m not sure. Doctor Who has, without a shadow of a doubt, been my unquestioned favourite TV series for nearly 35 years now. Even that understates the matter. It’s been more than just a TV series for me, it’s been… I can’t think of an easy way of describing it. Other interests have waxed and waned, friendships and other relationships have come and gone, my career has taken me around the world, and through it all, Doctor Who has been a constant. Either the TV show, or one of the many books or CDs, or even one of the comic strips or games, has not been far away if I needed a bit of a pick-up. I have watched Doctor Who in beach huts in Sri Lanka, in internet cafes in Kyrgyzstan, and over the complementary internet of a business hotel in Hiroshima. I was one of the people crying in a cinema when Tom Baker came back for the 50th anniversary special (I look back now on the sheer joyousness of that week with something close to utter bemusement: can everything have changed so much in only two years? It feels like something that happened to another person in a distant part of history).

It is just the modern show, as well: The Brain of Morbius came on the Horror Channel the other day and was as much of a joy as ever, to say nothing of Genesis of the Daleks the week before. (Though I must confess to a certain level of fatigue with regard to the Horror Channel’s endless recycling of the same stories again and again – just to get away from it, I watched The Monster of Peladon and The Power of Kroll on DVD not long ago, and I honestly don’t think I’ve enjoyed either of them quite so much.) I was very kindly sent free copies of a couple of new Who books not long ago, and the desire to dig into them and assimilate the opinions therein was undimmed.

Even there, though… well, the reason I was sent one of the books is because I contributed a piece to it, and what am I saying, literally as the opening words of my section? ‘Much to my surprise, I have found myself becoming increasingly disenchanted with the last couple of seasons of Doctor Who…‘ Crikey, when did I write this? Nearly three years ago, as far as I can remember; certainly long before that Golden November. So it has been a long process of estrangement, though accelerated considerably over the last year or so.

Need you ask why? It is Moffat, of course, or at least the Moffat who writes the episodes. Moffat made a joke in the new DWM to the effect that he actually has a Zygon duplicate who does all his interviews and media appearances, leaving him to do the actual hard work of showrunning, which would be funnier if it didn’t actually seem to be true – even today I can read an interview with Moffat and much of the time find myself thinking that this is someone who understands and loves Doctor Who in the same way I do, someone who I am on some level sympatico with. But then Moffat-the-Writer will get up to his old tricks and I will be unable to accept that this is the same person.

The ‘old tricks’ of which I speak? Well, for one there’s coming across as some kind of evil, corrupted clone of Robert Holmes, whose love of the big set piece is not accompanied by any need to ground it in something approaching context. Or there’s that infuriating tendency to write something in as a major shift in the status quo of the series, only to utterly ignore it the next time it becomes inconvenient for a script. Or that apparent tendency to base scripts on the kind of concepts the DWM question-and-answer page was contending with in the early 80s: let’s do a story about someone whose meetings with the Doctor are not chronologically synchronous! Let’s do one where you see different types of Daleks together!

Of course, there is one thing which Moffat has been consistent on throughout his tenure on the show, and it’s this more than anything else which is forcing me away from the series. It’s a bit startling to look back only six years and realise that, as late as the start of David Tennant’s final episode, the idea of turning the Doctor into a woman was something various people made vague noises about at regeneration time, but not something that was really taken seriously. Nowadays, almost entirely as a result of Moffat’s own scripts (Neil Gaiman has also touched on it), it is apparently an inevitability. (And this despite Moffat himself saying in an interview off in the wayback that he was very dubious about this concept – ‘I’m worried that you might not believe,’ was roughly what he said.)

If I had to identify the moment when I stopped really caring about modern Doctor Who, it was when Moffat tried turning the Master into a woman. The gears in my head locked up, I couldn’t (and still can’t) make sense of it, I could no longer sustain my belief in the fiction of the show (see, Moffat, you were right the first time).

(Feel free to write in and tell me I’m a woman-hating bigot, if you really feel the need, but please remember that your saying it doesn’t necessarily make it so. I’ve had that in the past when I’ve commented on this topic elsewhere.)

I am genuinely and absolutely baffled when I am told, with great sincerity and urgency, that this is a necessary and important change for the series. Someone told me with a straight face just the other day that the Michelle Gomez character is there because the programme needed more ‘strong female characters’. Say what you like about the series since 2005, but it has never been short on strong female characters, and even if it had been, there is always an obscure and little-understood process known as ‘creating a new character’.

I think I’ve said before that in this and similar cases – such as the suggestion that the ‘new’ Spider-Man could be of a different ethnicity – there’s a degree of wanting to have your cake and eat it going on: people want to make a statement by doing something new and radical and making a bit of a departure from the past, while simultaneously retaining the iconic qualities of the original character and the emotional investment people have in them.

We could argue about this in terms of metaphysics, morality, culture and even (if you really must) continuity, but what it boils down to is my belief that trying to turn the Doctor into a woman is an essentially meaningless gesture, the primary result of which is the reduction of a much-loved and essentially well-rounded character to an abstract narrative blob. It doesn’t say anything significant about modern society or culture or attitudes to gender that couldn’t be equally well accomplished in some other way.

A few years ago I wrote a review of the novel of Interview with the Vampire, essentially saying that, in terms of metaphorical treatments of the lifestyle of gay men, this was not the most subtle thing I’d ever read. And I got a slightly bemused comment from one reader, to the effect of ‘Wow, I didn’t know it was supposed to be about gay men, I thought it was about vampires.’ In this particular case, it’s the metaphor that lends the story its power, because who can relate to a story about fictional supernatural creatures?

My point is that attempting to turn the Doctor into a woman is a story which has no metaphorical weight or power to it. It has no connection to reality. Don’t tell me it’s about showing that women can be strong, unless you’re also telling me that women can only be strong if they’ve previously spent fifty years as a man. Don’t tell me that it’s making society and culture more trans-acceptant, because to liken the fictional process of regeneration to gender reassignment is both facile and stupid. Don’t tell me it’s about making a statement about non-binary conceptions of gender, because the characters involved have existed within that framework for years, and it will take more than a half-baked retcon to make that go away. It will achieve nothing of value not available through less destructive means. It is pointless.

…sigh. On the other hand, is there any point to writing this? If so, I don’t really see what, beyond giving me the opportunity to get this off my chest. Every year rolls around, every year Moffat goes to further slightly absurd lengths in pursuit of this peculiar agenda, every year I go on the internet to give vent to my frustration. I am aware, thank you, that this is all, when it boils down to it, simply about the fact that I’m just angry about not being able to enjoy Doctor Who any more. I, along with many people I know, don’t foresee myself continuing to watch at all, if the next performer cast as the Doctor doesn’t have a Y chromosome, simply because I will be fundamentally unable to recognise them as the same character. I can’t imagine how I will feel about that; I won’t know until it happens, but I’m pretty sure it will not be good. And the fact it was so totally avoidable, and will serve no real purpose, just makes the prospect worse.

 

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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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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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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.

itdalek

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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