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?
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.
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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