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Posts Tagged ‘Steven Moffat’

If you knew where to look, over the Christmas and New Year just gone there was something of an embarrassment of riches in terms of adaptations of Dracula: the (unfairly obscure, if you ask me) 1968 ITV version with Denholm Elliott turned up on Talking Pictures TV just before the holidays properly got going, the original Hammer Dracula from 1958 materialised on the Horror Channel late on Christmas night itself, while forming one of the main planks of the BBC’s New Year scheduling was a brand new take on the story, from the team behind Sherlock. You can see why this would seem like a logical and even obvious fit: another one of the most famous characters to come out of popular Victorian literature, the subject of many previous adaptations, yet one which has not been the subject of major attention in quite a few years. This is before we even consider co-writer Mark Gatiss’ well-documented love of the macabre and morbid.

Recently, here or hereabouts, I have devoted some attention to the question of just how faithful literary adaptations should try to be, with the conclusions that you should at least try to bring the essence of the original to the screen, but still be wary of slavish faithfulness. When it comes to Dracula, however, things are more complicated: there is the Dracula everyone knows and expects, and then there is Stoker’s actual novel, which is a distinctly different beast. The former is derived from the latter, but as it has found its way into each new medium – theatre, cinema, TV – it has shifted, changed, acquired new imagery and resonances. Which is the ‘real’ Dracula? The well-known, iconic one, familiar to the point of contemptibility, or the actual source novel, something much odder and more surprising?

Moffat and Gatiss’ Dracula very nearly starts out looking like they’re going to do the novel ‘straight’, with young Englishman Jonathan Harker (John Heffernan) turning up at Castle Dracula in 1897, intent on concluding some business with the reclusive count who occupies it. I would imagine that those in the viewing audience not familiar with Stoker (almost certainly the majority) were probably somewhat thrown by the initial conceit that Dracula first appears as an old man, who gradually rejuvenates himself by gorging on human blood (Harker’s, in this case). But it is the audience as well as Harker who may be being lulled into a false sense of security, for soon enough the story departs from the novel and becomes a Contemporary BBC Drama rather than a Prestige Costume Production.

You know the sort of thing I mean, I suspect: 19th century Budapest is required to be as diverse as 21st century London, because for some reason an adaptation of a book first published in 1897 has to be representative of the present day. Given the track record of these writers, I suppose we must be grateful that they decided to leave Dracula himself as a man – it’s got to the point where I accept the presence of a female Van Helsing (Dolly Wells) as just one of those inevitable modern things.

Then again, where does the boundary lie between making creative choices in adapting the book and simply messing it about in order to satisfy the omnipresent modern sensibility? In this case it is genuinely a little difficult to tell. Certainly they soon abandon the narrative of the novel in all but the broadest sense, resulting in something instantly recognisable as a Steven Moffat script: conjurer’s performance and sketch show in equal measure, all about the big set piece and the clever reveal, with things like logic and cohesion only of a secondary importance (and maybe not even that). The result is a series that varies hugely from episode to episode, and even within them – the final third of the first installment abruptly departs from the book and becomes about Dracula attempting to get into a convent. The second episode riffs on events left implied by Stoker himself, turning into a very odd inversion of an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery, while the third…

I understand the third episode has proved controversial and even a touch divisive, mainly because of the way it uproots the story so dramatically from its origins. Personally I saw it coming, although this may be because I was keeping tabs on this production and heard rumours to the effect that the writers considered the entire canon of Dracula movies and so on fair game as source material: even the early 70s Hammer films, which are a curious mixed bag, and which certainly seem to be the main inspiration here.

Personally I found it was only in the third episode that the new Dracula found its feet as something more than an extended series of winks at the camera from the writers. There is something genuinely intriguing and exciting about unleashing a character from Victorian fiction into such a modern milieu: there are certainly many more possibilities than the series managed to explore in the not much more than an hour available to handle the ‘Dracula in the present day’ section of the story. Dracula is a lens through which you can find a new perspective on many things: attitudes to sex, to death, to race and immigration, and so on. Using it to present a five-hundred-year-old warlord’s responses to modern society is in the best traditions of adapting Dracula. It honestly felt like a genuine shame that all the present-day material was crammed into the final third of the series; I would rather have seen much more of it in modern dress (Stoker chose to set his novel in the present day (as he saw it), so it does make sense for adaptations to do the same – though there is a problem with this, which we shall come to).

So I found this Dracula to be a bit of a curate’s egg, perhaps a bit too knowing to really satisfy. It notably dodged addressing the issue affecting any present-day Dracula – our whole conception of the vampire as an archetype is informed and perhaps defined by the popular image of Dracula (the caped aristocrat, vulnerable to crucifixes and sunlight). Had Stoker not written the book, that concept would be hugely different, if it even existed. Or, to give a more specific example: at one point in the final episode, Dracula sends someone a text including the vampire emoji, which is based on the image of Bela Lugosi-as-Dracula. But where did that emoji come from, in a world where Dracula is a real person?

But onto the good things, not least of which is the sheer fact that this was the BBC spending millions of poinds on a genuine piece of prime-time horror. Obviously this was a lavish production, with capable direction and some good supporting performances. I particularly enjoyed Mark Gatiss’ typically droll turn as Renfield, as you might expect, and also Claes Bang’s performance as Dracula himself (a very shrewd piece of casting: an experienced, mature actor with obvious charisma, but also essentially unknown to Anglophone audiences). Bang managed to find the menace and horror in the character even when the script required not much more than glib flippancy. One preview suggested that Bang was channelling Roger Moore’s James Bond, which was not unfair but overlooks the real similarities between Dracula and Bond: both are homicidal ladykillers (sometimes literally) who enjoy the finer things in life, and seem able to turn their hands to just about anything with remarkable success. Hardly anyone apart from Christopher Lee has played Dracula more than once (which may be why Lee remains so connected with the role), but it would be good to see Claes Bang given another outing.

Of course, it may be that Moffat and Gatiss feel that they’ve given their version of the story now. Certainly the ending, while possibly a little anticlimactic, had a sense of finality about it, resolving Dracula as a character. Perhaps in the end this is the most distinctive thing about their take: they attempt to dig into Dracula and find out what makes him work as a genuine character, rather than simply treating him as a monolithic icon of evil surrounded by various arcane traditions and ‘rules’. Whatever you may make of the results, I think the attempt is worthy of credit, even if whatever praise it receives must be somewhat qualified.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Even before it aired, it always seemed to me that the Christmas special doubling as Matt Smith’s final episode was going to be an odd sort of beast, falling into the gap between the 50th anniversary episode and the alluring prospect of Peter Capaldi’s initial season – the anniversary was always going to be a joyous occasion, which the conclusion of the story amply reflected, while the advent of a new Doctor inevitably brings with it a new sense of energy and excitement. So giving Smith a send-off with an appropriate sense of occasion about it, that didn’t feel tonally adrift somehow, was a very particular sort of challenge.

It’s very difficult to resist the temptation to compare The Time of the Doctor with The End of Time (and equally tempting to muse on the truism from the 20th century series that any story with the word ‘Time’ in the title has a better than even chance of being duff – exhibits include Time and the Rani, The Time Monster, and The Invasion of Time) – both seasonal departures of much-loved lead actors. My sense is that The End of Time is not a well-regarded story, due to excessive sentimentality and a slightly implausible plot revolving around the possible return of Gallifrey. I suspect that its reputation will be undergoing a significant upward reappraisal in the wake of The Time of the Doctor.

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But I really don’t want to just sit here and criticise the story – it’s not really the case that I have a problem with individual episodes these days, more that I’m not a fan of the whole Moffat approach to the series. This seems to me to be to treat the programme as a series of comedy sketches, moments of great sentiment (sometimes sentimentality), and big set pieces, all linked together by plot elements of varying degrees of spuriousness. (The image of a naked Jenna Coleman, planted in my subconscious early on, was one I found difficult to dislodge, but that’s by the by.) One would almost think Moffat had an actual aversion to including a straightforward, solid, coherent plot in any of his programmes.

Anyway, that’s how The Time of the Doctor seemed to me – the actual story seemed very much secondary to providing all the usual clever bits. The big ideas this time around were (apparently) firstly to try and gather together some of the many dangling loose ends from previous Moffat episodes, and secondly to give Matt Smith a chance to really show his chops by playing a Doctor gradually aging into the ancient being the actor has always managed to suggest through his performance. Smith was, of course, very good, as he always has been, but I was rather less impressed by the rest of it – I still don’t think we’ve received a proper explanation of why the TARDIS exploded in The Pandorica Opens (how, precisely, did the Kovarian Chapter contrive this remarkable feat?), for one thing.

I’m not sure whether the recurrence of plot elements from The End of Time and The Parting of the Ways constitutes a reverent homage or just a shortage of imagination, but I was genuinely surprised that the potential-return-of-Gallifrey plot coupon was cashed in so soon – once upon a time I would have groused about the way the plot here completely ignored the assertion in the very previous episode that the Time Lords would be effectively frozen in time, unable to act at all, but we’re operating in a universe where the TARDIS has developed a teleporter function and a side-effect of regenerating is the ability to shoot down battle cruisers, so why bother?

Hey ho. I think I have said enough about the episode itself. Matt Smith never quite lived up to his promise, if you ask me, but I am still sorry to see him go. My problems are not with him but the scripts he was required to perform. Steven Moffat has spoken about the lunacy of changing the entire creative team of a programme at the same time, as happened when Rusty Davies and David Tennant departed together. That may be the case, but I would still rather have seen Moffat move on than Matt Smith. For me the programme seems in definite need of a sharp change of approach, and I’m not sure that Capaldi’s arrival alone will be enough to bring that about.

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Geeky Bit: The Clockspeed of the Doctor

Well, Moffat doesn’t seem to care that much about the wider fictional universe of the show, which just makes life a bit more interesting for those of us who do. So – age and aging where the Doctor’s concerned.

There are already, of course, several inconsistencies concerning the Doctor’s actual age already written into the series. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor at one point appears to allude to being several thousand years old, which obviously jibes with the age of around 750 which was the standard in the middle Tom Baker years. The next time we get even a general age it’s during the Colin Baker era, by which time the Doctor is claiming to be around 900 – specifically, 953 during Time and the Rani. This is of course flatly contradicted again by various stories from the Eccleston and Tennant series, wherein the Doctor is back down to about 900 (and seems to be aging in real time).

Any way you look at it, the Doctor had never been more than about 950 at any point prior to the arrival of Matt Smith: but here there is a bit of a shift. If we take the Doctor at his word, 200 years pass between The God Complex and Closing Time, then at least 300 more during The Time of the Doctor itself. Quite how long passes between the Dalek attack on the Papal Mainframe and the Doctor’s actual regeneration seems unclear, as we don’t really understand how he ages (he doesn’t age at all in the two hundred year gap mentioned up the page, but becomes noticeably more aged during the three hundred year Siege of Trenzalore), but at least another three or four centuries seems like a reasonable estimate.

The upshot of all this is that the final incarnation of the Doctor’s original regeneration cycle survived for at least 800 years, and potentially as long as the first twelve put together: most of which happened off-screen, of course, but even so it’s a somewhat peculiar development.

This would be an appropriate place to comment on the issue of the renewal of the Doctor’s regeneration cycle, and quite how this squares with the ‘All thirteen of him!’ moment from the anniversary special – or, indeed, the eleventh Doctor’s aborted regeneration from The Impossible Astronaut, or threat to regenerate in Nightmare in Silver. But that will wait for another time, I think…

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