Posts Tagged ‘Steven Moffat’

I have watched Doctor Who in a lot of different places, as you can probably imagine: mostly lounges, of course, but also hall-of-residence viewing rooms, bedrooms, and internet cafes. This last was mainly during my globetrotting period, of course, when I became a fixture in said establishments in Chiba, Bari, and Bishkek. (Perhaps most memorable of all was watching The Sound of Drums courtesy of the complimentary internet in a hotel lobby in Hiroshima, but I digress.)

Even so, the opportunity to watch some first-run Who on a cinema screen was something I couldn’t really miss – even if it was in 3D, which as you may know I’m ambivalent about at best. I suppose this was partly because, if ever there was a time to watch the show with other people, this was it. This was before the sheer scale of the event sank in – what was it in the end, 94 countries, from Argentina to Sweden? As I write the final global viewing figures are yet to come in, but this was obviously something special.


So, the full experience of cinema Doctor Who! Well, out of fear of losing my ticket I didn’t actually collect it from the machine until about ten minutes before the special started. Imagine my appalled horror when I saw the start time on it listed as 7.30 (i.e., ten minutes earlier). Fortunately this was just the door time and I was able to recover my composure and dignity and take my seat in a suitably suave manner while the house lights were still up. Someone down the front was wearing a fez, which was nice (I have heard reports of six-year-olds in Colin Baker costumes at some screenings).

Now, what I had reckoned without was the fact I still had to watch trailers before the actual special started. This particular pill had a little sugar sprinkled on it, as several of them were clearly bespoke ones assembled specially for the occasion. The one about a time-travelling, hyper-intelligent dog was simply bemusing, the one where Ron Burgundy said ‘Peter Capaldi is Doctor Who?’ was an unexpected pleasure, and the one with Ben Stiller playing a pathological fantasist with no social life was possibly focussed a little too closely on its intended audience.

One of the things the audience at home missed was the usual do-not-tape-this-and-switch-your-phone-off-now film, which on this occasion was presented by comedy Sontaran butler-nurse Strax. This was far superior to the usual one and should replace it at all screenings forthwith. There was also a special introduction featuring Matt Smith, David Tennant, and the back of John Hurt’s head. If nothing else Tennant’s appearance gave a large section of the audience a chance to practise their gasping and squealing ahead of the programme proper.

And the special itself? Well, as I hope I have managed to communicate, for me the quality of the episode was almost secondary to the event itself – the closest thing to a real-life version of the climax of Last of the Time Lords that we are likely to see (this side of 2038, at least).

However – and slightly to my surprise, for I had anticipated having to curb my usual habit during recent episodes of occasionally shouting abuse at the screen – the special turned out to be rather marvellous and did exactly what Steven Moffat had intended it to, which was to provide something for every viewer – whether that was a rattling plot with some good jokes for complete newcomers, the reappearance of some familiar faces and events from the recent past, or some deeper, more obscure references to its further past for the real hard core.

There are, inevitably a few things about The Day of the Doctor I am a little unsure about – the Zygon plotline in particular had more than a few dangling threads. As the episode appears to imply that the history of the Zygons was changed by the Time War, I would be prepared to ignore the fact that the Zygons’ rules of engagement in this story aren’t consistent with those in their debut appearance. But they’re not even consistent within the episode itself – do they actually need image galleries or not? Different bits of the story indicate different things.

I suppose it would be possible to criticise the depiction of the Time War as we saw it here – this wasn’t the chaotic, metaphysically apocalyptic, mind-scrambling conflict it’s been described as in the past, but something bearing rather more of a resemblence to part of the Clone Wars: epic and spectacular, but still comprehensible to the human mind. In the circumstances, for this particular story, this was an entirely justifiable choice, though.

I think we are still justified in asking whether or not history has been changed by the events at the climax of the story – was Gallifrey ever actually destroyed? Is it even a meaningful question? I’m not sure on either count. It is also a little bit of an ask to expect the effects of a sentient, galaxy-devouring doomsday weapon to be perfectly and indistinguishably replicated by all the Daleks miraculously shooting each other simultaneously. At first glance there is also some heavy-duty finessing involved in making the climax of Day of the Doctor dovetail perfectly with that of The End of Time (part of the point of which was that the events of the War had so corrupted the Time Lords that they didn’t deserve to survive), but on reflection I think this is doable to the satisfaction of even the most demanding fan.

Prior to the special I had speculated we were in for what I termed ‘a War Games moment’ – something which would fundamentally change the nature of the series. Did this happen? I suppose so, although I think this may prove to be more of a character issue than a real shift in the format. The prospect of a Doctor bereft of the burden of guilt and loneliness which has defined the character recently, with a capacity for real hope, and a genuine mission, is an intriguing one. It’s a neat way of giving the series a huge potential future story without compromising the fact that the absence of the Time Lords has really been a good thing for the series. Or, to put it another way, one of the advantages of existing simultaneously in multiple parallel timestreams is that you really can have your cake and eat it.

In any event, the focus of the special – and the focus of all the fiction surrounding this anniversary, come to that – felt entirely right to me. That focus was on the essential unity of all Doctor Who, the fact that it is all just one big story, and a wonderful story at that. That unity is there in the special’s direct quoting of Terrance Dicks’ still unparallelled summation of the Doctor’s character, or the transformation of the eighth Doctor into the War Doctor (thus linking the 20th and 21st century iterations of the series), or the flash ahead to the twelfth Doctor, or even in the appearance of the eleventh Doctor at the climax of An Adventure in Space and Time.

And, of course, in the appearance of Tom Baker in the final moments of the special. Tom, of course, spent half the interviews he’s given in the last week denying absolutely any involvement in the special, and the other half bellowing the news of his participation (naturally, when interviewed just after the special broadcast, with the secret out, he denied all knowledge).

So I didn’t know what to think. However, the instant Clara mentioned ‘an old man’ looking for the Doctor, I had my own little moment (although less destructive than the Doctor’s). It was so gratifying that the appearance of this most iconic and legendary Doctor was greeted with gasps and cries of delight throughout the cinema. I myself was too busy trying not to sob too audibly at the sight of my hero in his most familiar form again to make much noise myself. Nevertheless, it was the highlight of the entire anniversary for me.

So that was the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who. Earlier this year I was rather glibly citing the desire not to miss the anniversary as a reason not to leave the UK, but even so I had no idea it was going to be quite as massive an event as it ultimately proved to be. I know it’s only a month until Christmas and the Fall of the Eleventh (please finally explain why the TARDIS blew up in The Pandorica Opens, Moff) with the attendant publicity that will inevitably surround it, but right now the prospect of returning to a mundane, non-Doctor Who-obsessed world, is a distinctly unappealing one. And, if nothing else, I suppose that this shows that it was a worthy, memorable, marvellous shindig. Roll on 2023.

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Crikey, it’s like a second Christmas. Better than Christmas, really, as it doesn’t involve all the travelling and expense and Christmas proper only features an hour or so of actual Doctor Who content. Now, fair’s fair, being who I am there are frequent intervals in my life when I spend most of my time looking at or thinking about Doctor Who, but for once this is happening without me having to actively pick up a magazine or watch a DVD. This is great. We should have a 50th anniversary every year.

Anyway, I thought I would round up my thoughts on the first tranche of anniversary-related programming laid on by the BBC. I was initially rather dubious about the first intersection of someone named Brian Cox and the celebrations, as I’ve always thought that in terms of titles making sense, The Science of Doctor Who is up there with The Glamour of Railway Station Waiting Rooms or The Wit and Wisdom of David Cameron (i.e. there isn’t any worth mentioning). That said, the actual lecture – though somewhat low on genuine Doctor Who content – was sterling stuff, with one of the best explanations of how relativity operates that I can recall. I’ve been reading attempted explanations of time travel in terms of light-cones and gravity distortion for nearly thirty years – rather more, if you include the bafflegab about TARDISes functioning as ‘time cone inverters’ from Logopolis – but Coxy’s go was as close to intelligible as any of them. Nice one, Coxy.

BBC3’s Doctor Who: The Ultimate Guide looked quite grim on paper: a bog-standard C&C production (that’d be clips and, er, contributors), with various people with only a vague idea who Barry Letts is coming on and making rather too big a deal out of how big a fan of the programme they are. However, given this was a production made for a contemporary, mainstream audience, it was actually pretty respectable, and actually included a startling amount of material from the 20th century programme – even some in black and white.

Put together, the previous two offerings add up to about three hours of Doctor Who-related material, and Matt Smith popped up in inserts for them both (none of this was what you’d actually call canon, of course, even if it did feature Jenna Coleman looking even cuter than usual). Nevertheless none of it came close to the shockwave reverberating around  world fandom in the wake of the release of Night of the Doctor, less than seven minutes of actual Doctor Who, but still one of the greatest coups Steven Moffat has ever pulled off.


The actual story was very straightforward and confirmed a lot of what I, for one, already suspected: the final moments of the eighth Doctor and his metamorphosis into the War Doctor with whom we will shortly become much better acquainted. But never mind that: this was the final moments of the eighth Doctor. Or, as I nearly put it in a Facebook status update before I thought better of such obvious spoilers: PAUL MCGANN! PAUL MCGANN! EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! IT’S PAUL MCGANN! PAUL MCGANN! Everyone, it seems, already has their own story as to where they were the first time they saw Night of the Doctor, and exactly what noises they emitted when McGann made his unexpected appearance. I had half-anticipated it, but still found myself letting out high-pitched squeaks and bouncing up and down in my seat. (Thank God I had gone into a disused classroom at work to use the PC there, rather than the one in the office.)

There’s something deeply satisfying about the way that this very small story finally starts to link together the 20th century series and the 21st century incarnation of the programme – now that I think of it, Peter Davison beat Paul McGann to the title of First Person to Play the Doctor on Telly in Two Different Centuries by a number of years, but even so. It’s also, of course, somewhat bittersweet – I know he’s done a huge number of audio stories as the Doctor, but the ease with which McGann slipped back into playing him on camera, and doing such a stunning job of it, was breathtaking. Never mind Colin Baker or Christopher Eccleston: it’s the brevity of McGann’s TV appearances as the Doctor which is the single greatest missed opportunity in the history of the programme.

The geeky stuff running through my head while watching Night of the Doctor:

  • The concept of the Doctor as some sort of refusenik from the Time War was a curious one and not at all what I would have expected. His arch-enemies are in a battle to the death with his own people – a war he himself may have had a hand in starting – and he chooses to stay on the sidelines? That’s surely a little uncharacteristic. The difference in the Doctor’s appearance from his debut also seems to suggest that rather a long time has elapsed, which is a mark against the theory that the Master’s execution on Skaro formed part of the build-up to the Time War itself.
  • Speaking of which – the War Doctor looks startlingly young in his brief appearance at the end of the episode. This begs the question of how long this incarnation actually persisted for, given he appears to age the equivalent of thirty years for a human. Let’s not forget that, going by what’s said on screen, the Doctor at one point ages 200 years between episodes and doesn’t actually appear any older. Then again Moffat has said in interviews that the Doctor’s clockspeed is a matter of personal choice, and it’s entirely possible that this question will be addressed in the special itself.
  • The Doctor’s salute to his past companions only includes the ones from the audio range – making the Big Finish range canonical, on some level at least. No doubt there will be grumbles from fans of Izzy, Destrii, Fitz, Stacy and the others – and if the tenth Doctor had time to go on an extensive galactic tour just prior to regenerating, it seems a little unfair that the eighth didn’t get the chance to make a properly comprehensive farewell address. But, c’est la guerre.

One thing that struck me about Night of the Doctor was just how eagerly it seemed to engage with the deeper mythology of the programme – references to the Time War, the Sisterhood of Karn, and so on. Even the reappearance of the eighth Doctor really qualifies as very old continuity. I would be surprised if we got quite this level of mythos from the actual special itself, but it would be a pleasant surprise nevertheless.

The sense I’m getting, and this is mostly speculative, is that in The Day of the Doctor the 21st century series is going to have not only its first bona fide Three Doctors moment – one of Patrick Troughton’s more memorable ad libs reappears yet again, of course – but also its War Games moment. I never honestly expected to see the Time War itself, or the actual destruction of Gallifrey, and I don’t think Russell T Davies ever planned on them being depicted. But then Verity Lambert was against the idea of ever revealing any information about the Doctor’s origins. The Time War, as a piece of back story, has underpinned much of what’s happened in the series since its return, and this could be the moment at which it moves on to something radically different and new.

That’s an exciting prospect, but I hope the current version of the series gets the valediction it has earned (and I realise as I type that that I am conveniently forgetting just how cold most of the last two seasons have left me). I know I have criticised Steven Moffat in the past for approaching the show of late with a fanboy mentality, but if ever there was a time to let your inner fanboy rip then it is surely now. Don’t disappoint, Moff.

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Further to my thoughts yesterday on the importance of keeping in touch with the news media, I woke up today and – as I usually do on a Sunday – popped on Not the Andrew Marr Show just while my brain put itself into gear. They were reviewing the papers, particularly the front of the Mail on Sunday – which has as its headline some pointlessly vague nonsense about a terribly important political sex scandal which they aren’t actually permitted to give any meaningful information about. Sharing the front page with this was a picture accompanying the announcement that Matt Smith had announced his departure from Doctor Who.

We take it for granted that an outgoing (or indeed incoming) Doctor is big news, but it really does prove that this is not a TV show like other TV shows… will there be a dedicated programme just to make the announcement of the new guy this time? Hmm.)

Anyway, I mention this just because had I gone straight onto the internet this morning without looking at the TV my first inkling would probably have come from an invitation to ‘Like’ a Facebook page lobbying for ——– ——— to become the twelfth Doctor. I don’t want to be unkind to the performer in question, which is why I’ve —-ed their name, but they would probably not be amongst the top 7000 names on my own wish-list.

In short, here we go again. I’m not sure I have anything substantive to add to the masses of slightly frenzied speculation already clogging up vast swathes of the internet (I mean, I don’t want to be a killjoy here, and I’m aware I’m going to come across as a massive hypocrite, but come on, folks: there’s everything happening in Syria, and now Turkey’s kicking off, not to mention the current government’s attempts to destroy the fabric of British society by stealth, and we’re all discussing personnel changes on a TV show? If future generations were to describe us as decadent, how would we be able to respond?). However, there are just a couple of points that occur to me.


Firstly, with Matt Smith leaving the show before the end of the year, surely the clock must now be ticking on Steven Moffat’s own tenure with the programme? I don’t say this purely because of my lack of enthusiasm for Moffat’s version of the show (although considering the high hopes I approached the eleventh Doctor’s tenure with, I have to say that most of what’s happened over the last three and a half years has been disappointing), but because if history shows us anything, it’s that now is the right time for Moffat to go.

If you look back at Doctor Who‘s production history, you do see that a change of Doctor usually coincides with a change in the production team: Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks’ time in charge matches the run of the third Doctor to within a story either side, Tom Baker was motivated to finally leave by the arrival of John Nathan-Turner as producer, incoming producer Innes Lloyd was the instigator of the first change of lead actor, and so on. (This is not to say that a change of producer is necessarily always accompanied by a change of Doctor, by the way.)

The only times we have seen the same regime overseeing multiple Doctors have been with Rusty’s work with Eccleston and Tennant, and John Nathan-Turner’s tenure with Davison, Baker, and McCoy. We’re still not quite sure when it became apparent that Eccleston was only going to be a one-season Doctor, but in any case this is surely a special case; it’s hardly as if Rusty and the crew had done all they wanted to do with the show in the space of 13 episodes. But as far as the JNT years are concerned – as I said just recently, if there was ever a time when the show wobbled and threatened to look tired and irrelevant, it was in the 80s, with a production team who seemed to be running out of ideas and didn’t want to be there.

The character of the Doctor is so much a creation specifically of the showrunner these days, rather than the script editor, lead actor and individual scriptwriters working in concert. (Gareth Roberts has observed that Rusty Davies and Steven Moffat both wrote the Doctor almost as idealised versions of themselves.) Does Moffat have ‘another’ characterisation for the Doctor in him that will match the eleventh? Even if he does, doesn’t that commit him for staying for another three years, until the Next Guy in turn announces his departure? I can’t quite imagine another showrunner coming in and taking over a Doctor created by someone else (though I suppose it is possible: there was a distinct possibility of David Tennant staying on for the first year with Moffat, after all). Also, Moffat’s effectively cracked America for the series and is in the process of overseeing what’s looking like a very successful anniversary year: what else can he realistically expect to achieve by staying on?

Still, unless talks have quietly been going on and a successor is already moving into place (in which case we can expect a departure announcement from Moffat fairly soon), I expect we will be seeing at least one full season with Next Guy with Moffat as lead writer. A shame; a completely fresh start with Next Guy and New Showrunner would have been a genuinely exciting prospect. As it is I’m just battening down the hatches for more of the same, albeit with different hair.

Secondly – I love Tom Baker. For me he is the Doctor above and beyond all others (sorry, no discussion on this one). But I really, really wish, when planning the announcement of his own departure in 1981, he hadn’t turned to JNT and said (I paraphrase from memory) ‘Let’s have some fun with the press – how about if I feed you a line that the next Doctor could be a woman?’ And I really wish JNT hadn’t gone along with him on it.

I know the possibility of a transgender regeneration has now been written into the text of the series (I love Neil Gaiman. But I really wish etc, etc), but if there was one thing guaranteed to drive a wedge between me and the show in perpetuity (and the very idea is a shocking one, it’d be like losing a leg or a major sense organ in terms of how it would affect my sense of myself) it would be a sex change of the main character.

Partly this is because many of these cries declaring ‘now’s the time!’ seem to come from people who don’t really seem to care about Doctor Who as such, but simply have an agenda to push or are just looking to make mischief (one such burblehead popped up on News 24 to give his, ahem, informed opinion on the issue). But also I think it would be genuinely bad for the series as a piece of drama, and completely at odds with the way it has developed over the last eight years.

The 20th century version of the show frequently treated characters as collections of plot functions, rather than actual people: when a regular character did succeed in coming to life it was most often down to the efforts of the performer involved. What 21st century Doctor Who has managed to do (and whether, in fact, it’s gone too far in doing so is another story) is to treat characters as people. In this context suddenly turning the Doctor into a woman would be a massive retrograde step: it’d be effectively saying to the audience that there are no unbreakable threads of continuity where the Doctor is concerned, just a narrative construct that can do or be anything necessary to either propel the plot, or – in this case – grab some publicity.

Or, to put it another way… I have issues with Steven Moffat as a showrunner, as I think is abundantly clear by now. But I’m really reassured by his response when this very issue was put to him a few years ago. His response was (again, I paraphrase from memory) ‘sure, in the fictional universe of the show maybe it’s possible – but I’m not sure you could make it work as a story. I worry that you might not believe it was still the same Doctor.’

So, in short, I’m really hoping that Moffat takes the opportunity to move on, gracefully, soon. But I’m also very relieved that, as far as we know, he’s the one in charge of casting the new guy, whoever he may be – and I use the word ‘he’ with precision.

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I can’t honestly bring myself to believe that anyone really thought The Name of the Doctor would actually reveal the, er, name of the Doctor: Steven Moffat may enjoy stretching the format of Doctor Who until it groans under the strain, but even he wouldn’t destroy it completely [How young and naïve I was when I wrote this – A]. Finding out the Doctor’s ‘real name’ (I suspect we are now obliged to put that in inverted commas) would, in a strange way, be absolutely fatal to the appeal of the character, although the exact reason why is difficult to explain: it would be the equivalent of Sherlock Holmes settling down and getting married or, perhaps, Superman starting to wear a mask.

Thus has it ever been: a lot of the original paperwork for the series has been put back into circulation, as the golden anniversary draws closer, and there never seems to have been a serious attempt at issuing our hero with a conventional name other than ‘the Doctor’ (or, in production documents, Doctor Who). Nevertheless the series has played with the notion of exactly what it is that the Doctor writes down when signing his library card, and needless to say, a lot of this is wildly inconsistent.

For the first ten or twelve years of the series, the question of the Doctor’s name is rarely addressed on-screen. He acquires (or, rather, is given) the pseudonym John Smith in The Wheel in Space, which he’s used on and off ever since, but this is clearly just an alias. However, in a couple of the early stories there appears to be on-screen evidence that his ‘name’ really is Who, as unlikely as that sounds: he signs notes ‘Doctor W’ rather than ‘the Doctor’, and adopts the alias ‘Doktor von Wer’ when pretending to be German. More interesting (not to say notorious) is the cliffhanger to part one of The War Machines, in which the computer WOTAN declares that for its plan to succeed ‘Doctor Who is required’.

The Who family. Or not.

The Who family. Or not.

Well, I suppose you could say all this constitutes ‘case closed’ as far as the name issue is concerned, and there is, obviously, a lack of direct contradictory evidence. That said, as we’ve already seen, the Doctor is wont to use aliases sometimes, and one has to wonder where WOTAN is getting its information from: there is plenty of wriggle-room here for the various ‘Doctor Who’ references in the text of the series not to constitute a smoking gun.

And, let us not forget, here we are dealing with black-and-white Doctor Who, the earliest days of the series where its continuity and mythology are still in the process of being established. There does appear to be evidence that our hero is called Doctor Who. There is also evidence that he only has one heart and an unlimited number of regenerations, and that the TARDIS shell can have holes cut in it by very ordinary alien tech, none of which even the most dedicated old-school fan would suggest is ‘really’ the case. Digging one’s heels in over the ‘Doctor Who’ thing in particular is an odd position to take.

While there is hardly any direct evidence to contradict the ‘Doctor Who’ references, there is plenty of indirect material to work with. Once the Time Lords appear on the scene, the Doctor’s name becomes a bit more of an issue, as one would expect them to know what it is and use it. The show gets round this rather neatly, by hardly naming any of its Time Lord characters prior to 1976! (This chimes rather nicely with the presentation of the Monk on his appearances in the 60s.) The only ‘named’ Time Lords prior to The Deadly Assassin are Omega (a marginal case) and Susan (definitely a retcon – and probably not her real name either).

Terrance Dicks touches on the name issue in a couple of novelisations, not that these strictly count: the Doctor at one point is reluctant to tell his name to the Brigadier, partly because names have a special significance for Time Lords and are not lightly divulged, but mainly because the Brigadier will never be able to pronounce it (a gag Terrance may have lifted, consciously or not, from the Star Trek episode This Side of Paradise, where Spock gets a similar line). On another occasion a visiting Time Lord refers to the Master by his real name, which Terrance finds himself unable to represent using the English language and instead describes as ‘a mellifluous string of syllables’, or words to that effect.

However, The Deadly Assassin and its heirs are filled with Time Lords, many of whom are named, and none of said names are particularly challenging to the tongue: even leaving the possibility that some of these people are not full Time Lords, Borusa definitely is, as was former President Pandak. Just another example of The Deadly Assassin‘s rampant iconoclasm, I’m afraid. Tellingly, everyone addresses the Doctor on-screen by his title, even those of his superiors who know him relatively well.

There’s an attempt to redress the balance when Romana is introduced, as she does have a long and relatively difficult-to-pronounce name, Romanadvoratrelundar, which is then chopped down for convenience. However, she objects to this, which suggests it hasn’t happened before – so it doesn’t seem to be the case that Time Lords routinely have a full, complex formal name, and an abbreviated everyday name.

In The Armageddon Factor, we learn the Doctor’s school nickname was Theta Sigma (hey, there are worse possibilities), which is another neat way of dodging the issue, but from this point on the series settles down a bit – the issue of the Doctor’s name is barely ever addressed, even when the question of his actual identity becomes an element of the plot (as in Silver Nemesis). Pretty much the only exception to this is a gag in the opening episode of The Trial of a Time Lord where the Doctor appears to be about to casually reveal his full name unprompted, only to be interrupted at the crucial point (from memory, the dialogue goes something like ‘I may write a paper – Ancient Life on Ravalox, by Doctor -‘ ‘Doctor, look!’) – I wish the very best of luck to anyone trying to reconcile this with the current ‘the Doctor’s true name is a dreaded secret which must never be revealed and which he will go to tremendous lengths not to say out loud’ position.

Nevertheless, that seems to be where we’re at. It seems to be a trope of the 21st century series, and Moffat in particular, to take things that were the unarticulated subtext or conventions of the old show and write them into the text of the new incarnation – this runs from elements like the Doctor’s character, to changes in the appearance of recurring monsters. And the same has happened with the mystery of the Doctor’s name, which has gone from being just one of those things to a universe-shaking secret. To be fair, Moffat has been setting this up for six or seven years – the ‘terrible secret’ idea makes an appearance in The Girl in the Fireplace, after all – but one still gets the sense of him writing himself into a corner: he can’t actually reveal what the secret is, can he?

'I've just got to seed a long-running plotline, then we can go and "dance".'

‘I’ve just got to seed a long-running plotline, then we can go and “dance”.’

Perhaps this explains why The Name of the Doctor feels like it fails to deliver, almost as if Moffat’s grand plan is something he’s making up as he goes along. Certainly, the situation on Trenzalore which is shown on-screen does not appear to match the one described by Dorian a series earlier (again, from memory: ‘…no creature may speak falsely or fail to answer…’, which certainly doesn’t seem to be the case!), although if the universe is going to collapse as a result of the Intelligence corrupting the Doctor’s timeline this would definitely count as ‘silence falling’.

One thing The Name of the Doctor does do, by the way, is flatly and directly contradict the ‘his name is Doctor Who’ position. The episode makes two things clear: the Doctor’s tomb will only open if his name is uttered, and it’s River who eventually does so, off-screen (so it doesn’t matter who says it). Crucially, when the Great Intelligence goes into its ‘Doctor who? Doctor who? Doctor who?’ routine, the tomb stays shut: so ‘Doctor Who’ can’t be the name on the dotted line. River makes it clear that she says the real name, and only because no-one else was going to.

So maybe The Name of the Doctor did tell us something new after all. It’s a small thing, but at least that’s one possibility eliminated. Whether the whole mystery-of-the-name issue is now resolved (or as close to resolved as a Steven Moffat script gets), basically being just a lead-in to the mystery of John Hurt’s missing incarnation, remains to be seen. I rather suspect it is, because there’s a limit to the number of interesting stories you can tell about a mystery you can never, ever resolve.

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So, how did you do? Personally I managed to get through the whole of the week without picking up any spoilers. Well, any new spoilers, but we should probably leave that until later on. If you haven’t seen The Name of the Doctor yet, there will be explicit Spoilers later on, so pay attention and stop reading when we get to the pantomime dame.

New evidence that sonic over-use can mess up Amazon US's delivery schedule.

New evidence that sonic over-use can mess up Amazon US’s delivery schedule.

I fear that three years’ exposure to Moffat scripts and particularly his brand of season finale (and, by the way, doesn’t it feel weird that this was still technically only the end of Matt Smith’s third season as the Doctor? With all these mid-series breaks, it feels like he’s done four or five) has innoculated me to the majority of his tricks and games, because while The Name of the Doctor was dazzling and breathtaking while I was first watching it, I’m already getting the distinct impression that there was less going on here than met the eye.

That said, judged just on first impressions, Moffat writes a brilliant season finale – much of the time this felt like the 50th Anniversary Special had come six months early. I couldn’t decide which moment in that opening montage stunned me most, seeing a colourised William Hartnell, revisiting that notorious Dragonfire moment, or realising they’d actually found someone else prepared to wear the sixth Doctor’s costume. As usual there were big ideas and potentially format-shifting concepts being casually chucked about, winning reappearances by favourite characters, and some really good jokes.

But, then again, wasn’t it just the Doctor finding himself in some obscure metaphysical bind, with the universe as we know it falling to bits, and sanity being restored only through the Doctor doing something timey-wimey and his friends going to great lengths to preserve him? I’ve seen that in both the previous Moffat series conclusions. It’s all a bit abstract, and  – potentially worse – thoroughly Doctor-centric. Perhaps Moffat’s most brilliant achievement is to find a way to sneak what are essentially fanfic stories onto BBC1 on a Saturday night.

That said, you have to admire his legerdemain – for this story to work, it really needs a villain of substance. The fact that the Doctor’s adversary is the famed Great Intelligence gives its presence a heft that goes some way to make up for the fact that we’ve no idea what it fundamentally is, who its new friends are, or how they function together. The fact that the Intelligence was reintroduced half a dozen episodes ago works the trick of concealing how arbitrary its powers on this outing are.

I was all set to criticise this episode for being ridiculously over-hyped in terms of ‘the Doctor’s greatest secret is finally revealed’ and ‘prepare to question everything you thought you knew about the Time Lord’, but of course I was looking the wrong way: the final scene of the episode came as a total surprise, and… oh, look, we’ve reached that cut-off point I was talking about. Spoilers follow the dame.


(The beautiful thing about that photo, is that if you don’t know who it is it’s almost impossible to tell.)

Part of me is quite pleased John Hurt made his debut as… well, is he playing the Doctor or not? Definite mixed messages, but the credits say he is. So let us refer to him as the Lost Doctor. Anyway, I heard that Hurt was coming as the Lost Doctor about ten days ago, the news was all over certain bits of the internet and while I’m slightly annoyed to have had the climax semi-spoiled for me, at least I can now write about the appearance of the Lost Doctor with a clear conscience.

The reaction to the Lost Doctor’s introduction that I read seemed to be almost wholly negative, most of it – unfortunately – on the grounds that ‘another regeneration has been pointlessly wasted’ – I gave my opinion on this sort of thinking a few years ago and don’t really want to go through it again. Criticising Moffat for behaving as if he’s the boss of Doctor Who also strikes me to be missing a small but key fact: namely, that he is the boss of Doctor Who.

My instinctive assumption was that Moffat had written a script for the three 21st century Doctors, and that Hurt was involved only because Christopher Eccleston had declined to take part: he was, basically, filling in for a Doctor unable or unwilling to participate in an anniversary special. Well, if nothing else, a brilliant actor like John Hurt is a better replacement than unused footage from an abandoned story or film inserts making heavy use of idiot boards.

However, having seen how the Lost Doctor has been introduced, I’m not quite so sure he’s just standing in for the ninth Doctor: there seems to be a bigger story involved here, with this being a very distinct and unusual incarnation. The obvious conclusion to jump to – and I wouldn’t be surprised if Moffat were going to wrong-foot the audience again – is that the Lost Doctor comes from the heart of the Time War, between the McGann and Eccleston incarnations. (Funny: it did occur to me ages ago that, prior to The Next Doctor‘s flashback clips, there was no on-screen confirmation that the Eccleston Doctor was McGann’s direct successor.)

The implication seems to be that the Lost Doctor has somehow lost the right to use his own name, due to some terrible crime or other he committed. (Could this be the use of the Moment to destroy Gallifrey and the Dalek fleet?) Who decided this? The other Doctors? If nothing else the suggestion that ‘the Doctor’ is not so much a name or title as a status that can be earned or lost is a curious one – but not totally without precedent.

Yes, I’m thinking of The Brain of Morbius and its bevy of previously-unhinted-at pre-Hartnell incarnations. Did they also lose the right to the title ‘the Doctor’, or did they simply predate the adoption of it? Personally I suspect the latter – thus, when the Time Lords refer to ‘the first Doctor’ in The Three Doctors they really mean ‘the first incarnation of this particular Time Lord to call himself the Doctor’. One consequence of this would be that the eleventh Doctor is actually the nineteenth incarnation overall.

The Thirteen Life Rule dogmatists have probably turned purple and fallen over already, and are doubtless pointing out that Mawdryn Undead not only reasserts the regeneration limit but specifies that the Doctor has only eight left, effectively ruling out any pre-Hartnell incarnations. I concede that The Brain of Morbius and Mawdryn Undead appear to explicitly contradict one another – but then again Mawdryn Undead appears to explicitly contradict most stories from the UNIT era, and not many people seem willing to take its side in that particular tussle.

Anyway, the precise details of the regenerative process are still somewhat shrouded in mystery, and there have been hints that the limit of thirteen is not wholly inflexible. Taking a title instead of a name seems to have been an unusual occurrence amongst Time Lords, and usually the mark of a renegade. Could something so significant have an effect on the regenerative cycle, to the point of resetting it? I am probably either indulging in a wild flight of continuity cop fantasy, or over-thinking, or both.

I am virtually certain that none of the above will be addressed in the 50th Anniversary Special. To be perfectly honest, just the prospect of seeing John Hurt as an (apparently ‘bemused’) incarnation of the Doctor, not to mention the return of the Zygons – and of course David Tennant – has me quite excited anyway. All right, so for me, this series has flopped more often than buzzed – but the potential for greatness is integral to every second of this show. I just hope that potential gets realised as much as it should come November the 23rd.

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Yes, I know this is just supposed to be me banging on about The Bells of St John, but there are important matters of housekeeping and context to be sorted out before we can get to that. First off, what season, exactly, are we up to now? Is this, as was originally advertised, the second half of season 33 (or series seven, if you’re that way inclined), or season 34 in its own right? It seems to be being presented as the latter – understandably, given the thorough sprucing-up the show’s undergone since the Ponds departed – but it’s hard to shake the idea that this is partly being done in an attempt to cover up the fact that we are not, in truth, being given anything like a full new series of Doctor Who, in this, the golden anniversary year. What we are getting is a couple of specials and the remaining half of last year’s series.

Secondly, I have been watching a lot of early Tom Baker recently – in the last week, in particular, I’ve enjoyed The Masque of Mandragora, The Face of Evil, and The Robots of Death, and I’m in the middle of The Talons of Weng-Chiang at the moment. Obviously the only sane comment to make at this juncture is damn, but season 14 is good. I mean, really, seriously good. The weakest story of the lot (to my mind The Hand of Fear; others may disagree) still hasn’t got very much wrong with it at all.

Why do I bother to state this rather self-evident fact about some pieces of Doctor Who which are 36 years older than the episode we’re supposedly here to talk about? Well, it’s not that I’m automatically going to find The Bells of St John wanting in comparison, not exactly, it’s that… I don’t know, maybe it’s me. Whichever way you cut it, we are eight whole years into the revived version of Doctor Who, so you could probably argue that if I’m still not used to the narrative style of the modern show then that’s nobody’s fault but mine – because I think that if I have a real problem with The Bells of St John, then that’s at the root of it. After watching so many classic adventures which introduce a mystery or situation, involve the regular characters, further complicate the plot a few times, and then resolve the problem, it’s still quite wrenching to see a story in which most of the middle section of that process is omitted.

(And, by the by, I notice that the ‘faking his own death’ thing has gone for a Burton, given our hero is back in the habit of sending his opponents signed messages to warn them off…)

'Apparently someone on Outpost Gallifrey doesn't like my new coat.'

‘Apparently someone on Outpost Gallifrey doesn’t like my new coat.’

I’ll be honest with you, there was a moment while watching this episode when – having thoroughly enjoyed it so far – I sat back and thought ‘Moffat has set all of this up really well, I hope the meat of the story lives up to the promise of the introduction’, at which point I looked at the clock and realised there were only about ten minutes left before it all wrapped up. In other words, this story felt cramped and maybe even a bit rushed by the demands 45 minute timeslot. I know the situation was only exacerbated by the need to introduce – again – JLC’s character, but even so. Actually, the sheer impudence of Moffat’s writing in this area was one of the things I really liked about the story – he doesn’t muck about, but hooks the two of them up almost as soon as the credits have finished rolling, through the most outrageous plot device (and one which you just know is going to get paid off some way down the line. Place your bets now as to who the mysterious and helpful woman given to handing out the Doctor’s phone number is – given recent announcements I suspect it could prove to be the Blessed Saint Tyler, but if it actually turns out to be Anneke Wills then no-one will be happier than me). The writing and direction was, as ever, effervescent, even if one can’t help but suspect a story about wi-fi will look quaint to future viewers in exactly the same way The War Machines’ take on the internet does to us now. I managed to guess the identity of the villain, by the way: this is the first time in 21st century Who they’ve had the same bad guy two stories in a row, isn’t it? Please correct me if I’m wrong.

I suppose it’s no real wonder that this modern, London-set, new-girl-introduction romp reminded me quite so much of previous modern, London-set, new-girl-introduction romps like Rose and Partners in Crime. Is it quite up to the standard of either of those? It’s more relaxed than the 2005 opener and less overtly comedic than the 2008 episode, but possibly more smartly written than either of them. Despite my misgivings that this was really just the beginning and end of a potentially good story with the middle sucked out, I enjoyed it very much, and I’m keen to see where these particular storylines lead us next.

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In the last instalment of Natural History of Evil I looked at Season 32 and concluded that the central conflict between Good and Evil which has been the narrative motor for most Doctor Who since the early years of the programme was now much less in evidence than it had been in the past. Episodes about machinery running out of control, and the ethical crises arising from this, were now much more common, and while there were still clearly-defined villains and monsters in nearly every episode, the main attraction and central idea of the episodes were not necessarily rooted in the conflict between the protagonists and antagonists, but instead in increasingly convoluted and self-referential plotlines. I expressed curiosity as to whether this trend would continue into Season 33 and the associated episodes – even though we had been promised that the arc-intensive Season 32 was a one-off and not to be repeated.

Well, how did things actually work out? What is the crux of Doctor Who‘s storytelling these days, and how does it handle its monsters and villains – especially the recurring variety?

I suppose we must start by looking at The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, an episode I’m afraid I can summon up virtually no enthusiasm for, largely because the plot is so insipid. There is a storyline about the industrialised destruction of the environment, but little sense of moral outrage about this – and the characters who embody this are comic relief, not intended as a credible threat. Instead, we get a peculiar mixture of spectacle and sentimentality, all sluiced over with imagery from both traditional Christmases and the works of C.S. Lewis (who, one is tempted to assume, died in protest rather than share his lifetime with Doctor Who). This is a Christmas story with too much Christmas and not enough story.

One notable thing about Season 32 is that returning villains are thinner on the ground than in any other series since the revival – the only full-scale appearance by an old enemy is by the Cybermen (as wonky a threat as ever), and the writer of this story has admitted he only included them because nobody else was using a big-name monster that year.

In comparison, in just six episodes of Season 33 we have seen practically all the big names back – with most of the others promised in the balance of the season: Daleks, Weeping Angels, Sontarans and Silurians (although Strax and Vastra have both to some extent transcended their races, as I’ve mentioned earlier), with Cybermen due some time this year.

In previous parts of this series I have suggested that the recurring big-name monsters of the original series often constituted a ‘shorthand for evil’ – using the Daleks or Cybermen saved writers from having to come up with a new concept or motivation for an antagonist.

However, these days the classic monsters have become genuinely iconic, and their use now often taps into this – rather than being used as a shorthand for evil per se, they are deployed to ensure a particular episode draws attention and is perceived as of greater importance than the norm. This certainly seems to be the case with The Angels Take Manhattan, the return of the Weeping Angels just upping the ante (and expectations) in episode already primed to grab people’s attention. The way the series operates now, it would feel wrong for a companion to depart following a battle with a ‘new’ enemy.

Possibly the use of the Daleks in Asylum of the Daleks was designed to ensure people were lured in to enjoy the surprise appearance of Jenna-Louise Coleman – the inevitable ‘the new companion is a Dalek’ headlines may have been lurking at the back of Moffat’s mind, as well. At least the episode attempts to do something new with the Daleks and their culture, even if that means riding roughshod over existing continuity, plot coherence, and common sense.

The surprise return of the Great Intelligence in The Snowmen is not quite the same as the other classic revivals of recent years – for one thing, the Intelligence’s appearance is a surprise, not the main publicity hook for the story, and for another, one doesn’t need to be aware that it is a recurring enemy for the story to work. It is, and this is not especially appropriate for a Christmas episode, an Easter egg. The episode works quite well on its own terms, with a plausible (if not exactly nuanced) villain and some interesting monsters.

There was another bona fide villain in the shape of Solomon from Dinosaurs on a Spaceship. As I said when I was talking about this episode at the time, the fact that there was a genuine, unequivocal villain in this story was one of the main reasons I enjoyed it as much as I did. Not a villain to add to the list of all-time series greats, by any means, but a properly malevolent embodied presence for the Doctor to take on, and rare enough these days. Of course, if we’re going to talk about the series’ approach to evil and morality, we should probably touch on the controversy surrounding the episode’s denouement and Solomon’s demise: hoist by his own petard in the classic style, Solomon found himself blown up, with the Doctor choosing to leave him to his fate rather than save him.

He may be small fry, but there's not much else around these days.

He may be small fry, but there’s not much else around these days.

There was a significant response arguing that this was too callous and brutal an act on the Doctor’s part, and that he would never leave anyone to their death, no matter how evil they were. I’m not sure where this idea comes from: possibly the modern audience has been seduced by the lovely-fluffy-boffin approach of Matt Smith, and the romantic-hero persona of David Tennant, because the main conception of the Doctor for the course of much of the series has been that this is a man who, when it all kicks off, is utterly ruthless in putting his enemies down: there are countless examples of this, including several from the new series (the death of Cassandra in End of the World being just one). That he usually does so without picking up a weapon himself is one of the things that makes him so interesting as a character, but he’s never been presented as any kind of pacifist.

This naturally leads us on to A Town Called Mercy, in which we do see the Doctor picking up a weapon and getting into a bit of a tizzy when facing a war criminal. A bit like Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’s ‘Team TARDIS’, this in one of those ideas which works in the context of the episode but feels a bit at odds with the series’ usual style – Kahler-Jex isn’t a very nice man, but he’s not quite (for example) Davros, whom the Doctor has showed every sign of being unable to kill in cold blood. The best one can say is that the Doctor’s hostility towards Jex is understandable, but his utter fury seems very out of character.

Then again, this whole episode seems to be playing by subtly different rules – most of the time Doctor Who operates in terms of Good and Evil, with perhaps the occasional carefully deployed shade of grey. A Town Called Mercy seems to have wandered over into the Star Trek universe – it wouldn’t take a massive rewrite for this to be an inconspicuous Trek episode – with its knotty moral problems, redemptive (and predictable) self-sacrifice, and general sense of its own profundity. At the time this was my favourite episode of the season, mainly because the plot actually makes sense and it has some kind of weight to it, but at the same time it’s the least like traditional Doctor Who.

Then again, with the exception of The Snowmen none of these episodes felt much like my kind of Doctor WhoAsylum of the Daleks is a gimmicky spectacle which doesn’t even make sense on its own terms, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship is a silly romp (again, slightly gimmicky), A Town Called Mercy we’ve just discussed, The Power of Three is a deliberate attempt at format-busting to which the putative A-plot is very secondary, and The Angels Take Manhattan is all about the convolutions of its own tangled timelines and how they conspire to generate an appropriately melodramatic climax.

In all cases the opposition between the Doctor and that week’s enemy is either not the main focus of the episode, or shares that position with whichever gimmick is being employed. This is less a series about moral conflict, and more one about playing with ideas and elements of characterisation and the format.

However, The Snowmen goes a long way to redress this problem, if indeed that’s how you perceive: probably why I like it much more than any of the other recent episodes. One would hope that in this anniversary year the series would be looking to respect its heritage, roots and traditions, and that the improvements of The Snowmen are the first sign of this. We will find out soon enough, I expect.

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I think it will come as no surprise to regular readers hereabouts that, of late, I have become as indifferent as I’ve ever been about the Doctor Who currently in production – and given that we have one of the best Doctors ever, being overseen by one of the best writers ever, this is a bit baffling. Nevertheless the last mini-season left me cold, mainly because of too many episodes where gimmicks or spectacle or the pursuit of the high-concept seemed to have taken priority over proper, solid plotting and storytelling. The last Christmas show was one of the most insipid things I’ve ever seen – it’s not available in a DVD box set as I write (the Christmas show usually gets lumped in along with the following series) which actually had me momentarily wondering if I actually could be bothered to buy it. (But only momentarily: readers, I have Time and the Rani and Warriors of the Deep on DVD. Story quality is not an issue set against the power of fannish completism.)

And so I sat down to watch The Snowmen with expectations dialled down as low as they have ever been, probably, fairly glum and somewhat indifferent. An hour later I was beaming and cheerful, because it seemed to me that it was the best episode in eighteen months and the best Christmas show since The Runaway Bride. I have to say that I distrusted my own reaction somewhat – could it be that reduced expectations had played a part in making this episode look so good? So I watched it again a few days later, expecting to not to have nearly as much fun second time around. Well – true, a few things did jump out at me as dubious that hadn’t done the first time. But hardly any; this episode still looked and felt great.

'They used to say I was hansom, but now I'm more of a growler' etc, etc.

‘They used to say I was hansom, but now I’m more of a growler’ etc, etc.

Is it as simple as the fact that there was just a nicely twisty-turny but nevertheless coherent story going on behind the introduction of the new companion? Was it just the inclusion of a decent, thought-through bad guy? Could it have been the the-clues-were-there-why-didn’t-I-see-it-coming-fanboy-pleasing twist? (Actually, watching the episode on my sister’s hi-def TV I was able to read the small print on Simeon’s business card very early on and worked it out then, but I still didn’t spot the significance of the Doctor’s tin until the end of the episode.) Was it the new TARDIS interior? (It seems to be growing to resemble the Cushing version inside and out.) Surely it can’t have been just the fact that the bass-line is back to a position of due prominence in the theme arrangement?

In the end I don’t really care. If this is a sign of the quality we can expect over the next twelve months then this year may even live up to the collective expectations of fandom. At this moment in time I am back on board with my confidence fully restored (for all that the Doctor’s resolution to retire barely lasted beyond the opening credits, and Moffat seems to insist on writing every major female character as relentlessly flirtatious).

However, a few points to ponder. (Spoilers follow!)

The Snowmen went out of its way to establish that, in Who-world, Sherlock Holmes is and always has been a fictional character. Fair enough, but Moffat saying ‘this has always been the case’ made me think – has there ever been an explicit stating of this on TV in the past? I can’t think of one off-hand. I can sort of understand why Moffat wants to put an end to all the ‘do a crossover!’ chatter, but given Sherlock has a contemporary setting why go on about the original Strand stories like this? I am probably over-thinking as usual. (Of course, no-one in 1892 would have recognised the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes costume, given this story is set well before William Gillette started playing the character dressed like that.)

I’ve no idea what the current consensus is as to the status of the Virgin novels, but we can cross All-Consuming Fire off the list of apocryphal possible-stories now (this novel introduced the detective and his partner whose adventures, lightly fictionalised, formed the basis of the Sherlockian canon – obviously Vastra and Jenny take their places now). The same novel, incidentally, provides an alternate origin for the Great Intelligence – identifying it (rather improbably) with Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothoth – which is likewise superceded by the events of The Snowmen.

Speaking of which, Moffat might possibly have stuck a line in about the newly-created Intelligence being banished to the fifth dimension, or somewhere similar outside normal time and space – given that first contact between the Intelligence and the monk Padmasambhava is implied to have occurred some time in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, there’s an apparent glitch here (also, the old boy would have to be welding like a demon to get all those robot Yeti built between 1892 and 1934).

Other recurring-monster news – four years have gone by, from Vastra, Jenny and Strax’s point of view, since their trip to Demon’s Run (assuming that the reason Jack the Ripper ceased operating in 1888 was simply because Vastra ate him). If the material in the 2011 Brilliant Book is canon, Vastra and Jenny have been associating for at least eleven years now. (I wonder who performed the wedding?) Neve Macintosh is so good as Vastra that I’m a little sorry she’s not the new companion. She gives the character a poise and authority that’s very impressive – this is someone who works with the Doctor as an equal, rather than an assistant. Still, I wonder if the prominence of this character means we won’t be seeing the Silurians back as an adversarial race in future. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the back-story of this race has got increasingly mangled since they were revived in 2010 (I may return to this topic in future).

The same could also be said of the Sontarans. Admittedly, a lot of the brilliant work done in reinventing this race in The Sontaran Stratagem was almost instantly undone in The Poison Sky (which appears to suggest that they’re only the greatest soldiers in the universe as long as whoever they’re fighting can’t shoot back at them), but they’re still a rather more interesting and impressive proposition than the revamped version of the Cybermen (and I would just add that if Neil Gaiman can’t write a great Cyberman story, no-one can – if Gaiman blows it, retire them until the next big anniversary, as they have clearly shot their bolt). However, having a prominent recurring Sontaran as comic relief sort of undercuts that. I can see that, in a very Robert Holmes-y sort of way, Steven Moffat is more interested in writing about characters than races of alien monsters, but he doesn’t want to mess up too many of the big name monsters. A full-on story with hostile, threatening Sontarans would be a good idea sometime soon.

Possibly I am getting much too wrapped up in minor details. But it’s a joy to be doing that rather than complaining about script holes, improbable plot contrivances, or story logic coming a distant third to spectacle or melodrama. I hope I can carry on buriyng myself in the details throughout 2013.

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We’ve all become so used to the idea of the internet as a repository of all wisdom and knowledge that sometimes it’s a bit of a shock to discover it doesn’t necessarily contain everything you’re looking for. There have been masses of Doctor Who-related material online since the earliest days of the medium, and so you would assume something cogent and insightful was available on any topic related to the show.

However, I’m currently mulling over a piece about the sometimes peculiar intersection between real-world history and the series’ version of it, and it occurred to me that it’d be quite hard to do this without addressing just when some of the present-day stories are supposed to be set. This, in turn, would inevitably lead us on to the dreaded topic of the UNIT Dating Conundrum. So I had a quick look around to make sure there was a decent, clear, well-written article available on this topic, just so I could be confident newcomers to the show would be able to bring themselves up to speed.

And you know what, I could only find one, and I think it leaves a bit to be desired. So just for my own satisfaction, and as background to other pieces on in-universe history which may appear in future, here’s a look at when the series’ present day episodes are actually set (and the thrilling continuity disasters resulting from this). Knowing this stuff will enable you to walk amongst serious Doctor Who fans unnoticed and unremarked upon. (I can’t think why you would want to, but still.)

Present day episodes are rare to non-existent in the first four or five years of the programme. We’re not given an on-screen date for the setting of the very first episode, but this is retroactively dated to late 1963 in Remembrance of the Daleks. Parts of The War Machines, The Faceless Ones, and Evil of the Daleks all seem to be taking place simultaneously on the same day in mid-1966, to judge from the on-screen dates (very slightly near-future in the case of the first story, then progressively less so, for obvious reasons). So far, so (fairly) straightforward.

Then we come to 1968’s The Web of Fear and suddenly things get interesting. This is a sequel story, set ‘forty years’ after its precursor – which was The Abominable Snowmen, set in the mid 1930s. So The Web of Fear is apparently set around 1975, moving the ‘present day’ of the series nearly a decade into the future.

The same year’s The Invasion is a further sequel, established as taking place four years down the line – which means UNIT, the organisation which has been a staple of the show’s universe ever since, came into existence sometime between 1976 and 1979. This appears to establish a solid timeframe for the long run of present day stories that appeared between 1970 and 1976: assuming the stories occur over the same period they’re broadcast in, the third Doctor arrives in exile around 1980 and carries out his final assignment on secondment to the WEB round about 1986.

Groovy fashions from 1979, apparently. It's like punk never happened...

Groovy fashions from 1979, apparently. It’s like punk never happened…

Even here, of course, there are more problems than you can concisely shake a perigosto stick at. Britain, it appears, is using pre-decimal currency around 1980 (during Doctor Who and the Silurians) – in the real world it went decimal in 1971. The Prime Minister during The Green Death, presumably set in the early 80s, is a man called Jeremy – although, to be fair, a woman is in Number Ten by Terror of the Zygons, two years later. Sarah, in a story made in 1975, claims to be a native of 1980, when (given our hypothesis) her home time is at least five years later. This is before we even get to all the charming examples of wonky futurism the series indulges in, such as the British space programme (The Ambassadors of Death, The Android Invasion), ‘futuristic’ TV channels (BBC3 appears), and UNIT’s occasional use of high-tech weapons (most visibly the laser cannon in The Seeds of Doom). Even so, it all hangs together. Just about.

This is largely due to the efforts of the script editors of the period, Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes, who – particularly the former – went out of their way in order to maintain the conceit of an unspecified near-future setting. At one point, the specific date on which Day of the Daleks is set becomes a plot point, which Dicks gets round by having Jo indicate it off-screen, as revealed by the rather inelegant dialogue ‘You’ve already told me what year it is…’

Unfortunately, the 1980s production team were perhaps not as familiar with this conceit as they should have been, as the present-day stories at this point are all set in their year of transmission – which makes a certain kind of narrative sense, in terms of allowing the audience to identify with the setting. So Attack of the Cybermen‘s 1985 setting is significant to the (excuse for a) plot, for example, as is the (unconvincing) November 1988 background of Silver Nemesis.

However, given this period is widely criticised for being too interested in continuity, it’s a bit ironic that in terms of dating stories there are (relatively speaking) serious contradictions, all due to ignorance (intentional or otherwise) of previous work. K9 and Company is set at Christmas 1981, which in order to work means that all the UNIT-related stories between The Invasion and The Hand of Fear must have occurred in the space of two years.

It’s when Mawdryn Undead appears on the scene that the continuity anomaliser really blows a fuse, however. Here we are boldly told that the Brigader retired from UNIT in 1977 – which is fine if you extend the set-in-the-year-of-broadcast principle back in time to the 70s stories (the Brigadier was last on screen in 1975), but utterly irreconcilable with the implied dating of The Invasion to 1979. (Yes, seasoned Who fans, I’m going over basic stuff. But think of the younger generations.)

This single continuity error is at the dark heart of Doctor Who’s fictional universe, impossible to escape, impossible to ignore, impossible to incorporate into any coherent history. DVD documentaries have been made about it (The UNIT Dating Conundrum on the jollied-up version of Day of the Daleks, which covers this topic concisely and entertainingly). The old FASA role-playing game had a valiant go at coming up with an in-universe explanation for it (too much TARDIS-use around 1970s and 80s Earth had mucked up the timelines). Whenever anyone has a go at presenting a history of the fictional universe, they make a point of acknowledging that the UNIT dates are an insoluble problem.

This didn’t stop DWM having a good go at coming up with an ambitious, if somewhat off-the-wall solution, which also deals with the slightly odd nature of the Brigadier’s retirement. A senior soldier would, according to some, automatically receive an honorary promotion on retiring, so why is the Brigadier still a Brigadier? Why is he teaching at a prep school at all? (Is the UNIT pension so poor?)

It is compulsory for any discussion of Bad Continuity in Doctor Who to include a photo from Mawdryn Undead. So here it is.

It is compulsory for any discussion of Bad Continuity in Doctor Who to include a photo from Mawdryn Undead. So here it is.

The solution suggested was that the 1977 version of the Brigadier is himself a time traveller from the late 80s, zapped back there by unspecified means during an unseen, post-Terror of the Zygons adventure and living a purposely quiet life in order to avoid meeting the younger version of himself who, in 1977, would be in the process of setting up UNIT in the first place. It hardly qualifies as Occam’s Razor in action but it’s the best solution on offer if you really care about this sort of thing.

One curious area which I haven’t seen receive much attention is the status of the final UNIT story from the original run, Battlefield. This enthusiastically resurrects the idea of UNIT stories happening in an unspecified near-future, and specifically draws attention to it: ‘we are in the future,’ the Doctor reminds Ace when she is shocked by the prices in the local pub, there’s a possible suggestion of voice-activated phone technology being in use, and – most tantalisingly – the Brigadier himself dismisses a phone call with ‘I don’t care if it’s the King!’ The implication is obviously that the UK is ruled over by a male monarch at this point.

At the time of writing, this is not the case in the real world, and it definitely wasn’t the case in-universe at the time of Voyage of the Damned, which features Liz Two as a character (and is set in late 2008, as we shall see). Sadly, the intriguing prospect of Battlefield being set further into the future than the present day of the revived series does not have legs, simply because it features the Brigadier, whose death is referred to in the (apparently) present-day setting of The Power of Three (though, as we shall see… well, all in good time). The Brig’s reference to the King is presumably a rather odd figure of speech – possibly he’s referring to the King of Peru, given how much time the Brigadier appears to spend there in later life.

The revived series has not been above making the odd joke about the intractability of the UNIT dating question – in The Sontaran Stratagem the Doctor himself admits he can’t actually remember whether his initial stint as UNIT’s scientific advisor was in the 70s or the 80s. However, this is not to say that the revived show and its spin-offs have an entirely spotless record in the dates department.

The End of Time establishes that Rose meets the Doctor at some time in 2005, which means that – very briefly – we’re back in the territory of on-screen year and year-of-broadcast being the same. However, almost at once the present-day setting shifts a year into the future (in the opening moments of Aliens of London, to be precise), which remains the case for most of the Rusty Davies era. You can say what you like about the dramatic merits of the Christmas shows, but the fact they initially share a present day setting (and refer to their precursors) makes it easy to keep track of which year the ‘present day’ is supposed to be.

The ‘one year ahead’ situation persists until Journey’s End, which was broadcast in 2008 but – given the three Christmas specials between it and Aliens of London, set in 2006 – can’t be set any earlier than 2009. It’s a bit unfortunate that the series itself muddies the water on this in The Waters of Mars, by explicitly dating the Dalek invasion of Journey’s End to 2008, but you can’t have everything.

There is also the slight oddity of the main part of The Eleventh Hour taking place in 2008 (‘two years’ before the Ponds’ wedding, which is in June 2010), which means that from the point of view of planet Earth, the Atraxi blockade happens before the near-crash of the Titanic (Christmas 2008), the business with the Adipose, and so on. Funny how no-one mentions it to the tenth Doctor (or even tries to phone him up during it), but there you go.

The dates hang together pretty consistently, which is even more impressive when you consider that there were three shows sharing a fictional universe in simultaneous production for several years in the late 2000s. One has to assume that all three share the one-year-ahead timeframe, which presents a few minor problems with car tax discs being out of date and so on, but this is much less of an obvious poser than, say, the decimal currency slip in Doctor Who and the Silurians.

However, if the 1977 Brigadier of Mawdryn Undead is the continuity nightmare of the original run, then the year 2009 in toto is shaping up to be the great unmentionable of recent continuity, because the amount of stuff which appears to happen in this one year is astonishing.

(This assumes that The End of Time happens at Christmas 2009 – it’s not obviously impossible that it could be Christmas 2010, but this does mean some of the tenth and eleventh Doctors’ present-day Earth adventures occur in a sort of jumbled simultaneity, which has never been how the series has approached this sort of thing in the past.)

Anyway, here is everything that happens in Who-world in 2009, if you do the sums and pay attention:

  • The entirety of the third season of adventures for the tenth Doctor (must occur after Voyage of the Damned (set at Christmas 2008) and before The End of Time (Christmas 2009).

  • Planet of the Dead (reference is made to the events of The Stolen Earth – and the story must happen prior to The End of Time, as Naismith is still in business and advertising on the side of the bus).

  • Series 2 and 3 of The Sarah Jane Adventures (reference is made to the events of The Stolen Earth in series 2, while the tenth Doctor’s final encounter with Sarah is at Christmas 2009 – this must mean her third-series wedding, which he attended, happened earlier in the same year).

  • The final episodes of Torchwood series 2. Fragments‘ on-screen dating, miraculously, doesn’t commit any major blunders. However, it dates Ianto’s joining the team to ’21 months earlier’. As this was after the Battle of Canary Wharf, which happened in 2007, it places both Fragments and Exit Wounds to some point in 2009.

  • All of Torchwood: Children of Earth, which obviously follows the second series, but concludes prior to The End of Time (Jack leaves Earth at the end of the miniseries and is still off-world in the Christmas show).

UNIT staff in 2009 getting ready to file some serious overtime claims.

UNIT staff in 2009 getting ready to file some serious overtime claims.

Cripes, that’s a busy year. It only gets worse when you realise that Torchwood‘s second series must conclude prior to The Poison Sky (the Donna’s World version of this story indicates Toshiko and Owen are already dead by this point), and Journey’s End must in turn be finished prior to Easter 2009, which is when Planet of the Dead is set. That’s a lot to squeeze into three and a half months.

(One unintended consequence of all the above, taken at face value, is that Martha Jones comes across as emotionally volatile, to say the least: early in the year it’s implied that she’s engaged to Tom Milligan, but by the end of the year she’s married to Mickey Smith – a bit of a whirlwind romance as she’s already on her honeymoon during Children of Earth. I give it a year at the outside…)

Once we get into the eleventh Doctor’s tenure, things initially calm down a bit – presumably Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures are back to year-of-setting and year-of-broadcast being identical, given that the Ponds’ wedding happens on the day the episode depicting it was broadcast, and the same being true of the Doctor’s cross-my-fingers-not-really ‘death’.

However, from the Ponds’ point of view, the latter part of the eleventh Doctor’s second series occurs in Autumn 2011, at the end of which he (sigh) fakes his own death and they don’t see him for two years (the period is given at the end of The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe).

The production team, whether deliberately or not, have kept fairly quiet about the fact that the ‘present day’ for the Ponds at the start of the most recent series was at least 2014 (given their reconciliation with the Doctor at Christmas 2013). Adding the super-extended time period covered by The Power of Three means that the Ponds’ home time in The Angels Take Manhattan is no earlier than 2015.

As I said at the time, this makes it a bit curious that the ‘present day’ sequences of the New York story are specifically dated to 2012 – this was a trip back in time for them anyway! Which leads one to wonder why they didn’t stay in 2015 for their American trip… given that Amy apparently becomes such a famous model she is accosted by autograph-hunters while out shopping (as seen in Closing Time), popping back to a point before she becomes such a celebrity may just have made for a less stressful holiday for everyone (at least, that was the plan…).

However, there is one final thing to consider. If 2009 is the first big problem of revived continuity, the second is Miracle Day – when exactly did it take place?

Miracle Day (from the spin-off of the same name) was presented as a massive global event, unfolding over many months and with after-effects which would take a long time to fade. However, it has never been directly referred or even alluded to in the present-day stories of the parent series. The first episode of Miracle Day indicates that it occurred around the same it was broadcast: thus placing it in late 2011.

This is very unfortunate from the continuity cop’s point-of-view: had the miniseries been given a vague date, or a slightly near-future one, it would fit fairly neatly into the two-year gap between the late-2011 scenes at the end of The Wedding of River Song and the Christmas Day 2013 conclusion of The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe.

But it wasn’t, and so we are forced to either wonder why Rory and Amy never mention Miracle Day to the Doctor despite the fact it is apparently in progress at the time of Let’s Kill Hitler, or banish it from mainstream Who-world entirely. This latter would practically constitute an admission of defeat and – worse than that – that the overall history of the fictional universe is not completely coherent. We can’t have that.

On the face of things, the new companion is the first not to hail from contemporary Earth (but as long as Moffat is running the show, it would be very unwise to take things entirely at face value). Even so, one would have thought this would free the series up considerably in terms of when its present day actually is. Will they stick to the three-years-ahead currently in place, or revert to a same-year or one-year-ahead formula? I don’t know that for sure, but I’m pretty certain that sooner or later they’re going to mess it up – and people like me will be waiting to explain exactly how, in horrifying detail.

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I’ve often said in the past that Russell T Davies’ genius in overseeing the return of Doctor Who lay not in what he changed about the series – and let’s not forget how controversial the focus on the companions’ families was, at least to begin with, nor how strange the change to the 45-minute story initially felt – but in what he didn’t. I myself was firmly in favour of rebooting the continuity from scratch, entertained various notions of a mercurial, Hartnellesque Doctor, and so on – but the series that eventually appeared stuck very closely to the template the original had used, especially from 1973 to 1977: the Doctor and a single companion, with frequent trips to a ‘home base’ of sorts on contemporary Earth, with a bunch of other recurring characters there.

At this point in the original run, the TARDIS was semi-steerable and so it was implied that the companion travelled with the Doctor out of the sheer joy of it – Sarah is clearly pretty distraught upon being told that she has to go home at the end of The Hand of Evil, and many years later it’s during Rusty’s tenure that this is properly articulated.

That it’s done so at all demonstrates one of the distinctive things about the modern show: the focus on the regular characters as just that, individual characters rather than ciphers carrying out plot functions – there’s an overall swing away from it being a plot-driven series to a character-driven one. Obviously this extends to how companion arrivals and departures are dealt with.

As part of the series’ new style, one thing totally (and thankfully) absent is the out-of-the-blue departure, with a companion deciding in the last five minutes of a story that this would be a nice to move on. (This may be due to the artistes’ contracts being handled much more professionally, who can tell – in at least one case during the original run, the producer kept hoping an actress would stay on, only finally accepting they were leaving while their last episode was actually being filmed.) Companion departures are foreshadowed, written into the overall story of a season, and arise seamlessly from the way they’ve been characterised.

And so it is that Rose, who is established (however objectionably, if you’re anything like me) as the Doctor’s One True Soul Mate throughout her stories, has to be physically ripped from his side and banished to a parallel universe by a series of wobbly and arguably contrived plot devices. There is no way this character, as written and performed, would ever leave the Doctor’s side voluntarily, and her departure reflects this. Doomsday, until very recently, was unique in that it is fundamentally the story of how a companion leaves the Doctor. This is not the story of how the hubris of Torchwood unleashes a Cyberman-Dalek conflict on present-day London – all that is just window-dressing for Billie Piper crying on a beach somewhere. The Daleks and Cybermen are just there to lend heft to the circumstances of Rose’s leaving – the same is not true of the Master in Martha’s final regular story or Davros in Donna’s.

Oh, stop milking it.

Oh, stop milking it.

If you want to properly characterise companions and not make them basic ciphers, you almost instantly run into the problem of how to differentiate them. We have yet to see how Steven Moffat will make the new girl distinct from Pond – although having someone likeable whose backstory isn’t completely wrapped up in the Doctor would be a good start – but in Rusty’s case the defining characteristic of the lead companion was the nature of their romantic feelings for the Doctor. After the quasi-romance between the Doctor and Rose (and I’ll fight to the death to keep that ‘quasi’, dammit), the dynamic between the Doctor and Martha was one of unrequited affection (the way this is played has the unfortunate consequence of making the Doctor look like a thoughtless arse and Martha a drip, but that can’t be helped) and this again feeds into her departure and provides a decent rationale for it – all the business with her traumatised family helps too.

(Although one has to wince a bit at the way Martha Jones gets treated after her initial departure – shuffled over into Torchwood for a bit, then dragged back for three dud episodes with Donna, then a lot of running around with plot devices in the finale where she plays third fiddle to Donna and Rose, and then finally showing up in what can only be described as a marriage of convenience never even hinted at before. Really? Really?)

In the same way, the relationship between the Doctor and Donna is explicitly framed in platonic terms – that this, which was implicitly the default setting throughout the original series, was stressed as something new and unusual at the time, tells you a lot about how the series has changed – but again, she is, like Rose, presented as someone who finds travelling with the Doctor to be a transformative, utterly fulfilling experience.

So here again it’s obvious that there can only realistically be an involuntary departure for this character. I find it a little curious that after frequently vowing he would never kill off a companion – this would send the wrong set of messages to the show’s young audience – Rusty effectively does just this to Donna, or at least the Donna the audience has come to know and care about. Another set of wobbly plot contrivances is invoked, requiring the Doctor to wipe her memory of him – or, to be more precise, block it from her, on the understanding that if she gets it back her brain will fry. Hmmm. Or, possibly, she will just shoot energy out of her face and then faint for ages, which is what actually happens in The End of Time. So much of the latter end of Rusty’s tenure is deeply suspect in narrative terms that it feels mean to pick on this particular element: suffice to say that it is another example of a companion not quite leaving the TARDIS feet first, but certainly doing so kicking and screaming.

'My mind's burning! I'm about to die - oh no, sorry, I just feel a bit faint.'

‘My mind’s burning! I’m about to die – oh no, sorry, I just feel a bit faint.’

With two of the three previous companions departing via some form of banishment (with a liberal helping of mind-wipe mixed in in Donna’s case), should we be surprised that the same fate ultimately awaits the Ponds? It’s interesting that after a set of stories that specifically sets out to explore the consequences of a long-term association with the Doctor – lasting over a decade, if Amy’s maths is to be trusted – their actual relationship concludes with a bang rather than the whisper and a slow fading from each others’ lives that one might expect. It’s tempting to conclude that the overblown sentimental finale is now so entrenched as a staple of the programme that not even Moffat can break its’ grip; personally I rather hope not.

And so the Ponds are banished also. Even the bods at DWM, who are contractually obliged to be broadly positive about the new series, accept that the actual plot mechanics of The Angels Take Manhattan are chiefly notable for Not Making Any Sense. Once again, the need for an overblown sentimental finale trumps all other considerations – I’m tempted to make my standard complaint here that, currently, Doctor Who is much more interested in being Clever and Moving than it is in actually constructing coherent narratives, but that’s kind of the subtext of nearly everything I’ve written about the post-2010 series – and again it’s a finale revolving around an involuntary departure from the TARDIS.

It’s tempting to blame this spate of moderately soap-opera-inflected tragedies on the shifts in the series’ format that occurred in the mid-70s, most notably the convention that the TARDIS gradually became more and more susceptible to the Doctor’s controlling influence (The Doctor’s Wife probably constitutes a semi-retcon to this, but no matter). With this in place, the plot device of the companion wanting to get home (one of the series’ initial drivers) instantly became redundant, with the replacement idea being that the companions were there out of choice.

I’m not sure this explains everything, though. It seems to me that one of the key characteristics of the modern series, and one of the few which really betrays the deep fan roots of its creators. The characteristic in question is this: the new series routinely takes things which, in the original run, were either deeply-buried or unconscious subtext, and foregrounds them as key narrative elements.

The loneliness of the Doctor is never really addressed head-on in the original run, but only alluded to in passing in a few memorable scenes. It’s one of the key themes of many tenth Doctor episodes. His status as a mythic, titanic figure, which has been at the heart of so many recent episodes, never really gets going in the original run – significantly, the few references to this were picked up and elaborated upon in the fiction coming out of the fan culture which was in many ways the place of origin for the revived series’ approach and style.

One of the main principles of Rusty’s tenure on the show was ‘The Doctor is wonderful, and travelling with him is wonderful too’ – and Steven Moffat seems to have retained this as a precept, too. This is an idea which, stated in those terms, is entirely new to the revived series – it’s almost literally impossible to imagine anyone from the original run talking in such an on-the-nose fashion – emotional articulacy was an unknown concept back then. Watching the original run, you can infer that Jo and Sarah and so on must clearly feel this way, but no-one ever talks about it quite so directly.

Nevertheless – and this may be a consequence of the compressed storytelling demanded by a 45-minute timeslot – in the new series this idea is dragged into the foreground and recited almost as a mantra. Given that we’re frequently and explicitly told that Travelling With The Doctor Is Wonderful, options for plausible companion departures, particularly of the voluntary kind, naturally become rather limited. Hence the wobbly logic and involuntary nature of so many recent leavings of the TARDIS.

I hope I’ve made it clear that, even if I think recent companion departures leave a bit to be required in the plotting department, they’re no worse – and, in many ways, arguably better – than the way most companions were written out during the original run. With a few very distinguished exceptions, this is one aspect of the format that the series has always struggled to come to grips with in a truly satisfying way. Whatever the problems currently attendant in this area, they seem bound up with the wider issues of the series’ storytelling style. Whether a change in the latter would produce an improvement in the former remains to be seen: not that such a change would appear to be imminent. The big goodbye is now, I suspect, part of the format, for good or ill – and it’s likely to remain a tragic goodbye, too.

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