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Posts Tagged ‘Steven Moffat’

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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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