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Posts Tagged ‘Toby Whithouse’

Let us take a moment, prior to turning our attention to A Town Called Mercy, and consider the succession. Not in terms of who it may be that finds himself filling the shoes of young Master Smith when he opts to move on, but who will be running the show after he goes. You may think this is presumptuous and untimely, but I remember it was as early as the summer of 2007 that people were asking the Moff if he would take the reins (this was ‘asking if he would’ in the sense of ‘demanding that he’).

Moffat was unquestionably the show’s big gun throughout the Rusty years, the writer whose work was anticipated more keenly than any other. He was always the logical candidate to succeed Davies as showrunner, given his experience, popularity and ability. Thinking about the show these days, one has to ask who occupies a similarly prestigious position amongst the regular writing team? Neil Gaiman is beloved and critically acclaimed, but he’s not going to commit himself to running a TV show in Wales. Gareth Roberts and Mark Gatiss have experience of TV production, but Roberts lacks the profile and Gatiss, much as I love his work elsewhere – and in Doctor Who of other media – has only written one inarguably great episode, and that was in 2005. Chris Chibnall similarly seems to me to be really just a journeyman contributor.

I suppose there exists the remote possibility of the BBC bringing in an external candidate for this extremely plum job, but my money’s on them promoting from within, and it seems to me that the pre-eminent figure is none other than Toby Whithouse. Think about it: this man created and was showrunner for Being Human, a consistently popular BBC fantasy series, in addition to contributing four scripts to Doctor Who itself. Now, I don’t care much for Vampires of Venice: to me it feels a bit like a Tennant script that they found down the back of the filing cabinet and hastily rewrote for Smith. But The God Complex was one of the best two or three episodes of last season, School Reunion ultimately gave us SJA – in addition to being a very accomplished outing in its own right, and A Town Called Mercy

Yes, we’ve finally arrived at the topical part. A Town Called Mercy is certainly my favourite episode of the year so far, but this is bearing in mind that a) Asylum of the Daleks DID NOT MAKE SENSE and b) Dinosaurs on a Spaceship was much more about wacky ideas and visuals than any kind of coherent plot. Compared to these two, Mercy looks like an episode of I, Claudius or The Singing Detective: there is a proper plot, and serious characterisation. Oh, the relief.

‘I’d speak up but I’m feeling a little horse’, etc.

That said, while it may not look like an episode of Star Trek, it could be rewritten as one without a great deal of difficulty – I say this possibly because I seem to recall a number of Trek episodes with a similar thrust, but also because this story put the core moral dilemma so absolutely front and centre in its storytelling. Knowing as much as I do about the way the modern show is put together, I suspect the brief given to the writer likely focussed on the words ‘western’ and ‘cyborg gunslinger’ much more than ‘moral dilemma’ – although I believe the Doctor’s little off-the-deep-end moment was also a feature. This was interesting, and the kind of thing I was actually expecting to see last season when Moffat was promising us the sight of an angry Doctor.

But then again there was never much doubt as to how the story was going to play out, broadly speaking: I wonder if it isn’t better for the show not to base episodes around this kind of moral dilemma, given they’re always going to resolve in basically predictable ways. You just know the Doctor isn’t going to actually execute someone, in the same way it soon became clear that Jex had a moment of redemptive self-sacrifice waiting somewhere down the line for him.

This was an issue I had with The God Complex as well – both scripts were strong, with interesting set-ups and solid characters, but they both seemed to me to be a little lacking in surprise and joy: there was none of the peripheral craziness and sense of excitement about the sheer possibilities of the format that I so relish in really good Doctor Who. Whithouse writes good individual jokes, but his recent scripts have all been rather solemn, if not sombre. (I’m attempting to put into words something subtle and tonal I’m not completely sure about myself, so it’s very likely I‘ve stopped making sense.)

In any case, a bit of solemnity and seriousness is exactly what this series has been needing: Whithouse also, possibly notably, completely ignores the current meta-narrative clutter surrounding the series (the Doctor is supposedly dead – how is this supposed to work, given he’s a time traveller? – and his companions don’t technically accompany him any more). It’d probably be overstating things to say that A Town Called Mercy shows that you don’t need any of this stuff in a good episode, but the fact remains that this was what this was. Whether the series has got its act together now, or if this was just a brief high point, remains to be seen.

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I wonder. I wonder, I wonder, I wonder. Hmmm. The time for my wonderings to be aired will come later, I think. Anyway, I didn’t find The God Complex quite as good as The Girl Who Waited, but on the whole it seemed to me to be a fairly effective episode. The surreal Sapphire & Steely atmosphere was quite appealing, for one thing, and there were some very well written and performed moments along the way. (And I think it is well worth mentioning just how consistently excellent Arthur Darvill has been this year, in what’s by far the least showy of the three lead roles.)

On the other hand, we’re talking about the story of an alien minotaur (continuity name-check duly noted, guys, but you needn’t have bothered) living in a (malfunctioning) fake hotel conjuring the nightmares of random victims in order to evoke their faith so it can… well, come on, did this story originate as a bet between Moffat and Toby Whithouse? Because it certainly felt like it. I’m not saying it’s actually a bad story, but the demands of the plot rendered it rather mechanical – there didn’t seem to be one detail or character that wasn’t there to advance the storyline, or a single moment that was really surprising (for instance, the Doctor does have a room with his worst nightmare in it, but we never actually see what’s in it). I expect some people would consider this good writing, but I really missed the extra coating of superfluous quirk and counternarrative awkwardness you often get in the best Who. (David Walliams’ big comedy performance seemed to have been edited in from a different story entirely.)

The story worked as well as it did due to the performances of the regulars, the strength of the last scene, and the quality of some of the dialogue. And – okay. Let the wonderment be unleashed.

I wonder how many other people, come the close of this story, were wishing that the departure of the Williamses from the TARDIS was permanent (the fact we’re still in the grip of the Song storyline, if nothing else, surely guarantees they’ll be back) and that Rita hadn’t died? These days the show is so regular-centric that it’s quite hard for a visiting actor to make much of an impression, rising to almost impossible if they’re not the main villain. And yet Amara Karan was terrific as a believeable everyday person, who I instantly warmed to and in other circumstances would have ‘prime companion material’ written all over her.

‘Yes, I am available for 13 episodes next year!’ If only.

And this leads me in passing to wonder why I’m still so indifferent to Amy Pond as a character. Could it be that, no matter how finely-honed she is as a contributor to the ongoing storyline and a deliverer of Moffat’s comic gems, when it comes to the standard companion prerequisites – likeability, normality, all that sort of thing – as a character she’s sadly lacking? Certainly practically every story these days revolves around the fact that Amy and the Doctor have been skipping through each others’ lives since she was seven years old and have become deeply connected as a result. This does not really help her as a figure of audience identification. I’m not suggesting people are actually jealous of her for her history with him (that’d be silly) simply that she’s… er… just a bit weird.

Obviously Moffat has done some very interesting things as the boss of the show, and there have been many more good episodes in his tenure so far than outright bad ones, but I am starting to notice signs of the series’ format starting to creak under the strain he’s putting on it. We still don’t know just how many ongoing strands will continue on into the next series, but I’m starting to think that fewer will definitely be better.

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