Sunday, 21 May 2017

Extremis



I was fully prepared to really enjoy Extremis. Preview interviews had Moffat gushing about how it was mixing conspiracy theories, video games, and "puzzle box" plotting. These being things I'm interested in I thought the episode would easily be my most enjoyed of the series so far. And it was. But that was mostly because the previous five episodes never really rose above average, and it wasn't anywhere near as interesting as I thought it would be.

Part of this is my problem for setting expectations based on things that have been said in interviews (and it should be noted that Moffat has a particularly poor (or good, depending on how you look at it) record of overplaying his hand when previewing episodes). Hearing the sources of inspiration for the episode's writer got me to imagine a particular direction for the episode. There's nothing specific to mention here. I just felt that the conspiracy would be cleverer, the video game inspiration more overt. The puzzle box plotting was about as good as I expected it to be, to be fair. Inevitably I was disappointed when what aired didn't meet my expectations.

While this is my problem it doesn't change the fact that the episode wasn't terribly ambitious. Mentioning that conspiracy theories and video games are sources of inspiration for a TV show invokes certain aesthetics and themes. It would be a problem for any show. It's particularly troubling for Doctor Who (essentially an anthology series) because these are fresh sources of material that offer opportunities for doing new and exciting ideas within the show. It feels wasteful not to fully delve into these subjects, exploring and subverting their tropes and standard approaches. A modern Doctor Who episode with a genuine conspiracy theory at the centre could be amazing. What we got was anything but. Truth be told I can't even articulate what I think the conspiracy theory was meant to be beyond "some self-consciously mysterious humanoids have created a super-advanced computer programme because they're invading the Earth." Does that even qualify as a conspiracy?

The video game stuff was slightly better. What we got was people committing suicide because they found out they were NPCs. Which is a really interesting idea to explore in a fifty minute action-adventure drama. Only it wasn't explored. It was an incidental detail there to up the stakes for an aliens-invade-Earth story. Which on the one hand is a fair enough explanation, but on the other hand is hardly Doctor Who breaking new and exciting ground. The basic ideas were there for this to be a bold, experimental and memorable episode. Instead it felt like a reworked script from the Silence storyline, with the red robed monks in place of the Roswellian Slendermen, Moffat doing his usual puzzle box approach (which is his greatest strength as a Doctor Who writer so, y'know, fine) with new ingredients. Ultimately that's really, really disheartening.

Even though the plot wasn't up to much it did serve it's leads well. Pearl Mackie was given a greater range of things to do in this episode than she has been in any other and she was excellent in every scene. Peter Capaldi was given comparatively less to do but was still eminently watchable. He even managed to make me postpone rolling my eyes at the Doctor getting his sight back1. Matt Lucas as a "badass" though? Yeah, I get the joke but it still made me cringe. Meanwhile the scenes with Missy were a waste of perfectly good Michelle Gomez.

Extremis has been advertised as the opening part of a loose trilogy of episodes. All are to feature the red robed monk characters introduced here. While they are, as already noted, very similar in function to the Silents they do at least boast a strong design and there's still time for them to turn into worthwhile enemies. I'd say that the hints at dystopian futures and alternate histories across the next two episodes sound good but that's the kind of thinking that led to my disappointment in this underdeveloped waste. Let's just hope that the so-called monk trilogy as a whole does a better job of meeting its potential than it's opening act did alone.

***


1 In hindsight (not an intentional gag) the Doctor losing his sight one week and being confronted by a book which makes people kill themselves the next is a particularly Moffat thing to do. I'm surprised the irony wasn't hammered home far more.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Oxygen



"I'm still blind!" 

The most melodramatic ending to a Doctor Who episode ever? Possibly. It's certainly a contender. Whether it wins that particular contest or not it renders the episode that led up to the revelation as little more than a footnote: Oxygen will always be, first and foremost, the episode in which the Twelfth Doctor went blind1

This is a bit of a disservice to Oxygen. The thing is, Oxygen deserves it. It was a plodding, moralistic base under siege story. Nothing memorable happened beyond that final, melodramatic line. The plodding nature could have been fixed with another draft or two. Same goes for the sledgehammer subtlety of the anti-capitalist message that cropped up in seemingly every other scene. I mean, literally being charged for air, could it be anymore on the nose? The base under siege approach just wasn't made interesting enough. It can work in Nu Who (see 42, Mummy on the Orient Express(mosty) and, of course, Dalek, for examples of this). It just didn't work here.

While Oxygen was primarily just a string of disappointments it did achieve at least one thing of interest. It provided a good example of the different approaches Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat take as showrunners2

A refresher: the pre-credits sequence featured a man and woman3 clambering about on the outside of a space station with the woman telling the man that she wanted to have a baby with him when "all this is over" before a problem with her suit's broadcasting equipment was revealed, meaning he hadn't heard her. She was then murdered by two corpses in space suits while the guy mended a generic prop in silence, turned round to notice, and escaped.

It's a sequence designed to achieve a few things. Firstly, it's there to introduce one of the key plot points of the episode: air being a valuable commodity that is rationed by the company funding things. Second, it's meant to show us that, hey, these are real people leading real lives out in the harshness of space. Finally, it's there to introduce the monsters of the week, the aforementioned corpses in spacesuits.

It accomplishes all of this. But it does so in a hollow, perfunctory manner that is striking. We're told, at several points throughout the episode that the air is valuable on this space station because it has to be paid for. We see the payment interface, we see signs reminding people not to waste oxygen, the pre-credits sequence has the man tell the woman. But none of the characters ever actually act like speaking should be avoided in the name of saving oxygen. All those details are great and good bits of world building, something I'm usually all over, but when the supporting cast witter on like the supporting cast of any other episode it makes immersion difficult. If rationing speech is going to be part of a Doctor Who episode it should to be a central theme4, something that dictates how the episode is structured. Television relies on heavily on characters talking to one another. If that ability is going to be taken away from them the reason for it needs to be explored and the opportunity needs to be taken to offer a unique experience in which they rely on other forms of communication.

But what really leapt out as something that warranted comparison to the RTD era was the interaction between the two characters in the pre-credits sequence. Having a child together is one of the most significant things two people can do, and it's use here was clearly intended as a shorthand for Real Living Couple With Functioning Emotions And Plans For The Future. It was then undercut with a joke from the woman about repeating her heartfelt speech later, which is a very Moffat thing to do and also wonderfully highlights what I was saying in the last paragraph about not being able to take oxygen rationing as a serious thing within the episode. 

There's no way to know for sure how Davies would have handled this scene but it feels like a safe bet he'd have approached it differently. There probably would have been general chitchat about the banalities of life in place of "Hey, we're on the side of a space station, let's have a baby soon!"The whole faulty radio aspect would probably have been dropped or reworked so that there was at least some meaningful interaction between the pair.  The man one likely would have looked more emotionally distraught when he turned around to see the corpse of his loved one staggering towards him. The scene towards the end of the episode where the woman's corpse handed her oxygen supply over to her still-living lover would either not have existed or would have been rejigged so that the man shows some emotion at having his life saved in such a poetic way. Or, possibly, it would have featured a tear rolling down the dead woman's cheek5. I admit I would have preferred the former of these two.

The Davies approach was to make supporting characters feel like real people and focus on how things like killer spacesuits affected them. Moffat understands the importance of supporting characters but doesn't go to anywhere near the lengths to get us invested in them, which means we get a watered down approach where small scale human worries and ambitions are fumbled at but don't always feel fully formed. Yeah, Jamie Mathieson (who's been pretty good with previous Who work) wrote this episode but that's neither here nor there: under RTD the sequences in question would have received the rewrites needed to get the tone the episode needed them to have. Oxygen highlighted the difference between the two showrunners in how they go about writing the show. 

I think the fact that the relationship in question and the episode as a whole were so flat shows that Moffat's just not especially good when he's not overseeing "clever puzzle" episodes. He's well-suited to big event episodes, probably better suited than Davies, but they only come along every so often. Moffat's approach doesn't work well with more standard episodes, and that's what he's overseeing the majority of the time.

A less pressing issue: why do space set episodes have to be all grimy metal and shadows these days? The Girl in the Fireplace (to take a random RTD era episode) takes place on a spaceship but never falls into these traps of uninspired set design. Throughout Fireplace things are always tinted blue or red or green, avoiding the bleak visuals of Oxygen. Could it be that the sets were deliberately subdued so as to tie in with the fact that the Doctor goes blind, tacitly linking our visionary experience to the one he has by the end of the episode? It's certainly possible, but nothing in the episode backs that up. It also wouldn't explain why space set capers have gradually shifted to this approach under Moffat6.

I'm sure the question we're all meant to be asking coming out of this episode (besides the clearly vital "Who's in The Vault?") is: "How will the Doctor's blindness impact the show?" But I wasn't given a reason to care, so I'm not.

***

1 Assuming it's something that sticks for a significant amount of time. Judging by the way the revelation was framed I think it will stay at least through the next episode or two.

2 Yes, this again.

3 They have names but truth be told every character outside of the regulars was so tedious that I can't be bothered to look them up. Deal with it.

4 Buffy managed an extended sequence of absolute silence about fifteen years ago. Surely Doctor Who, a programme that has far more tricks to employ to get to a scenario like that, is up to the task now. Maybe it just needs a better lead writer2...

5 I've never said Davies was perfect and a weeping corpse is right up his alley.

6 This is something that can be tangibly traced back over the last few years and seems to coincide with Matt Smith leaving. Kill the Moon, Sleep No More and now this story have gotten incrementally more basic in their depiction of space. I understand that it helps to emphasise the stark, unforgiving nature of a space setting but it doesn't half make things boring to look at.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Knock Knock


Four episodes into a series of Doctor Who feels like a reasonable time to get a pretty standard approach. Despite being able to go anywhere and play in various television genres Doctor Who has a bag of tricks it goes to fairly often. You need a format, even a hazily defined one, in order to make the big finales and episodes that play against expectations have an impact. You can't play against expectations if there are no expectations for a routine episode, after all.

This isn't an inherently bad thing. Just because something is adhering to a familiar format doesn't mean it can't do anything new, and generally TV shows develop and stick to formats because they work. Which is to say that Knock Knock wasn't a bad episode because it was a standard outing for New Who. It wasn't, actually, a bad episode at all. It's just that it wasn't a particularly good one either.

This is frustrating. There were a number of little things in this that could have been brought together in an interesting way. The Doctor taking a vaguely McCoy era approach to letting the companion wonder off into trouble. A child desperate to keep a parent alive, even if it means a bit of human sacrifice. A house that eats people. Giant woodlice that can convert matter1 who have infested a woman and kept her alive for sixty years. These were all good concepts, they just suffered from being strung together in a rather understated, by-the-number fashion.

Nothing was underdeveloped. It all hung together well enough as a plot and cohesive design and direction. But things could have gone further (or at least the things unique to this episode could have done, it's not fair to say the Twelfth Doctor could have gone further in his treatment of Bill because we don't know what's coming with them in future episodes). For example, if there's a walking, talking human (as opposed to a still prop) made of wood in your script that's probably going to be the most visually impressive thing in your episode. I understand she was confined to a lone set for an explanatory scene because of the nature of her character and to reduce the hassles of filming her but the episode could have been more interesting had she been the one stalking the students through the house instead of CG woodlice. Increasing her part and changing the nature of her role would have meant increasing the hassle of getting the actress in and out of what was probably an infuriating costume and makeup, I get that. But this could have been gotten around, in part, by shooting her in shadow, perhaps creating a prop to use in places. Or, y'know, by not showing her at all and implying her presence with creaks and knocks. It was meant to be a creepy episode about a haunted house. A wooden ghost that can't be reasoned with fits into that genre far better than giant insects.

That's not a major complaint. It's more an observation of how existing elements of the episode could have been reworked in a more interesting way. Peter Capaldi and Pearl Mackie were both very good. I haven't gone back and made comparisons but it certainly felt like each gave their best performance of the series so far. Poirot was good as the Most Significant Guest Character, even if it is weird that writer Mike Bartlett went out of his way not to give the character a name despite that character's own mother also being in the episode. You'd think she'd use her own son's name, right? I suspect Bartlett just liked having a character with a title, the Landlord, instead of a name because this is a show that has a strong tradition of such characters2.

Knock Knock could have been more than the sum of its parts had it set out to be. But it didn't so it wasn't. This was standard Doctor Who, which is what it set out to be. I suspect that's what the next episode is going for too. In which case, fine. Three generic approaches in a row isn't the worst thing in the world if all three succeed (and while Knock Knock and Thin Ice are both take standard approaches they're different standard approaches, with next week's Oxygen looking like it will be another3). But at some point this series is going to need to aspire to more, because it would be a shame for a promising Doctor-companion combo to get stuck in mediocrity.

***

1 By implication they can also restore consciousness and memory, which is even more incredible when you think about it.

2 Time for a bit of baseless Moffat-hating speculation: maybe Moffles suggested not naming the character in the hopes of people picking over previews and suggesting he was a rogue Time Lord or a(nother) new incarnation of the Master or Chibnall's future Doctor or something. It's exactly the sort of thing he'd do. He's not been referring to the monks we'll be seeing in a few episodes time as "meddlers" for nothing, you know.

3 Specifically base under siege.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Thin Ice


Thin Ice was written by Sarah Dollard, whose only previous contribution to the show was the excellent Face the Raven. This wasn't as good as her first contribution to the show but that's hardly a big surprise: Face the Raven was one of the better episodes of season nine and succeeded largely on the strength of its central ideas. Thin Ice suffered mainly from having less good central ideas. And really, the idea of secret (and delightfully albeit inexplicably Dickensian) streets hidden in London that house homeless aliens was so good, such a perfect fit for Doctor Who, that it's going to be a while before an idea of equal quality turns up again. 

Dollard was again tasked with finding an interesting spin on London. The idea of making use of the great frost fairs, held on a frozen Thames, was a good one. Having the plot centre on a giant fish chained up at the bottom of the river and being force-fed people for not entirely clear reasons was... a less good idea. It could have worked well but, ultimately, it didn't. Another draft was needed to make it as clear as possible what this giant fish was doing under the Thames, how it had gotten there, and (the big one) what the ramifications of its release were expected to be. These things were touched on but left a little hazy and undefined. Hazy and undefined can work in Doctor Who, but more in terms of, for example, something or someone's origins and less in terms of the nature of the threat the Doctor and his companion face. We need to know what's at stake and Thin Ice never quite got there.

Thankfully it succeeded in other areas. Like its tackling of race issues. A number of non-white faces cropped up as supporting cast and extras, and the lead human villain (the guy who's family had imprisoned a giant fish) was an open racist. Linking a TV baddie to something like racism, which is something that still hasn't been purged from modern society, is a good thing and sends the right message. It's not something Doctor Who as a show can do every week but it is something it can touch on more often than it does1. Really, it's the approach I wanted when talking about the overloading of Smile last week.

There was other positive stuff too. Good material for Capaldi's Doctor, which there hadn't exactly been an abundance of in the previous two episodes of the series. A return to well made, convincing sets after the aberration that was Smile. An attempt at tackling the butterfly effect in a fun, playful, Doctor Who-compatible way. Although that last one is a little frustrating as the way in which it was brought up and dropped as a concept within the first fifteen minutes of the episode makes me suspect it was more prominent in previous drafts and got edited down for time or to let other themes come through. It seems like the sort of thing Dollard's style would mesh particularly well with. Maybe Chibnall will have her back to do a forty-five minute episode of the potential perils of stamping on insects. 

The other interesting thing to talk about now that Thin Ice has aired is how the opening three episodes of season ten parallel the opening three episodes of season one. This isn't some arbitrary comparison, each trio follows the same basic pattern: a contemporary Earth story in which the Doctor meets a new companion, a future story in which the new companion is confronted with the mortality of the planet they take for granted, and a historical story where the companion learns that the future isn't guaranteed to take the shape you expect just because you've seen it. This is a formula RTD used on every one of the seasons he produced (with minor tweaks and changes here and there) while Moffat used it at the start of his first year in charge and has stayed clear since2. It's interesting that he finally came back to it for his final, maybe a tacit admission that it's a stronger approach than, say, starting with a two-parter and calling it the finale or something stupid like that. 

I don't think it worked as well here as it did in season one, and that's mostly down to Smile being a weaker episode than The End of the World. Comparing Rose and The Pilot feels unfair in many ways as Rose was tasked with relaunching the entire show, introducing basic concepts which are taken for granted now, along with two leads and a supporting character. The Pilot only had to introduce a new companion, both the Doctor and the lone supporting character of long term consequence (Matt Lucas as Nardole) were know to us. Shunting these burdens to the side both episodes have their strengths but it's Rose that's the more enjoyable of the two, not least because it has a more interesting visual threat in villainous shop dummies, something The Pilot's screeching puddle couldn't touch. 

Thin Ice and The Unquiet Dead fee the most similar. Both take place during winter in the 1800s. Both tackle social issues (racism for The Pilot, asylum seeking for The Unquiet Dead). Both go for a fairly standard Doctor Who plot, mostly to ease in new viewers and give them an idea of what a "standard" episode of the show will look like. Really, the biggest difference (aside from advances in production techniques) is that Unquiet is a celebrity historical, a trope the show has largely moved away from under Moffat3.

What do these comparisons mean? Not much, in the grand scheme of things. I mostly just thought the parallels were worth noting. Thin Ice was a good enough episode, a welcome improvement on last week, and an episode that accomplished everything it set out to. Perhaps most importantly it was further evidence that Sarah Dollard is a writer we should want to see back once Chibnall's in the producer's chair. 

***

1 In fact the last time I remember this being broached by the series was 2007's The Shakespeare Code when the Doctor told Martha to "walk around like you own the place, works for me." Which, let's be honest, was a bit of a cop out.

2 I could veer off into a whole spiel about how this nicely encapsulates the differences between Moffat and Davies but I won't because it would be boring and out of place.

3 It's interesting to note that Moffat did do a celebrity historical during his first season, having the Eleventh Doctor and Amy meet Vincent Van Gogh. Again I'll refrain from comparing the two but it's clear ol' Moffles was using the Davies formula during his first season in charge and I'll be interested to see if that continues across his last.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Smile



It struck me the moment Smile ended that it was a strong contender for the least enjoyable episode of Capaldi era Doctor Who. I'd like to definitively state that it's the worst but with things like Robot of Sherwood, Time Heist, and the Zygon two-parter out there it's not a statement you make lightly. It's a shame that an actor of his calibre has been so consistently wasted. But he has been. We just need to accept it and move on, I suppose.

The central problem of this episode was that it was dull. That's a word I used to describe the previous episode. Perhaps there's a theme developing (hopefully not an intentional one). What made Smile dull was that it centred on ideas that have been done on the show before, and often. An empty colony city. Nanotechnology that's become hostile to humanity. A companion finding out that Earth will ultimately be evacuated and destroyed, making them Sad. Slavery being A Very Bad Thing. It's all well-trod ground for Doctor Who.

Not that that has to be a problem. All of those things are worth repeating, but only there's something new to say or a new idea or concept to link them in with. It's not enough to dash off the same checklist of arbitrary points as has been dashed off every other time the topics have been tackled. Or, if that's not possible1, then at least avoid piling so many well worn subjects into one episode. Space them out a bit and tackle them across the series. So much familiarity makes for very boring viewing with nothing new being said. Most importantly, don't explore these things in a script that seemingly goes out of its way to keep viewers unengaged.

Nobody mentioned this to Frank Cottrell-Boyce or Steven Moffat, the men responsible for, respectively, writing and polishing2 this script. The basic plot was that a ship had been sent to terraform a planet and-or setup a base of operations for a human colony but the robots servants went rogue and started killing the advance crew that had tagged along. We were shown the robots going rogue in the pre-credits sequence so were never in any doubt they were the reason the base was deserted, yet it took a while for the Doctor and Bill to discover this for themselves before sending further time investigating the whys and wherefores of what had happened. Which meant the first forty minutes dragged as the pair ponderously gained all the information they needed, most of which the audience had known all along. Particularly annoying when it was obvious the creepy emoji-faced robots were behind everything, because who else was it going to be?

Mentioning the emoji-faced robots is a nice segue into the broader ways in which this episode felt like a failure. The bright white utopian cityscape looked the part but once inside the Doctor and Bill went from airy, open rooms to green-lit corridors to brown greenhouses seemingly within seconds of one another. It didn't feel like they were walking through one place. The original Earth spacecraft at the centre of the city felt out of place too but that was intentional, and frankly it should have been even more different than it was so it's a location that fails in a different way. The emoji-bots were neither comically non-threatening nor surprisingly sinister and moved with all the grace of oft forgotten 80's companion Kamelion. They were only ever going to work as one of those two extremes, the middle ground approach doomed them from the start. The interplay between the Doctor and Bill had its moments but overall didn't feel as good as it did in The Pilot. And as good as they appeared to be together last week asking them to carry over half an hour of the episode with no supporting cast seemed like a big ask in Bill's second ever story. 

Lastly, there was that problematic resolution. It was technobabble heavy and came down to the Doctor pushing a button. That's never ideal but it doesn't have to be a problem. If the stakes are clear and sufficient tension has been introduced then it's an acceptable way of tying up a filler episode (and this was clearly a filler episode). But the stakes weren't clear here and the only tension came from Murray Gold's blaring soundtrack. On top of that the Doctor knowingly wiped the recent memories of an entire technology-based species and "restored their factory settings." That's a pretty oppressive approach. With more time or emotional engagement it could have been played in an almost Genesis of the Daleks "Do I have the right?" fashion but that would have fallen flat with a species we don't know as vicious killers and with the build-up of the first forty-five minutes. A negotiation sequence, which could have happened mostly off-screen, would have been an improvement3.

Considering the miniscule supporting cast4 and reliance on location filming I suspect this was one of the season's cheaper episodes. If it was then this was the wrong slot for it. The Doctor and Bill shouldn't be alone for that long unless they have something substantial to talk about, and getting-to-know-one-another chat doesn't qualify there. Not having the budget on screen to gawp at just one week into a new series isn't a good idea either.

I enjoyed two things in Smile. The reference to the door the Doctor's agreed to stay on Earth to guard and the final moments where they arrived on a frozen Thames and were confronted by an elephant. Those were minor things and not enough to balance out the bulk of the story being boring twaddle that never really got going and featured some of the least ambitious locations, sets, and designs of the past twelve years. It felt rushed, and that's a worry when it's episode two of a twelve episode run.

***

1 Not that that would ever be the case but whatever.

2 At least, Moffat is alleged to do this. There's not much indication that he does, at least not to the extent of his predecessor. You could see this as Moffat giving the writers he commissions more freedom. You could see it as a lack of desire to have an increased sense of unity across any given series. Or maybe just plain laziness.

3 Even if you adhere to the Capaldi's Doctor is a harsher Doctor school of thought wiping memories and setting back the evolution of an entire species seems savage for any Doctor5.

4 Two speaking parts in the opening scene, two more in the main episode, and a gaggle of extras.

5 Except maybe, maybe, season twenty-two Colin Baker.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Pilot


This new series of Doctor Who, the thirty-sixth overall and the tenth since the 2005 revival, was marketed as a good place for new viewers to start watching. I hope not many people bothered because it was inaccessible, poorly paced  and dull. These are obviously things you'd never want a television programme to be, but it's particularly troublesome for an episode intended to act as a an exciting launching point and reason to tune in again.

An ideal introductory episode of (modern) Doctor Who should be easy to follow, light on continuity, and introduce a relatable viewpoint character meeting the Doctor and falling out of their world into the universe. The Pilot achieved none of this. The story wasn't complex but it did require full attention, not good when you should really just be enjoying watching the two leads (and, in this instance, Matt Lucas for some reason) interacting with one another. Flitting to Australia, a quarry planet in the future, and a Dalek war served to show what the TARDIS does, but it was tied into a tedious chase sequence with a seemingly unstoppable enemy1. This was far from this episode's worst offence though, so whatevs.

Continuity was heavy. I'm not talking about little nods for fans to catch here, they're generally alright as long as they're subtle. I'm talking about the bigger problems like infodumping a bunch of stuff about the Doctor's history and reducing the show's most iconic enemies to a non-threat that can be dealt with by Matt Lucas and a sonic screwdriver. For those new viewers that were encouraged to watch it would have just been extraneous information, the sort of off-putting sci-fi nonsense that drives people away instead of enticing them back.

It was new companion Bill's introduction that was main reason this episode felt more miss than hit. Instead of finding the world of Doctor Who seeping into her ordinary, relatable life and leading her to stumble across the Doctor (see Rose and The Eleventh Hour for examples of how to do this right) this episode literally started with Bill being interviewed by the Doctor and then being made his companion in all but name. Not only was it a subdued start3 it robbed us of the chance to see Bill's journey into the Doctor's world. Why Moffat would pass up the chance to do this in his last go around in the producer's chair is genuinely baffling. It's a technique that can't really be used effectively on any other major TV show and works perfectly as an introduction device.

But it wasn't all bad. Bill was likeable, Pearl Mackie showing all the range she needed to for her debut performance in the role. The teases for what's to come (why the Doctor was living in a university and that potentially-Time-Lord-made gate in a basement) were fun. The evil puddle's motivation being that its human host was in love was something a little different for Doctor Who (though, sadly, not quite different enough2).  Peter Capaldi was as good as ever at taking borderline cringe-worthy dialogue and pedestrian plotting and giving us something worth watching. And the final shot of the "coming soon" trailer was of John Simm's Master.

There's potential for Bill to be a good companion and Capaldi to go out on a high. You just have to squint to see it.

***

1 I won't dwell on the fact that the enemy here is the latest in a long line of Steven Moffat creations that fall into the alien-technology-that-thinks-it's-doing-something-right-but-isn't-because-it-doesn't-properly-understand-humans category.

2 See the above footnote.

3 Not necessarily a bad thing, admittedly.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Husbands of River Song


The Husbands of River Song was basically Steven Moffat doing Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It certainly makes a nice change of pace from his usual approach to the Christmas specials, where he gives a standard episode plot or idea some generic Christmas lip service. It also makes a nice change of pace from his general approach of either writing about time travel or aping Robert Holmes (or both, of course). It was Moffat's best Christmas special1. He kept things simple, aimed for fun (he even managed to hit it a few times), and didn't shy away from mentioning Christmas.

Although that's not to say it some sort of flawless masterpiece. It wasn't. This paled in comparison to even the worst RTD era Crimbo spectacular. For my money that's The Next Doctor, though whichever one you pick as least good it's going to be better than this. Even if you're really into Douglas Adams this episode probably wasn't better than Insert-Name-of-Your-Least-Favourite-Davies-Era-Special-Here because it wasn't enough like Hitchhikers Guide to be satisfying.

The other thing that could save this episode for some people is the presence of River Song. The thing is, most people aren't going to be into River Song to that extent. She's a recurring character whose last appearance came two and a half years ago, in The Name of the Doctor. The show should hopefully have attracted a few new viewers by then, but no concessions were made to them. There was no explanation for who River was or why we should care about her. Even people who follow the show enough to remember her could probably have done with a refresher on her history2.

The episode's central problem is that it assumes everyone's familiar with River's convoluted character arc and is happy to see her back. Which isn't true. I've nothing against the character or Alex Kingston but I'd be perfectly happy if neither appeared in the show again. Self aware jokes about flow charts are fine and fun. The final scenes all revolving around things not mentioned since Silence in the Library (seven years ago), with no explanations on offer for anyone who didn't follow the references, was too much.

In fact I don't think it would be a stretch to say that anyone who's come to the show since Capaldi joined, and there have to be some people who that's true for, would have been nothing but confused for large chunks of this story. Even when her relationship to the Doctor was revealed there was still a that stuff with the sonic screwdriver, and the Doctor's haircut and suit setting up Silence in the Library to contend with. This sort of approach is the reason Moffat needs to leave the show. He's a fine writer when he's producing one story a year but his approach to running the show is close to being actively harmful at this point. Give it to Mark Gatiss or Jamie Mathieson or Chris 'Chibbers' Chibnall or Sarah Dollard. The next series really needs to see Moffat bowing out gracefully.

Dragging things back to The Husbands of River Song... the show's other main guest stars were Greg Davies, best known as angry teacher Mr Gilbert on The Inbetweeners, and Matt Lucas, best known as one of the lads off Little Britain. Greg Davies played a megalomaniac king detached from his body for the first half of the episode and was very good. In fact Hydroflax could have been a really bad character had they not had someone as good at producing the yucks as Davies. Matt Lucas wasn't afforded such a memorable role. He wasn't especially good, but nor was he especially bad. He was simply there. His part could have gone to a compete unknown and no one would have batted an eyelid.

As I said in pretty much every review of series nine, Capaldi and the set design team were very good. Capaldi did a great job, elevating generic lines about River Song continuity into something watchable. Not for the first time I'm pleased we had him in the show over Matt Smith (although this is one of the few examples of an episode of Doctor Who that could not be rework to feature any other Doctor). The design team gave us a nice model shot towards the start (Hydroflax's spaceship), subtly reused Trap Street from Face the Raven as an alien world, and did a pair of nice spaceship interiors (although technically one may well have been a location shoot). They made it easier to gloss over the fact that this was an excuse for Moffat to revisit River Song as a concept again, something he swore he assured us he was going to stop doing after her previous appearance in 2013 (see here for one of many possible examples of that). Didn't stick to that, did he?

***

1 I'd like to point out it had staggeringly low expectations to meet though, so this shouldn't be taken as any sort of worthwhile achievement.

2 Here I'm taking about people who watch every week, or most weeks, but don't obsess every details of the show. Despite Moff's assertions to the contrary they still make up the bulk of the programme's viewership.