Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Unconventional Companions

Steven Moffat seems to have something against traditional companions. It’s not enough to introduce a new girl and have the Doctor invite her to travel with him because he gets lonely by himself. Moffat’s companions have to have something extra. They have to have a mystery attached to them.

This habit first became apparent with River Song. She knew the Doctor’s future and the Doctor’s name. The Doctor cryptically stated that there was only one time he could reveal his name to someone. This was designed to let viewers know that River was someone incredibly important to the Doctor’s future. It was done in a ham-fisted manner but it was at least something new: a companion who meets the Doctor out of sequence. That that vaguely interesting idea was tangled up with what appeared to be Steven Moffat’s teenage fantasy was a drawback but there was hope River would progress into something interesting.

She didn’t, of course. She predictably became the Doctor’s wife (though not in the episode of that title, that would be too simple) and failed to be written into any episodes that use of her non-chronological interactions with the Doctor for anything other than allegedly scintillating and-or hilarious intro sequences capped off with the words “Hello, sweetie”. The potential was there but Moffat blew it.

To clarify I’m not saying that River could have been the best companion ever or that giving the Doctor a time travelling wife is the greatest idea ever. If the concept became overused (and it could be argued that it has been already) then it would be just as boring as everything else in Moffat’s bag of tricks. My point is that had she been used in a more creative fashion River Song could have been involved in some innovative and memorable episodes of Doctor Who.

Following River was Amy. She was never characterised terribly well but Moffat did at least make a few token tries at the start of her time on the show. Her defining attribute was intended (I think) to be her undying love for Rory. Unfortunately Karen Gillan played the role with such an air of icy pomposity that this never came across. We were told about how she and Rory loved each other but never had any reason to believe it.

Waiting outside a box for two thousand years doesn’t show love. It shows an incredibly needy human being (or Auton replica). No wonder Amy walked all over Rory and tried to cop off with the Doctor mere hours after getting married.

Moffat’s attempts at giving Amy a history didn’t really succeed because he was more interested in furthering the crack-in-the-wall plot. That’s the main problem with Amy. She was written to be the focal point of a hazily defined story arc about time collapsing rather than a character in her own right. Her second series saw her involved in a similar plot: witnessing the death of the Doctor. She got to stick around for that because Moffat required a companion with an established rapport with the Doctor. Not because audiences had warmed to her or because she’d established a particularly good on-screen connections with Matt Smith, but because she already had the job.

By all appearances this trend is continuing with Clara. She is not a character in her own right, she’s in the show to be a part of an ongoing mystery for the Doctor to solve. Moffat’s not even made the token attempts to give her a backstory that he did for Amy. She’s four episodes in (as a regular character, six if you count her guest appearances) and we know nothing about her beyond the fact that she worked as a nanny and has somehow become splintered across time.

This approach is problematic mostly because it doesn’t give us a reason to care about the characters. The Doctor’s a wacky boffin with a short attention span and a love of the word “Geronimo” and Clara is a vacant, pretty-faced riddle who snarks her way through adventures without exhibiting any awe or wonder at what she’s seeing. It’s not that Moffat’s writing things too complex to be followed, it’s that it’s not worth following what he’s writing because the characters don’t deserve it.

The man himself has stated in interviews that everything regarding Clara’s nature will be revealed by the end of the season. That’s a mercy. Hopefully we can take this as evidence that he’s learned not to carry these things on for years (see River Song) because nobody beyond the superfans (those people he’s adamant the show shouldn’t be aimed at) cares enough to follow all his clues.

I want the next new companion to be more character than gimmick. At this rate the only way I’m going to care about Clara is if she’s revealed to be a Jagaroth.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Ice Time

I'm not going to lay into Cold War too much. It may have been a dull episode but that hardly makes it stand out considering the direction Doctor Who’s been travelling in over the last couple of years. It also felt like this was a cheap episode, designed to take place on a finite number of sets and cost as little money as possible. That may be cause to grant it a little leeway. The cheapness would explain the lower than average number of effects shots and the single Ice Warrior outfit. Gems like The Rings of Akhaten have to be paid for somehow.

Perhaps there only being one Ice Warrior knocking about was for the best, considering it was one of the weakest aspects of the episode. The design was the let-down. Previously when monsters have returned from "the classic series" they've done so with an updated look that's influenced by the past but is designed to work for a modern audience (and sell some toys).

The Sontarans are a good example here. With them the production team took a few bullet points. They're short, they're a clone race, they're warriors, and apparently RTD said their armour should be reminiscent of stone so they stood out from races that had been used in previous seasons. The race was successfully recreated for a 2000s audience, melding the credible with what had gone before. The outfit we saw in Cold War may as well have been an original. It was that similar and uninspiring.

I admit that’s partly a personal taste thing. I'm sure there were some kids watching who are now convinced the Ice Warriors are the greatest Doctor Who monsters ever (they won’t amount to anything but they exist). But for that effect to be achieved only one suit was needed. More would have been a waste.

I'm less convinced anyone watching thought the unmasked Ice Warrior was a triumph. That looked like what it was: some shonky CG work based on a generic design. There were more interesting-looking aliens on offer as background extras in The Rings of Akhaten. For that matter there were more interesting-looking aliens on offer as background extras in The End of the World.

I'd say the production team didn't need to show an unmasked Ice Warrior but of course they did. It had never been done before. That alone is reason (or excuse, take your pick) enough to do something in their eyes. It seems that the question of whether something is necessary or can be successfully achieved never comes up over at BBC Wales.

Also, it was written by Mark Gatiss. In the DWM preview of the episode he waxed lyrical about the lore of the race and wanting to show more of their history. He also said he wants to explore them in further episodes, so he's clearly hoping that suit gets another outing. He was always going to want to be the man to show an unmasked Ice Warrior. This is what the less disciplined fanboys working on the show (Gatiss and Nick Briggs for the most part) do. Someone would've done it eventually, so why not him?

The reason to that is that the production team supporting him didn't have enough time to do a good enough job. Or simply that they couldn't be bothered to. Or that he himself had no clue what he wanted to see so left it to the design team, who didn't understand the added “importance" of what they were working on.

Cold War was the best episode of the second half of the series so far. But considering it opened with an urban thriller that forget to thrill and continued with a large amount of cash smeared smugly onto our screens with no story to back it up that's not saying much. Not even the efforts of Gaiman and whatever Moffat’s cooked up for the Grand Finale™ can save this run now.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

A Song Too Far

Last Saturday's episode of Doctor Who has been described by some as the worst episode of the show ever. I should clarify that by “ever” I’m pretty sure most of these people will mean “since the 2005 relaunch”. I don't think anyone could sit through both The Rings of Akhaten and, say, The Visitation and then say that the Peter Davison story is the better piece of television, no matter what favourable criteria are used.

I don't think it's the worst episode since 2005. I don't even think it's the worst episode produced under Moffat (that would be charmless lump The Curse of the Black Spot). TROA managed to give us some nice sets and prosthetics to look at and it wasn't badly directed, so it can't be wholly without merit. Of course all the nice looks in the world can't make up for an absence of plot and, judging by the outcry, The Rings of Akhaten is the episode that finally made a lot of viewers realise that.

One of the most irritating aspects of the show was the singing. Endless, needless, embarrassing singing. From the moment that aspect was first introduced to the plot I knew I wasn't going to enjoy the rest of the episode. And I’d really wanted to enjoy it. Based on a preview I'd read in Doctor Who Magazine (yeah I buy DWM, deal with it) I'd thought Rings was a contender to be one of my favourites of the Moffat Era. Not that that's great praise or anything because I felt his first series was a let-down and it's been all downhill from there.

The Rings of Akhaten felt like it could redeem him a little. A story about an ancient, hungry god being awakened that features a little girl enigmatically referred to as The Queen of Years? It sounded very promising.

Singing aside there just wasn't anything going on. Or rather there were lots of minor, uninteresting things going on which we were given no reason to care about nor try to make sense of. If any episode of the last eight years proves the point about budgets that I made last week this was it. The show culminated with a god we were told was bad being defeated by people singing at a leaf. It struck me as an insulting, forced-feel good ending tacked on by writer Neil Cross simply because that's what he thinks Doctor Who writers do.

Which leads me to another problem of the current Era (one that has nothing to do with budgets): Moffat does not seem to involve himself in the scripts of others as much as he should. Having read The Writer's Tale, a series of email exchanges between Russell T Davies and Ben Cook (a journalist from the aforementioned DWM), I know how heavily involved RTD got when it came to rewrites. Moffat's predecessor approached the job like it was a cross between a lead writer position and the sort of script editor Robert Holmes and Terrance Dicks were for the show (as opposed to the sort of script editor Helen Rayner and Gareth Roberts were for the show). Based on the five years of the show he produced that strikes me as the correct approach. He didn't always get things right or produce scintillating episodes but he did a better job on a more consistent basis than Steven Moffat.

The current showrunner has stated on several occasions that for the episodes he writes he'll do two drafts. That indicates that he's not going to spend a massive amount of time on the work of others. Having a lead writer and final draft editor who isn't particularly interested in doing the work necessary to make the show the best it can be (which, in RTD's case at least, meant rewriting as much as ninety per cent of a less than great script) had to have been a large contributing factor in last Saturday's Who-by-numbers approach. 

Moffat is well qualified to write Doctor Who. He does it very well, as evidenced by the acclaim heaped on him for the episodes he wrote before he took over. He's not a man well suited to running the show though. An inability to come up with new ideas, preferring to retread old ones, and a seeming disinterest in tightening things up to make the best programme possible is evidence of that.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

More Money Than Sense

I think part of the problem with Steven Moffat's current Doctor Who is that it has access to too much money. It allows Moffat to go for style over substance, something he seems all too willing to do. I'm not against these on the whole, but they should be included in moderation. Opening episodes, such as last week’s The Bells of Saint John, generally need this sort of thing because they exist to be exciting and fun. But Moffat goes overboard, overloading on action and squeezing out plot.

Another example are those strange sequences we get when the show comes back from a break. You know the ones. The Doctor's been hiding or hanging out somewhere using a pseudonym or an alias and there's a needlessly convoluted setup to reveal that the mysterious character that's being referred to is, in fact, the Doctor. The most recent example was the scenes which saw the Doctor posing as a monk last week. That had the added bonus of including what I assume was deliberate misdirection for continuity hungry fans with the Doctor being named the Monk. We’ve also seen it done in the most recent Christmas special and in Let’s Kill Hitler.

Going back to the Meddling Monk reference: it’s ironic that Moffat chose to hint at him as he is precisely the sort of villain that could work in the Moffat Era. With his time-bending shenanigans and general status as a non-threat he'd fit right in.

I'm obviously not intimately familiar with the budgets Moffat and his predecessor Russell T Davies have had access to during their respective times running though show but looking at the greater amount of CG shots and number of scenes Moffat employs it seems fair to assume his budgets are greater than those Davies worked with. Doctor Who has become bigger and made significant strides in cracking the US market since RTD left.

I don't blame Moffat for the inflated budgets. It's the nature of television. Popular and successful shows get given more money, the logic being that it will allow the programme's makers to make the popular and successful bits even more popular and successful. TV companies, even the BBC, want a return on their investment.

The trouble with Doctor Who is that what made it popular and successful in the first place, at least the 2005 incarnation of it, was the approach taken by Russell T Davies. That's a fairly broad point and I'm well aware there were other people to write for and work on the show but it was RTD's vision that engaged the British public and ensured further seasons would get recommissioned. His focus on characters made the show engaging. His plots more often than not included a real threat too, meaning that there was something at stake. Something that couldn’t be sorted out by weak time-travelling trickery.

Unfortunately the extra cash has allowed Moffat to become complacent and lazy with his writing. The Doctor is written less as a character and more as a gaggle of catchphrases for female characters to flirt at. Amy was a dull and vapid vaguely pretty face who seemed to exist to get into perilous situations, be sarcastic, and explain the plot. Moffat may as well have admitted in interviews that she was "something for the dads". It’s too early to say that Clara is definitely the same but nothing I’ve seen yet makes me think she’s going to turn out significantly different.

Cutting the budget could provide a solution to the problem. It might encourage Moffat to come up with some plots that aren't aimless forty five minute action films, endless series of teases hinting at something that he'll never pay off properly (see River Song), or a bunch of smug time travel scenes that quash the possibility of dramatic tension entering the show and come across as mid-nineties fan fiction. Without an immense budget to back up his self-indulgences Moffat would probably begin to focus more on plot, giving us longer scenes and some decent characterisation. As that's what helped the show become big under Tennant and RTD and what's missing now, I can't see that being anything but a good thing.

Of course the alternative is that he’d carry on exactly as he is now but the show wouldn’t look as good. But let’s ignore that.