Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Name

John Hurt is the Doctor.

This is what we were told in the closing moments of The Name of the Doctor, the final instalment of Doctor Who’s underwhelming seventh season. It was a moment of pure excess that seemed more like fanfiction than the televised product we’ve become accustomed to over the last eight years. It was also a moment that nicely demonstrated Steven Moffat’s poor approach to writing. The revelation of a secret Doctor (which seems to be what we’re meant to assume Hurt’s character is) should have been left as something hinted at by a character rather than slapped on to the screen in such a blunt manner.

It’s possible that the reason Moffat’s taken this route is because Christopher Eccleston declined the offer to reprise his role as the Ninth Doctor. Moffat being a man more concerned with big ideas than characters could very possibly have come up with this idea (whatever it turns out to be) as a means of writing the multi-Doctor story he’d had planned before Ecclescake knocked him back. We’ll know more on this when November rolls around.

The entire episode smacked of fanfiction. Moffat drew liberally from a number of fan sources. First and most obviously the concept of the Doctor’s dead body from the end of his timeline being a plot point was borrowed (stolen, call it what you will) from Lawrence Miles’s book Alien Bodies. The use of the body (or time rift…) is different in both but the general idea is an obvious lift.

It’s a good idea. To a point I can understand why Moffat borrowed it. As good an idea as it is it’s still something from a Doctor Who novel produced during the sixteen year gap between the 1989 cancellation and the 2005 revival. It was an officially produced book which just elevates it above fanfiction, but to all intents and purposes that’s still what it is. It’s concerning that Moffat has run out of his own ideas for season finales already, after just three seasons in charge.

The other big lift from the old Doctor Who novels that replaced the TV show in the nineties was the implication that past incarnations of the Doctor live on in the current incarnation’s mind (referenced in several novels but most prominently in Timewyrm: Revelation). It wasn’t explicitly stated in The Name of the Doctor but it’s a logical enough conclusion to draw when we see the Doctor leap into his own timestream and witness his own past incarnations galloping about on jaunts to nowhere. Either they’re living memories of some sort or the Doctor and Clara landed in the most tedious multi-Doctor story ever.

Speaking of Clara the big secret regarding her was revealed in this episode. It was a mess and a letdown. Basically she was scattered through time of her own free will in order to protect the Doctor. She didn’t die, because the Doctor saved her. In fact it’s implied she’s lived hundreds or thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of lives, so in actuality she benefited from leaping into the Doctor’s timestream.

I’ve come to expect these sorts of anti-climaxes from Moffat. It’s what he does. The man’s incapable of constructing a meaningful season long story arc. This latest attempt was little more than an excuse for him to write the earliest televised scene in Doctor Who history (creating a reason for the Doctor picking a specific TARDIS has the feel of fanfiction to it too) and inject a thoroughly dodgy CG sequence into the episode numerous times. The clip of Patrick Troughton running was excruciatingly bad. I think part of that is because he and Clara are in a crowded area yet nobody looks at either of them despite the scene they’re so obviously making. It’s awkward to watch.

Why does the Doctor so rarely notice her? Because that’s most convenient to Moffat’s story. There’s literally no greater reason than that.

There were other issues. Why exactly did the Great Intelligence hold such a grudge against the Doctor? Why weren’t the Silence, a religious order based around a scene shown in this episode, nowhere to be seen? Why did Moffat go out of his way to establish that this was River Song after the Library episodes when nothing she did necessitated that? None of these things are catastrophic but they do add to the overall feeling that this episode was rushed, poorly planned and done on the cheap.

I will say that the sets were of the usual high standard. There was nothing truly remarkable, mainly because the major sets were a redecorated TARDIS interior, a graveyard and the tea room used for the conference call but what was shown was very well put together. The Whispermen were visually striking too, which makes it a shame that they didn’t actually have a purpose beyond being creepy.

Overall The Name of the Doctor was the crushing bore I expected it to be. That doesn’t bode too well for the fiftieth anniversary episode, does it?

Friday, 17 May 2013

Changing the Game

Remember how Steven Moffat built up the mid-season finale of Doctor Who’s sixth series in 2011 (A Good Man Goes to War)? He claimed it would be “game changing”, altering not just the course of the show but the way we viewed its past. It was a pretty big shout, even on his budget.

It turned out that his idea of the game being changed was revealing the identity and hinting at some of the backstory of a character he’d introduced three years earlier and who few non-fans (and fans for that matter) truly cared about. Suffice it to say that the game remained resolutely unchanged.

The conclusion to that season was less hyped but promotional interviews still featured Moffat talking up how exciting and unpredictable it would be. It wasn’t. Similar talk for Asylum of the Daleks, The Angels Take Manhattan, The Snowmen, and The Bells of St John all failed spectacularly too. Moffat has displayed a spectacular knack for failing to deliver on his promises in these situations.

He's been back at it for this Saturday’s episode. To a certain extent you can't blame him. It is his job after all. But while he’s contractually obligated to talk up any and every episode of Doctor Who as though it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, paying particular care to paint season finales as unmissable televisual events, he's not contractually obligated to come up with ridiculous episode names like The Name of the Doctor.

During his recent media ramblings Moffat has said several things about this episode. He's told us that the Doctor's biggest secret will be revealed, we'll find out the secret of Clara, new villains the Whispermen will be one of his better monsters, and has once again trotted out his rubbish about this episode changing the way we look at the show. That's quite a JNT-style shopping list he's cobbled together for himself, isn't it? It’s tough not to go into the finale expecting anything but an overly busy mess.

Is Moffles going to reveal the Doctor's name? I find it hard to believe he will (although if any executive producer were ever going to do it it would be him). This is a perfect example of him going for big ideas that sound "epic" but actually aren't. It’s something designed to grab headlines in a surprisingly quiet fiftieth anniversary year, not something that hints at a gripping story. What would we gain from finding out the Doctor's name? Nothing. How would it benefit or change the show for the better? It wouldn't. There is no possible name that could do the mystery justice, and even if there were there’s no payoff to finding out.

What I think Moffat will reveal instead is the mystery behind the name, a move that would fail to have the impact of revealing the actual name while at the same time appearing to have meaning. In other words something so daft and pointless it’s right up The Moff’s alley.

We’ll find out that the Doctor gave up his name when he left Gallifrey centuries ago or that he’s had to hide it because it’s so powerful that if spoken by the wrong person it could be used as a weapon. If it’s the former we could see Moffat lift the fan theory that all Time Lords that leave their home planet have to give up their name and have to choose a title instead, for whatever reason. If it’s the latter we could find the Doctor’s hidden his name in a book and stashed it in the TARDIS’s library.

I’m not saying either idea is brilliant, should air, or is what I personally want to see, but they’re the sorts of concept that appear impressive at first glance. Of course on a second or third glance they begin to look pretty ropey, but by that point Moffat’s gotten away with it and he’s off tinkering on his next mediocre idea.

The topic of the name is going to be addressed. Even Moffat wouldn’t be so brazen as to go with that title only to do nothing. Something will happen, even if it’s disappointing or stupid or both.

I suspect it will tie into the First Question thread he introduced at the end of season six. By providing an answer, any answer to the “Doctor who?” question that has been cropping up in the programme since the days of William Hartnell Moffat will be creating something that retroactively affects every episode that’s ever gone before. Once he’s aired his punchline the next time you watch a Jon Pertwee story and the joke gets used you’ll think of The Name of the Doctor.

I’m convinced that’s something Moffat would love. It’s a lazy approach but so what? It’s not like there’s no precedent for Moffatian laziness.

All of that said his job isn’t just to write something good, it’s to get the highest rating possible. It’s likely that the title The Name of the Doctor will get one of the best ratings of the season. While that doesn’t whollyexcuse the move it does make it a little more understandable and bearable. It’ll still come back to bite him though. When viewers realise Moff’s not delivered on his promise they’ll be less inclined to watch the next similarly-titled canon-fest.

The secret of Clara is doomed to be an uninspiring piece of technobabble that has no bearing on how we see her. Moffat's had to resort to scripting a special teaser trailer in which the Doctor and Clara explain to the camera how they both feel about each other because he's not bothered to write anything addressing said feelings into the previous seven episodes. It’s not only typical of him but also shows that there's nothing to go back and re-evaluate.

It’s possible the Whispermen will be better than the Silence or the Weeping Angels but it’s not likely. Both of those races are very good central ideas that are aided by great designs. The Whispermen don’t look bad but there’s something a bit Sarah Jane Adventures about them. I have no idea what Moffat could have cooked up to better instantly forgettable invaders or statues that move when you’re not looking.

As for the vain hope of a surprise regeneration? We should be so lucky. Moffat wouldn’t be satisfied with anything so simple.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Upgrade Incomplete

Last night’s episode of Doctor Who featured the much hyped return of the Cybermen. Saying something was much hyped in relation to Doctor Who used to imply that an aspect of the episode hadn’t been seen for a while (in addition to the more traditional meaning that the production crew were shooting their mouths off, of course). That’s certainly not the case here. The Cybermen have appeared in every one of Matt Smith’s seasons so far, and before he took over they’d been the co-stars of David Tennant’s penultimate Christmas Special.

This was not a big return. It was an annual appearance.

Not that that’s a bad thing necessarily. Russell T Davies had the Daleks appear at least once during all but one of the five years of his producership, and only one of those stories was bad. Doctor Who alien races can keep coming back frequently if there’s something interesting for them to do.

Was there something new for the Cybermen to do in Nightmare in Silver? What do you think?

You’ve probably heard the story of how Neil Gaiman came to write this episode. In case you haven’t it goes something like this: Steven Moffat, delighted with how well The Doctor’s Wife had turned last season (although it feels like it aired a lot longer ago than that), sent Gaiman an email asking him if he’d like to make the Cybermen scary again. Gaiman, presumably feeling that scares were well within his field of expertise, jumped at the chance.

The offer of a decent payday probably didn’t hurt either.

At first the episode actually worked. Yeah, the kids were pretty annoying, but they could have been far worse. The old Cyberman that played chess was, while typically Gaiman-esque, a nice visual and sufficiently quirky for the setting of an abandoned funfair. Speaking of which, the funfair backdrop was quite a nice idea. It’s surprising that it took New Who eight years to get round to it. Ditto the fake moon landing set. That was another striking image. Pity nothing really came of it.

The first fifteen minutes or so were fine. There was nothing that made me think that Gaiman had produced the greatest episode ever (or even the greatest Cybermen episode ever) but it was good. He was building up an intriguing world and a satisfying sense of spooky mystery.

It all went wrong the moment Matt Smith got infected with a Cyber-virus (or something) and had to start doing the playground level nonsense of playing a goodie and a baddie sharing a body. If that wasn’t bad enough (and it was) Smith did a really bad job of it. The Crimson Horror gave us his woeful Red Skin Acting. This was worse.

From there the plot lurched from one piece of stupidity to another. The kids were reduced to standing around doing nothing (which made me wonder why they’d been written into proceedings in the first place) alongside Jason Watkins (who’s been rather enjoyable up until then). Clara started getting bolshy with Tamzin Outhwaite about who was in charge. The Cybermen flip-flopped between being a massive CG army and a single extra standing in a bit of water. And the Cybermen’s leader agreed to put his entire scheme on the line in a game of chess. Eventually the chess game turned out not to matter anyway, rendering it an even more silly inclusion.

In hindsight this was the problem with The Doctor’s Wife. Gaiman can build up very intriguing worlds within the Doctor Who bubble and set up a plot that has bags of potential but can’t quite seem to deliver a satisfying second or third act. Things just go limp and drift aimlessly once he has to start revealing things and introducing peril.

What of the episode’s stars, those newly designed Cybermen? Well, they looked good. And they were written to be more intelligent than the Cybermen have been in quite a while. Those were positives. But there were negatives too. The detached hand (unlike the rather enjoyed detached head) came across as ridiculous, as did the teleport-running. The less said about their Robocop walk the better. Although in fairness the stomping of the RTD Era Cybermen wasn’t that good either.

That they can still be defeated by gold made me want to facepalm. I’m sure Moffat and Gaiman were high-fiving each other over such a great reference but to anyone unaware of this particular Cybermen attribute it probably made no sense. Anyone who was aware of the weakness going in probably wished it could be dropped.

Their new big attribute, upgrading themselves on the spot, was a nice idea. It goes a long way to making them a far more imposing but it also led to anti-climactic scenes like them striding into some water only to slur out that they were upgrading as we were treated to shots of Clara and her “army” beaming with pride before looking crestfallen.

Probably best not to ask why they couldn’t just upgrade around their weakness to gold though. The show’s logic is fragile enough as it is.

The real trouble with the episode is that the Cybermen just aren’t a terribly good enemy, especially when used as often as they have been. It goes back to them being designed as the replacements for the Daleks when it looked like Terry Nation was going to crack America (spoiler: it didn’t happen). They aren’t a bad idea (future humans who have become machine-like and removed emotions because they make you “weak”) but the trouble is that people just don’t know how to write them to make them interesting.

Are they to be written as communists, everyone becoming equal? Should they be used to comment on humanity’s current obsession with new technology and a never-ending stream of upgrades? Should they be fetishized and presented as unstoppable killer robots? Are they Doctor Who’s answer to the Borg? That there’s not a coherent vision for them means that we’re doomed to get reinventions like this one every few years, and that newly introduced aspects will obviously be ignored by later writers. Which will only contribute further to their fragmented image, of course.

It could have been worse, of course. We could have had Philip Segal’s Cybs.

I’d like to know why Moffat didn’t keep the reinvention of the Cybermen for himself. Years ago, around the time it was first announced he was taking over and large swathes of fans were treating it as the Second Coming, I remember him being asked in an interview (probably in DWM but frustratingly I can’t find any trace of it there) if he’d had any ideas under RTD that hadn’t worked out. His reply was that he’d had several that had had to go unmade for budgetary reasons or because Big Russ had plans for the same things.

One of the plots Moffat mentioned was a Cybermen story. He said it would have been his definitive take on them and would have cast them in a new light.

Given that he seemed to give Gaiman free rein to do whatever he wanted it would appear that Moff’s own Cybermen story has been dropped. Or postponed. Perhaps he’s holding off on it for his final regular contribution to the series or Matt Smith’s regeneration, assuming that’s not a “surprise” next week (which I doubt it will be).

On a final note regarding Nightmare in Silver I’d like to address the trailer. Given Moffat has stated numerous times over the years that he dislikes the next time trailers giving away plot points I find it odd that Richard E Grant was shown menacing the Doctor ahead of next week’s show. Perhaps a disgruntled former exec producer let that one slip through.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Playing the Gaim

I like Neil Gaiman. Or rather, I like his work. He may be the same breed of smug, mildly pervy git as Steven Moffat but as he generally writes novels and comics as opposed to TV scripts it doesn't come across as much. His work can develop at a better pace in those mediums. His themes are left with time to develop without being overshadowed by his more annoying traits (comely wench casting for example).

I wasn't a fan of his previous Doctor Who effort though. The Doctor's Wife, it was called. For those who haven't seen it or have forgotten its premise (yeah, spoiler warning here...) the soul of the TARDIS is wrenched out of the time box and stuffed into a patchwork woman. This takes place on a sentient planet called House who hunts Time Lords.

As a premise it's pretty ruddy good. The episode is well directed and well-acted and features some pretty lovely sets and CG-scapes. It's a highlight of Matt Smith's second season and will likely number among his best episodes when he finally leaves.

Can you sense the but that's coming?

The trouble I have with the episode (and I'm sure I'm not the only one to feel this way) is that it's incredibly arrogant. Neil Gaiman, in his first stint writing for the show, decides he's going to give the TARDIS a voice. That's something that nobody in the forty-plus year history of the show had ever done before. If Robert Holmes didn't feel the need to do something like that then what gives Gaiman the right? He should have been made to earn his stripes first before roaring into a story so heavy in the programme’s continuity.

I don't object to what the TARDIS says. The presentation is what it is. Anybody writing a speaking part for the TARDIS post-2005 would have taken the exact same approach Gaiman did. I don't care about the TARDIS referring to the Doctor being her companion or feeling him move about inside her (steady, that's the reaction Gaiman wants). I’m certainly not against the casting of Suranne Jones. She’s a very good choice for the part.

It's simply that Gaiman felt he was the right guy to do it.

None of which has any direct bearing on this evening's episode of course. But it does make you (or me at any rate) wonder what firsts Gaiman's going to pursue with the Cybermen.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Period Drama

The Crimson Horror. It had to be a period piece really didn’t it?

Despite having written the third largest number of stories since Doctor Who’s revival, behind Steven Moffat and Russell T Davies (obvs) Mark Gatiss is not the show’s most reliable writer. Both The Unquiet Dead and The Idiots’ Lantern are amongst the dreariest offerings of their respective seasons. Utterly unambitious and happy to be mostly forgettable tales.

Victory of the Daleks feels like it should be a lot more special than it actually is (and is remembered mainly for the poorly judged Dalek redesigns). Night Terrors… well, isn’t too bad by the standards of the Moffat Era, but that’s not saying a great deal. It gets a little boring after Gatiss has run through all the clever tricks he can think of though. Which doesn’t take long.

Cold War I’ve discussed here. Suffice to say I didn’t think it was particularly riveting.

In short, he’s not built up a glowing track record for himself. He’s become known as a writer who gets brought in to deliver a script on time and to budget. He also has a habit of producing scripts that feel like they’d fit snugly into the Jon Pertwee era with just a few minor tweaks. There’s nothing wrong with Pertwee’s Doctor or the bulk of his stories but it’s not what writers should be striving for in 2005 and beyond, is it?

What I’m building to here is that despite his reputation as being little more than a safe pair of hands with a fixation on the first half of the 1970s and a distinct lack of scintillating Who credits to his name Gatiss managed to turn out one of the best episodes of the current series. The Crimson Horror was watchable. That’s not something that can be said about much of series seven.

Things were kept moving, there was a villain to be opposed and a mystery to be solved. These things are all too often missing from the show these days, leaving the regulars and whatever major guests are appearing to drift from one scene to the next gabbling quips at one another in a desperate attempt to fool people into thinking something, anything, is happening.

This is not to say it was perfect. The sentimentality of the mother and daughter relationship was laid on very thick. As was Diana Riggs’ accent. If she was going for comedy Northerner she nailed it. If she was going for anything else (and she should have been) she was way off the mark. Madam Vastra and her comedy menagerie were back. They’ve not been involved in anything worthwhile yet and I don’t expect that to ever change.

The name of Mr Sweet was pretty ridiculous too. That’s a minor quibble I know, but when you’ve got to hear a name said so many times throughout an episode it shouldn’t make you think of a paedophilic clown. Not that there are any paedophilic clowns called Mr Sweet (that I know of), but it’s the image that the name conjured up. Perhaps that says more about me.

The real gem was Matt Smith’s Red Skin Acting. It was his ropiest performance since taking the part. How nobody in a position of authority saw the rushes and demanded retakes that were more convincing is beyond me. It was an offensively hammy performance.

But, y’know, I still don’t think it was a totally bad episode. Which says more about the quality of the current run than the quality of this particular episode. I feel like I’ve said that before.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Wibbly Wobbly Whiney Time

The phrase "timey wimey" annoys me. When it originally appeared in Blink it was used as a means to add humour to the (plot-necessitated) explanation that things don't always happen in the right order for a time traveller. Which was fine. It made sense within the context of the episode and wasn't made out to be some iconic line. David Tennant delivered it perfectly.

It's what the phrase has morphed into in the years since then that I dislike. It pops up far too often in the show, almost always in totally different contexts to its original (perfectly satisfactory) one. Take Matt Smith's debut episode as an example. Upon examining the crack in Amy's bedroom wall he muses to himself "Wibbly wobbly, timey wimey. We know what the crack is." It means nothing within the context of the episode. It seems a peculiar thing for the Doctor to choose to say. Unless he's aware of the popularity of Blink, and that doesn't seem likely. 

It's used completely unironically in reviews and on blogs (just do a Google search for the phrase to see what I mean). It's no longer used as a funny bit of technobabble to acknowledge that sometimes things happen out of sequence. It's been transformed into a shorthand for allegedly clever time travel plots and a way for people to describe them to show they understand them (no great achievement frankly).

It's the latter use of the phrase that I object to more. Not because I think the phrase should be held sacred as a piece of Doctor Who lore or because it worked so well as a piece of technobabble but because it implies that Steven Moffat's time travel obsessed scripts are the work of a genius who is the master of this sort of thing. And he's not that. He's very far from that.

You can look at a film as simple (and as good) as the original Back to the Future for time travel fiction better than Moffat's. I know the man himself has looked back at that film because its referenced in a number of his Doctor Who episodes, most obviously Blink with the letter delivery scene towards the start. BTTF is a good film and a large part of it is about the idea of time travel. But that's not what makes it good. The writing does that. The style over substance approach Moffat has increasingly taken since Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead shows that good writing is needed far more than quirky ideas that any half-decent writer could pen.

Moffat's use of time travel is not a shining example of quality. It's just doing the same trick continuously and in a high profile, Saturday evening setting. He's made a name for himself as being perfectly reasonable at constructing that sort of story. He's done nothing that people before him haven't done, nor bettered existing techniques.

If you want good time travel stories check out Back to the Future or 12 Monkeys or The Restaurant at the End of the Universe or Terminator. Groundhog Day could arguably be included on that list too. Even Hot Tub Time Machine exhibits more charm than the average Moff script. Within Doctor Who go back to the 1979 run and watch City of Death. That uses the TARDIS's ability to move through time as a central conceit in a far more engaging fashion than the current showrunner ever does. And it did it decades before the phrase timey wimey entered public consciousness.