Saturday, 23 November 2013

End of Chapter One

I’m looking forward to The Day of the Doctor, but I’m not one of the seemingly many people with reams of questions about what will happen. Years of Moffat’s producership have taught me not to get my hopes up. He is, after all, the man who claimed that he’d got a “game-changing” revelation lined up only to reveal that it was just the fairly obvious true identity of a character he’d introduced a few years earlier.

No, I don’t expect much from Moffat. He’s proven that he’s relatively capable of scripting a frothy runaround and so that’s what I’m hoping for here. It seems like the least of a host of potential evils.

What’s all this about people escaping from paintings? Will Chris Eccleston appear? Will Hurt’s Doctor regenerate? Are there more “secret” Doctors? Is the possession of The Moment as meaningful as we’ve been led to believe? What’s the regeneration Moffat claims we’ve overlooked? These are some of the questions a lot of fans (many, it must be said, from the excitable realms of North America) are working themselves into a frenzy predicting answers to. Some interest me more than others but none have provoked me into sitting and thinking for hours on end about how it all links together. It’s impossible to get every aspect right so why try? Just sit back and think about the practical things that you can predict.

For example…

A friend pointed out to me many months ago that having Zygons in the episode is the perfect chance for Moffat to pull one of his favourite tricks: a twist that at first seems wonderful but on second look is straightforward and, ultimately, crushingly boring. How hard is it to imagine a Zygon posing as the a former Doctor? Not very. Perhaps Hurt’s Doctor is a Zygon imposter. “But we saw him in the Doctor’s timestream!” you cry. Yeah, but we also saw the Great Intelligence and Clara there. It was a pretty packed place. A Zygon sneaking in or, more likely, bonding itself into the Doctor’s memories (or whatever) seems as plausible as anything else.

This is one of the many scenarios I hope we don’t see. Even talk of practicalities becomes an exercise in futility.

Eccleston then. I’d like to see him appear but I’m not banking on it. He seems as keen as ever to distance himself from the show. A regeneration for Hurt leading to a brief cameo seems the likeliest way he’d crop up, which would ironically lead to him looking older than he ever did in his solitary year at the moment of his “birth”. I wouldn’t care one way or the other if that happened. I don’t think I’ll ever shake the feeling that Hurt is only appearing because Eccleston said no to the concept of being the dark Doctor of the Time War. From what’s been revealed of the plot it seems that Hurt is nothing more than a surrogate for the Ninth Doctor we met in 2005. It’s a way of sticking to the story he wanted without the “right” actor.

A Hurt to Eccleston regeneration would ultimately be meaningless anyway, another piece of contrived lore crammed in by an overzealous Moffat. But that approach has characterised his entire approach to the fiftieth. Hollow promises about the last half a century merely having been “the first chapter” and a tedious focus on something that was created to emphatically remain off-screen have been the order of the day, instead of the talk of a fun episode with an enjoyable story and a returning Doctor that I would have liked to hear.

And while we're on the subject of the show's lore, the twelve regenerations "rule" that's being quoted in papers and magazines and by fans... well, it's silly isn't it? It was a throwaway element of a story in the mid-seventies and has stuck mainly because it's a number that feels right. The number of people that think it's a significant problem that must be solved is staggering. Doctor is a science fantasy show for kids. It will not end because Robert Holmes arbitrarily selected the number thirteen as the times a single Time Lord could live. Within the logic of the show it's easy enough to resolve. The Master's been offered new regeneration cycles before. He's even been resurrected, presumably after his "final" death. Is it really that hard to imagine the Thirteenth Doctor (whether that's Capaldi or someone else) getting an episode in which they stumble across some ancient relic of Time Lord tech that grants a new cycle or even an infinite supply? No, it's not. Because the continuation of the show is more important to the BBC than adhering to nonsense laws introduced for dramatic effect.

Will November 23rd 2013 go down as the beginning of chapter two? No. It will go as the day another of Moff’s hyperbolic shams was revealed. This is not to say the episode’s going to be bad, more that it won’t be the startling new direction Moffles is promising. I’m setting my expectations low. And you should too.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

All Over Your Screen

Last year (year 49 of Doctor Who's existence) Steven Moffat told us that Doctor Who would be "all over" our screens in 2013. It seemed like a believable claim. The show is not only one of the BBC's lead dramas but has half a century of life to draw on. That's plenty of material to sustain various documentaries and spin-off shows. But we've not seen that much of either. The Doctor Who brand (a term I'm not a fan of but that is applicable) had, until last week, been no more visible than it usually is. Releasing a handful of things a couple of weeks before the show’s official fiftieth anniversary is hardly being all over screens throughout the year is it?

So far what we've had are a couple of official trailers featuring footage from the anniversary episode itself, a minute long celebration of Doctor Who featuring stills of past Doctors and enemies, the regeneration of Paul McGann, and half a season of episodes that were, as a whole, arguably some of the worst since the 2005 revival. Announced for the anniversary week are the Adventure in Time and Space drama written by Mark Gatiss, which tells the story of the show's origin, an appearance from Moffat on Desert Island Discs, some vague promises from Moffat about making use of the Doctors of the last century, and the anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor.

An Adventure in Time and Space looks good and has an interesting story to tell. So there’s promise there. The celebratory minute-long trailer was enjoyable and slickly produced, if ultimately fairly pointless. Moffat’s appearance on Desert Island Discs won’t reveal anything at all interesting but may produce some amusing lines (he claims to dislike making such appearances but he always comes across as having no greater interest in life than talking himself and his work up). The Night of the Doctor was enjoyable for what it was, but it only exists to lend weight to Moffat’s “secret incarnation” direction.

The Day of the Doctor itself? It’s unfair to say it will be good or bad based on the pair of trailers and handful of scenes that have been released. From what I’ve seen I will say it doesn’t look like the worst thing put out under the current creative head (although see below for more on this). The success of the episode depends on the central mystery (that’s basically John Hurt’s involvement) being suitably interesting and Tennant and Smith finding moderate success as a double act.

Compare what we’ve seen for the anniversary special to what we got when David Tennant left. He appeared on a “special” episode of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the Christmas episode of QI, got his own set on Christmas idents, and couldn’t be escaped from when it came to interviews. He's the most popular Doctor ever (or the second most if you're someone unable to let go of Tom Baker's heyday) and it was a shrewd move to secure those appearances but why is nothing similar happening now?

According to certain quarters it's because The Moff blew the budget he'd been allocated for the anniversary year producing the episodes that already aired and the one we'll see next Saturday. No episode from The Bells of St John to The Name of the Doctor seemed like it had had loads of time and money lavished on it, so the anniversary episode is the last place the cash can have gone to. And let's talk about that episode. From what's been shown it looks like Moffat has plumped to set a story in or around the Time War. He’s had three years to prepare something worthwhile but has instead opted to use something his predecessor introduced and kept off screen as a way of explaining plot holes and keeping some mystery floating around.

... In a way this is terribly apt.

What's noteworthy is that RTD explicitly stated he'd never show the Time War, citing a lack of sufficient budget to do it justice and that, no matter how good it was, it would be an anti-climax. Which seems completely logical. The Time War was not introduced to provide a backdrop to stories, it’s purpose was to remain unseen. How would a war throughout time actually, physically, logistically work. The trailer indicates that it's been realised as a big ol' space war, when the term actually implies rewritten time streams and erasures from history. Conceptual warfare if you like, rather than a simple war in space.

This sums up the difference between Moffat and Davies wonderfully. Davies created something he could use to create a sense of scale and explain away bothersome minutiae, leaving him free to concentrate on character and plot. Moffat hears Time War and thinks it sounds cool.

There’s no clear reason why Moff hasn’t bothered to create his own threads and themes for the fiftieth anniversary. No matter what he had planned and no matter why it had to be cut he's been the man at the top for four years now (longer if you count the various threads and characters introduced before he officially took the reins), more than enough time to decide on what this episode was to be about and drop in hints and teases. I think the fact that he's gone with an RTD idea shows a lack of faith in his own work and concepts. Which is perhaps for the best: a fiftieth anniversary episode focusing on River Song scarcely bears thinking about.

The lack of new episodes isn't what disappoints me. I'd rather have one new, lengthy episode airing on the anniversary itself than a number of lesser ones spread out. What disappoints me is that Moffat seems to have written something very heavily reliant on continuity. An anniversary episode should include more nods to the past than a regular episode but it should still be accessible for first-time viewers. And inaccessibility seems to have been a growing theme throughout Moffat’s tenure.

As I say, it’s unfair to judge The Day of the Doctor until it’s aired, and it will ultimately succeed on fairly basic things. But right now I don’t have the greatest hopes for it.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Good Night

Usually Steven Moffat's obsession with playing the modern day JNT, baiting fans into expecting one thing with what he thinks is wonderfully clever wordplay and then delivering something unexpected, results in disaster and disappointment. Occasionally though it can deliver a worthwhile and pleasant surprise. Such as The Night of the Doctor, for example.

Before that mini episode aired the BBC had released the following statement:

The 50th Anniversary features Matt Smith, David Tennant and a mysterious incarnation played by John Hurt. Only one appears in the mini episode, The Night of the Doctor. But which?

This wasn't a lie. John Hurt’s “mysterious incarnation” did make an appearance of sorts in the closing thirty seconds or so, but he was not the focal point. Instead the seven minute show featured Paul McGann returning to the role of the Eighth Doctor to tell his regeneration story. This is when the deceitful approach pays off: nobody blabbed about McGann's reprisal of the role and so it was a genuine and pleasant surprise. The last time Moffat pulled one of these tricks off was Jenna Coleman's appearance in Asylum of the Daleks.

Given that it's only seven minutes long and had access only to a slender cast and two sets I think TNOTD is very enjoyable. It's the sort of thing Moffat's actually good at writing: frivolous bits of continuity with a smattering of gags and memorable, perhaps even quotable, lines. He deserves credit for cobbling together some nice moments for McGann’s Doctor despite having forty minutes of footage to go on. The line about four minutes being ages helped create the sense that it was the same character we’d seen in the TV Movie. And he came up with a decent final line, not easy when the Eighth Doctor has had, in total, about an hour of screen time.

The real credit for The Night of the Doctor being an enjoyable bit of filler should go to McGann. Even before thinking about his performance he deserves praise for returning to the role. It would have been easy for him to say no. This is the man who kept the easy gig of Big Finish audios at arm’s length for years, it was no guarantee he’d want to be involved in the anniversary celebrations in any capacity. It’s nice that he agreed to come back to give his Doctor the final moments he deserved (and to help set up John Hurt as a continuation of the Doctor line, because if that hadn’t been achieved I get the feeling The Day of the Doctor’s plot would suffer for it).

McGann plays the part well. It’s nothing sensational or mind-blowing. It’s not the greatest Doctor Who performance ever. It’s not going to cause anyone to reconsider their opinion on the show. But it’s not a bad performance, and it may get people to reconsider their views on McGann’s Doctor.

I’m not going to do what many others have done in the hours since the episode was put onto YouTube and witter about how they’d like further adventures from the McGann Doctor. I don’t. What made it work here is a combination of various factors. The element of surprise, the sense of closure, the sense of nostalgia, and the script being pitched just right were chief among them. It worked as a one off. More would suffer from the law of diminishing returns very quickly. But I will say that McGann entered a better performance than I can remember Matt Smith since at least his second series in 2011.

The final thing I’d like to point out is that with this episode I’m pretty sure Moffat has now written for more Doctors than anybody else (Five, Eight, Nine, the other Nine, Ten, and Eleven, plus Twelve when he arrives). This is not a particularly important piece of information but it’s one I’d bet a substantial amount of money Moffat will smugly reference in an interview at some point.