Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Bubble Wrapped Christmas


Since Steven Moffat dropped into the Doctor Who producer's chair in 2010 the Christmas specials have featured a common theme. Last year's The Time of the Doctor aside they've all been heavily inspired by existing works (and it could be argued that Time of the Doctor was inspired by a certain kind of fanfic). 2010 was inspired by A Christmas Carol (and even nabbed the title). 2011 was The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, an homage to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe so logical it's amazing it took 48 years to do. 2012 went for Victoriana in general, even though The Wizard of Oz would have sat nicely with Moff’s established theme with the TARDIS taking the place of the death-dealing falling house.

The approach hasn't had the best results. His first stab at the tricky to nail Crimbo standalone, which is intended to be watched by an audience that's half cut and likely to doze off, was about an old man who kept his girlfriend locked in a freezer and only let her out once a year, with her last hours implied to be spent underneath a groaning Michael Gambon. It’s not what you’d call a heart-warming tale. It also featured Moffat's irritating obsession with writing time travel into his plots, as opposed to using it as the impetus for a story (there's quite a difference).

His second attempt quickly dropped its promising source material and told us a story about a tree king and living baubles. That Bill Bailey's minor cameo was one of the best things about it says all that needs saying. Meanwhile the 2012 melange was more worried about setting Clara up as the impossible girl than striving for the realms of good or even memorable, a poor decision for what should have been a Romp™.


Judging by this year's trailer I think Moffat's changed his sources of inspiration. What's been released shows a bunch of people wandering around a sci-fi base or ship, some aliens hatching, and Father Christmas. There's also a shot of (presumably) people with cloths draped over them sitting up on gurneys. That clip and the alien hatching make me think it's going to be a survival story in which people are picked off and converted one by one. Specifically it looks like it's been influenced pretty strongly by Alien, its sequels, and its rip-offs. Just what you want on Christmas Day.

In fairness if this is what Moffat's written it's not the worst idea in the world. An homage to action films, a genre which doesn't generally require much attention from the audience, is a good approach for a Doctor Who Christmas episode. It allows for a story where there's a threat (something Moffat scripts all too frequently lack) but in a format where people can follow along by knowing the basics of the genre.

The main reason I've written all of this is that I have a prediction on the alien race in the episode. Assuming it is a story about a small group of humans getting picked off or converted by an alien in space there's a natural race to bring back and use in the alien role: the Wirrn.

It could be interesting to see them used again, especially when you take into account the advances prosthetics have made since 1975. But it would also be a risk for Moffat. The Ark in Space is a highly regarded story by a highly regarded writer that kicked off what is probably the most highly regarded era of the show. This newer episode would be open to a host of comparisons and would need to be very well made in order to not come off looking like a nicely made but poor imitation and an ill-advised, unnecessary remake. It's possible the modern production team could better The Ark in Space but doing so would hinge on a top notch Moffat script. And he's not had one of those in a while.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Death in Heaven

 

I enjoyed last week’s opening half of this story (Dark Water). It did a good job of drawing various dangling plot strands together, reintroducing the Master, now Missy, in a fashion befitting the character, and making the Cybermen look better than they have in years. But it had the simple job. Setting things up is easy and can be done indefinitely. It’s paying things off in a satisfying manner that counts and takes the skill. Before it aired that was what it felt like Death in Heaven was going to struggle with. It did.

I mentioned Steven Moffat’s history with two-parters last week and I’m going to do the same here. Because it’s worth highlighting that his payoff episodes are never as rewarding as his setup episodes. The only episodes of his that’s not true of are The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances because The Moffster wrote them as a ninety minute script and then lopped it in two with a flimsy cliffhanger. They’re a pair of episodes unlike any other two part story the series has done since. They were a learning experience for Moffat, as Aliens of London and World War Three had been earlier in 2005 for Russell T Davies. Note how Davies completely altered things for the resolving half of his Bad Wolf and Parting of the Ways duo, the second two part story he scripted for the series.

Moffat learnt to switch things up in resolving halves, as noted last week. That’s shown in Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead, where the first script ends in such a way as to set up an entirely fresh premise in the second. And while it was clear from those two episodes that Moffat had mastered that vital trick required to make modern day Doctor Who multi-part stories work it also showed that he’s not actually very good at resolving things.

Look back at that story and make note of how things stand at the halfway point. The Doctor is in a library that’s inside a girl’s TV, Donna’s dead, there are living shadows eating people, and there’s a mysterious woman knocking about who knows an awful lot about the Doctor and keeps making enigmatic references to his future. It’s good stuff, because there are so many questions we can ask and as an audience we enjoy a bit of mystery. There’s a joy to not knowing and trying to figure out how everything will tie together.

Coming up with puzzling scenarios and concepts is a strength of Moffat’s writing. Sadly, he isn’t as skilled when it comes to paying off these creations. There’s no way to watch the concluding part of the Library two-parter without feeling slightly deflated: the girl turns out to be malfunctioning computer software (and it was neither the first nor last time that particular trope turned up in a Moffat script), Donna ends up alive and well, the shadows are largely forgotten about, and the mysterious woman turns out to be River Song, a woman who would go on to become a walking continuity reference and a way for Moffat to substitute lazy writing for creativity.

Steven Moffat does not write satisfying conclusions. He writes enjoyable setups which he has no idea how to pay off. He also doesn’t think his ideas through sufficiently, resulting in holes and flaws in the show’s internal logic. This was something that certainly afflicted Death in Heaven. To wit…

Most graves on Earth would not contain a physical body (one grave was from 1748, for example, and wouldn’t have contained anything resembling a human since 1749 at best), so how were they used to produce Cybermen? How did rain turn into Cybermen suits? Was the dark water introduced in the episode of the same name intended as an explanation of how they were formed from bones? If so why was the focus on the water turning non-organic material invisible instead of hinting at its metal-creating abilities? Why were there bolts in Danny's face when the Cyberman suit had cascaded onto him? Wouldn’t bolts have been needed if Danny had been placed into the suit? Are we to take it that the Doctor has become fairly well known again, considering every country on the planet is okay with him being put in charge in times of great emergency? Why did Cyber-Danny take Clara to a graveyard? Why do Cybermen have to activate their own emotional inhibitors when lack of emotion has traditionally been one of their defining attributes? If Cyber-Danny had to turn off his emotions to become a Cyberman, which he wasn't able to do himself, then how did every other dead person become a fully converted Cyberman after standing around looking confused for a bit? Why would an upgrade which puts a form of the internet in humanity’s heads not include some sort of orientation programme to cut down on the levels of confusion the newly booted up Cybermen experience? Are we now to understand that human emotion is stronger than Cyber-programming? Could the Doctor really not work out that the Cybermen's plan was to use their magical clouds to turn all of humanity into Cybermen without Danny's help? Was Seb dying as he squee’d a reveal of Moffat's true feelings towards modern fandom? Could Danny’s mind or personality or whatever not have been uploaded back to the Nethersphere to gift him with the depressing afterlife that River Song was subjected to in The Library? 

Orson Pink?

None of these things were enough to make the story unwatchable. They were niggles and annoyances that could and should have been sorted out but they weren’t enough to ruin the story and make it bad. It was bad in its own right, with or without them.

Let’s start with the Clara and Danny stuff, because it’s clear with eleven previous episodes to look back on that that was intended as one of the episode’s key themes. I’ve said of most episodes that feature a focus on their relationship that it isn’t believable, and because of that it was hard for their climactic moments here to have the intended emotional impact. Jenna Coleman has improved with these scenes throughout the series and carried her side of things well here but the same can’t be said for Samuel Anderson. Had he been tasked with simply playing an emotionless Cyberman things probably would have been fine. He’s good at lacking emotion and he can stand still in a robotic suit pretty well. But treading the fine line of playing human emotions fighting to the fore of an emotionless droid was not something he was ever going to pull off.

That he still saw the Doctor as a detached officer unwilling to get his hands dirty was a nice moment for the character but was something else let down by Anderson’s performance. In fairness this wasn’t all his fault (although he didn’t do an especially good job). It would have made far more sense for Danny to rail against the Doctor before dying and waking up a Cyberman. That would have allowed him to put some anger into his words, as opposed to delivering them with the abject blandness the script necessitated. But even then Anderson probably would have let the side down so it really doesn’t matter too much. 

The only thing I felt worked with regards to Danny in the entire episode was his final sacrifice, giving the innocent boy he’d killed a second chance at life. It showed him as the hero Moffat’s haphazardly attempted to portray him as all season and allowed him to go out showing that he really is the good man we were all meant to see him as. That said it was a rather blind gesture on his part: the kid has presumably not aged while trapped in the Nethersphere and his parents will have presumably come to terms with his death (assuming they were left alive to do so). Dumping him on a grieving Clara and expecting her to reunite an Afghanistani family was not the nicest thing he could have done to her.

Better than Samuel Anderson was Michelle Gomez. But not by as great a margin as I’d expected or wanted. She played the part fine, but was fine really appropriate? She didn’t throw herself into the moments of maliciousness or madness or gloating with the passion they deserved. Missy was more subdued than any incarnation of the Master we’ve seen before and worked as proof, not that it were needed, that a subdued take on the character does not really work. It’s best as an over the top psychopathic panto villain.

Moffat’s writing of Missy was actually something of a highlight for the episode. She was built up efficiently as a threat throughout the episode, most notably with her murder of Osgood (a sacrifice Moffat may have had planned for a while considering she didn’t make her first appearance until Day of the Doctor, by which point Moff had begun seeding his Missy arc). That a character who seemed as though she were going to become a recurring role was offed made Missy seem that much more a threat, demonstrating that she can waltz into an episode and instantly kill anyone the audience presumes is safe. That’s a great strength for a Doctor Who villain to have, particularly one as historically inefficient as the Master.

Her plan was suitably daft and convoluted. She’d been travelling up and down the history of the planet trapping spirits of the dead in a Christmas bauble so that she could raise an army of Cybermen that she could gift the Doctor an army to conquer the universe and show everyone he’s always right. It’s worthy of the Saward-penned Ainley Master. If nothing else it fits with the character’s history, makes sense in its own right, and works well with RTD’s “the Master is stark-staring mad” approach. As did the unsubtle depiction of Missy as an evil Mary Poppins. The episode didn’t really do anything much for the Cybermen, reducing them to particularly well-kitted out foot soldiers but in a story where the Master and the Cybermen team up it has to be the Master that took centre stage. The only bad point of the team-up was that the Cybermen didn’t become the latest villainous race to double-cross her.

There were things to like in the episode. My token comment for series eight, that Peter Capaldi was very good, was as true as it’s ever been. He was never less than watchable and consistently raised the quality of every scene he was in. Particularly good was his selling of frustration at being duped about Gallifrey’s location, uncontrollably smashing away at the TARDIS console. Were he to pull an Eccleston and leave now (or after the Christmas episode) he’d leave people wanting more. The season’s scripts have been a bit mixed, but the performance from Twelfth Doctor has been unwaveringly excellent.

The idea of the Doctor visiting the afterlife was a good one, something it’s surprising the series hasn’t done before. It’s something that I could imagine sitting quite well in the Pertwee, Hinchcliffe or Cartmel eras of the show, although Moffat trumped them on having a reason to do it. Admittedly it was more a focus of Dark Water than Death in Heaven but I refrained from commenting on it last week because I wanted to see how it was resolved (unsurprisingly the answer was: not well). My other token note that the set designs were good can be applied, although to be fair there weren’t actually that many.

Jenna Coleman gave one of her best performances in the part. If she does end up leaving, as seems likely, it will be nice that her final or penultimate performance (she may be in the Christmas special) was one of her best. For the record she was billed over Peter Capaldi and it was her eyes in the credits, although I’m not entirely sure why. It was possibly to play into her pre-credits cliffhanger claim that she was the Doctor. If so it as ill-judged because nothing about the direction or her delivery of the line made that seem plausible. If it was a gesture of respect for the actress Jenna Coleman then fair enough, although it was somewhat pointless.

And if nothing else Moffat has at least left us with the possibility that the Brigadier goes on living as a Cyberman for thousands of years and ends up as Handles. For that alone it’s impossible to completely hate Death in Heaven.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Dark Water


Dark Water is the opening half of the first two part story Doctor Who has done since the less than stellar combination of The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People in May 2011. While the second part hasn’t aired yet it feels safe to say that it this story will surpass that story in every conceivable way. Judging by what we’ve seen so far it also looks like it’s going to better the last Steven Moffat penned two-parter, series six’s opening story of The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon. In fact it looks like it could be the best two-part story since David Tennant’s End of Time swansong.

This is not the accomplishment it might appear. Despite turning out one of the highlights of series one in his two part story The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, Steven Moffat has a spotty past with the multiple episode offerings. The second two part story he gave us was series four’s Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead, which was enjoyable enough but riddled with minor faults and a came as a significant drop in quality from his contributions to the first three series.

The problem became really apparent when his time as producer kicked in. Before The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone aired Moffat had opined that two part stories only truly worked when the first instalment ended on a cliffhanger that completely changed the way the audience viewed the situation (changed the game, if you will) so as to set up an entirely different story to be told in part two. It’s logical and easy to agree with but he didn’t get it entirely right with the Weeping Angels two part return. The cliffhanger felt laboured and the second half was different in the wrong sort of way, substituting one group of studio sets, recording locations and themes for another but keeping the story the same without providing much of a change in perspective for the audience. It was a visual change and nothing more.

The series one finale went too far in the opposite direction, so much so that The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang can practically be seen as individual stories rather than two halves of a whole. Not that there’s anything wrong with standalone episodes, but it’s not what Moffat and his team were aiming for on that occasion.

Series six saw Moffat move the two part “finale” (a term he insisted on using even though he was referring to the precise opposite of a finale) to the opening two episodes, seemingly just to be contrary. Structurally it was pretty sound, the second episode opened up several months after the closing moments of the first, thereby allowing the story to continue from a different perspective. Ultimately the need for it to start the series was questionable but as a Doctor Who two part story it worked well enough and was the best ninety minute offering Moffles had made since series one.

All of which is to say that two part stories, particularly with Moffat’s extreme approach to changing things for the second halves, are tough things to assess as individual episodes. Dark Water is not intended to be something we look at in and of itself. It’s meant to be appraised as a whole in conjunction with Death in Heaven. But at the same time it told its own story and featured enough interesting bits and pieces and Moffat-favoured tropes to comment on it, so I will.

I’ll start with the big shock. No, that’s not Missy’s identity. That seemed pretty obvious all along, although, to be fair to Moffat, it wasn’t as obvious as Mr Saxon’s identity throughout series three (I guessed that in The Runaway Bride). It also wasn’t Danny dying. The harping on about his past as a soldier and the afterlife thread that had run throughout the series seemed destined to join and oh look, they did. The framing of the last shot in which we saw Danny alive made it fairly clear that something was about to happen to him, so his death didn’t come as a surprise.

The big shock of the episode was the return of Sheila Reid as Clara’s Gran. Under Moffat the show has been pretty poor at creating supporting casts to make the home lives of companions seem believable (with the obvious exception of Danny, who was designed to do far more than provide a simple fleshing out of the home life). It was only a minor part, just as it was in Time of the Doctor, but it’s neat, simple little touches of continuity that can mean the most.

Another surprise was that the Cybermen were foreshadowed so strongly before their reveal. Within the episode itself this made perfect sense, but I can’t imagine there were more than a few people watching unaware that they were in the episode. Obviously there were all those photos taken at St Pauls of the location shoot but they were also in the trailer shown at the end of In the Forest of the Night. Their musical sting appeared several minutes before any Cybermen did. Their presence in the episode hadn’t been hushed up so it was peculiar that the episode built up to their reveal in the manner that it did.

That said it did build to their reveal very well. The teardrop circular eye motif being used on the sliding doors, the musical sting, and the set design nods to Tomb of the Cybermen were all excellent touches, as was the fact that we’d seen the Cybermen throughout the episode and not realised it (although, of course, we had realised it because of the trailer and the location shots, but you know what I mean). There were a couple of missteps; Missy reaching out to touch the glass of a tank with a skeletal hand reaching out to mirror her movement (because when have the allegedly emotionless Cybermen ever gone in for bouts of sentimentality?); the sudden love of a nice sit down on stone thrones; the lack of an explanation for why they were sitting in vats of water, dark or otherwise; and the fact that Cybersuits now apparently have an intact human skeleton inside of them, but on the whole their reintroduction was handled well. By the end of the episode the Cybermen seemed like a genuine threat, something that’s quite rare in the history of their stories. For that matter it’s something Moffat’s not always achieved with his scripts in general.

The real wrong-footing came with Missy. Her first interaction with the Doctor saw her rattle off an old Bruce Forsyth catchphrase, passionately kiss the Doctor, and hold his hand to her chest before claiming to be a droid. That last one jarred with the level of personality displayed in the first three and with the character in general. The android claim was clearly there to desperately keep people off the scent until the final reveal seconds before the end of the episode, as was the kiss and the hand on the chest being played for laughs and the Doctor not revealing that he’d detected a dual heartbeat. Which is fair enough. The introduction of a new Master is one of those occasions that Doctor Who should revel in. It’s a chance to swerve the audience a bit and provide a satisfactory (though also slightly lazy) cliffhanger, because of the history of the character and the show. It couldn’t be done every week but as the last time we saw it was 2007 it was a perfectly acceptable addition here.

This feels as good a point as any to talk about Michelle Gomez. I like her as an actress and feel she’s a very good casting choice for the role of the Master-and-or-Missy. She has sufficient range and looks the part. Beyond that I don’t really feel there’s much to say at this point because I imagine the bulk of Gomez’s Master moments will come next week. What we got this week was very good, but it’s hard to say at this point whether or not it was a subdued performance designed to obscure the fact that Missy was the Master.

What we can say is that Moffat will almost certainly be going into continuity overdrive next week. The nature of the modern show (and Moffat’s nature as a writer pretty keen on being popular with the bulk of fandom) means that reintroducing the Master has to come with an explanation. It’s not like The Mark of the Rani where the Master was casually shown standing in a field dressed as a scarecrow after he’d last been seen shrinking inside a flame in Planet of Fire, presumably dying the process. People will want to know how he escaped the destruction of Gallifrey and turned from John Simm into Michelle Gomez. Which is a reasonable expectation in 2014, to be honest, but Moffat also set up a bundle of other stuff he needs to pay off. Such as why Missy is in league with the Cybermen (as in what will she actually get out of it?), how she procured and set up the Time Lord tech (which could very well lead to the Doctor setting out on that quest to find Gallifrey that was first mentioned in Day of the Doctor), Clara and Danny’s relationship, and, of course, the Doctor figuring out a way to stop the Cybermen. It’s not impossible, it’s a big ask to do it all in a satisfying manner inside forty-five minutes.

From that list the Danny and Clara relationship is the clearly intended as the most important part. Moffat has spent the entire series attempting to turn Danny into a meaningful part of Clara’s everyday life. He’s mostly failed, in no small part because of Samuel Anderson’s often wooden performance, but they’ve hit the mark enough to at least let us know what the intention is. The ending to Dark Water, Danny essentially being handed the means to commit suicide while a boy he shot dead watches on, was effective, and was made even more so by the scenes in which Clara and Danny had argued. That argument saw Clara tell Danny she wanted to be with him wherever he was and Danny, believing that would involve her dying, saying he loved her even though she’d said she’d end the call if he said that again without offering up a substantial argument that he really was Danny. Right now this looks as though it’s meant to be seen as Danny making the ultimate sacrifice. We’ll have to see if that holds true next, but it would certainly fit with what’s been done with the character so far.

Clara got another big emotional scene in addition to the one with Danny. You know, the one where she tried forcing the Doctor into helping her. It was a move that fit well enough with the control freak description often attached to her as it was completely believable that someone with those tendencies would behave that way when suffering from grief over the death of a loved one. The only trouble is that there’s been precious little evidence that Clara really does have control freak tendencies. Yes, the Doctor’s joked about it and she’s been quick to take control of some (but not all) chaotic situations that have sailed her way but mostly we know she’s supposed to be a control freak because Steven Moffat, lead writer, has told us that’s what she is. The scene made sense and was well acted by both Coleman and Capaldi but it didn’t feel as natural as it should have done. And as one of the key scenes of a two part finale it definitely should have felt natural, a culmination of a season’s worth of tension and foreshadowing.

On the whole any complaints I have are minor. I enjoyed Dark Water for what it was. The trouble is that I generally enjoy Moffat episodes while he’s setting things up and stop enjoying them when he has to start paying things off. Which is a problem here because, being the first part of a two part story, this was almost exclusively set up. In other words next week’s Death in Heaven has been given the strongest build-up possible, but there’s no guarantee it will provide the satisfying conclusion Dark Water deserves and needs.

Monday, 27 October 2014

The 90s Doctors

In 1989 Doctor Who was cancelled by the BBC. Despite the improvements made to the show after the axing of previous lead actor Colin Baker in 1986 the team of Andrew Cartmel, Sophie Aldred and Sylvester McCoy had been unable to attract an audience large enough to please BBC executives. The show went off the air with Survival part three on December 6 and wouldn’t return for a full series until 2005.

This needn’t have been the case1. In Doctor Who the BBC had a programme that had various uses. It could be made, as had been proven during the late 80s (and earlier), on a meagre budget and to a reasonably high quality. It was a cheap show that could be sold abroad, giving the BBC a source of income to invest into other projects that were considered more important and worthwhile. The show’s nature (one standing set for fourteen episodes and four stories per year, at the time of cancellation) was also a good setup for fledging writers, directors and producers and everyone else involved with making a TV show to hone their respective crafts. There are plenty of examples from any era of the “classic” show you care to choose of people working on the show having to figure out how to actually make it within their allocated resources. They didn’t always succeed but it provided them with experience that they could use on future jobs.

All of this made me think about what direction the show would have taken had it continued into the 90s. The 1990 series probably wouldn’t have looked that different from season 26 the year before. In reality Andrew Cartmel moved on to script edit Casualty. The timing of his appointment there would have made his involvement in another series of Doctor Who unlikely. Ben Aaronovitch, as one of the McCoy era’s more celebrated writers and a man on good terms with both Cartmel and producer John Nathan-Turner would likely have replaced him.

The basic shape of the four stories proposed for a 1990 season are well documented at this point. One would have seen the return of the Ice Warriors. One would have introduced the new companion and her crime boss father. One would have tackled global warming or deforestation or whaling or something, being written by Cartmel himself (presumably edited by Aaronovitch). The fourth and final story would have seen Ace leave the Doctor to study on Gallifrey, the implication being that she would go on to become a Time Lady. It’s not an awe-inspiring line-up but it likely would have been decent enough.

McCoy has said he’d have done one final series and then left. That would have given the production team a year to cast a new Doctor for a brief appearance in an end of series regeneration story, setting up a 1991 series. Meanwhile Sophie Aldred, companion since 1987’s Dragonfire, has said her contract only required her to do two more stories. It’s possible she’d have agreed to extend her contract in order to leave alongside McCoy or contribute a story or two the 1991 season but it’s unlikely. Every interview in which she’s discussed the subject has made it seem pretty clear she was ready to move on from the show by the time it was cancelled.

The big question is whether JNT would have stuck around. In all likelihood he probably would have. The guy had nowhere else to go at the BBC and didn’t have any significant contacts at ITV. If he had he’d have left Doctor Who years earlier. I think he’d have ended up overseeing a 1990 season and possibly a further few as well. But sooner or later he’d have taken another opportunity within the TV industry or become fed up with his lack of opportunities and moved into a different business altogether. Whenever he left I expect he’d have been replaced by the sort of first-time producer mentioned above.

Assuming things would have been done right I think the show’s standing could have gradually improved throughout the 90s. Its format may have morphed into something more akin to the 2005 relaunch, perhaps shifting away from three and four parters to two parters or solo episodes. As American shows like The X Files, Buffy and Star Trek: The Next Generation became more prominent they almost certainly would have had an influence on the way Doctor Who was made. It’s also pretty safe to assume that some of the names who have worked on the show since 2005 would have been involved much earlier. And we may even have had TV contributions from some of the Virgin New Adventures authors who haven’t ever directly contributed to the TV show2.

Beyond this I think the only thing that can be looked at realistically is the casting of future Doctors. Which is what the rest of this article is dedicated to predicting, in list form (for ease and simplicity). I’ve restricted myself to British and Irish actors as I thought that seemed more authentic, and I’ve assumed in most cases that an actor would take the role for three years and then move on (The Troughton Rule). Each proposed Doctor era features a name I think would have been the most likely casting choice followed by some other suggestions. For realism I’ve stuck to availability (referencing those oracles of the internet IMdB and Wikipedia) for all of these names.

Many thanks to Jim Hall for suggesting several names.

1991 to 1993


Eric Idle
When casting for a 1991 series would have taken place he would have been a well-known name desperate enough to take the role and the show would have been poisonous enough in TV circles for those making it to have to resort to considering him. I think he’d have won out over others due to his name value and availability: he’d done very little besides live off his Python work and was years away from Spamalot becoming a musical sensation.

Also considered...
Dermot Crowley
He’s the first of several names on this list that could be slotted in anywhere but here felt most natural because he auditioned for the role of the Seventh Doctor. Very badly.

Brian Glover
Fans more diehard than me will immediately know he played Griffiths in 1985 continuity-extravaganza Attack of the Cybermen. He was usually cast as a henchman (see his work as Castle Henchman in 1991’s Kafka for a perfect example) because of his northern origins and air of intimidation but he had a pretty good range as actors go. Also worth noting is that the casting of a northerner worked out pretty well for the show in 2005.

Graeme Garden
Not exactly a thespian but a man known to the British public, with the requisite kookiness required to play the Doctor at the start of the 90s. You could probably consider Tim Brooke-Taylor and even Bill Oddie for the same reasons. But let’s not go that far.

Windsor Davies
During the years I’m looking at there are only three jobs listed on his IMdB page (and one of those was just voice work). By 1997 he was playing Windsor Davies Badger on the massively enjoyable but not exactly high profile Harry Hill Show on Channel 4. What this tells us is that the former It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum star was not exactly in demand. He was a known quantity with nothing to do in 1991, which would probably have got him an audition by an outgoing JNT.

Richard Griffiths
During the 90s John Nathan-Turner stated in interviews that he would have cast Griffiths as McCoy’s replacement. I think that’s wishful thinking on JNT’s part. In ’91 Griffiths was getting steady work and likely wouldn’t have wanted to be tarred with the Doctor Who brush. By the end of the 90s, when I’m assuming the programme’s credibility would have been restored, he’d have been unavailable. And even if he was available he was not a man built for long shooting schedules involving rigorous movement.

Jon Pertwee
Yeah, really. Pertwee. He’d expressed an interest in returning to the show and would do so, on radio, a few years after it became clear it wasn’t returning to television. It’s not inconceivable the BBC would have brought him back in an attempt to restore the programme to its former glory. It’s a move that would have failed. The show’s budget had decreased, Pertwee had aged considerably, and the British public’s tastes had changed. There would probably have been nostalgia-spurred interest in the stunt but I can’t imagine a Pertwee return would have done much good in the long run.

1994 to 1995


Ian McShane
Yeah he may have a cushy number in life now, providing voiceover work and half-heartedly slouching about as the token Englishman in big budget Hollywood films (and, inexplicably, his own HBO series) but it was a different story in 1994. Back then he’d just left Lovejoy and was typecast in the lovable rogue role. Probably wouldn’t have done more than two series here for fear of being typecast again but the role would have been suitably different to Lovejoy to make it appealing. For the production team’s part McShane was a well-known actor coming off an inexplicably popular TV show and would have generated interest in DoctorWho.

Also considered...
Richard O’Brien
He finished filming the Crystal Maze in 1993, the year he would have agreed to become the hypothetical Ninth Doctor. No, he’s not much of an actor. But he’s eccentric. A glance at any of his Crystal Maze episodes demonstrates he was more than naturally strange enough to make an interesting Doctor, just not necessarily a well-acted one.

Gorden Kaye
He did no TV or film work between ‘Allo, Allo’s end in 1992 and Revolver in 2001. He was known to the BBC and is niche and undesirable enough to be a consideration at this point in the show’s history.

Ralph Brown
Really, he’s another guy who could be put in any of the also considered entries. He’s worked solidly in film and TV since the eighties, appearing in everything from Jonathan Creek to Star Wars. He’s a good enough actor who would presumably have been well connected enough to get an audition. But it’s hard to imagine him getting further than that.

Nicholas Lyndhurst
1993 was the year he took on Goodnight Sweetheart in addition to his Only Fools work. That would have also been the year the Doctor Who production team would have been looking for their new boy. If Lyndhurst was getting offers from ITV to play a time-travelling electrician it’s easy enough to assume the BBC would have offered him their own similar part.

1996 to 1998


Rik Mayall  
Fresh off of Bottom, with The New Statesman, Drop Dead Fred, Jackanory, and The Young Ones, as well as less celebrated items like Carry On Columbus, on his CV, Mayall would have been the ideal man to cast as the Doctor in the mid-90s. Assuming the show would have regained some small level of credibility thanks to Ian McShane it’s feasible Mayall could have been persuaded to take the role. I’m sure he’d have been popular. People weren’t desperate to see him cast as the Celestial Toymaker for nothing.

Hey, they could have cast Ade Edmonson as the Master too. That would’ve been a laugh. Possibly.

Also considered...
Roger Daltrey
An obvious tabloid headline and a keenness on the part of Daltrey to get into acting in a significant capacity would have been enough to secure him an audition.

David Collings  
He was getting very steady work until 1995 and then there was an abrupt nine year gap. It’s the kind of thing that invites him being added to this sort of list, as does his previous involvement in the show, being bothered by droids in Robots of Death and playing at being a Time Lord in Mawdryn Undead. On the recommendation of Jim I watched him in a couple of episodes of Sapphire & Steel (there are compilation runs on YouTube, for the record) and his performance there demonstrates that he’d have made a very watchable Doctor.

Robbie Coltrane
Well, y’know… Cracker. That was a big hit that had ended the year before. He’s the sort of name they’d have reached out to because his casting would have created interest. IMdB reveals he wasn’t exactly swamped with starring roles in the years following Cracker finishing so it’s possible he’d have accepted.

Tim McInnery  
Seven years after Black Adder (and Doctor Who, in real life) had ended McInnery hadn’t actually done much of significance. He’s another man who could be slotted into any of the also considered entries but this one feels best as he actually did audition for the role of the Eighth Doctor opposite Paul ‘Get Out! Get Out!’ McGann.

1999 onwards


Paterson Joseph
He’d left Casualty the previous year and had been around long enough to be known to The Right People. The only thing that he was missing in 1999 was a breakthrough role (that would come later in Peep Show). He was a good, safe actor that’s been keen to play the lead role since the show was brought back in 2005. Everything about him indicates he’s a fan and would like to play the Doctor whether the show’s a massive hit or not. He’d have been an ideal casting choice, and still would be.

Also considered...
Brian ‘Foggy’ Wilde
Left Last of the Summer Wine in 1997. As he only did one TV gig after that (a narrating role on kids show Microscopic Milton, completed in ’97) it’s safe to assume his intention was to retire. But he was an available, established character actor, the sort of person we’ve been assuming throughout this article would’ve been near misses for the Doctor Who lead role. I can imagine he’s the sort of man who’d have received a call to make up the numbers in an audition and could have ended up a surprise casting.

David Jason
IMdB reveals that this period was surprisingly slow for one of the most prolific actors in British television. I don’t think he would necessarily make the best Doctor ever but it’s hard to deny his emotional depth and comic timing. Casting him could have been used as a relaunch technique for the show after a decade rebuilding itself into something reliable and watchable.

Marc Warren
Yeah, Elton Pope from Love & Monsters. Like Paterson Joseph he was years away from anything approaching a breakthrough role but he’d been around long enough and would probably be the sort of name that could sneak through to the final two or three in a casting process. Maybe a bit too similar in appearance to (proposed) outgoing star Rik Mayall though.

Alan Davies
They’d have wanted him because of Jonathan Creek, but they wouldn’t have got him because it was too important to the BBC. He wouldn’t have wanted to do it anyay, because he’s still happy to churn out subpar Creek sixteen years after the show’s prime.

Caroline Quentin
She may have had a call for her work on the same show. The difference is that she was more likely to accept. She’s a great actress who anchored Jonathan Creek dramatically and made Alan Davies’s performance there work. If a female Doctor was going to be cast during the 90s it absolutely would have been Caroline Quentin.

***

1 An important disclaimer here: I think it was the right decision to take the show off the air at the end of the 80s. Although I enjoy the McCoy era it seems pretty clear that any success that’s to be found there is attributable in large part to McCoy, Aldred and Cartmel. They all would have left the show before or by the end of a 1990 series and it’s unlikely a new team would have had even their limited success. The show, its fans, and the BBC benefited from its sixteen year rest.

2 Like Lawrence Miles. Y’know, just as an example.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

In the Forest of the Night


I was looking forward to In the Forest of the Night. The general premise as announced before the episode sounded pretty good. A forest springing up in a single night to cover an entire planet seemed a suitably intriguing idea for the show, and one that would provide an opportunity to give us lots of impressive visuals. We got the visuals and they were as impressive as you could have reasonably asked for. But unfortunately that’s about all that can be said in favour of this episode. Even Capaldi didn’t seem especially great here.

The plot which writer Frank Cottrell Boyce went with was both flawed and uninspiring. It revealed trees to be sentient creatures that live on the planet, at least in part, to protect humanity from solar flares and other potential disasters. Not only that but trees can make themselves inflammable whenever they like and can even, somehow, possess humans. As long as said humans are taking the right combination of medications and suffering from some form of grief or mental impairment, natch.

I understand that watching Doctor Who requires a certain suspension of disbelief, but that can only take you so far. When the writing team offer up things as patently stupid as this it becomes impossible to look passed them and a waste of time trying to rationalise them within the programme’s increasingly loopy internal logic. It’s the same problem that harmed Kill the Moon: not enough attention was paid to how things worked within the episode and so it crumbled into a stream of stuff that just happened.

This would have been a good episode to highlight the problem deforestation presents to humanity. The eight year olds watching are part of a generation that’s going to be really messed up by it if changes aren’t made. An episode of a programme as popular as Doctor Who that made it clear deforestation is something that needs attention could have affected one or two kids enough to spur them into wanting to pursue a career in the field. X Factor makes some kids want to grow up to be celebrities. Shouldn’t Doctor Who at least attempt something similar occasionally?

The episode also failed with the child actors. To put it politely they varied in capability. Abigail Eames as Maebh was a particularly tough watch, although in fairness she had the unenviable job of conveying possession by tree.

The number of actors in the episode was distracting. The entire class of kids seemed to be about eight strong, a very low number for a class anywhere in the general vicinity of London. Even worse was that the episode was set in central London and nobody was about besides half a dozen scientists and a mum on her bike. Even if this area were overrun by a forest that couldn’t be burned there would be more people around than this. A throwaway line was added about people being told to stay indoors and fill baths with water (the reason for that escapes me but I remember thinking it was daft) but it didn’t seem convincing enough. The centre of a city wouldn’t remain completely devoid of people just because of a government warning and a fantastical forest. A more convincing throwaway line could have sorted the problem, and that could have been added if Steven ‘Two Drafts’ Moffat had given this script the attention it needed. You know, like he’s paid to.

I’m sure the attention Moff did give this script went into Clara and Danny. If you overlook the fact that the rest of the episode suffered as a consequence this is fine. Clearly the Clara and Danny relationship is intended to be an important part of this series so seeding stuff into it is a necessity if there’s to be a payoff to it. Going on the first ten episodes of this series (and emphatically not going on the trailer that aired at the end of ITFOTN) their relationship and the tease of how it will affect Clara’s friendship with the Doctor doesn’t seem especially interesting. But finale stories are there in part to surprise us, and perhaps one of the surprises will be Clara and Danny’s relationship having been given more substance than it currently seems. Though I doubt it.

ITFOTN had a “star” writer, a strong spot in the running order (coming just before the finale should have ensured it got some extra attention), and a premise that could have been excellent. It could have come together to give us something amazing and memorable. Instead it ended up a mediocre filler episode that existed primarily to contribute to a relationship storyline. What a waste.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Flatline


The TARDIS lands at a train station on the edge of what looks like an industrial estate. It starts shrinking. The Doctor gets trapped inside and Clara The Companion has to save the day with wit, ingenuity and pep talks. She manages this in spite of a group of two dimensional beings and that may or may not be invading the planet (or Bristol) and having to deal with a particularly surly council employee.

It doesn’t sound like it should be a particularly good episode of Doctor Who. In fact it actually sounds pretty basic. Modern day Doctor Who hasn’t shied away from council estates in British cities and alien invasions have been around since William Hartnell’s second story. And while episodes that see one of the starring actors in a reduced role can work very well (Midnight and Blink for instance) it’s not the most promising sign that an episode will be of high quality.

But Flatline works. It starts by featuring what is probably the most interesting alien creation the show’s had since the Weeping Angels: sentient artwork that can disassemble three dimensional objects. They provided plenty of memorable visuals for the episode: a human nervous system spread across a wall looking like a painting of a pond; a woman being sucked into the floor; and a perspective trick that revealed that a man was not standing and staring as we thought but had actually been absorbed into a wall and bits of bric-a-brac in front of it are just three examples. The latter is likely to be the shot this episode is most remembered, although my personal favourite was a couch being taken apart in front of Clara and forgettable but inoffensive guest companion Rigsy. For the required action scene the creatures learned how to mimic human forms and started moving about. It was shot in a particularly eerie way, heavy on lurching and with a buzz of activity where faces should have been.

They are a creation too good for just one outing. There are so many things that could still be done with them and their ambiguous origins and motives are a refreshing change for the programme. Part of what made them so interesting is that they were written as a race that puzzled the Doctor, leaving him unsure of whether they were aliens, a new life form, or creatures from another dimension (a concept that gets floated astonishingly rarely in Doctor Who) and with no idea of what their intention was. By the end of the episode it was getting tough to take them as anything other than aggressors but it was left open ended enough for them to come back for a different use.

The episode also benefited from not being as Doctor Lite as it could have been. Capaldi was shunted onto the TARDIS set to cut back on the amount of work he’d need to do for the episode, freeing him up to put in more time on other episodes. But being on the show’s lone standing set meant his absence from the episode was minimal. He entered what has become his usual strong performance and played his banishment to the TARDIS with a delightful array of reactions. Matt Smith would have gone with bad children’s TV levels of ham acting for the scenes with the Doctor peering and reaching out of a miniaturised TARDIS. Capaldi showed restraint, making the humour about the situation rather than his gangly limbs. It was another reminder of what a welcome change of pace he’s been in the lead role.

Jenna Coleman put forth another good performance too. Probably the best thing that can be said about her is that she didn’t feel out of place as the lead, and when you’re essentially guest starring in place of Peter Capaldi, as opposed to co-starring with him, that’s quite an achievement. She was particularly good in the investigative scenes in the episode’s opening third. Meanwhile the closing scene in which she asked the Doctor why he couldn’t tell her she was good was one of her best performances on the show. Previously I’ve been unimpressed with her angry, affronted routine but here it was very good.

On a character note it was interesting to see Clara lying to Danny about her adventures with the Doctor again. It’s clearly going to lead to something, though I’ve no idea what. It didn’t do much for Danny though. He heard his girlfriend crash through a window and then disappeared from the episode. Would it really have been that much trouble to drop in a line to explain Clara’s phone had been turned off or lost after that call? Unless the point of Danny is for us to not feel fully invested in him as a creation (and I don’t think it is) then I don’t understand the role he’s been placed in in the last two episodes.

Flatline will inevitably be remembered for the visual trickery employed for the Boneless but it achieved a lot more. It gave us what deserve to be returning monsters, the best episode with a mostly absent lead actor since 2008’s Midnight, and another strongest, possibly the strongest, performance from Jenna Coleman. After a hit-and-miss opening half series eight is shaping up to be pretty good.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Mummy on the Orient Express


Mummy on the Orient Express saw the current series of Doctor Who revert to the title first, content second approach that had been the its approach last year, as it had with Kill the Moon. It hadn’t really worked with Kill the Moon, mostly because too much was attempted. It had also failed for much of the last series in general. But with Mummy on the Orient Express it worked nicely. In fact, I’d say that Mummy on the Orient Express is the best episode of series eight so far.

The biggest thing it had in its favour was the presence of a clear, well-defined threat. Those have been a surprising rarity during the Moffat era1. The threat itself benefited from the interesting quirk of the sixty-six second countdown and a particularly impressive outfit being. The countdown is the sort of thing Doctor Who as a programme does very well and writer Jamie Mathieson made good use of it, feeding in new information every time it was employed. Even the enemy’s name, the Foretold, was well chosen.

The cast was great too, Frank Skinner’s hammy performance aside2. By this point it can just be assumed Capaldi’s going to put in a worthwhile performance but the same can’t be said of his co-star. Jenna Coleman has been fantastically unreliable as a companion actress. Here she gave what was probably her best performance in the role. She was everything from happy to angry to bright to betrayed, a range I’ve not seen from her in a single episode before, and she was convincing doing it. Daisy Beaumont was particularly good too. For that matter I thought John Sessions was entertaining as a silkily voiced maniacal train.

Which (clunkily) brings me to the next point. The concept of a villainous train is a very Doctor Who one. It’s not something that could support a script by itself but when blended with other small ideas it worked very nicely. That’s where Kill the Moon went wrong: too many big ideas were crammed into too short a time and nothing had the chance to satisfyingly develop. The combination of an evil space train, a mummy, and general Agatha Christie trappings (though I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was a murder mystery because nothing beyond a token attempt was made at the mystery part) complimented each other nicely.

It was nice not to have to deal with Danny Pink too. Although when he did appear he seemed more tolerable than he has previously. Perhaps it was Anderson entering an above average performance or that the part was written better. More likely it was just that he didn’t get enough screen time to become a chore. Whatever it was there was nothing to complain about with him. If only he were like that every week.

If this were the average Moffat era offering (Moffering?) I think it would be a more enjoyable period of the show. That Mummy on the Orient Express was so enjoyable bodes well for next week’s offering. It’s written by the same author and seems to have a bit more money behind it. I won’t get my hopes up though. That’s never a good idea with The Moff.

Oh... and that chat about broken soldiers being fixed towards the end of the episode? I'm sure that definitely won't turn out to be foreshadowing for something that happens to Danny at all.

***

1 I’m not sure what he has against them. Most of the standard Doctor Who plots feature the Doctor figuring out a way to stop a monster. Perhaps Moffat really does think all of that nonsense with time loops and River Song was a suitable replacement. If so he was wrong.

2 I can’t think of a worse actor to appear in such a significant role since the show returned nine years ago.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Kill the Moon


Kill the Moon would have sat very snugly in series seven. That’s the series, in case you’ve forgotten, which saw showrunner Big Stevie Moff Moff (I get bored just calling him Moffat and I’m running low on relatively sensible abbreviations) using his movie poster approach. That was basically “Come up with a title and think of a plot to fit it.”

That approach didn’t work wonders in series seven, something even most of the exec’s troupe of devotees seem to agree with. Which makes it quite surprising that he’s returned to the approach here, considering his desire to be constantly popular with the majority of the show’s fans. He did at least slot it away in the middle of the season, and he also had nuts ‘n’ bolts writer Peter Harness have a fair chunk of the episode revolve around a moral quandary. Oh, and some science. But we’ll get to the science.

The moral quandary was a nice idea, being something the revived series hasn’t actually done that much of, but it didn’t pan out in practice. They went for something too overblown and clichéd: kill an apparently unique, new-born life form to save the human race, or sacrifice the human race for said life form. It’s the sort of thing routinely trotted out in films, TV and novels and has reached the point where it just can’t have the effect authors want (hence referring to it as a cliché). Not only has the moral quandary been done to death in recent years but it’s also been done better within Doctor Who. Genesis of the Daleks did it far better than Kill the Moon, and Genesis didn’t even do it especially well. It worked thanks to a combination of Tom Baker giving a particularly enthusiastic performance (the first season euphoria working to the show’s advantage) and involving the Daleks. There’s a reason it overshadows practically the same situation having appeared five years earlier in (Doctor Who and) The Silurians. Also, neither of these stories dwelt on the predicament, in each it was a few minutes out of a larger story enjoyable because they well told, not because of moral pontificating. 

But what really set this episode apart as a failure was its distracting use of science. I’m not going to argue in favour of the Bidmead approach, with everything adhering to reality and being explained painstakingly so that kids learn something. The show works fine in its current entertainment format. But when science forms such an integral and heavily referenced part of the plot it should at least be easy to follow, make sense in relation to itself, and not seem contradictory. Kill the Moon did not achieve this.

At the beginning of the episode we were told the moon had become too heavy and started adversely affecting Earth’s tides. The cause of this weight gain was initially said to be a species of microbe-spiders. Later it was revealed to be the previously mentioned utterly unique-baby monster. I suppose it could be both, but that seems needlessly confusing and a bit like sloppy writing designed just to get a scary monster into things in the first twenty minutes of the episode. That the baby grew from seemingly nothing inside of thirty-five years seems questionable too.

Someone desperate to defend the episode who knows their science could probably explain that. My point remains that it seems too convoluted for a forty-five minute family TV show, but fine, let people explain it. The really infuriating bit is the ending. And here I’m not talking about the moon dragon giving birth to an egg several times larger than itself (although it does seem pretty incredible that something could give birth to something so large into perfect orbit around a planet). The biology of this wasn’t even speculated on, so I think it can just be chalked up as a curious in-universe mystery. It’s not like it’s the first time the show has dealt with deceptive sizes: the lead character flies around in something deceptively sized.

What makes no sense is that people were concerned about whether or not to kill the dragon baby at all. Whether it was a baby nuzzling its way out of the moon or a corpse sitting inside its rocky egg, it would weigh exactly the same. Whether it was living or dead it would have exactly the same effect on the Earth’s tides. Burrowing its way out of the moon wouldn’t have helped Earth, no, but then neither would have blowing the moon to pieces with nuclear weapons. Both options would have led to the same conclusion if we’re going to apply a basic understanding of science to the plot. Even the new moon wouldn’t have been the immediate tide-fixer it was presented as.

It’s a shame the episode was so unclear on its science, how to explain it, and how to link it to the plot. The central idea was solid enough. The moon being an egg that hatches into a dragon is the sort of idea I can imagine being tried in the Hinchcliffe or Cartmel eras (to limited success, natch). Creepy, deserted space bases aren’t overly familiar to the show (or at least the reincarnated version of the show). The space spiders were an interesting idea with a suitably eerie design. Splitting the three things up would have allowed each a chance to be developed into something understandable and satisfying. Instead too many ideas were included, resulting in a dodgy plot and nothing reaching its potential.

Also: the episode lost marks for the Doctor not referencing the Racnoss or the Eight Legs.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Caretaker


In 2006 there was an episode of Doctor Who in which David Tennant’s Tenth Doctor went undercover in a school in an effort to flush out a band of alien shapechangers. Featuring the return of Sarah Jane Smith and K9, as well as a guest appearance from Anthony Head and a straightforward, enjoyable plot, the episode was met with praise from pretty much everyone. Fans, newcomers and critics all seemed to like it a great deal.

In 2014 the premise was deemed worthy of repeating. Only this time the Doctor was being played by Peter Capaldi and he wouldn’t be going undercover as a teacher but as a caretaker. Also, he would mention that he was going undercover quite a bit. Because that’s funny, apparently.

Going back to the premise of the Doctor trying to work inconspicuously in a school wasn’t a bad idea. It’s a setup that presents opportunities for situational comedy and, specific to this season, gentle nudging of the Danny Pink and Clara Oswald relationship. Let’s not forget that situational comedy revolving around adult relationships is where co-writer Steven Moffat made his name in the nineties, and that Gareth Roberts had previously had success writing Matt Smith’s Doctor in an environment where he had to pass himself off as a standard human and that he has previously striven to mark himself as the funny Doctor Who writer. They seemed like the ideal combo for this scenario.

And for the first fifteen minutes they were. We started with the always popular montage of unseen adventures. Capaldi was funny and odd and detached while being easy to watch. Coleman did some of her best work and finally made it seem as though Clara actually enjoys the time she spends with the Doctor, something her usual sarcasm and eye-rolling doesn’t achieve. The idea of the Doctor working at the school was introduced well, as was a well-made monster prop (shot effectively too, for the record).

But it couldn’t last. Around fifteen minutes into the episode the Doctor sent the monster he was there to fight into the future, leaving the episode to focus on Clara’s relationships with the Doctor and Danny and the initial reactions of the two men to one another until it returned for the Action Packed Final Sequence™. These relationship scenes were clearly what the episode existed for, and that was fine. The Clara and Danny relationship is clearly going to play a significant role in series eight as a whole and it was a good decision to dedicate the bulk of an episode to establishing that the Doctor and Danny do not initially like one another.

What let the episode down was… well, everything really. The writing, the performances and the direction all seemed off. The trouble with the latter is a straightforward complaint: too many shots looking up at people’s faces as they mooched along corridors and an overuse of slow motion effects. The writing and the performance troubles are broader. Clara spent the entire episode essentially worrying about pleasing two men. Not a very 2014 mentality. And Danny, well Danny requires a paragraph all his own.

Danny revealed a previously unhinted at loathing of the officer class (and some nifty acrobatics for that matter – seriously, what was his somersaulting all about?) and came across as a controlling, emotionally manipulative spouse in the scenes in which he and Clara were alone. Samuel Anderson didn’t have the ability to make Danny seem likeable during these scenes. They were unpleasant to watch and they shouldn’t have been. Unless, of course, Moffat’s taking the show in a bold new direction and actually intends to make Danny the controlling spouse he appeared to be here. If so then I’ll take back what I’ve written about Anderson here because he nailed it. But I’ll have a fresh batch of complaints about Moffat’s writing instead.

The saving grace was once again Capaldi. When his Doctor was given funny lines Capaldi was funny and he was nicely believable during his angry scenes with Danny. His Doctor is at his best when being given the chance to be flippant and angry, so he was in his element. I wouldn’t mind Gareth Roberts being given another episode next year, but ideally one without Moffat’s relationship scenes slipped into them.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Time Heist


Listen felt like Steven Moffat moving away from his wildly successful “regular items and concepts as monster” approach by giving us a fresh ending: the revelation that actually there was no monster, just a string of coincidences. Time Heist felt like he was moving away from his second most beloved trope: time travel. Albeit in a different way. Instead of putting a fresh spin on the time travel trickery he passed the idea out to another writer and made do with a co-writer credit.

Yes, Steven Moffat actually resisted the temptation to write a story involving time travel as a plot point. Although he has been credited with coming up with the idea and he did (in theory) edit the script, so it’s not likely he completely disengaged. Nevertheless this indicates that Moffat still finds the idea of time loops in Doctor Who interesting without wanting to write anymore himself. For now, at any rate. Perhaps he feels he’s done all he can with them or that he should let someone else have a go.

Writer Stephen Thompson was tasked with this script. He avoided laying it on as thick as The Moff with the time trickery. In fact it was mostly included to keep the plot moving, as opposed to being one of the primary focuses of the episode. Thompson seemed more interested in trying to turn his one-off characters Psi and Saibra into interesting people. Which he achieved.

In fact they were both significantly more interesting than Clara, who again spent more time snarking than being relatable or likeable. It takes a certain kind of writer and actress to pull off what the Doctor Who team are trying to do with Clara. Jenna Coleman is not that kind of actress and Moffat is only sometimes that kind of writer.

This was the best episode since Deep Breath. The direction, set design, music, supporting cast and Capaldi’s performance have all been fine since then, always sailing above acceptable levels. But the script quality and central ideas have wavered dramatically. Time Heist was not one of the much ballyhooed event episodes. It didn’t boast the first full appearance of a new Doctor, the token appearance of Daleks, a “historical celebrity”, or… whatever we were supposed to enjoy about Listen. It was just concerned with being a good episode. And it was all the better for it.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Listen


Listen felt very much like Steven Moffat trying to accomplish a number of things.

Firstly, it felt as though he was trying to prove that he’s still got that much ballyhooed magic touch of his. You know, the one that produced the most acclaimed episodes of the first three seasons of the rebooted Doctor Who and a respectable two-parter in the fourth series. The one that earned him a bundle of prestigious awards for writing. The one that got the BBC to commission Sherlock. The one that made him a hotly anticipated showrunner.

He’s said in interviews that he wanted to show that he could still write the lower budget episodes as opposed to the Big Event episodes that begin and end each series. In fairness it’s understandable that he’d want to prove that and demonstrate that he still merits all his hype. It’s a challenge and, had he written a more interesting episode, it would have silenced many of the complaints sent his way. Based on the evidence of this episode Moff may have forgotten how to deliver an entertaining episode that can fit snugly in the middle of a series.

Secondly, it felt like he was trying to move beyond one of his most well-worn approaches: taking an stereotypical childhood fear and turning it into a scary episode of Doctor Who. It’s something he really perfected with Blink in 2007, after fumbling around the edges of the concept with The Empty Child-The Doctor Dances and The Girl in the Fireplace. He’s used it in various forms since and this felt like its natural conclusion, making us think his chosen topic was going to be the latest in a line of secret monsters before revealing that it’s actually nothing. Literally nothing.

Third, he wanted to lavish more attention on the Danny and Clara plot. That seems to be one of his big things this series. With actors possessing a strong range it might be interesting, but unfortunately we have Jenna Coleman and Samuel Anderson. With them in place Clara comes across as a snarky narcissist and Danny comes across as… erm… well, nothing really, the combo of Moffat’s writing and Anderson’s hollow portrayal having done nothing for the Danny character. I’m left with an image of him thunking his wooden head against an equally wooden table. Nothing else comes to mind.

Fourth (and final), yet more exploration of the Doctor’s past. This has gradually become his favourite topic over the last four years. Delving into the Doctor’s past, especially his past before the starting point of the show, is something that should be done with care and great infrequency, revealing something momentous, or at least interesting, when it’s trotted out. All we discovered in Listen was that the Doctor slept in a barn and cried a bit when he was a young Bill Hartnell, hardly Game Changing™ stuff. It felt as though it was being included more so Moffat could say he’s the writer of the earliest chronological scene featuring the Doctor than because it would add to the character of the Doctor or be interesting for audiences to see. There was no point to it.

But then there was no point to the episode as a whole. The Doctor thought about imaginary, invisible monsters, investigated them, and found out that they were indeed imaginary. With a tighter focus (jettisoning the Clara and Danny stuff perhaps) that could have been an important lesson to kids watching. As it is it was fifty minutes of vain pomp, Moffles once again demonstrating that he can write perfectly competent primetime time travel. Unambitious, and the worst offering of series eight yet.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Robot of Sherwood


Robot of Sherwood could easily have been a disappointing episode. It seems pretty clear that the first two episodes were designed to hook as many viewers as possible: the first had an extended running time to introduce its new Doctor, the second was the token Dalek story with a co-credit by the much-loved (in most circles) Steven Moffat. Meanwhile Robot of Sherwood was a return to the once popular celebrity historical sub-genre of the show, with the third most experienced writer of Doctor Who (in terms of episode credits) available. It looked like Moffat plucking a simple idea and giving it to a safe pair of hands.

Gatiss delivered one of his better scripts. Looking at his body of work on the show it seems that funny Doctor Who is his strength (until emulating Pertwee stories becomes a broader genre). Night Terrors is more confusing than terrifying, which is what it’s meant to be. The Crimson Horror has its moments but ultimately doesn’t progress beyond being an episode of The Avengers set in the 1800s, and it doesn’t hit that well enough. Victory of the Daleks gets a bad press because of the new plastic Dalek models it introduces. It’s not a bad episode. But it’s also not a particularly great one.

You get the idea.

Robot of Sherwood feels like a confident bit of writing designed to just give the Capaldi Doctor an amusing adventure. The jokes are funny, Capaldi is once again on form, and Tom Riley understands how to portray the kind of square-jawed Robin Hood Gatiss has written. The “it was well directed” line is a standard by now, but it’s worth saying anyway.

Really, there were only a couple of negative points, and they were minor. One was the waste of a well-known name like Ben Miller. He got a lot of screen time but the role didn’t really give him much to do beyond being a glowering villain with confusing motives. He goes from being the Sheriff of Nottingham, to a man who wants to take over England, to a robot who wants to launch a castle into outer space. Things move too quickly for the character. In fact, the reveals about his true nature could probably have gotten some laughs if Gatiss had structured them better. Maybe I should take back some of my praise.

The golden arrow ending was, to put it bluntly, stupid. Not just because the Doctor, Robin Hood an Clara all managed to aim it perfectly at a miniscule spot on a castle in the process of falling from the sky, but because the relatively small arrow proved to be just the required amount of gold to save the day. It was too convenient, even for Doctor Who.

Finally there was the name. Robot of Sherwood? Not Robots? C’mon.