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 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.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Into the Dalek

I wasn’t keen on it.

I never like things about people being shrunk down and put into larger things. It always strikes me as a ridiculous premise, one with more than a hint of desperation to it, as though the production team have gone through all their best ideas and have accepted they need to start trotting out the genre standards. People being shrunk and inserted into a living creature disengages me.

It didn't help that it was a Dalek the Doctor and Clara enjoyed a jaunt in. On the one hand yes, it makes perfect sense for the Daleks to be used in this role because they are the show's most recognisable alien race. Their iconic status practically necessitates their use for such a plot. Their design helps too. But on the other it feels like a waste. Why would we want to see Peter Capaldi's Doctor scurrying around inside a Dalek before we’ve even seen him angrily opposing one? This feels like the sort of story you'd do for a Doctor's second Dalek encounter, the one you do once you've got their traditional encounter in the bag.

Saying traditional makes it sound like I just want all Dalek stories to be the same. Which I don't. Having every Dalek story follow a basic format is what brought us to uninspired civil war tales of Resurrection, Revelation and Remembrance of the Daleks. When every Dalek story does the same thing it's bad. But Peter Capaldi acting opposite Dalek props for forty-five minutes could have been so good. Because Malcolm Tucker versus the Daleks is the sort of Hinchcliffean mash-up modern Doctor Who is capable of doing so well, and they finally have the lead actor to do it with.

The next time the Daleks come back (and I hope that's at least a couple of years off because they need a rest for exactly the things I'm talking about) Moffat or the next showrunner should come up with something interesting for them do. Something jarring, quirky, that makes us see the all too familiar Daleks in a new light and demonstrates that they do things other than fight generic science fiction wars in outer space. They had a great idea in The Time of the Daleks by having the titular race obsessed with the works of Shakespeare. That the script didn’t do the premise justice makes using the idea more appealing. And there are other audios that could be adapted, not all of them necessarily involving the Daleks in their Big Finish form.

It’s probably worth mentioning Danny Pink too. I’m reliably informed he’s nice to look. That probably helps to distract from his wooden acting. I’ve no idea how he got the part because he’s a dreadful actor based on his scenes here. Poor lines delivered poorly. I’d take Vastra’s hamming of his wooden awkwardness any day.

But Into the Dalek wasn’t all bad. There were a some things I enjoyed mixed into the bland 1950s premise. Capaldi was the best thing about the episode, here by a wider margin than in his debut. Seeing Tyres off Spaced was nice. The production team did wonders making a bunch of corridors look like a convincing Dalek interior. The direction seemed better than what we got throughout the main body of series seven. The model used for the Dalek mutant looking like a Jagaroth, intentional or not (I suspect not), was entertaining. The scene with Missy.

To be clear, I don’t feel this was a badly made episode. I think it suffered from having an uninspiring actor in a significant role, having a plot ripped from a B movie, and being another story to not do anything particularly interesting with the Daleks. But it was still a significant improvement on series seven’s cyborg cowboys and spacefaring dinosaurs. It's just that I'd rather have Daleks quoting Hamlet than shooting generic space soldiers.