Sunday, 29 December 2013

Christmas with an Irrational Producer

Four years into his time as producer of Doctor Who and Steven Moffat has finally had the opportunity to give us a regeneration story (discounting River’s regeneration in Let’s Kill Hitler and the multiple fake regenerations of Smith’s Doctor). In typical fashion he produced something that was startlingly average. It didn’t reach the heady heights of The Caves of Androzani but it also managed to avoid the banal confusion of The Ultimate Foe. Matt Smith was given an episode that allowed him to show all the good points of his Doctor one last time before he left the role (at least in a full time capacity). It’s just a pity that those good points weren’t as notable as they could have been.

I don’t want to be overly negative about Matt Smith. On the whole I’ve found his performance inoffensive and regularly enjoyable. He has proven that he was a good choice for the role (second choice, if Gaiman’s fishwife gossip is to be believed). There have been some questionable moments though. His burnt acting in The Crimson Horror was appalling. The constant movement and gesturing, something that characterised his performance, got out of hand at points, never more obviously than in The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe. Even his outfit was an irritation at times. It seemed to revert to the Hartnell and Troughton model in his last few episodes, something that the show had progressed beyond by 1970. The number of blog posts and articles “proving” that Matt Smith was the best Doctor ever is massively annoying but also to be expected. It’s a reflection of the show’s popularity more than anything else, not something to hold against Smith or to hold as clear evidence that he’s been anything more than an “average” Doctor.

I didn’t dislike Matt Smith in the role. But I’m also not upset he’s left. Three seasons and a couple of specials was as much as I needed from his performance. There aren’t as many great episodes of his to look back on as I’d like, but sticking around wouldn’t have changed that.

But this isn’t about Matt Smith. Not just Matt Smith anyway. It’s about The Time of the Doctor. As it was Smith’s final regular performance it as the episode in which Moffat had to pay off three seasons’ worth of threads and ideas. Among the unresolved issues were the cracks in time, the exploding TARDIS of the series five finale, an explanation for the Silents, and the “Doctor who?” question. Plus Moffat also felt it necessary to address the twelve regenerations limit and continue the Gallifrey storyline he started in previous story The Day of the Doctor (something he’d said he wouldn’t do, claiming instead that it would be left to hang over the series for a while). Never mind that it could have been addressed in a few lines of technobabble after finding some maguffin at a later date: it had to be addressed here because Moffat wanted to be the man to do it. The Tenth Doctor using up a regeneration to stay as he was? Rubbish. That was confirmed only in this story (a mere five years after The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End had aired) to give Moffles the excuse he needed to be the made to “save us” from the horror of a depleted regeneration cycle.

Did he do justice to the strands he’d had running for four years? No. He didn’t. Moffat did what he always does in these situations and took the easiest, most disappointing route possible. The TARDIS exploded because a splinter group from the Church of Silence went back along the Doctor’s time stream and tried to kill him before he could get to Trenzalore. We weren’t shown this, that could have been interesting. Instead we were shown it. Hardly a worthwhile payoff. The cracks were the work of the Time Lords, placed there so they could call through The Question from the pocket universe they’re currently imprisoned in to make sure they’d got the right place (even though they possess mastery over time and space and so should probably know that sort of thing anyway). It didn’t feel like things coming together after years of clever foreshadowing, it felt like a writer who’d introduced random things that he quite liked in isolation but didn’t know how to link up. It was like the River Song reveal all over again. Only less game-changing.

The string of revelations approach has struck again. As always it ensures that the episode is satisfying on some basic level because it provides you with answers (albeit unsatisfying ones) to longstanding questions but leaves you wishing there was more to it on further viewings. As I said in my write-up of The Day of the Doctor, a revelation can only be enjoyed once. It’s plots that are required for something to be enjoyable on a second, twenty-second or ninety-second viewing. And it’s plotting that Moffat seems to think he’s above.

Very little about the string of revelations made much sense but one thing stood out as silly above everything else. That was the depiction of the Time Lords. From the original series run we know they are one of the most powerful races, if not the most powerful, in the universe. Their society has been depicted (since 1976 at least) as staid, corrupt, and distant, and they had, according to The Night of the Doctor, become just as bad as the Daleks once the Time War was underway – and it’s worth noting that the Time War wasn’t even close to over by this point because that mini-episode sees the War Doctor introduced and he spends a significant amount of time fighting in the War. In short the Time Lords are not the sort of people to be won over by sentimentality. And yet in TTOFTD that’s exactly what happens: Clara whispers into the crack that the only name the Time Lords should need to hear is “the Doctor” and then witters on about what a good guy her pal is. Then the crack in time closes and the Time Lords reappear a minute or so later to gift the Doctor with a new regeneration cycle. Perhaps the time locked away from the wider universe has mellowed the Lords. 

Or perhaps Moffat’s just contrary, unimaginative, and unable to keep track of his own plots.
There have been worse offerings during the Moffat regime, and it was far and away his best Christmas episode. But ultimately it was still a confusing disappointment that I suspect would have done more to dissuade new viewers than encourage them. Perhaps having an actor of Peter Capaldi’s calibre to write for will help Moffat get back on track. Although judging by that first scene I may be getting my hopes up there. An exclamation about kidneys is not a good sign.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

The Fiftieth

Like most people interested in the show (for some reason I can’t bring myself to write “fans” – I’ve no idea why) I watched the fiftieth anniversary episode of Doctor Who on its original November 23rd airing. Something that struck me as odd then and still strikes me as odd now is the time at which it aired. Starting at ten to eight meant that the anniversary episode didn’t finish until gone nine o’clock. This has nothing to do with anything, up to and including my thoughts on the episode, but I wanted to make note of it because it felt strange to have an episode of Doctor Who finishing after the watershed. It’s an odd decision given the age group they’re targeting. Then again I’m not a parent so perhaps kids are up until gone nine as a matter of course these days.

I watched the episode from start to finish and, to be honest, didn’t really think much of it. It was okay, certainly a lot better than the average episode that’s been produced under the reign of the Über Moff, but then most of them have been pretty bad so that’s not saying a great deal. I was a little surprised at how light the central plot was, how little the Zygons actually had to do, and how the secondary human-Zygon negotiation plot was completely dropped and not paid off at all. I was downright perplexed that an episode marketed as an anniversary episode was so light on nods to the past. A programme with fifty years of TV episodes, books, comics, audio dramas and various other tie-ins and spin-offs to call on should have had no trouble featuring such touches. The average RTD era episode featured more mentions of the past than The Day of the Doctor. Even if Steven Moffat doesn’t like continuity references surely he should understand that this episode, more than any other previously written demanded them?

Did I say Moffat doesn’t like continuity references? I did, yes. I think I should clarify that. He’s far more interested in referencing his own stuff than the work of anyone else. Just look at River Song. She’s less a character and more a string of increasingly drab reveals. The Silents received similar, albeit more subdued, treatment. And I think it’s telling that the Weeping Angels notched up more proper adventures and cameos against Matt Smith’s Doctor than the Daleks. It could, if you were generous, be said that it’s his style of writing. To an extent I’d agree, but not enough to excuse the approach completely. Basically Moffat is more interested in playing in his own corner of the Doctor Who Universe than in revelling in it as a whole and that hurt the anniversary episode’s ability to be seen as something celebrating five decades of a varied, imaginative and creative programme. If ever there were a time for a writer to embrace the entirety of the show’s history that episode was it.

But let’s get back to my viewing experience.  When the show first came back I had a habit of watching every episode for a second time immediately after its original airing. That’s a habit I was still in by the time Matt Smith’s first series started. I’d dropped it by the end of that run. There are still a few Matt Smith episodes I’ve only seen once: the gangers two parter, the Narnia one and most of the second half of series seven spring immediately to mind. I’ve watched every episode of the Tennant and Eccleston eras at least twice each, in most cases more. I bring this up to illustrate how Moffat has, fairly speedily, blunted my enthusiasm for the show.

That said I have generally given “important” episodes a second look in the days following their original broadcast. A Good Man Goes To War, for example. That’s “important” not because it’s a good episode (although it’s probably among the best of the Moff era) but because it features so many of Moffat’s tedious revelations that a second look helps to assimilate it all and give you a chance to hunt for a plot, a hunt which usually disappoints. Episode where Moffat is clearly dropping in big bits of continuity to pick up again later are the sorts of things I’m thinking of when I say “important”. Notice that plot doesn’t come into it. I’ll get back to this momentarily.

The Day of the Doctor is the sort of episode (“important”, basically) I would have watched again on the Sunday if I’d had the option. But I didn’t: the DVR had malfunctioned and not recorded. I’d paid enough attention and formed enough of an opinion on the plot to write a blog post about it at the time but I never got around to it. The enthusiasm just wasn’t there and as the weeks went by it became harder and harder to bring myself to write about the episode. Eventually I decided I’d get it on DVD, watch it again to refresh my memory and write about it then. I ended up getting it for Christmas and watching it on Boxing Day.

Watching the episode again for a second time with a not insubstantial gap since my first viewing made something immediately clear, something I wouldn’t have been able to pick up on after just one viewing. Watching TDOTD for a second time knowing what all the twists and revelations were and when they were coming made the episode boring to watch. All the big shocks only contribute anything to the episode on a first watch, the red herrings and false leads mean nothing when you sit through them again. Revelations only work once, a good plot will last forever. Once you get passed the War Doctor’s true identity and nature, Billie Piper’s purpose in the story, why the statues have been smashed, why paintings that are “a slice of time” have been introduced, and, the big one, Gallifrey being brought back, all you’re left with is Tennant and Smith’s bickering, the needless tale of why Elizabeth I considered the Tenth Doctor and enemy, and the Time War (something else that never needed to be shown. Honestly, the thing that impressed me the most is that they made one bloke in a Zygon suit into a convincing squadron. That’s not glowing praise for an episode of this magnitude is it?

Chris Eccleston. It’s a real shame he didn’t want to come back and do the episode. He and his Doctor have a lot of fans (I feel fine using the word here) that would have greatly enjoyed seeing him back. It would have been nice to see the man who made it possible for Tennant, Smith and Capaldi to take on the role involved. It’s obvious to anyone how the plot would have differed had Eccleston said yes, and it clearly would have been preferable to the “secret Doctor” nonsense that was concocted to get around his lack of interest. But as clever (“tricksy” would probably be a better word) as Moff’s solution was, it wasn’t necessary. Nobody had told him he had to have three Doctors involved in the episode. He could just as easily have strung together the same non-plot with just Doctors Ten and Eleven. Why he didn’t I couldn’t even begin to guess. It seemed obvious to me from the start than Eccleston was going to say no to an appearance. He’s that sort of fella.

A final thought: if the Doctor didn’t remember freezing Gallifrey in a slice of pocket universe (or whatever) until towards the end of his life as the Matt Smith Doctor (phrasing chosen to avoid confusion) how and why was it that every previous incarnation turned up to help accomplish the feat? They shouldn’t have known about the Time War, let alone about shunting Gallifrey out of existence.

Thanks, Moff. Another bungled offering!

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.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Future Failure

So... Doctor Who was originally taken off the air in 1989. There was no BBC announcement proclaiming the show had been moved to the scrap heap after twenty six years. Instead the production team simply weren't given the task of starting work on a twenty seventh season. It was just a show that the BBC were no longer making and over time people came to the conclusion that the show wasn't going to be seen again.

There were several reasons the BBC made this decision, a large one being the programme's public perception. It was seen as a shoddily made kids’ show that was watched mainly by a niche market of grown-up anoraks that should all have known better. Doctor Who (a two word shorthand that refers to the production gang) had spent too much of the eighties catering to the whims of its fans as opposed to making itself compelling television and had seen its best days.

A 1990 season of Doctor Who could have been made and could have worked, the three Sylvester McCoy seasons we got are proof of that. But it would have required a decent amount of money and the support of the BBC. These weren't things the BBC felt the programme warranted, because the show’s ratings didn’t warrant them. It was an impossible situation: the programme couldn’t do better with more money but it couldn’t get more money until it did better. Instead it was allowed to slip away and become a convoluted collection of novels, audios and comics.

There was a return to TV in 1996 but it lasted all of an hour and a half and did nothing to alter the perception that the show was knackered and could no longer work as part of BBC schedules. If anything The TV Movie reinforced a lot of people's feelings about the show.

We're now well past the cancellation and the '96 offering and firmly into revival territory. Doctor Who came back to prime time BBC One in March of 2005 and became a phenomenal hit. As the years passed it got bigger, thanks to the writing and excellent hyping ability of Russell T Davies, the immense popularity of David Tennant, and the 2010 expansion onto American television. Doctor Who is an undeniable hit.

People have been saying since series two that the programme's taken a turn for the worse. Personally I think it held out until the 2010 or 2011 series before it took a noticeable dip in quality but that (despite appearances to the contrary) is not what I'm talking about in this post.

Sooner or later Doctor Who will be taken off our screens again. It won’t happen under Moffat and it’s unlikely to happen under whoever replaces him, whoever that may be. But it will happen. The programme has already been back on television for eight years. It can’t continue indefinitely. Even if it’s for three or four years it’ll disappear.

And when it does disappear from our screens I think it’s currently running the risk of being looked on as a broken show in much the same way as the ’89 incarnation was. It’ll be for different reasons of course. In place of wobbly sets people will talk of wibbly wobbly plotting (see what I did there?). That’s something that the next showrunner could fix, but something tells me they won’t. Even if they move away from Moff’s time-tangling shenanigans I can’t anyone creating a strong enough identity for the show to rid it of the image the current man in charge has created.

Which will almost certainly lead to Doctor Who being remembered as a convoluted, complex show about time travel paradoxes. Which it’s not of course. But not all of the original series was badly mad. Most importantly the final three years of the original series were actually pretty well put together. But because of a few dodgy episodes and bad decision twenty-six seasons are remembered by the general populace as being pretty ropey television.

The show will never hit those lows again. But  think it’ll come closer than a lot of people currently believe possible.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Capaldi for Twelve

So Peter Capaldi is the Twelfth Doctor then. That's a bit of good news isn't it?

Yesterday's announcement was a rare example of Steven Moffat's general ineptitude working in Doctor Who's favour. I'd heard the rumours that Capaldi was going to be the next Doctor but couldn't bring myself to believe them, in large part because it was a good idea and Moffat has a history of letting fans down. Remember when he said season six's mid-season cliffhanger would be game-changing? Or when he teased River Song's identity for three years, assuring us she was the last person we’d expect her to be, only to reveal the truth was what people had been guessing all along? How about his most recent bit of fail, the spectacularly anticlimactic The Name of the Doctor? That revealed the Doctor's latest companion goes through time saving him continuously because she goes through time saving him continuously.

I also had a hard time envisaging an actor of Capaldi's talent watching the show we've been watching since 2010 and saying "Yeah, I'll get in on that." There was the potential issue of the BBC wanting to avoid kids stumbling across footage of Malcolm Tucker too. Thankfully nobody seems overly bothered by that possibility. Which is obviously good, because such things shouldn't stop a good actor being cast.

Mainly I didn't have faith Moffat would do something this right. He's surprised us. And I'm pleased.

I get the feeling that Capaldi may have been cast at least partially to combat the downturn critical acclaim for the show has taken lately. While Moffat blithely disregards reviews in interviews the truth is they matter. They reflect what the general public is likely to feel and so offer an insight into how to make the show better. And that's part of Moffat's job. If people don't remain enthused about the show it no longer makes money. And the BBC cannot afford to produce something that costs as much as Who that doesn't make them some dough in return.

Bringing in Capaldi is a way of encouraging support. It's an assurance that the show is still a priority and can still attract high quality names. It feels it’s being done, in part at least, to placate people who have been overly critical of Moffat scripts. Because if anyone stands a chance of making a bad Moffat script work it’s Peter Capaldi. It’s certinaly not Matt Smith, as we’ve seen.

When Capaldi starts is a matter for debate at the moment. It was originally announced that Matt Smith's final appearance would be in the Christmas special. There has since been talk that he'll be off during the anniversary special. It doesn't really make much difference although wanting to include a regeneration in the anniversary episode strikes me as a very Moffat desire. It's the sort of empty gesture he'd think would be incredibly poignant and - yes! - epic. I'm not fussed which episode is Smith's last although I will say that the prospect of Zygons being credited with offing a Doctor doesn't fill me with joy.

There's just enough time to have a thirteen episode stretch ready to begin airing next spring (assuming they keep filming later episodes after the first has aired, which is the norm) but I think an autumn start point is likelier. It's the one Moff has stated he prefers and it plays into his more deliberate (by which I mean slow (by which I mean lazy)) approach to scripts. I'm still hoping for an announcement that Moffat will be off after the next series. That will give Capaldi a good chance of having done good scripts to work with. He's not likely to get any under Moffat.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

In Case You Haven't Heard...

If you’ve not been paying attention to the papers, the news, social networking sites and the covers of magazines, you may have missed the news that there’s a new Doctor Who lead actor on the way. The announcement that current Doctor (Number Eleven) Matt Smith was leaving was made on June 1st (I wrote about that here). Over the two months since the show’s executive producers have held auditions, which I’m sure we’ll be told included a who’s who of top name talent at some point in the future, to find a new star. They have apparently found one and he or she is to be unveiled to the world this evening on a special live BBC One show imaginatively titled Doctor Who Live: The Next Doctor. They should have gone with Doctor Who Live: The Name of the Doctor. The Next Doctor is so RTD.

The show will feature Matt Smith and lead writer Steven Moffat, presumably talking up the new actor before they put in an appearance after a video package showing their previous acting work, potentially ending on a fleeting shot of them looking moody while leaning on the TARDIS. It will also feature Tom Baker and Peter Davison, the Fourth and Fifth Doctors respectively. They will be there to give advice to the newcomer, which makes me think Doctor Twelve is going to be younger than 35. If they’re not then bringing in two former Doctors just to give them advice seems a little patronising, especially as Tom Baker qualifies more as a parody of himself than as an actual actor.

Hosting the show will be pig-faced ladette Zoe Ball. She has no qualities that make her particularly suited to the task, she’s just a half-capable presenter conveniently under contract to the BBC. Personally I’d have brought Tennant in to host the thing and omitted Baker and Davison entirely. Tennant’s done a little presenting and would be a more natural choice for the task than Ball. Perhaps they asked him and he was busy, or simply wants to disassociate himself from Moff’s version of the show as much as possible.

Still, at least with the show the BBC have cobbled together there’s a strong chance of comedy. Tom Baker has been very open in talking about his feelings that Matt Smith’s not an especially good choice for the role of the Doctor. Perhaps he’ll mention that on air. Zoe Ball is almost guaranteed to get a very basic fact wrong. Normally there’d be nothing wrong with that (because you can’t expect everyone to be well-versed in the endless minutia of Doctor Who) but this is probably the one show where a knowledgeable presenter is needed. Moffat’s definitely going to slur out a load of hyperbole that his writing will never live up, but that’s nothing new. Maybe he’ll butt heads with Tom. That’d be a laugh, although it’s sadly unlikely.

In fact the only way I think this show could have a greater potential for humour would be if Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy were appearing in place of Tom and Peter.

At one point Peter Capaldi was the favourite for the role. I think he’d be great in the part, but somehow I just don’t think it’s going to be him. That’s partly due to my reasoning above: how do you justify bringing Tom Baker in to advise Peter Capaldi on anything? I also think his role on The Thick Of It could count against him. Kids are going to Google and YouTube search the new Doctor. Does the BBC really want to run the risk of them coming across one of Malcolm Tucker’s foul-mouthed rants? Then again, the casting decision has been made by Steven Moffat…

If it’s not Capaldi (and part of me is going to be disappointed if it’s not him because I think he’d be great) then I’d like to see Chiwetel Ejiofor or Idris Elba in the part. Both men’s names have been linked to the part (and Ejiofor was a rumoured close contender for the Eleventh Doctor role too) and both have the right mix of acting ability, good, marketable looks, and age (36 and 40 respectively) to be excellent in the role.

Also, isn’t it about time that a non-white actor was cast in the part? The longer the show rumbles on without doing this the bigger an issue it’s going to be. I don’t think someone should be cast based on the colour of their skin, but the time feels right for a departure from the middle class white male paradigm that’s been established for the role. It’s something that should certainly have been considered.

Another few hours of waiting and we’ll have a name and a face to start writing about. As a little known producer was fond of saying, stay tuned…

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

New New New New Doctor

When it was announced in 2008 that David Tennant was leaving Doctor Who I was upset. I didn't sit around moping or claiming I'd never watch the show again but I did think it was the beginning of the end for Doctor Who's mega popularity. I didn't think any other actor would be able to generate the interest and adoration that Tennant had managed with his combination of good looks, good acting and good scripts.

Matt Smith has proven me wrong. He's been mostly as popular despite not seeming to be quite as good an actor or being quite as good looking. The show becoming a larger presence on US television has doubtless helped him. Smith has been the face of the show during a huge push into an incredibly important TV market. Imagine how astronomical Tennant's popularity would have become if he'd stuck around for that. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Where Smith's been let down is in the scripts. He's not been given the broad range of things to do that Tennant was. The reason for that is Steven Moffat. Yes, I'm blaming him again but I'm not doing it for the sake of it. He really has let Smith down. His time as showrunner has been characterised by supposedly clever paradoxical plots, uninteresting personalities and, most recently, the movie poster approach.

All are shallow and fail to give actors, be they regulars or guest stars, anything worthwhile to do. They don't give audiences much to get excited about either. Russell T Davies (mostly) understood what viewers wanted. That was drama featuring likeable characters with some humour and references to the past tossed in for good measure. He gave us something that could be enjoyed in forty-five minutes on a Saturday afternoon and then forgotten about, but with enough depth for obsessive fans (like those who write blogs on the subject for example) to go back and analyse them over and over again.

Moffat doesn't write drama. He seems incapable of it. He writes comedy with Big Epic Moments inserted into them. Because that’s his idea of drama. It's an approach that has meant Matt Smith has had very little chance to showcase what acting talent he has, instead having to trot out wearisome quips and catchphrases, occasionally breaking the monotony with a bit of shouting to show that he's an Angry Doctor.

Which, to get back to the point, is why I'm not terribly fussed that he's going. I've not been given a reason to care about his character. Truth be told I’m more interested in the possibility an incoming Twelfth Doctor presents for a clean start.

It's impossible to predict who'll be cast as the new Doctor. The people that audition don't have their names revealed during the casting process. Which is fair enough really. It only becomes the concern of the viewers once someone's been cast.

It's interesting to note that the BBC has stated that they won't be casting anyone based on race or gender. Once again the tease of a female Doctor rears its head (although in a distinctly more subtle way than JNT could ever have managed). Personally I don't think they'll do it. Jenna Louise Coleman has been confirmed for the 2014 series and I think the BBC will be keen to stick with the established setup of a male and a female lead. It doesn't strike me as a particularly Moffatian move either. He seems to understand the show enough to know his approach to writing women wouldn't lend itself to a female Doctor.

I'd quite like a forty-something black Doctor. It would be something new for the show, and considering the broadly liberal undertone it's had since 2005 I think it's time it happened. I imagine the likelihood of a black Doctor is higher than the likelihood of a female Doctor, mainly because Moffat can cast a black dude while sticking to his confirmed "the Doctor should be an older gentleman" preference. Hard to cast a woman as an older gentleman, isn't it?

A few years ago I liked the idea of Richard Ayoade playing the Doctor. I've gone off that idea over time. I now like the idea of Paterson Joseph playing the part. He’ll turn fifty next year, which places him snugly into Moff’s preferred age range for the part. He's a good actor and comes across as very supportive of the show when quizzed on it. Whoever's cast will need his level of exuberance to put on a brave face with Moffat's writing.

Something tells me Joseph's casting is unlikely though. He was open about the fact that he auditioned to be the Eleventh Doctor, and was a tabloid fave for the part at the time. I think such a high profile loss of the role last time it was up for grabs will make him look like a second choice should he be cast now. Which is a shame, because I think he’d be good in the part.

I expect an announcement sometime this year that the next series will be Moffat’s last. An RTD-style year of specials in 2015 may be a part of his leaving schedule but it’s not something I’d bank on. I've a feeling (based only on the fact that Moffat’s been doing the job for a good few years now) new executive producer Brian Minchin has been brought on board to learn the ropes for a year and then take over as showrunner. Considering Moffat's recent form the sooner he goes the better.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Name

John Hurt is the Doctor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 May 2013

Changing the Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Upgrade Incomplete

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Playing the Gaim

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

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

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

Can you sense the but that's coming?

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

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

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

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

Friday, 10 May 2013

Period Drama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Wibbly Wobbly Whiney Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Unconventional Companions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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