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!