Sunday, 27 December 2015

The Husbands of River Song

The Husbands of River Song was basically Steven Moffat doing Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It certainly makes a nice change of pace from his usual approach to the Christmas specials, where he gives a standard episode plot or idea some generic Christmas lip service. It also makes a nice change of pace from his general approach of either writing about time travel or aping Robert Holmes (or both, of course). It was Moffat's best Christmas special1. He kept things simple, aimed for fun (he even managed to hit it a few times), and didn't shy away from mentioning Christmas.

Although that's not to say it some sort of flawless masterpiece. It wasn't. This paled in comparison to even the worst RTD era Crimbo spectacular. For my money that's The Next Doctor, though whichever one you pick as least good it's going to be better than this. Even if you're really into Douglas Adams this episode probably wasn't better than Insert-Name-of-Your-Least-Favourite-Davies-Era-Special-Here because it wasn't enough like Hitchhikers Guide to be satisfying.

The other thing that could save this episode for some people is the presence of River Song. The thing is, most people aren't going to be into River Song to that extent. She's a recurring character whose last appearance came two and a half years ago, in The Name of the Doctor. The show should hopefully have attracted a few new viewers by then, but no concessions were made to them. There was no explanation for who River was or why we should care about her. Even people who follow the show enough to remember her could probably have done with a refresher on her history2.

The episode's central problem is that it assumes everyone's familiar with River's convoluted character arc and is happy to see her back. Which isn't true. I've nothing against the character or Alex Kingston but I'd be perfectly happy if neither appeared in the show again. Self aware jokes about flow charts are fine and fun. The final scenes all revolving around things not mentioned since Silence in the Library (seven years ago), with no explanations on offer for anyone who didn't follow the references, was too much.

In fact I don't think it would be a stretch to say that anyone who's come to the show since Capaldi joined, and there have to be some people who that's true for, would have been nothing but confused for large chunks of this story. Even when her relationship to the Doctor was revealed there was still a that stuff with the sonic screwdriver, and the Doctor's haircut and suit setting up Silence in the Library to contend with. This sort of approach is the reason Moffat needs to leave the show. He's a fine writer when he's producing one story a year but his approach to running the show is close to being actively harmful at this point. Give it to Mark Gatiss or Jamie Mathieson or Chris 'Chibbers' Chibnall or Sarah Dollard. The next series really needs to see Moffat bowing out gracefully.

Dragging things back to The Husbands of River Song... the show's other main guest stars were Greg Davies, best known as angry teacher Mr Gilbert on The Inbetweeners, and Matt Lucas, best known as one of the lads off Little Britain. Greg Davies played a megalomaniac king detached from his body for the first half of the episode and was very good. In fact Hydroflax could have been a really bad character had they not had someone as good at producing the yucks as Davies. Matt Lucas wasn't afforded such a memorable role. He wasn't especially good, but nor was he especially bad. He was simply there. His part could have gone to a compete unknown and no one would have batted an eyelid.

As I said in pretty much every review of series nine, Capaldi and the set design team were very good. Capaldi did a great job, elevating generic lines about River Song continuity into something watchable. Not for the first time I'm pleased we had him in the show over Matt Smith (although this is one of the few examples of an episode of Doctor Who that could not be rework to feature any other Doctor). The design team gave us a nice model shot towards the start (Hydroflax's spaceship), subtly reused Trap Street from Face the Raven as an alien world, and did a pair of nice spaceship interiors (although technically one may well have been a location shoot). They made it easier to gloss over the fact that this was an excuse for Moffat to revisit River Song as a concept again, something he swore he assured us he was going to stop doing after her previous appearance in 2013 (see here for one of many possible examples of that). Didn't stick to that, did he?


1 I'd like to point out it had staggeringly low expectations to meet though, so this shouldn't be taken as any sort of worthwhile achievement.

2 Here I'm taking about people who watch every week, or most weeks, but don't obsess every details of the show. Despite Moff's assertions to the contrary they still make up the bulk of the programme's viewership.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Hell Bent

I'm not going to say this was the worst season finale Steven Moffat's ever written but that's mostly because The Name of the Doctor exists. This was not a suitable end for what's been a pretty good season overall. It wasn't that it was badly made or acted, or badly written for that matter. It's that it was trying too hard to hard to be a big, epic story and in doing so it got too wrapped up in its own self-importance.

This was Big Steve's first proper go at tinkering with Gallifrey, something that was always going to end badly. Because Gallifrey stories can't be done without heavy use of continuity and Moffat doesn't really do well with that. He makes continuity the focus instead of using it sparingly to embellish his stories. The answer, generally speaking, is not to do Gallifrey stories in the first place unless under very specific circumstances. The lone Gallifrey story of the Davies era (The End of Time) worked because we'd have five years to build up to it and it was used as the backdrop for the exit of arguably the most popular lead actor in the show's history in David Tennant1.

Moffat played all the expected cards: Rassilon, the Matrix, Ohila, Ashildr, Clara not being dead, soldiers siding with the Doctor, lines of dialogue echoing the show's past. The only real surprise was the omission of Missy. He threw in everything he could to make this a "classic" story. In doing so he made it too busy and ensured that it could only ever be seen in the light he wanted by people who adore continuity references above anything else (and it's worth pointing out he frequently makes out in interviews that those are the kinds of people the show should not be aimed at). He also made a hash of explaining what the plot was. Even if you got all of the references to the programme's past such a bad job was done of explaining what exactly was going on that I'm convinced nobody could have watched this and understood it on a single viewing. The Time Lords wanted information on the hybrid, but we didn't learn why it had suddenly become important. We didn't really get a satisfactory answer on why Clara had to die as scheduled, which hasn't exactly been an issue at any other time during the Moffat era.

Maybe the intention is for this to work with repeated viewings. Maybe this is designed as something that's watched over and over again, likely in conjunction with Face the Raven and Heaven Sent. To an extent that's okay. That's how a lot of people watch television now. On Demand services and DVD boxed sets being what they are it's actually sensible to take this approach on occasion. But it shouldn't be done at the expense of people who are going to watch once on a Saturday evening. Doing so is alienating. It's that approach that saw the show falter under JNT in the 80's.

Hell Bent was intended as Moffat's Deadly Assassin. His definitive take on the grandest aspects of the show's continuity and mythology, Gallifrey and the Time Lords. He's entirely missed that the reason The Deadly Assassin works as well as it does is because Robert Holmes was trying to avoid playing on mythology and continuity, playing against what they'd been up until that point and using them as the basis for something completely new. The lone new bit of lore we got here, the Cloister Wraiths (dead Time Lords used as anti-virus technology to protect the Matrix against people poking around inside it), were a nice idea and worthy of being the focus of their own story as opposed to a throwaway aspect of something larger. They weren't enough to justify the episode as a whole though.

I know what the argument will be in favour of Moffat using Gallifrey here: it was the backdrop for the exit of Clara. But the thing with Clara is, no matter how much you may like her and feel that she's a great character and that Jenna Coleman is very good, she isn't the Doctor. Gallifrey being brought back to bring about the exit of any character except the Doctor will always feel too much, because the Doctor, as the one constant throughout the show's ongoing narrative, is the show's most important character and as such the only one who truly warrants such high stakes for an exit. And even then it should be a rarity.

This isn't to knock Coleman, Clara or the exit. I liked all three. Coleman left showing what a versatile performance she can give, with only Peter Capaldi matching her (obviously). Clara got to leave to a greatest hits performance, grounding the Doctor, being noble, and demonstrating her yearning for adventure. She's never felt especially developed as a character but everything we've learn about her was used and tied up nicely here.

The nature of her exit was an example of Moffat's keenness to evoke the shows early years (something we've seen many times, from the understandable inclusion of the Hartnell Doctor in The Day of the Doctor to his less understandable inclusion on a library card in Vampires of Venice). Clara left her home planet in a TARDIS (which was for some reason trapped in the shape of an American diner), in the company of an immortal, and ostensibly on the run from the Time Lords. The mirroring with An Unearthly Child is infuriating in its obviousness but it carries its own kind of charm. I'm sure there are kids who would have watched this and enjoyed that farewell for Clara and (presumably) Ashildr). The real strength was her finally getting a successful Doctor-ish moment, surviving a memory wipe where the Doctor didn't and having one final conversation in which she knew more than him before leaving. It worked all the better for the initial framing of her being the one who couldn't remember, a rare example of Moffat's tricksiness being a worthwhile endeavour.

There were other performances worth mentioning. Donald Sumpter was perfectly cast as Rassilon, power mad and desperate to retain control. If you can't get a "big" name like Timothy Dalton casting a man in his seventies is the next best thing. The silent woman who attended to the Doctor while he stayed at the barn was good too, showing good comedy  timing and giving character to an otherwise forgettable part. But it was the Female General who I liked the most. She seemed like a promising new character in her post-regeneration scene but was presented as glorified muscle for Ohila for the rest of her time on screen. It's a shame she wasn't given more to do. She'd make a good semi-regular villain based on what we saw here.

Speaking of Ohila, Clare Higgins gave one of the worst performances in New Who's ten year history. It's easy to see why she's previously been relegated to pre-credits sequences, webisodes and YouTube uploads. She is not good at acting. Had she not happened to be cast in The Brain of Morbius she would not be lucky enough to be in this position now. She's getting work because of the showrunner's love of pointless continuity references. Although, to be fair, she was playing a character who became a villain for absolutely no discernible reason halfway through the episode.

Hell Bent is a needlessly complicated episode that focuses far too much on continuity and far too little on plot. It ends series nine on a bad note but it gets the departure of Clara right and as that's the central purpose of it it's hard to deem it a complete failure.


1 If you're of a certain age you're going to be thinking that Tom Baker was more popular. I'm not saying he wasn't but Tennant is easily his counterpart in the rebooted series, the guy who helped the show attain the international appeal that's so integral to its continued existence now.