Category Archives: Doctor Who

Steven Moffat, Chris Chibnall, & the evolution of the Doctors

Twelve DoctorsAT THE time of writing, the biggest current news in pop-cultural circles is Steven Moffat’s imminent departure from Doctor Who. Well, I say “imminent”; in truth, there’s going to be a two-year wait, with a 2016 devoid of Doctor Who save for one Christmas special, then in 2017 Moffat promises his most blockbustery season ever. But then, after all of that’s over, the showrunner position will be taken over by Chris Chibnall, best known for his series Broadchurch, starring former Doctor Who David Tennant, though he’s also written a series of basically-alright to pretty-good episodes for Doctor Who & its anagrammatic spinoff Torchwood.

So, it’s basically good news for the show; or, rather, it might well be good news for the show two-&-a-half years down the line from now. It isn’t that Moffat is a bad writer so much as that he’s a writer who cannot help but believe his own hype. Back in the olden days, the Moffat episode used to be the highlight of the season. As showrunner he was overly reliant on big concepts, shocking reveals, & twisty little twists, at the cost of any sense of character or consistency. Even his comparitively reined-in moments as showrunner were still full of absurd theatrics; Series 9 was some of his strongest work since Series 5 which, although it isn’t saying that much, is saying something at least, & I hope he continues to contribute excellent, sculpted episodes to the series; ones that have had time to be polished & revised & hopefully passed through a script editor &, most of all, episodes which will have a direction, because the show as a whole will have a direction, & episodes flatly out of character will be rejected, or polished up until they’re in character.

Character was his big problem. When he first took over, introducing a new Doctor (Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith) & new companion (Amy Pond), the issue wasn’t glaringly obvious. They were extremely grating personalities, the both of them; Eleven a big show-offy baby, the sort of dullard who gurns “I’m mad, me!”, while Amy was tiresomely selfcentred & plainly an object of worship for Moffat, about whom it would be putting it lightly to say has issues writing women. But they were consistent. It was at least possible for me to write this paragraph on them. Their respective replacements, Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor & Clara Oswald, are, the pair of them, enormous voids where character ought to go. She’s probably the most likeable female character he’s ever written, which translates as her not being some sort of perma-quipping shrew whose main trait is reminding you she’s female eight times per sentence. Clara’s just a nothing, marginally preferable, & Jenna Coleman deserves much praise for her hard work in making the character so charming, so memorable. Twelve, meanwhile, is like a random Doctor machine: he might waves his arms & babble like Eleven, or he might turn around all no-nonsense & arrogant, like Jon Pertwee’s Three, or he might be obnoxious to the point of genuine cruelty like Colin Baker’s Six. He might do anything in the world except, possibly, to resemble Peter Davison’s shy, kind Five, but time will tell on that one too.

It’s particularly irritating since, whether by design or fortune, there was a pretty clear progression from Christopher Eccleston’s shellshocked Nine, through David Tennant’s arrogant-but-cool Ten, to Matt Smith’s enthusiastic-to-the-point-of irritation Eleven. When Moffat added John Hurt’s scary, dogmatic War Doctor to the mix the progression made even more sense (we previously assumed Nine had fought the Time War), & allowed us to trace that character arc back even to Paul McGann’s lovely-but-underused Eighth Doctor. It was the story of a man destroyed by the horrors of war, & eventually redeemed by the power of kindness. You can call that trite if you like but the series never spelled it out or dwelt on it. It was just there if you looked for it. Then after Eleven’s long life & somewhat affecting death on Trenzalore, Twelve popped up &, despite a telephone cameo by Matt Smith in Twelve’s first episode assuring Clara he was still the same man, he proceeded to unlearn every lesson he’d learned. It wasn’t so much that his indifference to his friends, his petulance, or his intolerant attitude to soldiers (didn’t Eleven mourn The Brigadier, one of the best friends he’d ever had?) were traits difficult to swallow in an alien, but that they were traits difficult to swallow in this alien, the one we’d supposedly got to know.

Twelve’s characterisation, while unstable at the best of times, seemed to be intended to hark back to William Hartnell’s First Doctor, a big old space grouch who wouldn’t listen to you. But, regenerating into Patrick Troughton, then Jon Pertwee then Tom Baker, his haughty attitude to humans seemed to get chipped away at the more time he spent among them, culminating in Five who was just a lovely bloke & clearly the one you’d most want to be friends with of them all. It was the same process; “Alien becomes human”, & while I’m even less convinced it was intentional back then it was no less satisfying or heartwarming. With Colin Baker’s Six & Sylvester McCoy’s Seven I don’t think there’s any in-story rationale for their personalities; they were just directions the producers wanted to try out. But that’s more to be expected back then; continuity was just a suggestion & there weren’t any DVD box sets or marathons, so who cared if your dad told you some bloke from ten years ago was ten times better?

Nowadays we like our shows as Dickensian mammoths, please, with plotlines that take years to build & sets of characters who are really just one hundred tragic heroes, with their tragedies all interlaced. Or at the very least we like to get to know our characters, which demands that they not walk all over the life lessons we’ve watched them go through. It’s why Russel T. Davies made up the Time War as a backstory for quite why Nine was so brusque; he didn’t just regenerate on the wrong side of bed like Six did. So, where does that leave Doctor Number Twelve? Chibnall can retire him & start afresh if he likes, like RTD & Moffat before him, or he can nobly inherit that mess & try to make something of it. He can turn Twelve from a wasted opportunity into the classic character Capaldi deserved, maybe, if he just works hard at giving him a bit of consistency. But there’s two & a half years to go, & anything could happen, more or less.

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Doctor Who, shibboleths, & the name of The Doctor

sylvester mccoy

I’M NOT PARTICULARLY enjoying Series 8 of Doctor Who. “Listen” aside, episodes have been mediocre to terrible; the programme’s overall tone is muddled; it’s on too late; & fans now have to put up with the ridiculous notion that Earth’s moon is, & has always been, a bloody egg; &, furthermore, all of the big questions raised by 2013’s run of episodes appear to have been ignored. Where’s Gallifrey? Was The Curator really The Fourth Doctor? & what is The Doctor’s name?

The last one, at least, doesn’t actually need answering. Doctor Who head writer Steven Moffat would, I rather suspect, tell you that The Doctor must continue to be The Nameless; that there is an immense power in names, & that it is therefore imperative, for dramatic reasons, that that name not be revealed to the audience  whereupon it would lose that mystical power.

The entire conceit is rather an entertaining one, making a sly wink at a long-running aspect of Doctor Who fandom  Doctor Who is the name of the show, fans’ll say; if you refer to a character named Doctor Who  or worse, Dr. Who  then you must be talking about the villain from one of Toho’s more obscure monster films, & any official or semi-official source that gets this wrong must be a bit shit. In that way, it functions as something of a shibboleth  one can distinguish fans from non-fans based on whether they refer to the Time Lord as “The Doctor” or “Doctor Who”. Similar shibboleths exist in all sorts of fan circles – for instance, some hip-hop purists avoid the term “rap”, referring to the genre as “hip-hop”, the performers as “MCs”, & the vocal style as “MCing”. The avoidance of a phrase introduced by the Sugarhill Gang’s brilliant, but inauthentic, “Rapper’s Delight”, is used to indicate a familiarity with, & understanding of, hip-hop’s origins in New York block parties; & thus, to establish one’s credentials as a “true” fan.

The only problem when it comes to Doctor Who fandom is that the strict insistence that only the programme, & not the character, is named Doctor Who actually demonstrates ignorance rather than specialist knowledge. What is the name of The Doctor? Doctor Who. There’s a wealth of evidence, going all the way back to the earliest episodes: The Doctor has taken “Doktor von Wer” & “Quiquaequod” as aliases (German for “Doctor from Who” & Latin for “Whowhowho”, respectively); he has signed his name as “Dr. W” or, alternatively, as a question mark; his Fourth, Fifth, & Sixth incarnations all sported question marks on their lapels, while the Seventh had a whole sweater just riddled with them; The Seventh Doctor also carried an umbrella with a question-mark handle; The Third Doctor occasionally drove an absurd hovercraft called the Whomobile; when WOTAN in The War Machines requests to have “Doctor Who” brought to it, the order is understood; K-9 has responded to the question “Doctor Who?” with the answer “Affirmative!”, & given the robot dog’s inability to understand humour, K-9 must at least believe Doctor Who to be an accurate way of referring to The Doctor. & even if all of these characters  including The Doctor himself  are mistaken in believing “Doctor Who” to be the character’s name, then surely the programme itself is an objective source-? The character is referred to as “Doctor Who” in the title of the serial Doctor Who and the Silurians* & the episode “The Death of Doctor Who”; the on-screen credit for the character was either “Doctor Who” or “Dr. Who”, all the way up to Tom Baker’s final serial. With the programme’s return to television in 2005, the credit reverted to “Doctor Who”, which lasted until David Tennant’s first full episode. The result is that the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Eighth & Ninth Doctors were never credited as playing “The Doctor” in their original runs. That’s without getting into merchandise, DVD packaging, &c.. So why, faced with this mountain of evidence, do fans continue to insist the character is not, & has never, been called “Doctor Who”? Pedantry, probably. People, nerds especially, like to be privy to secret knowledge. The irony is that in their assertion of superior fandom, they’re missing out on some very special secret knowledge indeed: the true name of The Doctor.

UPDATE: I originally wrote this essay before the broadcast of “In the Forest of the Night”, in which The Twelfth Doctor exclaims, “I am Doctor Idiot!”. If his name isn’t “Doctor Who”  or at least, if nothing comes after the “Doctor” part  then his exclamation wouldn’t make any sense; rather than “I am Doctor Idiot!”, parallelling “I am Doctor Who”, he’d have said “I am The Idiot!”, parallelling “I am The Doctor”, wouldn’t he?

*Somewhat surprisingly, the only TV serial to use the “Doctor Who and the…” title format; however, it has been used for scores of novels, audio adventures, comics, &c..

Sherlock, James Bond, & the right way to write Doctor Who

hislastvow

APPARENTLY Sherlock‘s Season 3 finale, “His Last Vow”, has achieved more acclaim than any other episode in the show’s run, & is set to make Steven Moffat the most successful writer in TV history. It’s a shame, because it was rubbish, a huge pile of illogical twists explaining, or failing to explain, other illogical twists. A major character is revealed not to be what they seem, in a way that has no buildup & adds nothing to their character; a new villain is introduced, one who the show simply informs us is the nastiest threat Holmes & Watson have faced so far (he isn’t; Moriarty is); several things nearly happen then don’t; & Sherlock yet again does something unforgivable to get his own way, which the show brushes over pretty quickly. It’s clear that Steven Moffat wrote this chaotic sprawl of a finale not as something satisfying & character-drived, that would stand up to repeated viewings, but as a sort of summer blockbuster, a rollercoaster ride of thrills & unexpected chills. & obviously, he succeeded, looking at Sherlock‘s ratings & its reviews. But it felt somehow like an unsatisfying episode, & I think it’s because you simply can’t raise the stakes continually.

The Sherlock Holmes novels & stories generally have very low stakes, & they’re one of the most successful bodies of work in all literature, one of the most influential creations in fiction. They’re just mysteries, very wellconstructed mysteries. There isn’t even always a murder in Sherlock Holmes stories, & the worst possible outcome is usually that Holmes would have failed. He was battling against frustration & boredom. Sometimes he was in danger of being killed, & in “The Final Problem” & “The Adventure of the Empty House”, which are as dramatic as the Holmes stories get, he was in danger of being killed and failing to stop criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty & his gang. I like these low stakes. Mystery, as a genre, requires its protagonist not to be in immediate peril; they need time to make deductions, follow leads, & so on. It’s telling that only “A Study in Pink”, Sherlock‘s first episode, is a genuine mystery. Ever since, Moffat & Gatiss have raised the stakes so continually that “The Sign of Three”, wherein Holmes must write a speech for Watson’s wedding, felt like a relief, despite some irritatingly wacky sitcomisms. There have been so many twists & masterminds & terrorist cells & state secrets & scandals that would rock the nation that Sherlock now feels more like James Bond. But it’s an unsatisfying sort of Bond because those movies never did Sherlock‘s superficial trick of artificially creating drama by telling us things have never been this deadly; for Bond, it’s all in a day’s work.

Sherlock‘s stakeraising is probably more indebted to American television dramas, the expensive & backstory-laden sort that the last decade produced so many of. Traditionally, television was premise-based, like a sitcom, so that viewers could miss several episodes – in an age without DVD, iPlayer or Netflix – & still enjoy the show. So Number 6 tried to escape, & failed, in every episode of The Prisoner, & it was impossible for viewers to fall behind. But since there’s simply no reason for a modern television viewer to ever miss an episode, shows are now more free to engage in complex plots without fear of alienating audiences, & while the result has been a golden age which has produced some of the best television in history, it has, on the other hand, created something of a demand for constant twists & surprises, because the characters simply having a normal, everyday adventure just doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s like needing harder drugs.

& one of the shows hit hardest by this glossy American highstakesism is Doctor Who. In the show’s classic period, The Doctor could barely control his TARDIS & consequently just drifted through time & space, meeting people, getting into scrapes. It was a brilliant take on the classic Walking the Earth trope, & gave the show almost unlimited scope: if the producers felt like doing a Western, they could just do a Western. Steven Moffat’s time as showrunner, however, has seen a focus on mysteries, arcs, twists, & all of the hyperdramatic elements that have sucked the life from Sherlock. Because plot isn’t really what makes stories charming, or sad, or exciting, or addictive: it’s characters. Writers should use plot to get the most from their characters, but Moffat has it backwards: he’s happy to sacrifice a character’s integrity for the sake of a big, shocking TV moment. & such shocking moments, done well, can make for fantastic television. But when every single episode purports to be The Doctor’s most dramatic adventure yet, then nothing feels dramatic. As Nigel Tufnel puts it in This Is Spın̈al Tap, “You see, most – most blokes are going to be playing on 10. You’re on 10, here, all the way up, all the way up, all the way up. You’re on 10 on your guitar. Where can you go from there?” Nigel Tufnel’s solution, of course, was to go to 11. It seems Moffat thinks he can do the same. It’s a shame, because he’s clearly a total fanboy of Doctor Who & Sherlock Holmes, but he has epitomised Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, & killed the thing he loves.