Actually, while we’re on the subject –
You were all thinking it, weren’t you?
And while we’re combining cartoons with that series finale, have a few Peanuts.
See you next time, my Sweet Babboo.
Actually, while we’re on the subject –
You were all thinking it, weren’t you?
And while we’re combining cartoons with that series finale, have a few Peanuts.
See you next time, my Sweet Babboo.
Updated header picture aside, I did this two years ago. My opinion on spoilers generally hasn’t really changed, although my contempt for Moffat has subsided quite substantially. I still think he (and the audience) worry too much about spoilers, and I still think that says more about the way Doctor Who is written than it does about anything else. But I no longer harbour any sort of grudge about it. I’ve seen enough shouts of “SPOILERS!” on the web over the past few months – and we’re talking about episodes that are two or three years old here – to make me realise that the whole thing is taken far too seriously by much of the fandom and that no one is going to change that; certainly not me.
Perhaps the most profound thing about this piece is the one thing that wasn’t actually mine – the quote from the respected DW writer that lurks in its closing paragraphs. I could tell you who it is, but I don’t want to give away the ending.
Are we worrying too much about Doctor Who spoilers?
Published: 11 July 2015
I still remember the Sun headline. It was a Thursday, and I never could get the hang of Thursdays. The news page listed an indexed article entitled “ROSE TO BE KILLED OFF”, or words to that effect. It wasn’t even a link to a story that contained a spoiler warning – which I could have thus avoided (thus having only myself to blame if I subsequently read it). This was a feature title visible from their main news page (weeks before the story was due to air, I might add) that ostensibly gave away the ending of Doomsday without you even having to look at it.
She didn’t die, of course, but that was hardly the point. I vividly recall that sense of outrage (an appropriate post-2010 response is “I WAS NOT EXPECTING THIS!”) and it’s funny how things have changed. These days my reaction is far more ambivalent – and that’s because I wonder whether the Whoniverse as a whole (the writers, the fandom, the general approach) has cultivated an unhealthy obsession with spoilers. I wonder whether, in the quest to provide the shock of the new, we’ve wound up with a programme that’s become more about surprise than it has about story.
Spoilers do count; it would be foolish to say otherwise. I went to great lengths to keep the ending of The Stolen Earth – and its abhorrent, anti-climactic denouement – from all of my children, simply because I knew there would be a period when they’d obsess over the resolution of that cliffhanger in much the same way that their father once did. I have embarked upon a media blackout for Game of Thrones, because I anticipate watching it all one day and I’d like to know as little as possible. Sometimes the best way to squeeze the maximum amount of pleasure from something is to go into it as cold as possible: the less you know, the lower your expectations and the happier you’ll be.
But it’s not as black and white as all that. For instance, I watched the early series of 24 slightly out of order, and thus went through the very first armed with the foreknowledge that a certain person – whom we’d previously deemed more or less untouchable – would turn out to be dodgy. Conversely, when the mastermind of series five was revealed some years later, their identity came as a complete surprise. But did the knowledge that the CTU mole was <spoiler> mean that I enjoyed that first series less than the one in which I didn’t know that <spoiler> was responsible for the murder of <spoiler>? Honestly, the answer has to be no. It just makes for a different viewing experience, particularly when you don’t tell your wife. You get to grin like a satisfied idiot while she’s pacing around the room after that penultimate episode, shouting “I can’t believe it was <spoiler>!”.
Besides, the issue here isn’t about the twist itself, or even knowing about it – it’s when the twist is inserted as a substitute for anything we might ordinarily refer to as ‘substance’. For example, The Wedding of River Song is an episode that solves a puzzle. That is its function: to get the Doctor out of the desert, and to get Alex Kingston out of that spacesuit (stop sniggering at the back there, or I’ll make you stay behind). Once you have resolved that particular enigma, there’s nothing left. Aside from the two major revelations (the Doctor’s hiding in the robot / The First Question is mind-numbingly inane) it serves absolutely no purpose. It has no real story, nothing important to say, and the dialogue is shockingly poor. It is forty-five minutes of inconsequential drivel, surpassed only by Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS in the queue of Stories I Wish I Could Unsee.
This is a series finale. This is supposed to be the big finish (excuse pun). Other tales fare equally badly: see, for example, A Good Man Goes To War and Let’s Kill Hitler (both of which get away with it, by the skin of their teeth, simply by being utterly outrageous), and also Utopia (minimally redeemed by the presence of Derek Jacobi). The Name of the Doctor cocks so many things up during its run time that by the time the New Doctor shows his bearded, weathered face I’m already wondering why I still care. This is event television at its worst: plot twists stretched to three quarters of an hour, padded out by nonsense. Doctor Who is not the only contemporary show guilty of this, but it’s a shame it’s apparently had to follow the herd in order to adapt to the supposed demands of a twenty-first century audience.
I read a comment on a neighbouring article the other day that suggested – I’m paraphrasing – that the wibbly-wobbliness is subsiding under the reign of the Twelfth Doctor. That’s all well and good, but the arcs in themselves remain, and they have not improved. The series eight antagonist only became interesting the moment we learned her identity; the rest was a tedious riddle. How would the creative team have coped if it had leaked – unambiguously and irrevocably – that Missy was the Master? Would the finale have been reshot, scenes where she talks about being the Rani hastily scribbled / reinserted? To what extent does the integrity of the spoiler usurp the credibility of the script? Is it more important that a thing remains secret than the content of the secret itself? Perhaps not. Perhaps you’re laughing at such a notion. Or perhaps it’s the glimpse of the future, in which mobile technology improves to the extent that showrunners decide to use whatever ending hasn’t already leaked, and just make the best of that.
Rewind thirty-three years, and consider this: it is possible to watch Earthshock knowing that the Cybermen are about to turn up and still enjoy it, because their presence – while a surprise for the uninitiated – is not in itself a game-changer. Conversely, it is much harder to enjoy Army of Ghosts once you know that the silly glowing Watcher wannabes are actually Cybermen, or that the thing in the basement contains four Daleks, because the story has nothing else going for it. That’s the sort of comparison that makes me sound like a nostalgia freak, but I don’t want to turn this into an Old / NuWho thing if I can help it. There were plenty of mistakes when the sets still wobbled. By way of example, it’s difficult to enjoy Time-Flight whether or not you know the eccentric alien mystic in the cave is actually Anthony Ainley, underneath prosthetics. It’s still better than Arc of Infinity, anyway.
(One of the most catastrophically silly reveals occurs at the end of the first episode of a Pertwee story. The Doctor removes the cloak of invisibility from a thing that is obviously a Dalek, having already encountered a race who are universally associated with the Daleks, and having had a conversation in which Daleks are mentioned, in a story called Planet of the Daleks. And then he cries out “Daleks!”)
Perhaps certain things are untouchable. I’m still not speaking to Eddie Izzard, for example, over his revelation about The Mousetrap. The Sixth Sense is never the same again on a repeat viewing, as once you know about The Twist, you spend the entire running time looking for clues. (I was going to suggest that perhaps M Night Shyamalan could have improved The Last Airbender by introducing a final reel twist, but having reflected, I suspect the best way to improve The Last Airbender is to erase all copies from existence.)
But Moffat himself has described his approach to writing both Who and Sherlock as (more paraphrasing from yours truly) ‘television you’re supposed to watch more than once’. We’re the generation that doesn’t watch Doctor Who live: that is why God invented iPlayer. Digital drama that can be scrutinised and analysed – frame by frame – has opened up a world of possibilities, but it’s come at a price, and that price is occasionally manifest in excruciatingly bad television. (I’m aware, throughout the process of articles like this one, that I come across as something of a Moffat-hater, but the way I approach the situation is this: the man’s getting paid a reasonable sum of money by the BBC to oversee and write one of their flagship programmes, and while I’ve never subscribed to the notion held by many that paying an annual license fee grants you the same democratic rights as a majority shareholder, if I can see an obvious way for him to be doing his job better, I’m damn well going to say so.)
I am probably risking bad karma if I quote Lawrence Miles, but he it was that suggested the most promising solution I’ve ever heard to this particular problem. “Possibly,” he says, “just possibly, the best way to deal with ‘spoilers’ is to make stories that remain watchable even if you know what’s going to happen. Rather than, say, stories that depend on relentless story-arc twists and idiotic clues as to what’s going to be at the end of the season. Y’know. Just a thought. From someone who knew the ending of Genesis of the Daleks several years before he actually saw it.”
As is customary, Miles overstates his case, but in essence he’s absolutely right. Perhaps, on some levels, that’s why Moffat gets so cross about spoilers. Divulging them exposes the vacuum, like exposing the head of Omega or peeling back the faces of the Whisper Men, and reveals absolutely nothing of any substance. And why watch then? Once you know what’s coming, what else is there?
I’ll be living it up in London when you read this. I do not plan on taking my figures for a photoshoot. No indeed. At least not this time.
In the news this week, David Tennant reacts.
Jodie Whittaker’s catchphrase is unveiled.
And there is much excitement over this leaked image from ‘Twice Upon A Time’.
(As an aside: I posted this in a variety of groups. In one of them I was met with Angry and Sad responses and the moderator had to comment with ‘This is not a scene from the Christmas special’ and then lock the thread. I know I should have seen it coming, but the rampant stupidity of the fanbase never ceases to amaze me.)
Grumpy Australasian: JOHN HURT HAS BEEN AIRBRUSHED FROM DOCTOR WHO HISTORY!
Me and several others: No he hasn’t.
GA: No one talks about him.
Me: They really do.
GA: No, check the mass media.
Me: I have. I’m afraid I just don’t see what you see.
GA: Oh, I’m sorry, Scully. This all a bit Loch Ness Monster, is it?
Third party: That episode ought to have featured McGann or Eccleston.
GA: They wouldn’t fit.
Me: McGann would have fit. They were building to that in the Dark Eyes series. They just didn’t do it. Hurt fits the War Doctor narrative, but only because it was written around him.
GA: He’s still airbrushed from the media.
Me: I still can’t understand why you think that when there’s been so much coverage.
GA: I’m finding you an example.
Me: You’re finding me an example of where someone doesn’t talk about something, when I could just as easily find you several where the reverse applies?
GA: [Hits block button]
And not long after the trailer for ‘Twice Upon A Time’ had landed:
Fan: Is that the Brigadier???
Fan: But it might be.
Me: No, because they probably wouldn’t recast like that.
Fan: But he has a moustache.
Fan: I’m just saying, it could be him.
Me: It’s completely the wrong characterisation. And the story is set during the First World War.
Fan: Yes, but…wibbly wobbly timey wimey…
Me: [smashes monitor]
I swear. Fandom.
“Someone’s been watching Twin Peaks.”
I have, actually. Have you? It’s been riotous and ridiculous and I am not going to go into here. It deserves its own entry, one that I will undoubtedly write when we’re a little further into the series (episode 10 as I go to press, and enigmatic explanations and lengthy musical interludes aside I’m still no closer to working out what the hell is going on). David Lynch’s revisit is either brilliant or dreadful – I’m still trying to work out which, although I tend to err on the side of the former – and whether you found that black and white episode beautiful or baffling or both, it is one that stays in your head, more so than even the strongest episode of Doctor Who. For good or ill there is nothing like this on TV, and for that alone it deserves our unambiguous praise.
But you say Twin Peaks, you think backwards-speaking dwarves. Even though the dwarf isn’t actually a dwarf at all (it’s actually a genetic disorder), and he’s nowhere to be seen in this revived series (he seems, somewhat bizarrely, to have been replaced by a piece of modern art). Actually the last time I saw Michael J. Anderson doing anything, he was in a wheelchair in Mulholland Drive, although I gather he’s done a fair bit of voicework, and a little Googling suggests that there may be no love lost between him and Lynch.
Still. This scene is iconic. Everything about it just works. The only thing they get wrong is Cooper’s age, assuming that twenty-five years have passed, but there’s only so much you can do with 1980s prosthetics. And whatever Anderson’s beef (it sounds like it stems from money, which would be consistent with the issues Lynch had with Showtime) he does a mean soft-shoe.
I’ve probably said this before – in fact I probably said it when I was writing about the last backwards video I did – but I’d dearly love to produce a decent Twin Peaks homage. Unfortunately to do that you have to get someone to record those lines backwards so you can play them backwards in order to get the reverse intonation effect. And for that you need a professional Doctor impersonator, which I do not have. I am still working on the Nordic noir concept video, which will happen at some point.
In the meantime, there’s the little vignette you can see embedded at the top of this post. When you’re looking for visual impact, footage of characters eating works wonders – heck, half the jokes in ‘Backwards’ are based around the regurgitation of cream cakes or tankards of bitter – and it was that, indeed, that fuelled my last expedition into reversed Doctor Who scenes. But this one was a little different in tone – it consists of a character who is behaving even more manically than usual, which led to a scene that begins in turmoil and then gradually becomes calmer, through a combination of frantic lurching and backwards snogging, until it settles with a paradoxically unsettling freeze frame (which is very Lynch). If you look carefully, you’ll see certain moments are looped – reversed, then played forwards, and then reversed again – which is something I did every time I felt the flow was off. Ambient music came from these people, who may just be my favourite YouTube channel just now. The result is, as someone pointed out, very Twin Peaks. That was probably deliberate.
Besides, it gives me an excuse to re-post this.
WOW, BOB, WOW.
Dear Fandom –
1. Within certain social parameters, the role of Doctor Who is to entertain. The ideal candidate for the Doctor may be black, Asian, Inuit, Native American, gay, bisexual, androgynous, non-binary. Or it may be a thirty-something white male. You will have to deal with that.
2. The fans do not have control over the show. There is a good reason for this.
3. Just because we’ve never had a female Doctor before, it doesn’t mean it’s not going to work.
4. Just because we’ve never had a female Doctor before, it doesn’t mean it’s going to work.
5. New incarnations come and go all the time. Change is part of the show. I cannot believe we’re still having this conversation.
6. “Nurse Who”? Really? That’s the best you can manage?
7. Jodie Whittaker may be brilliant. Or she may be dreadful. You don’t know. Neither do I. But do not fill the gaps with a worst case scenario and think you’ve developed an unshakable prediction.
8. I thought Matt Smith was going to be a trainwreck. Then he opened his mouth, and all was forgiven. “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.”
9. The ‘Yeah, it really worked for Ghostbusters’ argument is founded on false logic and we both know it.
10. The notion that you believe your £150 license fee entitles you to any sort of stake in this is frankly laughable.
11. Stop calling Doctor Who a liberal left-wing show. It isn’t.
12. You do not get to say who is a ‘fan’ of the show, whether that person likes a particular Doctor or hates them. They’re just someone with an opinion. That opinion may be worthless, but the bar of acceptable levels of service to a particular programme is not and cannot be set by you. Sorry.
13. Those of you who say you’ll stop watching: we’ll believe it when we see it.
14. Whether you’re left or right wing, your ‘passion’ for the show and the fact that you love and care about it so deeply does not entitle you to be a dick. That’s the same argument Isaac used on Dom in Holby City to justify his emotional and physical abuse. Didn’t work then either.
15. To suggest that Whittaker got the part simply because she’s a woman – whether you’re a sceptic decrying such a move or a feminist celebrating it – is nothing short of insulting. It insults the performer, it insults the writer and producer and it insults the BBC.
16. Memo to the BBC: it doesn’t help my argument when you start talking about ‘a commitment to diversity’. Button it.
17. Women: please stop assuming that everyone who begins a sentence with “I’m not sexist, but…” really is sexist.
18. Men: please stop beginning sentences with “I’m not sexist, but…”. It just isn’t worth the hassle.
19. The fact that Ian Levine has gone on a complete rant about this should tell you all you need to know about how you should be reacting yourselves.
P.S. Please stop using the word ‘Whovian’. It is a silly name for silly people.
In this week’s Doctor Who news, an oft-quoted fan mantra is given a new slant.
A much-anticipated deleted scene from ‘World Enough And Time’ is leaked into the internet.
And finally, David Tennant reacts to the upcoming 13th Doctor reveal.
Right, where were we?
(If you missed part one, it’s here.)
The Pyramid at the End of the World
‘If anything, The Pyramid at the End of the World suffers from Difficult Second Album Syndrome, or at least second act fatigue. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, except to say that nothing very much happens. That’s something we’ve got used to this series, but that it’s suddenly a problem is less a hallmark of collective boredom and more the fact that a ponderous narrative like this does not sit well with the alien invasion badge the episode wears at its heart. This is the middle part of a trilogy, a fact that we’re never really allowed to forget.
The basic problem is structure. The sort of personal journey that forms the story’s emotional core works fine when you’re watching a character piece – as we did with, say, The Pilot – but it’s less successful when large chunks of the episode revolve around the Doctor travelling from one place to another, interacting with supporting characters who are presumably baffled as to why they’re having to contend with a cantankerous retired prog rock guitarist, and wondering when the real hero’s going to show up. Far from the dashing, tedious hero we’ve encountered, this is a man who tactically misjudges an elementary problem and is doomed as a result. That needn’t be a bad thing. Stories in which the Doctor blunders into a bad situation and makes it worse can be marvellous. Unfortunately, this week’s wasn’t one of them.’
The Lie of the Land
‘Certain things about The Lie of the Land grated. The structure is off, somehow, as if this were a very good two-part story crammed into 42 minutes, because the Monks had taken up two episodes already and they couldn’t stretch to another. Its voiceover is cloying and unnecessary: it is, to all intents and purposes, the Blade Runner of Nu Who, and it is only in the final reel that its purpose becomes apparent, Bill’s mother becoming not just a convenient expository sounding board but also a crucial plot device. The whole thing is very Rings of Akhaten with the same wind machine they used in The Pilot but you can, at least, understand why we’ve had to put up with half an hour of interior monologue.
There is an awful lot of decent material this week, even if it isn’t always used as effectively as it might be. The opening montage, which openly parodies Forrest Gump, is nothing short of marvellous, particularly with the addition of Capaldi’s soothing voiceover, bookended by the most sinister of grins. Capaldi, indeed, is absolutely the best thing about this week, whether he’s comforting a suddenly remorseful Missy or – in the episode’s high point – explaining his apparent change of heart to an incredulous Bill with such fortitude that for a second you’re almost prepared to believe it. Unfortunately, it’s a that scene concludes with a mildly ridiculous denouement, and a quite unnecessary regeneration from the Doctor – “A bit much?” he quips, mostly through the fourth wall, and thus confirming that the whole thing was more about deceiving the audience than it was about winding up Bill.
But the voiceover isn’t the only thing that jars. The society Whithouse creates is frightening and oppressive and reasonably convincing, but there frankly isn’t enough of it: fascist police states are encapsulated in single, cliche-driven boot-in-the-door scenes (first they came for the communists, and I did not speak out), where non-conformists are dragged away in full view of disapproving neighbours. How much more might we have benefited from a more comprehensive overview of those who rejected the Monks’ programming? The resistance movement, and the laughing men behind the guns that served under the Doctor? The figureheads in charge, kowtowing to the will of the Monks, struggling to remember a time when they succeeded or failed purely on the whims of political ambition? Even the Monks themselves, who linger in the background this week, motives untapped, barely uttering a word? How much better, indeed, might the story have been had it begun with the planet under a state of siege, with flashbacks to key moments from the Pyramid episode and all the ephemeral dialogue from last week scattered to the ashes and replaced with something a little more substantial? We’ll never know, but it doesn’t stop me wondering.’
The Empress of Mars
‘What to say about Empress? It’s not profound. It makes no real political point, save the kind of digs at the British Empire you typically see on Horrible Histories (a show in which Gatiss has appeared, along with his League of Gentlemen co-stars). It has a lot of stuff about queen and country, including a pleasing Pauline Collins reference. It has an amusing, if fairly derivative cold open – excuse pun – that is enough to draw your interest, even if it does not quite reach the hyperbolic praise that Moffat ascribes to it (“The best pre-titles idea [he’d] ever heard”, according to Doctor Who Magazine, which rather overstates its supposed brilliance). It has a bunch of gung-ho British soldiers speaking an indecipherable language (‘rhino’ is mentioned; I honestly don’t know whether this is colloquially accurate or whether Gatiss is just making this s**t up). And it has a new form of squareness gun: it literally folds people up in a sort of fatal compression, useful for packing suitcases. Gatiss describes this as “a new way of killing people”, suggesting that he’s never read The Twits.
Basically, it has ‘filler’ stamped all over it, but there is nothing wrong with a decent filler. Some episodes of Doctor Who are destined to set the world alight. Gatiss’ latest will not, but that’s not the end of the world. If its supporting characters could do with a little more depth, that’s a by-product of the 40 minute structure (and something which, when Chibnall comes to the table, could do with a serious rethink). The leads acquit themselves more than adequately, even if the Doctor has little to actually do this week except react. And it has Ice Warriors doing Ice Warrior-ish things, in a self-contained narrative that, while popping the odd seam in its bag of containment, manages to just about stay inside it. Profundity can wait: this is fun. Really, what more do you want on a Saturday evening?’
The Eaters of Light
‘There is a scene about fifteen minutes into The Eaters of Light which is borderline painful to watch. It involves Bill in an excruciating, needless discussion about her sexuality, and it sticks out like a sore thumb because the rest of the episode is so good. Everything else just works. This is a self-contained narrative that is sure of its own identity. It is well-constructed and frightening when it needs to be, with decently-realised set pieces: it helps, also, that director Charles Palmer takes his visual cue from Nick Hurran – and, in particular, The God Complex – by showing us the monster only sparingly, a wriggling, tentacle thing where the gaps are filled by the limits of the human imagination.
Supporting characters are affable enough, but it’s the leads who excel – with the Doctor as compelling as he has been all year. “Are you sulking?” he says to Kar. “When you want to win a war, remember this: it’s not about you. Believe me, I know.” It is whispered and understated, with Capaldi’s native Scots perhaps even more pronounced than usual, the way that newly repatriated residents often find their accents slipping back towards the native when they go home. It’s a stunning scene, worthy of the best of Tennant, but you sense that of the newer actors only Capaldi could really have pulled it off. If this series doesn’t win him a BAFTA, there is no justice.’
World Enough and Time
‘Some episodes of Doctor Who fall under an umbrella we might label Event Stories. A Good Man Goes To War (and its immediate follow-up) might be a decent example; The Wedding of River Song is another. Monsters and threats are all present and more or less correct, but the McGuffins serve the dramatic purpose of padding out the running time between the twists. Put simply, these stories are not about the story; they’re about traversing the arc. Event Stories are usually the ones that people remember, because they are the game changers – the ones that kill, that resurrect, that shine a torch onto the identity papers of heretofore mysterious, enigmatic guest stars.
World Enough and Time is a classic case of an Event Story. This is not an episode that you watch for the meat, because by and large there isn’t any. Oh, there are Things That Happen. Many of the Things That Happen will have the fans talking: one or two undoubtedly resulted in the collective dropping of jaws. Nonetheless, it is the moments, rather than the whole, that you carry with you. That’s not to do it a complete disservice: Bill is as good as ever, the hospital is appropriately creepy, and Rachel Talalay shows once more exactly why she’s one of the best directors in the business. John Simm is marvellous as the Fagin-like, heavily accented Mr Razor, and Missy’s “Doctor Who” exchange with Bill and Nardole takes an axe to the fourth wall and essentially summarises every conversation I’ve ever had on Facebook. It’s just a shame that that moments like these couldn’t have occurred within the confines of an actual story – instead of a collection of vignettes and moments, stitched together into a Frankensteinian whole, much like the shambling abominations that haunt the corridors of the Mondasian spacecraft.’
The Doctor Falls
‘It just wasn’t very good, really, was it?
I mean I could lie about it, if you want. That might have been the easier solution. I’ve had calls for my head this week. “When the show is cancelled,” someone said, in the wake of a negative write-up I gave it, “the finger will point at this, fair and square”. Clearly he’s overestimated the clout held by a single entertainment journalist, although I did appreciate the compliment.
Here’s the basic issue: the Doctor is old and tired and gives up. That’s it in a nutshell. His plan to get rid of the Cybermen is to blow up as many as he can while a group of colonists escape in a lift. It’s an excuse to write him into a situation where he is forced to regenerate – and then stubbornly refuses to, using pain as a stimulus in much the same way that Rutger Hauer staves off his death towards the close of Blade Runner. That’s the sort of corner that will prove difficult to write yourself out of the next time it happens, although that’ll be Chibnall’s problem, which largely explains why Moffat did it.
The leads, to be fair, acquit themselves brilliantly. Mackie is all tortured angst and wall demolition (she will, at least, be useful if the Doctor ever needs a knock-through); Lucas improbably gets a love interest, but his farewell is pleasantly understated; Gomez and Simm work well together, whether they’re dancing or (literally) at each other’s throats. Simm, in particular, is a revelation, the Master we could have done with ten years ago, instead of the mugging (if well-matched) idiot who came up against Tennant – each Master reflects the Doctor they’re encountering, and this older, less ridiculous version is the perfect foil for Capaldi. Speaking of Capaldi, we are once more in BAFTA territory, with the actor switching between tearful pleading and raging against the dying of the light, often within the same reel.
But the real problem with The Doctor Falls – aside from its failure to live up to the generally tremendous series that preceded it – is that Moffat once more sacrifices story for crowd-pleasing spectacle, Bill’s tedious (and overwrought) resurrection a depressing reminder of Clara’s. This is ultimately about pushing the envelope as far as possible before abruptly dropping it in the shredder: all you end up with is a bunch of plain white confetti, of little use to anyone. “Doctor Who,” says the chief writer, “shouldn’t really be about death. I don’t believe it’s the kind of show that says there are bitter, twisted, nasty endings because it’s not.” Keep telling yourself that, Steven.’
When I’m not blogging here (which seems to be most of the time these days), and when I’m not writing for Metro, you’ll often find me over at the hallowed halls of The Doctor Who Companion, churning out think pieces and gently poking fun at fan theory. We are a small but dedicated and also very eclectic team, and the great thing about the DWC is the sheer variety of stuff that’s on offer – we don’t just do news and reviews, there’s an awful lot of other content, and if you’re not reading it, you really should be.
But reviews are where we’ve been at for the past twelve weeks, because that’s what you do when there’s a series on. To keep things interesting, the site’s editors had a different person review each episode, and then asked for two-hundred word summaries from the rest of us, which they pasted into single documents, serving as composites of alternative views and opinions to sit alongside the main review for that week. And it occurred to me, as we reached the end of the run, that these little vignettes were actually as good a summary of how I’ve felt about particular episodes as anything else.
So I’m reproducing them here. And if you’ve been reading my series 10 reviews, you’ll probably recognise much of the text, because it’s usually lifted word for word. But I daresay there were at least some of you who simply scrolled to the end to look at the interest chart, right? And now you’ll never have to worry about what I said. So here are episodes one through six, each linked to its DWC communal write-up so you can see how my opinions compared with the rest of the team (if you want to read the stuff I published here, it’s available from the Reviews tag). I didn’t do one for ‘The Pilot’, having actually written the main review for that week, but I’ve cobbled something together, and episodes seven through twelve will follow in a day or two.
‘The best way to describe The Pilot is ‘grounded’. Because this is an episode that is anxious to root itself (to use Peter Capaldi’s own words) before you’re allowed to go anywhere. This is not a Doctor who turns up and comically integrates himself (or rather fails to) into a community, as we saw in The Caretaker or The Lodger. This is a Doctor who’s already been on the scene a long time, who cannot possibly be as young as he looks, and who is visibly offended when people fail to point this out. But there’s more to it than that: this is not another Snowmen, in which the arriving companion breaks the Time Lord out of a funk overnight. It takes time. The Doctor’s tenure may be well-established but it still takes a good few months (read: minutes) for his new companion to discover what’s really going on.
The episode’s success lies largely in the fact that it doesn’t try to do too much. The cast are a big help – Capaldi is comfortable and self-assured as the Doctor, and his support make the most of what they have – but the strength of The Pilot lies in its concept of space, in a strictly terrestrial sense. It introduces new characters and gives them breathing room – hence the Doctor and Bill are flung together not by impossible forces, but by a sense of mutual loneliness and the driving need to explore. By the time the Doctor has temporarily abandoned his plans to guard whatever it is he’s guarding in that vault and whisk Bill away to the stars (tellingly with a line that echoes Christopher Lloyd’s reckless abandonment of responsibility at the end of Back to the Future), it feels like an inevitability – and we cheer with her.’
‘The last time Frank Cottrell-Boyce wrote for Doctor Who, he produced something that – for better or worse – was unlike almost anything that had preceded it. In Smile, the references come thick and fast: The Happiness Patrol-esque drive for shallow optimism; the Vardy’s childlike misunderstanding, echoing the nanogenes in The Doctor Dances, only with the appetite of the Vashta Nerada; the Seeds of Doom bit… I could go on. Had Cottrell-Boyce delivered 45 minutes of tropes and no substance, I’d be glowering, but there’s plenty of meat on the bone (which is more than you can say for many of the colonists). With the help of some thoughtful dialogue, and a narrative sparsity that mirrors the vast, almost minimalist surroundings, the episode’s real joy is the chemistry between its two leads, an ostensibly chalk and cheese pairing that is showing real promise. There’s nothing wrong with homage when it works, and Smile does.’
‘Perhaps the best thing about Thin Ice is the wink it makes at the audience. It is not a story that pretends to be grand or significant. It is a story in which the Doctor rewrites Dickens and gets all fanboyish over a con artist. It is a story in which an unreconstructed Nicholas Burns does the splits as the ground cracks beneath him. It is a story in which you wonder whether the thing in the Vault is actually John Simm, and whether the final ‘boom’ that accompanies the words ‘NEXT TIME’ is a simple sting for the episode 4 trailer or that crucial fourth knock.
But at its heart, it’s a story about the necessity of exploration: to scratch and forage, to find both the joys and the darkness therein, the frozen river serving as metaphor for Bill’s discovery of her mentor’s darker side. The path to enlightenment, it is implied, lies not in the certainty of tradition but the willingness to think sideways, whatever the risk. “Only idiots know the answers,” the Doctor insists, in the episode’s latter third. “But if your future is built on the suffering of that creature, what’s your future worth?” Ultimately, Thin Ice speaks to us of the dangers of venturing deeper – the perils that lurk in the darkness and the fear of the unknown – but also of the unexpected clarity that results when you come back up to the surface.’
‘The central problem with Knock Knock is that it simply isn’t very frightening. There’s nothing wrong with the set-up: six people in an overly large house with dodgy electrics and a seemingly inaccessible tower, presided over by a sinister, seemingly omnipresent figure with the ability to suddenly pop into existence as if from nowhere, like a podgy Q from Star Trek. The contract is signed with nary a second glance at the small print – if anything, Bartlett has written a morality fable for the EULA generation that emphasises the importance of reading the terms and conditions. Only Bill remains wary – but even she is keen to avoid discussing the obvious problems lurking in the house, clearly seeing it as a means of escape. The students’ nonchalance is the sort of behaviour that usually has the audience screaming at the TV, but it’s very easy to do that when you’ve already heard the screams of the house’s first victim, and a seemingly blasé attitude is at least consistent with the jumping in feet first attitude that Doctor Who typically seems to espouse. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is – but how might we apply that logic to ‘the gateway to everything that ever was, or ever can be’?
What the episode needs is a little more of the scare factor that drips through in the much-improved second half, and a little less of the mundanity that punctuates the earlier scenes: conversations about Bill’s sexuality spring to mind, as does the rather tedious question of whether the Doctor is her father or grandfather. This was clearly an experiment, and while the list of gripes (the occasional fall-back on conventional horror tropes; the Doctor’s effective relegation to sidekick status; the Freudian thing) is plentiful: they don’t make for an experience that is unilaterally bad, just one that feels like a disappointment after the last three weeks. But perhaps it’s not a bad thing that the bubble has burst. If this is the first time in the series we’ve had call to say ‘Meh’, then that’s a sure-fire indication that on the whole, they’re getting it right.’
‘Oxygen is one of those ‘worthy’ episodes. You know, the sort where everyone talks about the message. It happens a lot, and it’s a problem. It’s nice that people care about things, but the earnestness with which throwaway lines of dialogue and supposedly grand speeches are adopted as profile signatures and – just occasionally – life mantras is something that puzzles me immensely. It’s as if Doctor Who is no longer allowed to be important unless it means something. Robert Holmes showed you can be political, and thus this is something you ought to do at every conceivable opportunity, with episodes that say Important Things left on a pedestal, while the more superficial, disposable stories (sit down, Planet of the Dead, your chops and gravy are in the microwave) are critically lambasted for being disposable candy floss. There is bugger all social commentary in The Invasion; it’s Cybermen running around London. It is also tremendous fun. That really ought to be enough.
Thankfully, Oxygen has the fun factor in spades, whether it’s the Doctor effectively kidnapping Nardole in the opening scene, or the mesmerising, wordless spacewalk (when people say things like “You’re about to be exposed to the vacuum of space!” in Hollywood blockbusters it sounds corny as hell; Capaldi pulls it off); or the moment, just a short time later, when the Doctor abandons Bill in a corridor. It manages this despite a dearth of interesting supporting characters (indeed, the only one you notice is memorable precisely because he shouldn’t be) and a rather clumsy, overstated semi-cliffhanger. None of this matters when the rest of it is as good as it got this week. A triumph, from start to not-quite finish.’
‘I called this. I just want that noted for the record. I called it months ago and said that the idea of an unreliable Doctor – one who thought he was the Doctor, but wasn’t – was something the show hadn’t really done yet and that I wished it would. I know the overlap is all wrong, but I’m just going to leave that there. And yes, I know that you don’t have to be real to be the Doctor. But still.
Extremis is a story in which the dramatic climax is someone sending an email. On paper, it must have seemed ludicrous. In practice, it is stunningly effective: it is, like Let’s Kill Hitler, one of those stories where everything works because nothing works, full of crazy ideas and head-scratching nonsense. The action moves from the Vatican to the Pentagon to CERN for no reason other than it can, with a global conspiracy that is almost as needlessly elaborate as the Cyberman’s convoluted plot in The Wheel In Space. It is likely to be divisive. Some people will love it, others will hate it. On its own, it does not easily stand up: as part of a trilogy, history may judge it more kindly. Some will rail against its supposed cleverness; others (like me) will see this as an example of Moffat pushing things as far as he can, and perhaps not quite as far as he wanted (how more daring might it have been had we discovered that every previous episode, and not just this one, had been a simulation, and that it turned out that David Bradley was guarding the vault?). Some will cheer at the audacity of actually killing the Doctor; others will produce a Series 6 box set and cough gently. This is not one for the ‘generally good’ or ‘generally bad’ pile: it will tread the uneasy tightrope between the two, with fans and critics either side, anxious to give it a push one way or the other. In the grand scheme of things, it’s Marmite. But that’s OK. I happen to like Marmite.’
We’ve got some catching up to do, so let’s get on.
While series 10 was airing, I had a random idea. Actually it’s an idea I’ve carried in my head for years: a lipdub of sorts to the Timelords’ ‘Doctorin’ The TARDIS’. You remember, the two blokes who went on to form KLF, after they’d finished being the Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, which is sort of the same thing but not quite. Because the words ‘Doctor Who’ get used an awful lot, don’t they? Particularly since Moffat took over. I used to think it was just a way of including cheap, reliable humour: a drinking game trope, a thing for the clip files. Until Missy got hold of the joke and basically killed it, which now makes me wonder whether the chief writer was trolling the fanbase since the beginning.
Anyway, the idea was this: scenes from Doctor Who synced to the lyrics from Drummond and Cauty’s jaunty masterpiece, with a few Daleks added for good measure. Throw in a bit of dancing and Bob Holmes is your uncle. Plus the KLF are supposedly returning in some form in August, which makes it topical. But there are other ‘Doctorin’ mashups on YouTube, and although none of them really come close to the particular vibe I wanted, some of them are nonetheless very good.
So it became an idea that evolved. Which is when I remembered Rory delivering a message and a question to the Cybermen, in the same series that we also have The Question. You know, the one that should never be asked because it’s incredibly dull. And the rest was easy. Bill does not come out of it well, but she’s off travelling the universe with watery tart; I do not think she’s in a position to complain.
Musically, I shopped around for a bit to find one of those random, rights free dance instrumental tracks that would work. You know, like something by 2 Unlimited, or that Spankox one, ‘To The Club’, which was playing on Italian radio stations when Emily and I honeymooned in Liguria way back in 2004. In the end, it was Edward’s insistence on watching (and rewatching, and rewatching again) the Japanese guy singing about his pen and pineapple that did it. You just need a decent karaoke version and a general sense of stupidity. Fortunately I am blessed with both.
Besides, it gives me another excuse to show this.
I’m somewhat mortified after the fact that I got the lyrics wrong; it should be ‘I have’ rather than ‘I got’, but for the sake of scholarly integrity it stays as is. These things matter, dammit.