Time’s Arrow – The Doctor and Robin Hood.


Not this shit again
Not this shit again


I nearly didn’t bother watching Robot of Sherwood, having found Mark Gatiss’s DW writing very uneven in the past. But that would have been a pity, because it was a delight. I don’t think I’ve been so consistently entertained by a light-hearted episode since The Shakespeare Code, which it resembled, probably intentionally. I loved the arrow moment (whatever the Doctor uses to heal the TARDIS, I wish I could get hold of some for pruning my fruit trees), revelled in the scatter-shot anachronisms and punched the air like a vindicated academic at Jenna Colman’s “You can take the girl out of Blackpool…” since I was raised on the Fylde Coast and my husband, a Londoner, has baited me with those very words for years.

I think I may look back on the reigns of Tennant, Smith and Capaldi as a Gallifreyan version of the Three Bears – Tennant was too full on, Matt left me with little to hang any emotional response on (though many disagree). Capaldi is just right. It’s as if the events of Day of The Doctor has allowed the Doctor to assert his identity as a Time Lord, instead of pretending to be human or capering around it. I am going to quietly ignore the ridiculous notion that he hung around on Trenzalore for over a thousand years; for me, this series has followed on directly from the last scene of the Special, as the Doctor comes home not only to Gallifrey, but also to himself. To use a Celtic term, he has come home to his house of belonging.

I can totally buy the Doctor as technological Luddite, using blackboard and chalk and real books to occupy his mind. Interestingly, only a few days ago I read an interview with David Mitchell, the Booker-nominated novelist, pointing out that humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels extends to the curation and transmission of culture, which is increasingly digitised and therefore reliant on electricity, and very poorly future-proofed. The Doctor has seen so many civilisations come and go, and what seems like the white-hot technological frontier to us is just another ripple on the sine wave to him.

The things I like best of all about Capaldi’s Doctor are his intelligence and his lack of manufactured charm. I love it that he can be petulant, irascible and fresh out of ideas. After a long walk around a very big block, we seem to be back to the grandfather/grandchild relationship. He’s a private person, modest about trumpeting his virtues and stating his needs, but not pathologically so. The penultimate scene, when he is able to hear Clara call him the Time Lord of Gallifrey without flinching, and the tacit acknowledgement that he was wrong about Robin Hood, with its unspoken subtext that the universe is no doubt full of people being similarly wrong about him, his postulated existence and his reputation, was a breath of fresh air after some of the fevered posturing of previous incarnations.

One of my favourite Matt Smith moments (yes, there were a few) couldn’t help but come to mind as Clara told the Doctor that he, too was the subject of myth. At his best, Eleven had a gentle, quiet and even humble acceptance of the power of stories, and his own place in them:

We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? Because it was, you know, it was the best: a daft old man, who stole a magic box and ran away….

(The Big Bang)

Or, to put it another way, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Yesterday I was lucky enough to be in Edinburgh and have brunch at The Elephant House. Not only is it a great coffee shop with a view of Edinburgh Castle to die for, it has become a shrine to Harry Potter because it’s where JK Rowling worked on the first book of the series. If you ever need confirmation of the power of stories to shape lives, go for a pee at the Elephant House. It’s the only graffiti-covered toilet where I’d want to linger; every surface is covered with wonderful, heartfelt tributes to the creator of Harry Potter. Stories matter. They shape our reality. They give us confidence, and hope. They make us the people that we are, and help us to become the ones that we want to be.




I Got Soul But I’m Not A Soldier – Violence and Morality in Doctor Who

The Tenth Doctor grandstands like crazy in The Doctor's Daughter
The Tenth Doctor grandstands like crazy in The Doctor’s Daughter

Many years ago (well, it wasn’t really, but it feels that way) I toyed with the idea of writing a Doctor Who fanfic called The Moral High Ground, centred around the Doctor’s discomfort when a reformed Dalek rocks up and asks for asylum in the TARDIS. It never get written, which is rather a shame.

Primarily it would have been a response to a theme that was clumsily raised and inadequately explored in David Tennant’s last (2008) series – his extreme repudiation of all kinds of violence, accompanied by a visceral disgust towards anyone in military clothing, when in fact he was steeped in sufficient blood to make Macbeth look like a dolls’ tea party. Beginning with his self-promotion as “the man who never would” in The Doctor’s Daughter, it reached a typically RTD melodramatic full expression in Journey’s End, when Davros taunted him with a roll-call of the many people who had sacrificed their lives while he maintained his illusion of moral purity:

Davros: The man who abhors violence. Never carrying a gun. But this is the truth, Doctor. You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons. Behold your Children of Time transformed into murderers. I made the Daleks, Doctor. You made this.

It’s always the people from way back who know how to deliver the killer blow. It’s a melodramatic and simplistic moment, and it generates a simplistic solution; the Doctor transfers all his shadow self onto his doppelgänger and locks him away in a parallel world. Even before what happened with Donna, that was the moment I started despising Ten, and I don’t think I was alone.

Daleks are a constant of Doctor Who, the stuff of a whole generation’s childhood memories, which they (we?) transfer onto their own children. Daleks are a nostalgic throwback to the binary moral judgements of our early years. If the Daleks go, then with them goes the charming illusion that Doctor Who is a kids’ show, the stuff of playground battles (it’s a truth beautifully realised in Mark Gatiss’s Adventure in Space and Time, when Verity Lambert is overjoyed to hear kids yelling “Exterminate!” on a bus). But it’s more complicated than simply recalling the certainties of childhood. There’s a part of every adult, even the most liberal, that craves an unredeemable, totally merciless enemy that deserves nothing short of our guiltless annihilation. Because life is so bloody complicated, and sometimes we just want a break from reading The Guardian and agonising over the least worst solution.

So the Daleks persist in the DW universe, while the Doctor develops, matures and nudges towards moral accountability. The Time War, originally conceived as remaining entirely offscreen and unimaginable, pushes its way up the agenda and is eventually realised, at least in part, in the 50th Anniversary special. Moffatt openly articulates his uneasiness at the Doctor committing genocide and, being Moffatt, retcons it – because he can. The Doctor is reborn, with a second set of regenerations, grey hairs, a frowny face and the ability to confront at least some of his past.

"Am I a good man?"
“Am I a good man?”

Can anyone seriously imagine the Tenth, or even the Eleventh, Doctor, looking his companion in the eye and asking her to tell him, honestly, if he is a good man? Heck, Ten spent an entire series not looking Rose in the eye, and she was meant to be the love of his life. He turned lack of meaningful eye contact into an art form. But Twelve is made of sterner stuff. Clara’s final rejoinder that he is a man that tries to be good – or at least one that recognises the necessity of trying, and can accept the need to up his game, is a sign of Doctor Who‘s new moral sensibility. Morality is too important to be presented as melodrama, which is what RTD’s Who largely was, even if Tennant had the skill to spin it into Shakespearian tragedy. The shades of grey are not only visible in Capaldi’s curly hair; they are the foundation of a grown-up moral consciousness. And very welcome they are.

The moral sucker-punch delivered by Into The Dalek – that the Doctor is capable of mindless, prejudiced and irrational hatred –  is familiar enough to followers of the show. But what is refreshing is that it is restrained and low-key, and nevertheless powerful. It makes a welcome contrast, perhaps even a kind of companion piece, to The Waters of Mars, the last Phil Ford-authored DW episode, which showed the Doctor at his most dangerous, deluded and narcissistic. And there are intriguing signs that we’re building up to a meaningful interrogation of the Doctor’s inconsistent posturing on the subject of violence. Danny Pink is presented to us as a soldier, bruised by his experience in battle but still prepared to drill the school cadet force (just as the Tenth Doctor was as John Smith, in a story that revealed him at his cruellest and most vengeful). It seems more than likely that there will be some grown-up discussion of the ethics of putting boots on ground within the TARDIS before too long. More than that, it seems that some malign intelligence is plucking the Doctor’s victims (or collateral damage) from their deaths and saving them to put the Timelord on Trial at some future date – the taunts of Davros made flesh.

And I, for one, welcome our new morally nuanced overlords. It’s about time.

Male vanity, sonic screwdrivers and the elephant in the room: Further thoughts on The Day of the Doctor


“But I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now”

Bob Dylan

We were asking our children to trust a mass murderer. Ever since the reboot was first planned in 2004, that has been the elephant in the room at the heart of Doctor Who. Last night, Stephen Moffatt faced it down and dealt with it, once and for all. He had probably been planning it for a very long time. Certainly, when in The Beast Below, the Doctor furiously contemplates the near-inevitability of putting the space whale out of its misery:

“Look, three options: One, I let the Star Whale continue, in unendurable agony for hundreds more years; Two, I kill everyone on this ship; Three, I murder a beautiful, innocent creature as painlessly as I can. And then, I… I find a new name, because I won’t be The Doctor anymore.”

In 2004, making the Doctor the killer of his own race and another one besides made a kind of sense. Weighting the fragile new reboot down with a raft of Gallifreyan backstory would have strangled it at birth. Plus, the budget back in the day didn’t stretch to the kind of alien planet production values that a post Star-Wars audience would have required.

It undoubtedly had vast dramatic potential too. To make the Doctor dark, conflicted, haunted by survivor guilt and morally ambivalent didn’t just chime with Russell T Davies’s dark view of saviour figures. It also happened to be extremely fashionable. Before the 2008 financial crash blew the cold winds of economic meltdown our way, we could afford the luxury of heroes getting lost inside their own heads.

But over the long haul it turned out to be unsustainable. Recognising this character as the Doctor was only possible if his past atrocities were kept away from critical examination. While it was true that no recreation of the Time War could equal our own imaginations, this wasn’t just about the mechanics of showing whole cities collapsing. The moral universe wouldn’t have survived it either.

Eccleston and Tennant, in their different ways, both took the conflict as far as it could go. It opened up the dramatic possibility of Rose reawakening the Doctor’s cauterised conscience, as far back as Dalek in 2005. It gave Tennant endless possibilities for mercurial melancholy, and increasingly daring peeks over the edge of the abyss. Episodes like The Waters of Mars made gripping viewing. Yet the Doctor we ended up with in The End of Time, facing death with a furious rant and a last line that basically boils down to a whine of entitlement, was more like a terminally ill pet waiting to be put out of its misery than a Time Lord saviour of the universe. The show would not have survived another season of RTD’s nihilism.

Moffatt took another tack. Rather than struggling to blend in as a human, Matt Smith played the Doctor as bonkers, unpredictable alien. There was a childishness in his performance that was both winning and unpleasant. He was openly needy, collapsing into anguish when parted from his beloved Ponds. He pushed all the bad stuff away into a place where he could almost, with the passage of years, claim he’d forgotten it had ever happened. That approach involved very different dramatic choices to those of the Tennant years. Tennant wallowed in angst and melancholia, playing the big dramatic moments for all they were worth,with RTD frequently building up to them at the expense of rational plotting. Moffatt, by contrast, never let messy, human emotions get in the way of a neatly mythic scenario. It earned him a lot of criticism, particularly when Amy and Rory recovered improbably rapidly from the abduction of their baby. But Moff was playing the longer game. The end of the Dark Doctor was coming, but the moment had been prepared for – way, way back.

Last night the moment finally came. It was time for the Doctor to come home. And while he was about it, he had to get his pathological past selves on board. It was a deliciously audacious plan, executed with both style and substance.

Doctor Who has never just been about the kiddies. This anniversary was for their mums and dads, maybe even further back – the people who had been kiddies themselves, believing in a man who was never cowardly or cruel, and who shared with Winston Churchill the simple British motto, “Never give up. Never, never give up.”

One of the many faces of nostalgia is the way that it brings us face to face with our past selves, and with possible future ones. The basic premise of Doctor Who offers an irresistible opportunity to flesh this out. A lot of the humour in The Day of The Doctor stems from that kind of encounter. When John Hurt, fresh from the battlefield and somewhat shocked by the apparent frivolousness of the childlike Eleventh Doctor and the romcom antics of the Tenth, exclaims, “Am I having a midlife crisis?”, we older viewers recognise the dramatic irony behind the situation because we’ve witnessed seven series of equivocation and denial as Nine, Ten and Eleven all struggled in their different ways to come to terms with horrors beyond their contemplation. And we see a little of ourselves in such dysfunctional coping strategies. It’s an element of the Doctor’s character that’s always been present. He may be very old now, but at some point in his past he rejected his home and family and ran away, and he’s been running ever since. You could call him the original Baby Boomer, at a pinch.

Moffatt gets a lot of stick for his reductive portrayal of woman. Some of his jokes at their expense go down like lead balloons in these post-feminist times. But in Day of the Doctor his target was male vanity, the kind of one-upmanship that makes three Time Lords move atoms and molecules around rather than check if a door is actually locked. The ladykiller, the buffoon and the nihilist contemplating the ultimate statement of alienation; all are different prototypes of male vanity.

Every cliche of simplistic heroism was gloriously deconstructed, generally by the ironically named Warrior Doctor who was still close enough to the action to recognise the veils that his future selves had drawn over it, legitimising it with the passage of time. Moffatt is not only extremely quotable in his own right; he also knows a few things about the unreliability of soundbites as a guide to reality. When Hurt intones, “Great men are forged in fire. It is the privilege of lesser men to light the flame. Whatever the cost,” we’re still punching the air when Jenna Coleman intervenes and stops the men doing the unconscionable. Who wants the tedium of a negotiated solution when they can have an inspirational poster moment? What appears to be banter can become a matter of mass life and death on the turn of a sixpence and it takes enormous confidence on the part of writer and actors alike to judge that kind of dramatic flip-flop moment.

What happens if the Doctor ceases to be the Doctor? Well, for a start, he gets a lot of other names – the Oncoming Storm, the man of fire, and rage, the Warrior, to name but a few. We’ve been seeing that particular timeline play itself out since 2005, but the Anniversary brings it slap bang up against its limitations. How can you celebrate a Doctor who isn’t the Doctor anymore?

Middle age tends to bring us back to where we started from. We realise how arrogant and certain of ourselves we sounded once. How empty many of our grand gestures were. We find ourselves contemplating reconciliation, forgiveness, perhaps a little humility. We look at ourselves in the mirror one day and see our parents staring back.

We develop a new respect for the quiet arts of negotiation and compromise. We realise that we don’t have the right to destroy people simply because they don’t make the cut according to our uncompromising moral standards. If we are the Doctor, we stop trying to pretend to be human and we see the part out ourselves that is forever Time Lord, whether we like it or not.

The Day of The Doctor begins in a school, just as DW originally did, and ends with a quiet, powerful and deeply moving conversation between a wise old man and an even older one who, by the strange mechanics of timey-wiminess, is finally about to grow up. The three Doctors we’ve just seen all recognise that, like it or not, a lot of the big red button stuff way back when was all about them. And that isn’t a good enough reason to deny innocent children their future, no matter how dark that future might turn out to be. It remains their legacy, and their possession.

The Doctor always hated bullies. The show has been a beacon of hope to bullied children for 50 years – it’s remarkable how many of the people involved with its creation and development began as outsiders and remember being persecuted at school. Since 2005 we have seen the Doctor resort to the tactics of his tormentors more often than we would have liked. But now, in this glorious episode, he’s finally put both Gallifrey and The Daleks on the naughty step until they figure out how they are going to get along together.

But if that flash in Peter Capaldi’s eyes is anything to go buy, they won’t be allowed to get off too lightly.

Meanwhile, welcome back, Doctor. We’ve missed you.


The Night of the Doctor – Women as angels and temptresses while the men sort it all out

SPOILERS! The Doctor Who people have really pulled off quite a coup….

At a stroke, and in less than eight minutes, they’ve reminded us just how brilliant Paul McGann was, slipped in a line making it canon that the Doctor could be female and affirming the canonical reality of all those lovely Big Finish companions.

Plus, it was fantastic telly. Please, please, can we have an Eighth Doctor spin-off? I think I want it even more than a TenToo/Rose series set in Pete’s World. I’m expecting sales of the Eighth Doctor Big Finish adventures to go through the roof.

So, kudos to Moffatt. Except…you can always find something to worry about. Here we have poor old Eight basically nagged into a regeneration by a bunch of those weird witchy Sisters of Karn  Quite amazing that nobody at the Guardian has mentioned this yet, considering the level of their DW coverage. Are they scared of the dreaded word, “Spoilers”?

I speak as someone who’s incredibly excited about The Day of the Doctor and will probably enjoy every minute of it. However, the pictures from last week’s Telegraph Magazine article, lovely though they are, do worry me a little. All multi-Doctor stories are an exercise in mutual joshing and competitive male bonding, by definition. But in this one the leading ladies seem particularly sidelined. Billie has been Bad Wolf-ed to the hilt – all glowing eyes and a costume that mysteriously references the Hurt (Warrior?) Doctor, as if she exists as a projection of his imagination. It doesn’t auger well for those who were hoping to catch up with the TenToo and Rose romance. I can’t see this Rose pushing a trolley of bananas around the supermarket. And Clara is, quite literally, on the edge. Just check out the body language here:

Image taken from the Telegraph Magazine
Image taken from the Telegraph Magazine

Telegraph 001

So what is the story about? Well, it’s all guesswork at the moment but my prediction is that we’ll somehow see the three Doctors rewrite history so that they press the Big Red Moment Button simultaneously, thereby saving each individual a lot of angst and survivor guilt. That could be very moving and beautifully handled. What’s my problem, then?

I’m not sure I even have a problem, except that a story that began with a woman tempting a man to reject his better nature does have form in Western culture (Paradise Lost, anyone?) – and I don’t like the idea that an apocalyptic war, (which tends to be a predominantly male activity) is being presented as a fantasy temptation scene complete with creepy crones and bubbling cauldrons, and its resolution looks likely to be seen as a trio of blokes getting together to put right what the ladies began. All very mythic, but not in a good way.

Okay, so you shouldn’t overthink Doctor Who. Relax and enjoy the ride. I’m sure I will. But the messages encoded in the show are fascinating to unravel. And I don’t always care for the places where they end up.

Having said that, I’d like to mitigate it by defending Moffatt. His personal prejudices and hang-ups may colour the way he tells his stories, but their overall thrust has a powerfully redemptive quality. That’s something that was lacking in the RTD’s tenure, though it seemed to me that Phil Collins and Julie Gardner used to rein in his excesses somewhat. Ultimately, as I’ve written elsewhere, the gloom of RTD’s vision became too much to bear. He gave us a Doctor who was traumatised, in denial and at war with himself. Various relationships – Donna, Jack and most notably Rose provided him with diversion and temporary relief, but once those supports were withdrawn he went rogue in a pretty big way.

It would be simplistic to claim that in Classic Who the Doctor lacked darkness and moral complexity. But what has been striking about the reboot in general, and Moffatt’s tenure in particular, has been the emphasis on how the Doctor’s moral flaws have fed his legendary status, with tragic consequences. We shouldn’t forget that Melody/River’s abduction was a direct result of the Warrior Doctor’s notoriety. Patchy, slapdash writing has sometimes thrown up inconsistencies in the Doctor’s character – cruelty, a predisposition to genocide even, that sit uneasily with his stated moral position. He’s even been accused of privileging the human race over others in what we might call species-ism. Undeniably, he detests himself much of the time. And “The Night of the Doctor” shows us where that comes from. Possibly it isn’t from the use of the Moment itself, but more generally a consequence of the Faustian bargain we saw the Eighth Doctor forced into making last night.

Towards the end of Tennant’s era, I rather hoped that we’d see a reset, a return to the Doctor’s original values, as if the rebooted series represented a pathology, a prolonged post-traumatic nightmare. It didn’t happen. As early as The Beast Below, Eleven revealed in a telling remark that if he had to kill the space whale, he wouldn’t deserve to be called the Doctor anymore. Moffatt often has an endgame in mind right from the start. All three of his series finales have brought up the contrast between the original moral character of the Doctor and the skewed legendary monster he has become. But while RTD excelled in setting up binaries with little hope of resolution, Moffatt prefers to work towards a more optimistic conclusion.

I’ve wondered for some time where Queen Elizabeth fits into the schematic of DOTD, other than as attractive heritage eye candy for an overseas audience. Her introduction in TEOT1 comes at a point when the Tenth Doctor’s personal morality is at an all-time low. He’s in denial and retreat from everything decent about himself. At the end of the last series, we left Eleven at a simlar point, though at least he had Clara’s benign presence. And it looks as though the Hurt Doctor was born loathing himself and has stayed at that point ever since.

I now think this might be intentional. Moffatt has hinted that the Special will begin with three interlinked adventures, one for each of the trinity of Doctors, and it’s my bet that we won’t see any of them in a very good light. The binary River described between rising so high and falling so far will begin at rock bottom. I hope that somehow, forced into co-operation, all three of them will work through their layers of bluster and denial and finally hit pay dirt. I don’t know where the women will come into this, and I don’t trust Moffatt to handle them awfully well, but I’m going to try and see past that, just as I tried to look beyond RTD’s nihilism, sentimentality and occasional toilet humour and celebrate what he is trying to achieve.

If I’m thinking along the right lines – and a lot of the clues have been there for a while – what we may end up with is the long-overdue healing of the physician. McGann reminded us poignantly of the goodness and nobility of the Doctor – the contrast between some of the excesses of his successors was telling. The term “Christ figure” is probably overused, but I was reminded of the Suffering Servent passage in the Book of Isaiah, “He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Surely his Biblical parting line wasn’t a complete coincidence? I think Moffatt is too clever for that. Maybe this wounded saviour will need a trinity to save him.

So, while I continue to groan inwardly at Moffatt’s misogyny, I’m excited and intrigued by his general direction of travel. He wouldn’t be the first British writer to create a great epic that was clueless about women, as readers of LOTR know. So let’s have a moan by all means, but also applaud his courage, his willingness to tackle big stories, and the things he gets right about their execution.

The Name of the Doctor – it’s all about him

This post contains spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor

Well. That was a ride and a half. And it was Moffatt at his very best. I got the feeling that he’s been wanting to write that finale ever since he got the DW job, and he’s found it really difficult to care all that much about anything that didn’t feed into it. Hence the uneven quality of the last series.

It was ambitious, it was scary, it had some great one-liners. Fan service galore, and a lovely intellectual conundrum at its heart – what time traveller hasn’t had to deal with the temptation to find out about his own death? The production values and direction were top-notch. It was, genuinely, the best finale since POTW, possibly even better. I have to hand it to Moffatt, that was one heck of a piece of TV.

And yet….

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what bothered me, what didn’t feel quite right. At first I thought it was the impossibility of Clara, of trying to stitch her into canon. I kept thinking of things like, why wasn’t she there in Waters of Mars? How could she bear to see the state he was in after Doomsday and offer him no comfort? (Ditto the Time War, of course, but more of that anon).

So, saving the Doctor. Well, that’s a nice way to spend your eternal life. Certainly makes the universe a safer place. What does saving the Doctor actually mean? Is it just something you do, or does it come from a real relationship, a place of love? Are you doing it for the world, the universe, yourself, the Doctor, or just because you are a piece in a puzzle that has to be slotted in for everything to work properly?

If it’s about a relationship, actually being there for him and making him a better person, then to single out Clara’s specialness seems like a kind of insult to all the other people, from Susan, through Jo, Sarah Jane, Tegan, Rose, Donna…who did exactly that. If it’s a force, something like Bad Wolf (and I think maybe this is the way Moffatt would have written that concept), then it’s rally hard to start putting it into the story at this stage when it’s never been there before.

All the time she’s been there, never intruding, just quietly in the background making sure the Doctor gets out of things okay. Not demanding anything in the way of emotional growth or character development, so he doesn’t go on making the same mistakes. Just there, not making any demands, even though to carry out this role she has to die over and over, in an unimaginable number of different ways.

Just a piece in the puzzle
Just a piece in the puzzle

We saw that happening to the Doctor, just the first few deaths, and it wasn’t pretty. There he was rolling around on the floor, in agony, and everybody was worried about him. But if we follow the storyline through to its logical conclusion, that’s nothing to what Clara will have to endure. Dying and being reborn, over and over, and over, and nobody even notices.

I hope somebody writes the fic where Clara meets Jack. I think they’d have a lot in common, and they’d probably have some hot sex as well.

So she’s the impossible girl, a kind of Metacrisis Donna on steroids, but no ancient Romans are making monuments to her, nobody is singing songs about her. OTOH, she seems to get to keep her memories, which isn’t necessarily desirable, considering some of the places she must have got to see.

Come to think of it, she could have an interesting talk with Martha Jones sometime.

Anyway, so much for the Impossible Ultimate Companion Clara, who seems to be better at symbolising the Companion role than actually embodying it. Moffatt is big on that.

Doctor Who - Series 7B
Elegant martydom – discretion becomes you, Professor Song

And then there’s River Song. Again, what a model of discretion she is, as she meekly begs the Doctor for some kind of acknowledgement of all she has been to him (or so we, and she, like to think). Again, functioning best when she isn’t even noticed, just whispering in the ear of the Doctor’s latest hottie, the two of them collaborating rather like the two wives of the ghastly man in Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns. You know what? I think I’d have liked River’s ghost to slap him across the face, push him into his timeline and say he got what was coming to him.  But of course she wouldn’t, because for all the badass and designer shoes, River knows that when push comes to shove a woman should stay in the background, never intrude on the Big Damn Hero’s hangups, take what she can get and save the world in some act of cosmic sacrifice.

That kind of thing has been going on in religions since time immemorial.

I cant imagine Jackie Tyler doing it, though. But she was a real person, not an icon.

It was a day or two before all this started to percolate through, and this brilliant piece of meta definitely helped  (thanks to green_maia on LJ for that link). In SM’s Doctor Who, it’s all about the Doctor. We look after him, and if we’re lucky, he’ll look after us.

Everybody is obsessed with the Doctor, and he’s obsessed with himself. Nobody else really gets a look in. Yes, he cried in this episode (bring it, Matt!) Contemplating his own death. Not Clara’s sacrifice, or River’s hollow martyrdom, or yet more of his friends lying dead and broken on the floor, but he cried because he had to go to Trenzalore. Which admittedly wasn’t a very nice place. But still.

It was an intimate kind of a finale, and I kind of liked that. But that meant that it didn’t focus on any Big Bad – frankly Richard E Grant was a sideshow compared to the Doctor’s demons. And now, like anyone who gets in too deep with an abusive, controlling man, Clara is lost inside his head, trying to figure out how to change him, and she’s seen something that he really, really, didn’t want her to see.

Okay, I’m only human, and the John Hurt character fascinates me. He fascinates me a lot more than Eleven (or is it Twelve now?) because etched on that face is unbearable suffering and the evidence that it’s actually affected him. Yes, he’s the shadow, the Bad Doctor, the Valeyard perhaps, the elephant in the room…but he’s real. Eleven is never real like that; he comes over as a narcissistic creep.

I really will have a problem seeing Matt as Good Doctor to this character’s Bad Doctor. The edges are pretty blurred these days. I’ll go on watching, but it’s John Hurt I’ll be watching it for.

…because every modern hero needs a shadow self.

The Future of Doctor Who (possible spoilers for S7 finale)

Predicting Doctor Who finales is a high-risk strategy. I remember sticking my neck out a long time ago and declaring that Lucy Saxon was Rose or Romana in disguise. But the promises that “The Name of the Doctor” will be a game-changer of epic proportions does invite such speculation.Image

Will Matt Smith be quitting? Who will the mysterious Clara turn out to be? Theories abound.

I don’t propose to get metatextual about this. Instead, my predictions are based on commercial realities. Doctor Who seems to be on the verge of making it big in America. Mainstream, not cult, big. That kind of thing attracts big money and all the associated strings that come attached.

In the ill-fated but spasmodically brilliant Torchwood series ‘Miracle Day‘ we’ve already had a test run for a DW- universe series with a production team spanning the Atlantic. Some things about it were terrible, but the production values and writing input definitely had potential. Julie Gardner and Jane Espanson spring to mind as two high-profile people who could conceivably be very interested in a Stateside relaunch of Doctor Who. I’d also be willing to bet a significant sum on John Barrowman being involved. Glee, love it or loathe it, has blasted a trail for gay-friendly primetime TV. It would explain many things, including his vagueness on his involvement in the Anniversary Special and the future of the show as a whole.

But if I was a network executive having that pitched to me, I’d have real concerns. Too quirky, too English, too much weight of backstory, poor production value history, format not ideal for the one-hour-minus-commercial-breaks slot, insufficient movie potential and stories that are way too complicated. Then there’s the problem of the target audience. Kids or adults? Fans or mainstream?

So are we talking reboot? Quite possibly yes. If you buy the 12-regenerations theory, the Doctor’s coming to the end of his natural life cycle anyway. He’s gone most places, done most things, and it’s hard to think of anywhere further to go with him. Except back to square one. In fact, it seems to me that the main evidence in favour of my theory is the increasingly tired, desperate and played-out character of the current over-hyped Series 7b.

My money is on that happening, somehow, on the Fields of Trenzalore. And in the fullness of time, there will be a relaunch, with a lot of American production talent on board. Quite possibly a US show-runner. In a perfect world, Neil Gaiman would be offered the job. We can dream.

It’s even conceivable, likely indeed, that the BBC input will be minimal. And there will be movie deals on the table, you can bet on that.

But what about the English fanbase? What about the Anniversary Special, and the fact that as recently as this week, a new Executive Producer has been appointed by the BBC? Will he be moving to LA?

I think the key to that dilemma lies in the carefully timed clip released this week from the S7 Finale:

“The path I carved through time and space, from Gallifrey to Trenzalore. My own personal time tunnel, leading back to every moment I ever lived. Every step, every tear, every kiss. Even the days I haven’t lived yet.”

In those words lies the answer. It’s the perfect set-up for the British market. Even by the standards of recent DW publicity, the public setpieces of the filming of the Anniversary Special have been extremely staged. It’s a promotion, a reassurance if you like. David Tennant does not have a good track record of success on American TV, but the British public still can’t get enough of him. Matt Smith doing a Boris-type hanging stunt in Trafalgar Square – how British can you get? Filming with Tennant, a Zygon and a Queen Elizabeth I lookalike in a castle. Not to mention the high-profile announcement of Tennant and Piper’s return.

The main action reboots and crosses the pond (parden the pun). The BBC continues to make occasional crowd-pleasing Specials for the domestic market. More committed fans, who are willing to put their money where their mouth is, could have access to further material online. Big Finish have been doing it with audio, on subscription, for years. Don’t tell me the BBC haven’t been looking at that model. Put it together with House of Cards on Netflix, and you have a winner.

The potential is huge. For a start, you could get Tennant back. Heck, you could even get Tennant and Billie Piper back – just nip down the Time Tunnel and turn first left. You could find ways, digitally or otherwise, to revisit other eras, too. CG animation is pretty close to the point where Baker or Hartnell could be recreated, and CGI monsters look a helluva lot better than people in lame plastic suits. Matt Smith could stick around if he feels so inclined. . The possibilities are endless, the purists are kept content and a lot of people in Cardiff get to keep their jobs.

It would be nice if decisions like this were made on the basis of artistic integrity, but in fact that is rarely the case. It usually boils down to money. The Doctor will survive, in some form. And often, whatever the hardcore fanbase claims, these things work out better than you think.

The Never-Ending Story – Why Doctor Who doesn’t satisfy

Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman in Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

What a frustrating show Doctor Who has become these days. Every week brings flashes of brilliance, but the overall effect is unsatisfying, more often than not. I think some of the problems, if not all, are structural. I’ve been reading a book by John Yorke, creator of Life On Mars and Shameless, among other hit shows – he’s now involved with the BBC Writers’ Academy and, interestingly, name-checks Stephen Moffatt, RTD and Julie Gardener in his acknowledgements.

After a first half devoted to the five act structure that is the DNA of most successful movies, Yorke turns his attention to TV writing and has some very interesting things to say. One of which is that there are fundamental differences between a TV serial and a TV series. In a series, the characters don’t change significantly between one episode and the next, but act according to a template. In its most common form, the detective drama, their function is to confront a crime, find the culprit, solve the mystery. In LoM, Sam doesn’t become all that much more intuitative, nor does Gene get more insightful, from one episode to the next. Their conflict is more or less replayed in each standalone episode.

Series are very popular. They give the viewer a sense of security; they know what to expect both from the characters and the plot structure. If actors and writers can live with the limitations of the form, they can go on more or less indefinitely. The problems begin when complexity of character and motivation is introduced. It’s a trade off; in the short term it makes the show a lot more compelling, but it is extremely difficult to sustain. Once the viewer invests  in characters, they are generally unwilling to wait indefinitely for  pay-off. They want the characters tolearn something, dammit – if it’s only to say something a bit more emotionally intelligent than, “And I suppose, Rose Tyler, since it’s my last chance to say it…”

In the format of the neverending series, otherwise known as soap opera, a different sleight of hand is usually at work. There is drama and conflict aplenty, but once the crisis has passed the characters affected, assuming they stick around, succumb to an unacknowledged amnesia, and seem totally immune to any emotional fallout. Yorke tells a lovely story about a character in Brookside:

There is an exchange between Sammy and her boyfriend which should perhaps be hung on every show-runner’s wall: ‘You remember, it was when I was in a wheelchair and you were an alcoholic.’

Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story, p 188

(proof copy)

A notorious example of this phenomenon in recent DW would be Amy’s complete failure to refer to the fact that her baby had been stolen by aliens; she and Rory just carried on travelling with the Doctor regardless. Stephen Moffatt is very much of the “reset to zero with every episode” school of thought. But even he has been unable to resist the lure of the series arc, though while RTD tended to enjoy the emotional pay-off inherent in long-range narrative, Moff prefers the intellectual aspect of keeping everyone guessing.

It seems to me that Moff is most comfortable with iconic characters who come with a ready-made suite of mannerisms and as little backstory as one can get away with. Sherlock ticks those boxes and, regardless of the efforts of legions of fanfic writers, it is possible to enjoy the episodes without paying any serious attention to the precise nature of his private life with John, or for that matter anyone else in the story. It’s the very familiarity of Sherlock’s sketched mannerisms, his quirks of intellect and dialogue, that make him so enjoyable to watch.

I think Moff would like to treat the Doctor similarly, but here he labours under a number of disadvantages. One, his immediate predecessor (and for that matter, Matt Smith’s), was master of the five-act tragedy, preferably by Shakespeare. Ten didn’t just have an inner life, he radiated it like a lethal force field. Two, with Sherlock we get far fewer, longer episodes, allowing us to immerse ourselves in a complicated narrative. Three, Sherlock doesn’t offer writers the irresistible temptation of the whole of time and space as a playground. In Sherlock, as Scotty would say, you cannae change the laws of physics. That kind of discipline often makes for good writing. Sherlock is not allowed to jump into a Rift to return to the scene of the crime. He has to make do with being a genius.

This problem of narrative arc, which Yorke examines at some length, continues to plague Doctor Who. It can’t decide whether it is working to a time span of 45 minutes, 13 episodes or, more recently, 50 years. It tries to succeed on all levels simultaneously, whilst delivering a coherent plot. In the last respect, if not the others, it usually fails.

Back in 1963 we knew very little about the Doctor. Now there’s only one thing we don’t know, and it looks like we might find even that out before long. Because the Doctor was an alien and an enigma, the companions were the point of identification, the way into the story. I would argue that in New Who the last companion that really succeeded in the narrative role s(he) was given was Rose Tyler, which is why she remains so divisive.

Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean I like Rose the best. It means that the person who created her was reasonably clear in his own mind what she was there to do, and it mattered. She was Everywoman, our way in, and she was the catalyst of change and healing in the Doctor’s broken soul. Series One of New Who brought Nine to the point where he recognised this in accepting her devotion to him, sealing the bargain with a kiss that brought about his regeneration. If the show had been cancelled after that, it would have stood as a satisfying conclusion.

Chrisopher Eccleston and Billie Piper in Parting of the Ways
Chrisopher Eccleston and Billie Piper in Parting of the Ways

Series Two was concerned with whether the Doctor could have a romantic relationship and keep his identity and role as saviour of the universe within it. Even though it ended in tragedy, it was arguably a full narrative arc, ending with him opening himself up to that experience and all the joy and anguish it involved.

Things began to go awry in Series Three, however. Complete in itself, it largely concerned the Doctor’s relationship with his past and the Master as his mirror and shadow self. There were two difficulties with this, however. One was that it marginalised Martha. The other was that, by making it so clear he hadn’t got over losing Rose, it became by default the midpoint of a multi-series arc concerning their thwarted romance. It negated the closure of the finale of Series Two, and poor Martha was disposable in both relationships. No wonder she cleared off.

Series Four took this a stage further by negating Donna’s entire narrative arc, to the horror and dismay of her many fans. It is very difficult to keep faith with a story that shows such a wilful disregard for the narrative of change and personal development. It put the Doctor and his feelings centre stage, but sidelined both Donna and Rose. This lack of closure persisted throughout the Specials despite Tennant’s and RTD’s heroic attempts to wrest some kind of coherence from the overall narrative.

Dark Mirror - John Simm as The Master and David Tennant as The Tenth Doctor in The End of Time
Dark Mirror – John Simm as The Master and David Tennant as The Tenth Doctor in The End of Time

It’s all about retconning with Doctor Who. Nobody sits down and works the story out, from start to finish. Instead, the franchise gets renewed and the past rewritten (sometimes literally) to accommodate the opportunities afforded by the extended narrative. Hence the current mess.

I could blame Moff, I could blame RTD. I could complain about Moff’s characters being more symbolism than substance, or RTD setting up an epic romance and then chickening out of the only dramatically coherent way for it to finish. But in fact, I think they’re both trying to do the impossible. No TV show, not even Doctor Who, can survive for 50 years without collapsing under the weight of its own mythos and inner contradictions.

The parts of DW that we see on telly are best viewed, IMHO, as the tips of a huge iceberg. Beneath the sea lie vast tracts of story explored by fandom and the numerous spin-offs, both official and otherwise. What goes on at Big Finish, or A Teaspoon and an Open Mind, is as much DW as anything we see on TV. Arguably more so, since it flourishes under fewer constraints.

So I rather hope that after the 50th Anniversary, they retire it for a while, until we all forget what a muddle it has got itself into. Because at the moment it seems to be degenerating into an orgy of fanservice, less and less comprehensible to the uninitiated. There are some immensely talented people working on the show, as there always have been. This isn’t about Matt Smith vs David Tennant, or RTD vs Moff. It’s about a show not knowing whether it is a series or a serial, and until they sort that one out, it will just continue devouring itself and become less and less fun to watch.

And that would be a pity.