Uncollected Thoughts: Doctor Who – Twice upon a Time


Since the high point of the 50th Anniversary special, and Matt Smith’s ending close behind it, I have gone a long way from Stephen Moffat’s Doctor Who. From the little I have seen of her in the role, I think I have done a disservice to myself over Pearl Mackie as Bill Potts, but how would it have been possible to enjoy a single, however delightful, character/actress when I found the writing so tiresome and ridiculous, and the direction it has meant for Peter Capaldi so meaningless and irrelevant?

This year’s Xmas Special marks Moffat and Capaldi’s departure. It’s always intriguing to watch a new Doctor emerge, to try to guess from the seconds of time they are allotted in such Specials what they might possibly be, to wonder if a lost enthusiasm is about to undergo its own regeneration.

Of course, the decision to break with tradition and go with a female Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, for the first time has attracted controversy and much head-full-of-shit predictions of doom from a large part of the Whovian audience. One particular YouTuber has poured out a stream of videos castigating the decision, predicting that the show will be killed off, this time forever, and generally being completely Cassandra about the whole thing.

I use the term ‘head-full-of-shit’ for this gentleman and those who flock to ‘like’ his pronouncements of doom because their reasoning is full-of-shit. The key moment came when he said that he had no intrinsic objections to there one day being a female Doctor, providing it was done for the right reasons: apparently, the selection of Jodie Whittaker is solely due to a stridently feminist agenda, crossed with fervent Social Justice Warrior preoccupations.

Do you recall that episode of Yes Minister in which Jim Hacker decides to spearhead the promotion of women within the Civil Service, in an attempt to bring parity forward? This led to a glorious scene where the Private Secretaries all meant to welcome the scheme, to heap praise on it as a worthy intention and one to which they would all lend their support, before going on to explain why a female Private Secretary would be completely unsuitable for their particular Department.

Yeah, full-of-shit, like I said.

In condemning this bozo-esque response, I’m not maligning those with genuine, and reasoned concerns about the idea, or about what we already know of how it’s to be executed, and in particular those who, for some strange reason, plan to actually watch the new series before making up their minds. Weird bunch, aren’t we?

In the end, and of course it literally was the end, Capaldi regenerates, the camera does everything it can to actually prevent us seeing anything of the Thirteenth Doctor, except that her left and right eyeballs are definitely surrounded by women’s eyelashes, then there’s one facial shot, two words (“Oh, brilliant!”) and the usual cheap melodramatic chaos. The Tardis goes haywire (why do they always regenerate inside the Tradis when they know it always wrecks the bloody place?), turns on its side, opens the door and, after a bit of desperate clinging to run out the last of those measly seconds Moffat left to Chibnall, she falls out. Into the raw timestream. And the Tardis vanishes.

Oh, of course I’ll watch the first episode of the next series. But it’s hardly encouraging.

After that long digression, what of the story? What of the meeting of Two Doctors, of Twelfth and First (a lovely performance by David Bradley, echoing my distant recollections of William Hartnell to gentle perfection), both determined to resist Regeneration and die?

Twelve’s got the better excuse. He’s been doing this for so long, he has seen so many people come and go, and that goes for versions of himself too, he’s tired beyond endurance of saving a Universe that never gets better for it, that only wants saving all the more for his doing so. Is he never allowed to seek rest?

One isĀ  the anomaly. He’s the hard-headed, practical Doctor, the rebel who left Gallifrey to learn why Good, with everything it’s got stacked against it, always beats Evil. He wants to claim the right to live and die as himself. If he does so, all that everyone from Troughton to Capaldi will cease to exist. But One doesn’t yet know that he is why Good wins every time (little bit megalomaniacal there, Moffat, but we’ll let you have that one).

The story’s about One learning to accept his future, which comes as a lesson learned from how Twelve resolves the practical problem before them, a case of Frozen Time for which their joint decision to commit Time Lord suicide at the South Pole is responsible. You can read that as a bit of reflexive ego from Moffat, propounding NewWho’s superiority over Old… sorry, ClassicWho, teaching it a lesson: I certainly didn’t miss that implication.

How it’s worked is this: a First world War British Captain facing a scared German Soldier in No Man’s Land, both wounded, both with a gun pointed at the other, neither able to speak the other’s language, is about to die. With the stiffest of upper lips, he is prepared for it, accepts it. Instead, he winds up at the south Pole, with the two Doctors, kidnapped by a barenakedlady made out of CGI glass.

To save confusion, this is not an enemy. This is Testimony, an organisation created in the 5 Billionth Century, that reaches through time to people at the moment of their death, extracts and copies their memories and returns them to that moment, so as not to upset the flow of history. In short, they are granting immortality, to everyone, who’s names, faces, bodies, personalities can be recreated on these women of glass. The dead, all of them, can live again. Including Bill Potts.

Much of the hour is taken up with working through this plot, to find out who Testimony are and learn they’re not baddies. In the end, Twelve and One have to take the Captain back, to the crater, to the frightened German, to his death. by then, hope of a miracle has undermined his stoicism.

The Captain is played by Mark Gatiss. In a way, he’s a stereotype, almost but not a caricature. Gatiss plays him note-perfect, in every quaver and semi-quaver. he may be a type but he’s a human type, quiet, determined, incredibly brave. He breaks your heart just standing there, so clearly baffled by what was happened to him, yet accepting of his fate. He goes without a name until the moment he has to return to his position in the crater, and then that name is both so obvious and yet so heart-achingly perfect: Captain Lethbridge-Stewart.

But Twelve has a trick, one impossible trick.Time can be cheated, but only because of the day this is, the one impossible day in all the history of War. He moves the scene forwards in time, two hours. From the German trenches, the sound of singing, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht. From the British trenches, Silent Night, Holy Night. It’s the Christmas Day Armistice, the troops spreading out into No Man’s Land, shaking hands, sharing food and drink, booting a football around. And two wounded men in a crater receive first aid, and don’t shoot each other.

Of curse, it’s all a Moffat cheat, it’s the complete upset of everything Testimony do, it’s changed time, and I can see that even as I’m swept up into the great big swirl of emotion, and I give way to the sentiment being evoked, and to the stoic, quiet man who accepted his duty, who trusted his wife to carry on, whose love for his sons was evident even as he was accepting that his removal from them was the natural way of things, who gets to go home after all. Goodwill and tidings of joy to all Lethbridge-Stewarts, whenever you are.

He’s pulled it off, or enough of it for me to give Moffat credit for a beautifully judged finale, only he’s Stephen Moffat and he can’t help himself, he has to go and blow it completely with some twattishly stupid, overwrought, overdrawn-out writing that Capaldi has no alternative but to go Over The Top with, as he rants around the Tardis shouting instructions to the next Doctor as to what he’s got to be, like the next Doctor doesn’t already know after twelve times round the houses, sounding for all the world like Stephen Moffat trying to stamp an indelible stamp all over Doctor Who and tie Chris Chibnall into a strait-jacket.

Then Chibnall gets his, what was it, ninety seconds? and chucks poor Jodie out of the door still wearing Capaldi’s clobber (her own is nothing to write home about either).

So, behind the running around, the outrageous appeals to sentiment (I so did not need Jenna Coleman popping up to play Clara-the-Calamity, even for sixty seconds) there was a deeply affecting story that deeply affected me. Only it wasn’t the Doctor’s struggle with himself to accept Regeneration, which was a hideous piece of ghastly hamming, it was Mark Gatiss and Captain Lethbridge-Stewart, and the understanding that no matter how alien they seem to us now, such men were real, and what they thought and felt was real, no matter how much they had to mask it.

And that made this hour worthwhile to me.

Uncollected Thoughts: Dr Who series 8 finale – part 1


The Impossible (to believe in) Girl

It began so well.

I like Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. I liked the opening episode of the series. But I’ve liked each succeeding episode of this series a little less, each week, to the point where, even though I can objectively say that the first half of this year’s finale was excellent, I felt little or nothing during it. No surprise at the revelation that the Cybermen were back, given that that had leaked so much that someone as determined as I am to avoid spoilers was aware of it. Not even surprised that Missy is the Master, picking up on the tease flung out by Neil Gaiman in series 6 about how Timelords can change gender.

Nor moved by the central motivating issue that set this story into motion: Danny’s dead. Dead, knocked down and killed by a car whilst crossing the road, because he was concentrating on what Clara had just told him: that she loved him, and she really meant it.

That raised a hurdle that the show couldn’t clear. No, not a hurdle, but a barrier. Because Clara put it in absolute terms, terms of such devotion and commitment as we all dream of hearing being spoken to us and I didn’t believe a word of it. In fact I didn’t believe a syllable of it. They were words written by someone who has felt that true, unbelievable emotion but I have not seen a single thing this series that but an atom of belief into me that Clara felt like that towards the man she has consistently cheated and lied to, with whom she has shared no even plastic romantic moment, has never confided anything with openness and honesty.

Shot through as many feet as are needed to cripple a centipede, the episode’s driving force didn’t stand an earthly.

In fact, it is Clara and how she has behaved throughout this series that has slowly drained away my enthusiasm. Each week, she has been consistently and increasingly stupid, self-willed, self-important and blazingly ignorant of what the fuck she has gotten herself mixed up with now, until the point when the Doctor takes over and shows up how idiotic she’s been behaving and she doesn’t learn a single thing. I’ve slagged off Moffat before for an underlying misoginy in both Sherlock and Doctor Who at different times, but this has been ridiculous.

And all the while people have been leaping around with joy at these stories and praising Jenna Coleman to high heaven, and I’ve been wondering what for. After all, she had decided that she had found her One, the last man, person, thing, she would ever say ‘I love you’ to, but she had to very specificly tell him this on the phone and not in person, for no easily discernible reason than that it was a supposedly clever way to get him killed.

After that, I was on no sympathy with anything in the episode, which was a shame because, a few seriously unwise stabs at jokes by Chris Addison aside, it was probably excellent, written and played well by all. That final scene, where Danny first tries to convince Clara that he is the real Danny, then tries to keep her from coming after him, into death herself, reached a stunningly good conclusion when Clara exploded and threatened to cut off the connection if he told her he loved her one more time, and Danny, after a pause that felt like a lifetime, brokenly whispered it in a voice, and with a deliberation that convinced even me that he did, truly, feel that deeply for her. But I was a long way from being able to feel that scene as it deserved: had I not been so removed conviction, I am certain there would have been tears.

Next week, the series is all over, and so is Jenna Coleman. I shall miss her chirpy face and the pageboy bob, and the opaque tights when she’s wearing the short skirts, but to be honest, I’ve had enough of her. Moffat’s Doctor has been the only one of the New Who I’ve enjoyed, but in this series we’ve gone back full circle to what I didn’t like about the first series of the revival. I’d rather have Jenna Coleman than Billie Piper any day, but I do not want to watch a Doctor Who that’s all about the bloody assistant and her journey.

I think it’s time for Moffat to move on. I’d like to see another mind at work. If nothing else, it would give me a decent excuse to drop out because my enthusiasm is dying on its feet.

An Uncollected Thought: Doctor Who


This isn’t a review, a first impressions dashed out in wonder of any sort. The second episode of the new series was different in so many respects to the Doctor Who I’ve enjoyed during Stevan Moffat’s tenure to date. It couldn’t have been done with Matt Smith, couldn’t have been done with youth and flappiness. It demanded Capaldi, austerity and maturity.

It’s been gone a long time, but it’s back, and suddenly this feels like a completely different series. All because of one line. When ‘Rusty’, the might-have-been-good Dalek, who became the first Dalek to see the Universe through the Doctor’s eyes, turned to him and said:

“You are a good Dalek.”

The world has gotten a little colder tonight.

Uncollected Thoughts: The Twelfth Doctor


I’ve been here before – five years ago, was it? A new Doctor, Matt Smith, the Eleventh. What would he be like? Would the show be better under Stephen Moffat than the turgid treacliness of the last half hour of David Tennant under Russell T. Davies?

Funnily enough, those weren’t the questions in my head. The only question I had was: did Karen Gillan look as good onscreen as her photos suggested? To which the answer was a decided yes, plus I loved the accent, and that Matt Smith seemed interesting in his own right.

After not having watched the series regularly since the days of Baker (C), I found myself back with Doctor Who. And, with a few reservations here and there, usually in the places where everybody else was cheering, I’ve enjoyed the ride, none more so than in that final sequence of stories: The Name of the Doctor,The Day of the Doctor, The Time of the Doctor.

So here we are, with another new Doctor to assess: Peter Capaldi, the Twelfth Doctor, the oldest Doctor, a reversal of New Who policy, an experiment in changing more than just the face of the Doctor. And unlike five years ago, I was watching the start of this new series for the Doctor himself, and not his companion. Though they are both Scots, so I suppose the difference isn’t that great.

And?

Well, I could start by saying that they had me at the moment the Dinosaur wading down the Thames hacked, and coughed up the Tardis. Then Strax knocks on the door, and the Doctor pops his head out and says, “Shush!” and shuts the door again (and when are we going to get the Madame Vastri, Jenny and Strax soin-off, Moffat? Come on, we will not be patient forever). And they did. I was on the hook and ready to be wound in.

But by the end of this extended introductory episode, things were different. By then I was no longer roaring with laughter, and fully into the swing of the old madness once more. Because, as the episode deftly progressed, that was the madness of Matt Smith, of Number Eleven. There’s always a perod of unsettlement with Re-generations, as the Doctor’s new form shapes his mind in the new direction it will take, with the old self acting as a conduit. Capaldi made an excellent job of hosting the spirit of Smith, especially in some of the early boasts he was making, ruffling the startled Clara’s feathers.

And this section of the programme confronted explicitly some of the questions about Capaldi’s appointment, the abrupt (and chancey) reversion to the Doctor as an adult, almost grandfatherly figure. From Clara’s doubts, her instinctive shying away from the stranger, her unconcealed distaste for the lined face and the grey hair, her conviction that she didn’t know the Doctor any more, to Twelve’s own confusions about himself and how he looks.

Adroitly, given that Capaldi has already twice appeared in the series with other Doctors, this was dealt with by Twelve trying to recollect where he’d seen his face before, and asking himself the rhetorical question about why he’d chosen this one? Interesting word, ‘chosen’. But did not the Curator himself all but state outright that he had chosen to return to a favourite face, or were our nostalgic tears brimming too much at that moment? I’d like to see that investigated a little deeper, Mr Moffat, the extent to which a Re-generating Doctor can choose his new incarnation.

But once he began to concentrate, Capaldi’s Doctor began to take on gravitas. The Smithian flipness dropped away, the confusion realigned itself, and the new Doctor, a more serious, and darker version, began to take shape. With age, Capaldi brings gravitas back to the role. What’s more, he’s set a theme for this series: he’s lived for over 2,000 years, during which time he’s made mistakes: it’s time to go and sort them out.

I’ve not really discussed the plot, as it wasn’t really what mattered in this episode. It was just a vehicle for Twelve to emerge, just as the Victorian setting was a welcome excuse to have the Paternoster Gang around (spin-off! spin-off! spin-off!) as well as a basis for Capaldi’s ‘costume’ as Twelve. Though it can’t be completely ignored: the Doctor persuades the big bad villain, the Half-Faced Man to accept death, though we are left ignorant of the final detail of jump or push. But it leads to a beautiful moment at the end, when the Half-Faced Man finds himself taking tea in a delightful garden, with a familiar dark-haired woman, talking of her ‘boyfriend’: if I say she’s an uncredited Suranne Jones, would you recognise her?

Boyfriend. That’s a loaded word now. Clara, 27 years old and looking pretty darned pretty in her twenty-first century cardigan/blouse/short skirt/opaque tights ensemble, is very unsure about continuing her journey without Eleven’s youthful buoyancy. Twelve solemnly tells her, he’s not her boyfriend (but we know whose he is, don’t we?). And then, in an unheralded cameo, we get Matt Smith on the line, moments before Re-generating, basically pleading the Impossible Girl to stay with Twelve and help him.

It’s a bit weepy and manipulative, and it’s the one thing in the whole episode that I found to be a bit dodgy, and a bit of a nervous let-down: did we really need a bit of Eleven just to buttress things? Are we that nervous about the new direction?

On the whole, I think I’m going to enjoy this new incarnation, and I’m certain the series needs to row back a bit on the daffiness of Smith. In the end, though, Deep Breath was a transition episode and we haven’t seen all that much yet of what it’s transitioning into. It took me three weeks befoe concluding that I really did not like the Davies/Eccleston Doctor. We’re on the brink here, but I think the balance will tip the right way.