October 5, 2012 All That We’re Left With Is ‘The How’.
By Ricky Young.
The Ponds throw themselves off a building, and appear alive in a familiar graveyard. For some reason.
Amy Pond: “Why always here?”
The Doctor: “Does it matter?”
Alright, I’m through with playing nice.
Here at Europe’s Best Website, our journey talking about Doctor Who began at a fortuitous moment – the Russell T. Davies era had wheezed its last and every fanboi’s wish had somehow come true; Steven Flippin’ Moffat had taken over as Executive Producer! In a genre far more inured to disappointment and mediocrity, here was an aligning of planets that just didn’t seem real – the writer of some of NuWho’s best-regarded moments being handed the reins of the BBC’s flagship show, to bend to his considerable will.
We tracked the first two of Moffat’s series; celebrated the highs, tutted at the lows, and ended last year with the hope that, having got a few issues with self-importance out of his system, the newly low-key Doctor could return to being quirky and fun and serious and clever and scary and exciting i.e why we still love it, 49 years after it began.
If you happened to see Moffat being presented with a Special Achievement Award at this year’s BAFTA’s (where it was abundantly clear that if he were in fact made out of delicious chocolate, the entire audience was going home hungry), or touched upon his now-infamous ‘The Tweeter’ presence (Sample tweet: “Thanks for saying nice things about me! If you said a bad thing about me, I’m calling the police!”), you could be forgiven for pondering quite how much of his not-inconsiderable talent is in thrall to his not-inconsiderable ego.
Three months after the announcement of Moffat taking over Doctor Who, it was announced that he would also be acting as Co-Executive Producer and sometime writer on the BBC’s new version of Sherlock, in which the classic Victorian detective would be reincarnated for our times as a boring, bug-eyed bell-end. Cleverly, each broadcast of the second series seemed to hit the airwaves with a new and rediffusable form of Holmes’ beloved cocaine, such was the rapture that greeted the three episodes of arch, incoherent filler – indeed, discussing on the internet how Sherlock survived his final plunge became one of this year’s most short-lived sensations, up there with ‘caring about sport’, and that Korean man who thinks he’s a horse.
Perhaps it’s unfair to suggest that Moffat could be spreading himself too thin – I do not, after all, know the man and the demands of his work-life in the slightest – but since the first five episodes of Series 7 represent the weakest gruel since the show came back in 2005, am I mad to ask for fewer damn ‘tease-words’ about next year’s Sherlock, and more of the juice that made Series 5 such a pleasure?
So, let the half-hearted, whey-faced griping begin!
Part of the problem – in fact, a lot of the problem – with Moffat’s Who is that it’s not enough just to say it’s good. Every episode has to be billed as gee-whiz wham-bang this-is-TOTES-AMAZEBALLS-you-cannot-miss-it!!!, and that gets tiring after a while. ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ was, of course, promoted as such, and thus was the first of this year’s episodes to give you that now-familiar sinking-feeling in your chest ten minutes in, when the exciting-sounding premise was revealed to be just that – an exciting-sounding premise, and not much more.
(It also suffered from that peculiar late-NuWho quirk, namely ‘make a big deal in the pre-publicity about something that will make those already over-invested in the show hug themselves with glee, but will in actual fact have no impact on the story itself whatsoever’. Here it was the inclusion of every single Dalek ever shown onscreen – including one that had been found living in Russell T. Davies’ kidneys – to little noticeable effect).
So it turns out that the Daleks – the most feared, most insane creatures in the universe – have what looks like a well-run and well-attended parliament, and one made up of scaredy-cats at that. They’ve got a planet full of malfunctioning tin loons, and need the Doctor to sort it out for them, preferably terminally. We also catch up with the Ponds, wanted on voyage for some reason, and we remember that the whole point of these five episodes is that their time as companions is up (something we’ve been aware of since the odd ‘by mutual decision’ announcement at the start of the year, and relentlessly hammered home in every mention of the show since) so it’s now impossible to feel that they’re in any peril, or root for them in any way.
We’re also introduced to the new companion (‘or’, he said with heavy heart, ‘are we?’) whom while cute and spunky is also afflicted with that most Whedon-esque of traits: super-competence, so it’s fairly hard for us mis-shapen lumps out in TV-land to get on fully on-board with her, in this instance at least.
Despite reading the synopsis again on Wiki, the only bit of the entire show’s plot that sticks is ‘the new companion lady zaps all knowledge of the Doctor from the Daleks’ databases’, and if you think that’s a bit ‘will this do?’ for Europe’s Best Website, then get a load of the next two eps and see what I have to work with.
Chris Chibnall’s ‘Dinosaurs On A Spaceship’ was the one described as ‘defiantly for kids’. Well, I happen to operate a team of 9-year-old gorblimely pick-pockets and cut-purses, and they all told me it was shit. Now get back to work, tykes!
Slightly harsh there – after criticism last season of ongoing storylines being too difficult or too convoluted to follow, the decision was made to fashion 45-minute ‘epics’ which generally stood alone. In practice, this tended to leave some episodes packed tight with underdeveloped ideas, and here was a case in point, especially as the light-hearted dino-romp on a Silurian cargo-ship turned suddenly very dark with the inclusion of manky old Walder Frey out of Game of Thrones being very evil indeed, and the decision to let the Doctor walk off while he takes a missile to the face proving very controversial amongst internet dicks. That the hour of shouting and banging failed to trouble the memory in the slightest was less divisive.
Next was Toby Whithouse’s ‘A Town Called Mercy’, set in the Old West, which was neither joyful enough to embrace the cowboy clichés whole-heartedly, or clever enough to do something new with them. We were left with what looked like a decent morality tale, at least for teatime on a Saturday, but then the main protagonist killed himself and at that point any interest in the show got up off the sofa and started looking for something sweet. I’m sure there was a bag of Revels on the sideboard – who’s taken them?
Oddly for a story staring down the barrel of the POND-POCALYPSE, this could have functioned without companions – Amy and Rory had nothing to do in this episode, and led to pondering (oh dear) about quite when they stopped being any fun at all. Sure, Karen Gillan remained as photogenic as ever, even if she was never a match for the dialogue, but by this point most of the nation was surely sick of Rory, hunching all around the place, never quite keeping up and saying ‘uh…duh!’ at everything. Maybe it was when Amy started slapping Rory for disagreeing with her, as if that’s an okay thing to do? Slapping’s never fun.
Chibnall’s ‘The Power Of Three’ was something of a flashback to the Davies era, with an earth-bound family setting, a mysterious alien invasion of sorts, and lots of cutaways to famous telly people in on the joke – I for one cannot get enough of Professor Brian Cox and his breathless, smooth-faced enthusiasm.
The first half-hour kept up a jaunty pace and tone akin to the recent genuinely-pleasurable James Corden eps, and nearly convinced us that the Ponds actually exist as a couple, along with the slightly harder conceit that they’re actually human. (Mark Williams as Rory’s dad helped a lot with that – what with Wilf from Series 4, maybe it’s time for the Doctor to travel with a middle-aged man, instead of larking about with popsies all the time? I know for a fact that Peter Purves could do with the work, for example). Strange boxes appeared, hung around long enough for us monkeys to start using them as paper-weights, but it turned out they were spying on us all along for Steven Berkoff, who wanted to kill us all; again, For Some Reason. The curse of show-length came into play here, with the last ten minutes being a jabbered and incomprehensible rush to the end where the Doctor fixes everything, including two billion people suffering from irreversible brain-death. Good trick if you can etc. Oh, and did ‘the power of three’ stuff actually mean anything, or was it a botched attempt at boosting the Ponds status before they’re booted off the show?
So, ‘The Angels Take Manhattan’, then. The Ponds’ swan-song. “You will cry!” commanded Steven Moffat. “You will be heartbroken!” “You will run out of tears, and then you will need to piss yourself, and collect that piss, and then run it down your face as if it were tears BECAUSE YOU WILL HAVE NO MORE TEARS!”
In the end, I didn’t care. I didn’t cry, and my heart remained intact. I did need to piss quite a lot, because vast swathes of the story had me reaching for the booze in frustration, but I am and intend upon remaining MostlyFilm’s most confident toilet-user.
Let’s just get one thing straight – Moffat was the choice of many as show-runner because ‘he’s a plot-man.’ As a veteran farceur (Coupling, Joking Apart, Chalk et al), he’s proved something of an expert – yes, I said it – in crafting tight, clockwork-like plot machinations with satisfying endings, and when he applied this template to Who, we got ‘Blink’, and the sci-fi world loved it.
The thing is, the Davies era created real, believable characters with relatable emotions and convincing inner lives which were only then let loose on a series of powerful (if ultimately over-reaching) sci-fi plots.
Moffat, on the other hand, appears to jump with joy when he comes up with a brilliant plot idea, instructs the publicity department to get to work based on his synopsis, before all the mucky business of mapping characters onto it forces the workings and in many instances breaks them. And then he hopes we don’t notice, and then gets angry when we do. His idea was brilliant, do you see? Why don’t you focus on that, web-geeks, and stop pointing out that the plot-man’s stories are just riddled with holes?
See, for example, the great failure of the Weeping Angels. In the context of the tight-as-a-spring ‘Blink’, they’re perfect – designed from the ground up to fit into the narrow confines of the plot, with the crazily specific set of rules that they follow serving the story exactly as is needed.
But they also look cool, have instant brand recognition and are the nearest the revived show have come to a signature monster, so never mind that the next time they appeared they were just moderately spooky neck-breaking thugs, with all their previous rules changed or abandoned, eh? And why not bring them back for the Ponds’ last hurrah, then? Does it matter that not a thing about their presence in this story will make any sense at all, from their motivations, how they operate or – OOH A BIG STATUE OF LIBERTY ANGEL WOULD LOOK GRATE EVEN THOUGH IT’S NOT STONE OR ANYTHING – Trebles all round!
It’s just – they’re not that much of a threat. Yes, you don’t really want to be sent eighty years into the past to live out your life stuck there, especially if you’ve already bought your EuroMillions for Friday, but considering the body-count on this show and the manner in which most of them have stacked up, it’s not so bad. Especially if you end up with your partner, one to which you’ve just declared your love in the possibly-dubious form of jumping off a building together (ain’t no suicide-pact like a double suicide-pact, right kids?). And especially if your best mate is a lord of time, with a time machine and few qualms about messing around with – yes – time.
What’s that? He can’t rescue you? Why not? Because he just said he couldn’t, for a reason that can’t be suitably explained, given the person he is? In fact, for a reason that in the cold light of day would appear to have a whole bunch of caveats, unless they’ve been explained away too, which doesn’t seem to be the case? Actually, does it look more and more like ‘he just doesn’t want to rescue you’? It does?
Quite why the viewer is then meant to find a loudly-heralded, fairly arbitrary non-death scene of two characters whose lead-weight presence has sucked the life out of the show for weeks as ‘heartbreaking’, I’m not quite sure. Stop telling us how to feel, Moffat. *Make* us feel something.
Add to this the self-conscious but oddly non-atmospheric use of the New York locations, another emetic appearance from the inevitable Frizzy Führer and a strange and garbled lecture on expectations and spoilers that would be fine if it wasn’t coming from a writer who desperately needs to SHUT THE FUCK UP about expectations and spoilers himself?
If the Who, the What, the Why, the Where and the When are fair game ahead of time, and all that we’re left with is the How, then why should anyone feel the remotest connection with what finally trickles out on-screen? And what if that’s essentially back-of-a-fag-packet stuff?
Even the previously unimpeachable Matt Smith seemed tired and distracted and unwilling (or unable) to commit to the more emotional moments this year, few and far between as they were. This worries me the most.
If I’m being massively unfair on this ultra-low-wattage half-season, and every mystifying action and outré line of dialogue has a payoff down the line, then I’ll be man enough to say I’m sorry. If ahead of the show’s 50th year, there’s a deliberate effort to provide lots of evidence that the Doctor doesn’t know who he is anymore, before a triumphant return to sense and purpose, then I’ll jump with joy. But at the moment, Doctor Who can’t help but seem adrift and confused. Italics or no italics.
Ricky can be found on ‘The Tweeter’, for better or worse. Mewling Darvill-fanatics not invited.