‘I’d Hate to End the Universe by Mistake’

by Ricky Young

'Oh, Christ I’ve left the iron on.'

On October 29th, 1969, computers at Stanford and UCLA connected for the very first time, on a system known as Arpanet. The initial message sent across this precursor of the World Wide Web was ‘Well, the ending of The War Games was a typical Malcolm Hulke clusterfuck, wasn’t it?’

Not really. Bare-faced lies like the one above only serve to highlight the difficulty in being critical about Doctor Who on the internet. There’s no shortage of keyboard warriors rushing to their computers as the credits roll, ready to pour vats of scorn upon the latest story, often in tones so hysterical only dogs can hear them. Dedicated blogs and sites exist solely to examine every possible facet of the programme, and take it apart mercilessly.

Telly + fans + internet = madness; nothing new there, but Who fandom is deeper and richer and older than most. It survived the dark days of cancellation, kept the flame alight when no-one else cared, then had to sit and watch and seethe as the Doctor became public property once more.

No wonder current show-runner Steven Moffat gets exasperated, to the extent that he publically berates ‘net geeks’ who traduce his work (even if he does sometimes miss the point of some articles entirely). But before we continue, please note that this author loves Doctor Who unreservedly. Especially when Doctor Who is thrilling, and fun, and whimsical, and scary, and funny, and audacious, and genuine, all of which Season Five was, to the most satisfying degree since the show returned in 2005. Loving something unreservedly, of course, means not acting blind when it starts showing signs of distress.

(There are spoilers after the jump for the recently-broadcast season)

The Doctor’s only real defeat was in the 1980s, when the accumulated weight of continuity and mythology left the show unwieldy and – its following having moved slowly and inexorably from viewer to fan – self-harming, as the production became geared towards pleasing those who would speak up for it. BBC1 Controller Michael Grade gave it a much-needed slap at the time, only for it to respond by turning petulant and defensive. Then it was put out of its misery, and no real tears were shed.

So if the main impression taken from first half of Season Six is of one long exercise in deliberately teasing and indulging the massive and vocal constituency just itching to examine every detail for meaning and significance  – as if that’s the primary goal, in and of itself – to lifeless and confusing and po-faced and dull results, it could be considered difficult to understand, let alone forgive.

It isn’t as if the mistakes of the 80s aren’t legend; this particular television programme’s history is perhaps the most intimately documented of all time. So what’s going on?

There’s no malice to this piece, there’s no ‘IT SHOULD BE LIKE IT IS IN MY HEAD!’; I’m not one of those fans who would rather have no Who than any Who if it can’t make them happy – if the second half of the run makes me eat my words I couldn’t be more pleased. But five episodes out of the last seven weren’t much in the way of fun at all.

'Everyone? This doesn't look as if it's going to be much in the way of fun at all'

Season Six rocketed out of the gate into the Utah sunshine, filled with an energy and confidence earned from Season Five’s ground-up and mostly successful reboot. The Doctor in a stetson! Amy and Rory! Wide shots filled with light and thrills! Richard Nixon! Mystery! Intrigue! Er, the death of the title character! Say what now?

“The Impossible Astronaut” set the tone for the series i.e. ‘the Doctor is up to his eyeballs in something, we’re not going to let you know what it is without you sticking with us for a unspecified length of time, and there are clues or perhaps red herrings everywhere. It’ll be worth it, but you’ll have to trust us, okay?’.

Unlike the casual viewer, fandom doesn’t have to be asked this.

It’s an approach personified by the character of Professor River Song. Less a person, more of an extended gratification-obscurer, she was introduced as someone important to the Doctor, whose interactions appear – from our point of view – to be happening in reverse. As an exercise in plotting, there’s no doubt it’s technically impressive. As a character, she arrives, makes a fuss of her own significance while pointing out she’s not going to tell you anything about it (‘Spoilers!’) then leaves, usually after some more hinting of revelations to come. Alex Kingston does her best, but even she must be tired of all the smugness.

The opening two-parter, despite being filled with nice things – a spirited Nixon, new semi-companion Canton Delaware, classy production design and fun banter between the leads – didn’t hang together as stand-alone adventure (Is that significant? Is *that* significant? Is that significant? Damn, it’s finished.) or, more worryingly, as a herald of things to come; at the end of “Day Of The Moon”, immediately after the brutal and uncharacteristic conclusion, the sudden left-turn into an inconsequential pirate story was acknowledged as being annoying in a line of dialogue. Wait, you’re fucking with us now?

“The Curse of the Black Spot” received a muted reaction due to being stuffed with ideas, not all of which paid off, and having little to do with the ongoing mystery. As this season’s histo-romp, it filled the gap without exciting or offending.

Things changed up a notch with the fourth episode, Neil Gaiman’s “The Doctor’s Wife”. A love-letter to one of the show’s core concepts, it also pondered the important question many teenage boys have wrestled with over the years – namely, what if your awesome space-ship and time-machine was also a hot girl? Cheeky and knowing, fan-service without being fan-wank and refreshingly free of forced drama, Idris’ simple, sighed “Hello” remains the most genuine, most earned moment of emotion in the series so far.

Fittingly, here we’ll stop for a bit of Matt Smith appreciation. His performance as the Doctor polarises opinion – you won’t hear many people say “oh, he’s alright,” – but he inhabits the role completely, with a panache and gusto that sells even the most wince-making dialogue. Since he took over, the Doctor’s been as slippery and mercurial as we’ve ever seen him, but Smith meshes the gears without a crunch. At the moment, he’s Doctor Who’s best asset.

His performance is routinely described as Troughton-esque, and what could be more Troughton than a Base Under Siege story? Yes, next up was the two parter “The Rebel Flesh”/”The Almost People”, ninety minutes of dark-brown angst where a handful of unlikeable people were menaced by their gooey, pissed-off avatars, to little consequence. Much has been made of the “darker” tone to this series, in practice it’s meant saving money on arc-lights on set rather than anything more tangible, and in this specific instance it led to a lot of blundering down corridors and not being able to tell who was who. That it was hard to care who was who? Yeah, that’s a bigger problem.

The end of “The Almost People” set up the mid-season finale, “A Good Man Goes To War”, with the shock that Amy Pond has been an artificial replica since, ooh, ages ago. The real Amy’s in prison, just having given birth. We join the story as the Doctor is rounding up allies to help in her rescue. Even dedicated viewers could be forgiven for wondering at this point if they’ve missed out on an episode or two, so confident is the story that everyone’s up to speed with previous events that they can fill in the chasm-like gaps themselves. (It would be churlish to list all the things that don’t really make sense at this point.) For a gangbusters finale, there’s a surprising amount of standing around talking before the uncharismatic villains run off with Amy’s baby, then River Song turns up and we’re treated to the not-hugely-surprising revelation that River Song actually is Amy’s baby.

Promoted well in advance as a game-changing cliffhanger, it’s nothing of the sort. Yes, the Doctor runs off in the TARDIS, with a-rescuin’ on his mind, but River Song’s standing right there. As things are at the moment, she’s going to be fine!

Is Doctor Who itself? Cheques are being written that currently can’t be cashed. It’s not going unnoticed; we’re staring right at it. Unfortunately for the production team, a glance to one side isn’t going to wipe it from our minds

“Ricky is @Hankinshaw on “The Tweeter”

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34 thoughts on “‘I’d Hate to End the Universe by Mistake’

  1. Nice work, sir! I have to say as a casual viewer, I’ve not been casually viewing it much this season, yet I loved the last series. I feel as though either I, or the writers, have taken a whole heap of drugs and nothing makes sense any more.

  2. I think you’re being a bit harsh. It’s only in the 2-parter that the incidental pleasures of the show got overwhelmed by the fan service bits – even then, as running-in-corridors episodes go they were better than a hell of a lot of the Tennant ones.

    I think there is a drop off from the first Smith/Moffatt season, and I think the half-season format doesn’t do the show any favours at all because the master plot architecture is always going to show through 7 episodes more than 13, but it’s still the only show I’m bothering to watch.

    1. I agree to an extent, Jim, and I pretty much loved 75-80% of series 6.1, but I do think Ricky’s final point is very strong; the cliffhanger simply wasn’t a cliffhanger, despite being billed as such. The “So what?” feeling at the end of the half-series was palpable.

      But, yeah, still better than anything else on telly.

  3. Idris episode was one of the best ever, I thought. The jokes are always funny, the characters are always great and I love the cast and, like you, Matt Smith. I think regardless of what you believe you’re owed in terms of the way the surprises are billed/boasted about, it’s somewhat unrealistic to expect events that rock the world because there isn’t that much available to fiction that does that. I would personally like a bit more down time, more episodes that aren’t giving us more clues to solve as part of the big picture, just to slow down and have fun, and I think Jimset is *exactly* right about why that isn’t happening.

  4. For goodness’ sake take off your critic hat, put down your notebook and pen and enjoy the great Doctor Who ride.

    There are many millions of us out here who just love Steven Moffat’s Who and manage to watch and re-watch each episode without feeling the need to perform an autopsy on them. You seem to have joined in on the latest fad which is to criticise this funny, silly, moving, exciting series in a pompous overstated way which only serves to make you look foolish and self-serving.

    Sreven Moffat is doing a great job. Keep on with your sad, convoluted blogs if you must, but leave him alone.

    1. For goodness’ sake take off your critic hat, put down your notebook and pen and enjoy the great Mostly Film ride.

      There are many thousands (at least) of us out here who just love Ricky Young’s Mostly Film and manage to read and re-read each article without feeling the need to perform an autopsy on them. You seem to have joined in on the latest fad which is to criticise this intelligent, considered, fascinating, exciting series in a pompous overstated way which only serves to make you look foolish and self-serving.

      Ricky Young is doing a great job. Keep on with your sad, convoluted comments if you must, but leave him alone.

    2. ‘For goodness’ sake take off your critic hat, put down your notebook and pen and enjoy the great Doctor Who ride’

      I watch this with a glass of wine, slice of cake and feeling of pleasurable anticipation rather than a critic’s hat, notepad and pen and yet I find I agree with every word Ricky has typed. The only episode I enjoyed unreservedly was The Doctor’s Wife and the rest left me feeling completely meh.

      I’d go so far as to say that I’m quite pissed that an entirely separate and completely integral story line has been going on off screen, I couldn’t give a toss about River Song being Amy’s daughter because she is clearly alive and well as a forty something and if it weren’t for the fine presence of Smith (and delicious dreams I tend to have on a Saturday night) I’d be giving up on this now.

      I’m glad you are still enjoying it though Susan. I wish I could enjoy it as much as the Moffat’s first season which I adored even though they left Earth about twice!

  5. Yes! Keep on with your sad, convoluted blogs! You self-serving killjoy! It’s just a children’s programme! Don’t ruin it with excessive thinking!

  6. I thought the latest fad was pleats. High time I subscribe to Grazia.

    I largely agree with Ricky, with the main exceptions being that I thought the Tardis as a woman ep wasn’t very good (all that toytown gothicy stuff outside the universe was rubbish) and I quite liked the last one, even though the end was a big flub. Did he really rise higher than ever before? No. Did he really fall lower? No. Is River Song fun? No. Was it a cliffhanger? No.

    Toytown Gothic? Is that a thing?

      1. It was the kind of thing where some man in rags says to a woman in rags, “Mr Rangles won’t be happy if you eat all the cake,” and she says, “Mr Rangles is going to have to lump it” and eats it and then the whole world shakes a bit and he shouts, “I tried to tell her, Mr Rangles! I did!”

  7. I think Season 6 is 100% better than Season 5, but I mostly hated Season 5. I agree with much of this review. Season 6 did rocket out of the gate, but the problem seems to be that the show would have been better served if the first 2 episodes aired much later, like maybe like ep 10 or even later. Moffat writes an OK story, but the problem seems to be the overall story arc. If you look back at the stories he wrote before he was the show runner, they were good stories, (some say great) but they always stood out more for being so far apart from everything else going on during that season, than for how they fit in.
    I don’t need a story and all it’s information spoon-fed to me, but I don’t particularly care for it being so unnecessarily complicated that after the season is over there are too many unanswered questions and uncertainty; even after re-screenings .
    River Song is really the best thing about the Moffat era, but she’s now been so over-hyped that it will be impossible for her to live up to the advanced billing. We’ve been hearing River speak of “spoilers” for three years now, and we still don’t know the full story. And with the way information is disseminated on Who these days I don’t expect to know her full story any time soon. (Just as we shouldn’t expect to see Season 7 any time soon.)

  8. The Eleventh Hour = The Impossible Astronaut
    The Beast Below < Day of the Moon
    Victory of the Daleks = The Curse of the Black Spot
    The Time of Angels The Rebel Flesh
    The Vampires of Venice < The Almost People
    Amy's Choice < A Good Man Goes to War

    By my highly mathematical equation, series six has been an improvement on series five.

    Granted, some of you may run the numbers a bit differently. In which case, since this is the internet, I must say that you are wrong, I am right, and if you challenge that, I will call you 'teh gay.'

  9. I thought the half season finale was a little too much like part one of last year’s two-part finale. Both episodes had a reunion of old aliens / foes, both had a bit of misdirection where the Doctor apparently foiled a plot, only to find out it was a trick and a trap. The problem was that the ‘fake’ plotline in both stories felt quite underpowered for me, so while it was a relief that it wasn’t really what was going on, you sort of felt you’d never bought into as a real story anyway. And both times it tried to up the stakes be laying on the Doctor as legendary / scary figure spice, which there’s been a lot of since RTD time, and so, for me, hasn’t been used sparingly enough to have real power when it needs to be brought out.

    I was mostly pro everything else this run. I liked both parts of the opener, LOVED The Doctor’s Wife – I even kinda liked the Pirate one.

  10. I haven’t seen either of the last two episodes because I inconveniently went on holiday. However, I liked the Astronaut one, though the whole Nixon-wotta-guy schtick was dangerously disingenuous. I really liked the Doctor’s Wife for all its sub-Beckettian bits; and Pirates of the Horses Head Nebula was meh – and the ending was ripped from the obscure 80s cartoon series, Ulysses.

  11. got to say I could a written your review myself. it’s a mess and the bbc know it. no real audience and what was a stunning, fun and often heartwrenching series has stopped over night. the 80s were indeed wrapped in self importance and confusion and Moffat has not learnt from history at all. great writer but needs a producer on this one x

  12. I would strongly counter that it was the fan service that led the show to ruin in the 80’s. Frankly the fan-service seemed to be just something to fill the void of a show that had lost its sense of direction and purpose, no more apparent than in its lead hero’s sudden loss of any previous strength of character. What the show essentially suffered from in the 80’s was JNT’s narcissistic martyr-complex being forced onto the show and its hero, and his control freakish barring of experienced past writers in favour of ‘yes’-men, with a smidgeon of Eric Saward’s passive aggressiveness, born of frustraions with his impossible, autocratic boss. Viewers might have stuck with the derivative stories and confusing plotting if there was genuine heart to it, and reassurance that it was going somewhere- that somewhere there was a method to the madness.

    In which regard Series 6 delivers- there is a clear method in the madness, it’s a perfect example of a work of high-functioning sociopathy, but functioning well- and in many ways seems to be Season 22 done right- the idea of turning the show’s environment into a Kaftan nightmare, and generally unknown, frightening territory. It has been uncertain and dark in a way that makes viewers like me hooked on how unpredictable the show can be and where it’s all leading.

    If it loses viewers who lack the dedication or intelligence to keep up with it, good riddance to them. If the show gets cancelled as a result, I’d rather it did something new and challenging, than something desperate and pandering like it had been throughout the atrocious RTD era. If the show is capable of doing this kind of nightmarish vision successfully, it shouldn’t waste time doing anything else.

  13. Personally i’ve enjoyed S6, and I know i’m not alone, but it feels like a very different show to the Dr Who of two years ago. I think most of the “issues” with the current series are by-products of the series being split in two; if part one had ended with the Pirate Episode (YAWN) would you be excited about part two? Would we even be talking about this?

    Part one felt like a whole series worth of mystery and plot crammed into seven episodes and that’s the problem for me. Series 5 had big plot moments and mystery, but it was paced much better because the consistent run of episodes allowed for lighter notes and less intense episodes; we had the doctor playing football, meeting new species, Vincent van Gogh! Sexy Vampire Fish! and so on… yet when it mattered we had those big moments, a great two part end and some very dark episodes too.

    if S6 part one’s arc was simply stretched over the entire S6 (p1 + p2) and there were more magical, adventurous Who episodes with little nods to the arc, I think people would be much happier… and tbh, when I really think back over the new who series’ my absolute favourite episodes are ones that don’t really related to the big plot anyway (Blink, Human Nature/Family of Blood, and so on).

    One thing’s for sure though; for me, Matt Smith is quite wonderful… there just isn’t enough whimsical-who in S6.

  14. HAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHA

    Doctor who is amazing and it’s the latest trend to trash it for attention. Honestly, if you’re going to be a stuck up critic at least do it without a smug attitude. Everyone has their own opinions but you don’t need to try act as though yours is superior.

    1. Great post, I’m gonna be a critic today just to see if it’s fun. These critics do like to jump on the opposite train.

      Opposite Train- When someone hops on a trend and trashes it for attention.

      I’ve changed my mind I’m not going to be a critic today haha.

  15. As often happens, a show that gains popularity will punish it’s viewers by screwing with the schedule. It’s a common practice here in the US and now Doctor Who, with it’s newly pronounced following in the US, has joined that club and shows that the UK is not immune to it either.
    The Sopranos screwed with viewers for years and made them wait years for new episodes. It caused many to hate the show and watched only to see how it all would finally end…and what a let-down that ending was. LOST pulled the same crap on viewers. They split seasons, cut back on the number of episodes per season and left viewers so frustrated that, again many continued to watch only to see how it would end. That ending that was pulled out of god-knows-where and certainly didn’t feel like it was on the table from the start of the run.
    So Doctor Who splits the season so the show-runner can work on another show and now we see that that split will have long-lasting consequences. They’ll say it was for this reason or that, but the fact is none of that really matters. If the show was struggling they would never have done this. They took this chance at the expense of the viewer and it could take them some time to get it back on schedule…if they even plan to try.
    Everyone can get mad and defend Moffat and the BBC, but they took the risk and now they’ll have to deal with any fall-out. I have no doubt that the show will survive, but the camps may be split even further.
    To do this with a show that is just securing it’s worldwide footing is astonishing mainly for the arrogance behind it. And as convoluted as the show has become, it would have been better for all concerned if they just kept the shows flowing and not generated new controversy.

    1. >>The Sopranos screwed with viewers for years and made them wait years for new episodes. It caused many to hate the show and watched only to see how it all would finally end…and what a let-down that ending was.

      Well, of course, you’re wrong about *that*.

  16. Ah you’re only a critic for the money. You don’t enjoy sitting beside a dictionary typing a 1000 word review, trying to add little quips here and there, as to not boar yourself. You went to college for the business that you wanted to get into, but this isn’t it.
    Fans will be fans no matter what you find wrong with any given detail. Your job is pointless and just another money sink. Instead of a subtle insult here and there and typing a tiresome read, write a review that actually works and should be the universal review for any TV/Movie, “If your a fan you will like the series. You may find some episodes mediocre, but that happens. Be glad to be a fan and I’m glad your show isn’t canceled for your sake and not mine.”.
    Or don’t write a review at all. If a critic likes something he makes sure to jump onto that subject and praise it like a fan. Sure he’ll throw in some objective views here and there to make himself blend in nicely with the critic community. If he doesn’t like it though… he will be a dick. He won’t care if he insults a show maker or movie maker or tries to degrade a shows history and fan-base. I’m being a critic right now, I shouldn’t be I feel bad but someone has to say enough’s enough. Never… would I be a tv critic.
    ah ha don’t worry as bad as I hate it you’ll always have a job. For some strange reason critics are in high demand and never have I seen someone say, ” I’m going to go read (so and so’s blog) to determine whether or not I’ll like this show based on whether he does or not.”.
    Basically what I’m saying if you just skipped to the bottom of my post is, reviews aren’t good reading material. (Post’s aren’t either but I felt compelled.)

    1. Oh, slipped a #$&^ word in there. Go ahead and blur that out if you like. I doubt you like anything I have to say though.

    2. You should see the cash Ricky pulls in working for MostlyFilm. Hoo boy. Honestly, I only read the first line of your comment, but that was funny enough, so thank you, Clayton, bold warrior of the interspazz!

    3. Clayton, thanks for your comment – in response:

      1) Nobody here at MostlyFilm gets paid for their contributions at all.

      2) Could you re-jig your thoughts in light of this new information?

      Thanks.

      Ricky

      1. I honestly don’t care if you get paid or not, my thoughts still stand. I could re-jig my post all that I want but my thoughts on critics won’t be any lighter.

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