By Ricky Young.
From the moment the 11th Doctor crashed into Amelia Pond’s garden while still wearing the 10th Doctor’s suit, Doctor Who has existed in a dream-world. The very first person he met was unhooked from reality, without origin or backstory, sitting on a crack in time and ready for her first chapter title; she wasn’t a real girl, she was The Girl Who Waited. From that point on, we’ve been shown a woozy and off-kilter version of reality, where things only made sense if they really, really had to, and exists a million miles away from the council estates, shopgirls and urgently-flickered news-broadcasts of the previous era. Doctor Who has certainly never been world you visit for unflinching docu-realism, of course, but the self-conscious focus on ‘stories’, meta-stories, and the consequences of myths and fairytales has led to an airless and looping feeling where nothing moves forward, nothing changes, nothing ends and nothing ever truly dies.
When MostlyFilm last talked about Doctor Who, immediately after the loud, deeply-unsatisfying semi-mystery that was the departure of the Ponds, we hoped that fans of loud, deeply-unsatisfying semi-mysteries would have had their fill by now, and that the audience, the actors, the production team and show-runner Steven Moffat could move on from loud, deeply-unsatisfying semi-mysteries into a new and exciting phase of The Programme That Can Be Anything. (After all, we’re not haters for the sake of it – we thought S5 was pretty damn good.)
What fools we were.
Season 7b existed as little more than another loud and deeply-unsatisfying semi-mystery, its final moments setting up yet another loud and probably deeply-unsatisfying semi-mystery as a 50th birthday present. Shh, though. MostlyFilm has angered the show-runner before, and an angry Steven Moffat isn’t anything we ever want to experience again..
Our previously-aired concerns are now widely-shared. Scratch the internet, and unless you’re careful you could drown in the gush of Moffat-based dissatisfaction with recent Who. Conspiracy theories, convoluted backstage rumours and personal grievances abound – but we’re not going down that route. Much.
Firstly, we don’t have the energy, and secondly, everyone’s doing it these days. And besides, in his own head, Moffat’s doing a great job, and actually thinks a) everyone should shut up except him, and b) he’d actually like some more awards, if there are any going?
But if, like us, you’re damn tired of experiencing that moment twenty minutes into an episode of Doctor Who where the initial genre set-up has dwindled away, leaving little but noise, garbled dialogue, nothing at stake and a just a depressing rush towards the end credits to look forward to, then stick with us. We guarantee nothing but the finest British snark. And if everything simply has to have a twee, arm’s-length-from-reality descriptor, let’s join The Mad Man With A Box, The Girl Twice-Dead, and talk about The Grumpy Scotch Narcissist With A Tellyshow.
This claustrophobic and capsule-like atmosphere within which the Doctor now operates means the unexpected is hard to come by. Having made a big fuss of trying to reduce the scope of the Doctor’s universal fame, adventures aren’t going to crop up organically any more – landing the TARDIS on a planet, then striding forth to see what trouble he could get into? Talk about unfashionable. And besides, that isn’t going to get the internet buzzing. Pale, obsessive teenagers aren’t going to create vaguely-creepy Tumblrs on the internet based on that.
Having got bored with the Ponds, and I’m including the audience, the Doctor and Moffat in that, the Doctor has moved onto his next Big Niggle. There’s a girl – well, no, she’s a woman and 27 years old etc, but we’re not going down that route either – there’s a girl, and she seems to keep cropping up in the Doctor’s life, in a manner he can’t work out. Big deal, you might think, he’s a time-traveller, freaky-deaky shit must happen all the time, but you’re not allowed to think that. This is all INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT, we’re repeatedly told, and nothing sums up S7b more than the Doctor chasing Clara round the TARDIS console before shouting ‘you’re impossible!’ into her rabbit-caught-in-headlights face.
She’s his wobbly tooth. And the way Moffat tells his stories – where whatever he finds absolutely fascinating we must also find absolutely fascinating – she’s our wobbly tooth. She’s in the show, she’s not going anywhere, we’re stuck with her, and like a wobbly tooth, if you pay some attention to it, it’s painful. It hurts whatever’s around it, and more than one promising story this season was fatally sunk by having a throbbing molar just standing there.
The promise is, of course, that when you find out why that tooth is wobbly, you’ll be thrilled, and the explanation will be TOTALLY worth it. But, and as anyone who’s ever had a wobbly tooth will know; over time, it takes up more and more of your brain until you can’t just stand it anymore. And when it’s finally over, you don’t give a shit about what caused it. You never really did. You’re just relieved to fuck that it’s gone.
I bet Moffat has brilliant teeth.
We joined the Doctor mid-mope, still in a mood from having his new squeeze die on a table in front of him on Christmas Day. Like we haven’t all had much worse Christmases than that.
But things perk up when he gets a phone-call from another version of Clara, for some reason, and off we race around London in an episode that was half ‘The Idiot’s Lantern’, half ‘Smith & Jones’. The momentum patched over the nonsensical plot to a degree, although even at this early point it was hard to be as interested in the who or what of this third version of Clara as the show clearly was. You will love Clara, we are told, and will be fascinated by her adorable ways, spunky mysteriousness and rat-a-tat-tat way with the dialogue.
There’s no real getting round the next bit. There were hopes that Neil Cross would bring a bit of Luther-style audacity to the show, but ‘The Rings of Ahkhaten’ was a lavish paean to brain-frying incoherence, where every line, action or shot seemed unhappily divorced from everything else around it. Let’s take a look at the trying-its-best Wiki summary, shall we?:
“The Doctor and Clara save Merry and discover that the Old God is really a parasite of memories and sentiment that lives inside the large planet. Clara offers it her treasured leaf that caused her parents to meet, and as she points out that there are infinite possibilities to every choice, she defeats the parasite.”
Word-salad with bollock croutons. Let’s move on.
A Russian sub! In the 1980s! With David Warner, Liam Cunningham and Tobias Menzies on board! – that’s an entire movie, right there! How could this possibly go wrong?
I’ll tell you. Swapping ‘Rings’ red filter for a murky blue one, in Mark Gatiss’ ‘Cold War’ we spent 45 damp minutes watching a terrible, world-destroying monster get so bored with the endless, yawning hither-thither dialogue that he just flew off home when his mates arrived. Cunningham and Menzies were completely wasted, and even genre hero David Warner didn’t manage anything more than some dinner-theatre posturing, and this from a man who once spent whole films out-hamming the original Star Trek crew. ‘Rings’ was technically the most boring episode this series, but ‘Cold War’ scores lower for the wasted potential.
Plunging deep into old-skool territory next, in the second of Neil Cross’ efforts this series, the mildly-more-successful ‘Hide’. Dougray Scott’s reliably cadaverous turn as a couldn’t-get-the-rights Professor Quatermass shored up a slight tale about not being able to be with your loved one – be it down to the chasms of time, the vastness of space or being unable to stammer your way through some thick 50s knitwear – while the Doctor pressed Jessica Raine’s shy psychic for information about the charisma-vortex clogging up the TARDIS.
Limping onto our screens a week later came Stephen Thompson’s ‘Journey To The Centre of the TARDIS’, as garbled and pointless a pile of fuck-all as his work on Sherlock, BBC1’s masterclass in narrative masturbation. Thanks to a dismal sexist quip, the TARDIS is picked up for salvage by three charmless ciphers, who bicker and sneer at the Doctor while a trapped Clara roots around the interior of the time-machine and uncovers precious little that anyone would want to know, hear about or see on their tellies on a Saturday teatime. The jury is out on whether the big friendly Reset Button used to bring the interminable soundtrack-drenched yelling to a close was a knowing tickle to the generous-of-heart, or an exasperated Fuck You to anyone who’s ever dared to get annoyed with the Moffat era’s plotting.
Mark Gatiss redeemed himself to some degree by giving us ‘The Crimson Horror’ next. Wisely keeping the Doctor and Clara off-screen for a good ten minutes meant that the story had room to breathe, and who knows, giving experienced actors (such as Diana Rigg and Her Daughter Rachael Stirling) proper, meaty, emotion-led dialogue that makes you interested in the characters and maybe even encourages you to care about what they do or say or what ends up happening to them? It might catch on.
If only it wasn’t almost ruined by some genuinely absurd gear-crunching in the final moments, setting up the next episode, in which the insertion of Clara’s two wards couldn’t have been done in a more ludicrous manner if they’d been, oh gosh, I don’t know, holdovers from Moffat’s original series plan in which Victorian Governess-Of-Two-Kids Clara was going to be Series Clara (before it was decided to go with a Modern Clara instead) and the pulled-out-of-his-arse production change was forced on everyone except goth superstar Neil Gaiman? Whatever the nuances of the reasoning, the onscreen effect was baffling and alienating.
By this point, the anticipation for Gaiman’s Cyberman reboot was white-hot. Able to prod the fanboi prostate directly while lesser writers just give it a half-hearted squeeze, the episode turning out to be a mumbled and pointless wreck was an epic disappointment. It’s not clear why the new series keeps on trying with the Cybermen; they were quite good when they first lurched towards an unsuspecting 1966, but it’s been all downhill since then.
This time they were wanting to play on the slides on an alien fun-park, but they couldn’t because Willow out of Willow was there, and he lived inside a video game run by the army, I think, and so they unleashed some robot earwigs on a mission to get the waltzers ready, and – did the army get in the way? I’m not sure. Was Willow the King of the army? Tamzin Outhwaite got shot in the face! Clara was there, anyway, and the two kids, I l know that for sure, because they kept speaking, and – oh, I give up. There’s a reason why Gaiman’s stuff hasn’t cracked the big time away from the page, and this was a salutary lesson why.
Also, did you know this show hasn’t had a proper script editor since 2010? You do now.
And so we plunge into the third series finale in a row just obsessed with death and endings, despite the writer and showrunner constantly displaying a pathological hatred of closure: Moffat’s ‘The Name Of The Doctor’, titled deliberately – yet again – to froth up the audience before undercutting it with some narrative sleight-of-hand.
The Doctor ignores the warning he once got from a head in a box, and heads to a planet where his ultimate resting-place is rumoured to be. Inside, for <yawn> some reason, are some Christmas-tree lights that represent his entire life. Non-scary, non-threatening villain The Great Intelligence (Richard E. Grant) wants to jump into the lights to undo the Doctor’s good works throughout time, which doesn’t seem that great or intelligent an idea to me – considering he’ll kill himself by doing so, it just comes off as a bit lumpen and spiteful, rather than actively evil. You wouldn’t get that sort of rubbish from Davros, you know.
River’s also along for the ride, <sigh> FOR SOME REASON, in a badly-explained and woundingly inconsistent manner, adding literally nothing to the show except a bogus sheen of continuity and her unparalleled way with a hopeless line-reading. Professor River Song, the ultimate Moffat ‘look-at-me!’ technical experiment, reduced to Brenda Exposition. And she can’t even do that convincingly.
Clara saves the day by jumping in after REG and scattering herself throughout the Doctor’s life, thwarting the villainy and restoring the status quo, somehow. It’s not properly explained at all, although everyone stops shouting, so that must mean something.
But can we bask in the glow of a job well done? Nope. There’s ANOTHER DOCTOR in the timeline, one with a face like a hairy crab-apple, and wouldn’t you know it – just in time for the 50th Anniversary episode! Who could he be? What does it all mean? Can we get the internet mewling its head off over the ultimate meaning of that one line about regenerations in ‘The Deadly Assassin’ in 1976, decades later? Never mind the relentlessly-going-nowhere, overheated, churn-them-out atmosphere means that classic stories like ‘Human Nature’ / ‘The Family Of Blood’, ‘Love and Monsters’ and – yes – ‘Blink’ simply couldn’t exist anymore – who the hell are you to mourn those clever, nuanced, character-based pieces, anyway? Aren’t we all EXCITED about the next, shiny, just-out-of-reach bauble? Isn’t that all that’s important? Isn’t that the only thing that’s important?
Considering the last two years of the current regime have promised a nutfull before coming through with a dribble:
I genuinely hate to say it – ‘no’.
More from Ricky can be avoided here.