Monday, April 21, 2014

Doctor Who 2013

The worst of it is behind us now.  2011 still beats out 1985 as my least favourite year of Doctor Who, but 2012 saw a definite upturn, and I'm pretty happy with how 2013 turned out.  The decision to tone down the multi-episode arcs in favour of single episode stories was entirely the right one as far as I'm concerned - Series 7 had the variety of style and subject and a lot more of the bounce that I associate with DW.

Of course, with each story pressed into 50 minutes, there's been something of a reduction in complexity - apparently Steven Moffat wanted "compressed storytelling", but the only episodes where I think that really came across and worked were Asylum of the Daleks back in the 2012 half of the season and last year's Hide.  Some episodes just happened to fit the 50-minute length quite well - A Town Called Mercy, The Angels Take Manhattan, The Bells of Saint John, The Crimson Horror.  Some were a little light on content, but carried by strong character material or spectacular visuals - Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, Nightmare in Silver.  Arguably The Rings of Akhaten, but I'm more inclined to point to that and Cold War as examples of episodes that were just plain flimsy.  And the season finale is the only episode I can think of where "compressed storytelling" was clearly intended but doesn't quite work.  Of the specials, more anon.

The big benefit of less complexity, as far as I'm concerned, is that there's less to go wrong.  The horrifying ethical gaffes of Series 6 seemed to have crept past the production crew because they were trying very hard to do something clever and their attention was distracted by that.  (The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood just seems to have coiled itself out straight onto the screen without anyone noticing; we may never know quite what happened there.)  It's an even bet whether a DW story that tries to do something smart will achieve the giddy heights or plunge into the abyssal depths, and this production team seems to have worse luck than any other on that front.  If DW isn't aspiring to be more than entertaining, well, at least it's entertaining.  Give it a coherent plot and let Matt Smith and the visuals carry it, and you can't go too far wrong.

There were two notable and pleasing innovations in 2013, and the first of these was the new title sequence.  (All right, first seen in the 2012 Christmas special, but that's close enough - it was probably 2013 before we saw it...)  The billowing endoscopy-scape is replaced with a title sequence of wonder and beauty, and - hooray! - the Doctor's face briefly glimpsed just to top everything off.  And having the TARDIS doors close on the pre-creds and open on the episode is a little touch of genius.  This might, just might be the bestest ever title sequence of them all.

The second item of note is the inversion of Moffat's use of significant female characters as plot puzzles rather than as actual characters.  Clara is presented as a puzzle, but this turns out to be a sort of semi-bluff - it's all cleared up by the finale, and the important take-home message that Moffat himself seems to be striving to put across in the episodes is that Clara isn't just a plot engine, she's a person in her own right.  Having spent 2013 bluffing the matter out, the production team now needs to put in some work backing that up, and the late introduction of some of Clara's family members in the 2013 Christmas special is a step in that direction, but there's more to be done.  Still 'n' all, I'm feeling positive about it.

All things considered, then, this is the first entire season of Moffat Who that I could conceivably be persuaded into buying on DVD.  I like it, I really do.

Further thoughts on specific episodes:

The Snowmen
So, having laid out my stall of optimism, let's start by striking a downbeat note.  It's probably damning enough that I couldn't be arsed to blog about this one even when I was keeping the blog updated during the first half of last year.  This one's an improvement on the previous Christmas special (not difficult), but it's not exactly a heart-breaking work of staggering genius.  A malignant disembodied intelligence is defeated by the tears of a family at Christmas, you wot?  Also, at this early stage I find Clara more than a little annoying.  It doesn't help that none of her character background has been provided yet, and at this point it looks as if she's just going to be another whirlwind of quickfire quips and tics.  The Great Intelligence is an interesting choice of monster/villain; turning it into a child's imaginary friend is kind-of interesting but also kind-of craps on its earlier appearances.  There's a fleeting nod to the chronologically later The Web of Fear (did Moffat know then that the tapes had been rediscovered?), but bugger all effort to tie things back to The Abominable Snowmen in which the Intelligence has supposedly been lurking in Tibet for centuries.
The image of the TARDIS on a cloud at the top of a fog-shrouded spiral staircase is downright peculiar, but possibly the clearest visual statement yet of Moffat's fairytale vision of DW.  Best element of the episode must surely be the reappearance of Madame Vastra, the Silurian Victorian detective, and her partner Jenny, and comedy Sontaran Strax in a somewhat surprising (and much more heavily comedic) new role as third member of the Paternoster Gang.  Fandom was clearly clamouring for it, and fandom has got it - you can't say Moffat hasn't done us some favours.  They may not have their own spin-off series, but they're building up a strong body of work as supporting characters.
5 out of 10?

The Bells of Saint John
Unsurprising returning villain alert!  The reveal at the end of the sequence of the Doctor riding a bike up the Shard is a punch-the-air moment (and the sequence itself is pretty good, too).  By and large a good episode; certainly one of the strongest to introduce a new companion.
8 out of 10?

The Rings of Akhaten
Very strong visually, but it is just spectacle.  Building visual motifs and using imagery to tell the story is undoubtedly Moffat Who's strong suit, but that's not exactly what we've got here.  It's just a big weird alien environment.  And that's great, there aren't nearly enough of those in DW - DW needs more big weird alien environments.  But the story is lacking, and the resolution is on a par with The Snowmen for sheer meaningless schmaltz.  Beautiful to look at, but not much more than that.
6 out of 10?

Cold War
Another very thin story - monster appears, bit of a runaround, monster leaves.  Some effort made to present Skaldak as a character rather than just a monster, but I don't think it quite succeeds.  Also not great to have the Doctor essentially stare down Skaldak with an overt parallel of Mutually Assured Destruction.  Still, a competent bit of adventure fluff, and always nice to see genre favourite David Warner.  (My own preference would have been to have him confound Skaldak in some way - it's lovable freaks like his character, and certainly not nuclear stalemate, that got us through the real Cold War.)
Another 6 out of 10?  Perhaps a 5.

Notable for having two significant female characters go off and sit down together, only to talk about the men in their lives.  But if failing the Bechdel Test is the worst an episode of DW can do, we don't have all that much to worry about.  Probably the best example of "compressed storytelling" in action - there's a whole extra act hidden in the last thirty seconds of the episode, but it's crystal clear what's going to happen, so there's no need to do more than nod at it.  Sadly the compression means we learn nothing at all about the non-humans (can't really call them non-human "characters").  But for all that, a good episode.
7 out of 10?

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS
I'm a sucker for stories that examine the TARDIS interior (provided it's allowed to remain at least a bit enigmatic - Logopolis and Castrovalva welcome here, The Doctor's Wife less so) so this episode's in for an easy ride.  Not to mention that Murray Gold's music is suddenly more interesting than it's been for quite some time now (heavy musical element of Akhaten notwithstanding).  Notable for having the first all-black guest cast in an episode of DW; regrettable for casting them as dishonest wideboys.  Eh, well.  There's not a hell of a lot going on here, but what little there is, is going on in an incredibly stylish way.
8 out of 10?

The Crimson Horror
Either I'm going soft or Mark Gatiss is improving.  Not without its problems, but a competent trad runaround with a central premise I can actually get behind - Gatiss thinks there's something creepy about those characterless corporate villages that rich benefactors were fond of setting up around the turn of the 20th century, and so do I.  Some successful use of "compressed storytelling" at the start, then we're into a story that pretty much runs the length it needs to.  Another welcome outing for the Paternoster Gang.  The "Thomas Thomas" scene provoked an outbreak of groans and tuts.
8 out of 10?

Nightmare in Silver
Lightweight, but then Cybermen stories often are.  This episode is carried entirely on the shoulders of Matt Smith, who delivers a bravura performance as the Doctor and the Cyberplanner trying to take over his mind.  Juuuust about gets away with it.  Throw in some quirky Gaiman supporting characters and you're doing OK.
6 out of 10?

The Name of the Doctor
A bit of a mess, all told.  Then again, its purpose is pretty much a) to set up John Hurt's appearance in the anniversary special, and b) to explain why Clara appeared before her introductory episode.  To have a story on top of that would be nice, but alas...  Above all, this episode is riding on the opening sequence of Clara interacting with archive footage of the classic series Doctors, which is of course absolutely mind-blowing, but just not enough to carry the episode on its own.  I also feel Moffat threw away the idea of the Doctor jumping into his own timestream - surely, something more should have been made of that?  And the Intelligence's plan - to disperse himself across the Doctor's timestream for the sake of mere revenge - looks a bit rubbish too.
4 out of 10?

The Day of the Doctor
We went to see this in 3D at the cinema, and I'd say it was money well spent.  Couldn't have asked for a better celebration of Doctor Who.  (Although The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot runs it a close second...)  Something for everyone - Smith and Tennant representing the new series, John Hurt offering snarky comments to satisfy any grumpy old fans like m'self, and just when you think it can't get any better, Tom Bloody Baker shows up.  The Time War is finally finessed away - the vagaries of multi-Doctor stories mean that the guilt of the Eccleston and Tennant Doctors isn't cheapened, but the series at last finds the third way that we ought to expect this of all series to find.  (Given the ever-present subtext of the Time War as the show's catastrophic hiatus from 1989 to 2005, it's only fitting that on DW's triumphant 50th anniversary we should finally lay it to rest.)  All this paralleled by the defused struggle between UNIT and the Zygons - yet more reference candy for old fans, of course, gratuitous in the normal run of things but underplayed by the standards of an anniversary story.  They even found a way to work in Billie Piper's obligatory cameo without breaking the show!
One small lingering question - what the hell is that publicity shot of Kamelion doing on UNIT's big wall of Doctor sightings?  (There'll be fan fiction, mark my words.)
A perfect 10?

The Time of the Doctor
From the sublime to the ridiculous.  This is what happens when you spend three years setting up plot arcs with little promise of resolution - you end up having to burn up an entire episode on answers.  And I think the answers we got give the lie to any claim that Moffat had this whole thing mapped out three years ago.  The Series 5 Crack of Plot Convenience reappears to do a bunch of stuff that bears no relation to any of the other stuff it's ever done.  Madame Eyepatch is sort-of explained, although her actions don't make any more sense in context than they did before.  The explanation we get of the Silence - that they're specially engineered confessor-priests - is fascinating, but doesn't tally at all with anything they did in Series 6.
Still, here we are tidying up all of these loose ends, and I like to think that this tidying up constitutes a promise from Mr Moffat that the Peter Capaldi era of the show won't rely on this type of cumbersome arc material.  A foolish hope, perhaps.  At any rate, at least Capaldi's starting with a clean slate.  While he's in the mood for tying up loose ends, Moffat even throws in the question of the Doctor's regeneration limit - his Christmas gift to fandom.
Positive stuff includes the long-awaited scenes of Clara's family, the idea of the Doctor dedicating his twilight centuries to protecting one planet from an apocalyptic new Time War, Matt Smith's "old geezer" acting, and that freaky wooden Cyberman.  Not sold on the "air guitar" Regeneration Part One, blowing up yet another Dalek fleet with sparkly pixie dust.  Much more sold on Regeneration Part Two, a nice and surprising change from the previous two regenerations.  Capaldi's first lines as the Doctor are far too similar to Tennant's and Smith's - ooh, new body part, woops, we're going to crash - but his performance is pure goggle-eyed Tom.  We'll see what 2014 brings.
5 out of 10?

As Steven Moffat ushers in an aggressive Scots Doctor, I'm strangely reminded of John Nathan-Turner casting Colin Baker as a Doctor with a bubble perm and crap taste in clothes.  (Talk about putting yourself into your work...)  It'll certainly be interesting to see what Moffat and Capaldi plan to do with the character, and indeed with the show.  This'll be Moffat's fourth season on DW - his fifth year, in fact, thanks to the split of Series 7 across two years - and I'm sure he'll be just as conscious as I am that the time to name his successor is drawing nigh.  (Unless he plans to beat JNT's record of nine years - no, let's not even go there.)  I think we could have an interesting year ahead.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Apparently they filmed several versions of Matt Smith's regeneration scene. He has said he was surprised with the version they aired as other versions of the regeneration scene were far more 'traumatic'. (
Personally I am getting a little tired of Doctor Who travelling farther into fantasy. Magical 'cure all' pixie dust, the magic sonic wand being just two examples ( I am sure the show used to be a little more science fictiony? Or am I misremembering.