Posts Tagged ‘steven moffat’

We’ve come to the end of the first half of Doctor Who season six, which makes it a good time to pause and reflect on the state of the Whovian nation.

As someone who has loved and admired Steven Moffat’s work ever since the early days of the superb The Press Gang, this should be a no-brainer question and a short blog post declaring everything is just brilliant and wonderful. Should be … But I’m afraid it isn’t. There’s something nagging away at me, something making me uneasy about the future of the show we love so much.

(And this was before today’s Private Eye story suggesting there was trouble in the production team and that there might not even be a 2012 season, rumours subsequently squashed by a BBC announcement confirming 14 more episodes have been commissioned.)

This is the battle of demon’s run, the Doctor’s darkest hour, he’ll rise higher than ever before, and then fall so much further.

It’s hard not to agree that the Doctor has truly risen higher than he ever has before right now, at least as far as Doctor Who fans are concerned: we have the writer/producer we admire more than any other, who is at the top of his game and producing the most fabulous scripts, season arcs and characters. Matt Smith has made a genuinely brilliant Doctor; the threesome combination of the Tardis crew has given us something authentically different and new after too many years of the tired Doctor/female companion formula – even before we add the fantastic recurring character of River Song who we just yearn to join full-time. The production team also seem to have managed to get over the funding squeeze that compromised key moments in season 5 with below-par CGI, because season 6 has all looked fabulous (well, save for one Flesh Jen monster CGI too far…) – even before the impressive jaunt to America that added to the sense of sheer scale and substance.

But I can’t shake the feeling that this almighty high does indeed potentially come before the biggest fall and darkest hour, and that there are signs and portents that should worry all Who fans at least a little.

Some of these are external matters: the tabloids loved reporting that viewing figures for the early episodes were sharply down, and while this was not entirely accurate (the iPlayer/view on demand figures pretty much reversed that situation so it’s more a sign of an error in the scheduling of the show at 6pm or so on warm, sunny May and June evenings that’s a mistake of the network programmers rather than the show itself) it did lead the papers to gripe about how it’s no longer a family show, that it’s too dark, too scary, too bloody complicated for children now.

Actually the children are fine by all accounts, and follow it perfectly – as least as much as they need to. It’s the adults who are feeling lost, puzzled, worried or horrified. But that’s still a problem for the show, because this is the BBC’s family tent-pole offering, and if the adults are scratching their heads and shrugging before going off to do something else – or deciding it’s not suitable for the little’uns – then it’s undermining a major element of the show’s success and profile, both of which are vital to keeping the show mainstream and properly funded.

When Russell T Davies took on the task of regenerating the show in 2005, he was commendably open about how this was the most commercial, market-tested, focus-grouped project he’d ever done. Every last bit of it had to be hand-crafted to make sure it hit the market properly, delivered the whole-family audience, spun off the merchandising and won the awards. It had to, if this wasn’t to be a one-season flop. Artistic integrity be blowed: to make any expensive TV show, first you have to make the show a proven success to earn your right to experiment. It might sound cynical, but it’s survival in the modern broadcast arena and RTD knew it better than anyone. I’m sure a little piece of him died everytime he had to subjugate his artistic inclinations in favour of ensuring the commercial success, but he pulled it off: he took a revival that no one gave much of a chance of really working and delivered to the BBC’s their biggest international blockbuster property.

As a result, Steven Moffat doesn’t have the same pressures: the show is a hit right now and he doesn’t have to permanently look over his shoulder fearing cancellation. That security has given the show an undoubted confidence and swagger; and in any case, Moffat is not the kind of person to ever allow anything to override his artistic integrity. He will do the show his way no matter what, believing it’s the best for the show: focus groups and market testing be damned.

It’s admirable, and arguably is giving us a better, higher calibre show than we’ve ever seen before as least as far as hard-core fans are concerned. But it’s also markedly different from the show that was reborn under RTD that we grew to know and love in its own right. Davies might have had his problems as head writer (and not really seeming to grasp what a science fiction story really was, and continually relying on cheap deus ex machina get-outs were definitely among them) but every episode was suffused with a sense of love of the show and with a huge feeling of fun that made it accessible and enjoyable by everyone of any age or level of interest.

You don’t get that with Moffat’s seasons. I have no doubt that he loves the show every bit as much as RTD or you and I do, but he never allows that passion to override his story judgement – or to show through in the episodes themselves. Instead they’re far more coolly cerebral, intricate and complex, always eschewing the obvious even when it might end up frustrating the viewer. He is not writing for the casual fan who may dip in and out, miss a week or read a paper at the same time: this is a show for people who watch. And rewatch. And sit and think and talk about it for a week afterwards. And even if you do all that, it’s still likely to have scrambled your brain and leave you with a headache (as the end of “Day of the Moon” did for me, I confessed at the time.)

It’s asking a lot of viewers to submit themselves to this mental overload; casual fans will depart, and even die hard fans have been struggling to sustain the level of absolute concentration the show now demands. Instead of the fun, easy, family viewing under RTD, the show just got worryingly difficult, fan-ish and closed-up by comparison.

For those fans who push through and keep watching, it’s worth every minute. It comes together like the most wonderful puzzle box, and not only can you appreciate how perfectly it all comes together but you can also see how all the clues were left in plain sight all along and it only seemed complicated but actually you really did understand it all along after all, giving a lovely frisson of feeling like you’ve cracked it and are worthy of being one of the Whovian nation – and that your brain isn’t as broken as you thought after all.

But then we hit another snag: where does the show go from here? After being raised to such eye-popping heights, what’s next?

It’s hard to imagine the show going back to the nice, fun “adventure of the week” format. Indeed it tried that with “The Curse of the Black Spot” and how poor that episode felt, even though in previous RTD seasons that would have been a perfectly fine albeit average episode (no offence intended to RTD.) Not every episode can be a Silents/Flesh/Gaiman/Demons Run blockbuster every single week, but these episodes have raised the bar so high in season 6 that a merely ordinary episode is now a deep disappointment. You pity anyone who is tasked to take over from Moffat, because no one can reach the sort of heights he’s been delivering this season – and anything less is doing to be the Doctor’s darkest hour and his furthest fall (and potentially at worst, his latest cancellation.)

This problem is echoed in a development in the Doctor’s character in the show itself: he’s become so big, so epic, so unbeatable that the loveable old eccentric “mad man in a box” has never seemed so far away. These days he can wipe out entire Cyber battle fleets as a rhetorical flourish in a pre-credits teaser, or reboot the universe, or send aliens running away in fright just by reading them his CV. This started back in RTD/David Tennant’s era with “The Christmas Invasion”, was echoed in “The Eleventh Hour” at the start of the Moffat/Matt Smith era, but has now becoming a recurring problem with both “The Pandorica Opens” and “A Good Man Goes to War” both essentially focusing on it.

Quite simply, there is no one left who is more powerful than the Doctor. He is a God. Even the Daleks – who were revamped so successfully in season 1 as the ultimate nemesis of the Time Lords and the only race able to defeat them in the Time War – are now so “reliably beatable” that Moffat himself has concluded that they have no credibility left and have to be rested from the show. But if not the Daleks – who can threaten the Doctor anymore? It’s rather like the ‘scope creep’ that infected the character of Superman, in which a character who could initially simply jump high and run fast suddenly became invincible and as a result lost both empathy with the readership and also potential plots. How could Superman bear to spend his time dealing with muggings with all his powers?

So to it is with the Doctor. He’s now so powerful that nothing really seems to threaten him anymore. Some lovely dialogue in “A Good Man Goes To War” stressed how he is now more myth than regular person: how “Doctor” is becoming a galaxy-wide synonym for “great man of learning” or “warrior” depending on your point of view (apparently an idea Moffat had in 1995 according to some links on the Internet pointing to ‘proof’, but we’ll take these with a pinch of salt for now – you can fake anything on the Internet. Even Moon landings, I hear.) Did you spot the sublime way that Rory is made to see that this is happening to him, too: as he consoled Commander Strax, he realised he was talking to a warrior who had become a nurse, while he himself was a nurse who was now a centurion warrior? An uncomfortable realisation for both.

The stakes have been raised too high too many times: the show has seemingly killed off the Doctor, Amy and/or Rory too often, just so that we feel something bad really did/could happen, but it’s backfired and now they’ve all died and restored in too many ways that so we just roll our eyes, say “oh, not again” and wait for the plot to unravel and restore everyone to life.

Moffat seems acutely aware of this “Godhood” problem with the Doctor now, and it’s why the trope has been returned to in “A Good Man Goes To War” with dialogue specifically riffing on this (which in turn is an echo of dialogue that RTD’s Davros used on Tennant’s Doctor in “Journey’s End”.) I suspect Moffat’s overall intentions for the current convoluted plot arc are to do something about this “all-powerful” Doctor and restore him back to something like his old original self, the eccentric traveller.

The trouble is that the genie is out of the box, and we can’t go home again: would we be remotely satisfied with a show of a group of friends amiably poking around investigating a deserted city or scrapping with some cavemen?

Steven Moffat’s a sharp guy with far greater writing and creative skills than I possess – maybe he’s figured all this out and has an answer for us, and that’s what we’re heading to. We should certainly hope so, for the sake of the future survival of the show hinges upon it. Far more than the side questions of identity of River Song or whether the Doctor will retrieve Rory and Amy’s baby, this is the most important and pressing question facing the Whovian Nation this morning as we head into the summer recess.

The end, that is, of this series of Doctor Who, which aired the first part of its season finale last night and which concludes next Saturday, bravely facing all sorts of sporting distractions (World Cup and Wimbledon) in the crowded summer schedules.

This series has had to reboot the Doctor Who franchise after the departure of its star and most of the production team, and the transition has been a slightly more tricky, problematic affair than we would have hoped. Some of these problems were external, such as the visibly reduced budget seriously affecting the on-screen effects; the notorious arrival of a cartoon Graham Norton at the worst possible moment; and the scheduling, which saw the show go out at a different time every week. Mostly it’s been pushed into the 6pm zone by various reality or sports programmes – too early for families to be back and settled to watch television, especially during May and June when it’s too too light and warm to be indoors for a TV programme that early. Alas, once again it seems that BBC are heading down the road of slowly throttling to death one of their leading franchises – history repeating itself. (Ratings are down dramatically – until you factor in all the time-shifting options such as BBC3 repeats and iPlayer views, at which point the series is just about holding its own with past years.)

But some of these problems have been internal as well. The show has been frustratingly inconsistent, the tone and style changing so drastically week on week that an educational show on Vincent van Gogh touching on suicide and depression gets followed next time around by a romantic flatshare sitcom played strictly for laughs. Of course, Doctor Who is famously the show with the series format that can “do anything”, but to try such handbrake turns every single week runs the risk of leaving the show looking confused and not sure what it’s trying to do. Russell T Davies, for all his faults, always had a very clear grip on the tone and style of the programme, so that within that consistent overarching style it was possible to accommodate wide variances; but this season has been all variance, no consistency.

Contains some mild spoilers of the first eleven episodes:

  1. The Eleventh Hour – covered in full in a previous blog post, and still an extremely strong debut for the new Doctor, even if you get an early sense that it feels that the groundwork its laying for the rest of the season is far more important than the episode itself. Some of the best details – the creature that can be only seen out of the corner of your eye, the chilling barking man – are far more interesting than the rather tepid Men in Black/Independence Day main plot.
  2. The Beast Below – some interesting themes but ultimately too much of a riff on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta to succeed in the way that it hoped. The voting booth and the Doctor’s rush to a lobotomy solution rather than fully considering the options feel like some very unsubtle points being hammered home.
  3. Victory of the Daleks – some great early scenes then unravel into possibly the worst story of the season. The episode seems to exist entirely to relaunch and redesign the Daleks (did they need it?), and otherwise the story just peters out and resorts to a Spitfire dogfight in space and a lame bomb defusing plot to distract from the lack of any real substance.
  4. The Time of Angels – the return of the fabulous Alex Kingston as River Song, the return of the wonderfully creepy Weeping Angels, and great atmospheric settings make this one of the series’ unreserved highlights.
  5. Flesh and Stone – some more great work (Amy having to traverse a forest full of Weeping Angels with her eyes closed; Iain Glen’s “you’ve known me at my best”) is undermined by the intrusion of the series arc’s “crack in space and time” as the main plot device and then the tonally very odd bedroom scene with the Doctor fighting off Amy’s advances.
  6. Vampires in Venice – vampires should have been so promising, so how do they end up being lame CGI fish monsters? Again, the details (the wonderful Countessa and her creepy son; the arrival of Rory into the team) overwhelm a lame story, and the final CG effects of the Doctor climbing a clock tower are dire.
  7. Amy’s Choice – something of a bottle show, with a wonderful performance by Toby Jones, a jaw-dropping redressing of the Tardis set, and a fun concept of killer zombie pensioners. Mostly successful despite a lack of real danger, but it still seems more interested in the Amy/Rory detail and the main threat proves to be some errant pollen, which is rather a letdown.
  8. The Hungry Earth – the Silurians will be known only to die hard Who fans, so the story opts to basically tell their origin story all over again. But by limiting this to a small Welsh village and just four humans in the guest cast it lacks the epic sense of anything really important happening. Its slow pace is good for atmospherics, but makes the story feel underdeveloped.
  9. Cold Blood – part 2 of the Silurians story proceeds exactly as you’d expect, right up till the final scenes which are a series of genuine shocks relating to the overall season arc. Once again, the arc developments overwhelm what was supposed to be the main story.
  10. Vincent and the Doctor – an extraordinary change of pace for the series, with the alien menace almost irrelevant as the focus is on Vincent Van Gogh. Presumably intentionally, Vincent becomes the Doctor figure (his costume even evokes David Tennant) and the Doctor himself gets sidelined. You’ll either love or hate the final scenes with the soft rock montage and Vincent in the modern day – it’s utter tosh, but it gets a tear in my eye every time all the same.
  11. The Lodger – you have to be in the right mood to enjoy this “Doctor Who Behaving Badly” sitcom pilot, but no question that it’s done very well and there are some great fun moments. But once again, the normal Doctor Who “A” story – the alien in the attic – is treated as an aside, quickly defeated in the last few minutes by a kiss. Despite invoking startling Tardis technology, the alien ship then disappears, unexplained. Frustrating.

With so much of the season to date having been affected by all the groundwork for the season arc, it places almost impossible weight on the final two-part story which began last night with The Pandorica Opens. If it works, then it re-writes your feelings about the entire season to date and justifies all those times the series seemed to be losing its focus; but if it doesn’t, then the season finale just cements the view that the series has just ever so slightly lost its way.

If you haven’t seen the episode yet, then look away now. Only spoilers lay ahead. You are warned!

A few minutes into The Pandorica Opens and your hopes are raised. The feel of the opening sequences of this episode is quite extraordinary, the closest that the series has ever achieved to producing a genuine cinema feature film. And if you’ve stuck through the series wondering whether it was all hanging together, then the cameos of characters from past episodes (Queen Liz, Winston, Vincent) make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. By the time River Song makes another brilliantly memorable entrance (on the phone to Winston Churchill!) you’re convinced that this episode could indeed be something extraordinary.

And the episode progresses, and still more stuff tumbles out: the Doctor, Amy and River on horseback, an arguably unnecessary scene – but how it adds to the movie feel. The Roman centurions. The Stonehenge setting and the fabulous conceit of the hidden passage under the stones – stuff that children’s dreams and more than a few successful film franchises like Indiana Jones and National Treasure are made of.

Then voices over the radio of just about every foe that the Doctor has ever faced. Of course, this cavalcade of monsters will never actually show up, there’s no way that they could deliver that sort of spectacle. Right? Right?! And the remains of a damaged Cyberman, proving (rather like season 1’s Dalek) that sometimes a single monster can be more chilling than legions of the things.

And all the time, in the middle of the room, the titular prison box is opening up. You see the mechanism moving, levers falling into place, connections being made. It’s a wonderful physical manifestation of what’s happening in the plot itself, as suddenly all those many details that have been seeded throughout the season suddenly start to click into place as well. By the time the Pandorica opens, so may things have been revealed and slotted into position that the effect is almost electrifying – it’s as though you’re watching history suddenly rewriting itself to make sense at last, reshaping itself and reality before your eyes. The sensory rush for the loyal fan who has stuck with it and paid attention is the nearest thing to a cocaine high that you can get from the arts.

As the episode ends, with everyone dead, stars going nova and the Earth going dark and silent, there is no question about whether this episode has worked. It’s not even enough to call it “extraordinary” – that line was crossed way earlier in the running time and then the episode still ploughed even further ahead. This has indeed been up there with the very best that the series has ever produced; and that it couldn’t have happened without the proceeding eleven episodes, even if it means they were flawed and frustrating, throws a totally different light on the whole season.

Of course, there is still the small matter of the actual season finale in six days time. The Big Bang has an almost impossible task, to try and “follow that” and if can’t then this could yet all turn to dust. And yet for the first time, you feel that that moment has been well and truly prepared for, and that the episode won’t be a case of “sorting out the mess” (as has seemed the way with some previous season finales) but is in fact the very heart of the whole purpose of the season; that even as it appeared to be resolving old plot points, The Pandorica Opens was actually urgently laying a wealth of totally new ones. What Stephen Moffat has in mind to end this season I really don’t know; but I’m now completely sold on the idea that he has a plan and that it’s falling into place with the clockwork precision of the most immaculately crafted trap there has ever been.





%d bloggers like this: