Tag Archives: Amy

Tourism, divorce and Asylum of the Daleks (2012)

In Australia, we have “big things”. These are oversized monuments which serve as cut price tourist traps for towns all around the country. They’re usually giant sculptures or buildings retrofitted into the shape of something indicative of the local area. Often, but not always, produce related. The Big Banana at Coffs Harbour. The Big Merino Ram at Goulburn. The Big Boxing Crocodile in Darwin. They are kitsch colossuses and squirm-worthy expressions of Australian culture. (Bemused non-Australians can consult the full list of Big Things for further clarification. You have been warned.)

So imagine my delight when Asylum of the Daleks opens and shows that Skaro, has its very own big thing, the Big Dalek. Like many Big Things, there are hardly any visitors inside. Just the Doctor (a cagey Matt Smith) and the suspiciously named Darla (Anamaria Marinca) and like most Big Thing attendees, they look tremendously underwhelmed. If only they were eating terrible fast food and browsing half heartedly through overpriced souvenirs, the grim picture would be complete.

The Doctor’s visit to the Big Dalek, highlights one of showrunner Steven Moffat’s recurring motifs about the Daleks – an obsession with what’s inside them. This opening scene’s just a precursor to the episode’s major revelation that crash survivor Oswin (Jenna Louise Coleman) is in fact the cognitive remnants of a converted human, living inside a Dalek. The recently randomed Into the Dalek takes a more literal trip to the interior, but there’s also The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar which, for the third time, put Jenna inside a Dalek. Consider also Moffat’s interior adventures inside robots (Let’s Kill Hitler), the TARDIS (Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS) and space whales (The Beast Below) and we can see that he’s really into internalising.

Why, I don’t know. But in the case of the Daleks, it does highlight for the viewer they are vehicles, not robots. There are Kaled mutants, and sometimes converted people, inside them. There’s also a classic Moffat inversion on display in this Asylum too. Because as well as people inside Daleks, there are Daleks hiding inside people. Duplicate humans and reanimated corpses sprout eyestalks from their forehead and gunsticks from their palms. Moffat’s Daleks are monsters which both encase you and fester inside you.

Worse than that, they infect you. The Dalek nanocloud is an all pervading smog of tiny robots. They get inside you (that again) and turn you into a Dalek from the inside out. The physical changes come after the mental ones. The mental battle for control is enough to force Oswin to create an elaborate fantasy about being under siege from the Daleks, in order to protect her own identity. We see the start of this process effecting Amy (Karen Gillan) and in a beautifully shot sequence, we see her slipping into madness, and hallucinating that she’s in a ballroom full of dancers, when in fact, she’s in a pit packed with deranged Daleks. Around her, ballerinas pirouette. Add a dancing dwarf and we’re almost at Twin Peaks.

The ballerina, also glimpsed in Oswin’s hideout, is an important symbol here. Dalek creator Terry Nation claimed inspiration for his creatures from the Russian ballet dancers in enormous skirts, gliding across stage. We’re prompted to recall the Daleks’ origins, because this is a story steeped in their history. There are other hints scattered about – Oswin carries an egg whisk about, the better to prepare her soufflés with. Like a young Doctor Who fan creating his own Dalek army out of a miscellany of toys from throughout the show’s history, so Moffat populates Asylum with Daleks of all different colours and designs. Loads of old Dalek stories get shoutouts. This is about mashing up the show’s past and present, as well as discovering whether Daleks are bigger on the inside.

But I digress. I reckon the idea of a Big Dalek has legs, although it wouldn’t actually have legs. It could tower over Cardiff Bay (“Look at the state of it,” could become this century’s “Bye Bye Duggan!”) Exit would be, of course, via the gift shop and if it needs fresh merchandise to sell to hapless visitors, Asylum again shows us the way. Plastic rotating ballerinas. Egg whisks. Eye stalk headbands. And in the cafe, soufflé for all.

*****

But now I must bring up the difficult topic of divorce. Specifically, the Ponds’.

I suppose that one of the problems about having a married couple on any TV program is that marital bliss can’t last forever. Whether it’s likely or not, it’s not very dramatically satisfying. Trouble must eventually set in. Or in the case of the Ponds, suddenly set in.

Asylum implies that it has been some time since Amy and Rory (Arthur Darvill) have seen the Doctor, and since then, their relationship has broken down to the point where divorce is the only option. Only a quick montage in the online extra Pond Life would have indicated to dedicated viewers that anything was wrong with our otherwise loved up comPondians.

Problem is, this relationship breakdown feels inherently artificial, engineered to add a sub plot to this otherwise Daleky tale. The antidote to the nanocloud turning you into a human with Dalek appendages, is love, apparently. So when Amy is threatened with Dalekisation, getting her to reignite her love for Rory is crucial to saving her life.

Problem is, I never really believed they fell out of love. The reason proffered for the break up is that Amy staged a pre-emptive eviction of Rory because he wanted kids she couldn’t biologically produce. This just doesn’t seem like something which would break them up. Surely, the Amy and Rory we know would talk it through. Rory, you’d think, would support Amy, not reject her. Besides, it’s not like the only way to have kids is the old fashioned way. My impression is that couples fray when one partner doesn’t want kids, not when one can’t have kids.

Maybe the problem is we didn’t see Amy and Rory gradually slide into marital discord. We only saw them being perfectly happy together, then divorced, then perfectly happy again. And while it’s interesting to see Doctor Who try its hand at interpersonal drama, the Ponds’ separation seems inherently false. It’s like the Ponds’ grief over losing their baby daughter; it’s just too big a problem to fit into the show’s format, where the adventures must roll inevitably along, pausing not to dwell on emotional distress.

“It’s not one of those things you can fix like you fix your bow tie. Don’t give me those big wet eyes, Raggedy Man,” says Amy.  “It’s life. Just life.” Except it’s not, is it? Because if it was, it would be long and protracted and painful, and it wouldn’t necessarily end cleanly and happily in time for the next episode. And the ultimate irony? The Doctor does actually fix it, with a twiddle of his bow tie. Pah.

But… having not so long ago catalogued Doctor Who‘s post-coital scenes, I was delighted to spot a pre-coital one. When the repaired Ponds get dropped off at home at story’s end, Amy shoots Rory a loaded look and heads into a house. Rory’s clearly got the message and has the very pleased look of a man whose drought has broken. Ah, marriage.

RANDOM QUESTION: Why does the Doctor tell Amy that they need to make the Daleks remember her? I must be missing something. Answers in the comments, please.

LINK TO Knock Knock: humans turning into monsters.

NEXT TIME: let’s end on a cliffhanger. It’s one of the stories I’ve referred to above.

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Mostly dead, slightly alive and The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood (2010)

You can’t kill the Doctor. Because he’ll just regenerate. So by extension, there’s no use threatening to kill him. The audience knows he’ll be back next episode. Threatening the Doctor is inherently undramatic. Might as well not even bother.

Companions though, are a different story. They are fair game. And the death of a companion can have great impact. Although the merits of Earthshock are much debated, it showed how killing off a companion could pack an emotional punch and shake up this otherwise cozy series. Its influence on new Who is palpable. Even now, the death of a companion is something the new show flirts with regularly.

Except that new Who is more Mindwarp than Earthshock. It is yet to have the guts to definitively kill off a companion. It prefers the faux death of companions. Just as Peri’s death turned out to be a convoluted lie, so nearly every 21st century companion has had some “get out of death free” card. Rose didn’t die at Canary Wharf, but escaped to a parallel world. Jack died and was resurrected, many times over. Donna didn’t die but had her memory erased. Amy died but was brought back to life by a big box. Clara died but her death was stalled by the Time Lords and now she rides again.

And Rory. Sweet deathless Rory. As the Silence says, he’s the man who dies and dies again. When he’s thinking of jumping off the side of a building in The Angels Take Manhattan, he’s even self aware enough to joke about it. The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood is only his third story as a companion, but he’s already died twice (a dream version of him fell to dust in Amy’s Choice). Another dream version of him will die in The Doctor’s Wife and he nearly carks it in The Curse of the Black Spot. He’s king of the faux death.

New Who has adopted the faux death as a recurring motif. This should really be no surprise in a series which, at its heart, has a lead character who cheats death over and over again through regeneration. Rory, Clara et al are echoes of that major theme.

The faux death differs between the RTD and Moffat eras, though. In Davies’ time as showrunner there were two ways to not really die. The first, a la Rose and Donna, was for the death to be explained off as a technicality (you’re officially dead on our Earth, but not on a parallel world. Your memory’s wiped, so that version of you is dead). It’s a narrative sleight of hand; lead your audience to draw a conclusion and then subvert their expectations. The second was the Jack Harkness model; to be granted Doctor-like powers of reincarnation to become the man who cannot die (series regulars becoming super beings being another Davies motif).

The Moffat way of death is to more blatantly disregard its finality. In Moffat’s Who death is temporary. People frequently come back from death. Amy died in The Pandorica Opens, but in the very next episode it’s explained that she’s only “mostly dead” (in a line so outrageous it can only be forgiven because it’s obviously cribbed from The Princess Bride, in which Billy Crystal’s character Miracle Max says, “It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead. There’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive”). Put her back in the Pandorica and she comes back to life.

Often people come back as digital copies of themselves, like River and Danny Pink. And then of course there’s the multiversions of Rory and the resurrected Clara. Osgood appears to die but that was a Zygon (I think) and even the Brigadier comes back as a Cyberman. Nardole’s resurrection from within a big robot is still to be fully explained.

So RTD pretends he’s going to kill someone, then doesn’t. The Moff kills them and then brings them back anyway. Moff’s approach can be summed up in Amy’s line from The Big Bang, “if you can remember someone, they can come back”. And it’s that message which bothers me the most.

Sorry to get all, “won’t somebody think of the children?” for a moment but should Doctor Who be telling the younger members of its audience the death of a loved one is temporary? The fact is that you can remember someone you’ve lost all you like, but they cannot come back.

Not that I think Doctor Who has the power to delude children into thinking the dead can be resurrected. But how inexpressibly sad for a child who has lost a friend or family member – perhaps one in the middle of the grieving process – to turn to their favourite show and be presented with the glib, almost crass, suggestion that if you remember someone, they can come back from the dead. I think that might sour a young viewer’s opinion of the show forever.

How to fix this? It’s back to the Earthshock model. When you kill someone, they stay dead. As painful as it is. There may not be much to recommend Time-Flight, but when Tegan and Nyssa plead with the Doctor to change events and save Adric’s life, he says no, that’s not possible. And when the two women meet a phantom of the dead boy later in the story, they rightly walk through it for the illusion that it is. It hurts, but the right message. Dead is dead.

So while The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood may once have packed a punch, it’s now difficult to take its best moment, Rory’s demise, seriously. Just as it was difficult to take Clara’s death in Face the Raven (about which more NEXT TIME) seriously. Because we know that in new Who, death doesn’t stop a companion’s story.

But it should. It really should.

LINK TO Inside the Spaceship. The TARDIS in trouble, again.

 

 

 

Complexity, comprehension and The God Complex (2011)

There’s a hotel somewhere and in each of the rooms is someone’s worst nightmare. How about that for a central premise, eh? That is pure Doctor Who. Really, as a starting point, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Then you’ve got to justify it in some way that makes it sound reasonably feasible in an outlandish sci-fi kind of way. So the hotel is not a hotel, it’s a disguised spaceship. The spaceship is home to a creature which feeds off fear, and so it kidnaps people, confronts them with their worst nightmare and consumes all that tasty fear. So far, so Doctor Who.

But then it all gets a bit complicated.

It turns out it’s not actually fear that the creature wants to feast on. What happens is that when confronted with their deadliest fear, the victims fall back on their most deeply held faith, and that’s the food for the creature. It’s a faith eater, not a fear eater.

The moment this revelation is revealed is where The God Complex pivots on expectations. Problem is, it’s just a little too tricksy. I think that’s the moment where the audience is meant to go, “oh, of course! It all makes sense now!” In fact, it’s the moment where I suspect they go, “um, come again?”

And that’s a shame because when that happens, it’s stops being a quintessential Doctor Who idea. It suddenly got too complicated. It went a step too far. Before then – you’re trapped in a labyrinthine hotel with a creature that feeds off your terror! – it was easy-to-grasp, creepy stuff. Then it gained an unnecessarily complicated add on.

Perhaps that’s what makes an utterly Who-ish idea. Bizarre and compelling but able to be summed up in a sentence.

*****

Some people’s faiths are easier to comprehend than others. Clever clogs Rita (Amara Karan) is a Muslim, so we get that. Hipster nerd Howie (Dimitri Leonidas) is a conspiracy theorist. Well, I suppose it’s belief system of sorts, if you squint. Tivolian moleman Gibbis (David Walliams) comes from a species with an almost fetishistic desire to be invaded. That’s an amusing character trait, sure, but do we get to call that a faith?

Companion Amy (Karen Gillan) has faith in the Doctor (Matt Smith), to such an extent that a climax will need to be borrowed from The Curse of Fenric to help her break it and defeat the monster of the week. Oddly enough, the Doctor – or rather waiting for him to turn up – is also her greatest fear. Which gives us some insight into how obsessed she’s become with him. Luckily this seems to be something husband Rory (Arthur Darvill) has grown accustomed to, so isn’t too bothered by.

Rory doesn’t get a scary room of his own. As the Doctor points out, this is because he isn’t particularly religious. Which is all well and good, but are we saying Rory doesn’t believe in anything? If we can pass Gibbis’ love for domination off as faith, surely there must be something inside Rory which he might fall back on in a moment of great crisis. One would have thought perhaps his faith in Amy, although after we’ve seen how Doctor obsessed her subconscious is, maybe it’s just as well he doesn’t seem to have any deeply held connection to her. Poor faithless Rory. For such a caring, passionate guy, it just doesn’t seem right that he’s an empty, soulless shell.

*****

David Walliams is some late season stunt casting which is interesting in and of itself. Firstly, it’s a brave decision to cover the story’s major guest star in a mole mask, even if his distinctive profile is recognisable under all that latex. Still, it’s kind of apt given Walliams’ Little Britain pedigree for inhabiting outlandish categories. And since Tom Baker added his cheeky baritone to that series and outed Walliams and co-conspirator Matt Lucas as Who-heads (as if The Web of Caves wasn’t enough), it was probably inevitable that they’d end up on the show. And now Lucas is a regular on the show. Is Walliams envious? Surely a Whoside reunion is inevitable.  Little Gallifrey, perhaps.

Another name which jumps off the cast list is Spencer Wilding. It’s a name tailor made for an actor, so it’s just as well this 6’ 7” man mountain gave up kick boxing. Wilding plays the Minotaur, and is such a giant that when the series employs him, they can do enormous brutish creatures without resorting to CGI. The God Complex is the first of three big badasses he plays for the series (he’s also the Wooden King and Ice Warrior Skaldak) over a short period of time, so that oversize aliens briefly become a series motif. It’s the Spencer Wilding era, as I think we should call it. (Also fact fans, he’s the second actor to play both a minotaur in Doctor Who and be the body of Darth Vader.)

We’re also at the beginning of another mini-tenure, the Nick Hurran era. Hurran’s directorial style – full of inventive, suspenseful shots and rapid cutting between shots – marks him out as a standout talent in this and his other episode this season, The Girl Who Waited. He quickly becomes the go to guy for the series’ showcase episodes and gets the prime gig of directing the 50th anniversary special. This is a director the show’s invested in. Where’s he gone, I wonder? Some shrewd and handsome fellow once asked Steven Moffat in DWM why directors seem not to linger on the show for longer than a few episodes. “Bloody good question,” Moffat replied, so we might surmise that even the Boss doesn’t know where he’s hiding.

*****

There are so many minotaurs already in Doctor Who and so it doesn’t entirely surprise when The God Complex feels obliged to shout out to one them. “Distant cousin of the Nimon,” the Doctor name drops. “They descend on planets and set themselves up as gods to be worshipped.” Despite the fact that The Horns of Nimon is a story the series is rarely in a rush to remember, that does sound like a classic Doctor Who idea.

“Which is fine, until the inhabitants get all secular and advanced enough to build bonkers prisons,” the Doctor goes on. And once again that crystal clear idea gets muddied by over complication. This episode. It just doesn’t know when to stop.

LINK TO Deep Breath: The God Complex  has pictures of Silurians and Sontarans, and Deep Breath  has Vastra and Strax.

NEXT TIME: Anyone for tennis? Failing that, how about The Stones of Blood?

Press Gang, continuity errors and The Curse of the Black Spot (2011)

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So… pirates. Doctor Who and the pirates, eh? Filmic references, monsters drawn from mythology, more misfiring technology and more errant children.

But bugger all that for a moment. Let’s talk about Press Gang.

Press Gang was Steven Moffat’s first TV series which ran from 1989 to 1993 on ITV. Co-created with his father Bill Moffat, it’s a fascinating piece of work. Its premise was the ongoing adventures of a group of plucky teenagers running a school newspaper. It was smart, witty, engaging and utterly implausible.

This student newspaper (the Junior Gazette) was run as a faux newsroom, as regimented as any professional paper. There was a design department and sales department, and the students seemed to work on this paper with a zeal which many paid journos wouldn’t bother with. They seemed to work all hours too and the stories they chased often were real world news stories, rather than what was on the school canteen menu that week.

Despite the craziness of the premise, it was compelling viewing. The cohort of characters Moffat created to staff this teenage fantasy of a news room, were stellar. Acerbic editor Lynda Day (Julia Sawalha) had a stormy romantic relationship with leather jacket wearing bad boy Spike (Dexter Fletcher). There was sensible journalist type Sarah (Kelda Holmes), spunky designer type Julie (Lucy Benjamin – replaced midway through by the even spunkier Gabrielle Anwar), token black guy Frazz (Mmoloki Christie) and comedy capitalist Colin (Paul Reynolds). And Lee Ross, who plays the Boatswain in Black Spot was Kenny, perpetual nice guy, long suffering dogsbody to Lynda and sometimes songwriter and would be pop star. It was that kind of show.

It had the rarest of things: a cast of teenagers who were great actors. They created a terrific chemistry which each other and were engaging to watch. The plots were always just this side of believability, but the dialogue was snappy and quotable. Even in this early work, you can see that this is Moffat’s greatest strength. He was doing Sorkin before we knew who Sorkin was. Looking back on it, there’s a touch of The West Wing’s structure in Press Gang, with that small group of workers in strict hierarchy, fighting the good fight and who always manage to say the smartest, funniest thing at exactly the right time.

The Press Gang exposed dodgy businesses, abusive parents and all sorts of nogoodniks. A couple of episodes stick in the mind. There was the one where Spike was threatening to go back to his native America, and Lynda made a show of pushing him away, before slyly pickpocketing his passport in the final frame. There was the with Professor X (Michael Jayston) a deluded actor replaying his glory days as a childrens’ sci-fi hero. But the stand out episodes made up a two part story, about a masked gunman hijacking the newsroom, with all our favourite characters inside.

Press Gang often played with narrative form, and in this two-parter, we started at the funeral of one of the newsroom staff. With the gunman’s siege played in flashback, Moffat gradually allowed us to see each of the regular cast, one by one at the funeral. As each appeared, it was a signal that they must have survived the siege, thus whittling down the possibilities of which of our favourites had bitten the dust. I won’t spoil the outcome for you if you haven’t seen it, because its ingenious and worth experiencing fresh. But suffice to say, it’s got a corker of a resolution.

In those tense scenes in the newsroom, where our heroes seek to reason with, outsmart and overcome their assailant, fiery Lynda at one stage launches into one of her trademark verbal rants. Earlier in the episode, we’d learned that she’d gotten in trouble from some boring adult figure of authority for throwing an ashtray in frustration with someone. The more she shouts at the gunman, the more it seems he might crack and shoot her. Colin, who has been injured, whispers something to Kenny, and Kenny says to Lynda, ‘don’t throw the ashtray’. Lynda gets the message and calms down. What a great line. I’ve always carried that with me. Even now, there are days when I remember that sage advice, and think to myself, don’t throw the ashtray.

It’s surprising more Press Gang alumni haven’t made it onto Doctor Who (although Julia Sawalha was in that other Curse, the one of Fatal Death.  And Lucy Benjamin was in Mawdryn Undead, oddly enough.) But hey, maybe there’s still time as Moff still has a series in him. My vote’s for Gabrielle Anwar. Please Moff? Please?

*****

The other piece of Lee Ross related interest in Black Spot is that he’s at the centre of a massive continuity error. Not the sort of continuity error that Doctor Who fans care about, like when someone mispronounces Metebelis or Atlantis is destroyed three times. Instead it’s the sort of continuity error normal people care about, like when someone’s wearing an enormous coloured scarf outside the TARDIS, then walks into the control room and the scarf’s hanging on a hatstand (apologies, The Invasion of Time).

Midway through this episode, Lee Ross’s character, the swarvy Boatswain just disappears. One moment he’s barricaded in the magazine with the Ponds (Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill), and has suffered a slight cut, which will be enough for the mysterious Siren (Lily Cole) to emerge from something shiny and take him. The next, he’s gone and that’s the last we see of him until the episode’s end when we find he and the rest of the crew have survived the Siren’s ministrations. This story forgets to show us what happened in between.

It’s apparently a mistake made in the editing; and it says something about the pace of making Doctor Who that even with all resources the thrown at it, inevitably booboos slip in. But it’s one of a couple of important moments which are left off screen, such as when Rory nearly drowns having fallen overboard and we don’t see any of it. Then there’s the bit near where the Siren comes for pirate Mulligan (Michael Begley) and all we see is her ethereal light shining out from under a door. I suspect these aren’t stuff ups, as much as budget easing expediencies.

So… pirates. Doctor Who and the pirates, eh? Monsters and errant children and all that. And I want to talk about trivia involving Lee Ross. This blog’s not called randomwhoness for nothin’ y’know.

LINK TO Four To Doomsday: in both, the TARDIS is absconded with mid story.

NEXT TIME: With the big sad eyes and the robot dog? It’s time for a School Reunion.

Anything, everything and The Wedding of River Song (2011)

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“All of history is happening at once,” says Caesar Winston Churchill (Ian McNeice) at the top of this season finale, and in a short space of time, the viewers know exactly how he feels. The Wedding of River Song (hereafter referred to by its pleasing acronym TWORS) throws everything it’s got at us. And it throws it all at once. To bamboozling effect.

It starts with a lengthy recap from other adventures in this narratively complex season, retelling how the Doctor (a foreboding Matt Smith) is trying to evade his forthcoming death on the shore of Lake Silencio in Utah. Once the viewer has this under their belt, it’s on to the pre-credit sequence, showing a London with all of history combined into a mix-and-match selection of ancient Rome, World War 2, Silurian pre-history and modern day. The viewer is expected to keep up as Caesar Churchill notices that the date and time never changes, and calls for his imprisoned Soothsayer. Who turns out to be the Doctor, recently returned from a visit to Whiskeron.

Then post-credits, there’s another pre-credits sequence. In short shrift, the Doctor robs a dying Dalek of information about the Silence. Which leads him to a bar to meet Gideon Vanderleur (Niall Grieg Fulton), an envoy of the Silence. Except it’s not Gideon, it’s the time travelling, shapeshifting robot the Teselecta, seen previously in Let’s Kill Hitler. The Teselecta’s Captain Carter (Richard Dillane) leads the Doctor to another bloke, Gantok (Rondo Haxton) and a deadly game of chess. This leads him to the Seventh Transept, and the talking head of Dorium Maldovar (Simon Fisher-Becker) who at last can give the Doctor the information he needs to start the story.

And by now, we’re about five minutes in.

That’s indicative of both the pace and the general feel of TWORS. This is a story which makes few concessions for the casual or inattentive viewer.  From here it’s a rapid fire trip (via steam train) from strange London to strange Cairo, taking in the Silence, altered versions of Amy and Rory (Gillan and Darvill), Madam Kovarian (Frances Barber) and terminating in the wedding of River Song (Alex Kingston) itself, and the history rewriting impact it has. Plus a sidetrip to mourn the death of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. It’s full on, and there’s a lot to get through.

We’ve been here before, when talking about AGMGTW (acronym mad, I am). This is a season of  Doctor Who which expects a lot of its viewers. And it doesn’t let up; TWORS is artillery barrage Doctor Who.

*****

I suspect that how much you enjoy an episode like TWORS  or AGMGTW  or even TNOTD depends on how satisfied you are with an episode which is less a distinct Doctor Who story and more a string of explanations, wrapping up storylines from a season’s overarching story arc. Which in turn, I think, depends on how interested you are in that story arc.

Assuming you are interested in this arc, I think your enjoyment then depends on how satisfied you are with those explanations. If you’re pleasantly surprised at the answers, and don’t feel cheated or that the producers have copped out, then I think these sort of loose-end-tying-up episodes are just fine. And TWORS does an admirable job of just that, plus dropping plenty of intriguing hints for next season’s big story arc.

Personally, I find these sort of episodes enjoyable, but less than the sum of their parts. I enjoy having a few mysteries resolved, but I rarely revisit them after an initial viewing. In fact, I sometimes struggle to recall what the story’s about. And I think that’s because it’s not about anything. Instead, it’s about everything, all at once.

*****

But if any of this bothers you, don’t let it. Thing is, this story never really happened. Nor did TNOTD. Nor did all of Series 5, as far as I can work out. Because in these narratives, things can go to all levels of doolally, and then be reversed by some timey wimey conceit.

Luckily though, our heroes retain their memories of these adventures that never were. It’s a peculiarly Moffaty piece of logic. And it creates an odd effect for the viewer where two sorts of realities exist simultaneously; we always seem to be in a permanent state where events did/didn’t happen. Some people have wondered if because River married a giant robotic replica of the Doctor and not the man himself, are the two actually married? Never mind that, surely because history was changed, the wedding never actually took place (and least this wedding. They could have tried again some other time)?

But it also leads to the feeling that you can never actually trust a Moffat storyline. When Clara recently bought the farm in FTR, I don’t think there was any regular viewer who thought there was no ‘get out of death free card’. We’re so used to time being rewritten and people coming back from the dead that the series has lost some of its ability to shock. Nothing’s a matter of life and death any more, just a matter of time.

*****

So… A bewildering, unlikely set of events. A strange melange of imagery. A bit of romance, a bit of a punch up, old friends and old enemies popping up everywhere. And at the end of it all, no-one can quite remember what exactly happened.

All in all, just like any other wedding.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: at one point ‘timey wimey’ becomes ‘tiny winy’. Clearly a subtitler not versed in Moffatese.

LINK TO TCH. Both are Matt Smith stories of course, but also Mark Gatiss wrote one and pseudonymously appears in the other.

NEXT TIME: You had juan chanze, mah frend, juan chanze! Direct from a relay station in Nigeria, it’s TEOTW.

Fans, fiction and A Good Man Goes to War (2011)

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Imagine if you pitched this story to any publisher of Who fiction, such as Big Finish or BBC Books or DWM‘s comic strip: The Doctor’s companions have had time vortex-exposed sex and conceived a baby. The baby is kidnapped by a squadron of religious soldiers, so the Doctor gathers an army of allies including Silurians, Sontarans and Judoon to help him rescue her. The Cybermen also make an appearance, as do Captain Avery and Danny Boy, and there are continuity references to nearly every story in the last year and a half. As it turns out, the baby is actually another of the Doctor’s companions who’ll grow up to be his a. assassin and b. wife. (Actually, the whole thing’s beginning to sound like a Virgin New Adventure. Let’s travel back to 1991 and pitch it to them.)

Surely, no one would touch it with a barge pole. Because it reads like fan fiction. A fan writing a story for other fans. And as fan lore tells us, that’s bad. That’s about the worst thing you can do if you’re writing Doctor Who. Apart from question marks on collars or not taking things seriously enough.

(A quick recap on how we got to the idea that writing for a fan-based audience is bad. 1980s Who saw some liberal reuse of old monsters, characters and costumes from stock. Internal references to previous eras peppered the stories. Initially a popular approach, it was overused and the production team were criticised for trying to please fans rather than entertain a general audience. And since then Doctor Who fans have taken a dim view of writers trying to please them. Don’t try to please us!, they say. Think of the general public!’)

But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that A Good Man Goes to War is written for folk with an advanced level of knowledge of Doctor Who since the beginning of series 5, some 18 months previous. In short, it’s written for fans. But who are fans nowadays?

Steven Moffat has argued that everyone’s a Doctor Who fan these days; that the general audience do tend to watch most episodes of the show so you can tell detailed narratives without worrying that they’ll be alienated and switch channels. If he’s right, then Joe Public would have been completely comfortable with the complicated story arc of Series Six, in which A Good Man etc is thoroughly embedded.

But if he’s wrong, then I think A Good Man would be greatly perplexing to less dedicated viewers. To offer an episode as dense with references to previous storylines as this must be very offputting at least and bewildering at best. How else can we imagine a casual viewer reacting to dialogue like this?

DOCTOR: It’s all running about, sexy fish vampires and blowing up stuff. And Rory wasn’t even there at the beginning. Then he was dead, then he didn’t exist, then he was plastic. Then I had to reboot the whole universe. Long story. So, technically the first time they were on the TARDIS together in this version of reality, was on their…
VASTRA: On their what?
DOCTOR: On their wedding night.

Get your head around that, casual viewers! Even the pay off to this story – the revelation that River is Amy and Rory’s daughter – only works if you’re invested in the series long story arc, and you care about such things. Otherwise, what does it matter who’s daughter River is? Why would anyone but a fan care?

*****

Old Who had its share of continuity heavy storylines, allegedly written with fans in mind. The granddaddy of them all was Attack of the Cybermen, so let’s pick on it as an example.

Broadcast in 1985, it contained various plot threads from stories as distant as 1966’s The Tenth Planet, 1967’s The Tomb of the Cybermen and 1968’s The Invasion. It has since been roundly criticised for expecting casual viewers to know detailed plot points from stories broadcast almost 20 years previously. Although I suspect that for a casual viewer, it can be enjoyed on a simple Doctor vs the Monsters level, in a way that A Good Man cannot because the very purpose of the Doctor’s actions in the latter story needs to be seen in context.

But we should remember that Attack of the Cybermen and its nostalgic 1980s stablemates existed in a very different space than modern day Doctor Who. With no repeat screenings, few home video releases and VCRs an expensive luxury, it was rare even in the mid 80s to see a story more than once. Under those circumstances, the less you distracted your audience with needless continuity the better. Modern Doctor Who is designed for multiple viewings – indeed, it rewards them – and its audience is better equipped to follow long, complex narratives. And if Moffat pulls Sontarans, Judoon and Danny Boy’s spitfire out of his toybox, it could well be that they cut down the costs of creating new prosthetics and CGI assets.

My point is not that A Good Man is this century’s Attack of the Cybermen, although they are both, to my mind, equally obsessed with fannish continuity. It’s more that fandom’s go-to criticism of writing for fans is outdated, because as new Who continually shows, you can write Doctor Who for fans and still make compelling TV. And if we accept that, perhaps we can look at some of those 80s continuity fests in a new light. Perhaps, we can learn to stop worrying and love the fanwank.

Anyway, enough of this. I’ve got another story to pitch to the powers that be. It’s going to be a match up between the Master and the Cybermen. They’ll walk down the steps of St Paul’s like in The Invasion! And UNIT will be in it. And the Brigadier will come back from the dead… Not too much continuity, do you think?

What do you mean it’s been done?

LINK to: Terror of the Vervoids: in both we meet friends of the Doctor from unseen adventures (Travers in Vervoids and all sorts of people in A Good Man).

NEXT TIME… When you’ve quite finished grinning like a Cheshire Cat, we’ll delve into The Mind of Evil.

Mark making, rule breaking and A Christmas Carol (2010)

christmascarol2

Christmas specials come in two varieties: the ones which are frothy but insubstantial festive fun, and those which are big event episodes, containing new Doctors, new companions, regenerations et al. On first glance, 2010’s A Christmas Carol looks like it falls into the first category, and true, it does lack a cast change or a Minogue calibre guest star which would single it out as event TV. But actually, I’d say it’s a deceptively important episode which stamps showrunner Steven Moffat’s mark on the series and changes it forever. A big call! Let’s see if I can back it up.

We have to start with the previous story, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang. In this story, the Doctor (tweedy Matt Smith) reboots the universe, seemingly reversing the events of Series 5 and returning us to the fictional equivalent of a restore point. It is the most potent embodiment of a phrase that almost becomes Moffat’s mission statement for Doctor Who: time can be re-written. He effectively rewinds the tape to an earlier part of the story and starts again. As the climax to a story or story arc, it’s a trick to which Doctor Who had never before resorted. It’s the ‘Superman reverse time’ trick.

A Christmas Carol goes a step further. It has long been one of Doctor Who‘s immutable rules that the Doctor cannot change history, and by inference, that he can’t change anyone’s personal history. In The Runaway Bride, he says “I couldn’t go back on someone’s personal timeline.” And in Smith and Jones he says “Crossing into established events is strictly forbidden.” Luckily he remembers to add “Except for cheap tricks”, because A Christmas Carol sets out to break all those rules.

It happens to Kazran Sardick, our stand-in Scrooge, played with nuanced gravitas by Michael Gambon. In order to change Sardick’s mind on the subject of saving a crashing spacecraft full of passengers (which includes companions Amy and Rory), the Doctor embarks on an elaborate plan to change his personal history and make him a more compassionate person.

He starts by travelling back in time to when Kazran was a boy (Laurence Belcher). As he does so, Sardick Snr realises his memories are changing, and he turns to the camera, aghast. For the first time in Doctor Who, someone’s time is being rewritten.

(I get to watch each Christmas special with a terrific bunch of friends, all Who heads, but of the casual, new series loving variety, not a die hard like me. I remember watching A Christmas Carol and gasping at that particular moment, recognising what a ground breaking moment it was for the series. My viewing buddies, of course, didn’t bat an eyelid.)

From there on, the Doctor ducks and dives backwards and forwards across the old miser’s timeline. Like all children in Doctor Who, Sardick junior is entranced by Matt Smith’s playful Doctor. He arrives to babysit the kid, and before long they’re both being threatened by a giant flying shark. It’s the start of a great friendship between Time Lord and lonely boy; in each other, they find inquisitive, adventure seeking kindred spirits.

A litany of successive Christmas eve adventures in the TARDIS ensue, with beautiful songstress Abigail (Katherine Jenkins) in tow. She’s been liberated from one of Kazran’s father’s cryogenic pods for people who haven’t paid their bills. The boy loves all this, and loves the Doctor. He even starts wearing a bow tie.

As Sardick grows up to become a young man (Danny Horn), he and Abigail inevitably fall in love. But eventually Abigail fesses up to her new beau that she’s terminally ill and has only days to live. Days she’s been frittering away on Christmas Eve trips in the TARDIS, and now there’s but one left. Sardick grows resentful of the Doctor, who has given him a taste of a happy life, but who has also been gradually ruining it. He dismisses the Doctor with the ultimate insult – he’s grown bored – and disgustedly removes his bow tie.

(And it’s here that we must pause and acknowledge the story’s greatest logical flaw. Abigail looks to be the picture of health. And even if she’s not, why does neither she nor Sardick say anything to the Doctor, who can presumably whisk her away to the future where medical science would surely have found a cure for her? It certainly can’t be for fear of disrupting her timeline. That horse has most definitely bolted.)

So Sardick grows up old and bitter, despite the Doctor’s remedial efforts on his timeline. And as this is a retelling of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, we all know what has to happen next: the Doctor will show him a haunting vision of his future. Even Sardick knows it: “Fine. Do it. Show me. I’ll die cold, alone and afraid. Of course I will. We all do. What difference does showing me make?” he snarls. But Moffat pulls off a beautiful conjuring trick, again breaking all the rules. He brings Sardick’s childhood version to the future see what he’ll grow into. A perfect reversal of audience expectations.

And the twists keep coming. Having established that the machine which could save the crashing spaceship will only work for Sardick, the Doctor’s shocked to find he’s changed the misanthrope too much, and the machine no longer recognises him. So Sardick’s forced to thaw out his lady love for the last day of her life, and the scene is set for something of a plotting marvel, in which every one of the story’s elements: Doctor, Sardick, Abigail, singing, shark, screwdriver and crashing spaceship combine to bring the story to a close. That’s hard to do, but Moffat makes it look easy.

But for me, being an old Who stick in the mud, the Doctor’s new found willingness to run roughshod over time, initially spoiled A Christmas Carol for me. It seemed to me to be almost cheating – not playing by the rules. In Series 5 and now this Christmas special, Moffat had set out a bold and revolutionary agenda for the series. You bet time can be rewritten, and now so had Doctor Who.

But since that first viewing, I’ve come to admire much about this episode, not just the intricate plotting I’ve traced through here. But also the quickfire rapidity of the jokes; it’s one of Moffat’s wittiest scripts. The pacy direction of Toby Haynes and the moody cinematography of Stephan Pehrsson. A towering performance by Gambon, who seems to effortlessly wring maximum meaning from every word and gesture. And Matt Smith at the peak of his powers, being both adolescent and ancient simultaneously. All this, and a marriage to Marilyn Monroe.

It’s a thing of beauty and a reminder that sometimes to tell a story which is new and compelling, sometimes you need to break all the rules.

ADVENTURES IN SUBTITLING: one of my favourite lines gets mangled when the Doctor’s Christmas instruction to a young boy, “stay off the naughty list” becomes the meaningless “stay off the naughtyness”.

LINK TO Planet of Giants. In both the TARDIS doors open mid flight. But luckily this time, the “space pressure” doesn’t cause the Ship to miniaturise. Phew!

NEXT TIME… You unspeakable abomination! We conduct The Sontaran Experiment.