Tag Archives: john hurt

Inflexibility, impossibility and The Day of the Doctor (2013)

Fans sometimes talk about Doctor Who‘s infinitely flexible format. This is the show which can go anywhere and do anything. When an anniversary year comes around though, we discover this isn’t as true as we might like to think.

It’s all the fault of The Three Doctors really. It laid down a template for anniversary stories which ever since has been too good to resist. Multi Doctors, uniting against one enormous threat. Then The Five Doctors took it even further. Returning Doctors plus returning companions and lots of returning monsters.

The reunion episode is a TV staple, and on any other show, you could do it as often as you like. On ordinary shows, characters can age, and you can pick up with them years after their last TV appearance. You find out what ever happened to them, you try to guess which ones have had plastic surgery, it’s all good fun.

But Doctor Who can’t do that because each of the Doctors is meant to be ageless. We saw each of them turn into another of them, before they got old and creaky. Reunion shows doomed forever. Flexible format, my foot! The Day of the Doctor is bogged down in a format it inherited from Old Who and which was, by 2013, almost impossible to use.

Because here’s the problem. What other possible shape could the show’s 50th anniversary episode take? It’s very difficult to imagine it not being a multi Doctor story, because that’s what Doctor Who anniversaries are. And it’s inconceivable that it wouldn’t at least acknowledge each actor to play the title role.

Steven Moffat knew this. More than that, he wanted this – and more. He wanted every single Doctor joining forces to save Gallifrey from the Daleks. It’s testament to his ingenuity and determination that he made this happen. Despite three Doctors being dead, four looking significantly different to their Doctorly prime and one flatly refusing to participate.

But that Moff is clever. He takes an impossible format and makes it work. How did he do it?

First, he makes this a story about the Doctor and the biggest day of his life. Think of how different an approach this is to The Three and Five Doctors, where the multiple Doctors simply come out to play, just to have an adventure. Setting this story on the last day of the Time War, gives it an event worth watching, not just a chance to rival Doctors squabble. It’s an event big enough for this biggest of episodes.

Secondly, John Hurt. Every anniversary story’s been short its full quota of Doctors, and each has come up with inventive ways around the problem. But Moffat’s is the most audacious. Without Christopher Eccleston, he needs a Doctor upon whom to shoulder the story’s moral core – the redemption of the Doctor post his Time War atrocity. At a pinch, it could have been Paul McGann. But in search of a marquee name to hang out the front his 50th anniversary, the Moff creates an entirely new and hitherto unheard of Doctor and has him played by a movie star.

Think the Doctor is a tough role to play? Pah, step aside children. Hurt is instantly right in the part, creating, as McGann did 17 years earlier, a fully formed Doctor in about an hour. There’s a lovely bit somewhere in all the associated behind the scenes material about this story, where Doctors Smith and Tennant giggle like naughty schoolboys about their own acting deficiencies compared to Hurt. Smith says he’s busy pulling faces like mad, when all John Hurt has to do is look, and the shot’s in the can.

It would have been great to have Eccleston back. But if he hadn’t said no, we wouldn’t have got Hurt. And it gives The Day of the Doctor the chance to say something new about its lead character; that there was a time when he strayed from the path and became everything a Doctor shouldn’t be.  It’s another way in which Moffat breathes life back into the anniversary show format, by asking that question he loves to ask: Doctor Who? Who is this man and what has shaped him? It’s more introspective than any other multi-Doctor stories to date.

Finally, he plays fast and loose with the structure of a Doctor Who story. You’d be well within your rights to expect a villain of some sort to turn up in the biggest Doctor Who story ever. You might be wondering where the final showdown is, with the Doctors squaring off with some big arse Time Lord baddy, as per Three and Five. Instead Moffat gives us two alien invasions – the Zygons on Earth and the Daleks in the skies above Gallifrey- but boldly keeps these on the sidelines. The main question posed is not, “will the Doctors win?”, but “can the Doctor heal himself?”

The answer turns out to be, “yes, but only if we completely retcon the new series”. Moffat is unafraid of such bold, sweeping moves. In The Big Bang, he completely reverses the whole of Series 5. In The Wedding of River Song, he negates an alternative timeline. He’s used to travelling back to a crucial point in history, and just changing it. Time, remember, can be rewritten.

So in one fell swoop, he changes the outcome of the Time War, saves Gallifrey from destruction and absolves the Doctor of his crimes. It’s a resetting of the show along the lines of the classic series. The Doctor’s no longer a war criminal, Gallifrey’s in the heavens and all’s right with the world. Plus he manages to rope in all thirteen of the Doctor’s to help, in a smorgasbord of archive footage, vocal impersonations and impressive eyebrows.

Oddly enough though, here he’s on much more traditional anniversary story ground. The Three Doctors ended with the end of the Doctor’s earthly exile. Reset! The Five Doctors ended with the Doctor on the run from his own people again. Reset! And here, a new start, unburdened by the weight of the Time War, which the series has dragged around since 2005.

All delivered in 3D, in cinemas and a guest appearance by Tom Baker. So hats off to the Moff. Upon being told there were no toys left in the toybox, he held a kickass party anyway. And rewrote Doctor Who along the way. Yeah, that’s how he did it.

LINK TO Resurrection of the Daleks: the Dalek invasion of Gallifrey threatened in Resurrection finally happens.

NEXT TIME: The Beast and his armies shall rise from the Pit to make war against God. We do the Devil’s work with The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit.

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Quips, questions and The Name of the Doctor (2013)

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River Song (Alex Kingston) has a succinct assessment of the Doctor (Matt Smith), which she delivers in The Name of the Doctor: “He doesn’t like endings.” We might adapt it for showrunner Steven Moffat by saying “he doesn’t like explanations.” His style is to not explain everything to the audience and to not let exposition slow down a story. I think explanations bore him, and if they are only going to be meaningless bafflegab anyway, why bother?

This tendency to under explain is all over The Name of the Doctor and it starts at the very beginning. In 1893, a prisoner, Clarence de Marco (Michael Jenn), is manically reciting a rhyme. As Vastra (Neve McIntosh) discovers, this man has knowledge about the Doctor and co-ordinates to his final resting place on Trenzalore.

But how does he know these things? We’re never told. At least not in this episode.

To find out how he acquired this knowledge, we need to turn to a special feature on the DVD release, Clarence and the Whispermen. In it, it’s revealed that de Marco was visited by the spectral Whispermen, who implanted the knowledge within him. To me, that’s not inessential background information. That’s important to the plot. And so we have an episode where you need to watch the DVD extras to get the full story.

Next, the conference call. Moffat wants to bring five key protagonists together to brief them on the plot, but they’re separated by time and space. Solution: they all enter a drug induced sleep. Because, we’re told, “time travel has always been possible in dreams”. Explanation enough, it seems.

And so Vastra, Jenny (Catrin Stewart), Strax (Dan Starkey), Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman) and River are able to meet up and discuss the plot. This is particularly impressive in River’s case, because by this stage she exists only as a digital copy of herself. Quite how Vastra delivers a message to her, or how she imbibes the soporific drug or indeed sleeps is left unexplained. As unexplained as how River can conjure up a bottle of champagne in this dream world. Laugh it off with a quip, and move on.

While our heroes are all tripped out, the Great Intelligence (Richard E Grant) strikes. He transports Vastra, Strax and Jenny’s corpse (she was recently killed by the Whispermen while she slept. But to paraphrase the Eighth Doctor, death never meant much to Moffat. She and Strax will be killed and resurrected once more by the time this episode’s out) to the Doctor’s final resting place on Trenzalore. Um, how exactly? He’s a ghostly formless entity floating around the cosmos and can probably travel there at the speed of thought, but what about those three corporeal beings? Did he carry them? Again, don’t ask, let’s move on.

The Doctor and Clara crash land on Trenzalore and Clara realises she can still see and hear River. “The conference call,” River offers, “I kept the line open.” But wasn’t the point of the conference call that you had to be unconscious to dial in? Clara’s definitely awake and acting her boots off. But then River can’t just be in Clara’s mind, because although no-one else can see or hear her, when she speaks the Doctor’s name, the tomb opens. No doubt the TARDIS can hear her. Even though she’s a shadow of herself. And herself is a back up. On a computer no doubt light years away. And centuries too.

(Ah yes, the TARDIS. Once Clara and the Doctor get in, suddenly it is time for explanations, but not from this episode, but from three episodes previously. In Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, Clara heard about her various “impossible girl” personas and the Doctor’s fixation with them. But the events of that story were reversed by a massive plot contrivance. So now it’s time for all those memories to come flooding back. How odd, to go from a conspicuous absence of explanation to ODing on them in order to get to the climax the episode needs.)

That climax is similarly vague on selected points. It transpires that the Doctor can also hear River, but touch and kiss her too. “How are you even doing that?,” asks an incredulous River, but her question goes unanswered. She should know better, really.

By this stage, the Great Intelligence has entered the Doctor’s time stream to poison all his days, and Clara has followed him in as the antidote. All predictions were that this would prove fatal, but in the way of these things, she survives by some zillion to one chance.

She lands, um… where exactly? The Doctor’s timestream seems to have some physical space where various Doctors run about mid-adventure. What is this place? How come it can be physically penetrated? Even the Doctor can enter it, and use a magical leaf he’s summoned up from somewhere to meet up with Clara. Is this a practical or theoretical space? What is happening?

Then, in the dying seconds of the episode, we meet a grim, foreboding figure that exists in this strange, in between world. The Doctor is plainly terrified of him. The mystery man turns to face us… And we don’t recognise him. Onscreen captions have to finish the job for us. “Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor”.

And I think, with all the love in the world for Doctor Who,  this has to count as an epic storytelling flub. If you need captions to make sense of what’s happening on screen, surely you’ve failed to tell the story well enough. Sure, circumstances were not as the Moff may have liked. Had it been Christopher Eccleston who turned around to face the camera, there would have been no need for a caption to say who this actor is and who he’s playing. So the irony is that this episode, which has so far avoided all those pesky explanations, finally has to put one in big white letters on the screen.

But let’s not stop there. How do the Doctor and Clara escape from within the time stream? How do the Paternoster gang get home? And the big one, given the future changing events of The Time of the Doctor did any of this story actually happen?

This endless stream of questions. It sounds like I’m having a go at the Moff for not bothering enough to fully explain the events on screen. And I suppose I am in a way, but mostly I’m just pointing out that this is a characteristic of Moffat’s Who. He’s not that interested in explanations. It’s not that he doesn’t have them, or that he’s incapable of included them in his episodes; far from it. It’s that he makes a conscious decision to leave them out. Sure, you might be mystified. That’s fine with him.

Recently, there was an even more brazen example of this approach at work. It’s in The Witch’s Familiar. The Doctor is sitting in Davros’s chair, force field in place to survive the inevitable blasts from a miscellany of Daleks. He sips calmly from a cup of tea and says serenely, “of course the real question is ‘where did I get the cup of tea? Answer: I’m the Doctor. Accept it.”

Try writing that in a script at film school and it’ll quickly be struck out as indefensible. But here, it is the work of a supremely confident writer, setting out a modus operandi, if not a manifesto. He’s saying: any explanation I give you is going to be bollocks. So let’s not tarnish the spectacle of the Doctor in Davros’ chair sipping tea. Let’s not let explanations spoil the fun.

LINK to The Five Doctors. The Name of the Doctor actually has bits of The Five Doctors in it!

NEXT TIME… Right! Cut it open! We finally break the Season Seven drought with The Ambassadors of Death.