On Steven Moffat’s departure

Save your #moffatmustgo tweets, Moffat haters, because you’ve finally got your wish: Steven Moffat is retiring as Doctor Who showrunner after Series 10, to air in Spring 2017 (Autumn for we antipodeans), to be succeeded from Series 11 onwards by Chris Chibnall. I don’t mean to be resentful: it’s fair to say that Moffat’s era and style of Doctor Who hasn’t been received with universal adoration by the fandom — Moffat has had his legions of ardent fanboys and fangirls (like me), and conversely, a sizeable contingent of dissenters for whom Moffat’s interpretation of Doctor Who rubbed them the wrong way and who’ve never stopped clamouring for him to go. I know personally someone, a good friend and devoted Whovian, who will be delighted by this news. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with either perspective.

For my own part, I’m both saddened and gratified by the news. Anyone who reads this blog would know that I’m a huge Moffat fanboy, an unabashed Moffat partisan who will defend him and his era to the death. I think he’s by a substantial distance the best writer ever to contribute to the show, the best showrunner Doctor Who has ever had, and, I would propose, one of the best things ever to happen to Doctor Who. His era is easily my all-time favourite; he created my two favourite Doctors, Eleven and Twelve; and my favourite ever companion, Amy Pond. I became a fan of the show during Moffat’s tenure. Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who, in short, is my Doctor Who.

At the same time, I’ve been of the opinion for a long time that it’s about time for Moffat to go. As much as I’ve loved Steven Moffat as showrunner, Doctor Who thrives on change and renewal and reinvention, and the show should not ever become synonymous with one person’s creative vision. I don’t think Moffat had begun to run out of ideas at all — Series 9 has been the most creative and pioneering series in years, I would suggest since Doctor Who came back, in terms of pure boldness of vision. It suggests Moffat is still brimming with interesting ideas for Doctor Who. I’ve no doubt that Moffat could, if he wanted to, go on indefinitely directing Doctor Who and producing a high-quality show. But, by the end of Series 10, Moffat will have pretty much reached the limit of how long a single showrunner should be in charge of the show. If Moffat were to continue on after Series 10, it would be too long for the show to have been stuck in a familiar style, directed by a familiar vision employing familiar tropes and motifs. A new voice is needed. Which is why I’m glad about Moffat’s departure, even if I’m going to miss the man enormously. It’s, frankly, the perfect point for him to leave.

chrischibnall

As for Moffat’s chosen successor, Chris Chibnall, this isn’t an announcement about which I’m not without reservations. To be sure, I’ll be glad of a fresh vision guiding the show, but Chibnall would not have been my first choice (that would have been Jamie Mathieson, although I realise that was a pretty optimistic hope). Chibnall has commendable showrunning experience in producing Broadchurch, an absolutely fantastic show which is a huge credit to Chibnall’s ability to make high-quality television. He was also showrunner of a lesser-known BBC period drama called Born and Bred, which is also an exceptional show, and one of my favourite ever dramas (I highly recommend watching it). It’s his work on Broadchurch and Born and Bred that makes me very excited about the thought of Chibnall as Doctor Who showrunner.

But it’s Chibnall’s work on Doctor Who about which I have reservations. In his Doctor Who scripts to date, he has never particularly distinguished himself as a writer. His best script, in my opinion, was Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, which is a delightful romp, and in my opinion the best episode of Series 7, but not really what I’d call the most memorable of episodes. In contrast, when Steven Moffat was announced as showrunner, he’d written four all-time classics under Russell T Davies: The Empty Child/The Doctor DancesThe Girl in the FireplaceBlink and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. Chibnall has nothing like Moffat’s Doctor Who writing record under his belt going into assuming creative control of the show. That said, he’s written a few very good scripts for Torchwood: CountrycideAdrift and Fragments. But he was also responsible for Cyberwoman, one of a small handful of stories in the wider Doctor Who franchise that I can say without hesitation that I hate with a visceral passion.

On balance, I think the jury’s still out for me on Chris Chibnall as showrunner. I suppose I’ll just have to wait and see what he produces before I pass judgment. And, frankly, at the end of the day, I am very excited, as well as trepidatious, to see how Chibnall does. At the very least, it can be said that he’s a real Doctor Who fan, he understands the show, and he’s likely to have an interesting vision for the show, which will probably be quite different from Steven Moffat’s. He’ll also be inheriting probably the best stable of regular writers the show has had since it came back: Jamie Mathieson, Peter Harness, Sarah Dollard, Toby Whithouse, so he’ll be very well-equipped as showrunner. One thing I will say unreservedly in his favour, though, is that he seems to have tremendous skill and instinct for writing characters. This is unmistakable from his work on Broadchurch and Born and Bred (again, I can’t recommend watching this show highly enough), as well as his writing for Doctor Who; he did create the character of Brian Pond Williams, after all, for whom the only apt description is “amazing”.

One last thought, on the 2017 air date for Series 10. Of course, I’m greatly disappointed that we won’t get any Doctor Who this year apart from the Christmas special (what is this, Sherlock!!?!?!?), but I can agree that the extended wait might be worth it. It’ll give Moffat and the crew plenty of time to perfect and hone Moffat’s final series. Moffat will want to go out on a bang, and I can anticipate that Series 10 is going to be huge, especially if Capaldi also leaves at the end of Series 10 (which I think is likely). An extra 6-8 months should surely give Moffat et al. enough time to hone Series 10 into the best series it can be, and, above all, make it worth the wait and worthy of the showrunner’s swan song. At the same time, though, I’d have thought, at least, that we’d get some Doctor Who in 2016: at least a couple of specials (à la 2009), or a split series. In that case, though, Series 10 better be worth the wait. I’m just wondering what on Earth I’m going to write about for the next year.

Doctor Who headcanon #2

Time Lord regeneration is both the secret to the continuing success of Doctor Who, and one of the great mysteries of Doctor Who mythos. It’s easy to forget that the Doctor isn’t human, but each time the Doctor regenerates, losing his old face and persona and gaining new, we are reminded of the alienness of the Doctor and his kind, the Time Lords, as represented by the wonder of regeneration. Time Lords are creatures of time — they “walk in eternity”, as the Fourth Doctor so enigmatically put it. The essence of time is change, and regeneration reflects this aspect of time. You think you know the Doctor, but there goes and regenerates, and suddenly he’s no longer the man you know. When you appreciate that the Doctor has done this twelve times in a lifespan of over 2000 years, you realise how really alien and inhuman the Doctor, and his species, is.

Much ambiguity surrounds the concept of regeneration in Doctor Who lore. It has never really been made clear what actually happens when a Time Lord regenerates. True to form, we fans have tried our best to nail down the precise mechanics of regeneration, but, ultimately, until more explicit evidence is provided, it is a question open to interpretation.

Which is where headcanon comes in. Some time ago I read a contributor’s piece on Doctor Who TV which speculated that regeneration involves the total “death” of the Time Lord in body and mind, wherein the consciousness of the Time Lord’s former incarnation is disintegrated alongside the physical body and is replicated in the new body. In this way, each incarnation of a Time Lord has a separate consciousness. I’m not satisfied with this explanation, as I don’t really like the idea that the only relation that any given incarnation of the Doctor has with his previous incarnations is that they are made up of the same atoms and share memories. This theory almost denies that the Doctor is the same person as his previous selves. Are a man’s memories all that makes him who he is?

I prefer to think that regeneration is an organic process that is supposed to rapidly “renew” the Time Lord’s body, rather than dissolving the old body and constructing an entirely new body. The change happens at a cellular level: the cells remake themselves to rejuvenate the whole body. This process is imperfect, though, and the regeneration process will result in a physical change of appearance — a side-effect of regeneration. The regenerative process also has the effect of frazzling the brain, resulting in an altered personality, but, ultimately, continuity of consciousness. In this way, aspects of personality due to “nature” (i.e. preferences, persona) change, but not those due to “nurture” (i.e. values and principles, memories, things that are learned or due to experience).

This interpretation can also be distinguished from theories that see regeneration as involving a “body-swap” wherein an existing body is simply changed into another body (while consciousness and memories are retained). I don’t see regeneration as exchanging one body for a completely different one, but as a complete and drastic renewal of the same body. I think it is the disposition towards seeing regeneration as a simple “body-swap” that leads many to embrace the possibility of a female Doctor: the argument is that there is no reason the Doctor could not regenerate and find that he has ended up with a female body. In contrast, the way I prefer to see regeneration — as a renewal of the existing body rather than changing one body for another — means the idea of a female Doctor is more problematic, as it is hard to see how a male body could renew itself into something other than a male body. The objection could be raised, “But how is it any different from a young man (Eleven) regenerating into an old man (Twelve)?” Ignoring the fact that Eleven had physically aged to an extent that made him physically older than Twelve when his regeneration process began, I’d suggest that such changes as physical age, height, complexion, hair colour, facial structure, weight, etc, are essentially superficial changes of outward appearance. In contrast, a change from man to woman, involves a fundamental chromosomal shift, which begs the question: if one chromosome can slip, why not two? Why do not Time Lords routinely regenerate into non-humanoid forms?

I suppose the way one looks at the mechanics of regeneration also depends on what explanation for the origins of regeneration one accepts. To my knowledge, two different explanations for Time Lords’ ability to regenerate have been offered in the show. The traditional explanation, developed in the expanded media, was that regeneration is an artificial aspect of Time Lords’ physiology inserted by Rassilon during his shaping of Time Lord civilisation. The more recent explanation propounded in the revived series is that Time Lords evolved the ability to regenerate naturally, per A Good Man Goes to War:

DOCTOR: “But she’s human. She’s Amy and Rory’s daughter.”
VASTRA: “You’ve told me about your people. They became what they did through prolonged exposure to the time vortex. The Untempered Schism.”
DOCTOR: “Over billions of years. It didn’t just happen.”

This explanation posits that Time Lords evolved the ability to regenerate due to billions’ of years exposure to the time vortex. A similar process, River Song’s conception in the TARDIS, brought about the ability to regenerate in her.

These two explanations are plainly in clear contradiction with each other: either Rassilon did artificially insert regeneration into the Time Lord genome, or he didn’t; either regeneration is a result of natural evolution, or it isn’t. Such a contradiction can be resolved by resorting to Rule 3 of my headcanon rules: “Any blatant contradictions between onscreen explanations can be resolved by preferring the most recent explanation.” Rule 9 also comes into play: “Only the television show is explicitly canon; the audio stories, novels and comics are canon if you want them to be, but are not necessarily so.” Since the traditional explanation was only propounded in the expanded media, its canonicity must be subordinated to the later onscreen explanation. Another related piece of Time Lord backstory developed in the expanded media but retconned in the revived series was the idea that Time Lords are “born” fully grown through an artificial process of being “loomed” into existence from DNA strands — The Sound of Drums and Listen have showed Time Lords as children (the Master and the Doctor respectively), as did The Day of the Doctor, which made mention of “2.47 billion” children who died on Gallifrey (and indeed showed some Gallifreyan children).

So I prefer the “evolutionary” explanation for regeneration rather than the “artificial” explanation. It occurs to me that, if one accepts the evolutionary explanation, one would be more disposed to seeing regeneration as a restorative process (as I do) rather than as a process involving a total reconstitution of the body, or a body-swap. Conflicting views of the implications of regeneration, can be, if not resolved, but at least better understood, when the different interpretations of the mechanics and origins of regeneration are understood.

Series profile: Merlin

Merlin is one of the shows I’ve been most enjoying watching lately. Merlin has been off the airwaves for some time now, but I’ve always been meaning to catch up. Merlin first broadcast when I was 13, in my first year of high school, and it was one of my favourite shows at the time. Unfortunately, at that age I was distracted by “stuff”, and gradually stopped watching; apart from not having the attention to follow an ongoing television show series to series, no one else I knew watched it, so I slowly stopped paying attention.

That was a great mistake, as I absolutely adored the show and its characters, and re-watching the show recently has reminded me of the fondness I once had for this franchise. In my current marathon through the show, I’ve just finished Series 3, although I can’t remember up to where I had seen when I stopped watching originally. In any case, I think it’s time to put down some thoughts on the show’s progress thus far.

For those unfamiliar with the show, Merlin follows the life of Merlin, the great wizard of Arthurian legend, in his youth. To make this work, Merlin takes great liberties with the Arthurian legends as traditionally told, re-imagining Camelot under King Uther Pendragon as a kingdom among many in an early medieval Britain, probably somewhere in Wales. Arthur, here, is not a commoner destined for greatness, but a prince and the son of King Uther (but still destined for greatness). Merlin is Prince Arthur’s servant and friend. Other characters from the Arthurian legends featuring prominently include Morgana (Morgan le Fay) as King Uther’s adopted ward, and Guinevere as Morgana’s handmaiden (and Arthur’s love interest). Also, John Hurt voices a giant talking dragon. Merlin imagines Camelot as a kingdom where magic is brutally repressed by the paranoid Uther, forcing Merlin and his kind to hide their gifts for the sake of their lives. At the same time, Camelot is infested by magical creatures and forces, setting the stage for the conflict of magic and Uther that dominates this series. The theme of destiny is prominent in this show, and Merlin’s struggling to come to terms with his destiny, to aid Arthur to fulfil his great destiny, hangs heavily over the story. Merlin is essentially a coming-of-age story, for both Merlin himself, as he faces challenges and grows into his destiny, and for Arthur, the destined Once and Future King.

As I said, I originally loved the show when I was 13, and, indeed, the show is very much tailored towards an adolescent demographic. As such, it may not be as appealing to adults at first glance, but one would be surprised if one has some patience with the show. A lot of the plotlines are, admittedly, fairly juvenile, but the low church storytelling contains many powerful and affecting moments which are a credit to the writers. And, every so often, Merlin hits upon a gleaming gem of a story that rank among any of the best highbrow drama. Often Merlin conducts, and does successfully so, a fine balancing act, maintaining the discussion of mature and relevant themes at the same time as making those themes, and the show in general, palatable and interesting for a younger audience. The whole theme of the repression of magic can be interpreted as an analogy for prejudice and discrimination in our time. Merlin at one point spoke a line, something to the effect of, “I just want Arthur to accept me for who I am”, which was quite obviously a comment on bigotry against LGBT individuals. It’s also hard not to see Morgana’s slow descent into evil as an analogy for the ideological or religious self-radicalisation of some who are “outsiders” in one way or another in modern Western society. Furthermore, Merlin deals with hard philosophical themes, especially in its presentation of predestination as a reality of life. Merlin also deals with themes of love, honour, status, custom, loyalty and justice, and, I think, constitutes a robust and comprehensive moral education for its adolescent audience.

One of the great things about Merlin is that it’s very consistent. Of the three seasons I’ve seen thus far, there’s scarcely a bad story. For a concept that seems to have quite limited horizons in regards to the possible stories that can be told, almost all episodes are fairly solid and well worth the 40 minutes of your time they take away. Even the “filler” episodes, by which I mean episodes that don’t advance the overall series arc in any meaningful way (and there are a lot of these), are generally very robust and enjoyable.

What is not consistent, however, is the acting. Given that this series features prominently a number of young actors in its cast, unrefined acting is to be expected, but, on the other hand, one would also expect better from a flagship BBC drama series. Colin Morgan as Merlin and Bradley James as Prince Arthur are the better of the young actors here. At this stage in their acting careers, they are both impressive actors, and the chemistry they have together onscreen is a joy to watch; they really bring the complex relationship between the young Merlin and Arthur to sparkling life. However, Angel Coulby and Katie McGrath as Guinevere and Morgana, respectively, I’m afraid to say, are cringe-inducing, McGrath especially. Everything about their acting is overstated. McGrath makes her character completely unconvincing, with her obvious facial expressions and inflections, causing the viewer to wonder why no one else at court suspects her, or at least forms the impression that Morgana is a bit… weird. McGrath’s overstated acting, unfortunately, requires the viewer to suspend disbelief, something we shouldn’t have to do. Morgana is something of an unconvincing character all-round, in any case; her character arc is executed poorly — she seems to go from being a sweet, if curious, young lady in the royal household, to an evil witch hell-bent on destroying Camelot, remarkably quickly. In any case, the young actors all are easily outshined by the old. Richard Wilson (AKA Victor Meldrew) is exceptional as Gaius, Merlin’s mentor, while Anthony Head plays very well the troubled Shakespearean king in Uther Pendragon.

Merlin is a highly addicting substance. It has everything that makes good drama: an intriguing concept, endearing and well-developed characters, consistently engaging plots, and strong series and character arcs that are relentlessly progressed. Although the greater part of its episodes are one-off and essentially self-contained, Merlin is a series that is best viewed as a long-form story, starting from the beginning. Nevertheless, some of its best episodes (that I’ve seen) include A Remedy to Cure All Ills, The Beginning of the End, The Moment of Truth, The Labyrinth of Gedref, To Kill the King, The Once and Future Queen, The Witchfinder, The Sins of the Father, The Fires of Idirsholas, The Crystal Cave, The Sorcerer’s Shadow, The Coming of Arthur.

Classic Who marathon: impressions

My recent watching of the Doctor Who TV Movie completes the “Classic Who” segment of my 50-year marathon, having watched all of the classic Doctors in order from Hartnell to McGann for the first time. It’s taken me the better part of a year, and I’m pleased to have, er, “caught up” with the first 33 years of Who that I missed by virtue of not having been alive. I’ve soaked up many memorable moments from the show’s original run and thoroughly submerged myself in Who history and lore. To complete my 50-year marathon, I need only to watch “New Who” up to Capaldi. The New Who segment of my marathon will be a rewatch, but I’ve been enjoying following the life and times of this alien time-travelling physician so much that I simply have to keep going until the end. It’d feel incomplete otherwise.

In any case, before I move onto Eccleston, I’ve decided to listen to the Eighth Doctor Big Finish audios (or some of them, at least). McGann, very unfortunately, didn’t get an “era” on television like the rest of the Doctors; his only televised outing was a very ordinary television movie. The Eighth Doctor’s “era” is on audio, and, I understand, McGann, like Colin Baker, was “redeemed” on audio by Big Finish. So I feel I owe it to McGann, given he is as legitimate an incarnation of the Doctor as any other, to immerse myself in his Doctor’s adventures just as I’ve immersed myself in the adventures of his predecessors, and as I will his successors. Thus, I’m delaying moving onto the revival as I experience the “McGann era” on audio. I’ve started with the Eighth Doctor’s adventures with Charley Pollard in Big Finish’s monthly range, which are the earliest in his timeline (apart from a couple of the more recent releases starting with In the Company of Friends). At the time of writing this, I’ve listened from Storm Warning through to The Chimes of Midnight, and have been very impressed with McGann from what I’ve listened to so far. I’ll be posting brief reviews of each audio I listen to in my regular “Latest Big Finish listens” feature.

In any case, having now seen all of Classic Who, and all of televised Who in general, it’s time to write down some impressions (and lists, lots of lists. Whovians love lists).

If I were to list my favourite eras of the show by Doctor (excluding McGann; as it would not be fair either to judge him by the movie alone, nor to judge him taking into account his audios without doing the same for Colin Baker, etc.), it would go like this:

1. Smith era (2010-2013)
2. Pertwee era (1970-1974)
3. Tom Baker era (1975-1981)
4. Davison era (1982-1984)
5. Troughton era (1966-1969)
6. Capaldi era (2014-)
7. McCoy era (1987-1989)
8. Eccleston era (2005)
9. Hartnell era (1963-1966)
10. Tennant era (2005-2009)
11. Colin Baker era (1984-1986)

I should say there are no eras of the show I really dislike, just as I don’t dislike any of the Doctors. I’m in the awkward position of having Colin Baker as my second favourite Doctor but liking his era the least — that’s because, while I absolutely adored his interpretation of the Doctor, the stories he was given were generally sub-par compared to the rest of the show, without being bad as such.

I started with William Hartnell, the original. I enjoyed his stories, and I enjoyed watching Hartnell himself. Hartnell clearly put a lot into that character, as the First Doctor is always a pleasure to watch, especially in his first season. The Hartnell era (particularly Season 1) is perhaps the most experimental in the show’s history, as the production team were working with a completely blank slate, and it’s a privilege to watch the show trying different things, testing its strengths, shaping itself. To my mind, Season 1 of Doctor Who is a straight run of classics (apart from episodes 2-4 of An Unearthly Child), and certainly one of the best ever seasons of Who; despite the low-rent production, it has all aged exceptionally well (which cannot be said for many serials in later eras). Seasons 2 and 3 (and 4) didn’t meet the consistent quality that Season 1 had achieved, but there are still a spattering of gems throughout, albeit among a lot of rubbish as well. The Doctor’s companions, especially Ian and Barbara (although Vicki is an all-time favourite of mine), are all great, lovable characters who made the Hartnell era even more enjoyable. The First Doctor himself is a compelling and interesting character, and it is fascinating to watch the Doctor transition over his era from a cantankerous, resolute recluse who seemed to desire only to be left alone into the character we know as the Doctor today, the renegade Time Lord determined to fight evil and injustice in the universe wherever he finds it.

Patrick Troughton’s era I just found great, walloping fun. The stories in the Troughton era are uncomplicated monster-of-the-week runarounds, commonly in the “base-under-siege” style. There’s nothing wrong with that: I know plenty of fans regret the poor scripts and simplistic stories of the Troughton era, but if you can just enjoy these stories for what they are, as I was able to do, Troughton can be marvellously fun. Even rather pedestrian scripts that would seem utterly silly and juvenile in, say, Season 26, like The Dominators, can be great fun if you appreciate them for what they are and just allow yourself to be absorbed by the story. In any case, the Troughton era has its fair share of undisputed classics, such as The Power of the Daleks, The Moonbase, The Evil of the Daleks, The Tomb of the Cybermen, The Enemy of the World, The Web of Fear, The Mind Robber, The Invasion, The Seeds of Death and The War Games, despite many episodes being regrettably missing. Troughton had a succession of great companions: Ben & Polly, Jamie McCrimmon, Victoria Waterfield and Zoe Heriot. Jamie is an all-time fandom favourite, and, for me, the team of the Second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe is one of the most memorable and definitive TARDIS teams of all. The Second Doctor is played superbly all throughout his era by Patrick Troughton, who is easily the best actor to play the role in the classic run, and gives his all to the role. Troughton is an absolute joy to watch, and if he doesn’t significantly elevate the quality of his stories, no one does.

Jon Pertwee’s era is my favourite era of the classic show. Like the preceding era, it’s great fun, but with some distinctive aspects: namely, the earthbound stories and prominence of UNIT. When I had reached the Pertwee era, my initial reaction was “Oh great, a whole era of stories set on Earth. How unexciting.” What’s the point of a show about a man who can travel anywhere in time and space if he never leaves the Home Counties? However, I enjoyed the earthbound dynamic much more than I thought I would. I really grew fond of the “UNIT family” of the Brigadier, Liz Shaw/Jo Grant/Sarah-Jane Smith, Benton and Yates, who are all fabulous characters played well by great actors. The idea of having the Doctor marooned on Earth working for UNIT could easily have misfired, but it is pulled off superlatively, so much so that it’s my favourite era of the classic show, even if Pertwee himself is not one of my favourite Doctors. The Pertwee era, for me, is a long run of mostly high quality stories, which I only truly began to appreciate when I got to later eras of the show where such high quality writing and production became less commonplace. The Pertwee era gave us three classic, fondly-remembered companions — the Brigadier, Jo Grant and Sarah-Jane Smith — as well as the enduring enemy of the Master, and a whole host of great, classic stories.

The Tom Baker era, as fans know, is when Doctor Who reached its zenith in terms of popularity and presence in the public consciousness. Indeed, the first few seasons of Tom Baker are, to my mind, Doctor Who at its consistent best. The run of stories from The Ark in Space to The Sun Makers is an unbroken succession of 20 of the most memorable stories in the show’s history, with an abnormally high concentration of outright classics. It is an era when the show was simply getting it so right all the time. It also helps a great deal that Tom Baker is the most compelling portrayal of the character yet and since, an enigmatic, magnetic, and totally alien character by whom you simply can’t help but be mesmerised. Tom Baker’s companions were all memorable, even K9, although the Doctor looked a little put out in Logopolis surrounded by Tegan, Nyssa and Adric (missing Romana, one guesses; and yes, I totally ship them). The era began to lose its way in its fifth season, the Key to Time saga, and never recovers the glittering heights of Seasons 12-15, but even the latter stories of the Tom Baker era are generally higher quality than most of what came afterwards. There are still a smattering of great stories in these later seasons of the era, such as The Pirate Planet, The Stones of Blood, City of Death, Full Circle, The Keeper of Traken and Logopolis. Additionally, Shada, had it been completed, would easily have been one of the gleaming high-points of the show on par with The Caves of Androzani and City of Death, and, in the modern series, with Blink.

Like, Pertwee’s era, I enjoyed Peter Davison’s era far more than I anticipated, as I did the Fifth Doctor himself. The Davison era started uneasily, but soon found its rhythm. From Kinda onwards, the stories are generally quality, with the odd clunker here and there (*cough* Terminus *cough*). In Davison’s era, one can definitely sense the difference between John Nathan-Turner’s stewardship and previous eras of the show, not least in the adoption of silly “uniforms” for the Doctor, the exclusive use of tinny synthesizer music, and the marked difference in tone and feel (creepy gothic horror out, floodlit spaceships and other indistinguishable sets in). Davison’s companions are one unfortunate aspect of his era: while I personally like Nyssa, and Adric eventually grew on me, Tegan is annoying and awful (the stereotypical antipodeanity of her character was exaggerated to cringing point; she seemed to be able to talk only in cliches; and her constant cynical moaning must have sorely tried the Doctor’s seemingly infinite reasonableness and patience), and Turlough is a cowardly git, although he, at least, improves. In any case, the Doctor often seemed to be left somewhat overwhelmed by the number of hangers-on following him everywhere, getting in his way as he tries to save the universe. The balance is only rectified when Peri joined the Doctor at the end of Planet of Fire, but only for one story (what a great one it was, though). Over the course of his era, Davison himself became one of my favourite Doctors. Once I looked past the silly cricket whites he never took off, the Fifth Doctor was actually a highly engaging interpretation of the character, the original “old man in a young man’s body” Doctor. Davison developed and modified his Doctor’s characterisation over his three seasons, finally perfecting it in his final season, having gone from irritating youthful enthusiasm to gruff and world-weary, yet still unfailingly polite (which I find much more interesting).

Colin Baker, as I’ve said is my favourite Doctor of the classic era, and my second favourite Doctor of all, but whose era is my least favourite. From my perspective, Colin had one classic story (The Two Doctors), four other above average stories (Vengeance on Varos, Revelation of the Daleks, Mindwarp, The Ultimate Foe), and the rest were all either average or bad. Colin’s era began badly in The Twin Dilemma, but picked up in Vengeance on Varos and put out a couple of decent, even good stories that nevertheless fly under the radar as a result of the unremarkable stories that surrounded them. The Trial of a Time Lord was a great misfire which nevertheless has its great, even inspired moments, but ultimately falls flat. I think the problem was that Doctor Who, by then, had become too repetitive and samey; the right thing to do when Colin took over was to take the show in a completely new direction, preferably darker and more grown-up, to match the Sixth Doctor’s character (which was eventually done with McCoy), rather than to keep making more of the same. It does seem, in any case, as though the writers had begun to run out of ideas in Colin’s era: the scripts seem lazy and half-arsed, not to mention unimaginative. None of this, of course, was Colin’s fault. It seemed Colin was much more enthusiastic about the show than either JNT or the writers; he had big plans for his very interesting interpretation of the character, and was unabashed about his desire to surpass Tom Baker’s record of seven seasons playing the Doctor, and played the character himself with such zeal and conviction. For his commitment, he was unceremoniously and unfairly sacked by the BBC bigwigs (it really should have been JNT, who had done all he could and actually wanted to go). Colin’s is an era of missed opportunities, although not necessarily bad in itself: if you look hard enough, you can find things in this era as great as in any.

Sylvester McCoy’s era constituted something of a rebirth for the show, a rebirth that had been sorely needed. In the first place, though, the McCoy era started with the “silly season”, Season 24. A lot of fans deride Season 24 as an all-time low for Doctor Who before a glorious regeneration, but it can be quite enjoyable if, like Patrick Troughton’s era, you enjoy it for what it is; both Paradise Towers and Delta and the Bannermen are decent and enjoyable enough stories in their own right. However, the great u-turn that the show took in the following season was a positive development: I regard Remembrance of the Daleks and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy as masterpieces both; the latter in particular is an astonishingly creative and exciting exemplar of what the show could have become if it had been allowed to continue. Season 26 continued the new darker, more mature direction, with The Curse of Fenric a parting high-point. We know that it was all too little too late, but the final two seasons of the McCoy era are arguably the most creative storytelling the show has done since Season 1. My opinion of McCoy’s era is only slightly diminished by the fact that, despite his odd moments of glory, I found the Seventh Doctor a rather boring and unengaging Doctor. Ace, on the other hand, was a very interesting and engaging companion, easily the most developed companion of the whole classic run, and the unprecedented focus on Ace’s character prototypes the companion-centred storyelling of New Who.

So now, at the close of the classic segment of my 50-year marathon, my “favourite Doctors” list stands something like this:

1. Matt Smith
2. Colin Baker
3. Tom Baker
4. Peter Davison
5. Christopher Eccleston
6. David Tennant
7. Paul McGann
8. Peter Capaldi
9. Jon Pertwee
10. Patrick Troughton
11. William Hartnell
12. Sylvester McCoy

As Whovians know fully well, one’s personal “favourite Doctors” list is subject to constant change, even after one has long seen everything there is to see of Doctor Who. I’m sure mine will continue changing, especially as Paul McGann has been rapidly shooting up my list the more I hear of him on audio. My rewatching of Eccleston and Tennant in the New Who segment of my marathon may yet change my opinions of them (Matt Smith has no chance of being dislodged from the top spot). In addition, Peter Capaldi also has the potential to make it much higher, come Series 9.

An appraisal of the Twelfth Doctor

Well. We’ve had one series and a Christmas special of the twelfth* incarnation of our favourite Time Lord. That’s plenty of opportunity to have become familiar with the Doctor’s latest persona. So, what do we think? I know those who are singing this Doctor’s praises, who have been positively awed by Peter Capaldi and who have duly cleared a spot at or near the top of their personal “Best Doctors” list (all Whovians have one) for Twelvie. At the same time, I know others for whom Capaldi has failed to live up to expectations as the Doctor and have found it difficult to warm to Capaldi’s Doctor. The general consensus seems to be that Capaldi’s Doctor, and Series 8 in general, has been a success, and I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who positively dislikes Capaldi’s Doctor, but certainly not everyone has taken to Capaldi’s interpretation of the Doctor with equal enthusiasm.

Which is where I come in.

Don’t worry, Whovians, I’m here. I’m going to provide you with an objective, definitive and completely authoritative appraisal of the Twelfth Doctor. There’ll be no need for any more arguments over Twelve’s behaviour in Kill the Moon. You can thank me later. So, without further ado, here’s my verdict on the Twelfth Doctor.

Expectations and predictions

First of all, it’s worth discussing what I expected of Peter Capaldi’s Doctor before I had seen him. Based on the casting of an older actor for the part, Moffat’s descriptions of him as a “darker”, more “abrasive”, less “user-friendly” Doctor, and the context of his regeneration (after having spent approximately a millennium defending a town on Trenzalore), I formed a picture in my mind of a more sober and solemn Doctor, much like the Fourth Doctor when he’s in his solemn, brooding moods. More humourless, more world-weary, more aloof, less patient with evil, and less equivocal about taking morally-questionable measures to deal with his enemies. Based on my expectations, or prophesyings, I was genuinely excited for Capaldi’s Doctor. It had been a while since a Doctor in the Hartnell-C.Baker formula had been done, a formula which, done right (as both Hartnell and Baker had succeeded in doing in various moments, although not consistently), can be the most compelling of all Doctor characterisations. I was also looking forwards to seeing New Who’s take on the Hartnell-Baker archetype. My predictions for Capaldi’s Doctor were broadly accurate. We got an abrasive elder Doctor in the Hartnell archetype, more morally ambiguous and certainly more alien (although Matt Smith’s Doctor was also very alien in his own way).

Where Capaldi’s Doctor differed from my predictions was in his energy and adrenaline. I foresaw a world-weary, increasingly cynical Doctor for whom saving the universe had become a nuisance and an intrusion into his peace and quiet. I saw Twelve helping people only reluctantly, and finding himself in the midst of trouble with an air of annoyance and impatience. I expected this more cynical incarnation as the most likely effect of his long stay on Trenzalore, a Doctor who had grown tired of saving people, who wanted only for the universe to finally leave him in peace. It would fall to Clara to help the Doctor in this respect, to reignite the spark and rekindle his sense of duty and his drive to pursue justice. What I didn’t expect was for the Doctor, upon leaving Trenzalore, to leap straight back into his old routine with the energy and zeal of a much younger, much less battle-scarred man. But that works, too, I guess.

Praise — what works

Capaldi is probably the most talented actor to play the role of the Doctor in the show’s history. He gives his all to the role, and one can tell he is supremely in his element playing the Doctor. One could expect no less of perhaps the biggest Whovian ever to be cast in the role. It’s also obvious that Capaldi has a very good idea of what he wants to do with the character, and, for the most part, executes this vision impeccably. After two incarnations of affable, youthful “good boyfriend” Doctors, Capaldi’s more unpredictable and abrasive approach makes for a refreshing change.

Certain elements of the Doctor’s character crystallise prominently in Capaldi’s portrayal: arrogance, charisma, leadership, curiosity, toughness, alien-ness, coldness. Elements of the Doctor’s character more recessive in Twelve include whimsy, warmth, humanity, moral compulsion, eccentricity (bar the obligatory alien-ness), vulnerability. In relation to previous incarnations, Capaldi’s Doctor draws most influence from Hartnell, in his abrasiveness and cantankerousness, Colin Baker, in his unpredictability, callousness and unwillingness to “suffer fools”, Pertwee, in his gravitas and hauteur, McCoy, in his darkness and manipulativeness, and Eccleston, in his straightforward, no-nonsense attitude. I particularly feel that Twelve and Nine would get on famously; both represent similar approaches to the Doctor’s character — the tough northern Doctor and the rugged Scots Doctor. Twelve also seems to bear a lot of similarity to the War Doctor (from what we’ve seen of him), a more sober, darker, morally ambiguous Doctor. Capaldi’s Doctor is least like the whimsical incarnations of Troughton and Smith, as well as the more human incarnations of Davison and Tennant.

Criticisms — what doesn’t work

While, all-round, I like Capaldi’s incarnation of the Doctor, there are certain aspects of his character which I think have not been portrayed well. For one thing, Capaldi’s Doctor seems to be very one-note. He’s the grumpy, abrasive, unpredictable one with the Scottish accent. Beyond this, there’s little more to Twelve’s character. Even the much-hyped “darkness” of Capaldi’s Doctor hasn’t come out like one would have expected it to, and seems limited to a lesser reluctance to undertaking morally questionable measures (providing they are in pursuit of a greater good). There’s potential there, to be sure, in exploring Twelve’s morally ambiguous side, as we saw in Mummy on the Orient Express, although for the most part it has not been tapped to the extent seemingly promised. The whimsy and eccentricity that has, to an extent, been part of every incarnation is markedly absent in Capaldi’s Doctor. Or, to be more accurate, on the few instances that Twelve does attempt to do whimsy it comes off as inauthentic and out of character. To be sure, Twelve can be convincingly humorous, but only when he’s deploying dry sarcasm (“She cares so I don’t have to”), which is more fitting with his character, rather than when consciously trying to make people laugh (“2DIS”).

Another aspect of Twelve’s character I would criticise is his alien-ness and general cluelessness about human things, e.g. his inability to understand human relationships and behaviour. This all comes off as very affected and unconvincing, as though it were a bad attempt at a joke on the Doctor’s part. I think the worst instance of this was in the final scene of Last Christmas, when Clara asked the Doctor if she looked young, to which the Doctor’s reply was “No idea”, promptly fetching her a mirror so she could see for herself. Cringe-inducing. Such cluelessness doesn’t necessarily bother me per se (Matt Smith’s Doctor was very clueless about human things in many respects, after all), but it just feels like sloppy writing.

Additionally, it somewhat feels like Capaldi is yet to carve out a unique take on the character. At the moment, Twelve feels a bit like a synthesis of bits and pieces of the incarnations that came before him: a bit each from Hartnell, Pertwee, C. Baker, McCoy and Eccleston. That, to an extent, is the curse of casting as big a Whovian as Capaldi in the role: when playing the Doctor he’s constantly conscious of all the actors who’ve played the role before him, and finds it hard to detach himself and forge something new. It has been suggested that Capaldi will peak late in his tenure, that it will take him time to flesh out his character. I very much hope that is the case, and I have no doubt that an actor of Capaldi’s calibre is fully capable of giving us one of the classic performances as the Doctor.

Conclusion

Capaldi’s Doctor is a refreshing new direction for New Who, and a compelling re-imagining of the character of the Doctor. However, his character needs further development and fine-tuning if he is to be convincingly a multi-dimensional character. At the moment, if the Capaldi era thus far can be taken as representing the whole of the Capaldi era in a historical sense, I would place the Capaldi Doctor somewhere near the middle of a “greatest Doctors” list; of the New Who Doctors I would rank him bottom. In my opinion, Capaldi hasn’t captured the character of his Doctor as convincingly in his first season as each of Eccleston, Tennant and Smith did in their first seasons. On the level of characterisation, there still needs some work to do on Twelve if Capaldi would be remembered perhaps as much as he’d like to be. That will, of course, come in time, and I look forwards to seeing what Capaldi will bring to the role in series 9.

* Well, thirteenth, really, or fourteenth, depending on how you look at it. But let’s not get into that.

My headcanon rules

Headcanon: the art of formulating explanations for certain aspects, especially inconsistencies, in a body of fiction which are not affirmed in the official canon itself, but which one personally holds as canonical. All fandoms indulge in it, and we Doctor Who fans are among the most prolific headcanonisers. The accumulated Whoniverse is so vast and so full of contradictions that it’s quite difficult not to adopt personal headcanon explanations for all the varied discrepancies, nor to resist the temptation to “add” to established canon with novel bits of headcanon.

Furthermore, no one in the Doctor Who fandom agrees on what the “rules” are for formulating headcanon. Not that any rules are needed: one’s headcanon is one’s own and no one else’s; others are not forced to adopt one’s headcanon explanations any more than you are theirs. But that still doesn’t stop my becoming annoyed when my fellow Whovians proclaim that they’re going to simply ignore something shown onscreen because they don’t like it. I generally think something that is explicitly shown or explained onscreen should not be ignored, for then Doctor Who becomes effectively a “choose-your-own-adventure” where you decide what is and isn’t canon. That’s even with the canonicity of the vast corpus of the expanded media in question.

So, without further ado, I come to my personal rules for formulating headcanon.

  1. Headcanon cannot contradict canon.
  2. If it’s shown onscreen, it’s canon.
  3. Any blatant contradictions between onscreen explanations can be resolved by preferring the most recent explanation.
  4. Other, less explicit contradictions (e.g. half-human) must be worked around, and explained, not ignored.
  5. Everything else one finds disagreeable must also be worked around rather than ignored.
  6. No, it wasn’t a dream, and nor was it a timey-wimey thing that happened in another timestream/dimension or something. If it was shown onscreen, it really happened, and the Doctor remembers it.
  7. Additions to canon (as opposed to explanations) must be consistent with, and cannot contradict, established canon.
  8. The future is fair game until it is shown onscreen.
  9. Only the television show is explicitly canon; the audio stories, novels and comics are canon if you want them to be, but are not necessarily so.
  10. If something from the expanded media is confirmed in the television show, it is canon.
  11. The random extra-curial pontifications of Steven Moffat are not canon unless you want them to be.

Again, these are only my personal rules for formulating headcanon. Others may be more lax or even more restrictive in the way they formulate headcanon. In any case, I think headcanon is important for resolving all the inconsistencies Doctor Who is filled with; it’s what fans do, and it’s what we need to do to remain sane. By the way, my headcanon explanation for “half-human” (which I really don’t like) is that the Doctor lied. After all, if “the Doctor lies” isn’t canon, what is?

Thoughts on Korra finale [SPOILERS]

The season finale of Legend of Korra, Book IV, and of the Korra franchise as a whole, has come and gone from our screens in a 45-minute whirlwind of action, drama, passion and giant laser canon-wielding robots. The baddy was beat, balance restored, and love vindicated. Some characters received a happy ending, some were tearfully farewelled, and the fate of some was left frustratingly opaque. I personally enjoyed this finale — I found it a strong, well-rounded and satisfying conclusion to the season, and, in many ways, to the series itself. However, in some respects I felt it was lacking something for what was to be the conclusion of televised Korra — in some ways it felt like it does when a television series is abruptly cancelled and the story and the characters are left hanging in limbo (e.g. Upstairs Downstairs, Born and Bred, Doctor Who in 1989, etc.) It lacked a certain closure that a series finale demands. Nevertheless, here is my take on various aspects of this finale.

Initially, it seemed to me that the conflict in Book IV was the least high-stakes of the four Korra seasons. Surely the elimination of bending from the world, 10,000 years of darkness, and the abolition of all worldly authorities are greater threats and greater challenges than the domination of the Earth Nation by an autocratic Napoleon? The people of the Earth Nation and the United Republic may not have been happy living under Kuvira if she had won, but they would at least have been able to tolerate Kuvira, who seems like she would be a benevolent ruler insofar as her subjects remained submissive and obedient. Whereas the threats in Books 1-3 are far greater in that they promise to seriously throw the world out of balance.

It only occurred to me upon watching the finale, however, that the scale of Kuvira’s threat was not the point of Kuvira. That is, if Books 1-3 were about Avatar Korra confronting external threats to the peace and balance of the world, Book IV involved Korra’s confrontation with herself. Firstly, Korra had to confront and overcome her own demons and self-induced disabilities — the lingering physical and psychological effects of her narrowly-avoided death at the hands of Zaheer. Secondly, she had to contend with the challenge of defeating an adversary who, in many ways, represented a mirror of herself — a determined, headstrong, idealistic young woman fighting for what she thought was right, and determined to do anything in pursuit of what she believed in. In Kuvira, Korra saw what she, with the enormous power she wields, could become if she lost sight of what it is to be an Avatar. To this end, Korra ultimately saved Kuvira’s life rather than allowed her to be decimated by the spirit cannon. Korra could have ended the threat of Kuvira by allowing her to be killed without herself being responsible for Kuvira’s death, but Korra chose to preserve Kuvira’s life, and “finished” Kuvira by showing her that she was wrong. While Korra’s character development in this way is an effective plot point, it was not all that well conveyed — it might have been better executed, for example, if Korra were to have flirted with means of defeating Kuvira earlier in the season that were not totally morally blameless, only to have come to the realisation (perhaps in a very distressing way) that she was wrong to confront Kuvira in such a way.

In relation to this, I was, at first, slightly disappointed that the “showdown” between Korra and Kuvira did not involve a more momentous battle between the two. In fact, it was more due to Mako than Korra that Kuvira was defeated — it was Mako who risked his own life to destroy Kuvira’s superweapon, after which Kuvira was, for all intents and purposes, defeated. However, I came to realise that Kuvira was not an adversary Korra should have defeated by brute force. To be sure, Korra could have easily defeated Kuvira by resort to force, after she had recovered and faced down her own internal demons, but to what end? Think of it as the opposite to Aang’s face-off with Ozai — Aang abhorred violence and especially killing, so fighting, and needing to kill, a supremely powerful enemy who cannot be reasoned with represented the greatest challenge for his character; in contrast, Korra, who often resorts to brute force to deal with problems, would be equally challenged by an enemy who could (or rather should) not be defeated by force alone. I think that if Korra were to have overcome Kuvira in an epic Sozin’s Comet style showdown, notwithstanding the awesomeness of the battle scene and special effects, the conclusion would have felt somewhat unsatisfying. Kuvira would have been either killed, leaving Korra distressed and morally broken, or if defeated and imprisoned, then bitter and unrepentant, vying to avenge herself on Korra. Korra had to finish Kuvira the way she did — by showing Kuvira that she was wrong — for her sake and Kuvira’s.

Alternatively, another way Korra could have “finished” Kuvira in a satisfying way while including a more substantial fight scene might have been for Korra to have died in the process of defending the people of the Republic City from Kuvira’s spirit cannon, a sacrifice of sorts in which Korra gave her own life to save others from Kuvira. Kuvira, whether ultimately defeated or not by Korra’s act of sacrifice, would at least have been so moved by Korra’s selflessness that she realised in horror the error of her ways (cue shots of Kuvira looking on in distress at the anguished faces of people lamenting Korra’s death), thus bringing about the same result as if Korra had personally shown Kuvira that she was wrong. Such a conclusion might have brought about that sense of closure to Korra’s story that I mentioned I felt was lacking in this finale: the death of the Avatar and regeneration of the Avatar cycle would be the greatest closure of all, would it not?

Finally, there was that ending. The Korrasami shippers are rejoicing in their “victory”, although, to be honest, I think the Korrasarmy are overreacting to insist that the final scene represented a confirmation of Korrasami. The ending was almost certainly intended to allude to Korrasami, but, at the same, time, it was certainly intended to be ambiguous and capable of being interpreted different ways. If Bryke had wanted to conclusively confirm Korrasami, Korra and Asami would have kissed. What actually happened was that they decided to go on a holiday together, holding hands as they entered the spirit world while looking at each other in a way that could be construed as romantic. There is not necessarily anything sexual about this — girls and young women often tend to have these intimate, loving, quasi-romantic friendships with each other that can seem like romantic love at times, but are nevertheless wholly platonic. Boys and men do not have these friendships, which is why, when I see two young women holding hands and staring affectionately at each other, I do not necessarily see anything more than platonic love between them, but if I were to see two boys or men doing the same, I would almost certainly assume they were gay. My point is not to argue that Korrasami is out of the question, merely that it is a slight overreaction on the part of Korrasami shippers to insist that the final scene establishes Korrasami conclusively and beyond dispute. It does not; it can very easily be interpreted both ways, and it is quite obvious that Bryke intended it to be so.

Would I mind if Korrasami were to be confirmed? Not particularly. I merely think that, if the final scene does, canonically, represent the beginning of a Korra-Asami romantic relationship, it would feel like a clumsily-shoehorned piece of parting fanservice gimmickry, as there was next to zero foreshadowing of any mutual romantic feelings between Korra and Asami throughout the series — it seemed to come out of almost nowhere in the last three minutes of the episode. If Korrasami really is to be A Thing, I would have been much happier if their relationship had actually received some attention and development, as Aang’s and Katara’s did, so that their eventual getting together felt like a gratifying culmination rather than a fanservice gimmick. Ho hum.

[EDIT: I wrote this post before Bryke confirmed extra-curially that the final scene was indeed supposed to be romantic, and that Korra and Asami are indeed in a relationship. I preserve my premature pontifications here for posterity/because I can’t be bothered to rewrite.]

As for the fate of the Earth Nation — i.e. Prince Wu’s decision to renounce his claim to the throne of the Earth Kingdom and allow the Earth Nation to break up into small self-governing states — I suppose this is a satisfying resolution to that particular conundrum, but, if I might be so bold, I think it rather shows the writers’ distinctly American prejudices, as well as in their portrayal of Wu in general. The “return of the king” is a very powerful and romantic motif in the folklore and literature of cultures with a strong monarchical tradition, its greatest exemplar being The Lord of the Rings, and the coronation of Good King Wu, finally ready to assume his throne, would have felt the perfect resolution for the beleaguered Earth Nation. However, the actual resolution was satisfying in its own way — the Earth Nation has undoubtedly grown weary of “great uniters” and abusive absolute monarchs alike, and letting the Earth peoples go each their own way seems an eminently fair and sensible course of action. Bryke were at least good enough to resist the temptation to take the “no more kings!” route and simply turn the Earth Kingdom/Empire into an Earth Republic, and even transformed Wu from an indulged, privileged princeling patently unfit for rule into quality king material (albeit an eccentric and immature king).

In general, I quite enjoyed this finale, apart from the small criticisms I’ve already mentioned, and especially the lack of sufficient closure to the Korra franchise. The episode(s) was satisfactory enough, however, for me to give it a respectable 8/10. Give yourselves a well-deserved pat on the back, Bryke.

What I’ve been watching: Dec 2014

A rundown of the shows (non Doctor Who) that have been taking up my time of late: Sherlock Holmes, The Legend of Korra and Torchwood.

Sherlock Holmes (Granada)

Since I’ve recently discovered BBC’s Sherlock, I decided to revisit the classic Granada adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories featuring Jeremy Brett. I’d seen a number of these on television a few years ago and noted then what masterful adaptions they were (prompting me to start reading the Sherlock Holmes stories themselves), thoroughly gripping and well-composed.

Although I think my 21st Century tastes prefer the modern Sherlock series to the more faithful Granada series, these more reverent adaptations of Conan-Doyle’s works are nevertheless very much accessible to modern viewers. Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes is superlative and utterly magnetic. To me, it is Brett’s acting that makes the series. It is patent that Brett is supremely in his element playing this iconic and singular character, and even the duller and less imaginative stories are alighted by the genius of Brett’s acting.

I’d go as far as to say Brett’s Holmes is an even more compelling and watchable portrayal of the character than Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, although one can confidently say that Brett’s Holmes would not work in a modern adaptation of the character; Brett’s Holmes is a peculiarly Victorian character, a man very much of his times — which, of course, only adds to the period magic of the show. Like Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, Brett’s Holmes is an unabashed eccentric, and arrogant about his own abilities; he has sociopathic tendencies, and one gets the impression that he’s a creature of pure intellect, something more than a normal human being. Unlike Cumberbatch’s portrayal, though, Brett’s Holmes seems to understand how normal humans are supposed to relate to each other, but nevertheless regards himself above such trivialities: Holmes never gives the impression of being vulnerable, which certainly adds to the mystery of the character. One thing conspicuously missing from Brett’s portrayal of the character in relation to Cumberbatch’s is those orgasmic displays of Holmes’ deductive prowess to which Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is prone. Brett’s Holmes gives small glimpses, teases, to lesser minds of his intricate intellectual processes, but never shows off like Cumberbatch’s character does.

The Granada Sherlock Holmes adaptations convey the drama and tension of the stories very well. They do the more peculiar cases (e.g. The Solitary Cyclist, The Dancing Men) very well, and have a way of pulling the viewer into the plot and the mystery without particularly special visuals beyond the period elements. Although I’ve only seen the first two series thus far, from those I’ve seen, I would recommend The Dancing Men, The Solitary Cyclist, The Speckled Band, The Copper Beeches and The Resident Patient.

The Legend of Korra

The Legend of Korra, the sequel to one of my favourite ever series, Avatar: The Last Airbender, is currently nearing the end of its final season (Book 4). For those that don’t know, Avatar and Korra are set in a fictional world composed of four nations corresponding with the four elements: the Fire, Air, Water and Earth nations. Certain members of these nations possess special powers to “bend” the elements of their respective nations, while there is one figure, the Avatar, who is possessed of the power to bend all elements, and whose obligations as Avatar include maintaining the balance between the nations, as well as between the physical and spirit worlds. In the original Avatar series, the airbending Air Nomad, Aang, was the Avatar, who, having woken from a 100-year sleep trapped in an iceberg, returned to a world at the knees of a warmongering Fire Nation.

Korra is set in the Avatar world after Aang’s death, and the young and headstrong Korra of the southern water tribe is the new Avatar. The Avatar world has changed since Aang’s salad days fighting the Fire Lord, where a new “nation” has arisen in the former Fire Nation colonies in (former) Earth Kingdom territory: the United Republic (with its capital and dominant location of the stories, the Manhattan-like Republic City), an agglomeration of peoples of all nations and none. Unlike Avatar, in Korra there is no unifying plotline that runs throughout the entire series, but different adversaries and conflicts for the Avatar to deal with in each season (Book), other than Korra’s own coming-of-age and self-realisation as a mature Avatar.

While I have only good things to say about Avatar, Korra has suffered from its fair share of deficiencies. The lack of a unifying plotline, while not the writers’ fault, fails to maintain the viewer’s interest in the series as Korra’s adventures become ever more repetitive. The plot in Avatar — Aang’s preparation as the Avatar to fight the Fire Lord — was, on the face of it, not that imaginative or well-conceived compared to at least two of the Korra plots (Books 3 and 4), but it was so well executed, and given such space to breathe and develop (as well as supported by such brilliant characters), that it looms large in the viewer’s mind over all of the even greater threats faced by Korra, which seem almost transitory compared to Aang’s conflict with the Fire Lord. In addition, the surfeit of characters sees too many characters receive too little development as the viewer has difficulty in paying attention to such a large cast, and the writers in maintaining so many characters, and consequently the viewer struggles to properly invest in any of the characters beyond the lead, Korra. By contrast, Avatar had a small, tight-knit cast of well-defined, beloved characters who were each given plenty of space for quality development.

To be sure, Korra is, on the whole, quality viewing, especially if you are already invested in the Avatar universe and want to know what happened after Aang. But I can see the reason Nickelodeon took the decision partway through Book 3 to make Korra an online-only programme and to discontinue the programme after Book 4 (not that I agree with that decision).

Torchwood

I’m surprised I haven’t got round to watching Torchwood before now, having been a Who fan for so long (and having adored the character of Captain Jack Harkness). I’ve recently finished watching the first season of Torchwood, and I return a positive, but not unmarred review. I very much like the concept: a secret organisation dedicated to investigating extraterrestrial incidents and developing technologies to “arm the human race” against what lurks beyond (although, honestly, I think it slightly redundant since there is already a similar, better-resourced organisation in UNIT, which could easily carry out Torchwood’s functions).

Torchwood has a cast of interesting, but not necessarily likable characters. The only truly likable character is the female lead, Gwen Cooper, and even she has a questionable morality. Other than Gwen (and Captain Jack of course), none of the characters are really the kind of people you’d choose to become friends with: they are all morally ambiguous and not very sociable. Despite this, they are compelling characters who are convincing as the staff of an organisation like Torchwood. Captain Jack Harkness is a charismatic leader, as well as a mystery, to his “employees” at Torchwood: at first Gwen is the only one who knows of Jack’s immortality, as she sees him murdered and return to life in the first episode. He remains an enigmatic character throughout the first series until his Christ-like sacrifice in the series finale.

Torchwood has its good moments and its bad moments. I’ve only seen series 1, so I expect what I’ve seen thus far is the show trying to find its way, experimenting. The show is best when it’s not trying to copy Doctor Who’s formula of fighting aliens. Torchwood is at its best when it is trying something different, and dealing with heavy themes. The episodes I’ve enjoyed most include: Countrycide, a horror story dealing with the inherent evil in humans; Greeks Bearing Gifts, concerning the ramifications of being able to read others’ minds; They Keep Killing Suzie, about resurrection of the dead; and Out of Time, involving three people from the 1950s brought inexplicably into the 21st Century. There were also a couple of misfires, including Cyberwoman and the retch-inducing Random Shoes.

While I enjoy Torchwood’s readiness to deal with heavy and controversial themes, being beaten senseless with Russell T. Davies’ political agenda became very annoying after a while. I understand that Davies is using Torchwood to promote LGBT issues, but there comes a point where the constant barrage of anti-heteronormativity becomes OTT and feels like it’s being shoved down one’s throat. It seems like every character is bisexual, which is obviously unrealistic (particularly as it’s Wales), and by the time I got to Captain Jack Harkness snogging Captain Jack Harkness in Captain Jack Harkness, I could only roll my eyes in exasperation. Being prone to irrational religious superstition as I am, the show’s overt atheism also bugs me a bit, but I’m not overly bothered by that — it’s to be expected with science fiction — I just wish it would avoid the aggressive “religion is all bullsh*t” stuff.

Although the early episodes of Torchwood‘s first season were shaky and failed to grip me, the show found its feet by the end and sufficiently whetted my appetite such that I’m excited to return for the second series. I hope Torchwood continues doing what it does right, and learns from its mistakes.

Day of the Doctor Review

[This blog was originally written in December 2013 on a former blog of mine.]

I woke up especially at a quarter-to-six on the day of the worldwide premiere of The Day of the Doctor, bleary-eyed, cursing the BBC for making me get up at such an ungodly hour of the morning, yet excited in anticipation, especially so in the knowledge that “Whovians” all around the world were, at that very moment, waiting alongside me in identical eager anticipation. I had the good fortune to be converted to Whovianism in good time for the Fiftieth Anniversary, such that I could fully appreciate the plotline, the implications for the Doctor Who saga, and what a “gift” for the fans the anniversary special really was.

And what a show. Building on the mysterious events of the Time War, and the Doctor’s infamous role in ending it, it is revealed that it was not the Eighth Doctor (Paul McGann), as previously assumed, who participated in the Time War and (according to legend) killed all the Time Lords and Daleks to end the war, but a self-designed “warrior” incarnation of the Doctor, the War Doctor (John Hurt).

The twist at the end of the eighty-minute special reveals that, in fact, the Doctor had never actually killed all the Time Lords. With the help of the Tenth (David Tennant) and Eleventh (Matt Smith) Doctors, the War Doctor discovered he didn’t have to kill his entire race after all – utilising the resources of all thirteen Doctors (including the next Doctor, Peter Capaldi), the Doctor(s) engage in a bit of Time Lord trickery to freeze Gallifrey at the Fall of Arcadia in a moment in time, contained in a piece of Time Lord art, a stasis cube. The Daleks were left to destroy themselves in crossfire, and Gallifrey was presumably saved, to be released from its frozen state at some point in the future. The War Doctor and the Tenth Doctor, as well as all the previous incarnations of the Doctor recruited to help with the salvation of Gallifrey, would not remember saving Gallifrey as the events were outside each of their time streams, and as such the Doctor would not remember that he didn’t actually kill all the Time Lords.

It was a great feature: I loved the engaging plotline, the clever plot twist, the coalescence of three incarnations of the Doctor, the return of Billie Piper and Tom Baker, and all the little nods to the last fifty years of Doctor Who. But I can’t help regretting the little bout of revisionism that the writers engaged in, in creating this feature. The writers are entitled to revise and retcon to their heart’s content, of course, but I am of the persuasion that what the writers have done in this special, while making for an excellent feature in itself, was ill-advised and not good for the programme as a whole.

Firstly, I’m unhappy with the rewriting of Doctor Who canon. The Doctor’s alleged role in ending the Time War, as morally questionable as it was, was supposed to be a pivotal, defining moment in his story. The Doctor’s supposed decision to kill all the Time Lords and Daleks alike, taken in the depths of the most terrible, devastating war in the history of the universe, was supposed to be inescapable: the one instance when the Doctor couldn’t just fly in and save the day crying “allons-y!” or “Geronimo!” or whatever. It was a decision taken “on a day when it was not possible to be the Doctor”, as the Eleventh Doctor said. It made the Doctor what he is today. In any case, it was an important event in the Doctor’s past. It made him interesting, and added to the mystery of the character. But the writers saw fit to say that the event never happened. They were within their right to do so, of course, but I don’t think it was a good decision. The Doctor’s act was a pivotal moment in the Doctor’s ancient storyline, perhaps the most important moment of all. By rewriting it and making it into yet another instance among many in which the Doctor simply conjures up some clever alien jiggery-pokery to save the day, I feel the writers have taken away some of the depth and mystique from the Doctor’s story, his character, and from the show itself. What is the message that Steven Moffat intended to convey with this revisionism: that the Doctor will always save the day? The superhero will always be there for you? There is a right solution – a right answer – to every problem? How shallow.

Secondly, I quite resent how the writers have manipulated the actual canonical storyline of the events of the end of the Time War to allow for their revision in The Day of the Doctor of the Doctor’s actions. The writers seem to have been making out (e.g. by the recurring “No More” meme, and the parallel events involving UNIT and the Zygons) that the Doctor’s decision was a classic Hiroshima dilemma: do I use this bomb and kill many innocent people if it means shortening the war and saving many more? In actual fact, this is a distortion of the story. The Doctor’s decision was not analogous to Hiroshima: the Doctor used the Galaxy-Eater (or the Moment) to kill all the Time Lords and the Daleks and thus end the Time War because the Time Lords had decided to end the war themselves in a much more sinister way, by undertaking the “Ultimate Sanction” – the destruction of the entire universe, all of time and space, and everything inside it (except the Time Lords themselves, who would continue to exist as a kind of disembodied consciousness). It was not a simple choice of taking many innocent lives to end the war, or letting the war carry on indefinitely to potentially claim many more: it was a choice between one’s own race, or the very existence of the entire universe. I imagine if the Doctor had the choice (in the actual scenario, not the rewritten one), he would make the same decision again without hesitation. So, yes, what the Doctor(s) did to save Gallifrey in The Day of the Doctor was perfectly applicable to both situations, but why did the Doctor need to revisit this event in his saga anyway? It was only made possible through a sleight-of-hand rewriting of the Doctor’s history, and the convenient invention of another heretofore-unseen spacey gimmick that allowed the Doctor to save the day without getting his hands dirty. The events of the Time War – at least this particular event – really should have been left alone.

Finally, I regret what this changed history means for the character of the Doctor himself. The Day of the Doctor was the first time we were informed that the Doctor actually regretted his decision to use the Galaxy-Eater and that he would have changed his decision if he had the choice. Of course, the Doctor’s regret is only possible in the context of the changed storyline: in the context of the original storyline, I don’t think there is any doubt that the Doctor would have chosen to sacrifice his own people again rather than let them destroy the entire universe (e.g. his actions in The Fires of Pompeii, and the way he condemned the Time Lords “back to hell” again in The End of Time). Rather, what we’ve seen from the Doctor regarding his decision at the Fall of Arcadia before The Day of the Doctor was not regret, but sorrow. Terrible, debilitating, unbearable, all-consuming sorrow (like here). This sorrow has been a constant fixture in the post-war incarnations of the Doctor; behind the grit of the Ninth Doctor, the joviality of the Tenth Doctor, and the frivolity of the Eleventh Doctor lies intolerable pain, weariness and suffering. The Doctor tries hard to repress his great remorse and guilt about the fate of his people, but it is always simmering just below the surface; it’s almost as if the Doctor’s outward display of supreme self-confidence and jocularity is, in part, over-compensation for the pain he feels underneath – a burden which he carries with him everywhere he goes. This seems especially true of the Eleventh Doctor, who is prone to sudden, frightening outbursts of intense emotion and lapses into dark solemnity, in stark contrast with his usually quirky, frivolous nature; it’s in these compelling moments that we feel like the mask has slipped, and we’re seeing the Doctor as he really is. This darkness and pain, and how it manifests itself, is part of what made the new Doctor such an interesting character, rooted in the Doctor’s dark past. But now that it turns out that the Doctor actually never did that terrible deed, that he actually saved his people and single-handedly ended the Time War, what has he to be sorrowful, guilty or anguished about? Rather, he has an enormous deal of which to be proud. Good for him, right? The Doctor is free to bestride time and space, carrying an unbearable burden no more, once again just a happy-go-lucky spaceman with a time machine and a stylish haircut. Like the Eleventh Doctor without the intensity and darkness simmering beneath the surface. How shallow.

As I said, in and of itself, The Day of the Doctor was a brilliant feature. The fiftieth anniversary special probably merited a feature length film of two hours’ duration, at least, but I’m making no complaints in that department. Maybe the BBC were unwilling to fork out for such an endeavour. But, as part of a continuing plotline, I don’t like what the writers have done. I feel the writers have devalued the significance of the Time War, and especially the Doctor’s role in ending it, in the 1,200-year-long-and-counting story of the Doctor. I often resent the snobbishness of Classic Who devotees who insist that the new series is so shallow, but, in The Day of the Doctor, I’m starting to see their point. It’s rare of me to criticise the great Steven Moffat, but I think, in this case, he has made a poor, opportunistic and ill-considered authorial decision. But that’s just my opinion.

“Spare Parts” and the Cybermen

“We are human.”

“We will survive.”

Two lines from the Doctor Who audio Spare Parts that together encapsulate so perfectly and chillingly what the Cybermen are supposed to be. Spare Parts, an origins story of the Cybermen featuring the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa, is a tragic tale of a small, dying human population on Earth’s twin planet, Mondas, who will go to almost any terrible measures in their desperation to survive. Spare Parts interprets the Cybermen’s origins on Mondas to be the story of the Mondasians, driven underground as their planet’s drift far away from the orbit of any sun made the surface of their planet uninhabitable, who, seemingly doomed to extinction, resort to “augmenting” their bodies with artificial, cybernetic parts to survive.

A masterpiece, Spare Parts is perhaps more compelling and genuinely frightening a Cybermen story than any shown on the television series, and certainly the most faithful to Kit Pedler’s vision for the Cybermen. It is worth saying that, in my estimation, the Cybermen have not been done exactly right on television since their first story, The Tenth Planet. After the 1960s, Cybermen stories rather lost the plot altogether, and New Who has never even come close. That’s because it’s so easy to forget what the Cybermen are supposed to be — something Spare Parts attempts to return to, and does so spectacularly.

The Cybermen are usually presented as evil killer robots, robot Daleks with legs. Certainly, it’s difficult to get any other impression from today’s stomping automatons in their Iron Man suits. There’s two things wrong with the I, Robot interpretation of the Cybermen: Cybermen are not robots, and they’re not evil. Cybermen are us, as Spare Parts sought to emphasise. “We are human,” as the Cyber Planner in Spare Parts chillingly put it. The Cybermen are supposed to be tragic. We are supposed to look at them and see ourselves in them, and see what we could become. The Cybermen are not the product of some mad scientist  who tried to create a race of perfect killers, as the Daleks are; they are what became of a human population who, in their desperation to survive, sacrificed so much of their humanity that they now blur the line between man and machine. The Cybermen are as much a warning and a “dark mirror” as they are a villain. The Cybermen are terrifying because they are essentially human, because they are still recognisable as us, and the emphasis on the humanity of the Cybermen in Spare Parts achieves this impression very successfully, such as in a particularly affecting scene in which a young girl who has endeared herself to us goes back to her horrified family after being partially processed into a Cyberman.

Furthermore, the Cybermen are not evil. They are not the Daleks. Their objective isn’t to take over the universe or eliminate inferior races. They have removed their human emotions and impulses, and are slaves to absolute logic. Their primary motivation is to survive. Although, since they make no distinction between themselves once they are cyber-processed, the Cybermen seek to perpetuate their kind by converting other human populations into Cybermen (and at the same time “freeing” those poor souls).

For these reasons, I think the Cybermen have the potential to be the scariest Who villain of all, certainly much scarier than the comparatively one-dimensional Daleks (who are nevertheless always good fun). But, portray the Cybermen as the pantomime villains they usually are, and, ironically, you disregard what makes them uniquely scary and, in fact, make them seem more corny than anything.

Apart from returning to the roots and original conception of the Cybermen very successfully, Spare Parts is an exceptionally well-composed audio story in its own right. There are a number of well-realised characters (which makes it all the more tragic when they are converted into Cybermen), and Nyssa is written very well. The mood is ominous from the very beginning, and the rising sense of crisis keeps the listener hooked all the way through, quickening into a dramatic crescendo at the end. From my personal perspective, the one thing I would have changed about the story would have been to have the population of Mondas voluntarily, and resignedly, convert themselves into fully-processed Cybermen in submission to the inescapable reality that doing so is a necessity for their survival — rather than be deceived, and then coerced, into doing so by the whim of the Central Committee/Cyber Planner. I think the former would have impressed more effectively the sense of utter desperation that birthed the Cybermen, bringing home the tragedy of the story. Nevertheless, Spare Parts is certainly a masterpiece of drama and science fiction, and undoubtedly deserves a place among the Doctor Who classics.