Thoughts on: Extremis

Is it a reflection on the prudence of being showrunner as long as Steven Moffat has, that my initial reaction to what is undoubtedly the most daring and experimental storytelling Doctor Who has done since the classic series (perhaps short of Heaven Sent) was a feeling of being underwhelmed? I will admit that my expectations were fairly high for this one. The synopsis sounded amazing. The vault was opening. Missy was returning. A three-part mid-series arc was kicking off. All the advance reviews were drooling with acclaim. Steven Moffat was writing. The episode I anticipated in alignment of these auspicious stars was never going to be matched by what aired on the weekend.

But I think there’s a point to be made that what is undoubtedly an exceptional and distinguished episode has the potential to fall flat for many seasoned viewers, simply because this is Steven Moffat 101, and we’ve all become exceedingly familiar with Steven Moffat 101 over the last seven years. To be sure, Extremis is Steven Moffat 101 taken farther than it’s ever been taken before. It’s Moffat in his final hours—in extremis, you might say—digging deeper into his magic hat than he’s permitted himself before now, pulling out his wackiest, most envelope-pushing ideas and saying “F*ck it, let’s do it”, just because it’s his last chance to make the Doctor Who stories he wants to make and just because he can.

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But those of us who unironically refer to ourselves as “Whovians” have got to know the creative mind of Steven Moffat very well by now, and we know in a good level of detail what the inside of his hat looks like by now. So when we’re confronted with something new from inside the hat, even something from deeper within the hat than we’ve seen before, we’re not necessarily surprised anymore, and we’re not necessarily as impressed as we might have been seven years ago. It’s meta-reality. It’s timey-wimey. It’s clever psychological gimmicks. It’s Things Which Are Not What They Seem. It’s locked boxes (literal or figurative) with flashing neon question marks hovering over them. It’s the Doctor as pseudo-deity. It’s The Pandorica Opens. It’s Silence in the Library. It’s The Impossible Astronaut. It’s the distillation of a number of the familiar tropes and ideas we’ve seen in Steven Moffat’s writing many times before, and arranged into a configuration which is entirely new and interesting, but yet still familiar.

The point I’m trying to make in saying all that is that I just wish I could have had the privilege of watching this episode having not seen all of Moffat’s previous work – several times – before. Because it is a brilliant script. It’s an ingenious and daring script. It’s pushing against the outer limits of what’s possible on Doctor Who, and that’s always a good thing. This is Moffat taking his familiar ideas and making something genuinely innovative and interesting out of them, as opposed to, you know, The Name of the Doctor. It’s just that I feel I need to take a step back and take a more objective view of this episode to truly appreciate it as the brilliant piece of writing it is. As I said, apart from the final 15 minutes, I finished watching this episode feeling underwhelmed. But it’s ironic because this script had everything I want and ask for in a Doctor Who story: it was experimental, it was dark, it was atmospheric, it had huge, thrilling, audacious ideas that it wasn’t shy in teasing out indulgently. It improved on a rewatch, but I can’t shake the feeling of ambivalence. I think it really is that I’m just getting bored of Moffat’s style. For what it’s worth, my dad, a Casual Viewer™ whom I’m in the process of converting into a proper Whovian, absolutely adored this one. Which I think is very telling.

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To actually say something about the story, though. I’ve already waxed about how daring this script was, but can we just take a moment to appreciate the significance for Doctor Who of the ideas this story is playing with? There were an unbelievably suspenseful five minutes or so when it looked like the episode was about to say that the Doctor and Bill—the Doctor and Bill we know—were part of the computer simulation, that everything we’ve been watching for six weeks was part of the computer simulation—if not everything since 1963. I’d have been awed, if profoundly disconcerted, if the episode had gone that far, but, perhaps for the best, it didn’t. Still, I think hyper-advanced aliens creating an elaborate computer simulation of the Earth to practise conquering the planet is my favourite idea the show has played with. And telling the story from inside the Matrix makes for thrilling, mesmerising storytelling, as well as some of the out-and-out darkest material we’ve ever seen on Doctor Who. Existentialism aside, the depiction of an apocalyptic gnostic text causing the mass suicide of the scientists at CERN and the suicide of the President of the United States alone in his office, was bracing and provocative in the best way possible.

There were bits of the episode that positively didn’t impress me. It felt excessively busy. I think it could have done with less globe-hopping, a tighter and more compact narrative, or else a full 60 minutes to allow for something more slow-burning and detailed. Although I realise in the case of the former that we wouldn’t have then got the brilliant scene in CERN. The alien monks, I thought, were also quite nondescript and perhaps lazily conceived and designed. They looked like a cross between the Silents and the Pyroviles, and in design conformed to the typical profile of ugly humanoid Doctor Who aliens. I can perhaps forgive the design of the alien monks though, because as yet we don’t know what they are—I expect we’ll find out more about them in the next episode. I’m aware of the popular theory that the monks are the Mondasian Cybermen, and I’d be delighted if that were the case. But I’m sceptical that they are the Mondasians—somehow it doesn’t seem like their style, and I’d question why the Mondasians (or the Cybermen generally) would want to make themselves look like weird ugly blue aliens in the simulated reality rather than humans. Design and conception aside, though, I’m intrigued by the monks, by their identity and what their purpose and intentions are. Actually, on the connection of learning more about the monks in the next episode, I’m prepared to forgive a lot about this episode when I consider it in its context as the first part of a two- or three-part arc. As a standalone, it needs some work, but as Part 1 of 3… let’s wait ‘til we see Part 2 and 3.

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As for Missy, though. The constant flashbacks to Missy was one of the things congesting this episode, making it feel a touch busier than it needed to be, but the connection between Missy’s pleading in extremis with the Doctor, and the (simulant) Doctor’s actions at the end of the episode, having discovered the horrible truth of his identity as a simulation, was quite neat and poignant. It was also very interesting seeing another side to Missy, the side of herself she only reveals in extremis. But I can’t say I’m not disappointed that it’s Missy that’s in the vault after all. There was a tweet I retweeted on Twitter after the episode that said “Missy is in the vault” with a picture of a woman covering her mouth with her hands in a mock gasp, with the caption *pretends to be shocked*. I think that was the general sentiment of the fandom upon learning that, yes, as we’ve all been expecting since we heard that piano, it was Missy in the vault after all. A part of me was hoping, anticipating, that Moffat wasn’t going to go for something so predictable and uninteresting—because it really didn’t merit the hype and the overbearing confected mystery around the vault for the last six weeks—but maybe this is just something else that sounded more impressive in Moffat’s head than it was ever going to be in reality. There’s still the (slight) possibility that it’s not Missy in the vault after all—and, knowing Moffat, I still wouldn’t be surprised if it weren’t—but what’s more interesting to me now is what the significance of the vault is supposed to be. Why was Missy put in the vault at all, and why do we need to know that the Doctor spent all this time guarding Missy’s body? I’m expecting, pleading, for a worthwhile payoff for all this.

We’re at the mid-point of Series 10 now, though. Things are picking up now in earnest, as I hoped they would. After such an unassuming, albeit solid, start, this series has certainly taken an unexpected turn for the darker, and it looks like we’re in for a thrilling couple of weeks. To continue on from my theme from last week of admitting to the egg all over my face, this series has been consistently strong so far, and if this episode is an indication of the direction this series is heading, Series 10 could very well turn out to be Moffat’s strongest series of all, as I predicted. We haven’t had any stories I’d consider out-and-out classics yet (this one and Oxygen have come the closest), but I can’t believe that this series will not deliver up at least one. We still have Peter Harness, Toby Whithouse and Steven Moffat’s last-ever finale in two parts, after all.

Rating: 9/10.

Thoughts on: The Pilot

I think I owe Steven Moffat an apology. This time last year I was grouching over his choice of new companion. Another young modern female companion cast from the Amy/Clara mould who, let’s face it, at this point wasn’t going to out-Amy Amy or out-Clara Clara — as I complained. To be fair, Bill’s first appearance in that shoddily-written teaser involving her and the Doctor hiding from a Dalek hardly endeared her to me. Bill’s treating the Dalek as a joke (“Fat, though!”) and the whole situation as whimsy made me despair for the series ahead afflicted by this annoying, gobby, glib, woman-child with her extraordinary hair and clothes.

It looked like minimal thought had gone into creating Bill, as though Moffat had just rearranged his favourite companion tropes — outgoing, perky, feisty, witty, flirty — into a slightly different configuration and went ahead and found a new actress to play to that tired script. And, to be honest, that is in a way what Moffat has done with Bill. Bill embodies many of the same character attributes as Amy and Clara (and River), and she can be seen as yet another new iteration of the same character formula Moffat has trotted out three times before this.

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But I underestimated Moffat. Sure, Bill is similar in many significant ways to the two (or three, if River counts as a companion) companions who’ve come before her. But I was struck in this, her introductory episode, by how much better she was written than her predecessors. Far from minimal thought having gone into Bill, it feels like a lot more thought and care has gone into creating and writing Bill than ever went into Amy or Clara before their first jaunts in the Tardis. This is palpable from how much more relatable Bill immediately felt than arguably Amy or Clara ever felt. Amy was a fairytale and Clara was an engima. Before they were characters they were concepts. Don’t get me wrong, I adored both Amy and Clara, but I don’t think either felt completely like real people.

Bill, on the other hand, just from this introductory episode feels more real than Amy or Clara ever felt. We’ve been given a tour through her life: her foster home, her job at the university canteen and what she does for fun (attend lectures on quantum physics apparently). We’ve seen how her experiences have affected her and shaped who she is. And the intimacy with which Bill’s character is written adds a level of nuance and detail to her character that I think was lacking in Amy and Clara. By the time Amy and Clara exited the show respectively there was still a degree to which they remained enigmas to the audience — like celebrity royalty, there was an extent to which they were simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar to us. There’s none of that with Bill, with whom the contrast is striking. We feel we’ve got to know Bill intimately right away. We feel familiar with Bill, like there’s little more we feel we need to know about her.

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And we like her. She’s a likable and endearing character. I wasn’t right in thinking I’d be bored or irritated by Bill, even if she is a reiteration of the Amy/Clara/River model. That’s substantially due to the writing, because I imagine I would be bored by Bill if she weren’t written as well as she is. Bill is distinguished from Amy and Clara in one respect worth noting though (other than her sexuality), and that’s that she’s probably the first genuinely normal companion in Doctor Who since Donna — that is, since Russell T Davies’ era. Unless I’m tragically premature in making this observation about Bill, she does appear to be the first of Moffat’s companions who isn’t at the eye of an elaborate narrative arc. No Girl Who Waited, no Impossible Girl. And frankly, that’s bloody refreshing. Unlike, it seems, most fans, I found the Impossible Girl arc intriguing and interesting, but it’s nice to return to a companion who’s just normal. Just Bill. Even her name is refreshingly simple and unfrilly.

I’ve just spent five paragraphs talking about the new companion and haven’t even spared a word for anything else in this episode yet. That’s because, by far and away, the new companion was the most important thing in this episode. The plot, let’s face it, was pretty lacklustre. For a writer who usually insists on making everything far more complicated than it needs to be, Moffat has turned in a fairly threadbare and unremarkable story. As a story concept, strange women emerging from mobile ponds sounds like something that belongs in Class or Torchwood’s early series, or maybe Doctor Who’s sillier early days under RTD, than as the opener to Moffat’s swansong series. But that’s not really the point of this story. This story has one objective and one objective only: introducing Bill and setting her up as the Doctor’s new companion. The star-eyed girl in her locomotive puddle was a pantomime threat deployed as the impetus for bringing the Doctor and Bill together. As an aspect of the story, it wasn’t important. It played a secondary role.

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And it served its purpose. As far as companion introductions go, Bill probably received a better character debut than any companion since Rose. Maybe even better. As an introductory episode, I think I’d give it a more middling ranking — The Eleventh Hour is still the superior introductory episode in my book. Because I do think a case can be made that, while The Pilot‘s plot served its purpose in the story, it still could have been, well, less predictable and pedestrian. Less Series 1 Sarah Jane Adventures. The visual realisation of Heather as the phantasmic eponymous “pilot” was appropriately freaky, but the revelation of what the creature was and the way its threat was resolved was something of a lazy anticlimax. Still, it all provided for some very fun whizzing around in the Tardis as the Doctor attempted to outrun the creature (and I’m delighted that Australia got a look in).

On that note, just as the whirlwind whiz around time and space in the Tardis was supposed to be Bill’s first exciting voyage with the Doctor, the impetus for her boarding the Tardis as the Doctor’s companion, this episode was obviously supposed to be scripted as a soft reboot to the show. That was certainly how it was being touted by the likes of Moffat and Capaldi, a new “jumping-on point” for new viewers of the show à la The Eleventh Hour. Certainly, everything old was made new again in this episode. Old fans will have smirked knowing smirks as familiar tropes of the show were hashed out again for new viewers, albeit with subtle variation for the old fans: the “bigger on the inside” scene, “Doctor Who What?” and the companion’s traditional vomit of questions about the Doctor and the Tardis (“Why are the initials in English?”). Even as a veteran fan, though, the moment Bill turned around and saw the inside of the Tardis, wide-eyed and stunned, and the Doctor said those words, “Time and Relative Dimension in Space — TARDIS for short”, I got chills. This show never stops being magical.

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As effective and accessible this episode was as a reboot to the franchise and a jumping-on point for new viewers though, it was also deft in setting up what looks like it’s going to be the arc of this series. There’s a big, menacing-looking vault in a cellar under Bill’s university, and the Doctor doesn’t want anybody to know about it. He’s apparently set himself up as a professor at the university and has been there for as many as 70 years keeping watch over that vault. It’s a credit to Moffat’s writing that the most curious aspect of this episode — why the Doctor has been earthbound, lecturing at a university for upwards of 70 years — almost passed unnoticed. Attention wasn’t drawn to it. It was written as though it didn’t even need explanation, and as a result the audience just accepted it without asking for an explanation. It was understated and clever and not overt and heavy-handed like last series’ Hybrid arc setup (as intriguing as I found that, too). The subtle and inconspicuous way the arc was set up allows narrative space and time for the Doctor to go gallivanting around the universe with Bill at his leisure before he inevitably needs to return to the vault, and in that respect it was well deployed.

Apart from the introduction of Bill, what I really liked about this episode is that it represents such an optimistic and exciting beginning to this series of Doctor Who. Everything is fresh, everything is new, and we have a bushy-tailed new companion chewing at the bit to get into the Tardis and see the universe, and a Doctor apparently excited by the prospect of taking her to see it with him. I think I’d like to have seen some more caution and trepidation on the Doctor’s part of drafting Bill into the Tardis, more acknowledgement by him that the last time he did this he got his companion killed (technically) — the episode rather skirted over that — but I suppose when you’re trying to reboot the show anew again for a new audience, that audience might find it confusing if the show referenced too significantly events of previous series. But the result, the conclusion to this episode was always going to be the right one: Bill breathlessly hops aboard the Tardis and she and the Doctor take off into the universe, a whole series of exciting adventures ahead of them. This episode made me excited for the series ahead, and for that reason it was successful.

Rating: 8/10.

Five predictions for Doctor Who Series 10

Doctor Who is today. It’s literally today. Well, tomorrow for me (sometimes it sucks being an antipodean). I decided to write this last-minute post sharing five of my predictions for what we might see in Series 10.

The Doctor will be different

Within the first few minutes of the Twelfth Doctor’s initial appearance in Series 9, the character development he had undergone offscreen since we had last seen him was conspicuous. The cold, brusque and callous Twelve we met in Series 8 was nowhere to be seen. It was clear that between Last Christmas and The Magician’s Apprentice, the Doctor had found his heart, learned some social skills, taken a figurative chill pill or two and possibly smoked some pot. He was still recognisably the Twelfth Doctor we were introduced to in Series 8, but a developed and more emotionally mature version of that character. I liked it, and I liked him. The personality adjustment, I think, was successful and necessary character development which it would have been unsatisfying for him not to have undergone.

And I think we can expect to see further character development in Series 10. Some of the advance reviews of The Pilot have noted that Twelve has once again undergone a degree of personality adjustment offscreen. I don’t think there’s anything surprising about that. Twelve in Series 9 wasn’t a fully-developed character either. He was developed, but not matured, like a fruit that you can eat but isn’t fully ripe yet. It still tastes a bit sour. Twelve in Series 9 was like the teenage version of his character— let’s say late teenage. He had his electric guitar and his black sunglasses and his scruffy clothes, and he was still riding the high of his intense and exhilarating relationship with Clara.

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I think in Series 10 we can expect to see a matured Twelve. Especially after the events of Hell Bent and The Husbands of River Song which have forced him to mature from his teenage mindset of Series 9. I think we can expect him to be softer and gentler, wiser, more emotionally stable, and psychologically older. A more rounded, nuanced and more mature person in general, but maybe jaded from experience and age, like Matt Smith’s Doctor was in the latter days of his regeneration.

I’ve mentioned my feelings about Bill before, but perhaps a companion like Bill is exactly what the Doctor needs in Series 10. Bill is young and energetic and starry-eyed and enthused by the prospect of all of time and space at her fingertips, and someone like that is exactly the kind of person Twelve needs after the losses of Clara and River Song. As that brief sequence of dialogue between Twelve and Nardole in The Return of Doctor Mysterio revealed, the Doctor is clearly still hurting from his losses, and I would not be surprised if it’s aged him and jaded him. He needs someone to make him feel excited about life again.

Bill will leave at the end of Series 10

There’s no reason necessarily why Pearl Mackie shouldn’t cross over into Chris Chibnall’s era of Doctor Who. There’s no rule saying the companion has to leave with the Doctor, or that the entire personnel of Doctor Who has to leave when the showrunner leaves. As we learned, Chris Chibnall asked Peter Capaldi to stay on as the Doctor under him. It’s not inconceivable that he also asked Pearl to stay, too.

But somehow I think Bill is going to be a one-series companion. There’s no doubt that the appeal, for Pearl, of remaining in the role after 2017 is definitely there. Before now she was virtually unknown in British entertainment (this is her first television role), but she’s gone and landed herself one of biggest and most sought-after gigs in television. The longer she can stay, the more experience and visibility she will receive, and the steeper the trajectory of her career will be from this point onwards.

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But at the same time, Bill just looks like a companion who was never intended to stay for more than one series. She’s simple, Bill. A simple concept, that is. For once, we have a companion who’s relatively uncomplicated and normal. She’s not an enigma or a mystery like Clara, the Impossible Girl, or Amy, Fairytale Amy, the Girl Who Waited. She’s just Bill. Bill from Bristol. And Bill from Bristol looks like the kind of companion who isn’t going to obsess or enthrall the Doctor for multiple seasons. She’s going to come aboard the Tardis, have a great time, tag along for a while, then decide she’s had her fun and learned a lot about herself but that it’s time for her to get back to the real world. Nothing complicated. No intense, emotionally-charged relationship with the Doctor à la Clara Oswald. No elaborate arc consuming her and no nagging mystery hanging over her that the Doctor needs to solve. She’ll go adventuring with the Doctor in her summer holidays and then head back to school for the Autumn term.

And I think Pearl might feel she was obliged to leave along with Peter Capaldi and Steven Moffat. It was always going to be an awkward position to be in, to continue as the companion after the Doctor regenerates. It’s going to be especially awkward if the showrunner is leaving at the same time. Maybe Pearl would feel that it’s appropriate for her to bow out with Peter and Moffat, having done her brief but hopefully respectable stint on the show.

The Master won’t be the only other Time Lord the Doctor meets

We already know that the Doctor will encounter not just one, but two Masters this series. So Series 10 is already jam-packed with Time Lords, but I think there’s a good chance we’ll be getting at least one more than we expected. Gallifrey made its triumphant return to Doctor Who in the Series 9 finale, after all, and the Time Lords are once again on the Tardis radar and active in the universe.

I think there is a possibility that two known characters in Series 10 could be Time Lords. The first is the character played by David Suchet, “The Landlord”, in episode 4 of the series, Knock Knock. You’d be right in thinking my only reason for speculating that David Suchet’s character is a Time Lord is that, much like the Doctor and the Master, we only have a title (with a “the” in front), not a name. Not much to go on, I grant, but it’s true that, from the description of the episode, David Suchet’s character sounds tantalisingly enigmatic:

Bill is moving in with some friends and they’ve found the perfect house! So what if it’s strangely cheap to rent, and the landlord is a little creepy? The wind blows, the floorboards creak and the Doctor thinks something is very wrong. What lurks in the strange tower at the heart of the building – and why can’t they find any way to enter it..?

And what is it that “lurks in the strange tower at the heart of the building”? If you can say with a straight face that you didn’t just think “Tardis”, then you’re lying. Given that they’re dialling up the enigma factor on David Suchet’s character, I think it’s likely that the episode will climax in the character’s “true” identity being revealed. Maybe he’s a Time Lord. Or maybe we’re just supposed to think that while his real identity is something completely different — a misdirection. But if he is a Time Lord, I think it’s more likely he won’t be a returning Time Lord character. A one-off new character is more likely. This won’t be a regenerated Rassilon, in other words. Or, God forbid, a regenerated Romana.

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The other character whom I speculate may have Gallifreyan origins is Nardole. Nardole was never supposed to be anything special. He was the comic relief character played a comedian in the 2015 Christmas special. He exited the episode having parted ways with nine tenths of his body, a disembodied head sharing a robot body with another disembodied head. But for some reason seemingly unbeknownst to everyone apart from Steven Moffat and Matt Lucas, Nardole returned in the 2016 Christmas special and, we were nonplussed to learn, is set to return as a full-time companion in Series 10.

I’m almost certain Nardole is going to leave at the end of Series 10, but the question is what he’s doing there at all. Moffat has dropped hints that there is actually a purpose to Nardole’s presence in the Tardis in Series 10. I’m wondering if Nardole will turn out to be a more significant character than we realise. For all his comedy and bumbling ways, there’s a certain mystery about the character, because we know very little about him. Why did the Doctor “reassemble” Nardole at all? Why Nardole, of all people? Is he a Time Lord? It’s one possibility. There are certainly others. Given that we know so little about Nardole, it’s hard to speculate with any accuracy, but the two things I’m confident in conjecturing at this point is that there is something special or significant about Nardole, and that he will play an important narrative role in Series 10.

Which still doesn’t change my feelings about the character at all, to be honest.

This will be Moffat’s best series yet

I just have a hunch. An intuition, if you will. Moffat has spent his whole career as Doctor Who showrunner foraging around, experimenting, trying to find out what works. You can perceive the common voice throughout all five, now six, of Moffat’s series, but still each has felt different. He’s tried new formats, new moods and styles. From the “fairytale” theme and mood of the early days of Matt Smith he’s moved onto the darker, grittier feel of Capaldi’s era. From monster-of-the-week in Series 5 he’s graduated onto the joined-up and interconnected narratives of Series 9.

By now I just feel that he’s got it figured out. Sure, after eight years at the helm he may be casting around for new things to do, but I discern that Moffat isn’t someone for whom interesting new ideas are ever very far from his mind. And he has a stable of very young, talented and ingenious writers at his disposal who are doubtless brimming with ideas of their own. I do think he has a pretty good feel now for what works and what doesn’t, and I sense that, for this series, he’s really done his utmost to best himself once more before he leaves.

Everything I’ve heard about Series 10 has persuaded me that I may be right in thinking Moffat has gone to great lengths to try to make this his best series yet. Have a look at the preview of each episode Moffat gave to the Radio Times. Every single episode is unique and interesting. Each script sounds absolutely intriguing, and I’m struggling to pick which I want to watch most. There’s a conspicuous absence of The Caretaker and In the Forest of the Night type filler stories in this selection. Each episode looks like event television.

And the way Moffat has been describing Series 10, as a “reboot” or “jumping-on point” of sorts, sounds like he’s taking Doctor Who back to its purest, rawest essence — adventure and fantasy and thrills and monsters — and is trying to make that version of Doctor Who as well as he can. That certainly sounds like the kind of Doctor Who I’d want to watch, and it really does look like Moffat has tried to produce a consistently high-quality and faultless series. If these episodes are as good as they sound, there’s a good chance that’s exactly what we’re going to see.

The Twelfth Doctor will regenerate in the finale

The latest trailer for Series 10 briefly showed the Twelfth Doctor hunched over in pain, gold regeneration energy wafting out of his hand. It was a very brief couple of frames at the end of the trailer which made Twitter explode. Because the Doctor isn’t supposed to be regenerating in Series 10. No. He’s supposed to regenerate at the end of the Christmas special, and then the new Doctor will appear for exactly 17 seconds before the credits. That’s how it happens. That’s how it’s supposed to happen.

Then why was the Doctor regenerating in the Series 10 trailer? The Doctor has no business regenerating at any point before the last 2 minutes of the Christmas special, let alone in Series 10.

I don’t think we should put it past Moffat to mix things up a bit. Moffat isn’t the type of showrunner who will opt for the well-trodden path (which he himself helped forge) over the opportunity to do something very different and more exciting. I don’t think the Twelfth Doctor will regenerate in the Series 10 finale and that the Christmas special will feature the Thirteenth Doctor. No one wants that and that’s obviously not what’s going to happen. But one commentator has speculated that Twelve will begin regenerating at the end of the Series 10 finale, and will spend the Christmas special in “regeneration mode”, vulnerable to actual death but trying to hold off regenerating until he vanquishes some urgent threat (possibly the Mondasian Cybermen again), until he finally collapses and regenerates into the Thirteenth Doctor.

Much like the First Doctor did.

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I think that’s a fantastic idea, and I would be very satisfied if that is how the Twelfth Doctor’s regeneration is executed. But I think I’m more partial to an idea of my own, that the Doctor will begin regenerating in the closing minutes of the Series 10 finale, but, much like the Tenth Doctor’s “regeneration” in The Stolen Earth, we won’t actually see him change. It’ll be left on a cliffhanger. A six month cliffhanger which won’t be broken on 25th December by Twelve immediately regenerating into Thirteen, but by a dream sequence or perhaps a flashback. In the classic series the Doctor would hallucinate about his companions in the moments before he regenerated. This is what I’m thinking of, except the Doctor’s hallucination or dream or flashback sequence would extend the length of the episode — and it would feature Clara.

Because how appropriate would it be for the Twelfth Doctor to dream about Clara in the moments before he regenerates? How perfect would it be to have Jenna Coleman back as Clara for an episode, and to have Twelve and Clara back on our screens together again one last time before the second half of that couple makes his final leave? Maybe it would be a dream about Clara, or maybe a montage of (new) flashbacks about Twelve’s memories with Clara, but to see Twelve with Clara again, even in a dream or a flashback, one more time before Peter Capaldi leaves would be beautiful.

And when Twelve stirs from his dream state, he will rise slowly and his eyes will cloud. He will utter a word, “Clara…”, and a single tear will slither down his cheek. Then he will smile, a tender, affectionate smile, a special smile he hasn’t remembered smiling for such a long time. And then golden fumes will start to envelop his body as he closes his eyes, still smiling that smile. And then he will regenerate.

Some final thoughts before Series 10

Wait, what? Doctor Who is less than a week away? Gosh. As far as hiatuses go, that was, well, an unexpectedly tolerable 16-month break. The pains of absence, such as they were, were definitely soothed by the constant, almost weekly drip-drip of news about Series 10. I don’t think we ever went for long without getting more exciting news about what was happening in Series 10, whether it was news about writers, episodes, guest stars, or announcements that the Mondasian Cybermen, or John Simm, were going to make a very public return to the show.

As someone who’s been following the Series 10 news avidly since Doctor Who decided it needed to spend some time apart from us in December 2015, I have a lot of feelings about what I expect, anticipate and want to see over the following twelve weeks. I’m taking this opportunity, on the eve of Series 10, to organise and set down my thoughts.

My attitude has totally changed

I’m not sure I was alone, earlier into the hiatus, in feeling cynical about Series 10. I wasn’t impressed by what we had seen and been told about Bill. I thought she looked like a lazily-conceived companion cast in the same repetitive mould as all Moffat’s other female companions to date. I was completely nonplussed by the decision to bring Nardole back — at all, let alone as a full-time companion to the Doctor. By the way Series 10 was being framed by Moffat, I was frustrated that Series 10 sounded like it was going to be largely a “fluff” series pitched at the lowest common denominator of the audience: the venerated “casual viewers” who were apparently considered incapable of paying attention week-to-week (but who can follow the interwoven multi-series storylines of Game of Thrones just fine).

It felt like, after the arc-heavy and high-frequency affair that was Series 9, Moffat was deciding to really dial the show back to basics as an early-evening children’s show about poorly-designed space monsters and little more. It sounded to me like Moffat really intended to phone it in in Series 10. After delivering his masterpiece and what was supposed to be his coup de grâce in Series 9, it seemed like he was opting to phone in a final dozen scripts of simplistic plots and superficial characters before claiming his salary and leaving.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Maybe I’m being swept up in the hype and the publicity about the new series, which has been reaching intensity levels in recent weeks leading up to the new series, but at this point I’m as excited as I’ve ever been about a new series of Doctor Who. I think it was the news that David Suchet was going to play a figure called The Landlord in one of the new episodes that started to change my attitude. That particular episodes sounds fascinating, as does the character, and anything with David Suchet in it is objectively worth watching. More recently we’ve had the terribly exciting news that the Mondasian Cybermen will be making their return in the finale, and that John Simm will be returning as the Master alongside Michelle Gomez.

The latter two items, really, have given me a whole new impression of what we can expect to see in Series 10. No, this isn’t going to be a phoned-in series of fluff before Moffat steals a Tardis key prop from set and scarpers. It may well turn out to be a “back-to-basics” series of Doctor Who, but it sounds like it’s going to be back-to-basics in a different way from what I was anticipating: not a return to banal children’s entertainment but a distilling of the show back to the basic elements of what makes it great, what we all watch Doctor Who for — the pure adventure and fantasy and escapism and imagination. If any reference point is appropriate, I think it’s like dialling the clock back to the early 70s glory days of Tom Baker in that Series 10, like Season 13, looks like it’s going to be a very pure iteration of Doctor Who and the essential elements that make the show what it is.

And no, this won’t be a series directed at the philistines “casual” viewers. The return of the Mondasian Cybermen and John Simm are about the two most fan-pleasing things the show has done in years.

But I’m still not sure about Bill and Nardole

Although I’ve definitely warmed towards the series itself, I’m still somewhat sceptical of this year’s Tardis team.

I didn’t understand why Nardole was being brought back when I first heard the news, and I still don’t now. It sounded then like Moffat just enjoyed working with Matt Lucas (or, at least, enjoyed his jokes) and didn’t realise that the prospect of the very-comical comic relief character from the Christmas special coming aboard as a full-time companion didn’t excite the fandom nearly as much as it excited him.

I’ve been somewhat reassured by the more subdued appearance of Nardole in the most recent Christmas special, and by the suggestion that there is actually a purpose to Nardole’s being there (some sort of “secret mission”?), but I’m going to reserve judgment until I actually see Nardole with the Doctor and Bill. Because, honestly, I thought the character we met in The Husbands of River Song was good for a laugh but I recoil from the prospect of seeing him in every episode in Series 10. I thought it must have been some sort of joke when I heard.

tardis team 2017

As for Bill, my complaints from a year ago stand. Bill will be the third companion in a row (four, if River Song counts) cast from a particular mould: an outgoing, bubbly, feisty, self-confident young 21st Century British woman who’s unrealistically fearless and glib in the face of extraterrestrial danger. I may have loved those qualities in Amy, River and Clara (I actually did complain of those same qualities in Clara, too, before I eventually warmed to her), but the fourth time round it’s become tiresome and boring. Bill seems like a minor reconfiguration of the personalities of the two or three companions who have come before her, mixed with a bit of Donna’s gob, and for that reason it’s going to be very easy to find her uninteresting and bland.

And, no, the fact that Bill is gay doesn’t make her interesting. At least not by itself. It’s great that a companion is openly gay, but Steven Moffat is right: normalising homosexuality in film and TV means not blinking an eyelid when a character is revealed as gay. It means not making a character’s homosexuality something that consumes the character and dominates their personality in our eyes. If a character is uninteresting, they shouldn’t automatically become fascinating just because they’re gay. That isn’t how this is supposed to work.

Of course I’m prepared to have my mind changed. I want to enjoy this series as much as possible, and I’m going to enjoy it much more if I can warm to Bill and Nardole. I want to have my mind changed, and I half expect it to be, if the quality of the writing this series is as good as it sounds. But it’s not like Moffat has never disappointed me before, and I think my reservations about these characters are fair.

I’m expecting something big

This is Moffat’s final series. If I know Moffat (and I do), he’ll want to go out on a fairly deafening bang. We’ve never known Moffat to balk at the opportunity to do something earth-shaking. He’s a continuity-builder, Moffat. He’s one of us, and he dorks out over geeky fan theories and wild headcanons just like us. This is his last opportunity to advance the 53-year narrative of Doctor Who and he’ll want to seize it with both hands. Since hearing the news that two Masters are going to feature, I’m under no doubt that Moffat has probably saved one of his biggest tricks yet for the Series 10 finale.

missy dabbing

As for what, we’ll have to wait and see, but I have a suspicion it will have something to do with Gallifrey. Gallifrey is back in the sky, the Doctor knows where it is, but more importantly Gallifrey knows where the Doctor is. After making such a triumphant return to the show in Hell Bent, Doctor Who can hardly ignore its existence from now on. It’s a permanent fixture of the show now, at least until the next time the Doctor blows it up. Even more urgently, Rassilon is still out there and doubtless nursing a major grudge against the Doctor for kicking him off his own planet. Whether we’ll see him this series, who knows, but he’s now another Big Bad to add to the list of the Doctor’s dangerous enemies.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Master were to be the big enemy of Series 10, given that there’s going to be two of them in the finale. Missy so far has not been an enemy of the Doctor as much as very bad friend. In Series 8 she wanted to buy his friendship with a Cyberman army. In Series 9 she accompanied him to Skaro and nearly tricked him into killing Clara. In neither of those instances was she definitively evil. But it’s time for her to be the bad guy now. After all, the last time we saw her, the Doctor had left her for dead on Skaro in the middle of a horde of angry Daleks. I’d be pretty pissed at my so-called “friend”, too, wouldn’t you?

Given that Missy’s previous regeneration is making a long-awaited reappearance, I’m getting a better idea of what Missy’s “clever plan” is going to be. And given that the only place John Simm’s Master could have come from is Gallifrey, I’m starting to wonder if the Master(s) won’t be the only Time Lord the Doctor meets.

The Mondasian Cybermen are back!

The original Mondasian Cybermen from The Tenth Planet are returning in the Series 10 finale and oh my god you have no idea how freaking excited I am about this. I’ve wanted this for so long but I never thought Moffat would be bold or visionary enough to actually do it. I take back everything I said about Moffat phoning it in in Series 10, because this is some seriously meaty and ambitious and fan-pleasing stuff.

It was Peter Capaldi who once said he’d love to see the Mondasian Cybermen back on the show, but that Moffat has agreed that it would be a good idea to bring them back—in his last finale no less—shows that he’s interested in what the fans want to see (in this case the more nerdy and opinionated section of the fandom) and is engaging with the conversations we’ve been having, since the Mondasian Cybermen have been pretty high on so many hardcore Whovians’ wish lists. If Moffat brings back the Valeyard in the Christmas special he’ll have absolutely made my year (although I’m not expecting that).

For those who haven’t seen much of Classic Who and don’t get why it’s so exciting that the Mondasian Cybermen are being brought back, let me enlighten you. You could do worse than to read my paean to the Mondasian Cybermen in my review of the Big Finish audio Spare Parts. What The Tenth Planet gets right and what pretty much all subsequent Cybermen stories (especially in the revived series) have got wrong, and what Spare Parts tried to rehabilitate, was a conception of the Cybermen as a chilling reflection of ourselves. Look past the primitive costume work on the Mondasian Cybermen and see the compelling concept they’re supposed to embody: the Cybermen are us if we’re not careful about how far we take artificial augmentation of our bodies. The Cybermen are what we could become. They’re supposed to be tragic, not frightening, or frightening only in the sense that they should be a warning to us about what we could become. The Cybermen are not Daleks with legs—they’re not killer robots—as they’re regrettably portrayed in the modern series. They’re us. They’re literally the human race. That’s the reason why they’re supposed to be scary.

Even though the costuming and voices and movements of the Cybermen from The Tenth Planet are quite primitive and probably seem quite comical to us, I think those original models actually embody this concept of the Cybermen as humanity’s “dark mirror” really well. The zombie-like movements, the weird half-human, half-machine sing-songy voices, their chillingly human dialogue (actual rational argument, not “DELETE”), the creepy fleshy faces and hands. It all makes for a version of the Cybermen that I find so much freakier and creepier than the stomping killer robots in their Iron Man suits screaming “DELETE” that the show is afflicted with today. The Cybermen, true to their original concept, should really, as the Mondasian Cybermen did, evoke zombies, which are another human-but-not-human creature, rather than robots, which are human in no way at all. I really just hope Moffat gets them right.

If you haven’t already, I’d definitely recommend watching The Tenth Planet (which is also the First Doctor’s regeneration story!) to see the original Mondasian Cybermen at their freaky, zombie-ish, ‘Sixties best. After The Tenth Planet, listen to the Spare Parts Big Finish audio play, which sees the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa return to Mondas to witness the genesis of the Cybermen—which is an amazing Doctor Who story in itself, but also, in my opinion, the best Cyberman story ever precisely because it’s such a faithful portrayal of the iconic villain.

The female Doctor question once more

It’s been almost a month since Peter Capaldi announced his intention to leave Doctor Who at the end of 2017. In remarkably quick time the fandom has turned from lamenting Peter Capaldi’s impending departure, to speculating excitedly about the identity of the actor who will be playing the 13th Doctor, to now fighting angrily amongst itself in the latest fandom war to break out in this exceptionally quarrelsome fandom. I’m talking about the controversy over the question of whether the Doctor should be played by a woman. It’s not really a new controversy—it rears its head every time the question of the next Doctor comes up and every time anyone publicly speculates about the future of Doctor Who. Not to mention every time Steven Moffat gives a self-indulgent wink to the fans indicating the possibility of the Doctor one day undergoing a sex-flipping regeneration.

But there’s something different about the discourse about a prospective female Doctor this time. It’s like the calls for a female Doctor have finally reached fever pitch. The people calling for a female Doctor are calling louder and shriller than ever before. There’s no humility in the calls for a female Doctor any more. What used to be speculation and suggestion about the possibility of a female Doctor has turned practically into demand, coupled with an intolerance for the views of those who don’t want such a radical change to the show’s format. I’ve never seen it like this before. It’s practically at the point where those pushing for a female Doctor won’t accept any new actor cast as the 13th Doctor who isn’t a woman.

I’ve elaborated on why I don’t want a female Doctor before, but with the female Doctor idea being pushed so forcefully at the moment, I feel compelled to reiterate my position. I’ve seen various reasons put forward in opposition to a female Doctor, but fundamentally, for me, it’s about being true to the character. For me, it’s simple: the Doctor is a male character. The Doctor is a man. I’ve never thought of the Doctor as anything other than a man. I don’t think generations of fans and producers of this show since the 1960s have ever thought of the Doctor as anything other than a man, as indicated by the fact that in 53 years and 13 regenerations, the Doctor has only ever been played by male actors. For me, at least, casting a female actor to play the Doctor would not be true to the character. I would feel that a 13th Doctor played by a female actor would lack something intrinsic and fundamental to the character, which is the character’s gender. Seeing the Doctor played by a woman, I think and I fear that I would feel, “This character is not the Doctor. She is another character (maybe even a good character) but she is not the Doctor.”

As I said in my earlier post on the subject:

I’ve come to love this character, the Doctor, independent of any of his individual incarnations. When I think of the Doctor, no individual incarnation springs immediately to mind, but I think of a number of essential traits that make this overarching character, this person, who he is: heroic, principled, selfless, eccentric, lonely, mysterious — and a man. I very much get the feeling that, throughout his various incarnations, despite looking and feeling different after each regeneration, the Doctor remains the same person, and it’s very important to me, for my investment in the character, that the Doctor always feels like the same person. To an extent, at least, I’d feel that the Doctor had become a different person if the Doctor were to become a woman. After thirteen or however many incarnations as a man, I think I’d feel that I couldn’t recognise a female Doctor as the character I knew and loved; that a female actor is likely to depart in a fundamental way from how the character has been portrayed in the past would only exacerbate this feeling.

“But Time Lords don’t have a fixed sex, it’s been shown they can regenerate into the opposite sex, so the Doctor is not a man” might come the objection. My first response to that would be that all that’s been shown onscreen is two Time Lords regenerating into the opposite sex, one, the Master, after a long history of having been a man (like the Doctor), and one, the General, whose first words after regenerating were “Back to normal, am I?” It’s not been established canonically when and how Time Lords can regenerate into the opposite sex—it certainly hasn’t been confirmed that every Time Lord can do it, or that a sex change is a 50% chance for every Time Lord. That the Doctor has been a man 13 times out of 13 so far suggests that there’s more involved than pure random chance.

But I recognise that Moffat (or Chibnall, if he is so inclined) could easily retcon that continuity and establish with a single throwaway line in a forgettable script that the Doctor has an equal chance of regenerating into a man or a woman, and that he’s just had exceptionally unusual luck so far. So the more important answer to the objection above is that just because the Doctor can be made to regenerate into a woman, doesn’t mean he should. The whole idea of sex-flipping regeneration is very new in the history of the show (2011 was the first reference I believe), and the Doctor has now been a man for 13 regenerations and 53 years offscreen or over 2,000 years onscreen. He’s long been widely and popularly identified as a male character, and the Doctor was entrenched in the fandom’s consciousness and the broader cultural consciousness as an iconic male character long before Steven Moffat turned up on the scene, late-coming, and told us all that, actually, the Doctor isn’t a male character, he’s actually a bisexual gender-fluid sequential hermaphrodite (as I once saw it amusingly put), and that our long-standing identification and association of the Doctor as a male character is wrong and misplaced.

That’s my view, for what it’s worth. I fully respect the views of those who disagree with me and take a different perspective, as long as they respect mine. Because it’s an increasingly common thing among the more ardent supporters of a female Doctor to dismiss everyone who doesn’t take their position as misogynists. Because apparently there’s no other possible reason a person might be reluctant to radically change a fundamental part of the format of a 53-year old show other than hatred of one half of the human race. Even the substantial number of female fans who oppose a female Doctor. Apparently they hate women, too. Sounds legit. Perhaps there are people who oppose a female Doctor because of misogynistic motivations, but I would assume their number is minuscule, because one wonders why misogynists would spend their time watching a show which so proudly elevates and empowers its female characters.

I know that the majority of supporters of a female Doctor are reasonable, intelligent people who do not believe that opponents of the idea are all misogynists. I’ve been in many debates about a female Doctor before and the majority of those arguing for a female Doctor have been reasonable and respectful of the views of those of us who disagree. But there is a vocal minority who do take that line, and they’re incredibly stubborn and infuriating people to argue with, who are typically projecting their own profound intolerance onto others. In this respect it’s regretful to see that Radio Times has, since Peter Capaldi announced his departure, become a prominent voice pushing the “all-opponents-of-a-female-Doctor-are-misogynists” line with its articles containing thinly-veiled suggestions to that effect, giving unwelcome respectability to that view.

Something else I worry about with the push for a female Doctor is that it would be done for all the wrong reasons. If it’s done for genuinely creative reasons, because the producers are interested in the creative possibilities casting a woman as the Doctor opens up, that’s fine. I respect that, even I don’t agree with it. I can’t respect the decision if it’s done for political reasons, to promote a social agenda, or simply to be progressive or politically correct. Doctor Who isn’t another front for a progressive social agenda, another hive of reactionary social oppression that needs to be prised open by the winds of equality, it’s a TV show for kids. When it comes to casting for a TV show, “it’s time” just isn’t an argument. Why is it time? Is it oppression to be denied the opportunity to be Doctor Who? Is playing the Doctor a human right now? Should we inform the UN, in that case? Forgive my saltiness, but I really don’t have patience for arguments like this. A casting decision should always be a creative one with the purpose of making the best work possible, not a political one, because when politics is elevated above art in making casting decisions, by definition worse casting decisions are made and the show, as art, suffers.

I mean, I wonder what would be gained politically by turning an established and iconic male character into a woman as a purely symbolic act, especially considering the backlash from the substantial proportion of fans who don’t want a female Doctor. I’m not sure that the campaign to turn established male characters into women is the best progressive strategy considering how much it annoys fans (male and female) of the franchises in question. In any case, I’m not even sure a decision to turn an iconic and long-established male character like the Doctor into a woman, when the person making that decision knows that they would face a huge backlash from a substantial number of fans if they did so, can ever not be political. Even if the decision is made predominantly for creative reasons, the decision to cast a woman as the Doctor, after 13 men have played the character and after the character has been entrenched in popular consciousness for so long as a man, couldn’t not be fundamentally political. It would almost certainly be perceived that way, especially if Chibnall uses the words “it’s time”, as he would, in reference to the decision.

All that said, I’m not necessarily saying that if a woman were cast as the 13th Doctor, I wouldn’t give it a chance. As I said in my earlier post on the subject, I would most likely continue watching the show and I would keep an open mind about the change—I would even be interested in how a female Doctor would be played out, like most fans, I’m sure. I would be prepared to admit that I was wrong about how I thought I would feel, and that I end up continuing to identify a female Doctor as the character I love. But I think my reservations are legitimate, and I would rather it not happen at all than see it go ahead on the unlikely chance that I end up warming to the change. And it’s not just me—as I mentioned a number of times, there are a substantial number of fans, if not a majority, who are opposed to a female Doctor. It’s worth considering whether what the idea’s supporters want from a female Doctor is worth alienating a huge proportion of the fandom for.

New companion: first impressions

…And it’s Pearl Mackie! She plays Bill, who seems to have an ’80s vibe going on with that wicked style (and hair) of hers. We’ve had a brief glimpse of Bill and Twelve working together in a short trailer the BBC released introducing the new companion, allowing us to form our first impressions of Pearl Mackie as Bill.

I have to admit, I didn’t take to Bill immediately. My initial reaction when I saw the trailer was: “annoying”. Maybe it was just the poorly-written dialogue, but Bill comes off as someone who will prove to annoy me over her time on the show. That she doesn’t take the threat of the Daleks seriously, but rather makes glib jokes when her life is in danger doesn’t bode well on that front, to be honest. Nor was I very inspired by the chemistry between Bill and Twelve. Perhaps it’s still just strange and uncomfortable seeing Twelve with someone other than Clara, but this partnership feels a bit jarring.

Moreover, she comes across to me as another iteration of the standard Moffat strong-female-companion archetype, i.e. she’s a bubbly, feisty, perky, self-confident, quick-witted young woman who’s unrealistically fearless in the face of danger, just like Amy, Clara and River. I love Amy, Clara and River for those qualities, but the trope has run its course, and to make Bill another iteration of this archetype is going to feel repetitive and unsatisfying: Bill is simply not going to out-Amy Amy or out-Clara Clara, because she’s not Amy or Clara and she’s going to look inadequate in comparison if she tries (talking about Bill here, or rather Moffat-writing-Bill, not Pearl, who, I’ve no doubt, will do her valiant best with the hand she’s dealt).

I’m hoping there’s more to this character than it seems so far. I’d be more prepared to accept another standard Moffat-style companion if she were to undergo some significant and meaningful character development over her time with the Doctor that clearly distinguishes her character and makes her into someone unique and interesting and more relatable. I’m not going to be happy if the character we saw in the trailer is the character Bill will remain for the rest of her time on the show.

I guess I’d just like to see something different. A companion who represents a stark change from what’s come before. An introverted companion, for once, an intellectual, an actual realistic, relatable person, or someone with loads of space for genuine, positive character development. Moffat has a type, and it’s getting old. From what we’ve seen, Bill is just more of the same.

All that said, though, I don’t want it to seem like I’m not going to give Bill a chance. Of course I’m going to give her a chance, and of course I want to go into Series 10 as open-minded as possible about the new companion. I don’t want to make rash judgments from a two-minute trailer (he says, after making rash judgments from a two minute trailer…), and I’d prepared (albeit sceptical, based on Moffat’s record), to have my first impressions of Bill proven wrong. It occurs to me just now that I thought precisely the same things about Clara when she became the new companion in 2013, and, although it took me a while, I ended up loving Clara. So it may well be that I’m proven wrong once again.