Steven Moffat’s Top 10 (Part 1)

Having digested the news that our Dear Leader, Steven Moffat, is to retire as Doctor Who showrunner, I have decided to look back on what this remarkable writer has contributed in his career to this remarkable show. I’m counting down my picks for Steven Moffat’s ten best scripts for Doctor Who — although I hope, of course, careful not to be premature about this, that Moffat, in his final series, will deliver yet more astounding writing and that I can say in a little over a year’s time that this list is redundant.

This list is obviously subjective, based on my own opinions and estimations, as there is no objective way to compile a “Definitive Top 10” of anything that can’t be measured. So don’t take this list too seriously if you happen to disagree (as you may) with my picks.

Anyway, without further ado…

10. The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone

In his first series as showrunner, Moffat brought back his acclaimed creations, the terrifying Weeping Angels, and stuck the Doctor and Amy in a spaceship teeming with them. It’s an exhilarating and dramatic base-under-siege with enemies that were practically made for this format. The suspense and the adrenaline never lets up: it’s a tight and absorbing pair of episodes that do justice to the Weeping Angels’ second ever outing, after their introduction in the sensational Blink. It also has Steven Moffat’s signature flair for engaging character writing, as Eleven, Amy and River Song (and their respective actors, of course) are all at their luminous best. Notable scenes include Amy stuck in a trailer with a Weeping Angel materialising out of a video recording, and Amy stumbling, blind, through the forest while surrounded by Angels.

9. The Day of the Doctor

Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary special was an extravagant, uplifting homage to the show and its fans, indulging shamelessly in the show’s heritage and featuring not just one, but three (four? thirteen?) Doctors. I can’t remember laughing more at an episode of Doctor Who than I did watching Matt Smith, David Tennant and John Hurt perform the hilarious dialogue with each other in this episode. The brilliance of The Day of the Doctor owes much to the novelty of seeing Matt Smith and David Tennant, along with John Hurt, together onscreen as leads, but it’s also an exceptional story in general. It isn’t a sophisticated, artistic work of writing as many of Moffat’s other most acclaimed scripts are, but it’s a jubilant, well-put together and emotionally satisfying celebration of Doctor Who that only a writer with a deep love and reverence for this show could have written. I adore it.

8. A Christmas Carol

Still the best Christmas special by a good length, and, in my opinion, one of the best things Moffat has written for the show. A Christmas Carol isn’t often mentioned among lists of “Moffat’s best”, because, well, it’s a Christmas special and aren’t Christmas specials just light, insubstantial seasonal fluff? Not “real” Doctor Who? Well, yes, generally, but Christmas specials can still be fantastic pieces of writing and production, as I believe A Christmas Carol is, perhaps ironically for the most overtly “Christmassy” of Doctor Who’s Christmas specials. It was an absorbing, heartwarming and very emotional story, a recreation of the eponymous Charles Dickens tale with the unique Doctor Who twist of time travel. It’s filled with enchanting moments, such as all the adventures the Doctor has with young Kazran and Abigail, whose blossoming relationship is beautiful, but also very poignant moments such as elderly Kazran’s emotional catharsis when confronted with his younger self. It’s a perfect Christmas tale.

7. The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon

It’s hard not to love this one, the bold, explosive two-part opener to Series 6. Like The Magician’s Apprentice, this extravagant opener begun Series 6 with a story pretty much the of the scale and atmosphere of a finale, although in fact it set up the various arc threads which would weave their way throughout Series 6 and culminate in the timey-wimey finale. This story introduced the Silence, probably my favourite monster in Doctor Who, in my opinion one of the more menacing and genuinely scary creatures in the show. Like the Weeping Angels, Moffat’s other notable creature creation, they’re very creepy monsters based on a neat psychological trick, their ability to cause the observer to forget them after looking away. In the episodes this made for many creepy scenes, like Amy being confronted by the Silent in the White House bathroom, and Amy in the Silence-infested orphanage. The plot constructed around the threat of the Silence to human civilisation was also great, suspenseful and claustrophobic drama, and the aesthetic of Americana lends the story an irresistible mood and swagger.

6. The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang

The two-part Series 5 finale remains, to my mind, the best finale of the revival. It’s a superlative script that oozes Moffat’s style and voice all over. It’s a delightfully clever script that deceptively wrong-foots the viewer and then radically changes course halfway through. In many ways it’s the archetypal Moffat finale: it’s an expansive, high-stakes plot with a thrilling concept at its core, involving a very timey-wimey threat in an exploding Tardis that threatens to cause the implosion of the whole universe; but it also carries a profound emotional and character-centred quality, punctuated by touching character moments such as Rory’s pledging himself to stand guard over Amy for 2,000 years, and the Doctor’s pathetic goodbye to little Amelia in her bedroom as he fades from the universe. This story embodies those two staples of Moffat’s style: a penchant for clever and intricate storytelling and especially imaginative exploitation of the narrative possibilities of time travel; and a firm anchoring, from a storytelling perspective, in characters and their relationships.


Stay tuned for my top 5 Moffat stories! Please?

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.

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride Review

Warning: spoilers.

I knew it. I just knew that there was more to this so-called “Victorian” so-called “non-canonical” Sherlock special than they were letting on. I didn’t know what it would be (I was optimistically entertaining hopes of a WhoLock crossover at one point), but I had a hunch that the first Sherlock we get in two years wasn’t just going to be some quaint Victorian adventure entirely removed from the canon. That doesn’t happen. They wouldn’t have written something like this and not tie it back, somehow, to the award-winning, mass-followed, phenomenon-creating, career-defining main series, even in a small way. I’m pleased that this very peculiar Sherlock special did progress, albeit not by much, the main narrative that we’re all on tenterhooks to see continued.

That said, this special would have absolutely worked, and worked fantastically well, even if it bore no in-story relation to the main series. It was about halfway through that I began thinking to myself that Sherlock, as in Sherlock, featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman and produced by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, actually works every bit as well as a show set in the Victorian Era as it does set in modern London. I realise that shouldn’t really be a revelation, given that Sherlock is a contemporary adaptation of Victorian stories and characters, but, after everything, Sherlock is a show set in modern London, and it’s reasonably foreseeable that, in transplanting the characters to a radically different setting, something of the show’s essence would be lost.

I’m pleased to report, though, that nothing at all is lost. If anything, the show benefits from the change of setting: it retains everything we love about Sherlock in its contemporary setting while fully indulging itself in the Victorian, which makes for very evocative, romantic visuals, and a spooky, Gothic case of the sort that could only have worked in the Victorian setting. And, of course, the mystery, the plot, feels very much like an original Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes story. Nothing of the humour, the storytelling or the characterisation is lost. Indeed, Sherlock positively benefits from the timezone shift. Here, finally, is Sherlock in his natural habitat. Sherlock is a man totally in his element, a man totally of his times, his stature visibly enhanced in his Victorian surrounds. His florid language and his courtly bearing seem natural in this setting, and Cumberbatch, a sort of semi-Victorian figure himself, absolutely owns it. It’s a genuine pleasure to watch.

Even though this special was essentially an imaginary situation played out entirely in Sherlock’s mind palace for the purpose of determining whether Moriarty was actually dead or not, and that scarcely 10 minutes have passed since the end of His Last Vow, it did, nevertheless, advance the overarching narrative of the show in very significant ways. Mycroft, certainly, has undergone more genuine character development in this one episode than the entire series up to this point. No more the “Ice Man”, he was touchingly shown to care deeply for his little brother, to be intensely concerned about Sherlock’s well-being, and heartbroken by his brother’s self-destructive lifestyle choices. Suggestions about Mycroft’s “concern” for his brother have been seeded throughout the series, but never to this extent. I’m not sure how many of us suspected the intensity of Mycroft’s love and concern for his brother before now. I found that quite poignant, the way Mycroft’s characterisation was dealt with. And, of course, the theme of Sherlock’s reckless addiction and propensity to live on the edge, even in a Victorian fantasy, was explored compellingly, the effect on the people close to Sherlock, most of all Mycroft, brought into sharp relief.

sherlock the abominable bride2

Overall, it’s an emphatic success. It’s worth conjecturing whether the special would have worked better if it really were an adventure into a Victorian alternate universe, totally removed from the canon of the main series. For my part, I think it would have — the lurching back and forth between the 19th Century and now made for a slightly disorienting twist — and I would have been happy if the episode had been just a novelty special in sumptuous period dress: there was definitely enough meat in the Victorian story for it to stand alone. The writing was excellent and the performances reliably superb. But that’s not to say I wasn’t pleased that what ended up being a very quirky special did contribute to the main narrative in the end. To be honest, I’m just glad we’ve got Sherlock back, in some iteration, after two years. Now for at least another year’s wait for Series 4.

Thoughts on: The Husbands of River Song

Warning: spoilers.

Steven Moffat stated in an interview that, for a long time, he thought that this script, the 2015 Christmas special, might be his last for Doctor Who. He didn’t know if he’d be continuing as showrunner after 2015, and undoubtedly had at the forefront of his mind the possibility that this year’s Christmas special might very well be the last episode he produces for Doctor Who, at least as showrunner. And, truly, The Husbands of River Song feels very much like a swan song of sorts. It isn’t just that it ties up the seven-year story of River Song in what feels like definitive and satisfying closure — there’s a relief and gaiety, but also a genuine emotional touch, to the proceedings that lends to it a sense of warm finality. I mean, much of it is silly farce, but it’s silly farce done in such a loving, adoring way that it does feel as much a personal statement from its writer as much as it is a bit of lighthearted seasonal fluff. You can feel, in a very real sense, Steven Moffat smiling affectionately through the script. To put it another way, if Heaven Sent and Hell Bent were the soaring final act, the coup de grâce to the Moffat era, then The Husbands of River Song would have been the rousing encore.

As far as Christmas specials ago, this is surely the campest, fluffiest, most farcical yet. And there’s nothing wrong with that. After the intense and emotionally devastating three-week long coda to Series 9, a lighthearted, comedic, self-consciously camp story about the Doctor and River Song stealing a bad old king’s head, jam-packed with the most juvenile, lame humour Moffat could muster, was exactly what we needed to bring Doctor Who in 2015 to a close. It was the perfect tonic to one of the darkest, heaviest ends to a series since 2005. And this episode wasn’t just a worthwhile watch for that reason — lighthearted camp can often be tedious, forgettable pap (e.g. Partners in CrimeThe Crimson Horror), but this was genuinely fun, funny and well-written farce. It was so self-consciously camp and silly — the characters, the lines, the whole situation were supposed to be unutterably ridiculous — that it was good, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. If nothing else, it’s highly pleasurable and gratifying light Christmas viewing, which is as it should be.

At heart, though, this was a story about the Doctor and River Song, not King Hydroflax’s head. It was a joy to watch Peter Capaldi’s Doctor and River Song together, no less in a situation where one doesn’t recognise the other. It was also poignant to watch the Doctor visibly hurt by River’s not recognising him and by her flirtation with what seems like everyone apart from him, when she thinks he’s not watching. The situation made for some fantastic moments, hilarious as well as poignant, not least the Doctor’s side-splitting and eminently re-playable performance when he gets his chance, “finally”, to do the “It’s bigger on the inside” thing. Easily the best “It’s bigger on the inside” of them all, in my opinion. But moments like the Doctor and River’s tension-laden conversation at the dinner table on the supervillain luxury resort spaceship carried great emotional weight. And of course, River’s speech, insisting the Doctor (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”), the love of her life, doesn’t love her back, was very good, very earnest and emotive.

All of which made it so much better when River finally recognised the Doctor. The dynamic between River and Capaldi’s Doctor, and the flirting and the banter, after River recognised the Doctor was every bit as good and electric and convincing as River with Matt’s and David’s Doctors. It does make me wonder, even, whether the moment shouldn’t have been delayed as long as it was, whether we could have been treated to more quality Twelve-River action. As a close to River Song’s story in Doctor Who, though, the episode was perfect: as lovely and beautiful and emotional as you could want. The show, in tying up River’s seven-year long character arc, brings her story full-circle, ending it by leading into Silence in the Library, the first time we ever see River, but the last time River sees the Doctor (in life). As an effective addition, it was interesting to see that the Doctor has learnt his lesson from Hell Bent — he knows, and accepts, that this is the last time he sees River before she goes to the Library, where she will meet her end, and he can’t change that. When he says “Times end because they have to,” and “There’s no such thing as happily ever after,” he’s clearly still internalising his lesson re Clara, as well as resigning himself to River’s fate. Which is as punchy and profound an instance of the Doctor’s character development as it gets, frankly. “Happily Ever After”, though, as River insists, only means time, and it’s such a gratifying and lovely end to River’s story on Doctor Who to know that River and the Doctor will have, practically, as much time as they could want to spend together on their final night. And that final shot, of the Doctor and River gazing lovingly into each other’s eyes, was beautiful. Happy Christmas, indeed.

Rating: 8/10.


Quote of the week:

“It’s bigger on the inside!”

Thoughts on: Hell Bent

Warning: spoilers.

In the week before Hell Bent aired, I had prepared myself, along with many, for a barnstorming, ambitious finale of grandiose scale — the Doctor’s spectacular, long-anticipated return to Gallifrey and his epic face-off with the Time Lords. Indeed, for the first fifteen or so minutes, that was what the episode looked like it was doing. There was the Doctor strutting back into town, channelling Clint Eastwood, facing down Rassilon in something like a Time Lord Western. It was all wonderfully atmospheric and intense. But, ultimately, for better or worse, this wasn’t a Time Lord Western or the Doctor’s legend-making homecoming to Gallifrey. The Doctor’s face-off with Rassilon was dealt with quickly, and the episode became an intimate, character-driven piece about the Doctor and Clara Oswald. It was about an ecstatic, passionate, but dangerously flawed friendship, and the terrible lengths to which the Doctor would go for Clara.

It took me a couple of attempts to see this and to really appreciate it. I think perhaps my preconceptions and expectations had something to do with my equivocal first impression. I had prepared myself for one thing, and when the episode took a turn (or a couple of turns) I didn’t expect and turned into something completely different, I was thrown. Making an effort to put aside my preconceptions, though, it was only after a couple of viewings that I came to appreciate the episode for the involving and emotional character piece that it was. Whether an episode centred on the Doctor’s return to Gallifrey would have been better is a relevant question, but, assessing the episode for what it was, and what it was trying to do, I think it was a success, though not without its faults. Watching the Doctor, completely devoid of self-awareness, hell bent on saving Clara at any cost, and witnessing the lengths to which he would go to save his friend, was a compelling and exhilarating story in itself. As a personal, character-driven piece about how far the Doctor’s emotion and grief would take him, it was very powerful and involving.

That said, I do think there is a fundamental problem at the heart of this script that saw the episode leave me (at first), along with many others, with a queer taste in our mouths. It’s that this finale, to an extent, tries to be two things at once. It tries both to be the long-anticipated return-of-Gallifrey episode, and Clara’s exit episode. Gallifrey didn’t need to feature in Clara’s exit. The Doctor didn’t need the Time Lords to meddle with time and save Clara. At the same time, the Doctor-and-Clara plot rather crowds out Gallifrey’s return, something which surely merited its own episode (if not two). The result was a finale that felt, to me at least, rushed (even for a 65-minute episode), disjointed and unfocussed. It took some concentration to keep up with everything that was going on. You think it’s going to go in one direction, but without warning it changes tack and veers in another. Sometimes this sort of thing works, but here I found it disorienting. You’d be forgiven if, somewhere along the way (especially since the narrative was heavily dialogue-reliant), you lost track of what was going on. I didn’t, but I struggled, more than I should have, to keep up.

I don’t think I’m necessarily unjustified in making this (admittedly subjective) point: Steven Moffat mentioned in an interview that, for a while, he thought he might be retiring as showrunner this year. He thought this might be his last finale. Understandably, he would have wanted to tie up his Gallifrey arc before he left, perhaps sooner than he might have if he had known he would be staying on for at least another series. Thus this messy and not completely coherent script. The return of Gallifrey really did need to be its own story, preferably a two-part story, while Clara’s exit story, in my opinion, would have benefited from doing without the intrusive culmination of the Gallifrey arc. All that said, though, I think the script just managed to pull it off. The script just managed to tie everything together — Gallifrey, the Hybrid, Clara’s exit — in an engaging and satisfying way and construct an eminently watchable joined-up narrative out of it all, deftly avoiding deteriorating into an incoherent mess. There are few writers who could have done that, but Moffat, evidently, is one of them.

Moffat by now knows how to push all the right emotional buttons in the event of character exits. While I still think I might have preferred Clara to have died, as tragically and traumatically as possible, this inversion of Donna’s situation is really very tragic and heartbreaking in its own way. It was really quite clever how it was done. I’m sure every fan watching thought to themselves “Oh Christ, we’re doing Donna again,” before the episode once again upended expectations and made the Doctor forget Clara. And, bloody hell, wasn’t it painful? Right in the feels. I think the only thing worse than a companion forgetting the Doctor is the Doctor forgetting his companion, especially a companion he was as passionately close to as Clara Oswald. The sight of the Doctor in the American diner, trying in vain, like a doddering, senile old man, to remember his forgotten friend, who was standing directly in front of him, was what really got me. The way Clara looked at him at that point, wistfully, teary-eyed, was almost too much to handle. Also, “Run you clever boy…” Welp. Going to cry now. In a sense, though, it’s a good thing Clara was written out in this way: it’s horrible to think that the Doctor won’t remember Clara, but at least it’ll make for a clean restart with a new companion — there’ll be no lingering regret and angst for Clara overshadowing the next companion, à la Martha, which is good.

As for Clara’s exit itself — I think I surprised myself at how much it didn’t bother me. I was one of those who, while expecting and hoping that Clara would make another appearance in the finale (I predicted correctly that the Doctor would meddle with time to save Clara), ultimately wanted Clara to stay dead. I thought, for a companion as important to the Doctor and as close to the Doctor as Clara, and given Clara’s worrying addiction to her dangerous, adrenaline-fuelled lifestyle with the Doctor, that death would have been the only appropriate and fitting end for her. Anything short of death would have felt anticlimactic, I thought. But I didn’t consider that Clara might be given her own Tardis and companion and carry on doing what she loved, that she’d actually do what she’d always been threatening to do and become the Doctor (in a sense). I really like that. I mean, I’m disappointed that the show didn’t have the courage to kill off a companion for good, but I’m not disappointed by this way of writing out Clara, as I thought I’d be if her exit amounted to anything short of death. I quite like the idea of Clara romping around space and time with Ashildr in a stolen borrowed Tardis, just like the Doctor.

Some final thoughts. I’m not sure how I feel about the lack of definitive resolution to the Hybrid arc. In the end it didn’t really matter, because the Doctor and Clara may as well have been the Hybrid, given how far the Doctor was prepared to go for Clara. Somehow, though, I don’t expect we’ll ever get an actual answer to what the fabled Hybrid of Time Lord prophecy is. Peter Capaldi’s Time Lord Victorious act was chilling. I think this is the first time we’ve seen the Doctor genuinely unhinged since The Waters of Mars, and, although I think the Doctor was scarier in that episode, that’s not to diminish Peter Capaldi’s performance by any means. I was glad to see Maisie Williams back, more enigmatic than ever as the now-billions (trillions?) of years-old Ashildr. She emphatically convinced as an impossibly old enigma, and I’m glad that her taking up with Clara means that we may yet see her again in the show. Also, it was so gratifying seeing the classic-style Tardis. Completely unnecessary, gratuitous fanservice it was, but when was that ever a bad thing? Finally, that final scene, the Doctor donning his velvet jacket again, catching his new screwdriver, snapping the Tardis doors shut, the hero theme playing in the background — it was a wonderfully uplifting, exhilarating end to the series and the beginning of a new era. Just superb.

Rating: 8/10.


Quote of the week:

“I was a completely different person in those days. Eccentric, a bit mad, rude to people.”

Thoughts on: Heaven Sent

Warning: spoilers.

I normally review two-parters together, but I’m making a judgment call here and reviewing the two episodes of the finale separately, as they’re clearly separate scenarios and a lot more distinct than in a conventional two-parter, and it seems like it would be difficult and probably inappropriate to review them together. This one, in particular, feels like it could easily stand on its own. The formats this series are totally messed up anyway so I’ve got some discretion here.

There are times, after I’ve watched a Doctor Who episode — or indeed any film or television — that I just know, instinctively, that I’ve just witnessed something truly sublime. I’ve learnt to recognise the feeling now: it’s a strange feeling of disorientation, like you’ve been wrenched back to reality from another world. Your absorption in the world of the screenplay was so intense, so complete, that you forgot that the real world carried on around you. It leaves you reeling, thinking of little else for hours, if not days. That’s how I felt after watching Heaven Sent, and that’s how I knew, immediately, without even having to think about it, that I had just witnessed something really special. Thinking about it, though, I’ve no hesitation still in putting it up there with the very best of New Who—indeed, the best of Doctor Who, full stop. It was astonishing; sensational; phenomenal. I think that if there were any doubts about Moffat’s ability as a writer before now, they should have been conclusively exploded by this script, which I regard as nothing short of a masterpiece. It’s just pure art.

Steven Moffat has always been an unconventional, experimental writer, and he’s at his best when he’s pushing the boundaries of what Doctor Who can do. Under Russell T Davies he was responsible for that era’s most experimental, and memorable, scripts, most notably Blink and Silence in the Library (my all-time favourite). As showrunner there’s been, ironically, less opportunity for him to fully indulge in his creative impulses, but here Moffat returns to his roots. And isn’t it fantastic? It’s meaty, high-concept stuff that could easily have been a trainwreck, but, carried by the considerable combined talents of Peter Capaldi, director Rachel Talalay, composer Murray Gold, and Moffat himself, it’s some of the most enthralling and genuinely well-produced television around at the moment. In Heaven Sent, Doctor Who punches above its weight to rival any of the high-budget, award-winning prestige drama of our time.

The Doctor, alone, trapped, stalked relentlessly by a frightening creature. No baddie to beat, no one to save, just his own survival to think about, and finding a way out. Just reading the idea, the premise, makes you sit up, intrigued, no? As I said, there was broad scope for danger—at 55 minutes, this might have been a abject snoozefest like the last time Doctor Who subjected us to extended alone-time with the Doctor in The Deadly Assassin. However, it’s irresistibly thick with tension and suspense, rather because of, not in spite of, the more leisured and introspective approach. The mystery keeps the story beating along delectably, helped by the terrifying presence of the Veil, which, I found, at least, a seriously freaky, nightmarish creature. Aesthetically, it reminded me of the Dementors from Harry Potter, which basically have been my worst phobia since the age of eight. Additionally, an effective little addition to the dialogue was the way the Doctor kept talking to Clara, perhaps as a way of coping with his pain and his loss. I don’t know, but I found it physically painful, in the gut region, whenever he addressed Clara.

It’s a profoundly personal piece for the Doctor, not only because it’s set in the Doctor’s own personal hell, inhabited by his own nightmares and adorned with reminders of his loss, but, also, through the monologues spoken by the Doctor which punctuate this piece, his ruminations on life, death and loss, we’re given an intimate glimpse into the Doctor’s soul, the tortured soul of a man who’s known far too much of each. It’s screenwriting poetry, and Capaldi does justice to the material, delivering a stirring, brooding performance both physically and verbally. The production rises to the challenge of realising convincingly such an introspective and artistic piece, particularly with respect to the setting, which exudes the perfect atmosphere of spooky claustrophobia, weird otherworldliness and profound intimacy. To be honest, it’s difficult to articulate the specifics, but everything about this episode just feels finely, meticulously, lovingly crafted, like the most exquisite work of prose — I’ve found that the best episodes always convey this impression.

But we have to talk about that twist. The Doctor as bird, punching his way through a great wall of impossibly dense material for two billion years, dying and recreating himself endlessly. That was mind-blowing, and so, so exquisitely executed. The way it was done was fantastically clever; it was truly a rollercoaster of emotions, bringing us down to despondency and despair when, after the revelation that the Doctor’s been at it for 7,000 years, it seemed as though he would be stuck in that horror shop for eternity, going through the same motions in an endless cycle and never escaping — until the Azbantium wall was shown to be being imperceptibly chipped away by the Doctor’s relentless efforts, and it all turned into something invigorating and triumphal as the Doctor furiously punches progressively deeper into the wall, suffering an untold number of births and deaths over two billion years in the process. Capaldi played that so well, conveying so powerfully the Doctor’s fury, bravery and fierce resolve (in other words, hell bent).  The perfect finishing touch to that sublime sequence was the Doctor’s telling of The Shepherd Boy over two billion years:  “And when the entire mountain is chiselled away, the first second of eternity will have passed.” Really, properly spine-chilling, that. Oh, and the best thing? That it was Clara who pushed the Doctor on, who kept lifting him up and pushing him on, over all that time. “I let Clara Oswald get inside my head. Trust me. She doesn’t leave.”

Some final thoughts. It almost doesn’t need saying that Peter Capaldi was absolutely magisterial, and to a good extent this episode rides on the personal coat-tails of Peter Capaldi. If there is any justice in this world, Capaldi will win enough acting awards to melt down and make into a pure gold Mercedes, or something. Also deserving of praise is Murray Gold, who surpassed himself here with a majestic score in an episode where music was inevitably going to be especially prominent. Rachel Talalay has also, once again, delivered some of the best directing work this show has seen. This really is an exceptional piece of work from all involved, and I can honestly only make one criticism of any consequence, which is that the episode could have done a better job at explaining why the Doctor was forcing himself to punch through the Azbantium wall, why he couldn’t just yield up his confession to free himself… especially when it appeared that, after finally freeing himself, he promptly told his frustrated captors the very secret he had just spent two billion years trying to avoid telling them. Maybe I missed something, but it didn’t make sense to me.

That said, this is a tiny criticism with respect to an episode that is 99% perfect. This has been one of my most pleasurable, gratifying and exhilarating experiences watching Doctor Who. I’ve no hesitation in pronouncing it an all-time great. I only hope I’ve done the episode justice in this review.

Rating: 10/10.


Quote of the week:

“I’ve finally run out of corridor. There’s a life summed up.”

Thoughts on: The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion

Warning: spoilers.

A criticism, or a critical observation, that could be fairly levelled at the Moffat era thus far is that it boasts a dearth of out-and-out classics. There have been very few, if any, stories that, generations from now, the fandom will look back upon with undiminished reverence. The Russell T Davies era has given Doctor Who its generous contribution of timeless classics (ironically, most of them written by Steven Moffat), but one would struggle to name many stories from the Moffat era that match the stature of BlinkHuman Nature/The Family of BloodSilence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, etc. There are a few that arguably meet the mark – the Series 5 finale, and The Day of the Doctor – but few would argue that the show since 2010 has produced as many stories of such universal acclaim and genuine timeless worth as the show did in its first five years.

I think, with this two-parter, we finally have a story that can indisputably claim to be the kind of story that will be venerated and treated by future Doctor Who fans with the same reverence they will reserve for any of the gleaming gems of the RTD era. I think in this two-parter, we have in our hands the first genuine, unequivocal classic of the Moffat era. It was a long time coming, but, gosh, it was worth it. Perhaps it’s the result of bringing in new blood to provide Doctor Who scripts. The two biggest finds of the Capaldi era have both been new writers — Jamie Mathieson and Peter Harness. The latest script from veteran Who writer Toby Whithouse, Under the Lake/Before the Flood, was good traditional Who fare, but hardly the stuff of legacy. Whereas the two scripts Harness has delivered so far have displayed a freshness of style and vision that takes this show into exciting uncharted new territory. In Kill the Moon, it resulted in a quality but inevitably divisive script that was not without its shortcomings — which was why I was initially apprehensive about Harness having been commissioned a second time. I needn’t have worried. In this two-parter, Harness has got it right. So, so right.

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The writing is taut and purposeful. No moment or line is wasted. It positively drips with suspense throughout, especially in the second half. It paces itself fluently and generally feels impeccably choreographed. Steven Moffat is credited as co-writer in the second episode, but I suspect his contribution was minimal. There’s little to nothing in either episode that feels like it was written by Moffat. It doesn’t come with the excess and self-indulgence of a Moffat script: it’s tighter, cleaner, more restrained, and intelligent in a way that isn’t self-regarding and self-consciously clever. It’s actually composed with the kind of finesse and refinement that was characteristic of Steven Moffat’s scripts when he was writing for Russell T Davies, when he only had to write one story a year. Moreover, it makes exquisite use of the two-part format, not only successfully stringing the narrative out over the two episodes (as opposed to one and a bit episodes, with the rest padded out), but making the kind of contrast between the two episodes that gives them both a very distinct tone and feel: from the sweeping, worldwide conflict of the first episode, to the intimate, local, personal conflict of the second. It’s clever and effective.

This story feels a lot like a 1970s UNIT story, particularly one from Jon Pertwee’s first season, in which the show was as political and ponderous as it’s ever been. Now here’s Doctor Who once again wading bravely into very controversial waters, offering its thoughts on the issues of contemporary society. The analogies were unambiguous, and they were deployed effectively. Immigrant Muslim communities in the West, and the radicalisation among the younger generations thereof; domestic terrorism; the crisis in the Muslim world; immigration and assimilation. It was all dealt with intelligently, penetratingly and sensitively. It’s exhilarating to watch Doctor Who when it has something to say. It’s exciting to watch Doctor Who trying to be relevant and worth listening to. That it talked about “radicalisation” and the sacrifices that have to be made for peace is hugely significant. This is emphatically not a children’s show any more. Having said that, it justly recognised that the issues it was discussing were complex and multifaceted, and that reasonable people can reasonably disagree over them. It correctly didn’t beat the audience over the head with any single point of view. It did make its position movingly clear on one thing, though: there is nothing that justifies suffering.

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The Zygons were treated as well as they’ve ever been. They were scary, for one thing. As much as the Zygon design is, admittedly, a bit naff, it’s a credit both to the direction and the writing that the audience was able to put aside its incredulity over the red suckered blobbies and actually treat the Zygons as some semblance of the threat they’d pose in real life. It was the idea of the Zygons, as much as their physical threat, that made them such a menacing presence. In that respect, the story played really effectively upon the fears and paranoia of our age in casting the Zygons, the bad ones, that is, in the role of terrorists as opposed to generic invaders. The unsettling hostage video, the black rebel Zygon war flag, the rebel Zygons’ snatching the two little girls from a playground and spiriting them away in a white van, the staged execution — it was all unnerving, disquieting stuff for this age of terror and paranoia. The Zygons’ shape-shifting abilities were also exploited to awesome effect, in that intense and confronting scene in front of the church in Turmezistan, and in the shocking revelation that Clara was a Zygon imposter, the latter of which really brought home the profound and singular threat of the Zygons.

We have to talk about that scene, though. It’s futile to attempt to explain why the Doctor’s monologue was so good. To attempt to do so would be to diminish the effect of the words and the acting. I could never explain or describe here what the Doctor was saying as well as he said it. Just watch the scene, and let it overcome you. It would take a pretty unfeeling and aloof individual not to be moved by the Doctor’s words. I’ll freely and unashamedly admit I was moved almost to tears, and I’m one of the most stoical and emotionally reserved people I know. The last time that happened was when I was watching that part of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where Harry watches Snape weeping over Lily’s dead body in the pensieve. It’s that powerful. The writing was brilliant, but so much of the credit has to go to Peter Capaldi himself, who delivered one of the all-time great performances as the Doctor. No, bugger it. I’m going to go ahead and say that was the greatest performance any actor has ever delivered as the Doctor. It was breathtaking. This is what you get when you cast an actor of Peter Capaldi’s stature in the role of the Doctor, and, by God, there’s no denying that the show is the better for it.

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Some final thoughts. No review of this story would be complete without making room for fulsome praise for Jenna Coleman. Funnily enough, Clara was absent for most of this story, but I would venture to suggest that this was actually Jenna’s best performance yet. She took on the role of Clara’s evil Zygon double with gusto, and created a sinister, menacing character that felt very distinct from Clara Oswald. The face-off between Clara and Bonnie was electric, and it was all Jenna. Even in Peter Capaldi’s big scene, where the stage was almost totally Capaldi’s, Jenna absolutely shone in her facial acting as Bonnie, communicating so much with only expressive glares and clenched teeth. There’s not much more else to say, other than to repeat again that this one is going to be remembered. I’ve seen a couple of negative reviews and reactions — there always are (hence my “parody” review yesterday) — but the response has been overwhelmingly laudatory. Everyone seems to agree that this one is going to go down as one of the all-time greats, and justly so.

Rating: 10/10.


Quote of the week:

“I’m old enough to be your Messiah.”

The Zygon Inversion Review (Parody)

Warning: spoilers

N.B. As the title indicates, this is a parody. I’ll have my real review of the two-parter up in the next few days. In the meantime, though, if you like reading Doctor Who reviews, like I do, you should appreciate this.


I don’t want to believe that Doctor Who is in crisis, but when stuff like this passes for the “highlight” of this series, I can’t resist the conclusion any longer. In a series that has so far traversed abject mediocrity and outright crap, this really is a new low. It really does epitomise everything that’s wrong with Doctor Who at the moment, a show that just keeps astonishing me by its capacity to keep digging itself deeper and deeper into irrelevance and ineptitude.

So let’s start with the resolution to what I gather was supposed to be a suspenseful cliffhanger. Yeah no. You know, I might have been interested in finding out what happened this week if the show hadn’t been using the Doctor’s death as a plot device every single fucking week (or close enough to) this series. Yeah, I knew what was going to happen. The Doctor wasn’t going to die. We know, and Moffat knows, and Moffat knows we know, that the Doctor is not going to be killed off. Moffat wouldn’t put himself out of a job like that. More to the point, he’s just not brave enough to kill the Doctor for real. So, for the love of God, can we please stop pretending that the Doctor might actually die one of these days? It’s just a suggestion, but could we have a real cliffhanger for once?

The next fifteen minutes or so of the episode were just mind-numbingly tedious. Actually, “tedious” isn’t the right word. It’s the feeling you get when you realise you know exactly what the script is doing, where the episode is going, because it couldn’t have made its intent more blindingly obvious; because, instead of telling a story, it chose to preach. Oh, look, the Zygon rebels are just like ISIS. But this isn’t ALL Zygons, see, it’s just a deranged splinter group — see, this Zygon shopkeeper is all right. Yeah, I could have worked that out for myself, thanks. I do wonder whether Doctor Who really is more “adult” these days than in the days of the burping bins when it feels the need to patronise the audience like that and treat us like we can’t handle sensitive political subject matter without being treated like wide-eyed schoolchildren. If Doctor Who can’t deal with political issues maturely and in a non-patronising manner, it should just leave politics alone altogether.

And, by the way, while we’re on politics, could the episode have delivered a more obnoxiously bigoted message in the whole “the Zygons have to blend in and pretend to be human if they want to live with us” thing? How could that be read as anything other than a suggestion that immigrants — refugees, even — should be expected to assimilate, should leave behind their old identities and become British/American/Australian, etc, if they want to live here? If Doctor Who insists on wading into politics, could it at least refrain from encouraging the abhorrent Ukip/Trump elements of the audience? Is that too much to ask?

I don’t need to spend much time talking about Jenna Coleman’s performance. She has, in the past, delivered moments of brilliance, but, for the most part, she comes off as out of her depth in a prestigious drama like Doctor Who. This has never been more apparent than here, where her portrayal of Bonnie vacillated between caricature and pantomime. The face-off between Clara and Bonnie was a good idea squandered by trite dialogue and cringe-inducing acting.

And without further ado (and, really, there isn’t much ado at all in this episode), we come to the big scene. It’s not that Peter Capaldi can’t pull off scenes like this. He’s a good actor. A great actor. But that’s the point. It’s all so below him. The character is below him. The writing is below him. If I were him I’d be embarrassed to be seen in rubbish like this. He’s clearly valiantly straining every acting sinew in his body trying to make the lines work; trying to make the scene work. Not without limited success, mind you, but even an actor of his calibre couldn’t make this clichéd, hackneyed, trite garbage convincing. Oh, Doctor, isn’t war awful? Isn’t killing a shame? God, spare me. Could this show get any more banal? There was a laudable moral and political point in there (really, Doctor Who? War is bad? Do tell me more!), but the way it was expressed was so pedestrian and patronising that I couldn’t help cringing right through that scene. And that was even before we got to the rehashed emo angst about the bloody Time War. Good God, I thought we were done with all that. After the 64th time, I’m getting sick of hearing about the Time War, to be honest.

What compounds this episode’s failure is that it really was a good idea. But, in typical Moffat era fashion, it took a good idea and bastardised it with inept and trite writing. To trash as good an idea as this as extensively as this really takes some effort, but in the sure hands of Steven Moffat the show has, once again, duly delivered.

I’m a fan of Doctor Who. I love this show. That’s why it pains me to see it being so systematically wrecked at the hands of Steven Moffat. I know this show has potential, but it’s been so long since it’s produced anything of worth that I can’t help cynically wondering if Doctor Who really is finished this time. And you know what? I don’t even care. If this is what Doctor Who has come to, maybe it’s time the show was put down. The only regret is that it couldn’t have happened sooner, so that we didn’t have to witness the undignified senility of its final days.

On the Series 10 debacle

So there have been rumours hovering around for some time now that there will not be a full series of Doctor Who in 2016, initially reported by the magazine Private Eye. The Mirror (whose track record on Doctor Who rumours is infamously deplorable) recently caused considerable hubbub among the fandom with its report that the number of episodes in Series 10 will be “halved”, supposedly because Peter Capaldi wanted to work on other projects.

These rumours appear to have been laid to rest with Steven Moffat’s confirmation that Series 10 will, indeed, be a full 12-episode run. This has been taken in many quarters to mean that, yes, 2016 will feature a full 12-episode Series 10, same as this year and last year. That may well yet turn out to be the case, but I have reasons to doubt that a full-length Series 10 in 2016 is guaranteed, at least at this point.

Reading Steven Moffat’s “confirmation”, it seems like he’s chosen his words very carefully. He didn’t say “there will be 12 episodes in 2016”. What he actually said was, yes, Series 10 will be 12 episodes, but “I don’t know when it goes out. That’s up to someone else. And even if I did know – which I genuinely don’t – I wouldn’t be allowed to say so as I have absolutely no say in it whatsoever.”

So Series 10 will be 12 episodes, but when it airs, and over what time frame, we don’t know—not even Moffat knows yet.

That Moffat has — finally — spoken up about the Series 10 situation, when these rumours have been circulating for approximately three months now, since the original Private Eye article was published, is curious. Why allow the rumours circulate for so long?

My hunch is that the situation of Doctor Who for at least the next two years is up in the air at the moment, that the BBC or whoever be the relevant powers that be have not yet decided what is happening with Doctor Who in 2016. Moffat’s “confirmation” of a full Series 10 has only come now to hastily cover Doctor Who’s (and Peter Capaldi’s) back after the damaging Mirror report.

I talk about hasty back-covering without resentment. If a full series of Doctor Who isn’t possible in 2016 for whatever reason, that’s fine. I just wish that the BBC had put out a statement earlier making the nature of the situation clear, so the rumours wouldn’t have been allowed to get out of hand, as they did. So no undignified covering of backs was necessary.

For my part, although a full Series 10 next year would be fab, I wouldn’t mind too much if we got, say, a split series (à la Series 7), or a year of specials before a full Series 10 in 2017. If we don’t get a full series next year, my preference would actually be for the latter, a succession of 3-6 Sherlock-esque feature-length specials spaced evenly throughout the year. It would make for a very different kind of Doctor Who than we’re used to, and I’d be very interested to see what Steven Moffat does with the 90-minute time-frame in Doctor Who.

Even a split-series might be an interesting experiment, if Moffat has learnt his lessons from Series 7 (i.e. “blockbuster of the week” is no substitute for quality narratives). Six regular episodes a year should, one would think, allow more time and effort to be put into writing and production of those episodes, making for better stories.

But we’ll see.

How Maisie could still be the Rani

maisie rani

Debunked? I THINK NOT.

It was deceptive. It was sly. It was oh-so clever. The mastermind Moffat almost had us there. We were almost fooled into believing that Maisie Williams’ character wasn’t a returning character. It was to be expected, of course. A good showrunner never plays his hand in advance of time. But this fan was too quick for you, Moffat. I’m an old hand at this game, you see; I’ve grown savvy to your tricks, Moffat, old mucker. I know what this is all about. I know that Maisie’s character is actually the Rani.

Oh, you almost had me going. What with Maisie’s character being presented as a teenage Viking girl called “Ashildr” (that was really my first clue — no one’s called “Ashildr”), and “Ashildr” being entirely ignorant of anything outside her little 10th Century village, and the fact that Maisie’s character didn’t regenerate before she died. It was a very thorough job you did of duping the audience into thinking Maisie’s character had nothing to do with any returning character. That she really was actually a Viking girl the Doctor made immortal with a piece of alien technology, as the episode appeared to suggest. I mean, putting it like that just shows how entirely laughable the notion is, doesn’t it?

To believe Ashildr was who she seemed to be, though, would be to neglect a critical line of dialogue in the episode, at 26 minutes 28 seconds in:

“I’ve always been different. All my life I’ve known that. The girls all thought I was a boy. The boys all said I was just a girl. My head is always full of stories. I know I’m strange. Everyone  knows I’m strange.”

There. Right there. Maisie’s character practically CONFIRMS that she’s the Rani. Or, at least, that she’s pretty obviously NOT who she says she is. She could have just meant that she was an odd child (as, admittedly, she was), but if you believed that, you’d have to be stupid.

Rather, it’s the line “my head is always full of stories” that should have sent alarm bells off. What does that remind you of? A TIME LORD CHAMELEON ARCH. The technology the Doctor used to hide his Time Lord essence in a fob watch in Human Nature/The Family of Blood, and the Master in Utopia. Both the Doctor and the Master in those stories, despite changing themselves into humans, were haunted by memories of their Time Lord lives. This is what Maisie’s character was referring to. Obviously, Maisie’s character is a Time Lady who removed her Time Lord consciousness with the use of a chameleon arch, becoming the human girl Ashildr.

maisie

What about the fact that Ashildr seemed to have a father? Well, that’s pretty easily explained. A perception filter. The Rani is supposed to be the Time Lord equivalent of a genius. A kind of Time Lord, female Sheldon Cooper. Doubtless she could have designed a perception filter powerful enough to make not only a Viking man believe she was, and always has been, his daughter, but also to make a whole village accept her “sudden” presence among them without a second glance.

What would compel the Rani to hide herself away in a medieval Viking village like that? This is where the theory is less robust, but that’s only because we don’t have all the information yet. I fully expect that we will find out why the Doctor’s old enemy holed herself away among grubby Vikings in the next episode, or at least by the end of the series.

But the Rani’s becoming immortal is surely significant. Granted, Time Lords are already practically immortal, but maybe she planned this. MAYBE she was on her last regeneration and this was her means of procuring immortality by other means. MAYBE she knew the Doctor would come to the village and fight off the Mire (she has a Tardis after all), SO she strategically inserted herself into the situation, courted the Doctor’s affection, got herself bumped off, and reawakened (as she knew she would) with eternal life.

When you think about it, it’s all so obvious. It’s a damned sight more plausible than the idea that Maisie’s character is an immortal Viking girl. I mean, seriously, now.