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.

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.

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.

Quickie Review: Father’s Day

This was a really dark, emotive episode, and certainly one of the most beautiful stories Doctor Who has done. Rose and the Doctor travel back in time for Rose to see her father. They go to the day he died so Rose can be with him as he dies. She can’t stop herself from saving his life. Who, put in her position, wouldn’t? Father’s Day explores the implications of changing the past, and tells a very sad, beautiful tale of Rose’s meeting her dead father. The first time I saw this I was quite affected by the story, of Rose’s saving her father only to be faced with the prospect of the world being destroyed as the price, and it was heartbreaking to watch both Rose and Pete come to terms with Pete’s having to sacrifice himself to save them all. I think it was a good decision to put the emotive aspects of the story at its centre, leaving the threat of the reapers (as the manifestation of the “wound in time”) secondary to the interaction between Rose and Pete. To make the threat caused by the time wound the main focus of the episode would have cheapened it to another run-of-the-mill story about messing with the past. Rather, this was an intensely beautiful story about one girl’s longing to see her lost father. In this respect, both Billie Piper and Shaun Dingwall delivered amazing, admirable performances.

A major theme in this episode was the importance and extraordinariness of ordinary lives. The un-death of Pete Tyler would bring about the end of the universe. The Doctor insists that the very ordinary bride and groom were of tantamount importance. Moreover, Pete Tyler, an ordinary man, a self-described failure, becomes a hero, the most wonderful man in the world, as he selflessly and bravely sacrifices himself for the sake of the universe. The unsurpassed heroism of an ordinary man. This is a touching and heartwarming theme, but, of course, it can be overdone. The scene where the Doctor tells the bride and groom how important and amazing their lives are sets the precedent for subsequent instances where the Doctor gushes soppily over other singularly unremarkable people in later series.

This episode deals with the implications of changing the past. In one respect it makes a highly relevant point in that changing even the smallest thing in the past could potentially have far-reaching and significant implications in the future — going back and saving an ordinary man who would otherwise have died, for example. But the episode didn’t do a very good job of explaining how Rose’s saving Pete created a “wound” in time that would bring about the end of the universe, while the Doctor’s incessant interfering creates no problems at all. This is something Doctor Who in general is not very good at explaining — it’s usually brushed off with something along the lines of “I’m a Time Lord, I know what can and can’t be changed”, which is an authorial cop-out if there ever was one. Not that it matters, I suppose, it’s just a fairly large continuity hole.

I think, above, all, this is very much a New Who story. It’s not afraid to be emotive or character-driven, and, in that regard, succeeds wonderfully.

Rating: 8/10.

Quickie review: Dalek

“Why don’t you just die!?”

Series 1 couldn’t have recovered from Aliens of London/World War Three any better. This episode was simply brilliant, with much of the credit due to the peerless writer Robert Shearman, who adapted Dalek from his Big Finish story JubileeDalek did an exceptional job of introducing the Daleks to a new audience. It was very much from the Doctor’s reaction as soon as he realised what was in that room with him that it became clear this was something big. The wild succession of emotions that overcame the Doctor really brought home how deadly and heinous this creature was: from stupefied disbelief upon hearing that distinctive growl again, to abject terror at finding himself locked in a room with the hateful creature, to gushing relief when he realised the Dalek’s weapon wasn’t functioning, to terrible, fearsome rage at the despised, helpless thing before him. Christopher Eccleston’s acting in this regard was truly sublime; from memory it’s probably his best sequence in the entire series. He really brought across the Doctor’s sheer hate and fear of this creature, and, indeed, the episode succeeded in inspiring fear of the Dalek in the audience, too. It made emphatically clear that this was something unspeakably evil, and something indescribably dangerous. It would only take one solitary Dalek to wipe out an entire base, an entire region, perhaps even an entire planet, given time—and it would do so gladly. An exceptional first outing for the Daleks in the revived series.

This episode was also about the Doctor. “We are the same” the Dalek suggested to the Doctor, who began to contradict it before changing his mind and agreeing with it, then proceeding to attempt to kill it. The question “could the Doctor kill in cold blood?” was answered then and there. I think that might have been a slap in the face for a lot of those who’d watched the classic series and had become used to a Doctor who would never contemplate killing anything, even the Daleks (see: Genesis of the Daleks). We also learned, for the first time, that it was the Doctor who was responsible for ending the Time War, for the death of all the Daleks and the Time Lords. The man in the cricket whites or the silly scarf would never have done that. Could the Doctor really have committed mass genocide? Wipe out two entire intelligent species, including his own? Kill billions, trillions, of living beings? Apparently he could, and did. “You would make a good Dalek” the Dalek said to the Doctor as the Doctor prepared to kill the last Dalek remaining, finishing his bloody job. It’s really bracing, provocative viewing, and very well done indeed.

Rating: 9/10.

Quickie Review: Aliens of London/World War Three

To me this was the new series’ first major misfire. It’s not a bad story or a bad premise as such, but there’s enough dross and rot in there to make it an eminently forgettable serial. Aliens of London/World War Three typifies what I like to call “Marvel Who”—i.e. over-the-top, mindless nonsense that appeals squarely (and patronisingly) to children. It had comical, ludicrously designed aliens who were uncomplicatedly eeevil trying to destroy the world. And they were flatulent. Don’t get me started on the farting. I can concede that calcium creatures’ releasing air when they compress themselves to hide in their human disguises makes sense, but I’d like to know what was going on in the mind of the writer or producer when he decided that farting aliens was a good idea. I know I overuse this term, but it’s never been more apt: it’s cringe-worthy. I’m afraid this isn’t one of the stories I would watch again voluntarily; it’s a ninety-minute masquerade of overblown camp nonsense and really represents the epitome of the excesses of the “New Who” style. I wouldn’t have blamed old Classic Who fans if they’d given up on New Who at this point.

Perhaps one of the only things holding this story up is the characters. I’ll admit that the writing for the lead characters—the Doctor, Rose, Mickey and Jackie—was strong, and the actors carried the script more than capably. The character drama was really the only thing this story had going for it, and it was sobering to see the effect Rose’s sojourns with the Doctor had had upon the lives of the people she’d unwittingly left behind. It was also interesting to see the effect upon Rose of only a few days’ spent with the Doctor travelling, something that was particularly pronounced in bringing her back to London. Rose has already received quality character development since the beginning of this series, and her series-long character arc is one of the things holding Series 1 together as a memorable and cohesive whole in spite of unfortunate stories like this.

Rating: 4/10.

Quickie Review: The Unquiet Dead

The main thing I took away from this episode was the effect the Doctor has on the people he encounters in his travels. There was, of course, Charles Dickens, played convincingly by Simon Callow, who, an incorrigible sceptic amd rationalist—the quintessential Victorian—had opened his mind to the possibility of a world greater than that he thought he understood after his experience with the Doctor. But there was also Gwyneth, the poor servant girl, who died because of her encounter with the Doctor. This was scarcely touched upon in the episode itself—that, if it weren’t for the Doctor’s meddling, Gwyneth would not have had to sacrifice herself. The Doctor’s interfering was responsible for Gwyneth’s death and was almost responsible for the death of all humanity. In later series, particularly during the Matt Smith era, this unfortunate phenomenon, the tendency for the Doctor to leave ruin and death in his wake as he passes through, is more directly addressed, but here it was almost skirted over, and the Doctor didn’t seem to have been affected at all by the fact that his injudicious meddling indirectly brought about the death of an innocent girl and was almost responsible for the premature extinction of humanity.

Nevertheless, this episode was enjoyable enough, although nothing special necessarily. The highlights of this episode were in its commentary on various matters. The episode used Charles Dickens’ intellectual “conversion” to comment upon the inanity of refusing to open one’s mind to the possibility that reality could exist beyond what one’s senses can comprehend. The bond formed between Rose and Gwyneth was also an effective reminder that, while Cardiff the past may seem a different world, there really isn’t that much difference between our ancestors and us. We’re the same, no matter how much some might want to glorify supposedly more upstanding and virtuous generations past.

Overall this was a good story, unambitious but effective. Also, the Doctor fanboying over Charles Dickens was awesome. He’s doing what we would all do (if we weren’t absolutely starstruck) if we could go back and meet our historical heroes.

Rating: 7/10.

Quickie review: The End of the World

Upon this rewatch, to my pleasant surprise, I found myself enjoying The End of the World more than I remember. I recall this episode being fairly nondescript in terms of plot, and, admittedly, the plot isn’t this episode’s best aspect. But, just as with Rose, I found myself not concerned with the simplistic plot so much; the plot isn’t necessarily the main focus of this episode, but a device through which to develop other aspects of the story: expounding upon the Doctor’s mysterious backstory, developing the relationship between the Doctor and Rose, and developing the character of Rose herself. All these respective aspects are given satisfying and effective treatment in The End of the World. It is—remarkably, I know—only upon this rewatch that I came to the epiphany, which perhaps explains my prior indifference to this episode, that this episode, and indeed all of Series 1, is best watched in chronological order, as part of a series-long run. Together they form a 13-episode long narrative tracing the respective character arcs of Rose and the Doctor, and follows the development of their relationship. Watching episodes from Series 1 detached from this “context” doesn’t necessarily detract from their watchability, but doing so diminishes the quality of stories like this one when one unduly focusses on the plot rather than the character aspects, when one takes an episode out of its context in the character arc.

The End of the World is my earliest (vague) memory of Doctor Who, aged 10. I distinctly remember Christopher Eccleston and Yasmin Bannerman in a dark, cramped corridor, the Doctor looking sombre as he fussed over some piece of futuristic machinery on the wall. I wasn’t paying much attention at the time, but I now realise that I was witnessing one of the first moments of genuine personal pain for the Doctor of the new series. It was, of course, the moment Jabe was revealing to the Doctor that she knew what he was, and was expressing her sorrow for the fate of his people. We saw the Doctor shed a tear—something, I think I can say with confidence, we never saw in the classic series. New Who was making a stark departure in regards to the character of the Doctor: not only is he the last of the Time Lords, but between then and the last time we saw him, something has had the effect of fundamentally changing him. This was conveyed emphatically when the Doctor looked on mercilessly as Cassandra died, begging for mercy. “Everything has its time and everything dies,” he growls.

Rating: 7/10.

Recasting the early Doctors

Tim Treloar is to employ his uncanny impression of Jon Pertwee in playing the Third Doctor in Big Finish’s upcoming Third Doctor Adventures range. Hear him above.

Some are hesitant about recasting the early Doctors, anxious that it would be unconvincing or would be an insult to the legacies of the original actors. I have no such qualms. I’m all for recasting the First, Second and Third Doctors on audio, and, when the time comes, all the current Big Finish Doctors when they are no longer available. I think Tim Treloar has shown (or will show) that recasting the Doctors can be an almost seamless fit, if the right person can be found. Jon Culshaw’s Tom Baker impression also springs to mind as an almost perfect voice double, as well as Frazer Hines’ Patrick Troughton impression. Impressionists will never be able to replicate precisely the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the original actors, who understand their characters better than an impressionist ever could, but we can’t really ask for much more, given we no longer have the original actors with us.

As for the concern that recasting the established Doctors would be an insult to the original actors’ legacies, I think it is a fair concern, but not one I share. As I see it, the various incarnations of the Doctor were characters in themselves who were played by their respective actors. The confusion comes from conflating the actors with the characters. Patrick Troughton played the Second Doctor, but he, personally, was not the Second Doctor: he was Patrick Troughton. The Second Doctor is a fictional character who looks and sounds like Patrick Troughton, but they are not one and the same. To be sure, it is fair to intimately identify the original Doctors with their respective actors, as those actors shaped and defined their Doctors — thus the desire, in recasting established Doctors, to find impressionists who can imitate as closely as possible the original actors, and not people who sound completely different to how the Doctors sounded on television. But I see no more issues in recasting the early Doctors than I do in periodically recasting James Bond (who does not regenerate, as the Doctor does, but is supposedly always the same person). If it lets us hear the First, Second and Third Doctors again, why not go for it?