What has Chris Chibnall done to our fandom?

Probably to the mixed amusement and weariness of some of my irl friends who follow me on Twitter, as well as to my non-fandom mutuals, I’ve been tweeting almost exclusively about Doctor Who for the past few months (beginning with the run-up to the new series). I can’t help it—I get excited about Doctor Who and I like to talk about it on a platform where it’s acceptable to spill out every unfiltered thought that crosses one’s mind. Usually I stop talking as repetitively about Doctor Who soon after a new series ties up and go back to being weird and incoherent about non-Doctor Who things, but this time the feverish speculation and excitement around the identity of the Thirteenth Doctor has kept me going. I spent two hours the night before the revelation of the Thirteenth Doctor making a thread of ironic candidates for the role of Thirteen (e.g. Michael McIntyre, Jeremy Clarkson, Russell Brand, Jo Brand, Jacob Rees-Mogg, etc.) for my own amusement; I regret nothing.

Following the announcement of Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, though, I fell silent. Uncharacteristically for me, I don’t think I sent a single tweet, about anything, the day of the announcement (in Australia we got it in the early morning). In part this was because I was still processing the news, trying to figure out how I felt about it, and didn’t want to prematurely denounce it—because my immediate instinct was to denounce it. But it was also because, interspersed between the glowing, rapturous positivity and joy over Jodie’s casting coming from every direction, there was the smug, faux-indignant calling-out of those disappointed in the casting as ‘sexists’, ‘bigots’, ‘misogynists’. It was really quite repulsive and hateful. People, both men and women, saying innocuous things about being disappointed with Jodie’s casting were being quoted by people who’ve already changed their icon to Jodie Whittaker in a flower crown, with “Lmao just say you hate women” and “LMAO LOOK AT THIS FUCKING SEXIST”.

Sure, there were the actual sexists reacting with opprobrium to the news, typically found in places like the comments section of the Daily Mail rather than on Twitter—who, I agree with the female Doctor people, can fuck off. But the number of actual sexists among the no-female-Doctor crowd is actually minuscule. I can count the number of people I’ve seen express opposition to a female Doctor out of a bigoted attitude towards women on one hand. The people you see in Daily Mail comments sections don’t even watch Doctor Who, or haven’t watched it since the 1970s. This show isn’t for them. They’re the same people who take to the comments section, frothy-mouthed, over every trivial offence of political correctness and encroaching “Cultural Marxism”. Most opponents of a female Doctor who are actually fans of the show simply think of the Doctor as a man and have trouble accepting, on an emotional level, that a female Doctor is the same character—we’d find it difficult to accept a male Hermione for the same reason. If you consider that sexist, then you need to go read a dictionary.

And let’s not forget that the people who don’t want a female Doctor aren’t all men. I’ve seen almost as many women expressing disappointment in the casting decision as men, if not more (probably because women aren’t scared by baseless, cynical accusations of sexism). All my female friends who watch Doctor Who whom I’ve asked have said they’re opposed to the change. This gets ignored because it doesn’t fit the neat “women versus sexist white males” narrative. The few times I’ve seen the more strident female Doctor proponents actually engage with women who’ve expressed their opposition to a female Doctor (instead of simply ignoring them, as they usually do), the former just tend to brush the latter off with something vague about “internalised misogyny”. Figures.

Maybe it looks pathetic or oversensitive to get upset by the ignorant, braindead tweets of 16-year olds, but it’s just an example of the hate and bile that’s suddenly consumed this fandom. If not outright hate and bile, from my experience, among even casual, non-strident supporters of a female Doctor the lazy, smug assumption that those who don’t want a female Doctor are probably sexist seems to be fairly commonly held. Merriam-Webster’s tweet, that “’Doctor’ has no gender in English” exemplifies this attitude. It’s the attitude that being opposed to a female Doctor is something inherently blameworthy and morally suspect, and not an understandable response to changing the gender of a character one has known as a man for 13 regenerations and 53 years. I feel like using the term “virtue-signalling” is to risk being placed in suspect company in the eyes of reasonable folk, but for present purposes it’s a useful concept to describe what this is: it’s very easy for those who support a female Doctor, in the eagerness to display their tolerance and progressiveness, to fall into the unscrutinised assumption that the other side are all bigots.

That’s not to say that our side has done much to dispel that assumption, when we have cranks writing angry, incoherent things about feminists and “SJWs”, which is almost as odious as the actual feminists and SJWs throwing accusations of sexism around like confetti. It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t that long ago that we were able to have a civil, respectful discussion about a female Doctor in this fandom. The female Doctor debate has always been tense, but before now it’s also managed to remain civil. I remember participating in discussions about a female Doctor, where both sides tended to respect the other side’s views, and the few idiots who threw around accusations of sexism were rightly shut down by other female Doctor supporters (as were the “feminists are ruining everything” brigade by our side).

I think the difference is that, then, they were the minority view, and, as anyone expressing an unpopular point of view does, you watch what you say and how you say it, to avoid the brunt of the ire of the majority. Now they’re the majority and they’ve won. The bile thrown at opponents of a female Doctor now has the flavour of smug triumphalism more so than genuine indignity. They’ve won, we’ve lost, we don’t matter anymore, but they’re taking the opportunity to have their fun provoking us, ridiculing us, parading our naked bodies through the streets for the visceral amusement of the citizens of the victorious nation. The message is clear: we’re not welcome in the fandom anymore; it’s their city now. So we can either deal with it or fuck off.

To be clear, I’m not talking about all female Doctor supporters. If you’re pleased with Jodie’s casting and you don’t think that everyone who isn’t probably hates women, then I’m not talking about you. This post isn’t about you, and I don’t have a single uncharitable thing to say about you. You’re fine in my book. I am talking about the people who somehow manage to assert with a straight face that it’s inherently sexist not to want a female Doctor and that all opponents of a female Doctor are sexists. I know there are many female Doctor supporters who are conscientious and fair-minded people who respect the other side.

If a Twitter poll conducted by the account @WhovianLeap is to be believed, the nice female Doctor people are the majority: it asked “Is it sexist to want a male Doctor?” to which, out of 626 votes, 73% answered NO and 27% answered YES (assuming that the majority of respondents would have been female Doctor supporters). So, while 27% is still an uncomfortably large number of people who think I’m a sexist, it’s reassuringly clear that the great majority of fans don’t consider it sexist to think the Doctor should remain a man.

But don’t be mistaken, there’s still a deep rift in the fandom, one I can’t see being healed any time soon. As long as the Doctor is played by a woman, this underlying division in the fandom is always going to remain close to the surface. We who found ourselves on the losing side of this casting decision, even those of us who warm to Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor (as I hope I do), aren’t going to forget the torrent of vitriol we were subjected to. We aren’t going to forget that a significant proportion of this fandom hated us and wanted us out of the fandom. Arguably more than anything that’s happened before, this decision has split the fandom in two in a way that I fear is irreversible.

I expect that the number of the alienated will diminish over time as some of those who were opposed to the casting change their minds and come round to Jodie’s Doctor, and others simply leave. Somehow I think that’s what the people I’m talking about want: for this decision to decimate the “problematic” element of the fandom which doesn’t want a female Doctor, and for a new, progressive fandom and a new, progressive Doctor Who to emerge from the ashes of the problematic old.

Already we’re being erased: Radio Times claimed that the “overwhelming majority of Doctor Who fans” are “looking forward to the first female Doctor” based on a poll the website conducted, where the proportion of respondents who answered that they were looking forward to seeing Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor was 40%, and the plurality of respondents (43%) answered that they would reserve judgment until they saw her. If this isn’t fake news, then nothing is. Piers Wenger, the Controller of BBC Drama, remarked on the “overwhelmingly positive response” to the casting of the first female Doctor in reference to the number of views the teaser trailer has accumulated. At the time of writing this, that teaser trailer has 57,732 to 36,064 likes to dislikes on YouTube, a ratio 62% to 38%. By no definition is that an “overwhelmingly positive” response. It’s a travesty for the BBC. It shows that it’s made a decision which is unpopular with at least a third of viewers. We may not be the majority, but we’re a very formidable minority, and it’s insulting to pretend we don’t exist.

My plea to Chris Chibnall and the BBC is not to take the side of the head-bangers. My plea to the makers of Doctor Who is not to fall into the easy assumption that everyone opposed to this decision is a bigot. We number at least a third of the fanbase, and count among our number some of Doctor Who’s longest, most devoted and most prominent fans, including, it appears, the likes of Peter Davison (who, unlike most Doctor Who people, gave no ringing endorsement of Jodie’s casting, but instead tellingly urged the Twitter mob to cool it with the hate towards disappointed fans).

You don’t want to alienate us, because we’re not going to take it on the chin. We’re not going to appreciate snide asides about sexism and intolerance directed against us punctuated throughout Series 11. We’re not going to abide being made to feel like we’re not welcome in this fandom anymore by the show. We want you to understand us, and show that you understand why we feel the way we do. We don’t ask that the decision be reversed, just that you extend an olive branch and show us that you want us to keep watching. We’re worried about the future of our show, and, as hard as it is to believe, given how angry we sound, we really do want to like this change, and we want you to help us like it, because we love this show, and the alternative—to stop watching Doctor Who—doesn’t bear thinking about.

As for female Doctor supporters, I’m not even going to try to reason with the ones who are beyond reason, but to the rest of you I only want to say: as long as we’re still on opposing sides of a divided fandom, let’s at least try to be friends. Let’s at least try to be civil and courteous and respectful towards one another. Can we still geek out together over the Christmas special, Twelve’s regeneration, the Twelveclara reunion, and everything amazing Series 11 and the Chibnall era is going to bring us, while agreeing to disagree over our feelings about the next Doctor? (At least while we still do disagree) Without calling each other names? Because being in a divided fandom is no fun at all.


See also on Gallifreyan Ramblings:

Thirteen: my feelings about a female Doctor

It’s been nearly 36 hours since I learned the identity of our Thirteenth Doctor, and I think I’m now ready to write this. It’s taken me that long to process what happened yesterday and to work out how I felt about it. I’m still processing it, to be honest. I mean, I could have turned out a post quickly on the day of the announcement and probably attracted a lot more hits, but it would have been raw, emotional and full of uncooked, unformed and probably not entirely coherent thoughts. I’m someone who typically can’t be counted on for immediate reactions (which is why my reviews always take a day or two). Especially with something as big as this, I tend to need time to work out how I feel, and, now I’ve had that time, I think I’m now ready to put my thoughts into something approximating sober and considered form.

I didn’t want a female Doctor. I still don’t. You can read my thoughts on the matter in full here, but the tl;dr version is that I think of the Doctor as a man, and I have trouble accepting that an incarnation of the Doctor played by a female actor is the same character played by Peter Capaldi, Matt Smith, David Tennant, Tom Baker and William Hartnell et al, a character I love. Jodie Whittaker is a fine actress—she’s a top choice for a female Doctor and I am confident she will acquit herself superlatively in the role. But that’s not the problem for me. The problem for me is that I feel that Doctor Who is a man, so a ‘female Doctor (Who)’ is a contradiction in terms. I felt that way before, and the announcement, even of an actress as fine as Jodie Whittaker, hasn’t changed how I feel.

The standard riposte to this sentiment is something along the lines of “the Doctor is a shapeshifting alien who has been canonically established as being able to change gender and race, so, no, the Doctor is not a man and your feelings are invalid”. Well, I’m sorry if “your feelings are invalid, deal with it” doesn’t convince me. I can’t just change my feelings or turn them off at will. That’s not how feelings work. Especially after I’ve watched thirteen regenerations of the Doctor as a man and have come to identify and connect with the character as a man. Throwing continuity at me isn’t going to going to make me suddenly shed my feelings about the character and accept a female Doctor—because remember this isn’t about the abstract question of the nature of Time Lord regeneration, this is about a character, a person, that I love. This isn’t about whether the Doctor can regenerate into a woman (we know and accept, now, that he can), it’s about whether I and so many other fans can accept that Jodie Whittaker is our favourite fictional character when that casting decision has taken away something fundamental to how we identify that character.

That in the previous sentence I used the pronoun ‘he’ instinctively to identify the Doctor, without even thinking about it, attests to the point I’m trying to make: I’m not going to be able to easily adjust to using ‘she’ or ‘they’ as instinctively and as comfortably as I currently use ‘he’. Please try to understand this.

The other riposte I’ve seen is the “this show is all about change, and that you don’t want a female Doctor shows you don’t understand this” argument. Okay, first, to nitpick, change is a central feature and theme of the show, but the show is not “about” change. When you’re trying to make your friends watch Doctor Who and they ask you what it’s about, your reply isn’t “it’s about change”, you typically explain that it’s about the adventures of a time-travelling alien and his friends. Invariably you identify the character of the Doctor as central when you’re explaining what the show is about.

And that’s important—even diehard female Doctor proponents would not deny that the character of the Doctor, not the abstract thematic idea of “change”, is the most important thing in Doctor Who. You simply could not have Doctor Who without the Doctor. So “change, my dears” is a justified argument when made against the idiotic, shrill Tennant fangirls (those that are still inexplicably around, anyway) who insist that David Tennant and only David Tennant can be the Doctor. But when a very sizeable proportion of the fandom are concerned that something fundamental to the character has been compromised too far for their tastes, “change” just doesn’t cut it as an argument, I’m afraid.

In any case, even if it is true that change is a central theme of the show, that doesn’t entail that any and all change is therefore necessarily good. Do I actually have to restate that fans are allowed to dislike things in the show – decisions made by the writers and producers? That fans are even allowed to dislike a Doctor? There were plenty of fans who turned off when Peter Capaldi was cast because “he’s old” (including the friend who first turned me onto Doctor Who)—something far more trivial than that the new Doctor has switched genders. I think those fans were missing out on what has been one of the greatest ever Doctors, but I respect that that’s entirely their prerogative if they don’t want to watch an old Doctor.

In any case, as fundamental as the theme of change is to the show, Doctor Who is a show as equally steeped in tradition. I’m not really sure how this is being ignored, if not outright denied. The Tardis, the phonebox, the-Daleks-and-the-Cybermen, toilet plungers, young female companions, Britishness, pacifism. I think even most female Doctor proponents would be reluctant to change any of those things. A US-centric (rather than British-centric) Doctor Who with an all-American Doctor Who cast? I think practically all female Doctor proponents would, rightly, reject that. Because Doctor Who is a British show. It doesn’t have to be British-centric, but it is, and we like it that way. And we don’t have to accept that Doctor Who turns all Midwestern accents and streets of Manhattan if we don’t want to.

jodie2

I think I’ve made my point. Admittedly that went on for a lot longer than I intended it to. But what I’ve been discussing up to here is my feelings about a female Doctor in the abstract. Ask me in the abstract: do I want a female Doctor? No. But, no matter what I want or feel, it isn’t abstract any more. Whether I like it or not, the Thirteenth Doctor is a woman. It’s reality. Jodie Whittaker will be listed after Peter Capaldi’s name in canonical lists of the Doctors from now until the end of time, and that can’t be changed.

So I think the best I can do is to continue to watch and hope that my mind is changed. I’m not going to stop watching. I love this show too much for that. In everything I’ve written about a female Doctor before now, I’ve repeatedly said that, while I didn’t want it to happen, I would try to keep an open mind and give a female Doctor a chance. I intend to keep that promise. I would like, by the end of Series 11, at least, to be prepared to take back everything I’ve written in this post before this paragraph. Because I don’t know what I’ll do if I’m not.

So what I want to say now to female Doctor proponents, particularly Chris Chibnall, is this. Okay, you’ve got your wish. Congratulations – I genuinely mean that, and I’m genuinely happy that you’re happy. It’s heartwarming to see that this is so meaningful to so many people. But don’t forget that we still exist, we who never wanted a female Doctor at all and still don’t want one, and that there are many of us. No doubt you’ve seen our tweets and our comments. Ignore the sexists and the bigots—I’m not speaking for them, and I don’t want them in our fandom any more than you do.

But as one of the many fans worried about a female Doctor, I want you to know that, for now, I’m game. I’m going to follow your lead on this. You’ve extolled the virtues and the promises of a female Doctor for so long, and now that we have one, I don’t really have a choice except to go along with it. Now that we have a female Doctor, I’m interested in seeing how it works out, and I’m willing to be won over. But I’m trusting you on this. This was your victory, and you led us into this.  So naturally I’m holding you responsible for how it works out. If a female Doctor succeeds and, as I hope, I warm to the change, I will graciously admit that you were right all along. But if it doesn’t, please try to be humble when I say “I told you so.”


Next time on Gallifreyan Ramblings: another female Doctor post. I feel like I need to say something about what has been happening in the fandom since Sunday’s announcement, because it’s not pretty, and, from a fandom perspective, it’s almost as noteworthy as the female Doctor news itself. I didn’t want to discuss that here because it’s probably going to be a lengthy discussion in its own right, and I didn’t want to detract from what I’m trying to say here. It does merit a post of its own, and I’ll try to have that one up in the following days.

By the way, read my original (pre-Jodie) female Doctor post for a fuller, more detached account of my thoughts on a female Doctor, if you’re interested.

Thoughts on: Empress of Mars

(Gallifreyan Ramblings has an all new look! Read this on my blog!)

There’s a show from the 1970s called Ripping Yarns. It’s one of my favourite comedies, one of the many produced by the BBC around that time, written by and starring Monty Python alumni Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Over nine episodes, each with different settings and characters, it parodied the early 20th Century “boys own adventure” stories targeted at the strapping, wholesome young boys of Imperial Britain. It ventured to such exotic settings as a German WWI prisoner of war camp, the Andes, the British Raj and Cornwall, always following some exciting and pseudo-heroic adventure.

Empress of Mars felt a bit like Doctor Who if it were made into a Ripping Yarns episode. Like Ripping Yarns, this episode is consciously parodying “boys own adventure” type stories of the early 20th Century, which often featured hardy and romantic Victorian soldiers camped out in some far-flung frontier of the Empire. Just substitute Mars for Burma and an Ice Warrior carrying a serving tray for native servants and you’ve got yourself a Doctor Who story, with material for trite political commentary to boot. Actually the political commentary, such as it was, was fairly superficial, which makes this episode a deviation from the norm for this series. Maybe that’s a good thing, because I don’t think Gatiss really had his heart in pushing a political message in this episode. He really just wanted to make an Ice Warrior serve the Doctor and a couple of Victorian British Army officers tea in a cave on Mars. Which is absolutely fine.

3

But it’s also indulgent because it’s got Gatiss’s favourite era and Gatiss’s favourite monsters. It looks like Gatiss asked Steven Moffat to have his Christmas and his Birthday presents on the same day. In that sense it looks a lot like a parting gift to Gatiss from Moffat, and I wouldn’t be surprised, and I think Gatiss wouldn’t be surprised, if this were the last we saw of him. This wasn’t as good an Ice Warrior story as Gatiss’s previous one, Cold War. That was an exciting, atmospheric base-under-siege which managed to do something novel and interesting with a monster which was always going to take a bold writer to extract from the 1960s, in all its bulky, slow-moving, hissy-voiced beauty. The Ice Warriors weren’t really that interesting in this one. They had a new gun, the latest in Doctor Who’s growing catalogue of Interesting Alien Weapons, following the Zygons’ electric tumbleweed from last series. They also had a queen, the Ice Empress Iraxxa. I’m interested by the idea of an Ice Empress, but I found it difficult to take Iraxxa seriously when she seemed to be played for self-conscious pantomime up until the last two minutes of the episode. The screechy, comical voice that sounded too much like the Empress of the Racnoss didn’t help either.

It’s worth noting that Mark Gatiss is actually tremendously funny (he wrote Robot of Sherwood, after all, one of the all-time funniest Doctor Who episodes), and seems to have a very similar sense of humour to the Monty Python troupe. Empress of Mars unfortunately doesn’t feature the overtly silly public-schoolboy humour of Monty Python and Ripping Yarns, but there’s definitely a cheekiness and a mirth in the way it makes the quasi-comical Victorian soldiers throw dash-its and tally-hoes and old-boys back and forth, and the way it makes the British look terrifically and resolutely domesticated, not to mention hopelessly class-conscious, even marooned on Mars. It felt like Mark Gatiss was having fun when he wrote this, and it was fun.

2

It’s worth saying where I might put Empress of Mars in a ranking of Gatiss’s episodes. Of the nine episodes Gatiss has written for Doctor Who since 2005, I think I’d put it somewhere on the bottom end of that list, probably between Victory of the Daleks and The Idiot’s Lantern, making it seventh out of nine. The delightfully funny and fun Robot of Sherwood would go at the top. It’s worth comparing it to other Gatiss episodes because Gatiss’s scripts have always been a bit different from other present-day Doctor Whos. Gatiss doesn’t shoot straight down the middle. His scripts are offbeat, a bit quirky, a bit left-of-field. Carnivorous sentient televisions, animate dollhouses, robot occupations of 13th Century Nottinghamshire, and Victorian soldiers on the Red Planet. Imagine Mark Gatiss as showrunner. It’d be weird and unpredictable. Probably more shit more often than Doctor Who is now, but at least it wouldn’t be boring.

For all the glorious unconventionality of the idea of putting Victorian soldiers in an Ice Warrior hive on Mars and making them fight each other, this episode actually holds back on the quirkiness and weirdness that usually characterises Gatiss episodes. It’s actually a fairly conventional narrative when you compare it to the rest of Gatiss’s playlist on Doctor Who, and fairly conventional Doctor Who, at that. And I’m not sure that it really worked. There’s nothing conspicuously wrong with it – it’s enjoyable enough. But it was, as the kids say, just ‘meh’. Gatiss’s episodes are weird. That’s what Gatiss does, and does well. I basically regard Sleep No More as peak Gatiss—it was the weirdest Gatiss has ever gone, and it was a triumph, a flawed triumph, but a triumph nonetheless. Admittedly plenty of people didn’t like it. But the one thing no one can dispute about that one is that it was memorable—you’re never going to forget it. You can’t really say the same about Empress of Mars. And that’s its problem. Gatiss compromised on doing what he does best in order to get all his favourite characters onscreen at the same time, and ended up producing a story that was indulgent and high-concept, but just a bit boring. It felt conspicuously like a filler episode, something every filler episode should want to avoid.

Rating: 6/10.

I contributed to a fan piece: what makes a good season finale?

Hello dears,

I was asked by Matt from the Talking Tardis blog to contribute to a fan piece about what makes a good season finale.

You can read my answers, along with those of Whovian artist Jeph and Oncoming Storm Radio producer Paul Mabley, here. We give our answers to the following questions:

  • What do you look for in a season finale?
  • What are the key differences between the Russell T. Davies finales, and the Steven Moffat finales?
  • What’s your favourite modern-era finale, and where does “The Doctor Falls” rank in comparison to the previous nine?

I enjoyed reading the others’ responses, and Matt did a good job arranging this and putting it all together.

Go and have a read! And check out more of Talking Tardis‘s content while you’re there!

Thoughts on: World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls

The world didn’t end in this finale. The world didn’t come remotely close to ending. There was no apocalyptic threat to Earth, the universe, time or the human race. No reality bomb, no cracks in time, no return of the Time War, no pestilential Dalek swarms, not even a mythical universe-devouring Hybrid. There were a dozen and a half farmers in a homestead on a farm on the 507th floor of a spaceship stuck in the gravitational pull of a black hole. No one knew they were there, no one would miss them, and it wouldn’t matter to the universe if they were absorbed into the ranks of a newly-minted Cyberman army, or died. They were no one. The Cybermen almost certainly wouldn’t be able to get off the ship anyway, without being sucked into a black hole. Everyone on that ship was doomed. It was only a matter of time. None of them mattered.

It’s an interesting choice of setting for Steven Moffat’s last ever finale. Just compare it with his predecessor. Russell T Davies went as big as he possibly could in his last finale. The end of all reality at the hands of the Daleks. He brought back every companion from his four (going on five) years’ time as showrunner and delivered what remains probably the most high-stakes and epic finale since Doctor Who came back in 2005. This isn’t like that. This is nothing like that. This is deliberately as low-key and low-stakes as possible. It’s literally the Doctor holed up on a farm defending a handful of unimportant inbred farmers against an unstoppable army of Cybermen, who are almost certainly going to die whatever he does and, in any case, whose whole world is doomed.

vlcsnap-00004

But actually, that’s the whole point. The choice is very, very deliberate on Moffat’s part. And, frankly, it’s the only appropriate way Moffat could have ended his tenure. Moffat has done the big, epic, high-stakes finales. He’s done the end of the universe and/or reality – four times, by my count (two of those times more explicitly). No doubt he could have done it again, and done it more convincingly and more spectacularly than it’s ever been done on the show before, by him or anybody else. I believe, considering the form he’s been at the last couple of seasons, that he could have delivered the best Big Finale we’ve yet seen. But somehow, that wouldn’t have been right. It would have been reliably stunning, and the reviews would have raved, but it wouldn’t have been the right note on which to end Moffat’s tenure. Moffat isn’t about that. Never has been.

Because this was a love letter to Doctor Who and the Doctor, a tribute to the show and the character Moffat has been writing for twelve years, and which has been his life for the last seven years. Moffat likes to say, half-facetiously, that in his opinion the companion, not the Doctor, is the main character of this show, that the companion is the most important character in Doctor Who. It’s a silly idea, of course, but it’s a nice one, and it’s nice to look at the show that way. However, this finale shows that Moffat doesn’t really believe that. For Moffat, the character of the Doctor and what the Doctor represents is the beating heart of this show.

sdfsdfs

Because this finale was all about what the character of the Doctor represents, and what this show is about. The Doctor is the man who will die defending a handful of farmers from an unstoppable army of Cybermen because it’s right. The Doctor is the man who does what’s kind and good in the face of almost certain failure because it’s right. It didn’t need to be a planet or a species the Doctor was defending, let alone the universe. The Doctor will die for the sake a few inbred farmers because that’s who he is. You can practically condense Moffat’s conception of the character to: the Doctor is the man who always does what’s right. That speech Twelve delivered to the two Masters, one of the most genuinely moving and passionate ever delivered by an actor as the Doctor, and I think my new favourite, basically encapsulated the essence of how Moffat conceives of the character of the Doctor and what he represents. It’s Doctor Who in a verse of passionately-delivered prose, a loving salute to the Doctor and Doctor Who.

Practically everything in this two-part finale revolved around that compelling theme. The Doctor’s mission to turn Missy good, into someone like him, was symbolic of the idea that being the Doctor isn’t an inheritance or an instinct, nor either nature or nurture – it’s a choice. It’s the choice to do what’s right and good, always, in the face of insurmountable odds, in the face of certain failure, without hope, witness or reward. Those opining that the presence of the twain Masters in this finale, especially John Simm’s Master, was rather pointless and that they played something of an irrelevant and peripheral role in the story are wrong. Missy’s struggle, between following the Doctor and being the person the Doctor wanted her to be, and being the person she had always been, represented by John Simm’s Master, represented the idea that being the Doctor was a choice. That, in the end, Missy made the choice to follow the Doctor, where she was without hope, witness or reward, was a vindication of what the Doctor represents. Which makes it all the more tragic that the Doctor never found out that she turned to follow him.

scene17161

I keep putting all this in terms of Moffat’s conception of the Doctor because there is more than one showrunner’s interpretation of the character. I say that this finale is the appropriate way for Moffat to end his tenure as showrunner because Moffat’s interpretation of the character, his conception of the Doctor and what the Doctor is about, has always been the central theme of his Doctor Who. The Fiftieth Anniversary special was the apotheosis of that vision. More relevantly, in the climax of the Series 8 finale the Twelfth Doctor stood in a graveyard with a Cyberman army at his command and made another speech to Missy which was the culmination of a whole series of angst-ridden rumination about what being the Doctor meant. Two series later there’s no equivocation, no sliver of doubt at all about what he, the Doctor, stands for – and, in a symbolic reversal of roles, it’s Missy who’s been undergoing angsty self-reflection all season, and the Doctor who’s offering her the climactic character-defining choice.

So it was only right that Moffat ended his run this way. It was only right that he made the Doctor’s final stand a symbolic embodiment of what the Doctor represents. He went down fighting in the most mundane and inconsequential of circumstances, where, for once, no one would have blamed him for high-tailing out of there. It would have made the most trivial of difference. But that’s why this was such a heroic fall for him, and it’s why it’s such an emphatic vindication of the character. He went down being the Doctor where no one would have blamed him for not being the Doctor. It made for a death scene as rousing and emotional as any we’ve seen yet. It rivals the Tenth Doctor’s “So much more” death scene in terms of its raw emotional punch. It’s definitely one for the ages.

scene46471

Before I tie up this rambling, messy not-really-a-review, any discussion of this finale would be incomplete if it didn’t talk about Bill’s fate, so let’s just talk about that. Before I saw The Doctor Falls I was sort of, without really thinking about it, hoping that Bill would either die or remain a Cyberman. I’m of the school of thought which believes that death is as important a part of Doctor Who as life and the saving thereof. Life is not as treasured, and saving lives is not as warranting of celebration, if no one ever dies and the significance of death, by experiencing the death of characters we love, is never appreciated. Death is the other side of the coin to life, and the show cannot have one without the other. Although I made peace with Clara’s fate in Hell Bent, I think she should have died. It was the appropriate logical and emotional end for her character and for that Doctor-Companion relationship.

But Bill is not Clara, and her arc was not Clara’s arc. This was an instance where the appropriate end for the companion absolutely was that, against all odds, even if it meant being magically resurrected by the power of the tears of her immortal undead celestial water girlfriend, Bill should have lived, de-cyber-converted. It would have been a bleak and jarringly cynical note if Bill had not survived in a story about how the Doctor saves lives – if, in the Doctor’s last heroic stand, he had failed. Bill never deserved that, she didn’t ask for that – Clara did. I don’t care that Bill’s salvation at the hands of waterbending angel Heather makes absolutely no sense and I don’t understand it, that it’s sentimental and mawkish and that, even for Doctor Who, it taxes the ability to suspend disbelief. Actually, this is one of the rare instances where I would be unsatisfied if it weren’t all that. Because it’s the right ending and this is Doctor Who. And Doctor Who can and, in select instances such as these, should do anything to make the right ending happen.

scene53101

I’m looking forward to this year’s joint Twelfth Doctor/First Doctor Christmas special. Seeing the First Doctor again in itself promises to be very special, and somehow very apt, given the numerous self-conscious analogies made over Capaldi’s run between his and Hartnell’s Doctors. But it also promises to be another rousing tribute to a central aspect of the show, given that this finale just ended with the Doctor furiously repressing his regeneration, adamant that he would not change. If I’m correct, it’s going to follow the Doctor struggling to reconcile two instincts, which represent two constants of this show. He has to change, he has to move on, to live: change is life – it’s who he is. But to live – that is, to change – is to die. The old him dies and the new him is born. Everything he was, everyone he loved and everything he felt is forgotten. The new man goes sauntering away as though the old man had never been. The Tenth Doctor in The End of Time touched on this these themes, but, if I’m right, it looks like we’re going to see a more intimate exploration of those themes in this year’s Christmas special, featuring, like a visitation from the Ghost of Christmas Past, a guest appearance from the Doctor’s past life. It should be fun. And emotional, always emotional.

So this wasn’t really a review as much as a messy commentary which I largely made up as I went along, mostly of my, frankly recklessly subjective interpretation of this finale’s themes. But these pieces aren’t explicitly intended to be conventional reviews anyway, which is why they’re called “Thoughts on” Doctor Who stories, not “Reviews”. They’re a space for me to ramble to my heart’s content on Doctor Who episodes and put an arbitrary and risibly subjective rating at the end. When they do cross into review territory, it’s usually when I don’t have anything original or interesting to say about an episode, or at least when I can’t be bothered to think of anything original or interesting to say.

scene57301

But, if you hadn’t already guessed, I really liked this finale. I liked it a lot. Thematically, it was a triumph. That much I think I’ve expressed. This finale’s themes, and the success with which it executed them, were what absorbed me and excited me most about it. I’m not sure I can think of a finale which has been more thematically profound, and which has been more unabashedly a tribute to the show itself (apart from The Day of the Doctor, which doesn’t really count as it’s not a finale). For that it gets high marks. Otherwise the character writing and the acting was perfect, and Rachel Talalay’s direction was reliably magnificent. I’ve already praised World Enough and Time verbosely here, and I thought the story’s treatment of the Cybermen was perfect. I’m not sure this is a complaint, but The Doctor Falls felt a bit slow in the middle. Maybe it actually would have benefited from being cut down. That’s about it. This finale wasn’t perfect, but the best Doctor Whos rarely are. I’m not sure yet where exactly to put it in a ranking of the finales, but it would go somewhere near the top – possibly even the very top. Well done, Steven Moffat.

Rating: 10/10.

First impressions: World Enough and Time

(Since it’s been a while since I’ve done one of these posts, my policy is to do a single full review of multi-part stories unless I think the episodes are distinct enough to justify separate reviews, as in the case of the Monk trilogy; otherwise I do these informal “First impressions” posts for the first part of two-part stories just to jot down my initial thoughts. Expect a lot of this, albeit rewritten, to make it into the full review).

  • I thought this episode was phenomenal. I thought everything about this episode was exquisite: writing, directing and acting. I don’t remember being so absorbed by an episode of Doctor Who since, probably, Hell Bent. I haven’t stopped thinking about the episode since I saw it, a good 32-odd hours ago at the time of writing this, and I can’t remember the last time that happened to me after watching an episode of Doctor Who.
  • There’s so much to talk about in this episode, but let’s take things chronologically.
  • Missy. Missy’s play-acting the Doctor (“Hello, I’m Doctor Whoooh”) was as delightfully funny as I expected it to be. I was a particular fan of the dab, which will forever be etched in my memory as Missy’s finest moment, as well as “Comic Relief” and “Exposition”. The funniest little sequence of this series? Maybe. Probably. What’s clear is that Michelle Gomez owned the part of Missy, owned the screen when she was given the chance, and will be sorely missed when she’s gone. To be honest, I’m disappointed that we didn’t get to see more of Missy being the Doctor — she’d barely stepped out of the Tardis before the Doctor decided to take over again. But that’s absolutely a compliment to Michelle Gomez.
  • Bill getting shot. Good. I’m a big supporter of companions getting hurt, ideally permanently, from travelling with the Doctor. Maybe the companion will actually stay dead/injured/cyber-converted this time. That’s not to say that Bill shouldn’t get the emotional sendoff she deserves, though.

vlcsnap-00003

  • That moment was sensationally directed, though. The Doctor, giving his usual arrogant spiel, absolutely confident that he would save Bill and take control of the situation, only for the blue crew member to rudely interrupt him by blasting a great ugly hole through Bill’s midriff. Cue the Doctor, in shock and disbelief, slowly turning to face Bill, uncomprehending of what had just happened. Brilliant.
  • The conceit of putting the Doctor and Bill on opposite ends of a spaceship reversing out of a black hole, so that time is running much more slowly for one than the other, was good. It’s a bit like The Girl Who Waited, except this is a lot more elegant, and a lot cleverer. It doesn’t end up being that central an element of the story (the episode could probably have followed the creation of the original Cybermen without putting the Doctor and Bill in different time streams), but it certainly makes for some really interesting storytelling, and makes possible the tragic transformation of Bill into a Mondasian Cyberman.
  • Okay but the genesis of the Cybermen though. In telling a story about the Cybermen this episode was perfect. It’s perhaps the first Cyberman story since the 1960s, arguably even since The Tenth Planet itself, which, in my opinion, has truly understood the Cybermen and got them 100% right. Even though only one appeared in this episode. That’s not actually ironic: the whole point of the Cybermen is that they’re human. Or rather, they’re humans who’ve been stripped of everything that makes them human. They’re a mutilation of humanity. The Cybermen are not supposed to be scary, they’re supposed to be tragic — or, rather, they’re supposed to be scary by virtue of their tragedy. Which, frankly, still makes them a lot scarier than the stomping killer robots in their comic book Iron Man suits the show is afflicted with today.

vlcsnap-00013

  • To that end, going back to the beginning of the Cybermen was the perfect way to explore what the Cybermen are about. I’m also so happy that the original Cybermen were recreated so faithfully. The ghostly cloth faces, the eerie lilting voices, the wretched patched-together look, all of it. (Shame about the stomping though — the original Mondasians ambled like zombies). Those who haven’t seen Classic Who might not “get” it, but for those of us who remember how creepy and entrancing the original Cybermen were in The Tenth Planet, it really is very special to see them back, straight from 1966. And Rachel Talalay did admirably in making them very scary, not necessarily an easy task given that, admittedly, the models have rather aged since 1966.
  • The hospital and its ghoulish patients, by the way, was wonderfully creepy. It all reminds me a bit of Steven Moffat’s first Doctor Who story, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, and I’ve no doubt I would have been terrified by this just as 10-year old me was when I first saw The Empty Child. Never mind children, though, the sight of heavily-bandaged and mutilated people using an electronic voice simulator to say “Pain” and “Kill me” will get under any appropriately sensitive grown-up’s skin. This is the US President committing suicide over an ancient gnostic text levels of dark, and it’s brilliant.
  • The revelation of John Simm’s Master was suitably jaw-dropping, even though, along with everyone else paying the remotest attention to Doctor Who news, I knew it was coming. I do feel that the revelation of both the Master and the Mondasian Cybermen would have been so much better if the BBC hadn’t spoiled us all for the publicity. I think an unspoilered revelation (I’m sorry I refuse to use the word “reveal” as a noun) of John Simm’s Master in particular would have been sensational, and we’d all probably have died right then and there.

vlcsnap-00004

  • Oh well. It was still fantastic, and I’ll admit, even with foreknowledge, that I didn’t know Mr Razor was going to be revealed as the Master. Even as he was asking Missy if she remembered being there before, when it was pretty obvious the Master was about to appear, I thought John Simm was about to stroll around the corner—I wasn’t expecting him to pull off a (very convincing) mask with all the flair of Anthony Ainley.
  • So I’m very much looking forward to The Doctor Falls, although, to be honest, the next-time trailer actually looks discouraging (even with two Masters and hordes of Mondasian Cybermen). I saw lots of explosions, lots of modern Cybermen (yech), not much that looked like it might make for properly interesting storytelling, and I saw a publicity poster where the Mondasian Cybermen were flying (for fuck’s sake). I have a feeling The Doctor Falls is about to pull a Death in Heaven, that is: fuck up a phenomenal finale opener by following it with a conventional, lazy, phoned-in, trope-ridden second part. I really hope that isn’t the case.
  • Oh yeah, the regeneration. To be honest I was more dazzled by Peter Capaldi’s magnificent Pertwee-esque hair. I don’t really have much else to say or speculate about other than that this is probably a preview of the Doctor’s regeneration in the Christmas special, and that he begins to regenerate in The Doctor Falls. I do like the idea that Twelve has been holding back a regeneration all series, though (hence Missy’s “Are you all right, Doctor?” from The Empress of Mars), possibly since he exposed himself to the vacuum of space in Oxygen, or possibly even since he saved Missy from execution (maybe because he had to substitute himself somehow in her place?).

In other news

Now that I’m free from exams, I’ll be getting round to my belated reviews of The Empress of Mars and The Eaters of Light over the next week. But I just thought I’d get this one out first while the impressions and emotions are still raw.

 

Thoughts on: The Lie of the Land

It’s not that Toby Whithouse is a shit writer necessarily. He’s not. He’s turned in some great scripts in his time. School Reunion was delightful. As was The God Complex. The Vampires of Venice and last season’s Under the Lake/Before the Flood were enjoyable. Even A Town Called Mercy was good in parts, if a bit dull. But watching this made me grateful that it’s Chris Chibnall who’s getting the showrunner gig after Moffat leaves, and not Whithouse, even as I’m beginning to regret even Chibnall’s appointment. It really was quite a shambles, and a dishonest and patronising shambles at that.

Don’t get me wrong. This was fun, if nothing else. It’s watchable. It has its tickly moments interspersed between the disappointing failure to successfully execute anything remotely approaching an interesting idea. The monks subjugating the human race by beaming fake news into everyone’s brains. That was fun. The Doctor bloviating, very convincingly, at Bill about how the election of Donald Trump has reduced him to supporting a malevolent alien domination of the human race. That was very fun. The Doctor faux-regenerating. Fun. Missy lying atop a grand piano and batting her heavy lids at the Doctor as he bounces ideas off her. Fun. Nardole. Much fun. Very amuse. And “fun” is something at least. One of the most important considerations when I’m mulling over my opinion on a Doctor Who episode for these reviews is “Aside from everything else, did I enjoy watching it?” But “fun”  isn’t enough. Because The Curse of the Black Spot was “fun”. Victory of the Daleks was “fun”. But “fun” didn’t stop those episodes from being eminently forgettable.

scene18811

No, this episode’s real failure was that it had so much potential and so many interesting ideas to play with, but that it supremely failed to do anything interesting with them. The story we were teased with in trailers and synopses, and the story this episode looked like it was going to tell for the first fifteen minutes, was genuinely interesting. The entire world, including the Doctor, has been brainwashed by alien invaders and only Bill can see the truth. That was interesting. That was outright riveting. So why didn’t we get it? Moffat and/or the BBC knew that that story was far more interesting than “the Doctor and Bill attempt to overthrow an alien occupation”, which is why the former, not the latter, was the story this episode was sold as in all the promotional material. Instead, the episode abruptly dispensed with the story it knew was the more interesting idea after fifteen minutes and proceeded inexplicably to tell a hackneyed story about the Doctor and Bill boringly leading a boring resistance against the boring Monks, with Missy thrown in for unnecessary good measure (Missy was still delightful, though, don’t get me wrong).

And it really was quite brilliant for fifteen minutes. The bleak, soul-crushing oppressiveness of the Monks’ take on 1984 was captured really well. The way the human race was subjugated through mind control, the way the monks have been manipulating humanity’s memory of its history, the Doctor’s chilling propaganda broadcasts—it was all done brilliantly (god, that was such a promising pre-titles sequence). And the climactic confrontation between Bill and the Doctor on the prison hulk? Wow. That soared. Pearl Mackie and Peter Capaldi were at their ecstatic, spellbinding best, and I’ve no hesitation in calling it one of the best scenes of Series 10 so far, if not of the Capaldi era. I didn’t even mind the faux-regeneration. Unnecessary and frivolous, perhaps, but it was the exhilarating climax of an incredibly emotional and captivating confrontation between the two leads, and it worked. It’s just a shame it was the rude segue into the much more mundane remaining two-thirds of the episode, rather than its climax.

scene27121

But the other good idea this episode failed to follow through on was any conception of the Monks as anything other than nondescript alien occupiers. Sorry, I know I praised how the Monks were portrayed last week, but they’re back to being boring again this week. I’ll admit that the mind control was cool. I’ll admit that the idea of the Monks ruling the Earth by beaming fake news into everyone’s heads was cool, and it might have made for a much better episode if it had been given some proper exposition and worldbuilding. But the thing is, you could literally substitute any other hideous-looking alien race for the Monks in this episode, because the Monks in this episode bore next to no relation to the Monks from Extremis or The Pyramid at the End of the World. They had precisely zero lines, and I can’t help thinking that Whithouse wasn’t really interested in writing a story about the Monks Steven Moffat had conceived, but was rather just using the Monks as convenient placeholder aliens for the story he really wanted to tell (unsuccessfully) about 1984 with mind control. As Phil Sandifer justly pointed out, the Monks who control the human race through mind control have no conceptual connection to the Monks who create elaborate, faultless simulations of the Earth and all the people in it in order to determine the best way to conquer it.

What exactly happened to that idea anyway? It was nowhere to be seen in this episode, and the simulation technology was used for a completely different purpose in the previous episode. I still don’t know why the Monks didn’t, as we were led to believe they would, just use the information gained from their simulations to determine the most effective way to conquer the Earth, and then go ahead and conquer it. I don’t understand why they bothered with fiddly psychic links if they could literally just conquer the Earth. And I don’t understand why their simulations didn’t see that their mind control technology wasn’t going to work on Bill, and that as a result she would be their downfall. That’s because it didn’t make sense. Each of Steven Moffat, Peter Harness and Toby Whithouse were writing about a slightly different villain in slightly different stories, with the result that the whole is disunited and incoherent. Not so much a chain novel as a game of Chinese whispers where the thing ends up a completely different creature from what it started out as.

scene39091

The other result of the inconsistent writing of the Monks was that the story actually omitted to tell us who they were. We were told all about their great powers and what they could do, but nothing about who they were and what they wanted. Why, exactly, were they interested in ruling the Earth? One does not simply decide to subjugate an entire planet because one feels like it. If one was to go to that much trouble one would be expected to have a good reason. But it really did look like they conquered the Earth out of either whimsy or a sadistic desire simply to oppress. It didn’t look like they were taking advantage of their absolute dominion of the planet by, you know, picking some less Spartan living arrangements or anything absolute rulers would be expected to do with their absolute power. Given that they didn’t speak in this episode, we’ve really got nothing else to go on. Nor were we told who they were—there were some interesting seeds of ideas, like what they said about taking the form of corpses because, to them, humans look like corpses. But nope, nothing. We’re left to speculate.

I haven’t even mentioned arguably this episode’s biggest sin yet, which was that awful resolution. Look, I’m not one of those tedious fans who retch at any suggestion of feels and sentimentality in Doctor Who. Anyone who’s read my reviews before could tell you that that’s absolutely not me. I usually revel in the feels and frequently rebuke the show for not being sincere enough in its deployment of emotion (see my review of Face the Raven). But emotionally-driven resolutions actually have to mean something to work. There has to be some measure of emotional investment put into them to get the narrative and emotional dividends. You can’t just throw them in wherever you want as a convenient narrative cure-all that excuses you from actually coming up with an intelligent resolution. This was the laziest and most undercooked use of the already overused “power of love” resolution that I’ve seen on Doctor Who yet. It was patronising, and it left the audience cold as a result. And, other than anything else, this was absolutely not the ending this trilogy deserved. At the end of Extremis we were anticipating that this trilogy would end with the Doctor finding a way to beat the Monks’ simulations in an incredibly exciting and unexpected way. Instead we got Bill projecting images of her mum onto a computer screen. We deserved better.

Rating: 5/10.