Contains spoilers for the two aired shows.
Doctor Who has been back on TV for nearly two weeks now, and I’m a little tardy in getting around to writing any reviews of the latest episodes. Does this mean I’ve fallen out of love with it? No, not at all; but the first episode of the new series aired on a particularly busy weekend for me, and while I watched it I was aware that I was preoccupied and distracted by real life events. The second episode was better timed, but was very much aimed at the younger audience demographic and I was wary about wading in too critically on an instalment not aimed at someone of my advanced years in the first place.
But finally it seems that a few words on the first two episodes are overdue, and I should prevaricate no longer. Be warned, there lie spoilers ahead…
Read the rest of this entry »
Having previously reviewed the first of the three stories of this second series of Sherlock I think I said all I wanted to about the series as a whole, which allows me to aim to keep this follow-up to a single manageable blog post for the remaining two stories. Here goes …
One of the real strengths of this version of the Sherlock Holmes character is the way that it’s the creation and love-child of two very different writers, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, who are both excellent and currently at the top of their respective games but who also possess completely contrasting narrative styles. Sometimes, such a combination could stunt one or other (or even both) of the talents involved, but just sometimes the diversities feed on each other and not only survive but thrive, and build far more quality and depth to the end result than even the sum of their parts could lead us to expect. Such is the case with Moffat and Gatiss’s Sherlock.
Following on from Moffat’s extraordinarily intelligent and detailed intellectual puzzle box opener A Scandal in Belgravia comes Gatiss’ take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous (and arguably best) original Holmes story, here titularly tweaked into The Hounds of Baskerville. While it was possible to watch and re-watch Moffat’s preceding episode and still not fully understand it weeks later, there was no such problem here: Hounds was a triumph of (Hammer House of Horror) style over substance. The mystery, such as it was, wasn’t very complex: I’d pretty much worked out the solution before the midway point, although the exact ‘Who?’ remained split between two suspects until much nearer the end. But that didn’t matter – its not like Conan Doyle’s story was ever particularly difficult to puzzle out, either. In any case Gatiss wasn’t trying to out-smart us, he was trying to out-creep us – and he did, through one of the most effective and evocative Hounds committed to screen. Differing hugely from the original novel, it nonetheless had enough grace notes to the source text to make even aficionados feel warm and loved by the homage.
The extreme terror scenario did push some of the actors close to the breaking point of credibility: even Benedict Cumberbatch teetered on the edge of believability in the scenes where Holmes takes fright (although it was his playing of the scene that was also the key to realising precisely what was going on.) Poor Russell Tovey’s guest role started at “suppressed hysteria” and then had no where to go except into total histrionic breakdown, a rather thankless part; not to mention the fact that Tovey’s most famous recent role in Being Human meant that in the back of your mind was the red herring that his character (the sublimely named Henry Knight) could himself transmogrify into the hound at any point. I’m sure that this little mind game was entirely intentional from Gatiss, who is such a devotee of the classic Hammer and Universal horror films as well as Jacques Tourneur’s films including Cat People. Interestingly, the most effective “acting blind scared” came from the series star who invariably gets less attention and praise than he merits – but more of Martin Freeman in a minute.
Then we came to the season finale, The Reichenbach Fall, based on Conan Doyle’s short story “The Final Problem” which was dominated by the presence of Moriarty, and by the author killing off his most famous literary creation. We knew what to expect from this 90 minutes going in, in other words.
I admit to having been anxious about this instalment going in, as it had been entrusted to the third (and, to put it rather cruelly, the most junior) member of the writing team behind Sherlock. Steve Thompson had contributed the middle story of season 1, The Blind Banker, and it had been by far the least of the first year’s stories – although interestingly, I found it more enjoyable second time around when I saw it on DVD again late in 2011. Perhaps its ‘average’ rating is more to do with the company it was keeping, rather like Watson inevitably looks rather dim in the company of the two Holmes boys. But another mark against Thompson was his contribution to the most recent series of Doctor Who, “The Curse of the Black Spot” – by far the weakest episode of that 2011 series as far as I was concerned. So that was two strikes against Thompson: was The Reichenbach Fall to be the third? It would be appalling to foul up this story among all others, and the season finale to boot.
Well, I stand corrected. Not only did Thompson’s script do justice to the occasion, it was without question a match for the two stories that had preceded it. In fact in many ways it was the best of the three and perfectly pitched, fulfilment of how the combination of Gatiss and Moffat’s styles into one story by Thompson can produce new heights of genius: atmospheric, thrilling and tense like Hounds but packed full with Sherlock being as clever as only Holmes can be and all without losing the audience in the process. Sherlock got unrestricted license to show off in this episode thanks to the presence of Moriarty: no matter how clever Holmes was being, you always felt and knew that Moriarty was at least two steps in front and being even more insanely clever. Actor Andrew Scott must have had a blast with this part, which allowed him to veer from threatening and sinister to light-hearted and playful, from cunning and focused to cackling and even faux-terrified. It was a style of villain much in the vein of Heath Ledger’s Joker or John Simm’s Master, but at the same time completely individual and unique.
Scott’s towering, scene-grabbing portrayal of Moriarty has been controversial and divisive, but I loved every minute of it – it shone in a series stuffed full of great performances, from Cumberbatch himself as Holmes of course, to Lara Pulver’s memorably classy and sexy Irene Adler to Gatiss’s own cameos as a svelte brother Mycroft (particularly well used in the season finale.) In such stellar company it would be easy to forget about the down-to-earth, unshowy performance of Martin Freeman – a usual fate for actors essaying the role of Watson down the years. But he gave such an exceptional performance here, as indeed he has done throughout: thoroughly normal and yet also quietly extraordinary, and given the best line of the episode when he says “Don’t be dead” to a tombstone, before about-turning and walking away with a subtle but emphatic military gait that bestows years of invaluable, believable backstory to this usually most nondescript of men.
The sheer pace and energy of the cat-and-mouse game between Homes and Moriarty kept the episode careering along at the highest speed, although it didn’t stint on character work either. The lab scene between Molly Hooper and Sherlock was a show-stopper, as Molly suddenly floored Holmes with an emotional perception he hadn’t thought possible from her or indeed from anyone. For me, the episode only flagged when it came to the final scenes at St Barts, which felt just a little drawn out; intended to milk the moment for all the tension and drama it was worth, I found that rather than white knuckles I was instead thinking “Oh, just get on with it now, will you?” – but I suspect the pacing of these moments simultaneously hid an awful lot of the intricate mechanism by which Sherlock will be restored to life come season 3.
And yes, of course there will be a season 3. Moffat, Gatiss and Thompson’s Reichenbach Fall was no more likely or able to put a stop to Holmes than was Conan Doyle’s original Final Solution. After having teased the viewers in advance of the airing by saying “This might be the end of Sherlock,” Moffat popped up on Twitter the next day and gleefully revealed that the matter had never been in doubt: the series had been re-commissioned a year ago not just for this season two, but also for a further season three at the same time. It had been a done deal before anyone even asked the question.
A nation breathes a sigh of relief: Mr Holmes and the redoubtable Dr Watson (Cumberbatch and Freeman both on day release from The Hobbit duties in New Zealand, presumably) will return in 2013. And we’ll get to find out just how Holmes manages to resurrect himself from one of the more serious and emphatically documented cases of absolutely certain sudden death seen outside of religious texts; and exactly how well Watson is going to take the news.
Have the strong smelling salts standing by.
Sherlock is back! I confess that I’m somewhat amazed by how stunningly successful and popular the original 2011 three-part series was, the character of Sherlock Holmes having been done to death so many times that you could almost hear people rolling their eyeballs around their sockets at the prospect of another; but Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss produced a genuinely fresh and strikingly new take on the great detective, taking cues and inspirations from the original tales by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but then spinning them off into something altogether new and exciting.
Even so, this series – like Moffat’s parallel work on Doctor Who – makes no allowances for viewers who aren’t willing to work to keep up and who possess a modicum of intelligence. This isn’t the sort of programme you can watch while multi-tasking, it demands all your attention. I think that’s a good thing, but it can get Moffat into trouble as Doctor Who has shown at times; but he’s unapologetic and even baldly states in this first episode of the second mini-series of Sherlock that “smart is the new sexy” – and we not only believe the sentiment, we embrace it wholeheartedly and keep it close. But that relationship can still be strained, even now.
This second series takes off exactly where the first left-off – a poolside stand off between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Andrew Scott playing ‘Jim’ Moriarty (deliciously styled in this modern version as a ‘consulting criminal’ making him the perfect mirror image of Holmes’ consulting detective.) That segues seamlessly into the new story, which is initially based heavily on one of the best known Conan Doyle stories, “A Scandal in Bohemia”. This time the royal family at risk is Britain’s own, resulting in Holmes and Watson being whisked off to the palace while in the middle of another case. This puts them on the trail of a dominatrix called ‘The Woman’, Irene Adler, played by Lara Pulver who makes an unforgettable entry into the story dressed in … earrings.
Holmes’ ruse to get the blackmail material she possesses is the same as in the original short story, but that’s barely the beginning of proceedings which extends the romantic cat-and-mouse game played between Holmes and Adler. Cumberbatch plays this new side of Holmes quite brilliantly, while Martin Freeman is still quite astoundingly good as John Watson and the relationship between the two is still as wonderfully drawn as it was in the first series. Gatiss himself is back as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft, the two providing a sparklingly barbed relationship with poor Watson caught in the middle, while Una Stubbs is also coming into her own as a very resourceful Mrs Hudson and pathologist Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) continues to carry a doomed torch for Sherlock and consequently features in one of the most awkward and touching scenes of the entire 90 minutes.
Just to emphasise that this is a very modern Holmes, technology plays a major part in proceedings: Watson’s blog plays an important role in the story (and listen out for the little gems of more reworked original Holmes titles for the blog posts), the McGuffin is a password-protected smartphone, and even Twitter gets a name-check. The series continues with its audacious gimmick of putting text messages up on screen, and it continues to work unfeasibly well with some lovely visual touches, such as when the text is faintly reflected back in the window behind a character as they’re reading the phone’s screen. And in this episode, the whole texting strand is also augmented by the quite brilliant special ringtone that Adler has set to announce the arrival of her messages: so much so that as well as being laugh-out-loud funny every time, it also plays an important role in itself at two key points of the story.
The whole thing is hurtling along at a million miles an hour keeping an entire state banquet’s worth of cutlery up in the air, and it’s perhaps no surprise that there are a few breakages along the way. The case that Holmes and Watson were working on is thrown away as of little importance and in fact it’s others marked by only a single line in a montage that we’re supposed to recall as the plot comes together at indecent speed. Whiplash (appropriately given Adler’s profession) is a real danger as the story goes into overdrive to tie everything up in the final minutes, and while “smart is the new sexy” this is really straining even the brightest audience’s intellect close to breaking point. You’ll have to rewatch it again, and possibly another couple of times more, in order to really understand how it all fits together. Maybe that’s no bad thing, and possibly even the result Moffat consciously intends.
It’s a Moffat trait that we’ve been critical of in Doctor Who, but whether you’re pro- or anti- this approach it certainly fits much better here in Sherlock (which is all about puzzles, deception and misdirection after all) than it does in an ostensibly action-adventure science fiction family show. As a result, it seems a far less serious flaw for Sherlock than it does the Doctor; but a minor flaw nonetheless in an otherwise perfect gem.
Moffat seems to manage to attract whole legions of vociferous critics attacking his work these days – he has become the number one target for Daily Mail readers in the last year, who turned first on his work for Doctor Who and now seem to be taking aim on his award-winning Sherlock as well. Here it seems to be the presence of implied (although artistically hidden) nudity and the very implication of Adler’s ‘moderate scolding’ profession before the 9pm watershed. Well, for one thing, scheduling is up to the BBC controllers, not Moffat; and for another, this is getting even sillier than the early extremes of political correctness demanded by the obsessed Mary Whitehouse in the 70s. The kind of ultra-sensitivity of people criticising Sherlock would leave you nothing but fluffy kittens (and emphatically none of Mrs Slocombe’s pussies) if they had their way; although it’s “odd” that the criticism is always directed at BBC shows and never about the catalogue of improprieties at, say, ITV’s Downton Abbey.
Perhaps more serious is the criticism from long-time Holmes aficionados that the story is somehow misogynistic and/or betrays the character of Irene Adler from the Conan Doyle originals. On the one hand, ‘The Woman’ here is more striking and capable than any Irene Adler ever seen before on screen. Compare it against the by-rote and quickly backgrounded and finally predictably damsel-in-distress equivalent character played by Rachel McAdams in the Robert Downey Jr. 2009 motion picture. Pulver’s interpretation absolutely wipes the floor with Sherlock for 89 minutes of the running time and is totally in command – most memorably when she totally throws him off with her initial underdressed entrance into Holmes’ life and he’s completely unable to read anything about her. She’s not a character you’re likely to forget in a hurry, and that makes her a very worthy Irene Adler far above the usual sea of mediocrity. However, it’s still a shame she ‘loses’ at the end (unlike in the book) and has to be saved by Sherlock, and that so much of her power in the story appears to be predicated upon sex.
Next week we move on to “The Hounds of Baskerville”, written by series co-creator and occasional Mycroft, Mark Gatiss. Doubtless there will be storms of criticism of implied animal cruelty or outrageous liberties taken with the plot. We can but hope – otherwise where would the fun be in this dependably, deliciously dark detective delight?
Part of a festive series of Christmas-themed reviews at Taking The Short View
Also: does contain spoiler details of the 2010 and 2011 Christmas episodes.
It seems that the Doctor Who special is a peculiarly difficult beast to produce successfully, with perhaps the sole exception of David Tennant’s début episode “The Christmas Invasion.” Either one ends up essentially ignoring the festive season altogether (such as “The End of Time” two-parter or “The Runaway Bride”) or else the holiday occasion seems to overbalance the whole thing and make the episode a weak or mediocre entry into the Doctor Who canon (such as “Voyage of the Damned” and “The Next Doctor”.)
This year’s entry, “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe”, certainly doesn’t stint on the Christmassy aspects; which means by axiom that it will therefore be a weak episode of Doctor Who. And sadly, this does indeed appear to be the case.
The episode is roughly speaking a game of four parts. The first is a very extended prologue and introduction, starting with joining the Doctor in mid-adventure aboard an exploding starship that concludes with the Doctor improbably (and inexplicably) surviving a trip into vacuum, re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere without burning up, and a 100,000km freefall onto solid ground without too much trouble. There then follows some slapstick Keaton/Chaplin-esque physical comedy before a switch to a country estate and the Doctor acting as a seriously madcap caretaker (perhaps he was brain damaged in that freefall after all!) welcoming a mother and her two children to a large, empty country house in World War 2. It’s all very well written, and Matt Smith is as ever utterly pitch-perfect in his performance, but this is an awful lot of frivolous and non-sensical capering about and I confess that I was starting to lose the will to live. Or at least, to watch.
Finally we get to the second part, and the plot kicks in: a trans-dimensional portal is revealed within a prematurely-opened Christmas present and everyone slips into a frozen snowscape world. Yes, it’s entirely ripped off from CS Lewis and the first discovery of Narnia through the back of the wardrobe – but given the episode title, what did you expect? Writer Steven Moffat is being entirely upfront. And the sequence is very well done, with striking sets and locations beautifully photographed and some lovely innovative touches of its own – such as the Christmas trees that decorate themselves with baubles, which turn out to be eggs that develop into impressively-realised tree people. There’s also a fun scene in which the seemingly helpless mother turns the tables on a crew of armed loggers from Androzani Major (the planet name being a lovely grace note for long time fans of the show.)
So now it’s all looking well set up for a thrilling remainder of the hour, right? Err .. Well, no. Instead it sort of all disappears in a puff of smoke in part three, with the loggers introduced in part 2 disappearing and the Doctor reduced to observing and commentating from the sidelines while the mother essentially saves the day through some not-very-well-explained or even particularly interesting technomagic. Everyone lives happy ever after, the end. Very strangely for a Steven Moffat show, there’s no tension because how everything turns out is so obvious and telegraphed well in advance, leaving no surprises or sense of achievement. All the boxes have been ticked, but without enthusiasm; it’s as if they ran out of time and just had to go with an early draft of the script. The final part is a short epilogue, and although the contents of it were a strictly guarded secret I’d been expecting an appearance along those lines well in advance, so again it seemed rather obvious. (That said, the moment that the Doctor unexpectedly sheds a happy tear for the first time in 900 years is a terrific moment, entirely sold by a brilliant touch of acting from Smith.)
In all, my immediate reaction would be that this Doctor Who outing was very much on the ‘disappointing’ side of the scale; but on the other hand, my experience with the previous Moffat-penned outing from 2010 suggests that I should reserve judgement for a while yet.
That’s because in advance of this year’s Christmas special, I decided to rewatch last year’s for the first time in almost 12 months. Another very Christmas-heavy episode (drawing extensively on a different literary Yuletide classic, this time Dickens’ “Christmas Carol”), I’d summed it up at the time as a disappointment on the grounds that it was “frankly just a little too clever and cute for its own good, and adds on strand after twist after turn to the point where really it’s just to tiring to keep up” and was consequently uninvolving and uninspiring.
Watching it again, however, I was amazed by how much my thoughts on it had changed. This time around I was utterly entranced and totally hooked on its magical lyricism. Not only do the “Christmas Carol” themes come through loud and clear and work far more effectively than I originally gave them credit for, but there’s also whole tale of love and loss, a life of grief, of dreams and the bitter disappointment of failing to fulfil them, of becoming what you fear and dread the most; and how even this can be overcome. Unlike the 2011 special, there’s no “happy ever after” resolution after, but a bitter-sweet and very poignant outcome instead. By the time young Kazran (a quite awesomely talented and natural 12-year-old Laurence Belcher) is confronted with the disappointment of his bitter older self (a magnificent Michael Gambon) and Katherine Jenkins (a decent actress in this part and not stunt casting after all – who knew?) sings the sublime “Silence Is All You Know”, all topped by Matt Smith on outstanding form as the biggest, most easily distracted kid in the room, then there really should be a tear in every eye in the house.
The whole thing becomes a quite extraordinary achievement, a brilliant work not merely of television or even of literature but of genuine art. It’s one of the most beautiful and smart pieces of television of the year – sheer poetry – and I’m embarrassed that I felt so poorly disposed toward it at the time; whatever was I thinking? It just shows the power of expectations and how badly we can take it when they’re not met, even if it’s merely because they’re massively exceeded in different ways than we had thought that we wanted.
So is “The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe” headed for a wholesale reappraisal in 12 months time? It’s entirely possible. I somehow have my doubts – my complaint on the 2010 instalment was that it was too clever, and now I’ve caught up and appreciate it; whereas my issue with the 2011 equivalent is that it’s forgotten some vital ingredients, like plot and interest, unless they’re hiding away in very subtle corners of the sprawling forest. But if nothing else, I’ve learned not to underestimate The Grand Moff again quite so soon.
Some spoilers for the unwary
“The Wedding of River Song” turned out to be a fun, entertaining episode to round out the sixth season of Doctor Who. But strangely, what it wasn’t was a resounding season finale spectacular, or a sufficiently satisfying pay-off to a complex and at times maddeningly twisty multi-season story arc.
Perhaps the problem is that the episode brings in so many characters and storylines from the past that it had the overall feeling of being ‘a little bit of admin’, there mainly to wrap up the loose ends. It feels like the end of the mystery novel, the chapter just after the murderer has been unmasked and then taken care of in an exciting fight/chase sequence: the one where everyone sits down in the drawing room sipping a cup of tea, and someone asks the main character “So, just how did you figure it all out?” and there then follows ten pages of exposition. Read the rest of this entry »
A couple of weeks ago we had the Great Day of Whovian Crisis, when an article in the June 10 edition of the satirical Private Eye magazine said that Doctor Who was about to be forced into its second year-long hiatus in just over three years in 2012 because of a series of behind-the-scenes problems, which had already led to two producers being dismissed and executive producer Piers Wenger quitting to go to Film4. The reported decision by BBC Wales had apparently “horrified” the BBC chiefs back in London who rely on the show for its Saturday evening scheduling.
The Private Eye article’s credibility was somewhat undermined by its insistence that the split-structure of season 6 was down to “poor budget control and scheduling”: considering how far in advance this split was announced and how much the structure of season 6’s writing depended on this mid-point cliffhanger there’s no way that the split suddenly appeared because of production problems. Hopefully that means the article’s concerns about the second batch of season 6 being ready before Christmas are equally far off the mark.
But the BBC did little to help the situation on that day – Tuesday June 7, a day that will live in Who infamy. Considering they are one of the biggest media corporations in the world, it’s amazing how poor the BBC can be at communications at times: everyone was apparently at meetings or (literally) out to lunch and not available for comment while the story roared around the Internet that day. Initially the BBC even said it wasn’t about to make any announcement about it at all, but finally they were bounced into conceding – via Twitter of all things – that “#DoctorWho is returning. Fourteen new episodes have been commissioned with Matt Smith as The Doctor.”
Hurrah, crisis over, we all thought. Except that instead of getting clearer over the intervening time, the situation seems to have actually been getting mirkier. Read the rest of this entry »
We’ve come to the end of the first half of Doctor Who season six, which makes it a good time to pause and reflect on the state of the Whovian nation.
As someone who has loved and admired Steven Moffat’s work ever since the early days of the superb The Press Gang, this should be a no-brainer question and a short blog post declaring everything is just brilliant and wonderful. Should be … But I’m afraid it isn’t. There’s something nagging away at me, something making me uneasy about the future of the show we love so much.
This is the battle of demon’s run, the Doctor’s darkest hour, he’ll rise higher than ever before, and then fall so much further.
It’s hard not to agree that the Doctor has truly risen higher than he ever has before right now, at least as far as Doctor Who fans are concerned: we have the writer/producer we admire more than any other, who is at the top of his game and producing the most fabulous scripts, season arcs and characters. Matt Smith has made a genuinely brilliant Doctor; the threesome combination of the Tardis crew has given us something genuinely different and new after too many years of the Doctor/female companion formula – even before we add the fantastic recurring character of River Song who we just yearn to join full-time. The production team also seem to have managed to get over the funding squeeze that compromised key moments in season 5 with below-par CGI, because season 6 has all looked fabulous (well, save for one Flesh Jen monster CGI too far…) – even before the impressive jaunt to America that added to the sense of sheer scale and substance.
But I can’t shake the feeling that this almighty high does indeed potentially come before the biggest fall and darkest hour, and that there are signs and portents that should worry all Who fans at least a little.
Some of these are external matters: the tabloids loved reporting that viewing figures for the early episodes were sharply down, and while this was not entirely accurate (the iPlayer/view on demand figures pretty much reversed that situation so it’s more a sign of an error in the scheduling of the show at 6pm or so on warm, sunny May and June evenings that’s a mistake of the network programmers rather than the show itself) it did lead the papers to gripe about how it’s no longer a family show, that it’s too dark, too scary, too bloody complicated for children now.
Actually the children are fine by all accounts, and follow it perfectly – as least as much as they need to. It’s the adults who are feeling lost, puzzled, worried or horrified. But that’s still a problem for the show, because this is the BBC’s family tent-pole offering, and if the adults are scratching their heads and shrugging before going off to do something else – or deciding it’s not suitable for the little’uns – then it’s undermining a major element of the show’s success and profile, both of which are vital to keeping the show mainstream and properly funded.
When Russell T Davies took on the tast of regenerating the show in 2005, he was commendably open about how this was the most commercial, market-tested, focus-grouped project he’d ever done. Every last bit of it had to be hand-crafted to make sure it hit the market properly, delivered the whole-family audience, spun off the merchandising and won the awards. It had to, if this wasn’t to be a one-season flop. Artistic integrity be blowed: to make any expensive TV show, first you have to make the show a proven success to earn your right to experiment. It might sound cynical, but it’s survival in the modern broadcast arena and RTD knew it better than anyone. I’m sure a little piece of him died everytime he had to subjugate his artistic inclinations in favour of ensuring the commercial success, but he pulled it off: he took a revival that no one gave much of a chance of really working and delivered to the BBC’s their biggest international blockbuster property.
As a result, Steven Moffat doesn’t have the same pressures: the show is a hit right now and he doesn’t have to permanently look over his shoulder fearing cancellation. That security has given the show an undoubted confidence and swagger; and in any case, Moffat is not the kind of person to ever allow anything to override his artistic integrity. He will do the show his way no matter what, believing it’s the best for the show: focus groups and market testing be damned.
It’s admirable, and arguably is giving us a better, higher calibre show than we’ve ever seen before as least as far as hard-core fans are concerned. But it’s also markedly different from the show that was reborn under RTD that we grew to know and love in its own right. Davies might have had his problems as head writer (and not really seeming to grasp what a science fiction story really was, and continually relying on cheap deus ex machina get-outs were definitely among them) but every episode was suffused with a sense of love of the show and with a huge feeling of fun that made it accessible and enjoyable by everyone of any age or level of interest.
You don’t get that with Moffat’s seasons. I have no doubt that he loves the show every bit as much as RTD or you and I do, but he never allows that passion to override his story judgement – or to show through in the episodes themselves. Instead they’re far more coolly cerebral, intricate and complex, always eschewing the obvious even when it might end up frustrating the viewer. He is not writing for the casual fan who may dip in and out, miss a week or read a paper at the same time: this is a show for people who watch. And rewatch. And sit and think and talk about it for a week afterwards. And even if you do all that, it’s still likely to have scrambled your brain and leave you with a headache (as the end of “Day of the Moon” did for me, I confessed at the time.)
It’s asking a lot of viewers to submit themselves to this mental overload; casual fans will depart, and even die hard fans have been struggling to sustain the level of absolute concentration the show now demands. Instead of the fun, easy, family viewing under RTD, the show just got worryingly difficult, fan-ish and closed-up by comparison.
For those fans who push through and keep watching, it’s worth every minute. It comes together like the most wonderful puzzle box, and not only can you appreciate how perfectly it all comes together but you can also see how all the clues were left in plain sight all along and it only seemed complicated but actually you really did understand it all along after all, giving a lovely frisson of feeling like you’ve cracked it and are worthy of being one of the Whovian nation – and that your brain isn’t as broken as you thought after all.
But then we hit another snag: where does the show go from here? After being raised to such eye-popping heights, what’s next?
It’s hard to imagine the show going back to the nice, fun “adventure of the week” format. Indeed it tried that with “The Curse of the Black Spot” and how poor that episode felt, even though in previous RTD seasons that would have been a perfectly fine albeit average episode (no offence intended to RTD.) Not every episode can be a Silents/Flesh/Gaiman/Demons Run blockbuster every single week, but these episodes have raised the bar so high in season 6 that a merely ordinary episode is now a deep disappointment. You pity anyone who is tasked to take over from Moffat, because no one can reach the sort of heights he’s been delivering this season – and anything less is doing to be the Doctor’s darkest hour and his furthest fall (and potentially at worst, his latest cancelation.)
This problem is echoed in a development in the Doctor’s character in the show itself: he’s become so big, so epic, so unbeatable that the loveable old eccentric “mad man in a box” has never seemed so far away. These days he can wipe out entire Cyber battle fleets as a rhetorical flourish in a pre-credits teaser, or reboot the universe, or send aliens running away in fright just by reading them his CV. This started back in RTD/David Tennant’s era with “The Christmas Invasion”, was echoed in “The Eleventh Hour” at the start of the Moffat/Matt Smith era, but has now becoming a recurring problem with both “The Pandorica Opens” and “A Good Man Goes to War” both essentially focusing on it.
Quite simply, there is no one left who is more powerful than the Doctor. He is a God. Even the Daleks – who were revamped so successfully in season 1 as the ultimate nemesis of the Time Lords and the only race able to defeat them in the Time War – are now so “reliably beatable” that Moffat himself has concluded that they have no credibility left and have to be rested from the show. But if not the Daleks – who can threaten the Doctor anymore? It’s rather like the ‘scope creep’ that infected the character of Superman, in which a character who could initially simply jump high and run fast suddenly became invincible and as a result lost both empathy with the readership and also potential plots. How could Superman bear to spend his time dealing with muggings with all his powers?
So to it is with the Doctor. He’s now so powerful that nothing really seems to threaten him anymore. Some lovely dialogue in “A Good Man Goes To War” stressed how he is now more myth than regular person: how “Doctor” is becoming a galaxy-wide synonym for “great man of learning” or “warrior” depending on your point of view (apparently an idea Moffat had in 1995 according to some links on the Internet pointing to ‘proof’, but we’ll take these with a pinch of salt for now.) Did you spot the sublime way that Rory is made to realise this is happening to him, too: as he consoled Commander Strax, he realised he was talking to a warrior who had become a nurse, while he himself was a nurse who was now a centurion warrior? An uncomfortable realisation for both.
The stakes have been raised too high too many times: the show has seemingly killed off the Doctor, Amy or Rory too often as a result just so that we feel something bad really did/could happen, but it’s backfired and now they’ve all died and restored in too many ways that so we just role our eyes, say “oh, not again” and wait for the plot to unravel and restore everyone to life.
Moffat seems acutely aware of this “Godhood” problem with the Doctor now, and it’s why the trope has been returned to in “A Good Man Goes To War” with dialogue specifically riffing this (which in turn is an echo of dialogue that RTD’s Davros used on Tennant’s Doctor in “Journey’s End”.) I suspect Moffat’s overall intentions for the current convoluted plot arc are to do something about this “all-powerful” Doctor and restore him back to something like his old original self, the eccentric traveller.
The trouble is that the genie is out of the box, and we can’t go home again: would we be remotely satisfied with a show of a group of friends amiably poking around investigating a deserted city or scrapping with some cavemen?
Steven Moffat’s a sharp guy with far greater writing and creative skills than I possess – maybe he’s figured all this out and has an answer for us, and that’s what we’re heading to. We should certainly hope so, for the sake of the future survival of the show hinges upon it. Far more than the side questions of identity of River Song or whether the Doctor will retrieve Rory and Amy’s baby, this is the most important and pressing question facing the Whovian Nation this morning as we head into the summer recess.
Contains some oblique spoilers, sweetie.
And so the first half of this year’s “double mini-series” season 6 of Doctor Who has come to an end, allowing us time to pause and reflect about the season overall. But before that – what about the final episode?
I skipped over reviewing the last episode, “The Almost People”, as it was the second half of a story about which I felt I’d already said pretty much everything I wanted to in my previous “The Rebel Flesh” review: the two-parter finished solidly and just as the first part would have had you expect. A very safe pair of hands and an enjoyable story overall.
And then came that final cliffhanger in the Tardis with not-Amy. Certainly didn’t see that one coming, and yet doesn’t it make sense about the Doctor’s whole insistence on trying to prove to her that The Flesh avatars are not monsters and are real people too. He was trying to prepare her for what was to come.
That shock ending led directly into “A Good Man Goes To War”, and we’re expecting greatness of epic proportions. For the first 20 minutes it royally delivers: the scale of the Doctor’s preparations of assembling an army and tracking down Amy are truly astonishing, with the Tardis and Rory (the Lone Centurion) acting in the Doctor’s place and the man himself appearing only briefly in (unconvincing) silhouette as befits a legend and a myth.
By this point we’re prepared for something absolutely sensational: the Doctor’s (uncharacteristically) casual destruction of a entire Cyber battle fleet to make a rhetorical point leads us to believe that this is the Time Lord Victorious pushed over the edge, driven to darker deeds by an incomparable fury. Except that neither the Doctor nor head writer Steven Moffat are ever that obvious or predictable. Instead, when the Doctor finally does pop up, he looks very much as normal and he outwits the army arrayed against him with typical light-hearted cunning (brilliantly plotted). The battle is defused, and while there is a subsequent trap to be sprung by Madame Kovarian this proves to be an even lower-key plot beat with just half a dozen or so on either side, and the action essentially taking place off-screen. (Judging how stodgy the pirate battle antics ended up looking in “The Curse of the Black Spot”, it may be just as well.)
It’s Moffat’s greatest strength that he confounds and defies our every expectation; but it can also be his greatest weakness. Having promised us that “the Doctor will climb higher than ever before”, the way the episode unfurls simply doesn’t deliver on this promise. The structure of the episode is oddly inverted, starting with epic and sweeping but then getting smaller and smaller until finally it comes down to a rather talky final scene between the regulars. It leaves an oddly awkward, unfulfilled feeling to it: having opened a Christmas present in huge extravagant wrappings, the end result is the perfectly fine but still rather-expected Doctor Who annual.
How you feel about the climax depends on how big a shock the final reveal about River Song’s true identity is. I confess, I’ve thought that she is who she turned out to be ever since episode 1 of this season, when she and Rory were investigating underground and had a rather interesting conversation that only has genuine emotional resonance if River Song is one particular person. The line of dialogue in “The Doctor’s Wife” that ‘the only water in the forest is the river’ sealed it for me, so this week’s reveal was not in the end a big surprise, although Moffat certainly played around in the episode with a few red herrings to make it pleasingly in doubt until the very final moments.
A small genius of Moffat’s writing is that despite having finally revealed River Song’s true identity, it turns out that the answer gives rise to far more questions than the answer ever addressed – the perfect sort of plotting. Instead of being an end to River’s story, if anything it just throws up even more avenues that need exploring which are far more interesting. How exactly does River’s story now intersect with the Impossible Astronaut, the little girl regenerating, and River’s own ultimate fate seen back in “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead”? What’s this going to mean to Rory and Amy? Where has the Doctor gone after learning this piece of information – how does it give him the location of the baby? Will the baby be lost to them for years, stuck in a Silents-infested orphanage for years to come? What’s with the astronaut suit, anyway? And why doesn’t River know?
Overall, the episode was extremely well done and great fun – just not the episode to end all episodes that we’d been led to hope for. It felt like a reprise of “The Pandorica Opens” in that it’s all a trap to snare the Doctor and features alliances of various old foes; the difference being is that here the Doctor builds his own alliance to fight back. In the end, this felt more like Russell T Davies’ era of the show (in particular his biggest shows, “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End”) than anything Moffat himself has previously done: only that instead of gathering together a feel-good line-up of his old friends, allies and companions to help him as RTD gave us, here the Doctor seeks out more unlikely line-up of Silurians, Judoon and Sontarans who owe him.
And what delights there were in that alliance. For all the praise Moffat gets for his intricate plotting, it’s easy to forget that his real strength is in giving us the most brilliant characters the show has ever seen: not just Amy, but Rory who has developed into one of the true stars of the show; then there’s River Song, without whom it’s almost impossible to think of modern Doctor Who, such a fabulous and vibrant part of the team she’s become. And let’s not forget that Moffat also gave us Captain Jack Harkness, the first character to sustain a successful Doctor Who spin-off series of his own.
This week, add to this line up the brilliant characters of Madame Vastra and her companion Jenny: is there any fan out there not dying to see a Victorian Era-set spin off featuring these two? Such a shame that blue-marketeer Dorium and Commander/Nurse Strax are also not available for future stories: Robert Holmes must be beaming down from on high with delight that someone has finally grasped his Sontaran creations and made them into richly textured, fully-rounded and even humorous personalities without betraying the underlying principle of the cloned warrior race. Even the odd minor character of Lorna Bucket with her memory of 30 seconds running through a forest with the Doctor (who doesn’t know her) feels like someone with far more tale left to tell. Even if she is dead for now.
In the end, the episode is less of a season climax and a major cliffhanger than the episode that preceded it: instead it feels more like the end of Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back – everything has been thrown up in the air, the pieces are in play, and suddenly it all looks less like a happy fairytale than it did, and more like a dark and dangerous time. And like that brilliant film it leaves us sitting on the edge of our seats counting down the hours to part two of series six in the Autumn.
Just as long as Moffat doesn’t try and add any sodding Ewoks to the Silurian/Judoon/Sontaran alliance, we should be in for a treat as the story continues to unfold.