...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Day 4535: DOCTOR WHO: Matt Finish


We are sad because Matt Smith has announced that he will be handing on the mantle of The Doctor.

It feels too soon.

It shouldn’t. By the time he goes, he’ll have appeared in thirty-nine stories over forty-four episodes, which is either slightly more or slightly fewer than David Tennant (who did thirty-four in forty-seven), and his three seasons will have covered four years, much as David’s three-years-plus-specials did.

But perhaps it’s the way the split seasons felt like cheating, maybe it’s that the Ponds stuck around so long, but something about the eleventh Doctor feels like unfulfilled potential.

Is the lifespan of a Doctor measured in numbers of companions rather than screen time? David went adventuring with three companions – Rose, Martha and Donna – and travelled alone after, giving a distinct sense of three or four “eras” of the tenth Doctor. Matt’s eleventh Doctor clung on to Amy for longer even than Rose, and River Song has hung on even longer. A second – and full – season with Clara would have felt more balanced. As it is, the eight episodes this year feel more tacked on than the start of a new era that they deserve to be.

Or do we measure Doctor’s by the number of “classics” that they appear in? Alex said he was still waiting for Matt to be given the string of great stories that his performance as the Doctor deserved, and he’s right.

Billy sets the bar high from the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child”, and has “The Daleks”, “Marco Polo”, “The Aztecs”, “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”, “The Crusade”, “The Daleks’ Master Plan” (and maybe “The Massacre” if only we could see it); Pat has two Daleks stories, “Tomb of the Cybermen”, “The Web of Fear”, “The Mind Robber”, “The Invasion” and “The War Games”; Jon can point to “...and the Silurians”, “Inferno”, “The Dæmons”, “The Curse of Peladon”, “Carnival of Monsters” and “The Green Death” among others; Tom has “Genesis of the Daleks”, “Pyramids of Mars”, “The Deadly Assassin”, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, “City of Death”, “Logopolis” and (as K-9 K-Tel would say) many, many more. Even Chris has “Dalek”, “The Empty Child” and “Parting of the Ways” on his list from one too short a season, while David can lay claim to “Human Nature” and “Blink”, and arguably “Doomsday” and “Last of the Time Lords”, with “Tooth and Claw”, “Gridlock”, “Turn Left,” “Midnight” and “The Waters of Mars” all bubbling under. These eras all feel “big”.

Conversely, Peter only feels like he’s getting into the swing of it with “The Caves of Androzani”, and although Sylv has “Remembrance of the Daleks” and “The Curse of Fenric”, Colin and Paul have to wait for the invention of Big Finish for any decent stories at all.

Judged on that scale, Matt has had stories that have been crying out to be magnificent that just kind of haven’t been. “The Time of Angels” is almost awesome, but then “Flesh and Stone” starts buggering around with the Angels unique shtick, and begins the confusion over what “erased from time” actually means; “The Pandorica Opens” is let down by the WTF reboot of the universe in “The Big Bang” (and the too-colourful presence of the Tellytubby Daleks); “The Impossible Astronaut”/”The Day of the Moon”... in fact the whole of 2011 yearns to be a grand epic, but it’s deeply undermined by Steven Moffat’s impenetrable, over-extended story arc and a touch of light genocide; by the time we get to “A Good Man Goes to War” and “The Wedding of River Song” the arc is collapsing under its own weight of expectations – largely set up by the Grand Moff’s teasing – and we’re showing off our set pieces, forgetting to tell actual stories in their own right.

So although there are some cracking stories along the way – “Amy’s Choice”, “Vincent and the Doctor”, “The God Complex” and “The Crimson Horror”, even Moffat’s own “Asylum of the Daleks” or “The Snowmen”, not to mention the fan-pleasuring “The Name of the Doctor” – their highs are muffled by the disappointment of story arcs that don’t pay off, seasons without the unity that Russell (or Cartmel, or Bidmead, or Holmes, or Dicks) used to bring, and let’s face it a few real duffer episodes along the way.

And, do you know, thinking about it, I do wonder if it doesn’t all come down to the total disaster that is the last fifteen minutes of “Victory of the Daleks”... just as everything seems to be going brilliantly... THEY appear and suddenly no one is taking this seriously any more.

(And defeating a planet busting bomb with the power of lurve is pretty unspeakable too, and a sign of the direction this series will be heading under Moffat, and unlike the Dalek design decision, that probably is Gatiss fault.)

Would we have been more forgiving of the eleventh Doctor’s first season if we hadn’t already seen the New Paradigm? Did the decision to redesign the series’ iconic villain – and how badly wrong they got it – burn up all of Moffat’s benefit of the doubt? Particularly the way that it was sold: “yeah, we’re changing everything else so we thought we’d redesign the Daleks too”, with hindsight perhaps the braggadocio of a desperate man who’s seen what they’ve made and is having doubts, but coming across as the arrogance of someone who thinks he knows better.

Well, no. It’s not just that.

The errors do compound. A reliance on magic thinking rather than plot logic; a habit of throwing in another “ingenious” idea or another set piece rather than developing the story; a juvenile approach to the sexuality of the lead character (that Amy might react to a trauma like “The Time of Angels” by wanting sex is quite sophisticated; the Doctor responding like a goosed John Inman is not); a conviction that you can bring anyone back from death (especially the endless deaths of Rory Pond)because “it’s science fiction”, when death should be the most serious thing – “nobody dies” was supposed to be “just this once”, not every damn week; a failure to explain in clear terms how major plot threads actually resolved – why the hell did the TARDIS blow up and crack the Universe? Is Madam Kovarian actually dead or did that timeline not really happen? Why were the Silence at “war” with the Doctor? How did he convince River she didn’t want to murder him in “Let’s Kill Hitler”? – and finally a lack of emotional awareness, of understanding that terrible events have consequences, more than anything that baffling decision to make the crucial follow-up to the emotionally charged revelations of “A Good Man Goes to War” an episode of comedy Nazis, indeed a farce, of all things...

Russell wrote a lot of stories that didn’t make a great deal of sense when you looked at them later, or where he pulled a solution out of his hat, but where you felt there was a solid reason why they played out the way they did.

Steven, on the other hand, writes intricate constructions from ideas, not always all his own, with dialogue either wittily clever or poetically moving, which are spectacular but hollow.

e.g. When Russell writes the stars going out, he ties it directly to the nihilistic insanity of Davros, this man who hates everything else so much that he’d rather annihilate it all than suffer it to continue to exist.

When Steven writes the stars going out, it’s the result of a convoluted series of events orchestrated by someone we don’t actually in order to blow up the TARDIS for reasons that we don’t understand and never get explained.

(The most likely candidates remain the Silence, who blow up the TARDIS to stop the Doctor reaching Trenzalore, and the entire Universe was destroyed only by accident. Which has to be embarrassing, even if the whole purpose of your cult wasn’t, apparently, to stop the Doctor reaching Trenzalore in order to, er, prevent the entire Universe being destroyed.)

More bluntly, Russell wrote some great stories with rubbish plots; Moffat has the reverse problem.

Except, he is getting better.

People seem to have wearied of Moffat’s bag of conjuring tricks recently, unfortunately just at the point where he seems to have been pulling out of his rut. The 2013 series seems to have come in for unwarranted heavy criticism, from the professional critics as well as the usual fan assassins, and I seem to be in a definite minority in thinking that the stories this year have shown a marked sense of improvement over the lacklustre 2010 and horrible mess of 2011. Whether it’s because Caro Skinner was good for him behind the scenes or because the (maybe I’m reading too much into it) apparent decision to theme an episode for each of the “classic” Doctors gave them some extra impetus to the “movie of the week” style he said he’d adopted for season seven, they’ve all felt much more like stories that had a reason for telling them, moreso even than the five episodes in 2012.

They’re still hamstrung by the shortness of the running time, and if I were producer I’d be pushing for more not fewer (or no!) two-part stories, or at least an extra quarter of an hour each episode (even if it meant only ten episodes in a series. You know, like “Game of Thrones”, which doesn’t do too badly, I understand). And Clara still seems to have no character (which is a shame because I’ve liked Jenna-Louise all along). But even when they’re getting it wrong – “Akhaten”, “Journey...” – at least they’re now getting it wrong for the right reasons: ambition of storytelling exceeding the running time or resources available.

And “The Name of the Doctor” is very nearly right. Sure, it’s still a bit stringing set-pieces together, but there’s a lot more science stuff injected into the fairytale: time travel on the astral plane and a conference call by telepathy, these feel like the sorts of things Doctor Who used to do; and the idea that the Doctor’s travels are a scar on the face of the Universe, that his death is a wound that allows access to all of history, specifically his history (which surely includes the dreaded Time War), these aren’t just conceptually intriguing, but they’re the sort of thing that used to allow us to have the Doctor’s good and bad angels (Clara and the Intelligence) fighting for his soul over the length of his lifetime. And it’s actually about something: “The Name of the Doctor” is about the name of the Doctor being “The Doctor”, that it’s a choice and how and why that is important, to him and to us.

It’s a tragedy that, at least until “The Name of the Doctor”, “The Eleventh Hour” was probably Matt’s best overall story. “The Eleventh Hour” promised so much, and Matt delivered, he’s been terrific every single week, but we are left still waiting for a story that is as great as he is.

Do you hear me, Mr Moffster? The fiftieth anniversary show had better be BLOODY good!

Matt Smith: saluté!

...and the other sad thing is that this will be the end of the eleventh Doctor’s theme tune. No, not the current tortuous reworking of Ron Grainer: Murray Gold’s lovely eleventh Doctor anthem “Every Star and Every Planet” (“I Am The Doctor”) which is as engrained in this era as “Dance of the Macra” (“All The Strange, Strange Creatures”) was in the tenth Doctor’s, possibly even more so.

Coming Soon...If I ever manage to find some time, I hope to be doing reviews of the two episodes of 2013 I didn’t get around to – “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” which I disliked and “The Crimson Horror” which I adored – and a couple of those classics I mentioned above: Tom Baker in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” and Jon Pertwee in the beautiful new restoration of “The Mind of Evil”. Before that, one of the best bits of Doctor Who you’re likely to come across this year... it’s a book, and obviously the Doctor isn’t in it. Obverse Books’ new Faction Paradox novel: Lawrence Burton’s “Against Nature”. Seriously, go read it!


Mike Taylor said...

Very interesting. Notable that in an article ostensible about Matt Smith, you found yourself mostly writing about Steven Moffatt -- I think, because there's so much more to say about where things go wrong than when they go right.

I'll put my cards on the table and say that from about his fourth episode, Smith had firmly established himself as my all-time favourite Doctor (ahead of 9 and 4, since you ask), More than any other Doctor, he is believable. He convinces as an 1100-year-old man in the body of a thirty-year-old with the spirit of an eight-year-old. And that for me pretty much nails the essence of what Doctor Who is about.

I will miss him terribly. The new man has an awful lot to live up to.

Millennium Dome said...

You're quite right, I am talking about Moffat more than Matt, and in part I agree that it's because it's easier to criticise than prase. But I'd like to think that I'm doing a retrospective of the 11th Doctor Era too, more than just Mr Matt.

Andrew Hickey said...

Agreed with almost all of this, especially about the 2013 series being Smith's best (unfortunately it got good pretty much exactly when I lost net access, so I watched almost all of it in one day, the day The Name Of The Doctor was broadcast), and about Lawrence's book being great.

But before Jennie gets in, surely at the very least Colin had five 'decent' televised stories -- Vengeance On Varos, The Two Doctors, Revelation Of The Daleks, The Mysterious Planet and Mindwarp. Only a couple of those are *great*, but they're all very watchable

Millennium Dome said...

I'd agree that there are good things about all those stories, but I'd also qualify that by saying:

"Vengeance on Varos" is better in concept than in execution;

"The Two Doctors" needs dramatically re-editing (I know everyone loves Pat, but it ought to open with Colin as it is his series), and a director who, well, directs;

"The Mysterious Planet" isn't actually very mysterious, and I'd rather the Doctor didn't use the "you're only a machine" line to Drathro when the problem is that he's clearly sapient;

And "Mindwarp" really needed at least one of the writer or the script editor to be able to answer the lead actor's not unreasonable question "what of this is actually real?"

"Revelation of the Daleks", I grant you, is a genuine classic and I should't have forgotten it, just because "Jubilee" is better ;)

And Colin - like Matt - is brilliant in all his stories, often the only thing making them at all watchable. Things picked up for the series when his script editor left, too.

Mike Taylor said...

But I'd like to think that I'm doing a retrospective of the 11th Doctor Era too, more than just Mr Matt.

Yes, of course -- I hope you didn't read my comment as a criticism.

The irony for me was that at the beginning of the current era, I was really excited about Moffat's role (having absolutely loved all four of his pre-Smith stories), and completely turned off by Smith, based only on having seen photos of this scrawny gangly kid with no presence or heft to him.

Happily, I was completely wrong on the latter. Sadly, I was mostly wrong on the former, too.

Many of the things Moffat gets criticised for bother me not at all. I always find it easier to forgive over-ambition than a competent by-the-numbers story. But his abandonment of narrative causality is a huge disappointment -- not only because it's so important, but because his early NewWho stories were so very strong in that area. The Empty Child/Doctor Dances is probably the single most coherent Doctor Who plot I can think of from any era: when the mystery/threat had a resolution that made perfect sense in its own terms, and all the clues were there. And Blink is about the most coherent, all-ends-tied-up time-travel story I know.

In light of that beginning, it's been really disheartening to watch the coherence of storytelling gradually fall apart. Series 6 was the most frustrating, because it was this close to being the best that Doctor Who has ever been -- then threw it away in what feels more than anything like sheer carelessness. I never thought I would see a more ludicrously overcomplicated plot the the one in Resurrection Of The Daleks, but the Silence's plot to kill the Doctor has it comprehensively beaten.

So I really hope someone can just sit down with Steven and say "cut out maybe 20% of the new ideas you throw at us, and use the time to properly resolve the other 80%. You know, like you did in The Empty Child".

BTW., The Two Doctors is the only Colin Baker story I've seen, and I found it almost unwatchable. Terrible story, terrible direction, terrible acting. Only Troughton's involvement made it tolerable.

Andrew Hickey said...

I agree with most of those criticisms (though not the opening of The Two Doctors, which I really like), but I'd still say that they're all decent stories. Vengeance I'd consider a bona-fide classic -- yes, it sags in places, has the odd bad moment and so on, but so does Genesis.

I agree with you about the relative merits of Saward and Colin though...

Matt said...

Hmm. i'd add "The Doctors Wife" and "The Girl who Waited" to proper, flat out excellent 11th Doctor stories, although you're a lot more down on that whole series than I am. Personally i really liked the dynamic of having two companions after a long run of "doctor plus one" series, but that may be the 5th Doctor fan in me talking ;-)

...And I don't get the apparent hate piled on this recent series either.

Millennium Dome said...

Mike, I think you've nailed it there!

It's well known that of all the writers Russell employed, Moffat was the one whose scripts didn't get rewritten by the boss. But I suspect that what Russell did give Moffat was the discipline to write the whole story, beginning middle and end, and the focus to concentrate on just the story he's telling.

Once Moff takes charge he's got other responsibilities (not to mention "Sherlock") and starts "winging it".

Of course, it's also very much harder to write something a season long than just two episodes, but the problem, as you say, is that we expected him to be able to do it.

Andrew Hickey said...

Mike, I don't think anything in Colin's TV era would be to your taste -- there's a mean-spirited cynicism to a lot of the scripts that I think you'd probably react to in much the same way you did to that Richard Herring DVD I recommended, for much the same reasons. But if you haven't tried his audio stuff, I think you might *really* like Jubilee, which has much of what you like about Moffat, done better than he does even at his best.

Millennium Dome said...

Matt, dammit you've spotted another one I missed! "The Doctor's Wife" is probably my favourite Doc11 story too!

I'm rather fond of "The Girl Who Waited" as well, but I do know that for Alex it was - to put it mildly - a timey-wimey too far, and for that reason alone, I cannot call it a classic.

And I agree that it was time to have two companions after Russell had rung all the changes on the Doctor/girl dynamic. But Rory wasn't given proper co-equal treatment (too often the butt of Moffat's jokes, though Arthur Darvill made the long-suffering work), and as I say they needed to leave sooner. (Certainly hanging on after "The God Complex" was very overstaying their welcome.)

Andrew Hickey said...

Colin is *definitely* better in the audios than on TV -- and also, in the stories with Evelyn (who's the companion in Jubilee) he's mellowed and less pompous and aggressive -- personally I like those characteristics in Colin's Doctor, but they've not gone away altogether, just the sharp edges rounded off.

Jubilee is definitely the one for you, I think -- sharp satire, a real human story, good acting (Martin Jarvis and Rosalind Ayre), and a good alternate-timeline/paradox SF premise.

Another one you might like, by the same writer, is The Holy Terror, which is *very* like the dark fairytales Moffat does (and clearly inspired at least one idea in The Empty Child). That one's very, very Pratchett.

Mike Taylor said...

Thanks, I'll look them both out.

Would they be suitable for children? (Our youngest is ten.) If so, we'd enjoy listening to the on long car journeys.

Millennium Dome said...

Completely endorse what Andrew is saying about Colin on audio. If you ahven't heard any, do check them out, starting with "The Marian Conspiracy".

Big Finish have allowed him to do many of the things that he wanted to do on the TV but was thwarted by either JNT's light-entertainment style or Eric Saward's, er, misconception of the character.

I'd probably say that "Jubilee" and "The Holy Terror" are PG - there's implied torture in both, and a screaming Dalek. Well, you know what "Dalek" is like.

Andrew Hickey said...

They're both quite dark in places, and have quite a morbid sense of humour to them. Without knowing your kids I wouldn't know how well those two would go down -- I could see them really enjoying them, or being quite upset. They're definitely aimed at adults (Holy Terror more so than Jubilee).

If you're going to choose one to listen to with the kids, I'd suggest Davros by Lance Parkin. Not as good as the other two, but not as potentially disturbing either. But we're very off-topic now...

Millennium Dome said...

Also, there's a more recent series of adventures with Colin and India Fisher as Charley Pollard, a companion who has already been travelling with the Paul McGann Doctor.

It does timey-wimey better than Moffat.

There's also a charming trilogy with Frazer Hines as Jamie if you like "The Two Doctors" (which you don't); and audio adventures with Bonnie Langford that do almost as much to redeem the character of Mel as they've done for the sixth Doctor.

Mike Taylor said...

Many thanks for all recommendations. Regarding "suitable for children", I should have said that they are all big fans of the current TV series, and not too seriously creeped out by it. You seem to be saying that on that basis, all the audios that have been mentioned would be OK for them.

I do not want the Bonnie Langford character to be redeemed, thank you very much :-)

Alex Wilcock said...

Let me add my cry to all the agreement! I’ve also been won over by Matt, for me bobbing way up in my favourites but, as you correctly report me saying, just wishing he had a string of great stories to fulfil his potential. I keep really wanting to put on some DVDs in which to enjoy his performance, because I always do, but glance at each and think, ‘Hmm, don’t fancy that one much…’ Shame, as I can think of about a dozen stretches of, say, three-to-six stories in a row that are just sheer pleasure, even with Doctors I rate much less highly.

So I feel much like I did in early 1987 – I loved the Doctor and wanted more from him, but thought the series would be better off if other people had gone instead*.

I think you may be right about Victory of the Daleks being fandom’s former Mr Can Do No Wrong (my mileage may vary) – perhaps because fandom’s very shallow, or because the Daleks are very big. Heretically, I quite like some elements of Victory – not the big one, obviously – but a lot of it was fun, even the nicked bits, and it was a huge relief to me that the Daleks survived to battle another day. I’d loved an awful lot of Russell’s writing, but Dalek armies growing from nothing like watercress and then being absolutely wiped out, and again, and again, had got very tired. For me, I loved Matt in The Eleventh Hour (and, before then, actually from his big ‘It’s me!’ interview in Confidential), but even in that there were bits of the writing that made me recoil – notably Moffat’s attitude to sex, that cringing mixture of titillation and prescription like a slightly more right-on version of the Daily Mail.

It was The Beast Below that sank early for me, for many reasons, but mostly because it was just dull. It felt like some really, really flat fanwank that wanted to do both Russell and Bob and didn’t have any ideas in it and trowelled everything on (compare to the positions for their Doctors of The End of the World and The Ark In Space). And that’s what’s really shocked me about the last few years. Several of the stories in his reign have just bored the socks off me, usually ones that have seemed terribly up themselves with characters I don’t really care about just doing the same old schtick. And then paradoxically un-doing them. Mike’s “Happily, I was completely wrong on the latter. Sadly, I was mostly wrong on the former, too” feels so sad but true.

But back to Matt: he is indeed the definitive ‘old man in a young man’s body’, and fantastic from the start. I will miss him. But I really loved Colin in Spring 1987 and grew to love Sylv, too, so here’s hoping…

*Sorry, Andrew, but I’m rather with Richard on a lot of Colin’s TV stories, though I’d certainly rate Revelation as one of the series’ very best. I think Colin himself really flowers across Trial but the scripts meander, though I do have a real soft spot for The Mysterious Planet , that Varos starts and finishes weakly but is good when it’s got going, and that while The Two Doctors has a lot of problems for me I think Colin is utterly sublime in it and steals it from all the guest stars. And ‘me too’ on how utterly fantastic Jubilee is – still for my money the best thing out of Big Finish – though while I’d say Colin has a lot more great stories on audio, it’s still always a pleasure to see him even when he’s given rotten lines: his is a very inventively visual performance, and always terribly watchable. Excellent BF lists multiplying above, but I’ve already written too much, so I’ll shut up!

Andrew Hickey said...

Oh, I agree about Colin as visual performer -- something I pointed out in my Mindless Ones piece on Trial.

Mike, I'd advise listening to The Holy Terror before playing it for your kids -- that one might well be disturbing -- but any of the others mentioned should be OK.

Millennium Dome said...

I think I remember "The Beast Below" more fondly than you, mon Alex.

Looking back at the reviews, it seems I had more interesting things to say about it too. (While I'm trying painfully hard to be nice about "Victory").

With hindsight it's easy to see the flaws - all Moffat's usual tropes: the poetry, the presense of child actors, the muffed-up continuity references, the recycling of old ideas. But there's also a touch of sharp satire on politics the week before an election, and it at least captures the "dark fairystory" that Moffat was trying for, whihc at the time was novel.

It also, perhaps retrospectively (though Moff has been thinking this for some time), foreshadows "The Name of the Doctor": the Doctor threatening to lobotomise the whales says "I'll have to go and get a new name because I won't be the Doctor any more."

Mike Taylor said...

Indeed, I was astonished by the negativity here towards The Beast Below, which I loved, writing:

There was so much to like. Karen Gillan’s portrayal of Amy was again excellent, Matt Smith was a much better Doctor than previously, there were several laugh-out-loud funny moments, and lots of delicious little details, such as the use of London Underground-style lifts (elevators for you Americans). In fact, the episode was a visual feast, and I will certainly watch it again just to catch all the details of the sets. And again to catch all the dialogue.

But one thing I have learned about Who is that even among people who love the show, there is always an astonishing level of disagreement about individual episodes. In particular, Gavin at Lucid Frenzy seems to hate the ones I love and like the ones I don't, but I see the same thing with all the reviewers I respect.

encyclops said...

Wow -- I couldn't agree more with almost all of your post. Matt would be my favorite Doctor by a nose (okay, a chin) if he'd had the run of classics you rightly point out he didn't. And I too loved this half-season so much; I'd add "Hide" to the list of greats for sure. I agree with Alex's take on "The Eleventh Hour"; great in lots of ways, but "still cooking," with the Sherlocky bits, the prudish asides, and so on.

I think the only place I must categorically disagree is on the very subjective matter of Murray Gold's music. :) I don't like either of the Doctor themes you mentioned, felt that Gold finally got to a point where I could like his arrangement of the title them in season 7b, and generally would like his contribution to the series chopped at least in half. But that's me.

Overall, thanks for explicating so wonderfully the mixed feelings we share about this era. Once I feared a change of showrunner; now I'm looking forward to it, if only for a fresh start.

P.S. "The Two Doctors" is the only televised Colin Baker story I actually enjoy. "Revelation" is good but always leaves me feeling queasy.