Probic Vent Ood For Thought

25Oct/152

The Girl Who Died / The Woman Who Lived

THE WOMAN WHO LIVED

Like it or not - I don't - Steven Moffat's Doctor Who is based on throwing enough at the viewers that they daren't leave the room nor switch over, lest they miss something surprising, revelatory or just sufficiently entertaining. Add in a lot of money and a production team that is well-oiled and has an understanding of what's required of them and you can't really go wrong as long as you observe that basic template.

Sonic sunglasses, messing with the theme tune, guest stars, returning characters and standing on a bloody tank playing an electric sodding guitar. The Doctor gurning, whirling around, shouting variations of "I. AM. THE. DOCTOR!" or pulling faces or doing something, well, a bit dickish. It's a template that has served the series very well but there have been indications this season that Doctor Who is moving away from it.

The best episode this series by a long way - Under The Lake - was noticeably empty of this tiresome artifice and, barring some familiar "Vikings! But also SPACE VIKINGS!" stuff in The Girl Who Died (see also: Robot Of Sherwood, Vampires of Venice, Curse of the Black Spot, The Pandorica Opens, The Shakespeare Code - all romps if every I saw one but a also genre coined amusingly by someone else as Doctor Who Laughs At History) was fairly straightforward too. It boasted a lot of mood, a fair amount of talking, a nice scene where Capaldi did his Timecard Victorious bit and a silly device - the Doctor can 'talk baby' - that wasn't simply mined for an idiotic pay-off but used to moving effect.

Even from The Witch's Familiar onwards, it's been possibly to detect a slight restyling towards a more thoughtful series. Slower, more considered, apparently attempting to wean itself off the watch-the-birdie style that has defined Moffat's much of tenure as show runner - the show is also 'darker', not obviously for an audience of young children in the way that episodes such as Aliens Of London or even more recent episodes such as the very enjoyable Mummy On The Orient Express - are. The timeslot is so late that my recorder asked me to input the code that means a show is considered post-watershed.

THE WOMAN WHO LIVED (By Cath Tregenna)

This is a good thing, in my view, simply because the show has to move on. When Doctor Who stays still for too long it suffers and Moffat seems be aware that, despite Capaldi's strong performance, The Twelfth Doctor has struggled to define himself in an idiom that still seems rooted in The Eleventh's.

But the show is only as good as its stories, and this week's was a stinker of historical proportions. Catherine Tregenna's debut for the series was oddly stilted, dull and had some decidedly wobbly production problems - Maisie William's wooden performance most obviously. Perhaps worst of all, though, it was tonally weird. The Woman Who Lived veered between rather childish and decidedly feeble humour (complete with two knob gags), a fire-breathing feline baddie, dead babies and the horrors of immortality.

So startling were the sudden switches in tone that Murray Gold's unsubtle and often unsuitable music signalled just how jarring the writing was by segueing jarringly from his trademark Harry Potter-lite repertoire to the sort of sledgehammer incidental intoning that signals A Serious Bit. It was awkward and confusing to watch and for the first time in a while the production seemed somewhat inept. Within minutes The Woman Who Lived jumped tracks from Wodehousian slapstick to the Wandering Jew via Mark Gatiss' Phantasmagoria and Thundercats. What was the audience supposed to make of it? What were Capaldi and Williams supposed to do with it?

In such a confusing piece of work, scenes such as the one where Rufus Hound's character - perhaps offering the episode's best moments - and The Doctor attempted to delay the former's hanging, by cracking deliberately weak gags, just collapsed into dust. We had comedy historical yokels who conversed in yoofspeak - nullifying the BBC's much-vaunted ability to accurately reproduce eras past - squeezed unceremoniously into Doctor Who's hyperreality.

What's more it felt old. That the Doctor wrecks people's lives is not news to us and has been explored many times before. We also get several explorations of immortality and long life throughout Doctor Who - so the talky scenes feel rather tired. Through Sarah and Rose, River Song and Amy we have explored this issue, again and again. Yet The Woman Who Lived offered it up as if Cath Tregenna had never seen Doctor Who before and was under the impression she was breaking new territory.

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No matter where the series goes these days, it never really feels as if it can escape its central tropes and themes. I've long since given up on Murray Gold ever leaving the show, but it will never feel tonally or texturally different until he goes. The same is true of Steven Moffat, but rumours suggest that there is no-one willing to step into his place. So the show chugs on, offering up diminishing returns - even with new writers attempting to explore what is clearly an effort to change the show. And even its fanbase seem wearily disappointed. Just look at the tweets below - the 'top tweets' on my stream about an hour after the episode started.

Doctor Who fans can't be bothered with the show any more - and more than can be written off as the usual suspects. Viewing figures have taken a knock, the episode has one of the lowest average scores on Gallifrey Base since it returned in 2005 and the immediate future of the show seems to be in doubt. At most other times in the last ten years this would worry me. Now I genuinely think it would be a good thing if the show underwent the sort of reboot it did in Season 4, 7, 18 and 25. A year off may be no bad thing.

Following a tired story that dealt with the ennui and issues long life being with it, it was hard not to dwell on the problems facing the 52-year-old programme.

4Oct/151

Under The Lake: Romp

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I hate the word romp. It's a shorthand for switching off your critical faculties, settling for the mediocre and acknowledging that the end result simply isn't very good. I'm all for changes in pace in Doctor Who - not everything has to be serious, frightening, mythical, revelatory and nor would I want it to be. But I don't think it's a good idea to essentially make episodes of Doctor Who that are, almost by definition, rubbish.

In the olden days 'romps' tended to be stories that just weren't very good. I sincerely doubt that anyone went into them with the express purpose of making a 'romp'. It just so happened that they weren't of a very high quality so, retrospectively, we excuse these stories as romps. "Oh, just a good old-fashioned Doctor Who romp," someone like Gary Russell or Tom Spilsbury will say of, for example, Time And The Rani. What they mean is that it's a load of old balls.

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What has changed, I think, is that Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat have approached the new series of Doctor Who with a view that, every now and then, they will actively commission a romp. And this, I think, is a mistake. Because 'romp' remains code for 'not very good'. That they veer towards meta-fiction due to the amount of self-reflexivity, in-jokes and general indulgence, amounts to barely more than a fig leaf.

The most egregious example of the self-aware, self-described romp in recent times is Robot Of Sherwood, only the second-ever Doctor Who story whose end remains a mystery to me. I simply went and did something else, unable to bear the colossal weight of archness thudding out of the television. Robot Of Sherwood was surely commissioned as a romp, written as a romp and executed as a romp. People are barely trying at any stage of the proceedings and it's only the typically glossy production values and some 'aren't-we-clever' dialogue that saves it from a reputation as bad as anything the classic series could throw at you.

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Even The Magician's Apprentice was unable to wrest itself out of the gravity of romp - the deleterious scene where the Doctor plays his own theme tune on an electric guitar for no meaningful reason is an example of the currency that the production staff seem to think the show must deal in. It exists only to be eye-catching, Vine-able and thoroughly pleased with itself. It reeks of romp. Moffat clearly believes that this is part of the fabric of the show these days. But it doesn't have to be like this.

Toby Whithouse's latest episode for the series was everything a romp should be. There is - so far - no narrative trickiness, no unreliable narrators, no postmodernist stylings, no mythicism (otherwise known as fanwank) and no scenes that exist just to give a platform to the Doctor to be boastful, idiotic or just downright twatty. It rattled along without sub-plots or series arc; it developed at a pace that, while fast, was not incoherent; it adopted the same tone throughout; it was funny rather than wacky; the Doctor was an alien, not a dickwad. It did not aspire to do anything more than tell a fairly straightforward story well. Put simply, it was a romp. And so much the better for it.

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Doctor Who has been tiring me for a while now. My patience with the series has stretched to the point where, on two occasions in the last two years, I simply turned off the television halfway through an episode. I no longer watch the stories as soon as I can - often waiting a few days before watching it on catch-up or iPlayer. And last night I found myself discussing this with a couple of other fans who are tired of the programme. Despite the brilliance of Peter Capaldi, the odd flourish when Steven Moffat really tries and the fact that this is, after all, a constant companion, we're all a little bored of Doctor Who. This brand of it anyway.

Moffat's take on the show - after the enjoyably straightforward and rather ingenuous Season 5 - has tied itself up in narrative knots, so much so that Moffat's production notes section in DWM has become a sort of addendum to his episodes where he explains - admittedly with amusing turns of phrase - what the heck is going on. It's aware of its own cleverness - just like the Doctor as written by both showrunners - and, as with a boastful colleagues or loudmouth braggarts, this becomes tiresome. And like anything that becomes too familiar, it breeds contempt.

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Davies and Moffat both demonstrated that they understood the show must evolve and change. In the worst moments of Season Eight - and the crashingly predictable Dalek two-parter of the last fortnight - the latter seems to have lost sight of that.

With a tight, pacy, funny and frightening episode Toby Whithouse has demonstrated how it can be done. The Doctor's cue cards made me laugh out loud. A back-on-song Capaldi - socially inept but odd, funny and basically nice - thrilled me with the possibilities of his Doctor, written here as well as he has been by anyone.

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And a scary, intriguing story harked back to Doctor Who's best traditions - with a cliffhanger to match anything in the series. With its Weyland-Yutani company man and game of monster-tag there was Whithouse falling back on a reliable old Doctor Who trope of wearing your influences on your sleeve. It felt traditional - both in terms of the story and how it used to brazenly rip off genre favourites to make something greater than the sum of its parts. That's how you do a romp.

Under The Lake also feels definitive in terms of where the current series - and Twelfth Doctor - can and should go. Cast against Steven Moffat's recent efforts it was a breath of fresh air. Could it be that, over the past three weeks, we've seen the torch passed on? Just as Steven Moffat rebooted the series by playing against Russell T Davies' weary interpretation - and in going back to a tight but simple storyline - Whithouse has demonstrated a template for how Doctor Who can thrive in a post-Moffat world.

Hush child stop addlepating me!

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