New Series

Under The Lake: Romp


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

New Series

Caves and Twins: The God Complex (or Why Matt Smith Is Now My Favourite Doctor)

Apparently Being Human is the most amazing thing in the world ever, but I’ve never seen it so all I have to go on is School Reunion and Vampires of Venice when it comes to Toby Whithouse.

This, for me, is not an especially encouraging sign. The former is a fun runaround, the latter perhaps the most forgettable story in the NuWho run. So would The God Complex be Being Human or would it be his Doctor Who stuff (I’m taking it on trust Being Human is any good – it might be shit for all I know).


Good monster

Good premise

Good acting

Good epilogue

A couple of really nice directorial flourishes


The Complex of Fenric – The whole faith thing was a horrible fudge that just didn’t seem work for me – plus it was a rip-off of Fenric

The fan guy – Can’t remember his name. Is it just me or does Doctor Who tend to delight in lampooning geeks and losers of late? A bit rich, surely?

The first time I watched The God Complex I didn’t like it. I just didn’t think it went anywhere and thought the ending all to cock. For all it’s ‘terror in every room’ premise I didn’t think it was frightening; its set-up pastiched a number of sci-fi sources and while the back-story to what was going on was novel it felt like a weird swerve for the sake of it and didn’t come across properly.

On a second viewing I found more to like – the potential new companion character was good (can’t remember her name) and I like David Walliams’ character.

Matt Smith was excellent, as usual, and the scenes where he dropped Rory and Amy off and flew off, alone, in the TARDIS were very strong.

But I still can’t shake off the feeling that this series has never got out of the blocks. Splitting the series now feels like a mistake as it’s been hard for it to gain momentum and the River Song saga seems to have overwhelmed the season.

Like The God Complex, I’d be hard pushed to say what wasn’t/isn’t working here, but I’m sensing more and more that people are becoming a lot less bothered about Doctor Who. Friends of mine have stopped watching it; I’ve stopped discussing it; out of the Geek Clique (a shadowy cabal of a dozen or so fans I’m mates with) only one is really enjoying this series; ratings appear to be heading downwards; and, as we fans always knew they would, the knives are coming out for Who in the media.

What does this have to do with Matt Smith being my favourite Doctor? Not a lot to be honest, I’m just disappointed that at the point that we have a TARDIS crew, and particularly Doctor – actor and character – Doctor Who doesn’t seem to be working. Is it Moffat? Is he too busy? Is it lack of cash or time? Is it the much-discussed production problems?

This latter one, for me, is most worrying. Stuff leaks out. It did 30 years ago from JN-T’s production office and is especially does these days, when the higher echelons of Doctor Who are staffed by people who are fans and professionals. That’s a dangerous mix in the internet era and a lot of very sensitive stuff is doing the rounds of fandom chatrooms, emails and Facebook DMs.

Moffat pooh-poohs any suggestion that things aren’t hunky-dory but if a fraction of what is circulated is to be believed then the production office has been quite the war-zone over the last year. It’s impossible to believe that behind-the-scenes strife – and the likes of those rather odd public spats between Moff and BBC newsreaders and managers who seem keen to blurb out any old nonsense at the drop of a hat – can’t have some effect on the finished product.

For now I retain my faith in Moffat – and he has the best Doctor ever available to him and Amy and Rory are excellent, believable characters who are played well. Season Five was the best in the new series for my money. So I’m keeping things crossed for next year and a good run into 2013.

Doctor Who matters to me; it does for most of us. I find it impossible to walk away; to not tune in every week and not to be irked by tabloids having a pop at my – our – show. So I’ll keep watching and keep hoping. I hope Moffat and Smith keep the faith too, because next year needs to to be better than this year.