Steven Moffat Archive

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Fighting Words – Episode 9 – Doctor Who Cares Anymore?

So it’s come to this. People are falling over themselves to praise the current season of Doctor Who, and I’m left to wonder if I’m an idiot for not seeing what they see, or if I’m just dead inside. Though, I suppose those two things are not mutually exclusive.

It’s entirely possible that I’m dead inside and an idiot. Though, what little shred of self-esteem I’ve managed to hold on to over the years tells me that I’m probably not an idiot.

Nevertheless, here we are roughly half-way through a season that I would describe as the omnishambles, and I think it’s time to ask some serious questions about how we’re supposed to approach Mr. Moffat’s story telling from a critical point of view.

I mean it’s either that or we can piss and moan about how the show used to be better back when (insert appropriate Doctor Who epoch here).

Remember, you can subscribe to Fighting Words on iTunes and get a new episode downloaded to your iDevice each and every week.

Here’s the audio.

Music Credits

“Pump Sting” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)

Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0

http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/


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Doctor Who: Byronic Reconstruction and Dickish characters

I’ve read three words, over and over again, with respect to the current season of Doctor Who, “Deconstruction of heroism.” Granted, I skipped the Robin Hood episode – on the grounds that I didn’t like the Star Trek TNG Robin Hood episode, so why would I like this one? Never the less, I respectfully disagree with the notion that there’s any such deconstruction happening in the current season. All I’m seeing are some dubious people running around while tired ideas emerge from the Steven Moffat half-bakery.

Now if that’s what the audience wants out of Doctor Who, then fine, all the power to them. However, I fail to see why critics are offering up a sideways literary interpretation of the series instead of having the good sense to call out the show on its drivel.

Deconstructing the hero? Fah. The Doctor is the very definition of the Byronic hero. All of the Doctor’s 21st century incarnations are charming, enigmatic, sophisticated, cynical, jaded, passionate, intelligent, and ultimately convinced that their own personal philosophy should trump all other considerations. Capaldi’s Doctor is no exception to this. He’s not being written as a deconstruction of this archetype so much as he’s a celebration of it.

But that’s not what I want to focus on in this post. Instead, let’s talk about Clara, the biggest dick Doctor Who has ever seen. Why do I think Clara is a dick who needs to get hit by a bus at the earliest opportunity? Because of the way she treats Danny Pink.

Twice in the series – and both in episodes written by Moffat himself – I’ve witnessed Clara giving Danny the gears about being a soldier. Being the sort of person who thinks that most modern military ventures are oppressive follies, I wouldn’t mind if the series wanted to engage in a meaningful dialogue about Western imperialism. Since we’re working with a show about time travel, there’s a real opportunity to tell a story or two along those lines. For example, the Doctor could take Clara to Carthage right before Scipio and the Romans show up to burn the city to the ground. Of course, that’s not how Doctor Who rolls. This is a series that is only concerned with showing the audience the winning side of history. Okay, fine, most people don’t have a sense of history beyond the end of their nose, why should I expect more from Doctor Who than I do of anybody else? Be that as it may, it’s pretty clear that Steven Moffat is taking issue with soldiers in this season and he’s using Clara as the voice of his outrage.

Would that the execution matched the concept driving this inquisition. We’re introduced to Danny Pink as a person who suffers from his past. While he might not have full-on PTSD, he’s certainly haunted by his time as a soldier. Whatever his actions were, be they valiant or cowardly, they haunt him in a real way. Kudos to the Moffat and company for getting me to connect with a Doctor Who character without having to destroy the universe. At the same time, I guess we’re not supposed to care about him too much since Clara – who has less depth in two seasons than Danny has in two minutes – comes along and takes a massive steamer on Danny, reducing his personal trauma to one single, shitty line: “So you kill people then cry about it?”

You might not be able to hear it, but I’m giving Steven Moffat a sarcastic slow clap for one of the worst bits of dialogue I have ever heard.

I am the least patriotic person I know, but even I have enough basic humanity in me to know that you don’t presume to talk to a former soldier about killing. You certainly don’t imply that said soldier is a murderer for their actions. If this faux-pas proved a one-off I’d be inclined to let it go. Instead, Clara does it again in Listen, again accusing Danny of being some sort of baby-killing monster.

Granted, the dialogue is meant to convey that Clara doesn’t get it. However, Clara is just an avatar of whoever is writing her, in both cases Steven Moffat, and that tells me that perhaps he doesn’t get it. If he does, then he’s groping for a message like the Neolithic humans in 2001 fumbled for a bone to use as a club. The subsequent skull smash is Clara’s callous interactions with Danny reducing his emotional pain, and the pain of thousands of real people, to a snide one-liner. Yet, somehow, we’re still supposed to see Clara as the Doctor’s moral compass? No, I think not. The Doctor is better off measuring himself against a Dalek.

Thus do we return to the title of this piece. Whatever deconstruction may be happening – and I think there is very little – is taking a back seat to framing Clara as an utterly intolerable person while also reinforcing the Doctor’s role as the classic Byronic hero.  So remind me again, why am I to care about a show featuring horrible people amid plots  that are best summarized as ‘people running about as bait-and-switch things happen’?

I await your trolling.


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TV Review: The Day of the Doctor

Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary has come and gone. In its wake, Steven Moffat has left the series with the biggest game changer it has seen since its return to air in 2005. Though I am loathed to open up a discussion on if it’s the best episode ever, I will say that it’s easy to make a case for Day of the Doctor as Moffat’s best episode. While there are a number of things this story does well to get there, there is one thing that enables everything else: Moffat comes to terms with Russell T. Davies’ contribution to the series.

Moffat’s stewardship over Doctor Who, especially during his first year as show runner, reflects a pattern of putting RTD’s influences in a box and, like an Argosian king, tossing that box into the sea. At one point, Matt Smith’s Doctor wrote off the entirety of Time War as a bad day. It seemed like only Neil Gaiman’s The Doctors Wife celebrated Doctor Who as science fiction and not a “dark fairy tale,” where paradoxes, unexplained plot holes, and hand waving are the word of the day. Sufficed to say, The Day of the Doctor opening on the final day of the Time War and the wholesale destruction wrought upon Gallifrey during the Dalek siege constituted a significant change in tone. It wasn’t only a narrative shift, but an aural return to the dread inducing quality of Murray Gold’s RTD era Who soundtrack, particularly The Dark and Endless Dalek Night. In a single act the episode embraces the long arc of the Doctor that Moffat largely ignored since David Tennant’s departure from the series. Does it work? Hell yes. Was it missing Christopher Eccleston? Without a doubt.

The episode frames the triad of Doctors as War Doctor (John Hurt), the Doctor who regrets (David Tennant), and the Doctor who forgets (Matt Smith). Make no mistake, the approach works well. Yet, Eccleston’s refusal to come back to the series for Day of the Doctor precludes doing anything substantial with what I’m calling, the Doctor who hurts. Granted, Moffat and company can hardly be blamed for this reality. Still it is hard not imagine how the mixture of wry exasperation and exhaustion seen in John Hurt’s Doctor could have mixed with the open wounds of Eccleston’s Doctor. Just imagine War Doctor viewing his future self as the last Timelord meeting the last Dalek in all creation. Counting the children on Gallifrey certainly defined the stakes of using the Moment, but even a flashback to the scene of Eccleston and the last Dalek would have made the decision all the more personal for  Hurt – possibly giving him a bit more agency in the decision not to use the Moment rather than having Smith suddenly decide to change the past.

Except Smith didn’t change the past, and that’s probably why this episode works as well as it does. While I’ll gladly write off most of what Moffat does with Doctor Who’s mythos as uninspired and boring, the man knows how to have fun with asynchronous story telling. Make no mistake, a genuine sense of fun, rather than the forced fun of something like Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, is what separates this episode from some of Moffat’s other works.In fact, The Day of the Doctor’s best time travel moment is a sonic screwdriver gag that almost feels like it would have been at home in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

This brings us to Smith, Tennant, and Hurt coming full circle on the Doctor’s decision, or lack thereof, to use the Moment. The revision is clever in so much that it isn’t a revision. Rather, the peaceful solution to the Time War is a variation of what Moffat did with The Name of the Doctor. Therein, the audience assumed a literal meaning to the episode’s title, and Moffat had fun with alternate meanings to words. The results were divisive to say the least. This time, he came at the audience’s presumptions about established canon and offered a little timey-wimey sleight of hand. Despite the fact that I hate narrative gimmicks, I’m not going to complain about this one. Simply because Gallifrey hidden away rather than destroyed is exactly what the series needs.

The last three seasons of Doctor Who were, at least in my view, a failed experiment in long-form story telling. We knew there was something big and bad out there, but didn’t get a great sense of who it was, what it wanted, or how the Doctor was involved in any consistent way. How can the hero have a journey if the audience is unclear on the quest? I don’t think he can. Which is why Doctor Who staggered from one episode to the next with all the consistency and focus of Robin Williams’ stand up routine before he got on the wagon.

Ending The Day of the Doctor with Smith’s monologue about going home gives the Doctor a Silver Surfer like quality. Rather than being a god-like figure who needs clever earth girls to direct him on a quest to nowhere – and serve as a moral compass – the Doctor now posesses an internal purpose, four lifetimes in the making, independent of whoever is in the TARDIS. More importantly, it grounds Moffat into a certain trajectory with his long-form story telling. I expect Moffat will approach the Doctor finding Gallifrey with his usual bag tricks, but there’s no escaping the gauntlet he’s thrown at his own feet in terms of an objective.

For all these positive points, it’s equally hard to overlook the fact that The Day of the Doctor did a shoddy job in wrapping up the obvious subplot about a Zygon invasion of Earth. The episode cuts away from double blind negotiations between U.N.I.T. and the Zygon commander, leaving the audience to assume that everything gets worked out for the best. Or perhaps the negotiations break down into a Torchwood-esque blood bath, and as per Gwen Cooper’s Children of Earth sentiments the Doctor couldn’t stand to look at humanity. Either way, I’m calling that one a party foul.

Yes, I just invoked Torchwood, and I don’t apologize for it.

That aside, there’s really not a lot to complain about within this episode, even for an implacable nerd like myself. It brought together the best of RTD’s dark and grown-up Doctor Who with Moffat’s ability to have fun and do clever things with time travel. The temporal paradoxes were kept to a minimum, save for the fact that I don’t see how all of the previous incarnations of the Doctor – and Peter Capaldi – could have arrived at the Time War. I suppose the Moment had something to do with that. Tom Baker showing up in the penultimate scene nicely bridged classic and nu-Who to the extent that I suspect that Elisabeth Sladen – were she alive – and not Billie Piper, would have been tapped as the Moment’s interface. It would have offered a nice symmetry as Four and Sarah Jane were on scene for the start of the Time War – I think – in Genesis of the Daleks and now we see him once more at its true end.

All in all, The Day of the Doctor is an episode befitting the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who.

Stray thoughts

- Conceivably the Doctor used the Moment to time lock the events of the war without burning the universe. Does that mean all the worlds in the Time War, like Skaro, are hidden as well?

- Considering the above, could the Master and Rasillon are still alive on Gallifrey?


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TV Review: Doctor Who – Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS

On a very fundamental level, I am not predisposed to enjoy an episode like Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. Try as I might, I don’t see the narrative value in story telling that pushes a reset button at the start of the fifth act only to spend its remaining few minutes doing jazz hands in anticipation of laurels. Even if the reset is planned from the first act, as it likely was in this episode, the need to invoke a modified “it was all a dream” trope shows me that the conflict at the core of the story was simply too impossible to manage. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First we have to identify the actual conflict in this episode.

Part of the reason why I think this episode felt so haphazard has to do with the multiple conflicts in play, none of which managed to stand out as the thing which binds the rest together. The episode just moves from one thing to the next, seemingly absent a meaningful endgame.

Journey could have very easily been a “Humans are their own worst enemies” episode. The Venture Van Halen Van Baalen Brothers posses the greed, avarice, and short-sightedness which Doctor Who so often uses to juxtapose the inherent weakness of humanity against the seeming infallibility of the Doctor. The fact that the VB Bros. end up in the TARDIS opens the door to another potential conflict: The Doctor is destructively obsessive.

Consider for a moment that the toxic fumes and insta-death fuel leak within the TARDIS get cleaned up in a matter of seconds. The Doctor didn’t really need the Van Baalen brothers to find Clara. Yet, Eleven threatens to blow them up if they don’t help him. Why does he do this? Does he want to protect Clara, or is he just interested in solving the puzzle of her true nature? Interesting as this question is, it becomes a moot point with the reset button business. The dickish Doctor who all but killed killed two of the Van Baalen brothers becomes a hiccup of timey-wimey story telling.

What about the TARDIS then? We’re meant to believe that the TARDIS doesn’t “like” Clara, albeit through some very clumsy exposition.

 

When the TARDIS failed to let Clara in during the Rings of Akhaten, I didn’t see malevolence; I saw the Doctor not giving Clara a TARDIS key. But suppose we work with the malevolent TARDIS theory for now, except then we’d have to ignore the fact that the artificial labyrinth the TARDIS created within the episode was meant to protect Clara. Even the Doctor says that the out of sync console room is the safest place on the ship, and that’s exactly where the TARDIS led a woman she purportedly dislikes. So much for that conflict. Meanwhile, the TARDIS is snarling at the Van Baalen brothers, crying out to the fake-android-cyborg brother, and Matt Smith is walking around with his, “Oh shit” face on the whole time. So perhaps the conflict is going to be about the TARDIS turned Mr. House on the invading salvage team? Well only for about five minutes because then the XCOM Alien Abduction sound effect (if you’re going to borrow sound effects, don’t borrow from 2012′s Game of the Year) is going to play in place of the standard cloister bell to signal that the TARDIS is going to die.

Great! The now there is a conflict we can all get behind. The last vestige of Gallifrey, a machine that was old when the Doctor stole it 900 years ago, is coming apart at the seams. For an instant I dared to hope that the death of the TARDIS might extend to the 50th anniversary story. If we take Gaiman’s The Doctor’s Wife as canon, then the TARDIS is more than just a time machine; it is the infinite union of time and space. Something going wrong there could certainly hand wave Tennant and Smith together. Moreover, the audience has a huge emotional attachment to the TARDIS and its death could raise the stakes without putting a gun to the head of the universe. But instead of killing the TARDIS, Stephen Thompson – who is also credited with writing the atrocious Curse of the Black Spot – kills the TARDIS to let Smith and Coleman walk through the time frozen shrapnel of its exploded core.

Is it a cool visual effect? Absolutely? But is it great story telling? Not if the only way out is to call a mulligan on everything that happened in the story and cancel out any potential growth in the main characters or meta-story.

While I’ll offer no quarter to this story as a narrative nightmare, it does shine as an interesting archeological dig into Doctor Who’s internal mythos. The episode very much delivers on its promise to be a journey to the centre of the TARDIS. Along the way we see the much talked about swimming pool and a library which oozes, literally, Time Lord history. There are vanishing walls and West Wing style camera shots of people walking around infinite hallways.

The problem with archeology is that it can often be difficult to craft a narrative around a collection of artefacts. Doing so requires external sources, background research, and inferences which allow for some benefit of doubt. It is on that last point, Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS falls to pieces. I’m not inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to an episode which invokes a reset button to solve the story’s problems. Either by accident or design, such a resolution is lazy. Fun as the tidbits of Doctor who history are, up to and including the ghost voice of Chris Eccleston, they don’t end up contributing to the story as anything other than fan service. As a critic I don’t see why I should forge what remains into something cohesive; such is the task of the writer, not the audience.

Bottom line: It’s a pretty episode, it’s a fun episode, it’s even a nice nod to the series’ long running history, but at best it’s a narrative hot mess and at worst it’s self-congratulatory navel gazing.


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TV Review: Doctor Who – The Bells of St. John

For want of a new episode of Spartacus this week, I thought it only fitting to put together a few words on the return of Doctor Who. As is ever the case with Doctor Who’s revival, I expect The Bells of St. John rung true for as many viewers as they sounded discordant. For me, the episode was a beacon of hope amid a seventh season mired in the heavy handed pathos associated with the departure of Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) as the Doctor’s companions.

In broad strokes, I saw The Bells of St. John as a much improved version of the 2006 episode, The Idiot’s Lantern. In the aforementioned Mark Gatiss episode, a one-off alien calling herself “The Wire” – she looks nothing like Omar – uses television to suck the souls of people in 1950s London. “The Wire’s” endgame is to employ cheap televisions and the pending broadcast of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation as a way of eating all of England’s essence. So, television makes zombies out of people, how timely.

The Bells of St. John, written by Steven Moffat, works along similar lines as The Idiot’s Lantern while adding a few more culturally resonant layers to the story. It begins with an almost Torchwood-esque warning from a stranger about something living in the world’s wireless networks. In the pre-credit scene we witness people connecting to wireless networks with seemingly alien identifiers. When a person signs on to one of these mystery networks they become a target for surveillance and a potential consciousness download into a human data cloud. The Doctor stumbles upon this mystery when Clara (Jenna Lousie Coleman) calls the TARDIS’ public call phone, thinking she has reached tech support – hence the Bells of St. John.

Wocka wocka.

Prediction: River Song gave Clara the Doctor’s phone number. Apply handwavium as necessary for effective suspension of disbelief.

Despite the convenience of the Doctor’s reunion with the third iteration of Clara “Oswald for the win” Oswald, this is a reasonably clever episode.

Buried beneath the idea of brain hacking people through wireless networks is a poignant discussion on privacy in the digital age. Though one mis-click puts us in no immediate danger of getting our brains downloaded like so many cheap Cylons, the idea of free wireless networks acting as malicious entry points into a person’s computer is quite conceivable. This potential breach in a seemingly safe digital space becomes a conceptual seed from which the episode’s broad fiction grows. Such an approach gives the mid-season premiere a measure of speculative fiction legitimacy. Yes, there’s a bit of jargon and obligatory sonic screwdriviering, but standing just to the left and right therein is a decent bit of storytelling. Maybe it’s not the best spec-fic in the world, but it’s certainly a demarcation from the science = magic = hand waving = ‘shut up and accept it’ methodology I’ve come to expect from recent Who entries.

Further, I continue to be impressed with Clara as the Doctor’s sidekick. One of my wish-list characteristics for post-Pond companions is a broadening of the “Ubiquitous Earth Girl” template. Classic Doctor Who offers no shortage of extraterrestrials joining the Doctor in his adventures; whereas the revived series has always played it safe in terms of using the companions as contemporary gateways into an alien universe. Even though Clara mk. 3 is of modern London, her past iterations have been a Victorian nanny and an assimilated Dalek. She’s still somewhat an UEG, but I’m willing to let it slide in this case if only because she is more than a dough eyed girl who falls in love with/runs away with the Doctor.

It’s also worth mentioning that Clara is the first companion in recent history that has done anything better than the Doctor on the first try. Even though her hacking skills are the product of a partial upload into the human consciousness cloud, she still manages to outdo the Doctor. It will be interesting to see if this singular talent branches further into the writing.

My concern emerging out of this episode is the reveal of the “client” behind the human aggregation firm as the Great Intelligence. Though I enjoy the call backs to classic Who, I’m somewhat worried about how this portents the broader trajectory of the season. Moffat’s long-game writing has burned us in the past with telegraphed endings and ultimately pointless gimmicks half-resolved through the magic of Deus ex Machina. I’m a little too suspicious to write off witnessing the Great Intelligence in both the Christmas Special and the mid-season premiere as random chance.

Theory: The Great Intelligence has been manipulating Eleven since his regeneration. The cracks in the universe, the Silence, the alternate Doctor of Amy’s Choice, and everything else has been calculated to make the Doctor ask the ultimate question on the Fields of Trenzalore as a means of turning all life in the universe into pure thought, upon which the Great Intelligence will assimilate us into some massive gestalt…or something.

This may not be a bad way to go. Life, the very thing the Doctor holds most precious, could become his ultimate undoing.

My verdict: In a season which has been hit-and-miss, at best, The Bells of St. John is equally satisfying as a piece of short and long-term story telling. The allegory resonates within a culture that is both obsessed with its own digital privacy and concerned, at least on the fringes of tech culture, with the physical implications of wi-fi on the health of humanity. Freed of the Ponds and their perpetual drama/bungling as plot devices, I have hope that Steven Moffat is going to do something extra special with the remainder of this season.


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Television Review: Asylum of the Daleks

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the last seven years of Doctor Who, the first two seasons of Torchwood, as well as one big spoiler for anybody who hasn’t seen the second series of Sherlock. It’s also long, really long. About triple the length of one of my average posts. You’ve been warned.

First off, it’s good. It’s not great, it’s far from perfect, but compared to Victory of the Daleks, Asylum is a fine story so long as you don’t pay too much attention to the Ponds’ emotional drama and Amy’s subsequent descent into Dalek induced madness. There are also Dalek zombies, and I’m still not quite sure how I feel about them.

Now for the details.

The Problem with Dalek stories

One of the key problems in telling a good Dalek story is that the stakes often become a little too high. Any good Whovian knows that even a handful of Daleks could conquer an entire planet. A Dalek warship, stuffed to the gunwales with ten thousand hate filled Daleks, is a threat to an entire galaxy. Ten thousand ships filled with as many Daleks is enough to jeopardize all of creation. And even when the Daleks get cast into (insert hand wavey, timey wimey, spacey wasey McGuffin of choice) one Dalek always manages to survive to start things all over again; it is the Dalek circle of life. So when Mark Gatiss let one Dalek survive in Victory of the Daleks, which then went on to resurrected a team of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers Daleks, who then escaped the Doctor, I was sceptical. Not wary so much of Gatiss and Moffat per se, but because of the legacy of the latter’s predecessor.

When Russell T. Davies was showrunner he had a tendency to try and increase the stakes with each season. Steven Moffat did the same thing at the end of series five, though not with half the emotional intensity and panache of RTD; reboot the universe, my ass. If ever there was a “Holy shit I’ve written myself into a corner, and I have no exit strategy” moment, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang was it.

Prior to screening Asylum, my fear was that a reborn Dalek race under Moffat, whose track record as a writer is much stronger on Sherlock than it is on Doctor Who, would yield absurdly high stakes story telling requiring complex and ultimately unsatisfying gimmickry as a means of solving narrative problems. To put it another way, the last time we had a non-God Emperor of Dune style (transitional story telling soft on plot heavy on exposition) Dalek episode, the Daleks nearly undid all creation. If Moffat played along similar lines he’d have to reboot the universe, again.

For now, this fear has proven unfounded. However, I reserve the right to bring the issue up again if, as I suspect, the Daleks emerge at the end of the season to threaten all life everywhere with some nefarious plot. So while Asylum has its faults, it does offer a third way when it comes to telling Dalek stories without going whole hog on the “universe hangs in the balance” narratives.

How Moffat fixed the Daleks

Rather than focusing on the cosmic consequences of a fully realized Dalek race, complete with a new Emperor (cool), a functioning parliament (wait, what?) and borg-like assimilation technology (I could call derivative bullshit here, but I guess eye-stalks out the forehead are better than pig slaves), Asylum gives the doctor a task. Much like when the Time Lords sent the fourth Doctor to paradox the Daleks out of existence by messing with their Kaled progenitors, the Daleks teleport Eleven to a colony where they house the insane of their kind. What begins as the Daleks pitting their greatest foe (who is now called The Predator in lieu of The Oncoming Storm) against the worst of their own quickly turns into a damsel in distress story.

 

The key to the narrative, aside from not asking questions about how Daleks reproduce in such great numbers (the answer of course can be found in the most kinky Hentai ever made), build ships, and other such plot holes, is similar to the Wellesian silver bullet found in the series one episode, Dalek. Namely, the quality of being human is what defeats the Daleks. Asylum asks and answers what it means to be, Human, Time Lord, and even Dalek. Though now squid like in natural appearance, the Daleks were once a humanoid species, indistinguishable (largely for budget reasons) from humanity. Thus the Daleks have human emotions and motivations.

Generally, Dalek psychology is driven by two things: belief in the Dalek race as superior to all others and an unabashed hatred for anything that isn’t Dalek. Clearly though, the Daleks are softening on the definition of what it is to be a Dalek. Why else would an automated Dalek sanatorium give Oswin a full Dalek conversion? After all, these are not cybermen seeking to upgrade the cosmos. As evidenced in Dalek, Evolution of the Daleks, and even Victory of the Daleks, to be less than 100% Dalek is to be worthy of extermination. But its best not to dwell too much on that point or else things start to fall apart.

 

Though Dalek in body Oswin manages to hold on to her humanity, as witnessed in her letters to mom and penchant for baking. Thus she is able to turn the Daleks against themselves.

The Doctor-Dalek paradigm

What of the Doctor, though? When the Dalek parliament sends Rory, Amy, and the Doctor to the Dalek asylum, they give the intrepid trio wrist bands to prevent their assimilation into, foreshadowing alert, Dalek drones. Naturally, Amy loses her thing that keeps the Screamers away anti-Dalekification device during an attack from zombie Dalek drones. I hope whoever came up with that idea in the writer’s room took a victory lap or two.

Shortly after their Romero-esque escape, the Doctor rescues Amy from a descent into conversion induced madness. Knowing its only a matter of time before Amy is fully converted, the Doctor tells Amy to hold on to her fear and her love, human qualities that the Dalek nano-probes will try to purge from her mind before converting her body. Rory, suspecting he loves his wife more than she loves him, offers to give Amy his wrist band, assuming he can retain his humanity longer than she can. Only after the Ponds share a moment of maudlin heart break followed by honesty, wherein we learn that Amy is barren and Rory wants more children, do we find out the Doctor snuck his wrist band on to Amy. So why didn’t the Doctor transform?

Because in some ways the Doctor is already a Dalek. As my friend J.M. Frey so often says, the Doctor is not a hero in the traditional sense; he is Chiron, the trainer of heroes. While the classical allusion certainly holds, we must not forget that the Doctor is also The Oncoming Storm. In that, he is Shiva, the destroyer and transformer. We know from The End of Time, that when the Doctor used “the moment” – the ultimate weapon of mass destruction – he affected not only the Daleks and Time Lords, but a myriad of other races as well. Yet these races were not simply killed, but condemned to eternally repeat the nightmarish hellscape of events that constituted the Time War in a “Time Locked” portion of space-time. Since then, Nine, Ten and Eleven have all demonstrated the capacity to be driven by hate, the Dalek hallmark.

In the year 200,100, Nine was so raw with hatred that he was willing to use another weapon of mass destruction and accept the Earth as collateral damage when the Daleks invaded Satellite Five. Turn Left shows us an alternate reality of Ten whose hate would have led to his death during the Racnoss invasion. Eleven is less so motivated by raw hate but similarly Dalek in his own way. Where Nine and Ten had passion, Eleven is colder and more calculating than the other two. He lies, deceives, and manipulates his best friends to suit his own ends. The Cult of Skaro, the Daleks made to think like their enemies, mirror Eleven despite being introduced at the end of series two. But no matter the incarnation the Daleks can always see themselves in the Doctor. The mad Dalek Emperor, Dalek Sec, Davros, they all knew the post Time War Doctor’s capacity for hate and capriciousness because it was reflected in themselves.

Thus do we return to humanity. Because this Dalek side to the Doctor, also known as “the Time Lord victorious”, isn’t what saves the day in Asylum of the Daleks. It is Oswin’s refusal to be Dalek, her ability to be better than the Doctor. Barricaded in the sanctuary of her mind, she records letters to her mother, bakes failed soufflés, and escapes into the refuge of classical music to drown out the Dalek part of her brain that screams, “Let us in”. What is her reward for this fortitude? Oswin becomes another person willing to go to their death in order to save the Doctor. It is in Oswin’s “death” that Asylum shows the Doctor’s true power: not his TARDIS, nor Time Lord physiology, but his ability inspire/manipulate others into self-sacrifice. How many people have died to give the Doctor his nine hundred and some years? Just like the Daleks, others die and he keeps living. One Time Lord survives. Now, as a warped parting gift, Oswin has made it so the Doctor’s worst foes no longer recognize him.

Stop and consider this for a moment. The Daleks are now beholden to nobody. They do not fear The Oncoming Storm. What horrors could a restored Dalek empire perpetrate without having to factor for a blue box? Moreover, the Doctor may have been all laughs and smiles as he made his escape from the Dalek Parliment, but now he is alone in a way that the series has never before presented. He is anonymous. The lonely god who goes to museums to keep score is a stranger to the species that forced him to condemn every other Time Lord and countless others to an eternity of hell within the Time War. Nine once asked the broken Dalek of Dalek “What is the point of you?” Now we can ask what is the point of the Doctor if his foes don’t know to fear him. Is he still a god? Or is humanity more than just a one off for this episode?

 

Motherhood and tantrums

One of last seasons’ recurring themes connected to the strength of motherhood. Nowhere was this idea more overwrought and tired than in 2011’s Christmas special The Doctor, The Widow, and The Wardrobe. I’ll gladly accept any allegations of cynicism that people would care to toss my way, but the idea that a mother’s love can guide something through the time vortex, while successfully re-writing her own history, was just too damn much for me. Asylum walks a very narrow tightrope in its themes of motherhood. On the one hand, part of Oswin’s effort to maintain her humanity comes through letters to her mother. In so much as I’m willing to suspend my disbelief to assume the Daleks would bother assimilating a human (EXTERMINATE, EXTERMINATE, EXTERMINATE) I’m fine with this mother motif in play. Where things get a little too hammy is with the Ponds and their reproductive challenges. Silence induced sterility? Really? Of all the things that could have happened between part four and five of Pond Life that’s where Moffat went? Never mind the fact that the Ponds already have a daughter. Apparently Rory wanted another child so badly he prompted Amy to do the hardest thing in her life and “give Rory up.” When did the Ponds turn into Gwen and Rhys? No, cancel that. Rhys and Gwen had real people problems. Granted the girl who waited and the lonely centurion have always had a tumultuous relationship, but setting a very good Dalek story against the schmaltz of two characters whose days are numbered on the series seemed a waste of effort.

Another matter of motherly outrage connects to spoilers. Last year Steven Moffat put himself on the pop culture radar for a few choice rants directed against people who perpetrate spoilers. He called those who engage in such activities vandals, and in concept I agree with him. Going out of your way to ruin something for somebody is rather classless act. Yet Moffat himself is near unto a spoiler in his Doctor Who writing. Case in point, by the time we got to Let’s Kill Hitler in series six, it was painfully obvious how the long arc would resolve itself. Just like the anti-Dalek bracelets, a writer does not introduce a piece of technology if they don’t plan on using it for something later.

This season’s big to do came in the form of announcing Jenna Louise Coleman as the new mid-season companion, only to bring her into the first episode. To some it might seem anti-climatic. To my eyes, it appears that Mr. Moffat has Reichenbach’d himself in the most low stakes away imaginable. We know Oswin didn’t really sacrifice herself to save the Doctor and the Ponds, just as we know that Sherlock isn’t really dead. Now the only thing the audience has to look forward to figuring out the type of trickery Moffat and company will invoke to bring Oswin into the TARDIS in a plausible way i.e. she was controlling that Dalek shell from another location, or the Daleks made a clone of her per Dalek operating order 5532-13-A. I know, it’s not a spoiler when it comes from within the series itself. But when it comes to Doctor Who, Steven Moffat doesn’t exactly play his cards close to his chest – certainly not in the same way that he does with Sherlock. Nor is Moffat bound by the rules of reality in Doctor Who as he is in Sherlock. While figuring out how Sherlock survived the fall constitutes detective work on the part of the audience and the writer, rationalizing Oswin’s return is nothing more than a study in candy coated bullshit.

Then again, we must not forget rule #1 – The Doctor Lies (and by extension so does Steven Moffat).

It would be a shakeup of RTD proportions if Oswin actually stayed dead and Coleman’s role in the show was just a one off akin to Kylie Minogue’s in Voyage of the Damned. If so, Steven Moffat will have perpetrated the biggest sleight of hand casting maneuver in the history of Doctor Who, if not television itself. The man would go down in entertainment history with the likes of Orson Welles for making dupes of Whovians around the world. Alas, such a maneuver is probably not meant to be, so I shall say no more on this particular long shot bet.

While we’re talking about the new girl

Considering that Jenna Louise Coleman is, almost certainly, going to be joining the Doctor for the second half of this series, I think it fair to devote a few words to initial impressions of her character. The short version is that Oswin seems just a little too awesome.

By virtue of her Dalek conversion, Oswin is capable of doing things that the Doctor can not. Beyond a raw talent for clever computer hacking, she has the constitution to maintain her humanity despite Dalek conversion. Not to mix genres but even Captain Picard could not resist assimilation by the Borg. Who is this Oswin girl that she can stare down the enemy that brings the best of Doctor Who to despair?

 

Oswin also finds the time to have a flirt with Rory and the Doctor. Through a quick narrative info dump she manages to frame herself as a character with the sexual forthrightness and flexibility of Captain Jack Harkness. Nor should we forget that she demonstrates courage and self-sacrifice in the finest tradition of the heroic epic.

Don’t mistake my observations for criticisms; none of the things that make up Oswin’s character are ill traits. But where’s the catch? Also, didn’t we already a have an equally impossibly awesome character in the form of River Song? Hell, Barney Stinson of How I Met Your Mother is a better rounded character than what we know of River and what we’ve seen of Oswin.

Even within canon other characters demonstrate their obvious flaws. The Doctor is perpetually guilty, angry, and forever trying to find absolution for his past. Amy has her short temper. Rory is the little man called to do great things. The Master is vainglorious. Donna is Icarus; she flew higher than any human ever could, but in becoming the Doctor-Donna lost it all. Martha was a tedious fan girl. Rose was naive. Jack, well I’d need another three thousand words to properly inventory and categorize all of Captain Jack Harkness’ issues. I could start with his adopting a dead lover’s name and persona before another ex-lover buried him alive for a couple of millennia wherein he was constantly dying and resurrecting. How about this: Jack has problems connecting with people.

Yes, Oswin will have half a season to develop as a character. And I’ll also concede it’s not fair to the writers to judge a character based on first impressions alone. However I will be watching very closely to see if Oswin becomes anything other than a younger version of River Song.

The Bottom Line

Ultimately, Asylum of the Daleks, is a great episode as long as a viewer is willing to accede to the notion that the Doctor was so preoccupied with the Silence that he let the mortal enemies of all life everywhere develop to the point where they would move from the Dalek Emperor’s absolute monarchy into a what appears to be a constitutional monarchy with a bicameral legislature. Square yourself with that bit of cognitive dissonance and the rest of the story, even with the Pond drama, unfolds as a very strong Dalek adventure. Further kudos to Steven Moffat for writing an episode that actually lets a critical viewer make some connections to the Dalek stories of the previous showrunner, even if indirectly. So much of Moffat’s writing has been working within a Fawlty Towers framework where he is almost pathological in not mentioning the war anything Russell T. Davies worked with.

Now we just need to get rid of the Ponds, who by all rights should have been written out during the Christmas special.


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Podcast #16: Doctor Who chat with J.M. Frey

Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe and JM Frey.

Topics under discussion include, Doctor Who season six – because really, am I going to have her on to talk Star Trek – my thoughts on JM’s novel Triptych, non-linear storytelling in Doctor Who and a look at what happens when characters reach their expiration date before the actors do.

For news on her novels and upcoming appearances, make sure to visit http://jmfrey.net/

Opening Thoughts:  0 – 1:45

On The Doctor as a character: 1:45 – 9:05

Non-linear story telling and how to introduce a newbie to Doctor Who: 9:05 – 15:45

I go grad school on Triptych: 15:45 – 18:45

The Doctor, Rory, and Amy: is it a parting of the ways or a break-up? 18:45 – 34:25

Amy and Rory: are they past expiration? 34:25 – 42:25

Time for some Timelords? 42:25 – 54:25

Wrap up: 54:25 – 57:05

Right click “download” and “save link as” to download the ‘cast


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Podcast #9 Doctor Who ‘Cast Round 2

Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe and J.M. Frey.

Topics under discussion include: Big themes from the first half of the season, Russell T. Davies vs Steven Moffat as show runner, the mythology of the Doctor, the many faces of Rory, LGBT themes in Doctor Who, historical appropriation in Doctor Who and the return of Torchwood.

We also managed to connect Doctor Who to Jane Austen and Space Battleship Yamato.

NB: It was Dr. Hiromi Mizuno at the University of Minnesota whose name I could not remember during the discussion on themes of gender identity and national ethos in Space Battleship Yamato.

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Shaftoe’s Rants: Down with Time Lords?

The Short Version: I don’t think Doctor Who show runner Steven Moffat likes Time Lords.

The Long Version: Series writer and show runner Steven Moffat recently told the BBC that Doctor Who’s most iconic villains, the Daleks, won’t be making a screen appearance any time soon.

““We thought it was about time to give them a rest.”

Moffat does raise a bit of a valid point.  The cybernetic children of the planet Skaro are the most regularly defeated enemy in the Doctor Who universe.  However, to this Whovian, there seems to be a larger issue at hand.  In short, I don’t think that Mr. Moffat particularly cares for Time Lords or Time Lord mythology.

I know, it’s an odd accusation to make of a Doctor Who show runner but hear me out.

Since Moffat took over he’s seemingly done everything he can to distance The Doctor from his Time Lord roots.  Consider Moffat’s first episode with Matt Smith as The Doctor.  In The Eleventh Hour, The Doctor wrote off the Time War, the death of his species and the deaths of countless others as “a bad day”.  From that episode onward everything remotely complex gets written off as wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey or spacey-wasey.  Setting aside the fact that this is an oh-so-convenient way to toss causality out the window, it also kills any need for The Doctor to draw upon the wisdom that comes with being a 900-year-old time traveller.  Hell, even his foes don’t seem to care that The Doctor is a Time Lord.  Kindly note, I’m okay with ignoring The Doctor’s lineage when the bad guys are as Torchwood-esque as The Silence – stupid name great concept.

Perhaps this lack of Time Lord flavour is a response to an abundance of Tennant/Eccleston sad face whenever anybody brought up Time Lords or the Time War under Russell T. Davies’ tenure.  On the other hand, Moffat may not want to deal with more practical issue of Time Lord chapeaus which make Princess Beatrix’s head ornamentation seem tasteful.  With the notable exception of Neil Gaiman’s episode The Doctor’s Wife (which was fantastic because I think it was the first time we got to see Matt Smith as a Time Lord, not simply a madman with a blue box) Moffat and the other writers don’t really seem to care about the Doctor as Time Lord.

So how does all of this connect to the fact that the Daleks are going into the vault?  Quite simply, the Daleks and the Timelords are foils for each other.  You can’t have Daleks without Time Lords as each is an essential part of the other’s mythology.  Unless the next Dalek episode undoes the seemingly bona fide resurrection of the Daleks (Victory of the Daleks), an act which would once again make the Doctor a genocidal murderer – although I’m sure they would ethicy-wethicky their way out of any moral quagmire as not to scare the children (sigh) – the Time Lords must come back, in spirit if not in body, to balance the equation.  Given Moffat’s apparent disdain for things Time Lord, that seems unlikely.

Therefore, Moffat’s decision is not just about letting the Daleks rest.  It speaks to an apparent bracketing of his plot arcs from the larger Time Lord/Doctor Who mythology.  I for one like Time Lord mythology.  Consider that one of Matt Smith’s best performances as the Doctor was in Neil Gaiman’s episode.  For just a moment that story let Smith show the audience a little of the hurt that comes with being the last of your kind.  If we are being honest though, Suranne Jones (Idris) was so fantastic as to steal that episode and deposit it in her Swiss bank account.  Either way, Doctor Who needs more writing of that calibre.  Keep the Daleks and Time Lords on ice if we must, minimize references to Gallifrey if necessary, but remember that The Doctor has two hearts and occasionally letting him be a lonely alien won’t ruin the show.

Your thoughts?

Update:  Leave it to Steven Moffat to do exactly what I said he wasn’t going to do.  Ah well, at least I got in a good hat joke.  For fear of spoilers, I’ll skip the details on how Moffat stymied my theory.  It is enough to say that Time Lord mythology is a marginally relevant to the plot of A Good Man Goes to War. Still, I’m not willing to admit that I’m totally wrong on this point.  I’ll save the explanations for my upcoming podcast with Doctor Who scholar J. M. Frey.