Doctor Who–The Time of the Doctor

“Everyone gets stuck somewhere eventually, Clara. And everything ends.”

Picture shows: JENNA COLEMAN as Clara and MATT SMITH as The Doctor

And so, Christmas Day 2013 saw the final end for Doctor number Eleven – or is it Twelve, or even Thirteen? That was one of the major questions Steven Moffat’s typically labyrinthine but mostly satisfying story had to address; along with the various unresolved plot threads that seemed to have been left hanging since he began his tenure as showrunner. He also had to retire the now-beloved Eleventh Doctor and introduce a new star .And on top of all that, he had to make it a Christmas episode, traditionally lighter and frothier than most.

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Doctor Who–The Day of the Doctor

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be – be one.” – Marcus Aurelius

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(SPOILER WARNING!)

Tricky things, anniversary shows. Although this was celebrating 50 years, technically there’s only been two previous attempts – The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors (no, I’m not counting Dimensions in Time). They have to be crowd-pleasers, they have to encompass the show’s ever-growing mythology, and yet they also have to be accessible to viewers who don’t necessarily have the extensive knowledge of the show’s past that us fanboys have. The Three Doctors works rather well in that regard, while The Five Doctors doesn’t. But what about Day of the Doctor?

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The 50 Doctors

Clyde: “Is there a limit? I mean, how many times can you change?”
The Doctor: “507.”
– The Sarah Jane Adventures, Death of the Doctor

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With the Twelfth Doctor nearly upon us, and an unexpected new Doctor revealed between 8 and 9, a lot of fanboys are very concerned. After all, it says in The Deadly Assassin that a Time Lord can only regenerate 12 times. Which is reiterated in Mawdryn Undead and The Five Doctors. Ah, but The Five Doctors also had President Borusa offering the Master “a whole new cycle” of regenerations. But recently, Steven Moffat seems to have confirmed that 12 is still the limit. Or perhaps not. Rule number one – Moffat lies.

Still, a Facebook conversation with young Mr Noel Storey recently prompted me to try and recall all the actors who’ve played the Doctor over the years. And it was more than 13. I actually came up with 31, off the top of my head. And then I checked the internet – and found there were quite a few more. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s actually, ooh, just about 50 of them. How convenient! So, in chronological order, without further ado, here’s… (drum roll)… THE 50 DOCTORS!

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An Adventure in Space and Time

“CS Lewis meets HG Wells meets Father Christmas. That’s the Doctor.”

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Well that was rather wonderful, wasn’t it? I’ve never previously thought of Mark Gatiss as a writer of moving character drama; sly wit, certainly, dry irony yes. OK, so he’s written a few Doctor Who episodes, but the best of those (The Crimson Horror) was determinedly tongue-in-cheek, much like his work on The League of Gentlemen.

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Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 14–The Name of the Doctor

“I’m Clara Oswald. I’m the Impossible Girl. I was born to save the Doctor.”

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Steven Moffat loves to engage with the fans of Doctor Who. And he particularly loves to bait some of the more humourless fans whose presumed ownership of the show makes their gorges rise in anger at the thought of anyone doing something with it that they personally don’t like. He’s got form, provoking them with titles like Let’s Kill Hitler and The Doctor’s Wife (which turned out not to be literal), then having the Doctor seemingly actually get married – or did he?

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Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 8–The Rings of Akhaten

Can you feel the light on your eyelids? That is the light of an alien sun.”

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I was a bit tipsy yesterday afternoon.

As a result, I struggled to stay fully awake during Doctor Who, and rewatched it today to properly follow it. In the interim, unusually, I was able to digest what many of my online friends thought.

The reaction from many people I knew was pretty negative. “Slow, predictable, cheap tacky sets, no larger plot arc, no character developing, cheesy maudlin flashback (wtf??), and dull as fuck” opined one friend. “They’ve given Matt Smith his very own Fear Her,” said another (damning indeed!). “Utter pigshit,” was one more blunt opinion. The only voice I heard raised in its favour was my boyfriend Barry, who rather enjoyed it, comparing it to surreal 1965 serial The Web Planet, which similarly is not well-regarded.

Well, I actually love The Web Planet. And I may be tacking into the wind of disapproval here, but I rather enjoyed The Rings of Akhaten as well. True, it was unabashedly sentimental, which I can see would put some people off. It was also heavily dependent on Murray Gold’s admittedly OTT emotion-tugging music, which as usual frequently swamped the dialogue. And yes, the show might have bitten off more than it could chew with such an effects-heavy story (though I didn’t have any complaints on that score).

But it was also, more than ever, a sign that this era of Doctor Who is very much science fantasy rather than science fiction. I’ve heard some fans carping about the scientific impossibility of the Seven Worlds of Akhaten (from the perspective of gravity, atmosphere etc), or the ‘space moped’ which our heroes rode without the benefit of spacesuits or a roof.

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Well, you could have dealt with that in the dialogue with some Star Trek-style technobabble. But why bother? Technology, in recent Who, is often a shorthand for ‘magic’ – it does whatever the plot demands. Sometimes that’s irritating, when it’s used to short circuit a proper conclusion by way of a deus ex machina. But when it’s just covering minor details, I don’t have a problem with that.

Speaking of deus ex machina, this was another story that, like a few recently, seemed to heark back to the style of Russell T Davies. It followed the established Nu-Who template for the introduction of a new companion – start with a story on contemporary Earth (where they’re always – disappointingly – from), then whisk them off to a weird future location full of a Star Wars-style menagerie of odd-looking aliens.

Kudos to the production team for not taking the ‘cheap’ option of reusing the many existing alien costumes – all the creatures on display here seemed entirely new. Indeed, the visuals seemed fairly sumptuous, from the costumes to the effects, evoking – for me – early efforts by French fantasists Jeunet and Caro, like City of Lost Children. True, the set design for the dusty streets was functional rather than inspired, but it seems harsh to criticise that when there was so much invention on display elsewhere.

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And the concepts were, for me, as inventive as the look of the thing. True, Doctor Who has done ‘false gods’ any number of times before; they almost always turn out to be power-mad computers, or, as here, parasitic aliens. We even got one last year in Toby Whithouse’s enjoyable The God Complex.

But the god here, with its domination of an entire solar system who lived in fear of it and routinely sang it lullabies to keep it asleep, seemed genuinely terrifying – signposted by even the Doctor being terrified of it. Writer Neil Cross (creator of Luther and, less favourably, recent adapter of Day of the Triffids) came up with the fascinating concept of it feeding on treasured memories and stories, to the extent that they even formed the currency of its worshippers. That’s reminiscent of a recurring theme of the other Neil – Mr Gaiman himself.

Like Neil Gaiman’s similarly inventive script for The Doctor’s Wife, this gifted Matt Smith with some cracking dialogue to get his teeth into. “We don’t walk away”, summed up the show’s philosophy nicely, as well as providing a riposte to anyone wondering why they didn’t just get in the TARDIS and leg it. But the Doctor’s final speech to the ‘Grandfather’ was obviously a showcase moment, and Smith seized it with both hands to chew the scenery (but in a good way):

I saw the birth of the universe and I watched as time ran out, moment by moment until nothing remained, no time, no space, just me. I walked in universes where the laws of physics were devised by the mind of a mad man.I watched universes freeze and creations burn,I have seen things you wouldn’t believe, I have lost things you will never understand – and I know things, secrets that must never be told, knowledge that must never be spoken…”

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Hints of things to come, I wonder? Speaking of which, the ep also gave us more of an insight into Clara, with that prologue in which the Doctor, basically, stalked her parents through from their meeting to her mother’s death. That actually could seem more than a bit creepy, and Clara was probably right to be slightly weirded out when she ‘remembered’ it – the implication being that the memories were fresh, since the Doctor had only just taken that trip.

Clara’s apparent impossibility was the only ongoing plotline here, though. That may annoy those who are fans of the ‘arc’ episodes above the others, but I’ve personally found Steven Moffat’s arc-heavy approach hard going these last couple of years, and am glad that it’s taking the more background approach of the early RTD seasons.

Clara did get to show some real mettle here, as we continue to get to know her. I still bemoan the fact that she seems like ‘Moffat spunky young woman type #23’, but her morale-bolstering heart to heart with little Merry (Emilia Jones, excellent) was a magical moment that could only be resisted by the most hard-hearted and cynical. And her ultimate rescue of the Doctor, speeding to the Pyramid on the space moped then giving up her most treasured memory, was lovely; especially the Doctor’s remark about the monumental difference between “what was and what should have been”. Could Clara’s mum, and her apparently premature death, figure in why she’s such an impossibility?

There was some creepy stuff too, which was still in keeping with the imaginative visuals here. The Mummy in the Pyramid was pretty standard Who-fare, but the creepy looking Vigils will probably have given many a young child a few bad dreams. With their blank faces and Graf Orlok costumes, they were again reminiscent of the creations of Jeunet and Caro, not to mention David Lynch. Indeed, their apparently sound-based weaponry called to mind nothing so much as Dune.

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I found The Rings of Akhaten to be a visually sumptuous, life-affirming piece of fantasy, very much in the style of the work of Neil Gaiman. I wouldn’t want Who to be like this every week, lest it turn into Farscape or Lexx, but that’s the beauty of the show – its flexibility. Next week, it looks like we’ve got a trad submarine thriller (albeit with aliens). That’s good too; but I’ve always got time for some out and out fantasy, if it’s done well, and I thought this was. Still, what do I know? I like The Web Planet Smile

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Doctor Who: Series 7, Episode 7–The Bells of Saint John

“Human souls, trapped like flies in the World Wide Web.”

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So which is it – series 7 episode 6, or the opener of a whole new series? Steven Moffat’s experiments with the scheduling of Doctor Who mean that it’s hard to know, with lots of people referring to new ep The Bells of Saint John as a ‘season opener’.

Whether it is or not, it certainly had the hallmarks of one – a bit spectacular, with some awesome London locations (rather than Cardiff pretending to be the capital) and some super set pieces (which actually fitted into the story context rather than being shoehorned in because they looked good). Most importantly, it was a bit of a mini-reboot for the show, with the Doctor reinventing himself in the wake of losing Amy and Rory; that process feels ongoing, having begun in the Christmas special and carrying on here. Along with the new console room revealed at Christmas, the Doctor now got to pick out a new outfit, something traditionally reserved for an incoming new Time Lord.

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The ‘Moffatiness’ so common of late was dialed fairly low in the mix. This story was straightforward enough, with no head-scratching time paradoxes, there was fairly little smugly flirtatious witty dialogue, and River Song didn’t even appear (though odds on she was the mysterious ‘lady in the shop’ who gave Clara the TARDIS phone number). Nevertheless, some of the usual Moffat trademarks were in evidence, notably in the ongoing mystery of who exactly Clara is, and the unexpected return of an old villain as the mysterious ‘Client’ – even if that villain turned out to be the same one as in the previous episode.

It did have another Moffat trope at its heart, though it’s one he inherited from 70s script editor Robert Holmes – the central concept took something very ordinary and familiar and turned it into something scary. Here, very much tied up in the zeitgeist, it was Wi Fi networks, and the Cloud. What if, the script asked, the human mind could be linked to a computer, and programmed or downloaded like any other system? If anything, that should have given us a clue as to who the real villain was, but it still came as rather a surprise to me.

We’re all familiar with the list of odd looking Wi Fi networks we see when our mobile devices try to connect, so it seemed not too much of a stretch to assume that one of those weird looking networks might be an alien creature intent on sucking out our brains… well, maybe a bit of a stretch, but not in the world of Doctor Who. As this situation was explained in an X-Files-like precredits teaser, it was reminiscent of nothing so much as the cursed videotape from Ringu; you log on to the network, and 24 hours later, you’re dead. But your mind isn’t – it’s ‘”integrated into the cloud”, for an alien to feast on.

For me at least, this seemed a trifle unclear. The Doctor managed to ‘download’ the prone Clara back into her body – but surely if the body is dead for more than a few minutes, there’s no coming back? When he accomplished having all the minds ‘re-downloaded’, there was some acknowledgement that not all of them would still have a body to return to; I’d say that was probably most of them. Given that Moffat scripts of late have lacked real jeopardy because of his apparent unwillingness to kill characters off for real and permanently, I suppose it’s not too surprising that he left this somewhat unclear.

Still, that was about the only criticism I could find of this rather enjoyable episode (though I’m sure the fan forums will find plenty more). Matt Smith was, as usual, excellent; he’s still plainly loving the role. I liked the return of the fez, and the fact that his bow tie is kept in a little treasure chest. Jenna Louise Coleman, as Clara, has still to truly convince me as a character though. It’s a good, sparky performance. It may not be naturalistic, but Doctor Who acting often isn’t (Smith himself being a good case in point). But, appealing though she may be, Clara still strikes me as almost a stock Moffat leading lady; not a bad thing in itself, but still not vastly different from Amy Pond.

Of course, Clara has an ongoing mystery (thankfully the only convoluted element in this episode). It’s possible that the more of this is revealed, the more interesting I’ll find her as a character. And is it significant that she happened to be the one to ask the question “Doctor Who?” (much to the Doctor’s near-orgasmic delight, it seems)?

I imagine we’ll see more of this kind of thing (and, presumably, the return of River Song) as the series progresses. For now though, the only other element of this story that wasn’t truly standalone was its villain. The script revealed the agency behind the webnapping of human minds fairly early on, with the sinister black office headed by the marvellously frosty Celia Imrie as Miss Kizlett. But from the outset, it was clear that they were acting for somebody else. The mysterious ‘Client’ who knew all about the Doctor and his box – I found myself resorting to that oft-asked question of Sue Perryman, “is it the Master?”

But no (fun though it would be to see John Simm’s barmy renegade again), it turned out to be none other than the Great Intelligence, making this also a sequel to The Snowmen. The plan was very much in keeping with what we’ve seen the Intelligence do before; we know it can possess humans from The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear, though on those occasions it could only manage one at a time. Obviously the advancement of technology has helped, and Wi Fi now enables it (and its minions) to hack into any human brain at any time.

This led to a series of Matrix-like moments where various anonymous passersby turned into conduits for threats to our heroes, including the BBC newsreader. Though I did have to wonder how many uncontrolled viewers found the one-sided conversation rather baffling…

The Intelligence is now represented by the face of its one-time puppet Dr Simeon, meaning it’s now played by Richard E Grant. Shame though it is to lose the voice of Ian McKellen, it’s not like Grant’s any less of a star catch. Since he ‘got away’ in the end, I wonder whether he’s shaping up into the next Big Bad of the story arc?

Director Colm McCarthy, plainly with a bigger than usual budget for the show, had a field day with London locations – barely an exterior shot went by without at least one major landmark in the background. It was hard to begrudge though, and amusing to think that for the classic series, leaving London seemed like a Big Occasion; and these days, having the real London and not a dressed-up Cardiff was a cause for visual extravagance!

McCarthy also did well with the various set pieces. Again, these were pretty ambitious. The Doctor materialising the TARDIS inside an about-to-crash plane was audacious (lucky the passengers were asleep, trying to use the toilets could have ended up with several of the roaming the TARDIS corridors). It was a well-directed action set piece, but topped not too long after by the Doctor employing a flying motorbike to roar up the side of the Shard offices.

Yes, that is pretty over the top, even by action movie standards, and I’m betting some fans will think it’s fairly gratuitous. For me though, it fitted in with the tone of the show – and more importantly, made sense within the context of the story, in a way that such set pieces often don’t. I refer you to – the window cleaning lift in Partners in Crime, the lift cable slide in New Earth, Spitfires in Space in Victory of the Daleks… And many, many more.

So – a good story, that made sense on its own terms without requiring in depth knowledge of a convoluted arc. Some thrilling action set pieces. Great performances from, in particular Matt Smith and Celia Imrie. And the usual self-consciously witty dialogue kept to a controlled minimum (probably because River Song didn’t show up). Whether it’s a season opener, a mid-season opener or whatever, The Bells of Saint John was one of the more straightforwardly enjoyable Doctor Who stories in a couple of years. Please keep it up, Mr Moffat.