28 December 2013

The Zero Room #14- 50 Years Of Doctor Who

I've blogged much less about Doctor Who in that the show has celebrated its 50th anniversary, which might seem somewhat counter to the amount of stuff there was to talk about. Eight new episodes to close out the seventh series, two hugely anticipated specials, three regenerations and the announcement that Malcolm fucking Tucker is going to be the Doctor.

While I'm playing catch-up anyway, here's a post, on the last Saturday of the year, which reflects on what has been one of the best years to be a Doctor Who fan, discussing everything from The Bells of St. John to Matt Smith's final hurrah in The Time of the Doctor. And hell, as it's a year late, let's also throw in last year's Christmas special, The Snowmen, too- not only because it launched Series 7B proper, but because this year has been very much about the Doctor's new companion, Clara Oswald.

Having made a surprise appearance in 2012's Asylum of the Daleks, Jenna Coleman had a couple of chances to lay the path for her grand entrance as a full-time companion, all tied in to another convoluted, but watchable enigma from the mind of Steven Moffat. On the mighty Moff's watch, the Eleventh Doctor spends an awful lot of time meandering about between episodes, and Clara's arrival in The Snowman serves to shake him out of a 200-year sulk about losing Amy and Rory.

But quite aside from the fan-pleasing resolution of all her little impossibilities in series 7's finale, The Name of the Doctor, it's all about Clara because this has been a year in which the companion's role could occasionally have seemed surplus to requirements. Eight years into the revival, we're in that place where the audience knows the Doctor better than the companion does, but Coleman's lively, winsome and most importantly, Northern performance has kept the Doctor and, arguably, Moffat, on their toes all year long.

Reviews will obviously contain spoilers, so if you haven't been watching this year, toddle over to the iPlayer, or watch BBC Three at some point in the next century's worth of repeats before reading on. As in my post about the first half of series 7, I'll run through the episodes and my thoughts in fairly short order, but come back to points and themes that have prevailed over the course of the year.

The Snowmen by Steven Moffat

In addition to the aforementioned developments, this serves as the first real outing for a whole bunch of other returning characters, as the Doctor and Clara are aided by the Paternoster Gang- sapphic Silurian Madame Vastra, her wife Jenny, and Sontaran nurse/stooge Strax- in their battle against the Great Intelligence, embodied by Richard E. Grant's Dr. Simeon. Following 2011's The Doctor, The Widow & The Wardrobe, it's as if Moffat has stopped trying to match the Christmassy appeal of A Christmas Carol or any of the RTD era specials, and instead thrown himself into setting up plot points and gambits in a superfluously festive setting. Even if it all feels a little perfunctory, it sets the table nicely, teasing something more Christmassy without ever really tucking in.

The Bells of St. John by Steven Moffat

It's really quite odd to have two "new companion" episodes in a row, especially when they both happen to have the same villain. Moffat rarely returns to the RTD era locale of contemporary London, but this one serves as an enjoyable techno-thriller/series opener, playing on the old Doctor Who maxim of making the everyday (in this case, wi-fi) into something more extraordinary. With Clara's previous incarnations, there's less to do in terms of introducing her, which allows for a faster pace than The Snowman could sustain.

The Rings of Akhaten by Neil Cross

Aside from The Doctor's Daughter, I can't think of another episode since 2005 that has felt so token as this one. The Beast Below might show that "first alien planet" stories are not the Moffat era's strongest suit, but at least that one had a surfeit of ideas. It's the odd one out in a series of fast-paced stories, taking its sweet time to plod through the motions. It's bolstered by some pretty music, sure, but it really struggles to hit hard on an emotional level, despite the best efforts of a speechifying Smith. Much was made of the Mos Eisley-style menagerie of creatures in this one, but the episode feels as kit-bashed as Akhaten's social scene. The weakest of the series by a long way.

Cold War by Mark Gatiss

Even if this one is a retread of 2005's iconic Dalek, subtituting an Ice Warrior and a Russian submarine in for the original classic baddy and setting, the run finds its rhythm around this point. There's a strong supporting cast, including Liam Cunningham's tough and sensible commander, David Warner's batty, pop-humming professor and the Ice Warrior himself- it felt like a while since we've had a good cast of guest characters like this, and it gives Clara more room to establish herself, and provides a long-awaited reinvention of the last remaining "A-List monster" from classic Who.

Hide by Neil Cross

Cross' second episode is much better- most of the writers on this series were commissioned for two episodes, in case any of the stories broke out of the Moff's planned run of one-part blockbusters into a two-parter, and it's clear that this was the stronger premise that Cross had to offer. A good old-fashioned haunted house romp that would feel just as suitable for the series if any other Doctor had played it, but which ends up looking most like a really good Tom Baker/Hinchcliffe-era ghost story. The ending feels a little rushed, but it dishes up a nice punchline to the spooky, timey-wimey tale.

Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS by Stephen Thompson

The most obvious product of the blockbuster ethos, with a title designed to get fanboys and girls salivating over what's essentially a bottle episode. There are some interesting beats and ideas in this one, but it's let down by some particularly weak guest characters and a very literal reset at the end. It might have been better and more audacious if it had been a two-hander with Smith and Coleman, and if the climax hadn't neatly undone some otherwise very interesting developments in their relationship.

The Crimson Horror by Mark Gatiss

This was my personal favourite of Series 7B, and the one that makes the best use of the Victorian era as the apparent locale of Moffat's tenure. What starts out as a Doctor-lite story, following the Paternoster Gang's investigation of a mysterious sweet factory in Yorkshire, has a genuinely surprising second act twist that brings the Doctor and Clara back into the action with bells on. This is Gatiss' first Victorian horror episode since The Unquiet Dead, and also his best since then- it's funny, weird, and as with Hide and last year's The Power of Three, it's nice to see an episode that would feel just at home in the RTD era, every now and then.

Nightmare In Silver by Neil Gaiman

Tasked with "making the Cybermen scary again", Gaiman reimagines them with the mantra that if you find a Cyberman on your planet, you blow up the planet. While this episode is neither as scary, nor as creative as you hoped a Neil Gaiman episode would be, that theme certainly makes them intimidating again. More than any of the other episodes in the run, this could have benefited from expanded to a two-parter, giving Smith more room to showboat, as the Cyberleader infects the Doctor's mind. And as with other episodes, it probably would have been better with more emphasis on the horror than on the action and pyrotechnics.

The Name of the Doctor by Steven Moffat

With a more limited run-up to the end of the series, this one proves to be the most intimate and personal series finale of 21st century Who. As far as we're concerned, the Doctor is already dead in the time and place that the story takes place, and the mood is suitably darker. The Great Intelligence arc pays off nicely alongside the fan-pleasing revelation that Clara has been splintered in time to save her best friend. It's less explosive than anything else we've seen this year, but Moffat builds in more personal and affecting ramifications, especially with the contractual-credit-tastic final shot of John Hurt, as the hitherto unmentioned Time War Doctor.

The Night of the Doctor by Steven Moffat

A more lovely surprise was the return of Paul McGann in this BBC Red Button minisode, which finally brings his "one-night-only" Eighth Doctor back to the screen, in order to close the gap between his run and the 21st century revival. From his cheeky first line, to his final transformation into Hurt's warrior incarnation, he is the Doctor all over again, and it's enough to get newbies and Whovians alike scrambling to catch up with his run of audio dramas. A terrific way to get a forgotten and much-lamented Doctor involved in a landmark celebration.

An Adventure In Space And Time by Mark Gatiss

BBC Two's docudrama about the inception of the series was one of a number of treats laid on in November, and it boasted a terrific performance from David Bradley as William Hartnell. From the early creative excitement that saw Verity Lambert and Waris Hussein struggling against the BBC hierarchy to get the series on its feet, to the bittersweet end of Hartnell's era, this was a joy. The bit where Matt Smith appeared to Hartnell on his last day of shooting made no sense whatsoever, but for the most part, this was a gripping and enjoyable film, with some truly sumptuous production design.

The Day of the Doctor by Steven Moffat

I reviewed this one in full here, but I can't believe I forgot to mention Tom Baker's wonderfully barking cameo as a possible future Doctor. It's like that rumour that Sean Connery might have starred in Skyfall, but Who is far more flexible when it comes to such cheekily reverent gimmicks, and it pays off beautifully. Just to reiterate, there was no better time to be a fan this year than during that 75 minute global simulcast of this funny, unabashedly fan-wanky celebration of the series- a real shot in the arm, between the darker tone of Series 7B, and the climactic battle of the Eleventh Doctor's life. Well, this and...

The Five-ish Doctors by Peter Davison

Someone at BBC Comedy needs to give these guys a sitcom. Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy are the only surviving Doctors who haven't been called up to take part in the celebrations, and this hilarious half-hour film follows their efforts to outwit Moffat and somehow get into The Day of the Doctor. Brilliantly scripted by Davison, this is genuinely funny stuff, not merely relying on cameos from the likes of Peter Jackson and former Who luminaries, but also masterfully executing some terrific comic setpieces. A brilliant dessert to complement the main course.

The Time of the Doctor by Steven Moffat

There's a definite downward trajectory in festive spirit across Moffat's Christmas specials so far- two episodes after visiting his tomb on the fields of Trenzalore, the Doctor unwittingly walks into a trap that will see him spend the rest of his natural life battling his greatest enemies, as all the plots and conspiracies that have followed this incarnation finally come to a head. The only problem is, it's not really the send-off that Matt Smith deserved.

Coming after a hugely popular Doctor like David Tennant, nobody would have projected that Smith would go on to become even more popular, and take that popularity to an unprecedented global level. The Time of the Doctor has an awful lot of work to do, and only an hour in which to do it. In much the same way as many of the previous plateaus in the Moff's labyrinthine plots, the final tying-up of the Eleventh Doctor's run manages to just about make sense, sort of, while also giving us the most blatant deus-ex-machina (crack-ina?) that the series has used in some time.

Even if Smith doesn't end on his era's finest hour, he arguably gives his best ever performance, dishing out the gags right alongside his character's final, exhausting adventure. In a story where the Doctor is required to be totally inactive to stave off the apocalyptic return of the Time Lords, he's as magnetic as ever. Coleman shines too- having mustered through mystery and past Doctors in previous episodes, she still rises head and shoulders above the overly action-packed monster mash that traps the Doctor.

Moffat also takes the time to address one of the most inexplicable bits of common knowledge about the series mythology- the Doctor only has 12 regenerations. Via some creative number-wangling, the Doctor has apparently reached that number early. There might have been more tension to this idea if the BBC hadn't whipped us into a frenzy about the arrival of the next fella, but at least that arcane bit of trivia has been addressed, for those who don't seem to watch, or know anything else about the series.

The actual regeneration scene in the TARDIS, with the return of Karen Gillan's Amy properly closing the door on number 11's run, was probably the real highlight. The sudden jolt that turns Matt Smith into Peter Capaldi is actually shocking- poor Clara's just asked him not to change, and now she's staring at a man who resembles a big angry owl, in the best way. And that's why this year has done so well to set up Clara as the companion, even as celebrations seemed to draw attention away.

Whatever Capaldi does with the role promises to be more unfamiliar than any Doctor since Christopher Eccleston, and as the oldest actor ever to take on the role, (at the time he started filming) his casting marks exactly the kind of brave departure that the show should be making at the top of its game. Coleman's Clara should help us through that transition rather nicely.

Looking back on Doctor Who this year, it hasn't necessarily been the strongest run of episodes- the single-episode stories, which worked so well in sending off the Ponds in 2012's mini-season, have led to a slightly more perfunctory feeling. It's more tightly paced than ever before, but that's not always a good thing. It'll be unfortunate if we have to get through another Akhaten next year. On the whole, however, fans have still been spoiled rotten, and it's tough to think of another year in which this much Who was happening.

While Matt Smith will be missed, there's much to look forward to in Capaldi's first series, due in autumn next year, can match the energy and creativity of his predecessor's first series, while keeping up the momentum of the recurring elements that have been set in motion since. There've been a few bumps along the way, but if Moffat's intention was to set up the next fifty years of the series, he's certainly taken some bold steps in that direction.
That's the year as I saw it- feel free to share your comments below! I'll try and review more regularly next year. It certainly won't be hard to muster the enthusiasm, what with one of my favourite actors being in the lead role. Peter Capaldi!

Doctor Who returns to BBC One and BBC HD next autumn, starring Peter Capaldi!!!

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