Dear Steven Moffat: The Name of the Doctor

The Name of the Doctor

Dear Steven,

I suppose head writers on long running TV series are like sitting Prime Ministers or Presidents. When you’re first appointed you’re so delighted to be in post that you’re content to pursue a steady as she goes policy; nothing too radical, you don’t want to scare the sheep, they’ve only just come to terms with the fact that Shep, the dog that used to bound after them with such great energy, is now buried on the hill. But one day you bolt upright in bed, realise that when it comes to your tenure there are fewer days ahead than behind, and your mind turns to your legacy. How can you leave an indelible mark? More importantly, how can you bind your successors, though strictly speaking that’s unkind, so that the Steven Moffat era becomes, well, time locked? I imagine this problem took on a special significance for you once you realised that the show’s 50th anniversary would fall on your watch. Well, you’ve done it Steven, no question – you’ve made that mark. All that remains is for us to decide whether it’s a beautiful tattoo or an acid attack to the face.

John Hurt is a hidden incarnation of The Doctor; the black sheep of the regenerative family, whose existence, rather than the Timelord’s moniker, apparently irrelevant though this will be news to the Seventh Doctor, is the man’s deep dark secret. Clever of you to get fandom frothing at the mouth with this question of The Doctor’s true identity, only to answer the question a different way. The Galifreyian ganglinoid retains his mystique while his backstory is retconed. Yes, a clever idea but, as with so many of your clever ideas, I’m not sure it stands up.

Had The Doctor forgotten his old self, one could understand why he didn’t appear in Nightmare in Silver’s Timelord montage, but he had no problem recognising him. “He’s me,” he told us, without a moment’s hesitation. So you’re telling us that the Cyberiad and every other bastard who’s plundered The Doc’s hippocampus uncovered important facts like his deletion from history but not that he’d blacklisted one of his selves? How do you even delete an iteration of yourself from the universe anyway? It’s like one of us suppressing an entire decade of our lives. We can choose to forget it but we surely can’t stop others from finding evidence of it, can we?

Which brings us to Clara. When The Doctor’s timestream was corrupted by the Withnail Virus, replacing his many victories with long drinking sessions and visits to cake shops, Clara recast herself as a sort of space-time antiviral, diving into The Doctor’s history and undoing some of the damage. It wasn’t clear how she undid all of Richard E Grant’s tinkering, but one thing was certain; this was a suicidal act – one that atomised the original companion but sent duplicates of her to thousands of points in The Doctor’s timeline. As he’s been everywhere that meant she appears everywhere, hence she can live and die many times over. Sure, this devalues life a little but that wasn’t the point: she was there to save The Doctor and consequently she got to meet all his previous incarnations, though due to residual haze from the displacing effect of the vortex, each looked like a rushed CG cut out or William Shatner’s body double.

Well congratulations on solving the Clara question so comprehensively but it’s time to execute one of those psychical crash zooms on my face: there are problems. Let’s deal with the obvious one first. Clara’s presence in the TARDIS is now an ontological paradox. I hoped, after the Pandorica unpleasantness, that we’d reached an accord on this, Steven. I thought we were cold, or whatever the expression is. Yet, here she was, the impossible girl, now officially impossible, instead of figuratively so. Of course in a time travel show effect can precede cause, we all understand that, but we now have a situation whereby The Doctor’s interest in one of his companions springs from her presence at multiple points in his timestream, an interest that lead him to her in the first place, but a presence that only occurred because he adopted her as an companion, which he wouldn’t have done if she didn’t have something distinct about her. No offence, but this makes me want to put a letter opener through your writing hand.

This multiplicity of Claras also begs another question. Why didn’t subsequent Doctors, including Smith’s, immediately recognise her? You tried to explain this away using a one line cover up – “he never seems to hear me”, but she made direct, person to person contact with the First Doctor as he went to steal the TARDIS on Gallifrey. The grumpy fuck acknowledged her. The nation saw it. As this is a pivotal moment in The Doctor’s life, don’t you think he might recognise the oddball girl with the strange turn of phrase who stood there and recommended he take the Type 40 with the “knackered” navigation that subsequently lead him to all these life and death struggles? That aside, if the same person kept showing up in my life every few years, never aging, I might start to notice her. The Doctor’s a perceptive chap. He remembers things that happened to him centuries ago. He remembered Clara’s taste for soufflés after all; it’s what alerted him to the connection between Victorian governess Clara and the one in the Dalek asylum, despite years of intervening story time. Still, it’s good that the 11th/12th Doctor finally registered her presence but why didn’t he say, “holy shit, you’re the girl from Gallifrey…and Iceworld…and Earth…and everywhere else!” This is odd, but we haven’t touched upon the biggest problem, Steven, the humdinger, so let’s do that now.

Why didn’t any of Clara’s doubles see John Hurt? One’s timestream is not something you can self-censor. The Doctor can choose to forget about the Hurt incarnation, he can suppress the memories, place him a psychical lock box and even tear the relevant pages from that mighty tome, A History of the Time War, though I’d be more concerned with who wrote it, but history is history and whereas incident may be mutable on this show, surely one unalterable aspect is who’ve you’ve been?

Why, then, did Clara not also recognise him when at last his ghost passed through The Doctor’s temporal crawlspace? I understand that in order for the episode to work it had to be a surprise for her, as she’s our proxy, but was it just pure luck that once fragmented, not a single shard of Oswald lodged in John Hurt’s part of the timeline? We don’t yet have all the facts but we can assume he was around for a while; after all, most of his incarnations get a century or two, so how did she miss him? It’s almost as if you don’t know, Steven and you’ve tried to wing it with some rhetorical slight of hand. Still kudos; at least now we know why The Doctor’s never consistent with his age.

Hurt’s Doctor didn’t go by that name, though it’s a pity no one told the person responsible for the title “introducing John Hurt as The Doctor” that appeared on screen seconds after the revelation, but it hardly matters. If I change my name to Fresno Kuntz, a time traveller, tethered to my life, would still be able to see me during this period. What you’ve done here is to give The Doctor’s timestream some weird kind of agency. It’s as though it became self-aware, felt disgusted by John Hurt’s genocide and excised him from the record. You can almost hear it saying, “I don’t want any visitors meeting him!” C’mon Steven, are you fucking kidding me?

So The Name of the Doctor had a missing word, “in”, just as it had a missing Doctor; it tried to buy off attentive viewers with references to Umberto Eco and Arthur Conan Doyle, but look closely and it was possible to see the tell-tale signs of a continuity calamity: you might just be the myopic old woman who took a brush to a centuries old fresco. Have you ruined the show? I hope not; though I’ll need to see the 50th anniversary episode to be sure, but I think you’d made a change that hasn’t been fully thought through and that you’re now going to have to pull ugly amounts of overtime to make it work. To paraphrase Scott Glen, you’ve just unzipped you fly. That, and you’ve done it in front of millions of kids.

Jumping into the Timeline of the 33rd Series:

So what kind of series has it been, would you say, a roaring success of a busted flush? I’m sorry to say Steven, though not really, that I think it’s more than the latter than the former.

The way I see it, your capitulation to those with thick ridges on their foreheads who didn’t like the previous run because it had a non-linear plot and a season long arc, upending the tired, episodic storytelling that’s dogged Who since it’s revival in 2005, was complete this year.

I read that you instructed writers to pitch movie posters instead of story lines to you, an idea so ridiculous that I immediately assumed it to be true. I understand your lazy thinking. You thought you could have it both ways, delivering the arc and the single, self-contained stories the degenerates crave. You’d keep the former firmly in the background, though just prominent enough so we don’t forget what we’re supposed to remember, while making every episode an event in itself.

This was undoubtedly a reaction to my criticism that some of last year’s episodes barely existed in their own right, being little more than idea stacks masquerading as stories. Unfortunately you misunderstood me. I wasn’t suggesting you abandon multi-episode stories, far from it; I think a return to the serial format would do wonders for this show; rather that each 45 chunk had enough of a plot, enough in the way of character progression, to work in its own right. Your self-contained “blockbusters” have been, for the most part, frivolous, fleeting and forgettable. A Town Called Mercy, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, The Rings of Akhaten – do me a favour. There’s more material in a miniaturised astronaut’s used condom.

The truth is Steven, this series has had its moments but for the most part it’s betrayed its considerable promise. Amy and Rory’s final run of episodes relegated two significant departing characters to the background, pushing high concept schlock front and centre. No one’s going to complain they can’t follow these instalments but, and I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you old cock, no one’s going to remember them either. You know something’s amiss when an episode written by Chris Chibnall, The Power of Three, comes closest to exploring The Doctor’s relationship with the outbound companions. By the 6th episode of the last series we were nuts deep in speculative conversation: angry, confused and partially aroused. At the same point in this series we were waiting for the conversation to start. Someone dropped the cube.

Sure, you’d planted Clara in episode one, teasing what we imagined would be the focus of the series, but it didn’t turn out that way. When the Christmas special finally arrived, all wrapping and no gift, the new companion’s much-touted introduction was obscured by an unsightly pool of conceptual scum. Those real points of interest, The Doctor and his new, mysteriously tag-along, cuddled up in the back seat as the car went over a ravine.

If the hope was that a threadbare first half could be attributed to your boredom with Amy and Rory, indifference to the latter being totally understandable, and that free of characters you couldn’t write for any longer, you’d dive in to your new project – the Oswald Conundrum, such dreams soon evaporated. Sure, there were good episodes in the second half of the year, Hide and The Crimson Horror being standouts, but two in seven isn’t much of a hit rate. Reliably unreliable writers such as Stephen Thompson, were reliably unreliable; Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS being underwritten guff, while those with normally impeccable credentials, I refer of course to Jody Schwitzer’s old boyfriend Neil Gaiman, turned in a fun but average adventure. All in all it felt like the writers lacked ambition; that each story was a tale of no consequence. I think you could have shuffled half this season’s pack and it wouldn’t have made any difference. You and your team committed the cardinal sin, Steven – you gave us an excuse to stop caring.

So this is my wish list for next year and please, I beg you, pay it some mind. Even if you’ve jumped the shark/nuked the fridge/dropped the Hurt with the latest episode, you’ll probably keep us watching if you stick to these simple guidelines:

1) Make each story about something. I don’t mean in the figurative sense; I understand that every episode has to have some ostensive purpose, I mean, make it substantial. Throw out the postage stamp pitches and replace them with story ideas. Imagine you’re sitting down to write a play, which you are. Give us some drama, something to talk about afterwards. Provoke us a little. We’ll thank you for it. No more condensed movies please. This is television. You’ve got as much screen time as you need. Use it. Which brings us on to;

2) Letting the stories breathe. Ask yourself, do they have to be 45 minutes long or would a series of two or three part stories allow for greater scope, more character exploration and an emphasis on plotting that’s been lacking this year? 45 minutes makes you lazy, because it doesn’t have to hang together too much as it’s over before we’ve got any purchase on it, but viewers notice inconsistencies and dead end characters over 90 or 130 minutes, so your writers would need to be at their best. Fans of Sherlock have enjoyed feature length stories. Doctor Who fans are no less hungry for substantial yarns. Tell your team to forget about blockbusters and start thinking about 4 top-draw feature length screenplays. They’ll be no room for filler. In other words, Stephen Thompson will have to sit this one out.

3) Have The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver destroyed in episode one. Perhaps The Doc could use his wits to get out of trouble instead?

4) Flesh Clara out. Give her lines, not quips. I’d like to see some interiority there, and not in a perverse way, before I reach through the screen and strangle her, and finally;

5) Tell Murray Gold to take some holiday. Or to put it another way, score with greater subtlety. Better yet, try out a few new composers. Let’s make the next series aurally fresh and free of intrusive music during key scenes.

That’s it, Steven. I’m now going to take six months out and try and rejoin the social world. It won’t be easy, but as Blur once observed, nothing is. I’ll return, fresh and fully prepared, on November 23rd, hoping that a bottle of ginger wine will take the edge off David Tennant and Billie Piper. Until then I bid you goodpie, as Tom Baker once said. He also said something about fisting Johnny Depp but I don’t think we need to go into that.

Yours in time and cyberspace,


Series Catch Up:

The Distant Past:

Deep Time:

Published in: on May 19, 2013 at 13:35  Comments (3)  
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  1. I agree. As much as I have enjoyed the darker tales over the last two series, I haven’t felt as ‘hooked’ as I was with RTD at the helm.

    And the introduction title when The Elephant Man turned around spoilt the whole episode.

  2. I enjoyed this series, personally. Yes, sure, there’s been plenty of plot holes and stuff. (Nobody’s ever sufficiently explained why Amy Pond’s house had two floors outside and three inside yet…or why in the past every planet looked like a small, plastic-coated studio inside the BBC centre and all the monsters were made out of cardboard egg boxes and bubble wrap, or why during the William Hartnell era all the spaceships had strings attached to their boosters etc.) And the science might have been a bit dodgy (never more than with the classic ‘If you can remember something you can bring it back’ – seriously?). But will it ruin it forever? I doubt it. Not unless they bring Bonnie Langford back.

  3. I would not worry too much.

    The assumption among the fans is that John Hurt will be play an previously unseen incarnation of The Doctor that is sandwiched somewhere between Paul McGann’s and Christopher Eccelston’s.

    Yet I posit that is not necessarily the case…

    Since the series returned in 2005, the Doctor has been tortured by his role in the Time War. He has always referred to his involvement in the past tense but what is worth remembering – as this is a time-travel show after all – is that he never specifically refers to WHAT incarnation of himself was responsible for causing such devastation when the Time War ended. Theoretically it is entirely possibly that multiple Doctors fought in the Time War.

    When imagined in that context, the future of the TV series is not so wrought with the inconsistencies and continuity errors that are apparent in the last episode’s closing scene.

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