Dear Steven Moffat: Empress of Mars

Dear Steven,

We don’t have many episodes left together, so it was a matter of some regret that with just four episodes remaining, you followed the recent trilogy with yet another disposable three quarters of an hour. “Empress of Mars” has Mark Gatiss’s slapped on it, and assuming this was his final contribution to the show, nothing became his legacy like this fun but frivolous slice of genre mashing Victoriana.

The concept of Flashman versus the Ice Warriors was fine, but like other brundle-episodes, Gatiss’s “Robot of Sherwood” claws at the mind, there was nothing more to the story than its one sentence pitch. I enjoyed the setup; an imperial garrison, imagining they’ve conquered Mars for the Empire and enslaved its only remaining native, unwittingly help said colonial free his combative dormant species. But what I suppose I missed was the moral dimension that might have made this thing about something. You can say that’s Star Trek’s domain and you’d be right, but morality plays induce reflection and therefore tend to live longer in the memory that episodes that don’t test the character’s assumptions and sunny optimism.

Sure, you could argue the Doctor got to extol the virtues of peaceful co-existence and all that shit, but honestly, who cared? The Colonel got his honour restored, not that it mattered in the grand scheme of things, and the Ice Warriors took their place in the Galactic League, or whatever, having been reconciled to leaving their now barren homeworld. Super. But you’re aware that Peter Capaldi doesn’t have much screen time left, right? Shouldn’t this precious chunk of temporal real estate have been used for the start of his run in – I mean, more than the last 30 seconds? Perhaps others were too busy enjoying their nostalgia to feel cheated but I did, Steven. I did.

The only real point of interest offered by “Empress of Mars” was further insight into the Doctor’s pop cultural knowledge. Initially I was cheered by the news that this 2,000 year-old alien genius, invested with knowledge of countless planets and civilisations, hadn’t seen The Terminator. It’s a great movie, but I just couldn’t picture our hero sitting down to watch a fictionalised story of time travel, killer robots and apocalypse. The constituent elements constituted a child-like view of the day job. And having barely survived the Time War, one imagines the last fucking thing he’d want to enjoy as entertainment was a story about a scorched planet overrun by machines. So, a big thumbs up there, but then I remembered this was the same man who had seen Ghostbusters and knew the theme. A fact he reminded us of in one of the series’ worst ever moments.

No, the Doctor hadn’t seen James Cameron’s movie or John Carpenter’s The Thing – again, one imagines for obvious reasons. But he had seen Disney’s Frozen and once again, for the benefit of a throwaway gag, we were left wondering when our favourite Time Lord found the time to watch a fairy tale aimed at Earth children and what compelled him to watch it in the first place.

During your time as showrunner you’ve never managed this problem, despite the damage it does to the unreality of the show. The Doctor should be divorced from all the transient crap that preoccupies us, because he’s an alien and that being the case, there should be some distance between him and the audience. Let us aspire to be him, rather than relate to him on a personal level. We got through the entire classic run, 26 seasons, without the Doctor referring to his movie collection, favourite pop hits or top 3 computer games. I’d like to believe Chris Chibnall will reinstate the Doctor’s dignified silence on this front…but he won’t, obviously.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

P.S: Missy’s out then. So I suppose the meat of the series, Capaldi’s goodbye, begins next week. I’ll be sure to set my crotch watch.

The Old Man’s Last Stand

Christmas 2016:

Christmas 2015:

The Old Man and the C: 

The Clara Oswald Show:

Smith – The Dark Suit Jacket Years: 

Smith in his Pomp:

Deep Time:

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Dear Steven Moffat: Sleep No More

doctor-who-sleep-no-more

Dear Steven,

Was it wise for the first line of Mark Gatiss’s script to read ‘you must not watch this. You can never unsee it’? Don’t make it too easy for us, for God’s sake. The warning was necessary though. “Sleep No More” was a found footage episode. The technique’s long been redundant in horror cinema – a once innovative way of telling a story that passed into obsolescence through mind numbing repetition and the difficulty all but the best filmmakers had in reconciling its imbecilic constraints with their movie’s nuts and bolts requirements. So before we got anywhere near Gatiss’s incomprehensible plot, there was already reason to fear that so-called format breaking episode; fifty minutes of TV that thought it was offering the audience something different, but was in fact just repackaging a tired monster-on-the-rampage-in-a-futuristic-space-station story using a style that double downed on the episode’s passé credentials. This was cliché on cliché; a terrifying glimpse into Doctor Who’s low budget future.

Those of us that hate found footage movies but have, for one reason or another, been obliged to watch a warehouse full, have our own list of related problems that inevitably rear their monstrous heads. Amongst them, the problems of ontology. Often we’re shown footage edited together that could not have logically have been assembled by anyone (see Josh Trank’s Chronicle) or couldn’t been recorded, so must be faked somehow (see End of Watch).

Gatiss, perhaps aware of this, but determined to make the conceit work despite the pleas of seasoned horror fans on staff, tried to use Doctor Who’s placenta-like ability to absorb conceptual bullshit, to use the limits of found footage to frame, then subvert audience expectations. So the footage we thought was being recorded by helmet cameras and space station terminals, was in fact…er, a feed from the ether, or people’s brains, facilitated by alien technology…or something. And the plot, downloaded from an internet template, with beats that, pun fucking intended – the audience could have pinned to a cork board in their sleep, was revealed to be a ruse: generic on purpose so we’d, er, enjoy it enough to keep watching and internalise an alien signal that would, er, induce perma-sleep and turn us into monsters made of mucus deposits and dead skin.

Gatiss, one imagines, thought he was being clever. Sure, he said, addressing himself in the mirror on the day the script was due, viewers would hate the episode while they watched it, lamenting the lack of conceptual clarity (what force could make a build up of sleep dust sentient, what was Reece Shearsmith’s ultimate goal?), but then he’d pull the rug, Inside No.9 style, just like his old pals Pemberton and Shearsmith did every week, and we’d crawl away with our brains pickled, content we’d been the victims of a master manipulator. What a time to be a Whovian, what a time to be alive.

But sadly the pull left us standing firm, like Peter Venkman’s flowers in Ghostbusters, because the final reveal made no more sense that the head scratching action that preceded it. Shearsmith’s mad scientist, or whatever he was, I’m not sure I got it, had been consumed by the Morpheus machine which he’d created – maybe – to make more efficient soldiers that didn’t need sleep – and he’d become a Sandman, except they look like humanoid stacks of eye waste whereas he had fully human form, including detail like glasses and clothing, though perhaps not, because these were just monsters the monster created to scare viewers so they’d have something compelling to watch, maybe –  and said monster, wanting to create many more like himself, just because – took the footage he’d somehow gathered, though it was never clear how it was generated, and edited it together with a digital signal doubling as a 1,700 year-old found footage movie cliché, so others would find it…somewhere…and watch it, despite his instruction not to, thereby becoming a creature made of human waste like himself.

Huh?

Does Mark Gatiss have a drinking problem we don’t know about? So the episode, nigh on incomprehensible and conceptually botched, turned out to be pure filler. Once again, in contrast with some of the meatier two part stories we’ve seen this year, this return to the disappointing single episode, showed the wisdom, albeit not yet fully realised, of junking this kind of instalment once and for all. There wasn’t time to get to know, or care about, any of the guest characters, the story had permanent and fatal errors which might have been avoided had there been additional screen time to develop the ideas and fill in the blanks, and it was derivative; confirming our suspicion that Who’s writers struggle to fill these forty-five minuters, and should be thinking bigger, adopting the serial mentality of old.

The next episode better be powerful, Steven. I think you’re going to have to kill a regular or something.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

P.S: Part of me likes the idea of the Doctor and Clara being caught unawares, but wouldn’t it be nice to see something that genuinely wouldn’t go out in a normal episode? Clara in the shower for example.

P.P.S: I’m going to call it and say this was the worst episode of Peep Show ever.

P.P.P.S: ‘Sleep claims us all in the end.’ Whatever, eyeing Clara, could that mean?

P.P.P.P.S:  Brute force, low intelligence – it was reassuring to know that soldiering will be the same 1,700 years from now.

The Old Man and the C: 

The Clara Oswald Show:

Smith – The Dark Suit Jacket Years: 

Smith in his Pomp:

Deep Time:

Published in: on November 15, 2015 at 13:10  Leave a Comment  
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Dear Steven Moffat: The Crimson Horror

The Crimson Horror

Dear Steven,

The Doctor Who commune, of which I’m a proud member, has turned on itself. As I write this I resemble one of the petrification rejects from tonight’s piece of Gatiss penned Victoriana. I’m caked in blood, my muscles are stiff and I’ve been forced to disrobe down to a soiled t-shirt and pair of torn boxers. If you asked me how an argument over a can of Coke lead to Matt Morbius taking a rubber cock to the Sisters of Plenitude, with the ensuing fracas becoming an ugly free for all in which senseless, costumed violence swept the compound, Weng-Chiang’s talons ripping though flesh while Vervoid Dave watched and laughed, I couldn’t tell you. All I know is that I didn’t get that can of Coke.

With the prospect of homelessness once again all too real, my only comfort was the extent to which I enjoyed this week’s episode. If, prior to viewing, you’d told me that I’d rate an instalment in which Mark Gatiss recast The Doctor as Sloth Fratelli from The Goonies while cribbing the ‘young maidens get dipped into a plasticising vat’ sub-plot from Carry On Screaming (you could almost hear Kenneth Williams’ call of “frying tonight!”) then I’d have said I couldn’t wait to see it, while doubting its success as a Who adventure in its own right. I would have been wrong. Gatiss drew on a well-sourced love of Victorian schlock, incorporating Gothic horror and steampunk, to produce an episode that was penny dreadful in all the right ways.

Thanks to director Saul Metzstein, it looked the part. The stand out sequence was a wonderful sepia flashback incorporating jump cuts, scratches and a part closed iris. Inventive touches such as these added much to the period atmosphere. If Metzstein had enjoyed more time he might have gone further, turning it up to eleven like Coppola did in Bram Stroker’s Dracula, but in place of old technique he had other assets like the ghoulish visage of Diana Rigg.

In addition to being rather wonderful as the harridan mistress of the mill who’d entered into a genocidal pact with a prehistoric worm that had affixed itself to her breasts (only on Doctor Who), she looked about 138 years old. Say what you like but a lined face with a sinister glint in two sunken eyes, plus old school discomforts like a blind woman with red raw scars across her puss, really works. This was an episode that managed to pull together these reliable old tropes and reinvigorate them with genre splicing and good humour. If you didn’t laugh when Rigg tried to dispatch The Doctor and Clara with a cry of “Die, you freaks!” while that alien grub clung to her chest for dear life, there’s no hope for you. If TV isn’t about alien-human abominations, big rockets and poisons that make people look like anger personified, then not only do I not know what it’s for, I don’t care to know.

As I share Mr Gatiss’ love of Victoriana you might think I would be predisposed to like this episode and may be giving it an easy ride; after all who doesn’t enjoy harking back to a period when eugenics was still an abstraction and so attractive to everyone from deranged Mill owners to mass hating intellectuals to alien invaders, and who isn’t a fan of period fancies such as the optigram (another, bio-ether, an invisible field in which the essence of the dead was thought to be trapped, features in my now dusty Gore Whores screenplay, the greatest movie never made)? But as your Christmas episode proved, Steven, late Victorian England is not enough. Tone and style matter a great deal and The Crimson Horror was great because both were spot on. Sure, the ending was a little rushed and there wasn’t a great deal of time to enjoy the characters, after all Rigg’s Mrs Gillyflower would have bestrode a four part serial like a crinolined colossus, but no matter, this bastard had it where it counted. It was inventive, there were surprises and what I’m told is self-deprecating Northern humour, though as a Londoner I have to take my sources at their word – I had assumed our Sontaran friend Strax was just parroting common sense.

As Gatiss is clearly more comfortable with this kind of 19th century sensationalism than you are, perhaps you could take the next step and hire him to write a sequel to Robert Holmes’ peerless, though surely not racist, The Talons of Weng-Chiang? This classic Tom Baker serial, set but a handful of years before tonight’s instalment, was concluded on the Saturday prior to my birth. In fact, it was listening to my Mother read the reviews aloud that spurred me on to be born the following Friday, just so I could catch the repeat.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

P.S: I noticed The Doctor being once again referred to as a monster. When you ruin the series and tell us who he is, will his monstrousness be a part of it? I was also upset that a couple of annoying kids blackmailed their way into next week’s story but as Neil Gaiman’s writing it, I’m hopeful that Clara’s charges will be killed.

The Past:

The Distant Past:

Deep Time:

Dear Steven Moffat: Cold War

Doctor Who - Series 7B

Dear Steven,

Showing the sort of prescience one might expect of a show about time travel, tonight’s mammock o’ Gatiss, Cold War, took us back to 1983; a time when, according to Conservative mythology, a bevaginated abstraction known only as The Iron Lady, was engaged in a furious battle to rid the world of isms – communism, socialism, Darwinism and my personal bugbear, minimalism.

The death of the Thatcher myth (for I don’t believe she truly existed, Steven), has got us all thinking about the ’80s: a simpler time when the world was polarised between ideological opposites, when being on the dole and having no future was chic, and you could get a Wimpy anywhere, even in a mining town. Those of us that grew up during this period of social disintegration, bitterness and spiritual desolation miss it, Steven. We also miss the very real threat of nuclear annihilation. It was a joy to see that revived in Saturday teatime.

Cold War was your archetypal monster on the loose episode, which revived the Ice Warriors; Martian menaces who were last on screen when most of us were a masturbatory fantasy between two drunk teenagers in a dingy, North London nightclub. In what was surely a visual metaphor for their long dormant status, Gatiss had Skaldak, a warmonger dating back to Martian antiquity, revived from a block of ice. He’d been frozen for 5,000 years, which is almost as long as the audience have now been waiting for an episode that carries a bit of weight.

What prevented this ‘Hunt for Red Planet October’ becoming ‘Das Bollocks’ was Skaldak himself. He was a likeable beast with a suitably monstrous voice, thanks to the vocal menace of Who veteran Nicholas Briggs. Intimidating to be sure but, we learned, also a family man who was understandably upset that his daughter was long dead and his people, if you can call them people, in absentia. When he learned he was on a boat “fat” with nuclear missiles, he was determined to initiate a holocaust.

Sure, his motive seemed to be a noxious combination of pride and spite, but no matter, it gave us something to ponder amidst the usual histrionics – running around tight corridors, The Doctor’s peacocking, some dull moralising and necessary exposition for the benefit of those who didn’t see the Warriors’ last appearance and couldn’t ask their parents because the two were in the bedroom, arguing about Dad’s affair.

Even half-conscious viewers would have asked themselves two questions, however: 1) Why couldn’t the crew all just get into the TARDIS and escape this doomed sub containing a deadly stowaway and 2) as there’s been no nuclear war, the threat of the episode is an empty one so why should I care? Fortunately Gatiss saw those two traps and took the time to side step them.

The TARDIS, once again showing its mischievous side by dropping The Doctor and Clara into the middle of a crisis, went further and disappeared. Though this was later explained as the activation of its HADS – the newly fixed Hostile Action Displacement System, viewers suspected an ulterior motive; an attempt to murder Clara, who we learned last week was not the time machine’s favourite companion. Had she grown fond of Amy and Rory perhaps or, as is more likely, did she imagine that this one was determined to sleep with The Doctor and would eventually grind him down? We’ve seen the look in her eye, we know it’s on her mind. No wonder original series man Waris Hussein complained there was too much sexuality in the show these days. Every time The Doc extends his sonic screwdriver Clara’s eyes widen. It’s becoming embarrassing. Still, at least the very real threat of mushroom clouds persisted. “History’s in flux, it can be changed” The Doctor told his drooling assistant, and a good job too or any tension surrounding the question of whether Skaldak would succeed in launching the Soviet sub’s nuclear payload would soon have dissipated.

As for the rest, well, the usual pointless observations, old fruit. If the Russians only sounded like they were speaking English spanks to the TARDIS’ translation matrix, why were the sub crew yapping in our vernacular both before it landed and after it’d disappeared? If Gatiss is a fan of The Hunt for Red October, and who isn’t, why not steal its great wheeze: starting off with Russian dialogue, only to carefully zoom in on the mouth of one officer, make the switch to English, then carefully zoom out – a neat bit of visual grammar that tells the audience that the language hasn’t changed but the way we’re hearing it has. What’s that, it would have got too complicated when the TARDIS arrived? Well, maybe but at least the first few minutes would have made sense. I’d have liked some thick Russian accents too. How I am supposed to know they’re Ruskies unless they sound like Boris Yeltsin’s Spitting Image puppet?

All in all it was a bit of an unremarkable episode; sub-aquatic you might say, in which Martian modesty was shown to be a myth as Skaldak spent most of the running time shamelessly sauntering about the sub naked. “He’s desperate,” said The Doctor and so it seemed, hoping for a bit of attention from a boatload of sex-starved Soviet sailors.

I confess I’m getting concerned that this season is just a bit, well, incidental, and that each mini-blockbuster is, like its big budget namesakes, high on concept but low on inspiration and character development. Viewing figures seem static too. Perhaps that’s an indication that you can waste time designing movie posters for each new instalment and talk up as unmissable, but most of us don’t care about the PR, we just want stories that have breadth, depth and as little screwdriver use as possible. What hope?

Now if you’ll excuse me I have to go and defrost the commune’s freezer. Don’t ask me what they’ve got in there.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

The Past:

The Distant Past:

Deep Time:

Published in: on April 13, 2013 at 19:13  Comments (2)  
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Dear Steven Moffat: Night Terrors

Dear Steven,

With Whovianism comes many burdens. Chief amongst them is the defence known as “The Fry Riposte”, a tried and tested strategy for justifying fandom, in which life long viewers attack the notion that Who is programme for children.

Any self-respecting fan of science fiction has had to use the riposte, named in honour of genre illiterate opineatron Stephen Fry, at some point in their lives. Sci-fi, to those that know nothing about it, is short hand for an infantile thirst for fantasy. Childhood after all, is the time when our imaginations are supposed to be at their strongest. Then, so the thinking goes, we grow up, get bogged down by responsibility and the mental muscles we use to facilitate escapism wither from lack of use and eventually waste away to nothing. This, apparently, is normal and, er, healthy.

Human nature dictates that once wide eyes start to narrow, becoming sunk in their sockets and bookended by crow’s feet, we start to resent those that refuse to join us in the fucking awful real world. The accusation is that such refusniks are childish, an insult that implies underdeveloped, mentally stunted, when in fact they may have retained the creativity long dormant in their detractors.

Yet, it’s interesting isn’t it, that when Who scribes get stuck for a story hook they reach for childhood fears. You know the kind of episode, Steven, it’s the Fear Her school of Who, written using the IOCDE (Iconography of Childhood Defamiliarisation Engine) plug-in to your LBF, or Low Budget Filler, software. I suppose this implies that deep down, users like Gatiss, who “penned” last night’s episode, agree with Fry. Whatever they say publically, they think it’s really for the kids and consequently, when the production can’t afford to blow up a planet or CG a fleet of starships to encircle the Earth, they reach for the core audience, a little like politicians preaching to their core vote when they want to play it safe, having run out of ideas.

So once again Who got all domestic and whereas the results were fine, I couldn’t quite enjoy it. You see, Steven, I’m just too old for this shit. Fear of being abandoned by my parents? Monsters in the cupboard? Dolls coming to life? Seven year olds will remember this one alright, probably mark it down as a firm favourite, but I’m 34 old fruit, and childless. What’s in it for me? I can watch any Star Trek episode without feeling like I’ve walked into the wrong room. Is it too much to ask that this could be my Doctor Who experience too?

Anyway, I don’t want to make too much of it Steven, in fact I’d like to compliment Gatiss on creating what might have been a nigh on perfect average episode. The degree of calibration required to get this exactly right is quite difficult, so it’s high praise indeed. It wasn’t bad in any way, it wasn’t stupid, yet nor was it too exciting or in any way unique. I enjoyed the care taken in making it familiar and low key, while keeping it moving so I never felt completely bored. It also had a neat line in predictability; I was never surprised and sometimes, late at night, when your brain is just too tired to do any work, that kind of banality is just what the Doctor ordered.

There was good stuff in it, of course there was, there had to be to balance out Amy and Rory’s lack of involvement, the slightly mawkish ending and so on. I liked the idea of the Doll’s House running amok – that had something, even if it felt old hat, and The Doctor’s awkward house call routine is always a joy to watch; his argument, essentially with himself, about whether or not to open the cupboard, was very funny indeed. Still, does season filler have to be this disposable, Steven? Last year’s The Lodger did the same job much more effectively, I thought. It had something extra.

That’s it for this week. You may be interested to know that I’m thinking of adopting a child in an attempt to cultivate some strong kiddy-fears. It’s to be my new project. I thought about giving it a cat complex by starving the animals and letting them into the child’s room late at night, ravenous. They’d smell the dead mice I’d stuffed into the kid’s mattress, which should make for unbearable evenings.

I’m also having furniture designed that looks like a naked old man with his hand extended, once the light’s off. Let me know if you’ve got any thoughts on those ideas.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

Previously, on Dear Steven Moffat:

Published in: on September 4, 2011 at 16:17  Comments (5)  
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