Dear Steven Moffat: Hide

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Dear Steven,

A violent kick in the guts: that’s the feeling you get when a word or phrase, benignly dropped, unlocks a suppressed memory, something you’ve kept in your mind’s attic for years; the door barricaded with paint tins and stacks of vintage porno mags.

Tonight’s trigger word was “Ghostbusters”. As soon as I heard it I was back there, stuck in the era of Russell Dust and David Tennant, like a wounded horse in a bog. I could see the 10th Doctor, that hyperactive show off, pratting about that fucking awful coral console room in his pin stripe suit with some object resembling a proton pack strapped to his back, giving the gormless, easily amused Rose, a karaoke rendition of Ray Parker Junior’s famous ditty. She laughed, as was her wont, and I winced, wondering now, as then, why a thousand year old time-traveller, to all intents and purposes a demi-god, wise with the knowledge of a hundred thousand civilisations and the entire sweep of the universe from birth to death, would have the same cultural reference points as a 19 year old girl from early 21st Century London.

Neil Cross’ second episode was only just beginning and already I was contemplating the appalling possibility that as we got closer to the show’s 50th anniversary and that multi-Doctor story featuring that Virgin Media sell out, the stories would veer toward the same tone and style. The condition, known medically as Tennantus, was coming back.

Well feel free to drown me with a thousand gallons of marshmallow, I was wrong. I enjoyed Hide more that any other episode this season and if arrested and forced to say why in a series of marathon interrogations without access to food, water or proper legal counsel, I’d say that it worked because it did what few other offerings this year managed; it surprised and advanced the characters.

As it began there was every reason to think this was going to be an atmospheric, yet essentially formulaic instalment, featuring a creepy house and an alien masquerading as a ghost. This being Who, we dismissed the phantasm’s spectral credentials immediately and looked to alternative explanations, knowing this universe is too rich and complexed to house anything as trite as an afterlife.

What initially seemed to be a straightforward mystery happily, delightfully, turned out to be anything but. In reality it was an investigation into our two favourite time travellers; a long overdue bit of digging while the incidental plot played out in the foreground. Dougray Scott’s solider turned scientist noted the Doctor’s deceitful side, a canny piece of observation that complemented the warning given to Clara from Jessica Raine’s psychic, that she shouldn’t trust the Galifreyian ganglinoid as he had “a sliver of ice” in his heart. She neglected to say which one but we took the point. Add to this an interesting bit of innuendo, The Doctor’s suggestion that “every monster needs a companion”, and you couldn’t help but wonder if Cross was trying to tell us something. Sure, the bow tied lank wasn’t talking about himself but this episode had more double meanings than a Carry On film. For once it was worth listening to everything everyone said.

Clara was at it too. Morbidly reflecting on her place in the universe, having seen the Earth’s final years during one of The Doctor’s experiments, she reflected that from the Timelord’s point of view she was both not yet born and long dead. “I am a ghost” she told him; words which carried extra power as they came from a woman we knew to have died twice. What did all of this mean in the grand scheme of things and why, for the love of Omega, does the TARDIS not like the precocious imp? Clara’s really noticing it now and so are we.

This after all was one of those rare episodes in which the time machine spoke, literally, using its on board projection system, figuratively, with the Cloister Bell tolling for The Doctor, assuming it’s not Clara it was bonging at, and through obstinacy, keeping its doors closed to her when she tried to effect a rescue. Yes, something’s afoot with this girl and it could be that the Doctor’s one permanent companion, his ship, is a lot closer to solving the only mystery left worth a fuck than the man himself.

So yes Steven, you can pull all my levers and twist my knobs if this episode wasn’t deeper than imagined. I enjoyed the irony that The Doctor’s true motive for visiting this haunted house was to meet a powerful psychic in the hope she’d reveal Clara’s secrets, only for the same woman to give his companion an insight into him. I also enjoyed the lashings of lore – not least the off-camera visit to Metebelis III, The Planet of the Spiders, and the action taking place in 1974, the year said serial went out. It was a bit of old series continuity that showed Neil Cross to be a paid up fan who, having got an RTD era episode out of his system with his debut, finally wrote one of his own on a superior second outing.

Indeed Cross reminded bastards like me that you can pack a lot into these 45 minute episodes if you litter your story with human (and inhuman) interest, while providing some decent questions for the viewers to chew over. Chuck in some sharp direction and a couple of nicely understated guest stars and we’re in business, Steven. It’s been a long year but tonight I finally had cause to wake up.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

P.S: Noted with dismay your decision to name the series finale The Name of the Doctor. So sure am I that this is an allusion to Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, not least because the episode that follows it features Billie Piper, that I’m going to read the bastard and send you a special letter on where I think you’re going with the anniversary special and what you shouldn’t do under any circumstances, the most important of which is DON’T REVEAL THE DOCTOR’S IDENTITY. Do keep an eye on the doormat!

The Past:

The Distant Past:

Deep Time:

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Dear Steven Moffat: The Rings of Akhaten

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Dear Steven,

Though I’ve never written an episode of Doctor Who, unless you count the rejected scripts for The Passive Aggressive-o-tron, The Steep Incline at Aswad, Who Killed Rose Tyler’s Brood?, The Buttered Undercarriage of Trevor Nunn and Terror at Two Thirty, were I to compose a guide for new writers my introduction would tell them to avoid sentimentality and pathos, in fact any one of the four musketeers.

I say avoid them, perhaps better advice would be to think carefully about trying to manufacture the same. For me all TV works best when scribes concentrate on telling the best story they can. With luck their efforts will induce the kind of feelings I’ve alluded to in a way that will fool the audience into thinking these are their own emotions, not the end result of a grand act of manipulation. When the writer’s efforts to pour these emotions into us feel similar to a man having booze poured down his neck by two hired thugs who later plan to place him, unconscious, in the driver’s seat of his car and push said vehicle over a cliff in an attempt to make it look like an inebriate’s folly, we know the story’s failed to connect. At the risk of sounding like an Akhater, this was the fate of Neil Cross’s episode.

Before we turn the corpse over and start drilling down to the spine, let’s get all the obvious jokes out of the way. Who stole the Star Wars sound effects library? Is anyone in Cardiff expecting a writ from Disney? Why doesn’t the TARDIS like Clara, isn’t she into girls like the rest of us? If a sonic doorstop needs a man to stand under it, what good is it really? Songs don’t open doors, Steven, if they did the winner from last year’s The Voice would be on this season’s judging panel instead of Danny from The Script. Assuming the line about fleeing to the Lake District was a piece of aural misdirection aimed at the listening planet-sized soul vampire, would that be the gambit known as Steve Coogan’s bluff? A Vuldarian Horse walks into a Space Bar. The cursor shifts to the right.

Okay, now we’ve worked our way through that crap, let’s talk about what happened in this episode. The Doctor, who continues to act like the worst kind of stalker there is – namely one with a time machine, spied on the circumstances of Clara’s conception, trying to find out more about her origins. We infer he was standing at the end of the bed at the right moment, though this scene was clearly cut for time. Consequently the episode begins in what we’re instantly alerted to as THE EIGHTIES, on account of a time stamped Beano annual and The Specials; apparently the two cultural artefacts most likely to connect a modern audience with the year 1981. I suppose 3 million unemployed would have been hard to show.

Clara’s Dad, an idiot, is hit in the face by a leaf and saved from an oncoming death wagon by Clara’s mother, who finds the circumstances of their interface endearing, rather than evidence that the man so nearly squished was a cockend, as most of us would. So romance blooms, with this drippy klutz giving his fresh-faced love a lot of bullshit about pre-destiny, symbolised, we’re told, in the autumnal leaf that was blown into his puss. Said tree refugee becomes “the most important leaf in human history”, though it isn’t clear it’s had much competition, so later, when Clara gives up this family heirloom to the God of Akhaten, we’re inclined to feel a tug on the left ventricle. Yet we don’t. Why? Because its horsemeat, Steven: tear gas for tits.

I don’t think Neil Cross believed that a dead mother and family valuable backstory would work unless he showed it, but this was a mistake. Watching the mawkish scene play out only made me hate the device all the more. How much better, thought I, would the same ruse have been if Clara had spent a moment talking about her parents with solemn contemplation, perhaps to the diminutive Queen of Years, also down a few family members. It would have given the new companion a scene, Steven; a chance to show she was more than an excited face. With her character deepened and the parents imagined, the audience free to project onto them any precious relative they’d lost, the payoff would have been many times more powerful. As it was, we were left to get choked up about the centrepiece of the Canadian flag, having been told what to feel instead of having the opportunity to enjoy those feelings of our own accord. Why don’t your writers trust us, Steven? Do they think we’re dead inside – that we need to deep throat the sentiment? Is there any possibility of Clara deep throating some sentiment in a future episode?

If that part of the story failed to onion the eyes, The Doctor and Clara’s closing speeches to the Lord Planetoid, conceived as moments of high drama and poignancy, bombed. It didn’t help that both, though the Doc’s in particular, sounded like flabby versions of Rutger Hauer’s sign off in Blade Runner. That scene was famously filleted by the head replicant and replaced with a few succinct lines of moving, poetic dialogue. Unfortunately Mr Cross thought we’d much prefer a piece of epic grandstanding that seemed to go on forever. At one point I thought The Doctor was going to take us through his experiences season by season, starting with the moment he stole his TARDIS. It wasn’t clear to me whether the monster was weakened by the burden of all those memories or from sheer fatigue. His skull-like, computer generated face seemed to say, much as you’re saying now, “is he ever going to stop talking?” When Clara jumped in, unfolding her own piece of paper and clearing her throat, I noticed that my entire mug load of tea had evaporated.

We’ve long known that The Doctor’s grandstanding kills episodes stone dead, so why allow it? Don’t you think we suffered enough during Russell Dust’s era? Couldn’t our hero have said “Jack Harkness” and inflicted the same damage on his enemy? Two words, five minutes saved – meaning more room for Clara’s character scenes.

So what worked, you may ask? Well, the episode looked good – it ate most of the FX budget, and it was certainly awash with colour, not to mention ear-pleasing choons born of alien choristers. Oh, and I liked the cameo from Flash Gordon’s rocket cycle, but overall it, well, wasn’t subtle enough, nor long enough for us to care about any of the supporting characters. We were left to chalk up another example of a promising idea that was denied the chance to breathe having been compressed into modern Who’s 45 minute mini-movie format. Would it have worked better had it been a two parter? Would there have been a greater sense of jeopardy if The Doctor had looked genuinely threatened at any point? Damned if I know, chief, I’m just a madman with a blog.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

P.S: If I could travel back in time and give our young Queen some advice, I’d tell her to take her family abroad and stay there. Is there any chance of The Doctor doing this in a future episode?

Correction: Steven, my original letter mis-remembered the opening scene, imagining Clara’s mother to be at the wheel of the Ford Fate that nearly ran over Mr Oswald’s life-giving ovoids. I think I must have been thrown by The Doctor reading The Beano. I’ve corrected the passage, though begrudgingly, as I preferred my memory’s version of the scene. 

The Past:

The Distant Past:

Deep Time: