Dear Steven Moffat: Thin Ice

Dear Steven,

Since Doctor Who returned in 2005 – an occasion I celebrated with vigorous intercourse with my then inamorata, Bilie Piper looking on appalled, a recurring issue has been the change in format from serial to episodic storytelling. The latter, adopted presumably to make the show friendly for foreign markets, i.e. the Americans, has been both a gift and a curse.

A gift, because if a story’s derivative, clichéd, boring, tonally ill-conceived, or plot rather than character driven, and I insert an unrelated clause referring to the first two episodes of the series here, then knowing it will be over in 45 minutes is a relief. But if the story has potential, say an interesting backdrop, an enjoyable villain, and is character-centred, then single episodes seem too short, necessitating the scribe set it up, move in on and tie it off before we’ve had the chance to savour the ideas. It’s like decanting a fine wine, then knocking it back like a vodka shot. You know, the way you drink it. That characterful lacquer doesn’t touch the sides.

On balance, “Thin Ice” which doubles as a description of where the show stands with its audience right now, belonged in the latter category. We could have more of it; extra time for the story to breathe.

Sarah Dollard, who last year forced Clara to face the raven, something we’d wanted, euphemistically, for some time, is clearly interested in character dynamics and what makes the Doctor tick. So in this high-concept stopover in 1814 London, she used a throwaway monster of the week premise; a giant fish eating poor people below the frozen Thames; to explore the Doctor’s perspective on death and egalitarianism.

He first shocked and disgusted Bill, with his apparent indifference to a boy-thief who was sucked under by the big fish’s legion of finned acolytes. But later had her (irritatingly) bursting with pride with a speech to Lord Bastard, Nathan Barley, who’d planned a frost fair to give the fish sustenance, as it defecated super-fuel or something, that attacked the toff’s social and, gasp, racial preconceptions.

It was a speech unlikely to overturn a lifetime of social conditioning for an aristocrat raised in the late 18th century, but taken together, these two moments were there to give us the measure of the Doctor’s enlightened but pragmatic approach to humankind. He didn’t have time to mourn, he said, and sometimes appalling circumstances meant hard pragmatism. But he had a bottom-up view of society and saw helping the little man and woman as essential to the greater good. Yes, the Doctor was a liberal despite his social advantages. An easy position to take when you have a TARDIS and unlimited resources of course, but perhaps more admirable for all that.

So if the episode’s primary purpose was to tease out, or perhaps reaffirm this aspect of the Doctor’s psyche, what was Bill’s role in this madness? Well, Dollard rightly intuited that because she didn’t know much about the Time Lord’s new friend; the previous two scripts providing no help, as they passed on the opportunity to add depth to said companion; the most effective way to build Bill was to establish her role as the Doctor’s new conscience and moral barometer, the same role fulfilled by every companion since 2005. In pushing for a more considered reaction to the boy lost on the Thames and by having an identity that when attacked by Lord Bastard, roused the Doctor’s fury, we both learned a little about the gap between our hero’s rhetoric and deep feelings, and Bill’s constitution and outlook.

Look Steven, Bill is too earnest for my taste, at least in this stage of her development, and I don’t think everyone on your team should be so allergic to subtlety, but I appreciated the attempt to add both a psychological dimension to the duo’s relationship and provide us with some sense as to what kind of person Bill is. I also suspect you named the character – Bill Potts, B.P, as a tribute to the aforementioned Billie Piper, whose wide-eyed optimism and lack of nuance you’re rehashing. Still, it would nice to take a risk and find a chink her armour, as right now she appears to be the personification of every virtue signalling bore on Twitter, and perhaps we’ll get to that in time, but this was a small turn on the depth dial in the right direction (clockwise).

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

P.S: This could have been a serial, Steven, and maybe a good one. We could have revelled in the period atmosphere, explored the social mores of the time, and given Lord Bastard more than a couple of scenes. Any human villain in league with an alien fish, whose industrial strategy is “grinding up children for profit” deserved more than two scenes.

P.P.S: “I care Bill, but I move on.” I hope I don’t end saying this about the show one day.

P.P.P.S: The Doctor gave his hat to some girl then mysteriously, a few scenes later, without revisiting the TARDIS, had a replacement – and not just any replacement, but one full of pies. What the fuck happened there?

P.P.P.P.S: On behalf of the whole world, can I beg you to finally, permanently, rein in Murray Gold? Sometimes, listening to his overwrought scores, is like trying to watch the show while some other bastard plays their music in the background. Less is more. After scoring nine full series, he really should understand that by now. Perhaps hire a second composter to score alternate episodes, thus giving an up-and-comer a much needed chance to provide a contrast and show him how it should be done? I’ll leave that with you.

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:

Dear Steven Moffat: Face the Raven

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Dear Steven,

Being able to look both backwards and forwards is a gift, as we discovered in tonight’s episode. We’ve all got to “Face the Raven” sometime, a phrase that likely to become a stock euphemism for death amongst Whovians from now on, but in Clara’s Oswald’s case the writing’s been on the wall since her debut all those vortex runs ago in “Asylum of the Daleks”. The impossible girl, as she was known in her irritating early period, when she was less a character, more a human maguffin, had an association with death akin to a smoker’s relationship with brown fingertips. From inauspicious beginnings, Clara became both enigmatic and, controversially, pivotal to the Doctor’s existence…though that was more about your ego than good plotting.

She’s the first and likely only companion to bookend her tenure with death. Previous versions were sci-fi cheats – a destroyed original that was copied in time and distributed throughout the centuries that ultimately lead the Doctor, in his ultimate bootstrap paradox, to investigate the existence of a girl he only knew because she’d died to save him, thereby retrospectively seeding herself in his timeline. Yes, we hated that Steven, and you for a time, but later, on a hidden street, with an old enemy and gormless graffiti artist watching, there was no way out – Clara fucked up, or maybe, as part of her believed, succumbed to her death drive. The result? Brown bread, deadsville, game over, the big goodbye, the end.

I have to say old fruit, if you’d told me a couple of years ago I’d miss Clara I wouldn’t have believed you, but she grew on me, and I suspect most of the audience, thanks in part to Jenna Coleman’s impish enthusiasm and you (and your retinue of scribes) getting your act together and turning her into a fully dimensional human being. The characterisation was rebalanced so instead of being an irritant with some likeable tendencies, she became a likable sidekick who bordered on annoying. You get points for time served on this show, and the truth is that Clara’s been around so fucking long she’s become a part of the TARDIS furniture. It’s hard to imagine the show without her, and like I said, that was about as likely in the beginning as Christopher Eccleston signing on for a guest appearance.

“Face the Raven” was a good exit for Clara – far superior to the tearful goodbye to her elderly self that might have been last Christmas, and cleverer than the Ashildr revenge kill teased in “The Woman Who Lived”. Maisie Williams’ character was instrumental in Oswald’s demise as it turned out, but it was ultimately Clara’s own cavalier nature – her impetuousness, and false sense of security from being too long at the Doctor’s side, that did for her in the end. What writer Sarah Dollard got so very right, was making Clara’s demise a consequence of her character, so in character, and tying those traits to her TARDIS history. That’s far more tragic and therefore emotionally devastating for the audience than indiscriminate murder or death by misadventure. Clara died because she didn’t listen, misread the situation, was blind to the danger, and imagined her and the Doctor pulling a rabbit out of a hat as they’d done so often. The scene in which she wilfully, even enthusiastically took the death sentence from Rigsy, certain that Ashildr’s promise of protection would force the Mayoress of Murder Street to save her, was an imitative gambit from the Doctor’s school of too-clever-by-half eleventh hour reversals. But the Doctor’s a genius and institutes these brazen twists in full possession and careful consideration of the facts. Clara’s a secondary school English teacher who’s none too cautious since her boring boyfriend died, and ultimately that difference proved to be the gap between life and death.

Clara took on the blight unaware that in doing so she’d inadvertently broken the terms of Ashildr’s agreement with the Quantum Shade alien. “You cut me out of the deal,” as Williams’ put it, meaning the former Viking no longer had the power to remove the death sentence as it was Rigsy she’d promised to the bastard in the bird. This was consistent with Clara this season – taking risks and throwing herself into life as a fully fledged Doctor impersonator once her dreams of domestic bliss had ended. The Doctor chastised himself for not reigning her in, and quite rightly, but death for Clara was the only route out of the TARDIS – it had become her life, in contrast to Amy who’d started to struggle in her final episodes, and it was clear she’d never leave voluntarily. The companion who once threatened to eclipse the Time Lord on his own show, thanks to preferential treatment from you, her creator, got the ultimate corrective in her final story. She died because she wasn’t the Doctor – she didn’t have his intellect or perspective, and critically, she wasn’t built from the same material. We may all want to be the Doctor, but like Highlander‘s immortals there can be only one.

Add to that the Doctor’s dependence on Clara, and her increasing importance as both a check on his excesses and focaliser for his conscience, and it was clear that only a permanent exit would work in-show. Dollard, understanding this very well, gave Clara some important last lines – a plea to the Doctor not to take revenge for her demise, not to be consumed by hate – to be more Matt Smith, less John Hurt. It worked because it was exactly what we’d expect Clara to say under the circumstances, and it made the Doctor’s final veiled threat to Ashildr, before he was transported off to face the real enemy, in effect the sponsor of Clara’s death, that much more powerful. From now on Ashildr’s existence will depend on the Doctor’s self-restraint, the ability to regulate his own behaviour, sans his friend, and a conflicted Doctor, combustible beneath the surface, is a very tasty prospect indeed.

“Face the Raven” was a vintage episode then, the first of a three-parter as it turned out. Sarah Dollard crafted an intriguing mystery, wrote out a major character with pathos and understanding, and set up an absolute barnstormer of a finale – a pair of episodes that only you can now ruin. Please don’t Steven, after last year’s run and the odd mis-step this season, I’m finally, having looked to the past year and peered into the future, beginning to enjoy myself.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

P.S: Kudos to Dollard for contriving to get the Doctor straight out of this week’s Harry Potter attraction and straight into next week’s finale via a teleporter. Clara left dead on the cobbles was powerful…but I hope the Doctor returns to give her a proper burial and inform next of kin. It’s the least he can do.

P.P.S: Rigsy’s tribute to Clara on the TARDIS, though it’s technically vandalism, was a nice touch. I did wonder for a second if the old girl had done this to herself but then remembered there was no Adric art following “Earthshock”.

P.P.P.S: Perhaps the most interesting part of the episode was Clara’s final suggestion that she’d invited death – a prolonged hangover from Danny Beige’s demise. That was a nice psychological touch. It’s just a pity we’ll never know.

P.P.P.P.S: The prospect of a bitter and lonely Doctor fighting an unseen but historic foe is one built for Peter Capaldi. Having ruined Davros this year, please try not to fuck another classic villain up, else you’ll be facing the raven sooner than you think.

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 22, 2015 at 01:25  Comments (1)  
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