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,

Ed

Series Catch Up:

The Distant Past:

Deep Time:

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Published in: on May 19, 2013 at 13:35  Comments (3)  
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Dear Steven Moffat: Hide

doctor-who-hide-promo-pics-038

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: