Dear Steven Moffat: Extremis/The Pyramid at the End of the World/The Lie of the Land

Dear Steven,

As someone who’s campaigned for more long form Who, a return to the storytelling ethos of old, a time when stories had room to breathe, I thought I’d wait until this three-parter concluded before giving you the benefit of my esteemed judgement. And when I say that, I’m relying on a Monk-like retconning of history to furnish the statement with credibility.

I know these stories are planned and filmed half a year before transmission, so you, Peter Harness and Toby Whithouse would have known nothing of the snap election, but it seemed to me this strange, enjoyable blend of Dan Brown, The Mummy and Nineteen Eighty-Four, had a timely quality if you will (and frankly, even if you won’t) that significantly improved its potentially yawn inducing alien invasion of Earth premise.

In the Monks we had a pious enemy that made a fuss of free will, the notion of consent, while clandestinely doing everything they could to crush independent thought. The dry husks, humanoid in appearance, but lacking communicative dexterity, vitality, colour or warmth, used advanced computer simulations to wargame their strategy for taking over. In “Extremis” we learned they’d anticipated every rear guard action, every counter argument, using, as Nardole helpfully put it so others didn’t have to, something like the holodeck in Star Trek. Then, in “The Pyramid at the End of the World”, they used this information to prey on a vulnerable, frightened, ill-informed populace to effect dominion over the population. Bill – a naïve youth – was groomed to give the world away, the aliens requiring our consent to establish their global protection racket. Her love of the Doctor, the closest thing she had to an elderly relative, was used against her as the Monks promised to save the old duffer and restore his faculties for a sky-high fee. Her vote duly acquired, “The Lie of the Land” saw the Monks established as our conquerors, initiating a ruthless programme of mass indoctrination, designed to naturalise their reign – propaganda that retooled all humanity’s achievements as their own. The order was recast as our traditional rulers and the guardians of social order.

Watching this, just days out from an election, I and millions of others, dropped our four chocolate desserts,  cupped the breasts of our high class escorts, and screamed the same question at our televisions. Were the Monks a thumping great metaphor for the Tories?

“You are corpses to us”, “In darkness we are revealed” – shit, Steven, these could have been Tory slogans. In fact, they felt so familiar I had the check the Conservatives’ website.

It surely wasn’t incidental that they were ultimately defeated by a black woman’s idealised view of humanity – an image plucked from the halcyon days of the 1980s – when Labour’s opposition was underpinned by absolute moral certainty (as well as ideological confusion, but let’s not get into that).  The imaginary version of Bill’s Mum, whom she’s inexplicably chosen not to supplant with the real thing, despite knowing a man with a time machine, represented love, youth, empathy and, being a psychic construct, the immaterial. She was, essentially, a spiritual manifestation. The antithesis, in other words, of Thatcherite materialism.

Once the world remembered the era Bill’s dead teat merchant represented, a time before the odious assumptions that bedevil today’s unequal society became embedded, and therefore problematic to reverse, they rallied to change their society and the Monks, realising the game was up, moved on, rightly fearing a backlash that would see more than a few members of the order forcibly brought down hard on those pyramid tips.

In a story where blindness was a structuring theme – the literal being joined by classics like false consciousness, ignorance, short memories and deference to authority, it was reassuring to enjoy this positive propaganda that tried to have it both ways by first telling us to think for ourselves, then suggesting that maybe the Doctor had the opportunity to fix a few problems with human thinking – namely racism and, the big one, people talking in the cinema. Hard to argue with that, except of course if one believes in free will, one has to accept that some people will always make bad choices. Though if they choose to talk at the flicks while I’m there they’re risking their lives.

Yes, Steven, this was the right story at the right time. What a pity the average viewer would be too young to vote, even if they managed to see past the sci-fi camouflage and internalise its message.

Of course that could all be bollocks.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

P.S: The Veritas surely represented Dan Brown’s novels, no? A book that once read makes people commit suicide? I was in hospital once and the only book nearby was the Da Vinci Code. They had to move me to intensive care.

P.P.S: Missy has a 1,000 years to kill in the vault and all she’s been given is a piano? And why is there a containment area within the vault. Isn’t the vault its own containment area? I mean, she could wait by the doors, then run out, but it seemed cruel to further limit her space for a millennium. Couldn’t you just put your ear to the door and if you heard snoring, go in?

P.P.P.S: Why do all computer monitors in this show has to have a conspicuous computer-like font? Are you concerned that if you show something that doesn’t look like a TV computer display, we won’t understand it’s an image generated by a computer? The audience have their own, you know.

P.P.P.P.S: “It would be easy to believe their lies.” Too easy, kids. Think on. Election day’s this Thursday.

P.P.P.P.P.S: Would killing Bill have been so bad?

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: Before the Flood

beforetheflood-850x560

Dear Steven,

For years now I’ve berated you for lazily reusing the device of the ontological or “bootstrap” paradox that the Doctor drew our attention to in the odd, fourth wall breaking cold opener to “Before the Flood”. ‘Google it,’ said Capaldi, invoking my other bête noir, the Doctor’s use of modern idioms. But I didn’t need to google it, Steven. I’ve been watching it for four fucking years. I’ve sat gawping, as the nation scratched its balls, wondering why you couldn’t just work an independent event into your time travel stories so they’d make a lick of non-linear sense, instead opting for this odious cheat that requires a lot less forethought and strips all the dramatic weight and consequence from cause and effect.

Clearly you’re sensitive to this criticism, so it’s my guess you instructed Toby Whithouse to take a hit for the team and make a philosophical quandary out of it. Now you can say that a) you’re not the only one and b) wasn’t it a fascinating philosophical puzzle when Toby used it? NOW do I see why it’s your device of choice? Well, no I don’t. The Doctor’s Beethoven story was indeed interesting, though I never want to see him address us directly again – this isn’t House of Cards, but presenting it as an aside – a mystery with no story implications, is one thing. Making it the engine of yet another episode is something else.

How the hell are we supposed to invest in the Doctor’s choices and revel in his genius, if his way out of impossible situations is an impenetrable loop fuelled by knowledge that comes from nowhere? What will it take for you and Toby and all the people you’ve brainwashed to embrace this idea, to realise adopting that structure is just as stupid as any other bit of deus ex machina, like the Doctor discovering a box in the middle of his enemy’s lair containing a piece of paper that tells him how to escape? If you or any of your scribes used the explanation box, viewers would say you’d given up, but you expect us to think we’ve had our brain tickled when you wheel out the self-defeating circular plot. Steven, we’re not stupid, even if we continue to watch the show.

Isn’t it time you were honest and just admitted that no one on Doctor Who has the slightest idea how to write themselves out of corners? If you opened up perhaps we could help. Maybe we could set up workshops and talk through story ideas until someone came up with a series of plausible endings. Then, armed with the knowledge of what we wanted to do, we’d go back through the script and seed the resolution is a series of scenes that weren’t dependent on our pre-determined ending to work.

Can you see how that would be so much more satisfying to watch? Joe and Jacinda Public could put down the brick they keep by the sofa for throwing at the television, just in case, and say ‘that was great. The Doctor was able to take advantage of the thing that resulted from Clara’s decision to do that thing which in turn came from the soul searching conversation she had with thingy. Man, I really feel like I’ve been on a journey with these characters and I can see how the force of their decisions impacted on one another to produce a satisfying and surprising conclusion. I’m glad it wasn’t all pre-determined and reliant on information imported from nowhere to work.’

So “Before the Flood” taught us that time travel, when used this way, is the enemy of great drama. Not that the non-time traveling components made a great deal of sense. I confess that consumed by irritation at Clara and the Doctor Facetiming one another and talk of Wi-Fi, more imports from the present day that will instantly date this story, I lost the thread of just what the Fisher King (Robin Williams looking a little rough since his untimely death last year) wanted. There was talk of conquest, which I suppose ended when he drowned, which left the question of the ghosts and how exactly they were formed and so on. Yes, I know it was something to do with the script etched into the wall of the Space Hearst and Electromagnetism, but I’ll be honest Steven, I switched off. The Doctor’s death was a technological cheat, as was his ability to defeat the Fisher King and win the day. In other words, we were presented with two great reasons why Toby Whithouse shouldn’t take over from you when you retire. He’s picked up all your bad habits.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

P.S: “If you love me in any way…” Clara, don’t you think you’re getting a little presumptuous?

P.P.S: Deaf Vision was interesting. Have any deaf people ever reported seeing sound represented by lines that form the outline of objects in their mind’s eye?

P.P.P.S: The episode’s big tick was attention to detail in one seemingly trivial moment. The Doctor’s hair, in his emergency hologram, was shorter, indicating he’d recorded it some time ago. Congrats to whoever insisted on that. I wish they were script editor.

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: Under the Lake

Doctors Prompt Card

Dear Steven,

Following your opening two-parter, a couple of episodes that really emptied the viewer, leaving them sore and staring into a toilet bowl full of khaki coloured bits of goodwill, what was required was something to line the stomach – a story that would rehydrate weary Whovians and make them well enough to eat soup and other soft food. The first part of Toby Whithouse’s sub-aquatic story did the job nicely. I mean, it upped our fluids. Sure, it wasn’t a vintage episode, and it suffered from a lot of familiar problems – one dimensional supporting characters (why IS it so difficult to create memorable alien fodder?), padding (a lot of running down corridors) and pop culture references (the Doctor’s familiarity with Peter Andre can only put weakened fans at risk), but it was fun and at least there was coherence and a mystery to solve in an unfamiliar location. The classic Who template then, and very welcome after your initial assault.

If it was maddeningly derivative of the first three Alien movies, so be it – ripping off Hollywood’s obviously a directive in the series bible these days, but I did wonder if Whithouse had made as much effort as he could to disguise the building blocks of his story. The garb of the military types on the industrial lookin’ Scottish aqua base instantly brought to mind Aliens’ marines, and that was before we met Pritchard, the slimy company man fluent in money. We learned the ghosts mostly come out at night, mostly, and that they’d worked out how to use the base against their foes (I half expected someone to cry out, ‘how can they do that, they’re ghosts?!’). We saw the Doctor directing his minions using a schematic of the base, an attempt to lure the ghosts into a trap using live bait and a series of automatic doors, and to cap it all – a failing reactor. If the next episode doesn’t feature the destruction of the base and the ghosts blown out of an airlock (or at the very least covered in molten lead), I’m writing to Lord Hall.

Then, at the risk of making myself unpopular with deaf members of your brood, I was in two minds as to whether the appointment of an aurally challenged commanding officer was a plot wheeze or plan stupid. I can understand Whithouse needing a character who could lip read, having decided the ghosts would be unable to vocalise their words, but did her promotion ultimately make any sense? As the commander of a military group, might she not need to give prompt orders in emergency situations? The kind of life and death calls that sometimes had to be made in an instant? And could she really do that if the other officers had to wait for a sign translation? And what about the handicap of having to lip read your fellow crew members? What if the nature of the emergency meant they couldn’t face you, or your signer was killed in an underwater decompression incident? Then what the fuck would you do? So yes, it was great to see a deaf character in a high profile role on our favourite show, but she seemed to me an odd choice.

So “Under the Lake”, blandly titled though it was, delivered enough Doctor Who staples to return the viewer to health – this was meat and potatoes Time Lording. Yes, there were moments when Whithouse’s remit to keep it zany for the fanboys and girls made for awkward exchanges – references to clockwork squirrels, boy bands and the like (the latter wouldn’t have meant much to a group of early 22nd century characters), but the story sustained interest, Capaldi was well and truly in command, with Clara asking questions, as it should be, and the creepy cliffhanger was excellent. In short, cursed though he was with an acute case of genre movie influences, and obliged by you to insert lines like ‘you’re itching to save a planet’, which confuses the result of the Doctor’s actions with his motive for getting involved, Toby Whithouse showed he understood what bread and butter Who was made of…you know, apart from bread and butter. Makes you think that maybe the fucker should be doing your job and you should be contributing the occasional two-parter.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

P.S: The Doctor, with all knowledge of time and the universe, can’t sign? You’d think he would have insisted Donna Noble use it as a substitute for speech, so would have taken it up so he could occasionally answer.

P.P.S: The Doctor, we learn, once met Shirley Bassey. I’m not alone in wanting the rest of that story, am I?

P.P.P.S: Though I think it’s stupid that after 2,000 years of visiting Earth, the Doctor all of a sudden has no social skills or powers of empathy, I did enjoy his set of prompt cards. It’s a pity he didn’t have one last week that read, “come in Davros, let me teach you about human virtues”.

P.P.P.P.S: Clara told the Doctor she was fine on her own. Given her last boyfriend was the void that is Danny Pink, that struck me as a very healthy response and progress. Good for you, Clara. Good for you.

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: A Town Called Mercy

Dear Steven,

Long after the pain of last week’s episode had eased, the memory was still vivid; it was the sort of agony that gets seared into the hippocampus, like testicular torsion. Consequently, like a man who’d extended his hand in friendship only to have the fingers bent back and broken, I approached Toby Whithouse’s frontier-fart like a hungry fool returning to a month old sandwich. God knows I wanted to like it, which is incredible as he’s a myth, but I expected something rotten, and I don’t mean good like Johnny Rotten, I’m talking something like endurance; the TV equivalent of a John Barrowman sings Jacques Brel album.

In the event it was better than I imagined; slight but fun in its own way; a story that invigorated a moribund American genre with a smattering of British eccentricity. However, watching it reminded us of the dangers, oft flagged but seldom conquered, of sci-fi that liberally dunks its trunk in other species; the allure of pastiche.

As a Star Trek fan I grew to accept the occasional letting down of hair that was the genre dunk: the Next Generation’s Holodeck made it a franchise institution. ‘Look’, we’d cry, ‘this week the cast get to do Robin Hood, or Phillip Marlowe, even Sherlock Holmes’. It’s a lot of fun for writers because it allows them to visit their other interests while drawing a salary for an unrelated assignment.

The problem is that pastiche tends to overwhelm a story and limit its scope. You must include the elements that aficionados expect – in the case of the Western, gunslingers, saloons, the town whore, a sheriff, the shootout – preferably at high noon – and by the time you’ve ticked off all that shit, because as a scribe on a TV show like Doctor Who, this will be the only chance you ever get in your life to enjoy this fantasy, there’s 6 pages of script left for original material. Is 6 going to be enough? On this evidence, no.

Look Steven, it’s not Toby W’s fault – he got his fork out and made a genre mash; a mash we all enjoyed. But anyone that tells you that a pliable mound of potato is a satisfying meal when you’re this ravenous, should do the decent thing and offer themselves as a main.

Old Trekkies now milling around the Whoniverse without a care in the world should remember that the Enterprise crew got 26 adventures a year. In a season that long you could afford to take the occasional respite; fans needed it, after all we’re not machines, there’s only so much intensity and emotion we can take in successive weeks. This is why we were happy to see Data dressed as Friar Tuck, or Worf playing the Hog Roast, because the season was a marathon and marathons require rest stops. A series of Doctor Who is now 14 episodes max, and we only get to enjoy 5 of these before an enforced two month break, because Auntie’s too fucking thrift to pay for more. That being the case we can’t afford padding. A Town Called Mercy was a hoot – a hoot from a mechanical owl, but that’s now two weeks in three where we’ve shown up to drink only to be told that the barrel’s off but the public water fountain is working. Steven, you’re killing us out here.

Thinking about the problem more closely I wonder if this is further evidence that the 45 minute format doesn’t really suit our Timelord. I know the marketeers that bank on selling the show to other territories, especially the US, won’t countenance a change, but your priority should be the programme itself and what kind of structure best matches its potential. Back in the 80s, when that cultural vandal Michael Grade threatened the axe, like the backward, TV-illiterate office boy that he is, there was the long episode experiment, in which 25 minute bits were consolidated into larger chunks. It didn’t quite work, perhaps because a serial plays best in small portions (with greater cliffhanger opportunities), but the scope of each story was unaffected; it remained a serial. No dunce suggested trying to compress each story into a lone episode.

Last season you revived the traditional long form Who, using a combination of two parters and your own, infuriating, non-sequential approach, but this year, perhaps under pressure from the DG (and the head of exports), we have these bitesized stories. They never felt substantial during Russell Dust’s tenure and they don’t now; there’s just no time for the material to breathe – no time for anything but a fleeting character moment; and consequently I feel like a man having an affair with his best friend’s wife, forced to settle for the one hour a week he’s out playing darts down the Horse and Riot.

Anyway, enjoyed as the aforementioned pastiche, the episode yielded limited pleasures. Murray Gold showed up for work, perhaps for the first time, recasting himself as the bastard son of Morricone and Bernstein. I’m glad The Doctor’s officially three hundred years older than he was at the point of regeneration: thank God, a writer who actually understands that there must be oodles of time unaccounted for on screen – space for missing adventures, audio jaunts, fan speculation and the like. I think The Doctor, during your predecessor’s stint, only aged 5 years. He got through two incarnations in that time. Makes you think. I still believe that this Doctor is too young; I’m sure he was already older than 900 years when the classic series ended, but if you keep aging him between seasons, eventually, perhaps in time for the 50th anniversary, he’ll finally have clocked up the right number of years.

So what’s left to say? There was a horse with a human brain, which I despise. Let’s leave that bullshit to Matthew Morpurgo and sloanes. We had The Doctor flip out, with Amy acting as his beautiful conscience. There’s something of interest there for sure, it’s just a pity that this script only allowed two minutes to dwell on it. Also, because of this throwaway format, Rory and his blush haired bride hardly had a thing to do, and they’ve only got a couple of episodes left! I just watched the clock tick down and lamented the wasted minutes. Still, Amy’s expression, “colour me reassured” – yes, I’ll be using that. If I can.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

Season’s greetings so far:

Last year’s remnants:

Dear Steven Moffat: The God Complex

Dear Steven,

I suppose it’s common enough for the programme’s acolytes to see aspects of their own lives in the material; my friend Milton Schicks once told me a story about his now defunct girlfriend, who had such bouffant hair that her silhouette was almost identical to that of a classic Cyberman. Staying with her overnight, he told me, became impossible. She was shy, particularly when it came to sex, but Milton had to insist that the lights stayed on at all times. Naturally she thought he was mocking her, or eliciting some measure of sadistic glee from her discomfort and ultimately the relationship died. Milton’s luck didn’t improve. His next girlfriend looked like a Dalek with the light off, leading to serious concerns that he hadn’t asked the right questions on their first couple of dates.

Toby Whithouse’s God Complex made me think about my own experiences. I recalled my economy room at the Circus Circus, Las Vegas, and the call girl I’d invited there in the early hours of the morning. I thought about how I’d thrown green backs at her and made outrageous and degrading sexual demands, one of which ultilised the glow stick I’d acquired at the Barry Manilow gig the previous night.

I thought about my own God Complex in those uncertain hours; I’d felt so powerful, like my whole body was an erection. My thumping heartbeat drowned out her cries. The Jack Bauer role play, the Emilio Estivez marathon, puppetry of the breasts; when I look back on it now Steven, I feel ashamed. I’m not that man. Still, in a life where I’m frequently disempowered and feel a prolonged sense of listlessness and fear, this was a rare moment of being master of all dominions, a law unto myself. Candice didn’t deserve the awful things that happened to her that night, but I did take her for breakfast by way of an apology. I even settled the bill in full, meaning she only had to leave the tip.

In this episode, the titular complex turned out to be The Doctor’s; a welcome variant on the megalomaniac alien controls a group of space captives premise. Whithouse’s script was deceptively clever, thought I. There was every reason to suppose that it would be a generic tale; a hotel of room 101s with victims to match and a climax in which The Doctor, having tried a few things, would work out how to turn the tables on their captor and save the day. But Whithouse, showing the type of character-centric thinking that we like on this bastard, had a more interesting idea. The snare was fuelled not by fear, as we all supposed, but by faith, and this was a neat little device that allowed an exploration of the theme developed earlier in the series, of The Doctor’s hubris.

Amy had grown to see The Doctor as her saviour and this, we discovered, was just what the alien trap required in order to finish her off. The Timelord, realising that his arrogance was going to cost our beautiful Scottish thistle her life, was forced to admonish his companion of his shortcomings. ‘I took you with me because I was vain,’ he told her, ‘I’m not a hero.’ Well Steven, I thought that was a smashin’ little scene; a much needed corrective to The Doctor’s monolithic confidence, which occasionally robs the character of his third dimension. This showed his human side, the part we can truly believe in, because as Kirk once reminded Spock, everyone’s human, even if you’re not.

If that was a good moment then the episode’s coda was better yet. The Doctor, realising that he’d become a bit of a liability to Amy and Rory, bless ‘em, made the sudden and unexpected decision to end their travels together. He bought them off with a house and a car, explaining to a tearful Pond that he’d rather the happy couple lived a long life of dull domesticity, than a short exciting one in which one of them ended up grieving for the other, or worse, sharing a cemetery plot. ‘He’s saving us’ Amy told Rory, as the newly liberated couple returned to their house to open an Ocado account. I felt sad, Steven, I’d grown to like this pair, even Rory, but my tears dried quickly, safe in the knowledge that they’d be back in a couple of episodes time.

The Doctor’s concern for his companions’ safety was touching but I did wonder why he’d got through so many before deciding to take this kind of action. Still, Amy and Rory were his first married pair. He’d had a greater impact on their lives than most I suppose. He’d groomed Amy as a companion from childhood, he’d given her a lunatic bent that only a guy like Rory would find endearing, he’d been instrumental in the conception of their child, creating the pre-conditions for the baby’s very unique character, and he’d even been a guest at their wedding. In other words, these two were less disposable than most; he’d let them in. Maybe that’s why this departure mattered.

I did wonder why Amy was quite so casual about the fact that her baby was still missing in the time stream but maybe she thought, ‘ah fuck it, I know she’s alright and this way I miss all the nonsense like toilet training, sleepless nights, school fees, puberty and having to explain away Rory’s porn collection.’ This, of course, was why we couldn’t get too sad; we knew this story was not yet done. For one thing Amy and Rory were present at The Doctor’s death, which although firmly in their past, would mean we’d see them again very soon. That episode, we know, features River, after all she’s in the title, so it’s fair to assume that the couple’s baby blues may also be dealt with, meaning we’ll have to travel to the couple’s present. Will you conclude the story, Steven? That’s not really your style is it? Do advance it a bit though, won’t you? We’re not watching this shit for our health.

Looking ahead to next week, and the return of Craig from The Lodger, a character I like and am happy to be used as an occasional companion, I was reminded of the missing two centuries that were discussed in The Impossible Astronaut. Now The Doctor has abandoned A and R, can we assume that this is the beginning of that lost period? It’s interesting that when the Gallifreyian ganglinoid next sees the happy couple he’ll have had several seasons’ worth of adventures. I’m glad we’ll get to see at least one of them, though I wonder if, given the non-linear nature of the series, we’ll get to see a few more in future? Why not make next season a “lost season”; delay The Doctor’s death solution by a year? That’ll piss your critics off, won’t it? In any event, it makes next week an adventure in its own right, rather than pre-climax filler and that, Steven, is a smart move.

I must go. Milton has just e-mailed me. He wants me to come down The Buckshot and Backside, and meet his new girlfriend, Veronica Greene-Deth. Apparently she’s a beauty.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

A bit of previous:

Published in: on September 18, 2011 at 16:26  Comments (1)  
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