TV We live in interesting times. As is often the case, especially in relation to the web, opinions are polarised, confusion reigns. There seem to be loads of people who’re very happy indeed with this latest series of Doctor Who and the character of the Doctor himself, exclamations that it’s the best season since the show returned and that in Twelfth the Doctor they always wanted. Then there are those who’re entirely disappointed with the whole thing, which they find highly derivative and that the Doctor, their hero is somehow absent. Someone even told me that they felt like they've lost a friend.
Opinions are opinions and there are many available and if you’re in the former constellation you’ve nothing to worry about. If you’re in the latter, well, you’re possibly like me hoping against hope that the Doctor’s general attitude which, to disappointingly quote a correspondent in Radio Times (who hadn’t even seen Kill The Moon yet), is “angry, defensive and doesn’t seem to like the human race very much. […] no light and shade in the character, the humour and compassion have been lost” is part of some arc plot, the reason why he asked up front about his face and enquired to Clara if he’s a good man or some other power governing his actions.
In the midst of what feels like open warfare (the kind in which long term fans who’ve written books on the topic have said they can’t be fussed with the next episode) comes Mummy on the Orient Express which will no doubt confirm to some that we’re essentially watching the pre-Capaldi era rewritten with the aid of the Oblique Strategy Cards which just for fun and to try and keep myself awake I’m going to utilise a bit in writing this review. “What is the reality of the situation?” Oh um, here we are on the Voyage of the Damned ramming into The Curse of the Black Spot with The God Complex floating in the wreckage.
In his first piece for the New York Review of Books, Jonathan Miller says of John Updike’s The Centaur, “This is a poor novel irritatingly marred by good features.” I think that’s about where I am with this season of Who. When faced with an episode with such ostensible fine qualities like Mummy on the Orient Express, doing some very good things, there’s still that nagging feeling at the back of my mind that it’s not quite gelling, that the level of familiarity is just too strong this time and not in the same way as in classic Who where the Dalek’s same old plans was comforting. Next week looks like Fear Her with Chloe Webber replaced with Banksy.
“Fill every beat with something” Which is fine. It is. If I thought the show was being particularly meta, it’s just possible that like Charlie Kauffman’s Adaptation which is ironically rubbish in its closing act, it’s testing viewer's resolve, putting in the same position as Clara in really, really hating this man we’ve so previously loved, and by extension the programme but know that we’ll be tuning in the following week anyway. The above mentioned Radio Times correspondent says that they won’t be watching it again until Capaldi regenerates, but they’ll have tutted through Kill The Moon and Mummy on the Orient Express too probably.
“Look at the order in which you do things” Yes, should get on with saying some things about it. For the past couple of weeks I've been a bit wary about rewatching the given week's episode. No sense of that here, I can't wait to see it again to catch its many nuances. Jamie Mathieson is a real find, someone who unlike most of the other writers in the Moffat era hasn't been a show runner, but is very capable and shows that a more open script policy does work even if the material which ultimately makes it to the screen is a bit derivative. Not that we can tell yet if it's meant to be deliberately so. Who is Gus and why does he sound like Tannis?
It’s certainly scary, the teaser teaching the viewer what they should be scared of thanks to the on screen clock actually telling us when the moment of death of the onscreen character is about to occur, brilliant paid off at the end as the sixty-six seconds which the Doctor had in which to save himself. Just the sort of Hitchcockian tension which hasn’t surfaced often in the show across the years and especially not in this form even if arguably it’s a simply a chronologically rigid version of the time between receiving the black spot and a visit from a supermodel shaped siren.
“Work at a different speed” The characters are meatier creations too, or at least feel as much thanks to the performances, Daisy Beaumont providing real emotional resonance to Maisie, a character who ostensibly exists for Clara to have a girly chat with thanks to the absence of such on Earth and Frank Skinner, the Cribbins of the affair, so scared that he’d let the side down when talking to DWM and it’s fair to say didn’t. At all. In those closing moments when the Doctor’s offering him passage on the TARDIS has an actors scripted words belied the sparkle in his eye. Seriously, if they wanted to make him a companion next year, well, they just should. As Joss Whedon notices, comedians make really effective actors.
“Only a part, not the whole” The Voyage of the Damned fake out was fun, turning the audience’s trailer expectations of seeing the parody ending of The Big Bang turned into a full episode. If someone was starting to write about the episode before it had even gone out, one might have been led to try to find clearer connections between the two so it’s lucky that I didn’t do anything of the sort. Clearly the idea is that that the Doctor’s supposed to imagine that they’re from Sto even if he also doesn’t ever thing anything of the sort. But you could forgive him for at least trying to allow himself a moment to think that. They even having a pop singer.
“Is the tuning appropriate?” Ah Foxes. I can count the number of artistes that I’ve seen in real life who’ve appeared in the television programme on one hand for loads of complex reasons to do with not wanting to ruin things by meeting my heroes. But it has happened, a few because they were in Shakespeare productions and Bonnie Langford who passed on Great Charlotte Street in Liverpool next to the 86 bus stop because she was in panto that year. And Foxes. Foxes is the one I saw on purpose. She had a set at Liverpool International Music Festival this year and since the stage was literally across the road from my house I couldn’t not go.
In the event she was very good even if it wasn’t the most attentive of teenage audiences (who seemed more interested in trying to kill each other, gangs creating sinister looking circles, paramedics and police storming into the crowd at various intervals, that sort of thing), good enough for me to download the album that night and listening to it pretty much solidly since. It’s in the same kind of synthpop area with Little Boots without ever quite tripping over in the folktronica of Ellie Goulding. Her signature song, Clarity is entirely unrepresentative but like Lady Gaga’s move back towards jazz, designed to show that she can actually sing. In octaves.
“"Look closely at the most embarrassing things and amplify them"” Now that I’ve presented a good example of why I don’t review music, ever, how did this addition to the growing list of this franchise’s foxes do? She did very well in her thirty seconds of screen time, though like UB40 in Speed 2: Cruise Control it was little more than a cameo and it seems her character of “Singer” may not have existed after all which in an episode heavy on societal stereotypes, men the experts in science, women the experts in entertaining and emoting, is a bit of a disappointment. When this was announced it seemed like a full blown part in the mode of Miranda Raison or Kylie.
Why cast her then? Her voice, that voice, which with its melancholy undertow as her in Clarity, is the perfect fit for a counter intuitive cover of Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now, coming at us like the soundtrack to a John Lewis advert for funeral services, with its horrendous thematic implications for Clara, who when faced with a choice between a boring life on earth with the man she loves and the all of space and time with an alien she can barely stand to be in the same room with, she chooses the latter, just as we all would, even if he isn’t the man he once was. “Why can’t I quite you?” The promo featuring the whole song is unbearable, this song, these words, but in this form, against often up beat shots of explosions! Running! Grins!
“Define an area as 'safe' and use it as an anchor” Notice how there’s less of a sense of the companions being lost in time. Last week Courtney was able to update her Tumblr and here’s Clara casually phoning her boyfriend from her bunk. Such phone calls used to be magical interruptions conducted in moments of high tension, when Rose is first dealing with the notion of being in the far future or Martha on board the SS Pentallian. Clara ringing him for tech support was the first indication of a change and now she can contact her boyfriend in the right order. If only Rose’s call in The End of the World had landed some time in the middle of her missing year.
“Question the heroic approach” All of which said, I’m still not happy and for many of the same reasons as last week even though the episode is very much about explaining this incarnation and in richer and with more emotional clarity. We’re supposed to see him as continuation of the pre-Tennant form, of the man who in the face of death can’t mourn because there’s too much work to do saving lives. Provocatively on the beach ala the torture scene in Mindwipe, Clara slumbering amongst the dunes, finally he's gifted his version of C. Baker’s “I’m the Doctor, whether you like it or not” or indeed Eccleston’s “this is me, right here, right now."
“Remove specifics and convert to ambiguities” Beautifully played by both, directed skilfully by Paul Wilmshurst in the style of an idle moment in some ancient BBC costume drama, I still watched in an abject state of not understanding quite what they were doing. Cheering a heroic figure without sentiment is a difficult ask. Why it works with Tom in Pyramids of Mars, but not Capaldi, I can’t say other than that there are moments when you can see his love of humanity on the surface. Eccleston was brusque at times, but he still stopped for a moment in number 10 and apologise to a corpse for not being their quick enough to save their life.
“Abandon normal instructions” Now we have a Doctor who is more interested in the information he can gain from a dying man than the fact of his death. Perkins’s protestations here and similar queries by characters in previous stories demonstrate this is supposed to be a feature of the character, but I simply don’t understand why it would, could or should be. And also why, in relation to consolidating on the work of Matt Smith, you’d take this kind of a risk. As we’ve seen on other shows, and even this show in the past, viewers are fickle. If they’re not liking something, they simply won’t bother catching up once The X Factor has finished.
The props are there. The psychic paper makes a triumphant return this week as do the jelly babies, albeit from a cigarette case which is funny on first inspection but then oh so terribly wrong, which might well be the perfect metaphor for this incarnation of the Doctor, whose lack of understanding of humans now extends to the ones who used to be his best friend. I appreciate that this is a more sweary repetition of my comments from last week and the week before, but all I see is Capaldi acting his socks off with a character that’s as hollow as a tree would be if it was the same age and who simply doesn’t make any kind of sense within the unfolding text.
“Just carry on” But it is an unfolding text and that text surely wouldn’t be spending so much existential time questioning the nature of its lead character in this way if it wasn’t leading up to something and as I’ve said to people who ask, and people do ask, there’s every possibility that like my original positive review of Fear Her, this is all going to look a bit foolish. There has to be a reason why Clara hasn’t asked him why his personality isn’t what it used to be, even taking into account his attack eyebrows, its because somebody else surely will, just as there has to be a reason why he’s talking about himself as though he’s always been this way, as though he can’t even remember stopping for a moment in number 10 and apologising to a corpse.
“Simple subtraction” If I wanted to try to look at this from the perspective of this amazing show doing interesting things, it’s that we’re seeing a mirror of last season’s arc which was about the Doctor trying to understand Clara, and instead we have Clara trying to understand the Doctor. She’s playing him, being the wide-eyed human on a great spirit of adventure, both handles down on the console, but really she’s going in with her wide eyes open trying to find out why he’s become this person she doesn’t recognise. It’s always bugged me that we didn’t see a post regenerative console room scene at the start of Deep Breath, a Pudsey Cutaway.
“A very small object –Its centre” I don’t know. Possibly. Maybe. But that’s what happens when the thing you love confuses you, sends you reaching for rationalisations, makes you question exactly why you do love it. Of course the very best thing about Doctor Who is that it carries on, that there’s so much of it and it’s ok not to love all of it. Even if there isn’t some clever, clever on-screen resolution to all this, Romola Garai’s incarnation will be along in a few years reading Abi Morgan’s scripts and pissing off a whole different group of fans. Assuming it survives. Next week’s episode title is just asking for trouble.