Features Published 21 November 2014

An Exeunt Who-alogue

Our writers have Opinions about the latest series of Doctor Who: Capaldi, Moffat, Missy and why the series is capable of generating such high levels of feeling.
Exeunt Staff

Tom Wicker:  When this series started, I wondered what Matt Smith’s Doctor would think of his replacement (because, scratch the surface and I’m nine-years-old, again, watching this show on telly.)

“Well, helloooo Grandpa! You’re a bit fierce, aren’t you? Loving the eyebrows, though. Takes the heat off all those chin jokes I kept getting. And you’re doing a bang-up job with the whole ‘I’m so very old’ melancholic shtick. But hadn’t we got past that? I mean, sandshoes was always banging on about it – when he wasn’t smooching the ladies – and I had my dark moments. (Yep, I loved the whole old man-young face thing.) I really thought after I’d changed history and hid Gallifrey in that pocket universe, I’d get a break. I mean, didn’t I look pretty happy after meeting that old chap in the National Gallery? But, no… you’re even more miserable. And there’s not nearly enough hand-waving and funny walks. I was great at that.”

And what do I think, now it’s finished? Fuck off, Number 11 (or 12. Or 13.) Over the past 12 episodes, the Doctor has become unknowable again – unpredictable. And not a hero who stands on a rock, yells at the bad guys, everyone cheers and people at home go out and buy a bow-tie or a pair of Converse. I was concerned, to begin with, that the “never cruel or cowardly” Doctor might turn out to be both this series. But what I’ve enjoyed is the idea that Peter Capaldi’s Doctor is the abject – the person who says and does the unspeakable so others never have to.

(Incidentally, my favourite of Capaldi’s scenes is actually near the end of Kill the Moon, when, standing on the beach, his head snaps up and you absolutely believe that he’s really *seeing* time unfold. Spine-tingling.)

Death in Heaven had many faults. The fact that the Cybermen couldn’t tell from, I don’t know, scanning her, that Clara wasn’t the Doctor was a bit stupid. And the Brigadier’s appearance at the end was a sweet step too far. It also didn’t follow through on the properly bleak ‘Don’t cremate me’ thread of the previous episode. But, come on, this is still a show – if not for kids – watched by kids. I’m not shocked that they didn’t stick to the idea that dead people really can feel their bodies being burned.

And would the Osgood from Day of the Doctor really have wandered over to Missy like that, unless to fit the plot? Probably not. But that scene is one of the most brutal since Doctor Who came back in 2005. It plays out like a slasher movie and the people there to care when she dies? Just us. Missy’s the only one actually left in the hangar and she just tramples those glasses and carries on with her gloriously bonkers Mary Poppins routine. It’s horrific and brilliant. As is Michelle Gomez’s performance.

Oh, but what about Clara and Danny? I’m already predicting a lot of ire from a lot of people directed at these characters. ‘Oh, but Danny’s boring/manipulative’ and ‘I just don’t care about what happens to Clara. Making the show all about her has RUINED this series.’ And you know what, I’ve enjoyed that. Has Who ever so fascinatingly explored the corrupting influence of travelling with the Doctor? Nope. And Jenna Coleman has knocked it out of the ballpark.

I suppose that’s what I’m getting at – the sense of pushing into new territory this series, of genuinely not knowing what to expect. I’ve loved that. I’m not blind to the problems (Robot of Sherwood was just one big ‘ugh’) and sometimes ‘dark’ has verged into ‘dour’. And Death in Heaven isn’t the perfect episode. But it aimed high, kept me gripped and capped off a Doctor/companion relationship that was complex, sometimes ugly and NOT ROMANTIC. And that’ll do for starters.

(But I’ll concede that I didn’t care much for Danny. Although the Cyberman make-up was proper cool. And, finally, the Cybermen were spooky again.)

Mummy on the Orient Express

Mummy on the Orient Express

Stewart Pringle:  Back on Easter Saturday 2010 I watched The Eleventh Hour, Matt Smith’s brilliant debut, at a massive Doctor Who event at the Cross Keys pub in Covent Garden. The TARDIS crash lands in the garden of a little red-headed girl, and sixty minutes of compact, thrilling action later this strange new man steps onto a rooftop and faces down the Atraxi with a defiant reminder that he is the Doctor and he’s not to be fucked with. When the credits rolled to whoops and cheers you knew exactly who the new Doctor was, and that he was going to be brilliant (which he was, for a bit).

That wasn’t the case with Deep Breath, for me anyway, or with Into the Dalek, or even with Listen. Instead, Moffat has spent the entire series gradually allowing Capaldi to reveal his character, to earn the mantle of the Doctor rather than simply assume it. It’s made for a series that’s often frustrated, pulling away from barnstorming moments of greatness or collapsing them into tense and static conversations, but that has ultimately been incredibly satisfying. It’s felt like a series where Moffat re-discovered the mature story-telling he was so capable of before everything went tits up and he tried to kill Hitler. It’s allowed him and his writers to paint in darker colours and arrange their stories to lower-key and less insistent melodies.

There have been bumps along the way. I probably won’t be skipping forward to In the Forests of the Night when I get the DVD box set, and I’ll definitely be skipping over Into the Dalek, but there have also been some spectacular high-points, often in the most unexpected places. Danny’s attack on the Doctor’s aristocratic caste in The Caretaker, the Boneless swarming through the sewers in Flatline, pretty much all of that Horror Express-referencing Mummy story.

But Moffat had, for once, saved the best till last. Or almost last. If I was disappointed by Death in Heaven, which felt hampered by budgetry concerns and the same lovey-dovey bullshit that always foils the Cybermen these days (emotions are the new gold, apparently – making Moffat’s earth the new Voga), it’s only because Dark Water was so damn good. Easily the best story since The Doctor’s Wife, possibly the best finale (or bit of a finale) ever. It was ambitious, well-plotted and totally harrowing. And I didn’t guess the twist. Not since that Toclafane cracked open in Last of the Time Lords has anything in Who chilled me as much as the revelation of the Three Words (possibly because it’s basically the same plot but who cares?). And Michelle Gomez. Just…what do you say? Inspired casting, and she was just brilliant. I can’t wait for her to return.

A year ago I was worried that my love for this show was on the wane – too many disappointments, too much predictable, self-congratulatory rubbish. But this series has won me right back round. Out with the whizz-bang gimmicks and in with proper, engaged narrative fiction. It can’t come back soon enough.

Clara and Danny.
Clara and Danny.

Tim Bano: I did not like Matt Smith. He was too genuinely cool to be a Doctor. He was shallow. He had two modes: whimsy and trying not to be whimsical by putting on a serious voice.

But I really liked Amy, and I got involved in the tortuous story arcs that Moffatt sowed throughout the series. It felt like he was rewarding the faithful viewer, and he wasn’t patronising the programme’s (supposedly) young audience.

There were genuinely macabre moments in the Amy years – in Neil Gaiman’s episode when she and Rory are trapped on the TARDIS and he ages hundreds of years and scrawls her name in blood on the walls; when Toby Jones’ Dream Lord fucks with everyone’s heads; when the Doctor has to choose between old Amy and young Amy in The Girl Who Waited.

But mostly it was all still infected with schmaltz and crap about the human spirit. To make things worse, Clara came along. New companion. A blank slate on which to draw a brilliant character to travel across time and space with the Doctor. Except all the writers must have left their pencil cases at home because that slate remained blank. I’m happy to give benefits of doubt, to be a Catherine Tate apologist, but because of the Clara/Matt Smith combo I’d resigned myself to no longer watching Doctor Who. Until I heard Capaldi was cast – how could I not watch Malcolm fucking Tucker?

And he is almost everything I’d hoped for. The crevices of his face can express more than any number of twirls from Matt Smith. And quite often, it seems, he’s a bastard. He says bastard things, he’s grumpy and callous. But he never lets me believe that he’s bad.

With disappointment I noticed that Clara was still in this series. Fortunately, Capaldi acted around her, he diverted our attention towards him being brilliant and she was, thankfully, quite easy to forget – especially in the excellent Orient Express episode where she just hides in another room. Oh fine, she had one decent moment when Danny became roadkill and she tried dropping all the TARDIS keys into a volcano. But that’s it.

Finally, Michelle Gomez. Stunning. Insane. The series has sputtered and clunked and lost its feet (Robin Hood) and found them again (Listen). But it’s revving along nicely now, and I’m biding my time until Clara finds her own way to 3W, to the big Time Lord hard drive in the sky…

Michelle Gomez's Missy

Michelle Gomez’s Missy

Duncan Gates:  Thing is, I love Sylvester McCoy, and his first series was largely cack as well. But at least that had an aesthetic. Outside Capaldi’s own charisma this series hasn’t really had anything memorable about it. It’s been a combo of the totally forgettable (The Caretaker, Robots of Sherwood), the hilariously derivative (Into the Dalek, Time Heist), the ones which are a boring version of someone thinking they’re being imaginative (Forest of the Night, Kill the Moon), and the ones that Jamie Mathieson wrote (which despite being very solid standalone stories don’t really ‘give’ us anything about the feel of the new Doc, if we’re honest – they could have dropped at any point in the new series and fitted in pretty well)

By the time we got to ‘Water in Heaven’ I think we all just wanted something to actually HAPPEN that wasn’t Clara growing a personality or Danny doing… I dunno, whatever Danny did, which in retrospect was so obviously be set up to die ‘tragically’ that I don;t know how we could have thought otherwise.

And the thing with ‘Water in Heaven’ is that it’s a rip of more or less any mid-career Jon Pertwee ever made. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong that, but let me draw the following comparison with how it would have been back then:

Capaldi -> Pertwee

Clara -> Jo Grant

Danny -> Mike Yates

Cyber-Brig/Brig’s daughter -> The Brig (btw wasn’t that portrait incredibly fucking creepy…?)

Osgood -> Benton

See, that’s a motherfucker of a story. Because we actually care about the people involved. Moffatt’s better at plot than he is at character, but his tragedy is that the plots hinge on us liking the characters and that that provides all the necessary logic of the universe. Imagine Pertwee saving the day by saying ‘Because love is a promise’. Go on. See, you can’t, because it’s too ludicrous. It is a shit line written by someone who thinks that’ll make you happy. Someone who‘s observed people but not spent enough time BEING one. I could write the most colossal list of individual things wrong with ‘Water in Heaven’, but that would be a bit unfair really as it’s not the worst of the series by any means, and its problems are really only reflective of the position the series has ended up in. I absolutely detest being dared not to feel something. That’s what the show’s gradually become – event-worthy, grandstanding, cathartic, emotions inflated by importance. Nothing becomes the show less than being aware of its importance.

Dave Ralf: I’d like to jump in with thoughts about just one episode, because although I’ve watched all of Capaldi’s inaugural season, I have always approached Doctor Who as a ‘spend an hour with the madman and his friends in a blue box’ kind of way, and I think when any given episode gives me chills on that level, it’s doing its business. There weren’t many that filled that bill this series, but as Stewart said above The Mummy on the Orient Expresscertainly did, and so did Flatline (both written by Jamie Mathieson).

And Flatline is my favourite episode of Doctor Who ever.

It has everything you want, and several things we hadn’t seen before. Clara holding the TARDIS in the palm of her hand, the fact that it almost became a Doctor-lite episode, with Capaldi the voice in Clara’s ear, even the simplistic and stodgy portrayal of working class Britain in the form of the Community Service crew. Better than all of this, two dimensional beings are killing people to understand the third dimension. Look that over again and tell me where we’ve seen such inventiveness in a monster of the week. And Capaldi, hidden for so much of the episode, being clever on the sidelines, Addams-Family-Thinging the TARDIS off of the railway track, finally stands up to them, Sonic outstretched, the Doctor time and space needs and deserves, telling them to fine-art off back where they came from. Boo yah.

If they deliver one or two of those a series (with more Clara-trepidation, and more Gomez, and less London forests and unfinished cremation business) they’re doing alright in my book.

Clara and CAPALDI. All photos BBC
Clara and CAPALDI. All photos BBC

Lauren Mooney: I’ve certainly known few more opinionated sets of people than Doctor Who fans! The problem, it seems to me, is that this show tends to grab people and take hold of them when they’re young, but it isn’t exactly for children – or not solely, anyway. It has to be one of the most successful ‘family’ TV shows, in terms of being one of the only ones people can and do passionately adore as a child, and then completely carry that on when they’ve grown up, and the side effect of that is that people carry this strong sense of ownership with them from childhood to adulthood. I’ve certainly never known more people hate the thing they love than Doctor Who fans, and I guess that might be why – almost everyone who watches it has a sense of ownership, of possessiveness over it, and you just can’t please all the people all the time.

Doctor Who was the first thing of its kind I ever really loved. I was raised on a VHS diet of the original series in the 1990s, the years when it was off air, which is maybe why I take a slightly solitary approach to it; I didn’t know other Doctor Who fans until my late teens, when I made older friends. So although I’m fannish about other things – you know, I read interviews and fan theory and go on Tumblr, and engage with other shows in that way – for whatever reason, Doctor Who is just too near my heart (or something) to do that. I don’t care what people say about it and I’m often capable of ignoring how bad it is and enjoying it anyway. But even I thought the last series was a big, towering lump of shite.

I mean, wasn’t it? Poor Matt Smith. I really thought he was brilliant, he was my favourite of the new Doctors as soon as The Eleventh Hour aired, but what a shoddy send-off; I’m always drunk by the time the Christmas special airs but I had to get particularly drunk for this one. I guess another reason people get so het-up about Who is that it’s a punch right in the childhood when it’s that bad. And my expectations for this series were low. Below sea level. I wasn’t the least bit excited when it came back – I wasn’t even nervous, I just didn’t want to watch it.

How wrong I was. It was maybe halfway through this series that I realised I was properly loving it? It’s hard when you’ve been hurt before, but CAPALDI, oh Capaldi. He just grew on me minute by minute, and he was always going to be good, he’s a great actor, the man can say more with the crags of his face than some people can say with a monologue, but I didn’t realise how much, for me, he’d just be…the Doctor, I guess. Alien and unknowable and scary sometimes, and the friend you’d most like to have in the whole world.

I guess that’s why we all keep on watching, even when we’re furious, even when we’re hating it. Because Doctor Who taps into something childlike in full-grown adults, something so deep and personal that you really, even more than usual, can’t please all of the people all of the time – but it can change in a heartbeat or a week from something Not For You to something that is the most For You of any telly there ever is. And when they get it right, when it’s your week, oh boy – there’s really nothing better.

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Exeunt Staff is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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