Friday, December 29, 2017

Remembering The 12th Doctor and the End of Moffat Era

My fellow cybertavern patrons, Christmas is finally over and the end of 2017 is finally upon us. We shall celebrate with booze and burning a symbol of the year to the ground while cheering like howler monkeys!! Or in my case watching a giant strawberry slowly go down a building coordinated to a fireworks display. Different strokes and all that.

Of course my Christmas was pleasantly low key. Gifts were exchanged, dinner was had with loving family, and once all of that was taken care of I returned home and watched the Doctor Who Christmas Special and finally witnessed the end of the current incarnation of The Doctor played by the brilliant Peter Capaldi and the final episode by the current showrunner, executive producer, and fandom punching bag Steven Moffat.

And man oh man was it an entertaining watch. Seeing two different variations of The Doctor from two VERY different eras interact with one another. There was an actual swerve in the plot that felt earned rather than a cheat, almost like Moffat remembered how he actually won his two Hugo Awards from working on the show instead of writing on auto-pilot, and of course there was a truly heart-warming tale about the power of the season and the overall selflessness and goodwill deep within the human spirit that got my all teary-eyed.

Yes, consider that my one paragraph long review-in-a-nutshell for the Christmas Special, Twice Upon A Time. Because now I'm gonna look over the history of both the three seasons of good old Number Twelve and the legacy of Steven Moffat's run on the BBC's longest-running sci-fi franchise ever.

But first, in case anyone actually reading this blog has no idea what I'm talking about as small a case as that may be, it's time for backstory! (For everyone else just scroll until you hit the Patrick face image.)

Doctor Who is about a human-looking alien being called The Doctor. He has a ship that can travel through time and space called a Tardis. It looks like an old-timey blue police call box, is bigger on the inside, and he uses it to travel the cosmos getting into adventures. He usually travels with a human friend called a Companion who gets to see just how beautiful and surprisingly dangerous the universe is, and interacting with (as well as humanizing) the otherwise alien lead character. Everything else in between is just The Doctor and his friends dealing with dangerous aliens, solving mysteries, and protecting people from horrible calamities, all with quick and witty one-liners and some fast thinking.

But one of the biggest keys to how the show has stayed on the air for over fifty years is the concept of Regeneration. Whenever The Doctor is fatally wounded, usually from some grand adventure or climactic battle of wits against his Rogue's Gallery, instead of dying his entire body restores itself but in doing so rearranges his physical appearance and his personality. This basically allowed actors playing The Doctor a way to bow out of the show once their contract expired and a way to bring in new talent to put a different spin on a character while also fitting in the lore and atmosphere of the show proper as well as giving an opportunity for new creative teams to come in and keep the show interesting.

Which of course has given the show a lot of longevity, thanks in part to it being more or less a space fantasty show with some of the most liberal rules for time travel I've ever seen, and a generally agreed upon tone for The Doctor and his adventures. He doesn't use guns, he uses words. He always tries to be nice and gives the villains a chance to surrender. The Companions don't try to directly benefit from traveling with The Doctor because it usually backfires, the list goes on. Otherwise, episodes can include just about anything from an alien invasion plot happening in Industrial Revolution era New York, an Agatha Christie mystery that has the murders carried out by giant bees, a race against the clock to stop an ancient Egyptian God from returning to the physical plane, a psychological locked room thriller with a shapeshifter, a whimsical adventure involving Robin Hood and robots, to getting help from Santa Claus to prevent the world from falling into permanent comas on Christmas Eve.

None of those were made up by the way. Those are the actual set-ups for episodes of this show. Drink it in.

For me, my introduction to the show was during the show's revival in the 2000s with Christopher Eccleston playing the Ninth incarnation of The Doctor and the showrunner was Russell T. Davies. There are fond memories of course, but it also has me labeled as simply a New Who fan. Like the divide between Original Star Trek and Next Generation, the Doctor Who community is split between those who managed to watch and enjoy the original show's run up to its last broadcast in the 1980s and all the strengths and weaknesses of broadcast standards and practices at the time, and the 2000s revival to the present, which can almost feel like a superhero show at times.

For the record I have seen some classic episodes involving Patrick Troughton's Second Doctor and fan favorite Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor. They remind me a lot of old film adaptations of pulpy adventure novels like HG Wells' The Time Machine or Fantastic Voyage. The effects are super-cheesy and the sets look fake as hell but the acting and presentation are just good enough for you to buy it if you can suspend your disbelief. Great in their own right, just too expensive for me to fully invest given how the old stuff is almost impossible to get a hold of.

End of Backstory!

Alright, for the rest of you who actually want to know my legit thoughts, let's get started with the big old elephant in the room with the showrunner....

Steven Moffat's Run on Doctor Who

Steven Moffat can be a clever writer and has been one in the past.

Put down the guns and hear me out!

Moffat's style has become a bit of a punchline for the Doctor Who fandom but I do want to give credit where credit is due. As I mentioned before, the guy has actually won two Hugo awards in the past for writing episodes for the show, some of which are beloved fan favorites such as the two-parter The Empty Child with the Ninth Doctor handling a mind-altering virus infecting hospital victims in WW2 Britain, and Blink, the introductory episode of the entities known as The Weeping Angels with fangirl favorite David “Tenth Doctor” Tennant.

The thing with Moffat's approach to writing an episode is that they mostly work best as one-offs. The reason why his episodes were beloved to the point that he replaced Russell T. Davies as showrunner was that they were darker, both in tone and color palette, and the initial pitch or central conflict dealt with more abstract concepts, making the threat the Doctor faces a puzzle of sorts on a much larger scale than just sabotaging the villain of the week's plan with some crossed wires.

The Bad

The problems with this approach however is the demand for escalation leads to a fair amount of Moffat's episodes to fall apart in the last ten minutes via unearned Deus Ex Machina. Imagine if someone said you had an hour to solve an elaborate puzzle box. Half of that time is learning what can be done and can't be done. You keep fumbling with the box trying to get parts to move or click or react in some way all to no avail. Then when the hour is up the person shows up and just smashes the puzzle box with a mallet and says that was the solution all along. That is probably the most appropriate metaphor I can think of for a lot of Moffat's duds during his run on the show.

In fact, YouTuber hbomberguy brought up similar structural problems and plot shortcuts during another BBC beloved drama, Sherlock, which Moffat also writes and has a producer credit on.

This method especially doesn't help when some of those metaphorical mallet smashes are corny or overly melodramatic reveals that are mediocre at best and insulting at worst. Furthermore, there is such a thing as being too abstract and vague to the point where a simple solution is so bleeding obvious to everyone BUT the characters involved and it becomes a pain to watch.

Case in point, the reviled episode The Angels Take Manhattan, an episode where the Eleventh Doctor played by Matt Smith basically loses his Companion Amy Pond and her husband Rory to The Weeping Angels who have completely taken over the statues in New York (including the Statue of Liberty), and have somehow prevented the Tardis from directly returning to the point and time where the Angels took them. Instead of doing the smart thing like traveling to outside the New York limits then just getting a taxi into the city proper and doing something clever, he just gives up. It is not the only problem with the episode by a long shot, but it's the most egregious.

Now take that whole formula of Interesting Concept, Elaborate Set-Up, Flawed Pathos followed by Terrible Pay-Off and spread that over entire seasons of the show. The deeply ingrained appeal of Doctor Who is that the show feels almost inherently episodic. You really can't do a season long story arc with a character that casually time travels and explores the universe without some serious forthought. But apparently Moffat didn't get the memo and it leads to multiple seasons brimming with promise, only to have all that potential kicked out the door during the pay off.

The best by default was the premiere season of the Eleventh Doctor and Moffat's first season since it was building up new major villains. Basically some sort of doomsday cult that's trying to learn the true name of The Doctor since a prophecy stated the day it is declared is the day the Doctor would die. The new baddies are defeated and that whole plot point is discarded. The new villains, The Silence, stuck around due to shear popularity.

Then you had the nonsense during Capaldi's run as Number Twelve. Multiple plot threads were left unresolved despite being built up as being important. Major motivations kept changing on a dime. It seriously felt like Moffat didn't have an editor AT ALL during these seasons because some simple “whys” and hows” asked during the first draft could have smoothed a lot of this out.

It must also be said that the occasionally harder episode with muted colors and harsh lighting in a show full of optimism and joy is fine, but entire seasons with that sensibility can read as incongruous to long-time fans of the show back when it wasn't afraid to be whimsical.

Worst Episodes Of the Run

Death in Heaven (The Master gets an army of cybermen made up of the dead then gives them to The Doctor. He refuses and then they all blow up. Really)

In The Forest of Night (The trees of Earth save the planet from a solar flare shot out by the sun by...reinforcing the atmosphere. What!?)

Kill The Moon (Crazy monster sized bacteria monsters and earthquakes are happening on the moon, but don't worry turns out the moon is just a really large space dragon egg... REALLY!)

The Angels Take Manhatten (Just take a taxi Doctor!)

Nightmare in Silver (The Doctor plays Chess with himself while Cybermen attack a sideshow attraction)

Listen (The Doctor gets super paranoid after being alone for too long and almost kills himself trying to find something that ultimately isn't there. Also Clara somehow visits The Doctor when he was just a little boy and indirectly kicked this whole thing off. Whoops)

Asylum of The Daleks (Imagine Arkham Asylum but with xenophobic mass murdering aliens monsters. Who share a hive mind with their other people...and would be better off just raises too many questions)

Sleep No More (A found footage thriller where scientists turn into monsters made out of sleep scum because they wanted to eliminate the need for rest. Yes It's as dumb as it sounds.)

Hell Bent (After surviving the events of Heaven Sent, The Doctor returns to his long lost home planet of Gallifrey to rescue his Companion Clara. It ends with his memory wiped and Clara riding off in a Tardis made to look like a 1950s diner.)

The Good

Alright, now for the part where I'll probably be shot to pieces. When it comes to singular episodes with a focused set-up, Steven Moffat's approach can be amazing and this is usually thanks to some pretty solid character interactions and good drama. I mentioned it before when I talked about The Last Jedi but character flaws are not plot holes and when you have interesting characters allowed to be characters, certain bouts of oddness can be forgiven.

In fact Moffat added a lot of new wrinkles to the mythos of Doctor Who. In addition to new enemies like The Weeping Angels and The Silence, there was also the introduction of new allies like the lizard woman Vastra, her wife, and their Sontaran assistant and The Wife of the Doctor, River Song.

Hell the greatest example might just be the Companion of Clara Oswald. When she was first introduced, she was pumped full of Moffat's bad habits. Given some overly complicated backstory and destiny making her super duper important to the universe and The Doctor, was treated more like a huge plot Macguffin, the list goes on. But during her last two seasons on the show, a lot of that portentous fluff was cut away and people started to actually like Clara as a character. She tried balancing having a boyfriend while traveling with The Doctor on the side, she became a school teacher and had to deal with newfound responsibilities of being associated with a Time Lord. She was allowed to be fleshed out and be enjoyed as a character in her own right.

Also while the start and end of individual seasons were an exercise in watching a craftsman make solid gold statues of farting butts, a lot of the self-contained episodes are pretty solid in their own right. A lot of them are thanks to a firm grip on conflict and stakes. Examples include the two parter The Zygon Invasion, which includes probably my favorite speech ever by the Doctor

In fact the best season on balance by far was Season 10 of New Who, Capaldi's final. The set-up was simple with The Doctor beginning to travel again with new Companion Bill Potts after posing as a university professor for a while and from there it was just simple stories again. The closest thing to a running mystery was resolved halfway through, the Doctor trying to reform an evil Time Lord known as The Master (aka Missy Time Lords can regenerate into women too) and it was actually allowed to play out naturally instead of being stretched out like a maligned Abrams Mystery Box.

Which does bring me to another one of Moffat's strengths that he brought to this run: an absolute dedication to operatic theatrics and larger than life storytelling with an entity like The Doctor. His showdown with the psychic parasite in The Rings of Akhatan, the climax and resolution of The Wedding of River Song and...basically the entirety of the episode Heaven Sent are stand-out examples of this.

Which of course leads me to the actual actor behind the sonic screwdriver after a lot of dry critical analysis of a creative that has done nothing wrong to me. Yes, time for me to give my thoughts on...

Peter Capaldi's Run as The 12 Doctor

Capaldi is an amazing actor, clearly classically trained, and obviously grew up loving Doctor Who as a child. But he also had a reputation of being a pretty foul-mouthed suit on another show, In The Thick Of It, and being a much older lead compared to the younger more attractive prior Doctors to the New Who fandom.

But you know what, that's what I found instantly likeable about Peter's performance. He feels like he's been through a lot, claiming to be over 2,000 years old and constantly dealing with major threats, that kind of world weariness he wears on his sleeve and it makes the moments where he smiles and jokes all the more enjoyable because he still has a loving spark within him.

Yet he doesn't completely come off as a crochety old man. He comes off more as that passionate University professor that still loves what he does while still holding on to his wild years when he played in a band and lived dangerously.

And that wardrobe choice that looks like a classical magician? Brilliant.

True his first season got wrapped up in the whole non-mystery of whether or not he was a good man (which was lame) but the later two seasons showed more of his actual habits and mannerisms. Explosive and triumphant yet quiet and reserved. Smart but a little anti-social, and just inhuman enough to be intriguing. He found a T-Rex attractive in his premiere episode and then later graciously forgave someone who betrayed him with some poignant lines. To have an actor embody those various facets and keep it consistent is truly impressive.

Best Capaldi Performances and Episodes of the Moffat Era

Heaven Sent (The 12 Doctor is trapped within a hellish prison made from his greatest nightmares and interrogated by some ghastly creature. Believing this to be a ploy by his greatest enemies, The Doctor starts using the rules of the prison against itself and orchestrates an escape. It's a one man show and Capaldi doesn't miss a beat!)

Under The Lake and Before The Flood ( The 12 Doctor and Clara investigate an outbreak of ghosts in an underwater facility and discover it is a plot by an alien warlord known as The Fisher King. Some time travel and a clever use of The Bootstrap Paradox lead to one hell of a finale)

The Zygon Invasion and The Zygon Inversion (A radical group of shapeshifting aliens called Zygons call off a long-term ceasefire between their people and humanity of earth, threatening full on war. Clara is captured, the leaders of the planetary defense army UNIT are taken out, and it's down to The Doctor to negotiate peace where tensions are at their most high.)

Extremis (The 12 Doctor is blinded by his last adventure but is called in by The Vatican to unravel the mystery of an ancient text called The Veritas. It reveals a horrifying truth of a pending alien attack by a menace known as The Monks. This was the first of a three parter but the set-up is rock solid.)

The Husbands of River Song (The 12 Doctor finally sees his perpetually time-displaced wife River Song, but discovers that she has been marrying other people left and right, believing he is too large of an entity to care about her in a singular sense. It's a highly contentious episode but the finale melts my heart every time.)

The Eleventh Hour (Matt Smith's premiere episode as the 11 Doctor. An escaped galactic criminal runs off to Earth and disguises itself among the populace as a shapeshifter. The Wardens of the prison threaten to blow up the planet if he is not found. The Doctor is without his Tardis or his normal tools, and has a race against the clock to outwit the alien criminal.)

The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone ( The Weeping Angels return during the 11 Doctor's run and they do not mess around. Trapped in a cavern system with no way out, allies to The Doctor start dying left and right by the Angels, leaving him and River Song to find a way to stop the universe's Perfect Assassins.

Vincent and The Doctor (The Doctor meets Vincent Van Gogh. After fighting off an alien attack in Provence, he takes Vincent to the future and lets him admire how beloved of an artist he will be in the future. Many ugly tears are shed each time I see this one.)

The God Complex (The Doctor and his companions enter a seemingly normal hotel, but the residents are haunted by rooms full of their greatest fears. There is some entity in the hotel, but its true nature and motives are a mystery for The Doctor to unravel.)

Alright, that's all I got about Doctor Who. Happy New Year everyone and here's to 2018....

Yes I haven't forgotten about the Animation Deviation on .hack//SIGN GET OUT OF HERE!

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