DOCTOR WHO IS BACK ON TOP WITH THAT OLD DEEP MAGIC CALLED PLOT
Are you sitting uncomfortably, boys and girls? Good. Then I’ll begin. Story begins a long time ago. Earth. England. Late twentieth century. A boy. Just a Boy. He falls deeply, madly in love. With a television show. It has a unique capacity to entertain, educate, inspire, move, enthral, frighten and unite its viewers.
Then..something terrible happens. Combined forces of Michael Grade, Coronation Street and advancing tides of changing tastes and budget cuts. TV show is EXTERMINATED. Or so it seemed! The young boy did not lose faith. His eleven year old brain got to work.
He drafts a petition and secures 100 signatures, including two former lead actors from the mythical TV show’s past. Their mortal forms are COLIN BAKER, SYLVESTER MCCOY and PETER DAVISON. They gave their time and answered all of the boy’s over-earnest questions at stage doors, despite having just completed their most demanding Theatrical performances. I will never forget their great kindnesses.
The TV show would not return for an age (save a nice one off in 1996 with PAUL MCGANN). Then: BANG! 2005. THAT show. RETURNS. DOCTOR WHO! MY Doctor. Back to save the very CONCEPTS of family viewing and Saturday family entertainment. Terrestrial television from an EXTRA Terrestrial premise.
Granted, I was by then no longer a boy. But one could suspend disbelief and soak up the sheer JOY of second chances and renewal. Doctor Who back at the CENTRE of British Television. For that, we have RUSSELL T DAVIES to thank. It was his commercial credibility that made the concept fly again. This was hip, sexy (Billie Piper: we love you) and relevant, whilst remaining ‘that’ show of old (a reboot this was not).
Russell (RTD) infused the product with a kind of kitchen sink dramatic realism and soulful, comedic joy. That reflected his real life persona. I met the man in 2008: a true honour and privilege. Just like the Doctor: completely unexpected, a conversation spanning random and epic jumps in subject matter. Thank you, RTD.
On that same note, brief diverting nod to one of the actresses who once appeared in Doctor Who. We corresponded for a short time. Your support and encouragement will always remain a deeply cherished memory. If I had a time machine, I’d go back and ask you round for tea, just to say ‘thanks’. No. Better look to the future: you win an Oscar. BAFTA at least. Yep. Digressing again. Where was I? Oh yes! ‘nu who’.
The most perfect episode for me was written by STEVEN MOFFAT. GIRL IN THE FIREPLACE from 2006 united RTD’S soulful savvy with Moffat’s GENIUS for PLOT. Moffat NEVER turned in a bad episode, throughout the RTD shepherded run of the series.
Together, they were unbeatable. Character and soul and tone came from RTD. In Moffat, there was a substance to match the style: meaty, textured storytelling that remained appropriate for kids yet enjoyable for adults at an intellectual level. So, I was delighted when the ‘Moff’ was given a shot at leading his beloved show.
Now, the story takes a darker turn. I fear I may, perchance, have..grown up around that stage. Think 2011. It was time. The show was for kids. I’d had my moment of revival. It had served its purpose of childhood closure by 2008.
I had new places to visit and conquer. Invasion of the Career! Planet of the Mailbox, Galaxy of Birmingham: order a Martini. Look out for the Girl with the red high heels and summer dress. So perfect she has to be an alien. You get the picture. Too personal? Of course it is. But fuse those images to a great plot and you’d be hooked, I promise. THAT is actually the glue in great writing.
All the imagery and set pieces in creation are nothing without places to go that speak for themselves through coherent linear logic and a clarity in moral motif. And Steven Moffat is one of the great masters of that precise craft.
His specialism was NEVER the creation of characters or crafting of soulful endings or even the basic application of adolescent innuendo. His true brilliance lay in telling a GREAT story through the most perfectly honed PLOT. Intricately woven; imaginative; self-contained sequential set pieces with the odd dangling thread for future episodes: THAT’S a Moffat script at its best. It’s why Steven Spielberg hired him to write a Tin-Tin movie (I’d defer to Mr Spielberg when defining a great writer, wouldn’t you?).
It just took Moffat five years to remember the focus of his true power. But remember he did. Because in ‘THE MAGICIAN’S APPRENTICE’ and ‘THE WITCH’S FAMILIAR’ we have just witnessed not just Moffat at his best, but DOCTOR WHO at its VERY Best. Television at its finest and a perfect advert for the retention of a licence fee aided BBC.
Granted, some of the old faults ARE present. The tendency to drop in unnecessarily overt sexual one liners ‘Jane Austen: great kisser’, is said by a TEACHER, to her STUDENTS. Why? OFSTED would exterminate Clara’s career. Send in The Doctor to confront her bullying Head of Department if she does get any negative feedback.
There’s also still a penchant for dictating HOW an audience must FEEL about a character by DESCRIBING their function (‘I AM THE DOCTOR AND I SAVE PEOPLE’). We are told rather than shown a character’s essence. It remains impossible to define Peter Capaldi’s ‘take’ on the Doctor, because Moffat writes him a million ways in one episode. That is not a bad reflection on the actor, showing his great versatility if anything. But is this an aging hipster or grumpy old man? It’s the same syndrome as the Cumberbatch SHERLOCK : at once a throwback to and postmodern subversion of the cosy middle class teatime British values that Moffat never quite mastered.
And there are almost too many set pieces, strewn together for a BIG EPIC REVELATION that turns out to be ..not so big and epic and actually still a total secret. But those are VERY minor quibbles. This was moving (old Davros meets the old Doctor). Funny (noted the Comic Relief 1999 references). The visual effects were outstanding.
It’s SCARY, too. You WILL hide behind sofas from Davros, Daleks and snake monsters. This is the science fiction of your comic books and wildest dreams a generation ago. It could easily come from a STAR WARS or MARVEL movie. THAT’S how good it is.
Above all though, it comes back to that Moffat asset: PLOT. By focusing his efforts there, the rest clicked into place and took care of itself. The soul, morality, intelligence and above all, that blindingly brilliant optimism that made us all fall in love with DOCTOR WHO: present and correct, at last.
Allegorical. Provocative. Pacey. Perfection. DOCTOR WHO has returned.