He already had, and would go on to, write better episodes of television, but “Rose” is RTD’s greatest ever achievement as a writer. Against all the odds, he successfully relaunched an old cult sci-fi show that hadn’t been regularly on air for 16 years, and according to all industry experts and media commentators, was out of place in the 21st century. To pull the show’s triumphant return off in that context is hugely impressive, and to write an episode that still sparkles in its own way, and carries the promise of further brilliance is no mean feat.
Writer’s Note: I’m Afraid I don’t have any new posts ready this week – I’ve been working on some other projects, and getting things sorted in my personal life. However, I do have the last of my old blog posts on the series nine finale trilogy to share: an essay on the excellent, though contentious, episode “Hell Bent”. I think now’s an especially appropriate time to share this post, as it goes rather nicely alongside A.L. Belmont’s excellent continuing series of guest posts on death and resurrection in Moffat’s Doctor Who.
I actually find “Hell Bent” more interesting (not necessarily better, but more interesting) than “Heaven Sent”, which I also loved, and was masterfully put together, but worked as you’d expect a Moffat puzzle box to work (the first time I saw the burnt hand in the pre credits, I thought “That’ll probably turn out to be the Doctor“). By contrast, I found it much trickier to figure out what this episode was doing, but once it became clear, I was delighted. Rejecting the epic for the personal is a Moffat era theme I rather love, and I think it’s one that’s done particularly well here, unfolding slowly but methodically over the course of three acts.
So, obviously, this episode is amazing and an out and out classic. And it rests entirely on the brilliant work of four people, all of whom bring their A game: Murray Gold, who delivers his best soundtrack for the show, Rachel Talalay, who gives Doctor Who the best direction it’s ever had, Peter Capaldi, who gives an astonishing performance, and Steven Moffat, who crafts an utterly perfect script. The only criticism I’ve seen of it comes from Phil Sandifer (who, to be clear, still rates the episode as a good one), who makes the not unreasonable claim that it unfolds much as you’d expect a one hander starring the Doctor, written by Steven Moffat, to unfold. But while I agree that a story where Moffat tries something new (such as “Listen” or “Hell Bent”) is perhaps more interesting, watching him, and the other three key figures in the episode, do the things they are brilliant at as well as they can, is still an utter joy.
I don’t tend to write ultra-critical articles on this site, as while negative reviews can be fun to write, and entertaining to read, they’re not often useful for this site’s M.O. of trying to understand what a Doctor Who story is doing, and discussing the wider ideas and concepts raised by the things said story does. Redemptive readings, or positive reviews, are, in my experience, much more useful for saying something of substance about a piece of media. But there is clearly a place, and a value, in negative criticism. We can’t pretend that all media is good, and trying to understand why bad media fails, outside of sensationalism and clickbaity headlines, is often a necessary, if genuinely tricky, process. And I think “The Almost People/ The Rebel Flesh” is an example of a story where the failures are worth trying to understand. It’s a story that, given my preferred type of Doctor Who, I could easily dismiss as being uninteresting and worthless because it’s a traditionalist base under siege. But traditionalist Doctor Who still has a worldview that’s worth exploring and understanding, and can be entertaining and good television when done right (see Tibere’s excellent article on “Into the Dalek”). And for what it’s worth, I think the themes of “The Almost People/ The Rebel Flesh” are genuinely worth unpacking, particularly because the way the story fails to communicate those themes lead to interesting things to say about the worldview it conveys. So this article is not going to be an “Oh my god, this story SUCKS, the characters are one dimensional and the dialogue’s LAME” type of piece, although there will be some of that. Instead, it’s intended to be my fumbling attempt to explain why the last two-part story Doctor Who that aired for three years failed to communicate the ideas I believe the production team were aiming to communicate, and instead ended up expressing some more, and here I’m going to use a word that can stir up some angry feelings in certain people, problematic sentiments in its failure.
SCARVES: We’re back for another “DoWntime Responds”, but this time, we’re taking a different approach. Today, myself and Tibere are co-writing a response to “A Few Thoughts on Doctor Who “Role Models””, a guest article written for Doctor Who TV by Casey Riggins. Riggins makes a case against casting a female Doctor on the grounds of the importance of the Doctor being a positive male role model, in the context of Peter Davison making similar comments at a panel recently, and leaving twitter in the ensuing social media storm that followed. Unsurprisingly, none of the writers at DoWntime share the uncertainty Riggins has towards Jodie Whittaker’s casting, but more importantly, we had problems with the way Riggins makes his argument, and as such, felt a direct response was worth writing, especially as, at the time of writing this article, Doctor Who TV has yet to publish a direct response to Riggins, although the site has since hosted an article that is more positive about the casting of a female Doctor. As such, we’re going to be critical of Riggins’s specific arguments, and DWTV’s use of his platform, but we’re going to keep our criticisms to the arguments made only: we don’t want to resort to personal attacks, and don’t want our audience to do so either.
I’m going to start this essay with a content warning. Towards the end of this article, I will be discussing themes of child sex abuse and PTSD, and the way they relate to “The Eleventh Hour”. A fair chunk of this essay won’t be discussing those themes, so I’ve made it clear in the body of the essay when we do start approaching them. But if people would rather not read at all for the sake of self care, then I fully understand. I hope I’ve handled the discussion of those themes respectfully.
As the Moffat era draws to a close, let’s go back to where it all began. The Eleventh Doctor clinging on to a crashing TARDIS, and a little girl with a crack in her wall praying to Santa.
Today, I’m going to engage in something of a departure for this blog, by writing a response to the brilliant Whovian Feminism’s review of “The Doctor Falls”. Because I disagreed with quite a bit of her interpretation of the episode, and I wanted to write about why I disagreed with it, as I think doing so will help me say some useful things about the story and its themes. And also because she’s one of the people who is frequently critical towards Moffat who I have respect for, because I think there’s honesty and consistency to her approach that I find lacking in other critics – she won’t criticise the Moffat era for one thing and then let the Davies Era or classic Who off when they do exactly the same thing. And she recognises the genuine good done in the Moffat Era – heck, her review of “The Doctor Falls” ends on a positive sentiment about the episode itself, and she acknowledges the aspects of the episode that other people love – she just takes time to explain the problems she had with it, in an eloquent and thoughtful fashion. So I have a sense that a well written response could be a rare chance for a productive dialogue in fandom.
But I’m also nervous about doing this – partly about the possibility that I could fall flat on my face in a “debate” type of article, and just end up looking very stupid. But also (and I think this is much more important) I don’t want this to end up being the story of a straight white guy disagreeing with a queer woman and ending up stirring up a shitstorm, where she ends up getting harassed by trolls who take what is intended as a polite disagreement as a chance to be trolls to a woman on the internet. Heck, I don’t think that would happen – as far as I can tell she has a much bigger audience than we do here at DoWntime. But I do think it’s necessary to lay out a basic ground rule: everyone who’s reading this article, don’t be a jerk. And to Whovian Feminism: I really do think you’re great. Your tireless campaign for more female creators in Doctor Who and your support for a female Doctor is genuinely inspiring, and your reviews are always thought provoking, and challenge me to think about the problems with my favourite show in a valuable and constructive way.
With series ten wrapped up, let’s revisit the series nine finale trilogy, as it’s always worth talking about. We’ll do so in three separate blog posts, a series rather than in one go: I think regardless of whether you like to read them as a multi part story or three one parters, the best way to approach what these episodes of television are doing from a critical perspective is to read them one episode at a time. That said, just to record my position: they’re one parters, that are linked closely enough to form a wider trilogy. Think “The Hunger Games”: each part tells its own distinct story (the mystery on Trap Street, The Doctor’s escape from the castle, and Clara’s goodbye to the Doctor), while the three parts together form a wider story. It’s the natural culmination of Moffat’s attempt to make each part in a multi part story distinct from the one before it: the individual episodes are now self contained dramas, in spite of the “To be continued” at the end of each part.
“The Girl Who Died” remains nothing short of incredible: the dialogue is spot on, in turns hilarious, poetic, pointed, and philosophical. Its exploration of themes surrounding masculinity and warrior culture, gender roles, storytelling, personal identity, and loss are expertly developed; it’s beautifully shot; the characterisation for the leads is spot on; it uses comedy to make serious points, and the final ten minutes are among the best parts of New Who.
Its central trick is much the same as the one “Vincent and the Doctor” employs, telling a seemingly run of the mill Doctor Who monster story/ historical romp that wraps up in 35 minutes because the key beats are so familiar, and use the extra time for a coda that makes the story have a lasting, powerful impact. But this episode does have one major advantage over “Vincent and the Doctor”: it’s written by Jamie Mathieson and Steven Moffat, who have more visible passion for the seemingly generic Doctor Who stories than Richard Curtis, so use this knowledge to craft a historical romp that has been made with a lot of skill and remarkable depth.
When I last rewatched “Asylum”, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy it as much as I did. But it’s a visible step up from Moffat’s preceding three scripts, as he manages to put together an efficient and skilfully constructed episode, after the hot messes of “Let’s Kill Hitler”, “The Wedding of River Song”, and “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe”. “Asylum” isn’t quite Moffat back to his best, but it is a strong episode that dares to try something new, confidently setting out the new style for its season.