Back from Birmingham, mixed announcements and some brief thoughts on Doctor Who

As the title indicates, I’m back from Birmingham. That is, actually I came back on Wednesday (on a 7 AM flight – ugh), but I’ve been too tired and busy for blogging until now.

There’ll be more observations and photos soon. But for now, here are some announcements:

I have begun uploading my books to Smashwords, following some recent policy changes on their part. I’ve also done one of their self-serve interviews.

If you’ve been interested in trying the e-book subscription service Scribd, you can now get a free 3-month trial via Teleread. Of course, you can also read some of my books while you’re at it.

Finally, three books in the Shattered Empire series simultaneously hit some category bestseller lists at Amazon Australia.

And now, let’s talk about Doctor Who.

As you may know, I stopped watching Doctor Who regularly sometime towards the end of David Tennant’s tenure, when I realised that the Doctor was no longer a character I liked, let alone wanted to watch. Ever since then, I’ve watched only intermittently, when there’s some kind of landmark episode such as those written by Neil Gaiman or when I find myself within the broadcast range of BBC1 while Doctor Who is on. Every single time, the verdict inevitably is, “This is really shit. Looks like a Colin Baker or Sylvester McCoy episode.” and “Crap, was Doctor Who always this bad?”

When Peter Capaldi took over as the Doctor, I was pretty sure that would be the end of my more than ten year enjoyment of the show, because I had serious issues with Capaldi (outlined here) and disliked the direction the show was taking in general.

However, I once again found myself in the UK, while Doctor Who was on. And so I thought, “Why not watch for old times’ sake? Who knows, maybe it’s better than expected?”

You can imagine how well that one went.

The episode I watched was called Time Heist (I kept calling it “Space Heist” throughout and had to edit the title later, which tells you how much of an impression it left), written by Stephen Thompson and showrunner Steven Moffat and directed by Douglas Mackinnon. Here is a recap from the Guardian as well as Emily Asher-Perrin’s summary/review of the episode at Tor.com and here is Paul Cornell telling us the five things he thought were brilliant about Time Heist, also at Tor.com.

Now Paul Cornell is maybe my favourite new Who scriptwriter alongside the wonderful Rob Shearman who hasn’t been seen since way back in season 1. Nonetheless, I completely disagree with him that the episode was brilliant. Instead, coming back to it as someone who hasn’t watched Doctor Who in a while, it was just bad. What makes this even more of a pity is that I’m normally a sucker for heist and caper stories, so I should have been all over this one. Instead my friend and I watched for fifteen minutes, collectively shook our heads and said, “This is crap. Let’s go for dinner instead.”

Let’s start with the Doctor, number 12 or rather 13, if you include John Hurt’s War Doctor as a legitimate regeneration. Now I had my problems with the choice of Peter Capaldi from the beginning. Not because I don’t think Peter Capaldi is a fine actor – he absolutely is. However, he also is one of those people who make my skin crawl on a gut level. And the fact that I primarily associate him with playing a child-murdering scumbag politician on the Doctor Who spin-off Torchwood doesn’t help.

I’d feared that I’d been too hard on Peter Capaldi – after all, he is a fine actor and it’s hardly his fault that he makes my skin crawl and I can only stand him in villain roles. But rumblings I heard online seemed to suggest that Capaldi’s Doctor was mean to Clara and more Valeyard than Doctor in general. Which is coincidentally what I said back when the announcement was first made: “This man might make an excellent Master or Valeyard, but I can’t really imagine him as the Doctor.”

Upon first seeing the Doctor, my friend exclaimed, “That old dude is supposed to be the Doctor?! But he’s ugly.”

Me: “Well, the Doctor isn’t supposed to be attractive. After all, none of the Doctors were traditionally handsome. Tennant and McGann probably came the closest.”

My friend: “But he’s… really old.”

Me: “Oldest actor to play the role since the First Doctor back in the 1960s. But then Doctors were rarely played by young actors until the new series and besides, he is supposed to be more than a thousand years old.”

My friend: “But he’s… kind of icky.”

Me: “He is, isn’t he?”

Plus, the Doctor proved himself to be an unpleasant person within the first few minutes of the episode, when he walked in on Clara preparing to go out with her boyfriend (Clara has a boyfriend? Must have happened since I last watched). Now date-crashing Doctors are nothing new, just ask long suffering Mickey and Rory. But this Doctor didn’t just crash Clara’s date, he also had words about her appearance. Precisely, he asked her, “Why is their paint on your face?”

Yeah right, because in over a thousand years of life, much of which was spent among humans and particularly in the company of young human women, the Doctor still hasn’t cottoned on to the fact that women sometimes wear make-up. Criticizing Clara’s appearance (especially since my friend and I both agreed she looked great) just made the Doctor come across as a jerk.

Plus, it’s apparently a thing with this Doctor. Cause later that evening, using my daily 30-minute allowance of free WiFi, I saw the following exchange in Twitter:

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. That’s just Moffat. After all, Steve Moffat’s problem with writing female characters is well known and it only seems to have increased over the years. At any rate, back in the days of Coupling, Moffat was as harsh on the men as on the women. And it’s sad that old Doctor Who delivered more interesting and diverse female characters back in the 1960s and 1970s than new Doctor Who in the 2000s. And it’s not just Moffat who’s to blame for that one, Russell T. Davies is as much as fault. Never mind that Davies can only write a single convincing female character, namely “Rose” in all her guises (and “Rose” shows up throughout Davies’ work).

But even though he is an alien and occasionally behaves that way, the Doctor is still the character who is supposed to have our sympathies. And a Doctor who continuously mistreats his companion is a hard character to like, as the Sixth Doctor (and to a certain degree Seventh Doctor) found out to his detriment. Now all new Who Doctors have behaved abominably towards their companions, just see Eccleston’s and Tennant’s treatment of Jack, Mickey and Martha as well as one episode companion Adam. But since Peter Capaldi is not very likable to begin with (unlike the generally likable Tennant and sort of likable Eccleston), the bad treatment of Clara is even more notable.

Luckily, we didn’t get much time to get outraged about the Doctor mistreating Clara and crashing her date with a cute black guy (at least, Doctor Who continues to be as pleasantly diverse and full of interracial relationships as it was in the days of Russell T. Davies), because the TARDIS phone rang and then the Doctor and Clara were suddenly somewhere else with two new characters called Psi and Saibra and were informed that they had agreed to a mindwipe and were supposed to rob a bank in a heist planned and instigated by someone called the Architect.

Then our cool quartet were off to the bank, which unfortunately turned out to have a rather unique security system, an alien monster called “the Teller”, which has the ability to detect if someone has guilty thoughts or intentions. Luckily for the Doctor and his companions, the Teller has homed in one another bank customer who is harbouring guilty thoughts (and did the “guilty” customer really have to be a black man?), which is just as well, because it turns out that the Teller’s brain scans kill the victim. Holding the Teller’s leash is Keely Hawes in a rare turn as a villainess.

The idea behind this episode actually isn’t bad at all, plus I’m a sucker for heist and caper stories. Plus, the Teller is a good monster, Psi, Saibra and Clara are likable characters and Keely Hawes makes a good villainess. So what went wrong? Why was the actual episode so bad that we both agreed to switch off after fifteen minutes and go for dinner instead?

First of all, Time Heist looked cheap and I mean really cheap. Now looking cheap is something of a tradition for Doctor Who, dating back from the original series with its bubblewrap and tinfoil monsters. But while the new series had the occasional really cheap looking episode (The Long Game, Boom Town, Fear Her, etc…), it generally looks pretty good or at least manages to mask the cheapness. However, of late most episodes I’ve actually watched, e.g. last season’s Nightmare in Silver, looked really, really cheap. Okay, so maybe there have been budget cuts at the BBC, but why not cut back on the number of episodes per season instead of sacrificing the overall quality?

I’ve already talked about the fact that the Doctor is an unpleasant character, which is probably down more to Moffat’s writing than Capaldi’s acting. However, this episode suffered from another side-effect of Moffat’s writing, namely his preference for non-linear timey-winey wibbly-wobbly plots.

Now Doctor Who is hardly the only place where Moffat uses timey-winey wibbly-wobbly plots. Non-linear plots pop up in Coupling, generally to great effect, e.g. the episode The Girl with the Two Breasts. They also pop up in Sherlock. And since Doctor Who is a show about time travel, it lends itself to non-linear plots. However, by now Moffat is so in love with his timey-winey wibbly-wobbly non-linear plots that he doesn’t just use them once or twice per season, but every single episode. Which makes for some very confusing viewing.

Under Russell T. Davies, Doctor Who was occasionally experimental, occasionally straight forward and occasionally silly, but it was rarely confusing. Even if you only watched a single episode or watched the episodes out of order, you could generally get what was going on. Under Moffat, however, Doctor Who is increasingly confusing. Watching just the occasional episode here and there is no longer possible, because much of the time you will have no idea what is going on. And even individual episodes are confusing because of the predominance of non-linear plots. Of course, everything will probably become clear by the end of the episode (I hope). But first you need to get there. And yes, I know that arc plots and binge watching are a thing. But Doctor Who has never really been the sort of arc heavy, binge watching show, unlike e.g. Lost or Game of Thrones.

Indeed, I find myself wondering whether new Doctor Who was ever really good or whether we were simply so desperate for any sort of Doctor Who at all that we were willing to overlook its faults. And let’s not forget that when new Doctor Who came along in 2005, the SFnal airwaves were ruled by the Stargates and the grimdark, Ron D. Moore slaughtered new Battlestar Galactica. Lighter and outright fun SFF was hard to find and SFF in general was the province of some not very good shows on the SciFi Channel in the US. Star Trek had just ridden off into the sunset, seemingly for good. Lost had only just started up. Britain had zero SFF shows at all at the time. Since then we’ve had Supernatural, Game of Thrones, True Blood, Sleepy Hollow, The Walking Dead, Arrow, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Outlander, Penny Dreadful, Orphan Black, True Detective, etc… in the US and Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, Being Human, Misfits, Torchwood, Outcasts, Jekyll, etc… in the UK. Of course, not all of those shows fulfilled their promise, some fell down after a couple of seasons and others never were my cup of tea at all. However, there is no denying that televised SFF is so much better now than it was back in 2005 and that there is so much more of it than there was back then.

Doctor Who was a breath of fresh air at the time, a show that was not afraid to be fun and even cheesy on occasion and still managed to effect you emotionally. Now it’s just another SFF show and not even a very good one at that.

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4 Responses to Back from Birmingham, mixed announcements and some brief thoughts on Doctor Who

  1. Mark says:

    I had a similar Dr. Who experience when I watched a couple of minutes of a Matt Smith episode when I was in the UK and when I hadn’t watched Dr. Who for quite a while. It was one of these very mundane and contemporary looking episodes (people were playing football in a park). When I watched that same episode later, I liked it much better, but I’m still not a big fan of Matt Smith era Dr. Who.

    As to Capaldi and the new series. I’m surprised how much I’m enjoying it so far. I like Oswald and I like the new Doctor. I may have the benefit that I have absolutely no recollection of his Torchwood performance, however. That said, this doctor is indeed much more morally ambiguous than any doctor before him (at least as far as I remember), so knowing that you disliked these elements of Torchwood, I don’t think that you will like the new series of Dr. Who at all and that you were actually lucky that you “just” watched Time Heist, because I think it was a somewhat minor episode that didn’t add that much to the overall story arc. In earlier episodes he may have pushed somebody out of a balloon (if he did is still unclear) and he deliberately sacrificed the live of a minor character in a situation because he was “already dead anyway”. In the first episode he asks Oswald if he is a “good person”, and she says she doesn’t know, while she still tries to come to terms with the fact that she is appalled by the looks and the manners of the person she kind of idolized (loved) before. So I guess the series does indeed go into a direction which many people didn’t expect and don’t approve of, but I like the somewhat darker and ambiguous undertones. Regarding the look of the new series. Like the doctor said in Time Heist, he was “hoping for minimalism, but got magician instead”. And this episode had the additional disadvantage of being your typical “running around a spaceship/inside a dalek/bank or whatever” scenario.

    • Mark says:

      Never mind, in the meantime I watched the latest episode, and wow, that one was really bad.

      • Cora says:

        “The Caretaker” or whatever it’s called? Going by the trailer, it seemed to be one of those modern day set “Let’s shoot in Cardiff and pretend it’s London” episodes and I know you’re not a fan of those.

        By the way, even casually watching Doctor Who now and then means that I can now instantly recognize some Cardiff settings and landmarks, because they have become so overused in the past nine years. I’ve actually pointed out – when it looked as if I would have to visit Cardiff on business – that visiting Cardiff would be very weird, because I’ve seen so much of it on TV, even though I’ve never visited the city itself.

    • Cora says:

      I’m not a fan of the Moffat era of Doctor Who period, regardless whether Matt Smith or Peter Capaldi is playing the Doctor. Though I still prefer Smith to Capaldi. As for Capaldi’s Torchwood part, he was the villainous government official/politician in Children of the Earth who was largely responsible for the whole mess and murdered his own daughters and committed suicide in the end. He was pretty prominent, too, it wasn’t just a walk-on part.

      The thing about the Doctor is that he’s still ultimately supposed to be a good guy, even if he occasionally is morally ambiguous. As for pushing people from balloons and sacrificing lives, the Doctor hasn’t really done that sort of thing since the First Doctor back in the 1960s and even he mellowed pretty quickly. But the new era Doctors have become a lot more morally ambiguous and consequently less likable from the beginning and Eccleston on. I never really noticed this or rather I made excuses for the Doctor, until I listed my least favourite Doctor Who episodes of all time, which included a couple of “Doctor behaves like a jerk” episodes from the original series, and realised that in almost every case, the Doctor had done worse in the new series. As for the Capaldi Doctor, the only way this Doctor makes sense is if he turns out to be the villainous Valeyard Doctor from the original series.

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