Monday, 3 June 2013

Doctor Who: Series Seven and Beyond

Six into Seven

The Name Of The Doctor was the first time Series Seven of Doctor Who has really worked for me, and got me as excited and involved as I was for Series Six (and all the proceeding runs of New Who).

I loved Series Six. The Impossible Astronaut / The Day Of The Moon double bill that opened it was surely one of the maddest, most unlikely infiltrations of Saturday night lite-entertainment by hardcore Sci-fi ever. The scope and ambition of the ideas was off the scale, and the rest of the series shared similar complex riddling with impressive standalone episodes.

This seemed to be the kind of series Moffat excelled at creating. In the RTD era, his contributions rightly stood out, largely because they were built around simple but mind-bending ideas. His core belief was that one episode of Doctor Who should have a concept others would stretch out into a film, or even a franchise - and on this he delivered, though we must now bare in mind that his most beloved creations; The Weeping Angels and River Song have now had more screen time than they would have had in a feature film.

So the idea for Series Seven, that each episode is presented as its own genre piece, a blockbuster film every weekend, always seemed odd to me. It's of massive credit to the BBC that each episode has appeared to have the budget, direction and production of a professionally created feature film. But has the writing matched it? And were the smart but simple ideas that defined Moffat's first two series noticeable by their absence?

Series 6 ended on an interesting note; The Doctor, faced with the realisation that he is feared across the universe concludes it's perhaps time to take more of a backseat. His apparent death at Lake Silencio is the perfect opportunity to step into the shadows. This was followed up by the pleasingly low key The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe Christmas episode, where he off-handedly referred to himself as The Caretaker.

This has now been largely forgotten, and as a concept does not fit well with a desire for weekly blockbusters. Some settings have suited this idea; nuclear submarines, American ghost towns, haunted houses, whilst other acts, such as teaming up with UNIT or riding up the side of the London Shard on a anti gravity motorbike are less conspicuous.

Living in the shadows didn't initially compute in his first adventure of the series, when he met his oldest enemies, the Daleks. But this episode did introduce Clara, and saw The Doctor's existence wiped from their memory banks. But this wasn't mentioned again until Nightmare in Silver (over 12 months later) when the Cybermen claimed they could reconstruct his life through the gaps he had left behind. Otherwise, instead of leading to more personal episodes, like The Lodger, it has been of little note.

Series Seven

So what was series seven about? Well, the first half was pre-occupied with the departure of Amy & Rory and for this reason alone fells like its own mini-series. The Doctor's sadness (which he referred to as The Dark Times in the last episode) does lead us into the second half of the series and towards that astounding conclusion, but does leave us with an inconsistent set of episodes.

Clara's appearance, or The Doctor’s interest in her never quite worked. Isn't it a bit of a stretch that The Doctor keeps chancing upon these companions who are 'impossible', and are also young, beautiful women? The doctor's connection between Clara in Victorian London and The Asylum Of The Daleks is based purely on a coincidental mention of the word Souffle. I think some tighter writing could have explained the doctors interest in her (the opening to The Name Of The Doctor doing this well, but a little too late) as more of a replacement for what he'd lost; something achieved with slow burning but devastating effect with Martha, when she realised he was taking her to the same places he'd travelled with Rose.

The 'Who Is Clara?' mystery simply hasn't been engaging. I've not had reason to care. It's just a mild curiosity. It is too similar a premise to our previous ponderings about who Amy was - why she had no parents, why she had a crack in her wall, and later why she had visions of Madame Kovarian wherever she went. Even The Doctor's less than random visits (for example to the psychic Emma Grayling) to people who might offer insight into Clara's really identity echo the doctor's nonchalance in visiting the beginnings of The Flesh to find out why he had a fake version of Amy travelling with him.

As well as supposedly dealing with that question, the series has also been preoccupied with rebooting older characters. The supposedly lightweight RTD dedicated a series to giving this treatment to The Daleks, Cybermen, The Master and Davros (albeit largely focussing on a series finale). Series Seven had a quick work through The Great Intelligence, The Ice Warriors and The Cybermen (again) and although the first of these was built around a larger idea, the others were based on gimmicks, however enjoyable they were.

Interestingly, the latter two could indeed be seen as metaphors, or signifiers of what is to come, in the wake of the final episode. The Ice Warrior split in two; the hulking armour shell opening to reveal another character inside, one just as deadly. The Doctor's battle with the Cyber Controller was presented in interesting style, with the doctor facing off against himself inside his own head.

In Journey To The Centre Of the TARDIS Clara and the rest of the crew face dark future versions of themselves. And on the rooftop towards the end of The Bells Of St John a fake, evil version of The Doctor appears, under the control of The Great Intelligence.

The Doctor having a 'dark side' is of course nothing new. It is generally laid on by referencing The Time War and him committing genocide upon his own people, as well as the Daleks. A different spin on this was seen through Tennant's Time Lord Victorious in The Waters Of Mars which I was always disappointed was not developed further. Perhaps now it is?

The first suggestion of this dark side having a physical presence was perhaps courtesy of The Dream Lord. That telling glance at his own reflection in the TARDIS console seemed to suggest it all meant more to the doctor than a trip induced by psychic pollen.

And do you remember The God Complex, when The Doctor entered his room containing his greatest fear? We, at that time, were led to presume it was likely himself. But can we now assume it was John Hurt sat in there?

One of the pleasures of Moffat as lead writer is that he is quite the prankster, and loves toying with the fans. The appearance of all the previous doctors in The Name Of The Doctor is an amusing response to presumptions of what (and who) will feature in the 50th anniversary episode. His early introduction to Clara was another. You always get the feeling he is having fun; detractors would say he is often having more fun than the audience.

The audacious captioning on that final shot was another example of this. Build to a climax over a series (or three series?) then stick a fourth wall breaking title on the screen: "Introducing John Hurt as The Doctor" indeed!

50th Anniversary

So what does this tell us about the 50th anniversary show? It's possible that John Hurt is a version of The Doctor before he named himself as such, a pre Hartnell version, possibly 'The Other' referred to in the EU? This seems unlikely, purely because the captioning referred to him as The Doctor.

He could also be The Valeyard (namechecked by The Great Intelligence in that very episode) but it doesn't feel right that Moffat would build his tenure towards a reappearance from a character from an interesting but poorly realised serial from the '80s, no matter how conceptually interesting it may be.

Hurt’s line, that he “acted in the name of peace and sanity" suggests this is a Time War Doctor, and the constant references to dark-sides and split personalities (literally for impossible girl Clara) sets up the basis for an ultimate confrontation worthy of a 50th special - the doctor against himself.

The Time War is also a convenient setting, as it includes the crowd pleasing Daleks. But I don't think that'll be where the 50th special is set. At least, I hope not. They've done a great job of creating a vivid picture through the slightest of references - great conversations between with The Master and Davros. Again, I don't think Moffat will want to tell that story. But I am sure it will appear in flashback, or perhaps with some unlikely crossing of the time lines.

And the constant references to The Doctor's name. In short we will never know his 'name'. But what if the name in question is not his, but John Hurt's version? All we know of the purpose of the name is that it is the doctor's greatest secret, and that it appears in the history of The Time War book, so it does make sense. Also, if River returns for the 50th anniversary and witnesses the fall out from all this, it would explain how she would know that name, and was able to shock Tennant with it way back in Series 4.

My final ponderance is how The Doctor managed to escape The Time War, whilst simultaneously ending it, and trapping it in a time lock. I think the split personality made real is the potential solution here. We know from his story of the Temporal Schism that when faced with something huge he will always run (reiterated in Clara's semi-catchphrase). I sense that the John Hurt doctor was somehow the one who took the bullet, whilst our doctor ran away. Our doctor managed to keep his sanity, and sense of right and wrong, but has been racked with guilt ever since, where John Hurt, if he somehow survived, has done so either with a massive chip on his shoulder, or a twisted, dangerously pragmatic version of morality.

I expect the best way to explain how this is possible would be somehow connected to the regeneration of Doctor 8 into Doctor 9. Although we don't need a precedent for it, Tennant’s shuffle of his regeneration in The Stolen Earth into his previously severed hand is an example of a regeneration creating two Doctors. From behind, the John Hurt doctor certainly resembled Christopher Eccleston. It would also account why Hurt's face hasn't appeared the few times the Doctor in all his version have been shown - the pre Time War doctor's life split two ways and our doctor is a different person, albeit with a shared history before that point. Or maybe it was a Time Lord scheme to create an army, creating multiple versions of themselves in some bonkers response to the Dalek threat. We know they will go to any possible lengths, including resurrecting The Master and destroying all existence in order to evolve into a higher state on consciousness.

Of course, The Doctor and Clara's encounter with John Hurt didn't happen in their 'current' time, it was within the 'scar tissue' of the Doctors entire existence, i.e. they were re-living a past event / timestream, though that doesn't explain why all the other versions just ran past, whilst he addressed Hurt directly. But I don't think John Hurt isn't suddenly walking around the Doctor's universe, causing bother. It'll be something else that will bring them together.

But suddenly The Doctor is back at the centre of everything. In series seven, especially the second half, he has almost felt like a supporting character in his own show, surrounded by under written secondary characters, flash bang effects and sets and overbearing orchestral music. Matt Smith has held it together though, and has been a rock, dragging the series through some middling moments. It says a lot when the most moving moment is simply him sat on a sofa, naturally lit, trying to hold back the tears. Moments like that strip away all the madness, the frustration and tedium, and make you realise you love the doctor, and do still care.

The multitude of ideas that characterised Series 5 and 6 have been absent, replaced by big set pieces and playful call backs to the original run. That ending has somehow rescued it from the brink of being a piece of reliable and predictable television, and back towards essential viewing.

Dean Freeman

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