Sunday, June 02, 2013

Matt Finish

“Change, my dear. And not a moment too soon.”

Timing is everything.

With the recent completion of a major project (Evil UnLtd Vol 3 – ahem) I was going to kick off a rewatch of the latest season of Doctor Who either this week or next. Last night, Matt Smith announced his intention to retire from the role of the Doctor and helped me decide.

What began as a simple mechanism of convenience to explain a cast change has over the course of the years become an Event. Right here, right now, it’s a sad occasion – Matt Smith was (did I really say was?) – is my favourite Doctor since Davison. (For those of you unfamiliar with the show’s past that’s a long time.) It’ll be a shame to see him go. Simultaneously, the prospect of a new regeneration and the whirl of possibilities of who might fill the role creates a surge of excitement. The worst of times, the best of times.

We look back and we look forward. And it’s fair to say that I felt that the show was about due for a major shake-up. The irony being that Matt isn’t what needed to change.

Nor Moffat, before anyone calls for his head. As show-runner he’s made a few mistakes – excessive commissioning of ChrisChibnall scripts chief among them – but for the main part I’ve welcomed and even applauded his stewardship.

That said, reflecting back on this latest series, enduring impressions are of mediocrity mingled with occasional bright spots. When they’re bright they’re very bright, mind you, but there’s a sense of something slipping. Maybe standards. Or is it that I’m more demanding? Well, that’s one of the questions my revisit will aim to answer. But ahead of that I do know one thing for sure that has damaged the series and it’s a) outside of Moffat’s control and b) something I won’t be experiencing as I watch my way through the thirteen episodes over the coming weeks.

Because amongst the many things I am looking forward to is watching these stories minus the massive gaps in between.

That’s right. I am not a fan of the ‘mid-season break’ that’s become a feature of too many of the shows I enjoy. Bad enough we have to wait six months between seasons, to make us wait another six between halves of seasons is plain cruel. AMC’s BreakingBad, for example, is a massive favourite of mine and just when I was getting stuck into the final season they split it and I’m still dangling on a cliffhanger until July. Curse you, TV networks!

This season of Doctor Who began in September 2012, ran for five whole episodes, then whoosh, it’s off again. Barely enough to get you’re teeth into, let alone get hooked. To be fair, the departure of Amy and Rory (boohoo, sniff, it’s all coming back to me now) creates a natural break point and allows us time to mourn their absence (sob). And the Christmas Special was on hand to re-ignite interest in the Clara/Oswin thread and felt like a new beginning. But then we’re left hanging for another four months and Moffat has to supply another new beginning just to get things rolling again.

Now, Clara has enjoyed more introductory stories than any other companion – and I’m all for that. Jenna-Louise Coleman is quite lovely and lends the character a brand of fire and sparkle that’s quite distinct from Amy’s. So on one level the show can keep introducing her if needs be, but all these stops and starts are far from ideal.

The five-episode opening stretch was way too short and it seems to me there’s more pressure on a shorter run to be a lot better. It’d be unreasonable to object to two or three poor episodes in a span of thirteen. But two or three average tales in a meagre handful, I think, would strike as a poorer effort. And that’s my recollection of those first five: three middling middle episodes sandwiched between two good wholesome slices of Doctor Who bread.

Whether that impression holds on a rewatch, we’ll see, but either way I can’t help feeling the broken-up season makes Moffat’s job harder in many respects as well as making life harder on the viewers and harder on the show to attract a loyal following outside of us die-hard Who fans who’ll tune in religiously no matter what. Continuity of interest is difficult to maintain, particularly if you have over-arcing threads to weave. And Moffat does like to weave his tangled webs.

To say nothing of his tendency to half-inch ideas from me. (Intelligent snow from Drift, the Vertibike from Evil UnLtd Vol 2 and there are characters in Emotional Chemistry who aren't a million miles removed from the idea of different iterations of Clara scattered throughout time, although the temporal mechanics are different.) The swine.

Anyway, individual stories have to devote time and attention to reminding us what the hell’s going on with the bigger picture. There’s a danger then of those stories being weakened by all the extra material they have to carry. Still pretty fresh in my memory, for example, is The Crimson Horror (by Mark Gatiss), which I thoroughly enjoyed but which was robbed of some of its punch by the tail-end revelations revolving around Clara and the kids.

Oh, those kids. I really hope they improve when my rewatch arrives at Nightmare In Silver (Neil Gaiman’s Cyber-offering).

Anyway, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There are definite highlights that stand out in the mind at this stage and it’ll be interesting to see if those remain the same. I’ll cite them here for the record so we can compare notes at the end of this journey. Asylum Of The Daleks – despite now being a dim and distant recollection – struck me as a strong opener. Amy and Rory’s departure (sob) in The Angels Take Manhattan I recall as fabulous and not a little bit emotional (sniff). I delighted in The Snowmen Christmas Special – and reviewed it at the time. The Bells Of St John’s was a highly enjoyable re-opener. And I was captivated – in diverse ways – by The Rings Of Akhaten, Cold War, Hide, The Crimson Horror and The Name Of The Doctor. And Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS to some extent.

All of which would suggest a high ratio of great episodes. A good second half. But that ‘some extent’ is applicable to most. Because it’s also worth adding that I was variously let down by a number of those latter tales.

Now’s not the time to enter into specifics as, like I say, those initial in-the-moment impressions are subject to change. A rewatch removes expectations and expectations can be a major factor.

But looking back I do see a lot of pulled punches and weak endings. At this stage I’m not sure if it’s an absence of dramatic cost or over-simple or flawed resolutions, but whatever the cause the effect is a kind of dramatic cry wolf. Whereby I am left less invested in each subsequent story as I learn to expect the letdown.

There’s much to be said for pulling the carpet out from under any given story in terms of creating a twist, but you want to do that without leaving that story falling flat on its face.
For all that, my fannish enthusiasm was at least re-ignited in full by The Name Of The Doctor.

While it has, in typical Moffat fashion, raised at least as many questions as it answered, it closed out this season and left a great fizzy taste in the mouth, whetting the appetite for that big 50th Anniversary Special in November. I am fired up for that. Expectations are high. So, no pressure, Mr Moffat.

Obviously in a perfect world I wouldn’t have had a clue about Matt Smith’s departure – whether in that Anniversary Special or the Christmas Special that follows it. I mean, it’s not a huge surprise as it stands – I kind of expected it. But for preference I’d have loved to have been slapped in the face with that in-story, with none of the advance press. But that kind of coup must be close to impossible to achieve in these days of social media and a grapevine that seems to operate faster than light.

But the news is out there now. There’s no undoing that one.

Speculation is of course already rampant and will no doubt fuel even higher expectations. I’ve played my share of Doctor Who fantasy casting, albeit I was only serious about a select handful of them. (IanMcDiarmid, for instance, has always been a terrific choice in my mind. Likewise Richard E Grant – and there’s a story mechanism in place for that one to happen. Rachel Weisz for a female Doctor. Benedict Cumberbatch – more obvious to cast him as The Master, but why be obvious? And Peter Dinklage would be bloody brilliant.) As you can see most of my choices, for different reasons, would fall into the ‘never happen’ category. But it’s still a fun game for the imagination to play.

Whoever lands the role, I do think they need to be a radical departure from the current model. As mentioned, I don’t believe for a minute that Matt Smith was the element that needed changing, but now that it’s going to happen a major shake-up would, in my opinion, be far better than a minor one.

Naturally, I’d like to see Jenna-Louise continue in the role of Clara. I’ll have more to say about her when I reach the end of my rewatch. But beyond that, the conjunction of 50th Anniversary and a Doctor departure presents the greatest opportunity for a series overhaul since its return.
As with casting suggestions, I have my own ideas on the kind of direction the series might benefit from taking. The difference being that, while the list of Doctors remains a fantasy, most of the ideas are eminently achievable.

As it’s Doctor Who, I will continue to contemplate and speculate. And I’ll return – with more thoughts on the subject. But in the meantime I will be engaged in my rewatch of what we now know will be Matt Smith’s final full season.

That may well colour my perspective. Most of all though it will serve as a fitting tribute to the man’s time on the show and a fitting weekly pastime that will bring me closer to those 50th birthday celebrations. Like re-opening some presents before blowing out a whole bunch of candles on the cake.

On which note, I must depart, as I prepare to commit myself to the Asylum Of The Daleks.


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