A little under a week ago I sent in my entry for Big Finish’s short story competition – I’d written what I like to think is an excellent short story, where a brave, bright, but very little girl is scared by voices in her bedroom, which the only parental character mentioned in the story doesn’t believe exist, but the voices are made to go away through the intervention of the Doctor.
I thought it was possibly the best piece of fiction I’ve ever written, but ‘a bit Steven Moffat’, and it actually had a chance of winning.
All I could think, through the first ten minutes of The Eleventh Hour, the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who, as written by Steven Moffat, was ‘bugger’.
There are two things I want to make clear in this review before I go any further – two things which, unfortunately, due to the nature of online Doctor Who fandom, I need to say even though they really, really shouldn’t need saying.
The first is that even though I overall quite enjoyed the programme, I thought there was a lot to criticise within it as well, and in reviewing it I’m going to talk about those things. If you worry about someone ‘ruining your squee’, then please go away.
The second, and opposite, fact is that I have disliked the vast majority of what I have seen of the revived show as produced and written primarily by Russel T. Davies, and don’t really consider it to bear any relation to the programme I *do* like – but that I consider this a statement of personal aesthetic judgement about the programme, rather than a moral judgement about the programme’s creators or fans. In particular, I do not think Mr Davies is Satan, or that he wrecked the programme by allowing evil homosexualists into it, or that he is ‘destroying my childhood’ or ‘hating the fans’ or ‘stealing my programme and giving it to the mundanes’ or any of that nonsense. I just think he happens to be a writer/producer who is sincerely trying to make the best programme he can, but whose idea of a good programme is wildly at variance with mine. I also don’t think being overweight, gay or Welsh are, in themselves, reasons to attack someone. So if you wish to comment about how good it is that the fat taffy queer with his gay agenda has gone and given the programme back to the real fans, please go away.
Right, after that, with a bit of luck we might have got rid of the lunatics, and everyone reading this will be someone who regards Doctor Who as a TV programme, one to be judged by more or less the same standards by which one judges any other TV programme. So with that in mind, does Steven Moffat’s version of Doctor Who measure up?
Possibly the easiest way to look at this is to look at the things I didn’t like about Davies’ era, and see how Moffat’s version of the show compares to that. So the main things I didn’t like about Davies’ show were:
1) The morality of the show. It didn’t have any, and at times it seemed breathtakingly *immoral*, both in big ways (lionising Madame du Pompadour, one of the most disgusting individuals ever to have lived) and small (the bullying ‘let’s laugh at the nerdy nerdy nerds’ attitude of a good number of episodes). Both these, actually, are things that were more noticeable in Moffat scripts than others – but are still ultimately Davies’ responsibility as the person who set the tone for the show as a whole. My platonic ideal of Doctor Who would always side with the underdog, be that a slave being tortured to death in order to provide sugar for pampered French aristocrats, or a socially-awkward young man being mocked for enjoying science fiction DVDs.
2) The characterisation of the Doctor. The Doctor shouldn’t be a geek-chic indie kid generic hero who occasionally does something ‘wacky’, and nor should he be a lonely god who is the specialest person in the whole of special, but should be an intelligent, thoughtful, but fundamentally strange character.
3) The plotting. Things happening for a reason is nice, internal logic is also good. Davies ex machina less so.
4) Lack of imagination – everyone throughout history, whatever planet, in the year 200 billion or the fifteenth century, is exactly like people in early 21st century Britain. Big Brother and Britney Spears will be known until the end of the universe.
Looking at The Eleventh Hour in those terms, point one doesn’t apply – there is nothing horribly immoral in the story. It would be interesting if the Prisoner hadn’t been so obviously A Baddie – if there’d been a choice to be made between giving a possibly-innocent fugitive over or seeing Earth destroyed – but there was nothing actively immoral in there.
Point two I’m less sure on. Matt Smith is clearly a competent actor, but he didn’t seem especially Doctorish to me, and as Lawrence Miles pointed out, some of the lines would be easier to imagine coming from the mouth of Clint Eastwood than from Tom Baker. That said, he did save the world by actually thinking, and by noticing things, and that’s better than saving the world using handwavium. I’ll give him time.
Point three – there was a plot. It made sense, and the only problems with it are of the ‘but that’s not actually how computer viruses *work*’ type rather than the ‘but none of that makes any sense at all, even a little bit, why did he even *do* that?’ type. The one question I have is why the coma patients were all saying “Doctor” – there was no good reason at all for this.
Point four – well, this one was set in present-day Britain, so hard to say on this.
So overall, it’s too soon to say if the programme will be better than Davies’ effort, but there’s enough evidence that it will to be cautiously optimistic.
There are quite a few downsides, though. In particular, the show seems ruthlessly designed for the ‘geek demographic’, from the steampunk TARDIS interior to the guest appearance by Patrick Moore to the bow tie. It seemed so blatantly targeted to a demographic that I don’t consider myself part of that I felt put off.
Also, the story was very much Moffat-by-numbers. As I said, before, I wrote something that I thought very ‘Moffatty’ this week, and it turned out to be very close to the first ten minutes of this story (in fact I think it was rather better – those of my friends I asked to critique it can feel free to disagree in the comments). But structurally, this was very, *very* close to The Girl In The Fireplace, and the characters of Amy and Rory are more or less identical to the characters of Sally and Lawrence from Blink.
Not only that, but a *LOT* of the script was predictable. Little kid asks “How do I know you’ll come back?” to which the reply is “trust me, I’m the Doctor’. I was actually muttering many of the lines to myself before they were said. To a large extent the script was comprised entirely of cliches. Certainly, if you’d asked me to write the story I thought Moffat would write to introduce a new Doctor, I would have written something close enough to this that you could believe they were different drafts of the same script.
So it was still far closer to being cult-TV-by-numbers than to being proper good TV. The ‘classic’ series (or ‘real Doctor Who’ as I think of it) was in some way trying to do the same kind of thing as (at different times) I, Claudius or The Beiderbecke Affair or Boys From The Blackstuff or The Clangers or The Telegoons. It was often not up to the standards of those programmes, but it was trying to compete with those things. This series is trying to compete with Primeval and Robin Hood and Ashes To Ashes – it’s trying to do one very defined kind of thing. As far as that goes, it does it very well, and is probably the best show of its type. But I’d far rather an ambitious failure than a middling success, and my first impression of MoffWho is that it’s the latter.