Saturday, July 9, 2011

Let's Talk Doctor Who Part II: Era of Moffat and Smith

Left to Right: Benedict Cumberbatch, Steven Moffat, Matt Smith

New Years' Day 2010. The era of Russell T Davies and David Tennant ended with "The End of Time" and a line that still divides fans, one which I won't spoil. The minute or so after Tennant's regeneration came a scene written by the new head writer and executive producer of Doctor Who, Steven Moffat. The scene introduced the world to the Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith. Smith had a lot going against him coming into the role. First, at the age of 27, Smith was the youngest actor so far to play the part of The Doctor, had many wondering if such a young man could pull off the 900 year old Timelord. Second, David Tennant was incredibly popular. During his tenure as the Doctor, he became a national icon and toppled Tom Baker in the best Doctor polls for a while. It didn't hurt that the man was A) a phenomenally talented actor with a Shakespearean background and B) was rather handsome. Tennant had a legion of fan girls that squeed at his very name. Thirdly, Matt Smith was relatively unknown at that point. Aside from some supporting roles in other television shows, Smith had little on his big-time resume. He was no where near the iconic status that Tennant had reached in his five years on the show. These woes aside, Smith did have one great, big, Scottish advantage.

Steven Motherfucking Moffat

Steven Moffat is a life-long fan of Doctor Who. He is also, alongside Russell T Davies, one of the most acclaimed writers of British television today. He is known best for witty dialogue and clever storylines. He has created UK several series including Coupling, Jekyll, and Sherlock. Sherlock, alongside Doctor Who is probably his most celebrated contribution to television so far. If you want a comparison, he is sort of like a Scottish Joss Whedon, with various genre tv series under his belt. His writing career for Doctor Who started in 1999 when he wrote a parody of the show for charity called The Curse of Fatal Death. This caught the eye of RTD when he was putting a writing staff together for the revival series. Moffat's tenure as a writer for the show during the RTD era was highly praised. Episodes like "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances," "The Girl in the Fireplace," and "Blink" stand among some of best in the new series, and some would say of the show's entire history. So when it was announced the Grand Moff would be taking the wheel once Davies bowed out, there was fanboy cheer throughout the land.

So how has Moffat and Smith's time on the show gone over so far? In one word: Brilliant. The show has taken a dark turn for the better since Moffat's tenure began. The first episode under Moffat's reign was "The Eleventh Hour." For me, that episode marks one of the best Regeneration stories of the entire series. It introduces the tour de force of Matt Smith in all his awkward-alien glory. Smith is simply teeming with energy from start to finish of this episode.
Let's not forget the lovely Karen Gillian as Amy Pond. She's no Sally Sparrow but she's a looker and still a pretty good companion with some Scottish fire. For the first season of Moffat's era, this is what we have: two Scots and a hyper-active former footballer. And that first season is one of my favorites of the new series.

I mean it, Season Five ranks alongside Season One of the Revived Series as the most consistently good season. While Seasons Two, Three, and Four had some incredibly stellar highs, they also had some infamous woes. Season Five had the incredible follow-up to "Blink" with the Weeping Angels two-parter "The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone." It also brought back River Song, outstandingly played by Alex Kingston. Many have criticised the story of River Song as derivative of "The Time Traveler's Wife." Doctor Who is infamous for borrowing from other sources like classic Hammer Horror films, Science Fiction novels, even from its own writer's other stories. For me though, the execution of the River Song story is brilliant. I know her little catchphrases, "Hello Sweetie" and "Spoilers" get on some fan's nerves but I don't mind them. Im frankly waiting for the day when the Doctor gets turn them around on River. The day when The Doctor knows all about her but she knows nothing about him.

Season Five also featured "Amy's Choice." Amy's Choice was a surreal episode. It could be classified as a "bottle episode." A "bottle episode" is an individual story contained in a single space for the majority, if not the entirety of an episode, alluding to a ship in a bottle. This episode is one of my favorites because A) it is choke full of one-liners, it almost feels like a Moffat episode with how quotable this episode is. B) It features Toby Jones as the antagonistic Dream Lord. Toby Jones is a small character actor who plays creepy very well; he also gets some of the best lines in the episode and he delivers them with aplomb. C) The trio of Matt Smith, Amy Pond, and Rory Williams, played by Arthur Darville, really starts to click and makes for a great Tardis team. All these add together to make a great stand-alone gem in Season Five.

While I do enjoy "Vampires of Venice," and "Vincent and the Doctor," it's the Season finale that really packs a punch for me. "The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang" is Moffat's first attempt at a Doctor Who finale. Much like RTD's finales, the whole of creation is at stake but it's on an intimate scale. The first part is very RTD, the breadcrumbs left throughout the season are coming together, the Doctor faces armies of old foes, and there's a twist at the end. The second part is very Moffat. It plays with time in what Moffat likes to call "Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey." In "Timey Wimey" effect proceeds cause in terms of viewer chronology and solutions aren't fully explained until the very end. Now there are some problems with "The Big Bang" where we have the reset button much like we did in "The Last of the Time Lords." For me, the reset button works and makes more sense because things are popping out of existence and it seems like the only solution. With "Timelords" resetting the events that happened seemed, how you say, a copout of the highest order. Much like "Timelords" we also have something of wishing power, a fairy tale aspect. However, here it makes more sense yet again. In Davies's incarnation, The Doctor was a veteran dealing with the harsh reality of his home planet and his people being now longer in existence. His Doctors were rougher around the edgers and dealt with time in absolutes and were much more of anti-heroes with "Everything dies" in "The End of the World" and "Timelord Victorious" in "The Waters of Mars." Moffat has created something of a fairytale, his version of Doctor Who is only sci-fi in the way it plays with time travel. Other than that, it is absolute fantasy, to the point of fairy tale. A former writer of Doctor Who, Stephen Gallagher, compared the scene at the beginning of "The Beast Below" to that of Peter Pan and Wendy with the flying imagery and the classic night gown. Even the name, Amelia Pond, The Doctor said was like something "out of a fairy tale." So the end sequence involving "Something old..." just feels right to me.

Moffat continues to explore the mythology of The Doctor in series 6 with "A Good Man Goes to War." I LOVE "A Good Man Goes to War." It is beautiful shot, beautifully written, beautifully acted, and is all sorts of epic." In this episode, The Doctor is referred to as a "dark legend," "a devil," "a trickster," and "a phantom." Here Moffat plays with the darker side of The Doctor legend, even toying with the idea that the word Doctor originates with the Timelord and varies in meaning from one world to the next. In one world, it can mean healer and wise man, in the next it can mean mighty warrior. Just think of classic fairy tales that differ from culture to culture. One land's folk hero, is another land's boogeyman. Here is where we hit on something even better in terms of knowing Moffat, his boogeymen.

Trust me, these things will keep you awake at night

Moffat doesn't use big CGI monsters in his tales, he uses the things that go bump in the night and he makes them everything you were ever afraid of as a child. With the Weeping Angels, Moffat's signature monster, he makes you fear what you can't see, makes you want to sleep with one eye open. With Vashta Nerada in "The Silence in the Library," he literally says, "Almost every species in the universe has an irrational fear of the dark, but they're wrong 'cause its not irrational." The idea that there is something lingering, waiting in the dark to come out and grab you is one of the most common fears as a child and Moffat exploits it perfectly. He brings back the "watch from behind the sofa" aspect that Doctor Who was famous for in its Gothic Horror heyday for both the kids growing up with the new Doctor and the adults coming back for more. The Doctor doesn't tell us not to be afraid, in fact he tells people it would be stupid not to be afraid. So let's bring ourselves to the Timelord himself shall we?

Nine hundred years and ten past incarnations is A LOT to live up to wouldn't you say? However, our man Matt Smith may the latest Doctor, he is far from the least. I mentioned earlier that Smith's take on the Doctor is particularly alien. Where Tennant's take was particularly versed in human culture to the point of making pop culture references without any trouble, Smith is very much a student of the culture. He sees humans, he understand them somewhat but he lacks the human touch that Tennant did and that is beautiful. He eats fish fingers with custard, he is oblivious to human signals as seen in "A Christmas Carol" and "A Good Man Goes to War" where human sexuality is rampant and the Doctor looks both embarrassed and confused. Smith at times has the hyper-activity that Tennant showed during his run but there are flashes of The Doctor's long life. This specifically shown in the "The Big Bang" when The Doctor is strapped into the Pandorica talking to Amy Pond. There is a tiredness in his voice and age in his eyes. Tennant's Doctor would often say "I am so old" but with Smith's Doctor, you just know he is ancient. While Tennant had geek chic with his spiked hair, slim suits, and colored Chucks, Smith's Doctor is a complete and utter dweeb. He wears tweed jackets, his trousers are just a bit too short, accessorizes with bow ties, suspenders, and the occasional fez. Tennant knew he was cool, Smith has to tell people he's cool.

Some have said that Smith's Doctor lacks the teeth that previous Doctor's have shown, Eccelston and Tennant especially. However, there are flashes of quiet anger and controlled rage. Moments like his speech to Rosanna in "Vampires of Venice" and his order to Colonel Manton in "A Good Man Goes to War." In "Vampires of Venice" he promises to "tear down the House of Calvierri stone by stone" for not knowing the name of the girl she killed, Isabella. He coldly commands the steward attempting to grab him to take his hands off of him. He doesn't shout, he doesn't raise his voice like Tennant or Eccelston's Doctor would, he doesn't even break eye contact with Rosanna, but he still has the power in the room. The next time we see Smith's Doctor truly angry is in "A Good Man Goes to War." After taking control of Demon's Run, The Doctor tells Colonel Manton, the enemy commander, to tell his men to run away. He explains to the Colonel that he wants the Colonel to forever be remember for those words and to be called "Colonel Runaway." "I want children laughing outside your door because they've found the house of Colonel Runaway and when people come to you and ask you if trying to get to me through the people I love is in any way a good idea, I want you to tell them your name." He raises his voice, he loses his cool, which he quickly regains and quips, "Look I'm angry, that's new." The RTD era of Doctor Who was at times infamously famous for what some fans have called "Shouty Doctor" where anger and rage can be equated with how loud The Doctor shouts. This is what some of the writer's think make The Doctor scary or fearsome and memorable but this isn't the case. In fact, The Doctor's most memorable moments of rage are when he doesn't raise his voice or spittle but when he speaks softly or not even at all and moves very little. But I'm diverging, the point is with Smith's Doctor, his anger and his punishments because of his anger are to prove a point. His actions in both "Vampires" and "A Good Man" are based on The Doctor's own morality, which is very alien in their own right. I want to keep talking about the other Doctors and comparing but Im running long on this post and getting off topic. In the next installment I'll either tackle various incarnations of the Doctor or some of my favorite stories of the classic series. I haven't decided yet but you'll find out soon.

Also some recommendations: To see some of Moffat's other work, I highly recommend his re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock with Benedict Cumberbatch (the MOST British name) and Martin Freeman. Finally, I'll leave you with the newly released trailer for the second half of series 6.

Be seeing you.

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