Moffat and Me

I wrote earlier this year about my problems with the last few series of Doctor Who. Charlie Jane Anders wrote a blog post on io9 that really hits the nail on the head regarding Steven Moffat’s run as executive producer of the show, and her write-up of the seventh series finale is also spot on. I had very mixed feelings about the finale. I got very choked up when Clara and the other friends of the Doctor were threatened, and the final scene with River Song got me teary-eyed, but I found myself bored and numb when it came to the villain and the threat to the Doctor.

In the classic show and in the first few series of the new show, the Doctor was a brilliant time traveler who would show up, unknown by the people around him, and use his brilliance and charisma to ingratiate himself into the situation and save the day. But that’s changed. Now the Doctor is a lonely god, crucial to the existence of the universe, known far and wide, with secret conspiracies working against him throughout time and space. Just announcing his name can send enemies running. And as much as I love epic stories, I find the godlike nature of the Doctor’s character…boring. It’s upped the stakes of the show to the point where the smaller, quieter stories seem subsumed by the overarching epic plot. I’ve loved Moffat’s past stories like “The Empty Child” and “Silence in the Library” (as far as I’m concerned, “The Girl in the Fireplace” is the quintessential Doctor Who story), but I’ve gotten incredibly disenchanted with his vision of the show as its executive producer and head writer.

When my mother asked me on Facebook about it, I said this:

“Moffat wants to swim around in the mythology of the Doctor, look at him as this epic demigod who is the Most Important Person in the Universe, look at his dark secrets and hidden pain. And I don’t care about any of that. I just want the Doctor to be a brilliant, eccentric time traveler who stumbles around the universe, fighting monsters. I don’t want him to be perfect, I want him to be unsure and afraid at times, but I don’t care about him as this mythic entity who is a legend to everyone in the universe, this tragic figure who hides epic levels of pain behind a facade of eccentric charm. Looking at this episode, ahead to the 50th anniversary special, and back at the past few seasons, and…I just don’t care about the overarching story Moffat wants to tell. Which, I suppose, is my problem, not Moffat’s.”

Maybe I’ll never get the show that I want, the show where an eccentric but relatively unknown time traveler and his ordinary but courageous companions show up somewhere, fight a great evil, then leave to go off to their next adventure, with no monumentally epic metaplot intruding on every story. Maybe stories like “The Impossible Planet,” “The Unquiet Dead,” “Kinda,” and “Pyramids of Mars” are a thing of the past. I’ll probably keep watching the show, because even at its worst, it’s still better than almost anything to me. And I’ll always have the 30 years worth of past episodes to watch. One way or another, the show I adore will go on, timeless and eternal.

Christmas Past and Into the Future

Last week saw the premiere of the most recent Doctor Who Christmas special, which I find I have very mixed feelings about, just as I do about the current series* and the show as a whole. I’ve written before about my undying love for Doctor Who, and while I still adore the show–and very much admire Steven Moffat’s writing in general–I’m finding some large aspects of the new show are starting to wear out their welcome for me.

The classic series had recurring characters and places and some recurring storylines, including a few long-form story arcs, but for the most part, each story was self-contained. When the new show started, the first series had the recurring phrase “bad wolf” that turned up, mostly in the background, of many of the stories, eventually being explained in the final story. The second series did something similar with the “Torchwood Institute” being mentioned one way or another in many of the stories, but only really coming to the forefront in the final story. The story arc-ing got more involved in the third series with politician Harold Saxon (which built up to the final story of that series, which I wrote about not-so-favorably). The story arcs of each season have gotten increasingly complex, particularly after Steven Moffat took over as producer, and, in my opinion, increasingly intrusive. God forbid you miss an episode now or you’ll be completely out of the loop on the overarching story. Each series, and the show overall, has gotten incredibly twisty and complicated as long, loopy, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stories have played out over multiple series. It can be fun, but it can also be a huge weight on the show, and while I generally have a good memory for weird plot points in TV shows, I often find myself losing track of the story arcs and wishing for the days when I could watch a Doctor Who story without having to figure out what every scene and line of dialogue meant to some larger story arc.

When Doctor Who first started in 1963, the main characters–besides the enigmatic and cranky Doctor–were a dashing, young science teacher, a compassionate and smart history teacher, and an unearthly but familiar teenage girl. The idea was to have characters the audience could relate to. Similarly, when the new show started, we were introduced to Rose Tyler, a regular, working class Londoner who wasn’t particularly smart or clever or strong, but she had a good heart and a lot of courage. She was someone the audience could relate to, someone you could imagine being. Unfortunately, producer and writer Russell T. Davies was so enamored of Rose, she grew into a sort of uber-everywomen, kinder and more insightful and more inspiring than any other person the Doctor had met. When she left the show, it was played as an epic tragedy, one which Davies’ Doctor never really recovered from. Since Rose, the Doctor’s companions have been increasingly portrayed as this uber-everyperson, exceptional in their unexceptionalness, but also touched by some kind of cosmic destiny that’s played out in the larger story arcs. Companions wouldn’t just choose to stop traveling with the Doctor, they had to be forced to stop–by sacrificing themselves in some epic way that further showed them to be modern day saints. While I’ve very much liked the companions (and the actors who played them), it starts to strain credulity when we’re told over and over again just how wonderful and exceptional they are. (Because it’s not enough to show them doing great deeds, the Doctor and other characters have to constantly comment on how extraordinary they are.)

And this leads me to “The Snowmen,” the latest Doctor Who Christmas special. Like much of the current stories, it’s big on high, imaginative concepts, but sadly low on depth and lasting endearment. Much of the flash is delightful and fun, like the Doctor parking his TARDIS on a cloud that can be reached by an invisible spiral staircase and the titular snowmen, with their fearsome expressions. Some of it is amusing, like the Sontaran Strax, who is a charming bit of comic relief but otherwise serves no purpose in the story. There are some nice nods to the classic show, and Jenna-Louise Coleman is absolutely wonderful as the spunky new companion, Clara. But while Coleman is great, the character of Clara isn’t just anyone, she’s a temporal mystery, the same woman who keeps showing up in the Doctor’s adventures and then dying before she can be whisked away by the Doctor. I literally sighed and rolled my eyes when it was revealed that the Clara in the Christmas special wouldn’t really be the new companion (although that’s what was promoted over and over again), she was just another incarnation of some woman who keeps being reborn in different eras, and the Doctor will apparently meet her again in modern day England. Again, we don’t get a simple story, we get a piece of a large puzzle revolving around unusual and exceptional characters and situations. The villain of “The Snowmen” was built up throughout the episode, and then quickly, handwavingly dismissed at the last minute. Add in mawkish tugs at viewers’ heartstrings (“It’s not raining, it’s crying!”), and what we’re left with is an overseasoned, overly-complicated soup that’s tasty but leaves you feeling fairly empty. And that’s too much of what the show is now: fun, flashy concepts (“Dinosaurs! On a spaceship!”) surrounded by stories that rely too much on cheap sentimentality and avoid much real meat and dirt. Doctor Who used to be about realistic people in a daft universe with stories that encouraged viewers (mostly children) to challenge the status quo and question authority. Now it’s mostly just daft. Sometimes the daft is a lot of fun, but I miss the thoughtful pro-pacifism, anti-authority, anti-status quo stories of the classic show. The modern show seems to be becoming more and more like a snowman: pretty to look at, but all too quickly gone, melted away with the morning sun, leaving nothing in its place.

I would love to see the show move away from the large story arcs, the unusual and exceptional companions, and the flash-over-substance stories. I adore Steven Moffat’s wild imagination, but I’d like to see that balanced with thoughtful, provocative stories that can stand on their own and characters who are more like Ben and Polly, Ian and Barbara, Jo, Tegan, and the ever-popular Sarah Jane Smith–ordinary people in extraordinary situations.

* I’m using “series” here in the British sense, what Americans usually call a “season.”

Share With Me

What’s exciting you right now? What books, comics, games, movies, TV series, music, plays, art movements, people, places, things are thrilling and delighting you these days? If you’re excited about stuff, please share it with me (and others) in the comments. Let us all know what you’ve been reading, watching, playing, experiencing that is getting you all excited.

Here, I’ll go first. I’m currently reading (and listening to the audiobook of) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I am madly in love with this book, savoring every word and sentence and paragraph. I’m also reading DC Comics’ Earth 2 and really enjoying the hell out of it. The current season of Castle is, I think, the best yet, and the new season of Grimm is really building into a great show. Also, the new crowdfunded album by Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra, Theatre is Evil, is so good, I started crying tears of joy the first time I listened to it.

Now it’s your turn. Share your excitement with me!

Crossing the Line

Like any long-running TV series, there have been some pretty stinky Doctor Who stories. Some have tried to hard to be comedy (and failed), some have had goofy premises, some have just been executed poorly. “The Gunfighters,” “The Twin Dilemma,” “Dragonfire,” “Fear Her” and “The Doctor’s Daughter” are far from the best Doctor Who has ever offered. But even the worst stories haven’t crossed the line that “The Sound of Drums”/”Last of the Time Lords,” the finale of the fourth season of the new series, crossed for me. Which is why I consider “The Sound of Drums”/”Last of the Time Lords” to be the worst Doctor Who story ever.

WARNING! HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!

I liked the episodes a lot when I first watched them. The story really kicks off with “Utopia,” a well-paced, tense, imaginative episode. The final reveal of Professor Yana as the Master is thrilling, especially with Derek Jacobi as Professor Yana/the Master. And then the Master regenerates into a new form, played by John Simm, the action switches to present-day Earth, and the story pisses in the face of the entire series.

There are a lot of goofy bits in “The Sound of Drums” and “Last of the Time Lords.” John Simms hamming up the Master as an over-the-top nutjob, rather than the sinister but suave character played by Roger Delgado and Anthony Ainley, made the Master’s return less than satisfying. The Doctor being aged into a Dobby-esque CGI character was more than a bit much. And the whole “Year That Never Was” bit was far too much of a cop-out. But I can forgive all of that. I’ve enjoyed Doctor Who stories with much goofier ingredients.

What I can’t forgive is the Toclafane.

The Toclafane, for those that have forgotten, are the remnants of the human race from the end of the universe. Having failed to find Utopia, the human race has grown bitter and infantile, turning into floating metal balls of cyborg evil. The Master has convinced them to come back in time, commit genocide and take over the Earth, which they’re happy to do because they’re basically angry, spoiled children armed with death rays.

Doctor Who has had stories about humans in the distant future before. In stories like “The Ark,” “Frontios,” “The Ark in Space” and “New Earth,” the human race has been portrayed as (to quote the Doctor) “indomitable.” No matter how the human race might stumble or succumb to petty greed and jealousy, humans always remain essentially noble, always striving to create a home and build a functioning society. It’s a wonderfully optimistic view of the human race, a view I appreciate, a view that inspires me. I’d say it’s a core theme of Doctor Who and one of the primary reasons the Doctor has appointed himself the guardian of Earth and Earthlings.

The Toclafane betray that theme. The Toclafane show that the ultimate destiny of humans is to fall into childish, genocidal evil. The Toclafane are a horribly negative view of the fate of the human race. They’re not just goofy, they’re offensive. They run counter to the optimism and nobility of Doctor Who.

I can handle goofy. I can roll my eyes and get over the dumber bits in Doctor Who. But I cannot accept a blatant, gross dismissal of one of the core principles of the series. Which is why I can get past the Doctor meeting badly acted versions of American West heroes, I can get past the Doctor running the Olympic torch to the opening of the Olympic games, but I cannot get past the Toclafane. It crosses the line for me.

The Long and Short of It

Late last night, I caught a couple of episodes of the 1990’s X-Men animated series on TV. The dialogue and animation were just as rough as I remember them being, but just watching those two episodes was more enjoyable than watching either of Bryan Singer’s X-Men movies. (There’s really no point in mentioning Brett Ratner’s X-Men movie, is there? Right, pretend I didn’t mention it.) I tweeted about it and have since been thinking about why they’re more enjoyable, even if the animated series lacks such terrific actors as Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Ian McKellen and (not a knight) Hugh Jackman. I’ve got a theory (and it isn’t bunnies).

The X-Men really gained popularity as a comic when Chris Claremont was writing the “All New! All Different!” Uncanny X-Men. One of the hallmarks of Claremont’s writing, and one of the reasons I believe the series became so popular, was a really good handling of soap opera-esque plotting. It wasn’t just the characters that people liked or Claremont’s melodramatic but engaging dialogue, it was the way he (and John Byrne, when they co-plotted the series) wove storylines involving the Sentinels, Magneto, the Savage Land, the Shi’ar Empire, the Hellfire Club, Alpha Flight, Doctor Doom, the Morlocks and especially the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” And if you go back to the original X-Men team, the best stories are just as drawn out and soap opera-esque.

Soap opera storylines are pretty much impossible to do in movies; the dramatic structures of serialized comics and feature films are just too dissimilar. I love the way the Iron Man, Thor and Captain America movies have all led up to the forthcoming Avengers movie. And Marvel Comics has been doing extended, twisty, soap opera plotting in all of their superhero comics since the ’60s. But it’s such a part of what makes the X-Men in particular a comic I keep going back to–I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve re-read the original and “new” X-Men comics–I have a hard time imagining an X-Men movie that will ever be as enjoyable to me as the animated X-Men series of the ’90s.

Love, Peace and Soul

Today is the first day of African-American History Month. It’s also the day the world learned that Don Cornelius, the creator and most famous host of Soul Train, committed suicide.

I hadn’t thought about Cornelius in ages, but Soul Train was huge for us kids of the ’70s and ’80s. I’m about as Caucasian as they come, and my parents’ tastes in music have never been…funky. Soul Train was my primary introduction to Afro-American music and, more importantly, culture. Soul Train was a direct result of ┬áthe Civil Rights Movement and “Black is Beautiful.” It didn’t just showcase Black music and Black dancing, it showed African-Americans proudly being themselves. They had big afros. They wore stylish clothes (that would probably be called “urban” today) and African-influenced fashions. They were proudly and joyously not trying to fit in to “mainstream” White culture. (As I remember it, Soul Train was also free of a lot of the clownish caricatures of African-Americans that sadly dominated much of American TV and movies of the time.) Soul Train was unapologetically in your face without being confrontational and angry. Soul Train was Black Pride while also being inclusive and multi-cultural. Soul Train was the embodiment of Emma Goldman’s “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Damn, it was cool and funky and beautiful!

I’m sad and sorry you felt you had to leave us, Don Cornelius. But your legacy lives on. I wish all of you love, peace…and soul.

Walking in Eternity

I have some things running around in my head to blog about, but my attention and energy has mostly been focused elsewhere. So in the meantime, as a companion piece to my post about my passionate, undying love for Doctor Who, here’s an outstanding video with clips from every episode of the show ever (and then some)!

If watching this doesn’t send happy chills up and down your spine…well, you’re clearly not me.