|ur handwriting sux|
It’s September 13th, 2014. Literally; the bulk of this post is a lightly revised version of my initial review, which I cheekily declared would be its TARDIS Eruditorum entry without really considering how I’d feel about that three and a half years later. (Answer: I have some regrets, mostly about providing a satisfying experience for my Patrons, but I figured out how to address them.) Lilly Wood and Robin Schulz are at number one with “Prayer in C,” while Iggy Azalea, Sam Smith, and Script also chart. In news, Oscar Pistorius has been found guilty of culpable homicide, the US has been finding a new way to announce that it’s at war with ISIS, and it’s down to the wire with the Scottish Independence referendum.
While on television, Doctor Who does Listen. At the moment, and I’m writing this paragraph about ninety minutes after transmission, this seems set at near universal praise. 85% rating it an 8-10 on GallifreyBase, with a staggering 42.6% giving it a ten out of ten. The immediate post-episode reviews all seem to love it. Blog and Twitter comments are raving, although people who tend not to like Moffat’s stuff seem to really hate this one. Which is to say, ladies and gentlemen, that we seem to have an instant classic. I’ve watched this twice now. And it deserves that and more. It is undoubtedly a “big Steven Moffat statement” of an episode, conceived on the level of The Day of the Doctor or Deep Breath. It is ostentatious and meticulous in the way that Steven Moffat at his best is. This is a writer who knows that he is at the height of his professional career and is cackling madly about it. It is also, unmistakably, him writing the cheap and disposable one with no budget – and doing it, by his own admission, because he wanted to “prove he could still write.”
He’s used the production schedule of Doctor Who very slyly here, doing a story that a twelve episode season requires, as a piece of BBC-produced drama, if it’s going to throw a whacking big CGI dinosaur into the opening three seconds of the season premiere for no reason other than to set up some jokes and a death scene for the Doctor to start investigating a mystery. It’s just that he then wrote it like it was The Big Finale. It draws all its structural tricks from Nick Hurran and Ben Wheatley, and shares its approach with Time of the Doctor and His Last Vow. Except there’s no actual monster – it’s all creepy edits and lighting changes. It could be the Silence. Maybe it is, and we’ll pay that off in some future episode, because this is only episode four and Doctor Who has plenty of surprises left in its back two-thirds. We’re still in the “introduce Peter Capaldi with episodes by the old hands” phase of things. The actual new writers and experimental phase comes later.
All the same, this had been getting buzz. It’s the one nobody could quite keep themselves from talking about when it leaked, whether they just read the script, or whether they were friends of Marcelo Camargo. Because it’s so ostentatiously brash. Clara is the monster under the bed for the Doctor, and teaches him a crucial line of dialogue from 100,000 BC to calm him down. In the barn where the climax of TheDay of the Doctor happened, where he was hiding because he didn’t want to be a soldier and was scared. And that’s a detail – the climax of an episode that’s mostly about other things. It’s willfully baiting a certain segment of the audience, to the point where it almost counts as trolling. Those who complain that Moffat messes around too much with Doctor Who continuity will predictably hit the roof.
Let them. It’s nothing Lance Parkin and Lawrence Miles weren’t doing in the 90s. Moffat turns it to a particular purpose and tone – one of predictably fairy tale beauty. The rhythms and cadences of the best moments in Harry Potter. The same stuff he always does. But he’s still good at it. And, I mean, there’s a way in which this typical counterargument to the Moffat era just crumbles at its own mass of evidence. Yes, you’re right, there are an awful lot of recurring tropes of the Moffat era that appear here.
For instance, people teased it for referencing the title of Blink, which it does. The monster you have to not look at to let it get away is, of course, just another iteration of the Silence and the Weeping Angels. The date is just Coupling. Going back and meeting the companion as a child. John Hurt. There’s a nursery rhyme. Monsters under the bed. Silence. The “tap you on the head and make you sleep” gag from Deep Breath. Romantic relationships based on meeting people out of order. Soldiers with PTSD. The Doctor and romance.
Except at some point we have to admit that this is an awfully long list. I mean, that’s twelve separate things Moffat does over and over again. And we could have gone on. That starts to look more like variety than tedium, you know? I mean, at the end of the day Moffat did just drive the series to where it was the #1 program on British television again, something previously only accomplished by Russell T Davies. And instead of walking off stage and doing Miracle Day, he stuck around. Sure, Time of the Doctor (wrongly) got a mixed reception, but Deep Breath went over pretty well, and this probably will too. We’ve got to admit, whatever the guy’s doing, whatever his formula may be, he’s visibly a major television writer at the height of his powers right now.
Through all of this, though, what jumps out is just how precisely measured Listen is. Moffat plays to his strengths ridiculously. He hasn’t done a tone of relationship comedy in the last few years, but it was his bread and butter for a decade, and he hasn’t forgotten how to do it. Clara and Danny are a cute couple, and though the episode seems to suggest that they’re probably not going to last (and neither are Clara and the Doctor by the way), Moffat writes them so that it’s easy to invest in them. Clara is at once visibly a real human with real desires and emotions and the embodiment of “generic companion.”
But again, the suggestion of blandness has depth. She may be the generic companion, but she’s good in an awful lot of situations. She’s great talking down Rupert, and then hands it off smoothly to the Doctor, then takes control back again to help put Rupert to bed before the Doctor does a “dad trick” and returns her to her date so she can try again. There she has a bit of a maternal instinct, which she then goes back to at the end. In between, she’s a self-identified bossy control freak who’s trying to let go and be reasonable and adult in her relationships. Her magic friend’s gotten a bit weird, but he still takes her to cool places like the end of the universe. Sometimes, she becomes the monster under the bed for the greatest hero in the universe, so that’s neat too. All of this feels like facets of a human being. Jenna Coleman has demonstrated that skill from the start, popping up in a random role in Asylum of the Daleks, then playing two different Victorian children’s book heroines, and being absolutely charming as she steps between them. Then she becomes a companion where this is her entire point – she becomes millions of different mini-companions throughout Doctor Who. Now she gets to balance being the lead in the 2014 edition of “Coupling meets Chalk” (good God, who expected we were going to get back to that as an influence in Moffat’s career) with being a Doctor Who companion, in the same scene, with that completely over the top space suit in a restaurant gag. I mean, again, yes, this is repetition, but at some point the sheer size of the thing makes it strange to call that a down side.
Capaldi is similarly good at doing a whole lot of things. The decision to start him with Deep Breath and just have him run through a whole bunch of different things building to the thing that everybody wanted as soon as they heard the idea, which is a scene like “I have a terrible feeling I’m going to have to kill you,” or “there are three people in the universe, and you’re lying to the other two,” or “then you will never travel with me again” (And of course, he can be pushed to such excessive threats just by a desire to poke the darkness at the end of time with a stick in case there’s a monster in it. Which is somewhat silly. It’s easy to see how he could lose Clara, to be honest.) pays off again, and he takes the time here to once again just find a lot of different ways to play things.
He’s very good, is what I’m saying. We’re just a few stories in, but there’s the real sense that he’s figured out how he wants to do this. He’s playing his dream role, and he’s decided to just do it. There was always the implicit comparison to Pertwee, based on a vague physical resemblance and the decision to have that first costume shot be explicitly modeled on a Pertwee publicity photo. But inasmuch as he’s playing the role like Pertwee, it’s in deciding to follow his decision to just be the Doctor. He enjoys playing certain types of roles, and so he’ll play the Doctor like those roles, at times seeming to start over with his characterization every scene. (Along with Pertwee, this is basically how Eccleston played the part.) But equally, he’s an actor who’s enjoyed a diverse career, and so much like Moffat’s repetitions or Clara’s repetitions, this results in a sort of predictable diversity, which is satisfying if you like that kind of thing. Millions of people continue to, so again, Moffat clearly knows how to satisfy an audience. If you’re one of the legions who like this stuff, you’ll like this. And if you’re one of the vocal and non-trivial number of people who hate this stuff, you sure will hate this.
I like this stuff, and I like this. It still feels complex and interesting and fresh and fun. I am loving my Doctor Who. For my money, this is very probably the best opening four stories of any Doctor Who season ever. Hell, for my money this is the best run of seven stories ever. Even if you don’t pick any of the stories as among your top ten. (Though I do pick at least one to be, personally. Amusingly, it’s probably the least popular)
There are already a lot of people declaring this a classic. There probably always will be. It feels a lot like it must have at the height of some of the other legendary Doctor Who eras. Those eras where the show was usually at least watchable fun, might blow it once a season, and would guarantee you at least one or two stories a year that were absolutely brilliant. You know. The great eras. When, over three years, you had The Ark in Space, Genesis of the Daleks, Terror of the Zygons, The Brain of Morbius, The Deadly Assassin, and Talons of Weng-Chiang, and those might not be the best six. Or when you got Remembrance of the Daleks, The Happiness Patrol, Ghost Light, and Curse of Fenric over the course of seven stories, and two of the other three were brilliant in their own strange ways. When everyone making the show is confident of what they’re doing. Such eras always end, but this one is still visibly going strong. Moffat has decided he’s going to go for being ranked with Robert Holmes as arguably the greatest Doctor Who writer of all time, and the truth is, there are people who will make that argument for him. I may well be one of them, whenever it is I get around to being the arbiter of history and writing a book about it. Which I will, inevitably.
Four stories in a row now, and in each case it felt like the production team was in complete control of what they were doing. Like they knew what they wanted to do, and were capable of doing that well. Three out of four, the public has gone with them emphatically. It’s easy to imagine this having a long, exciting legacy as children’s television. What more can you possibly ask for from Doctor Who?
- I love what they did with Orson Pink. I thought the entire sense of future with him was perfectly timed. A hundred years from now. 150 years after Doctor Who. The Jack the Ripper murders were closer to An Unearthly Child than Orson Pink is to us now. And yet it still feels reachable, and like something that extends out of the present day. The first of the great time shots – terrible time travel experiments that overshoot and fling you to the end of time. There’s a neat trick here, in that the time travel can possibly only send you forward, so it’s entirely plausible. One model for how time machines might work is that you can’t go back earlier than the first time machine, so time machines that can only propel us into the future where we can’t possibly change the past are always a possible invention. It’s a very clever use of the sci-fi ends of what Doctor Who can do.
- The guy in the children’s home whose coffee the Doctor steals is played by the same actor who plays Mr. Matchbright opposite Alan Moore’s Mr. Metterton, which is to say the Devil to Alan Moore’s God in Alan Moore and Mitch Jenkins’s short film cycle Show Pieces. In this episode, of all episodes. Fans of my wider work can imagine just how much this feels like the universe made me a birthday present. Also, apparently he played a Mandrel in Nightmare of Eden.
- I really want to highlight how beautifully careful the barn sequence is. On the one hand, it does everything that’s self-evidently a terrible idea in playing with the Doctor’s origins. On paper it sounds like an unfathomably bad idea. But in practice, Moffat keeps the world vague enough, makes Clara’s intervention at once a crucial part of the origin and a minor one around which there can be far more, and meticulously avoids actually doing any of the things that would make this a bad idea.
- So, how impolitic is it to say that it’s blatantly clear that the “damaging” leaks of the scripts and workprints were nothing of the sort? The truth is that quality material isn’t hurt by seeing the inside of the sausage factory. Had the workprints pointed to a trainwreck, that would have been one thing. But as with Rose, the consensus of those who saw the early releases were that they were quite good. And they have been. This isn’t a comment on any of the ethical issues involved in acquiring illegally obtained digital files of any sort, but it is one on the degree to which having digital versions of your work freely available hurts your ability to have it be commercially successful, which is to say, to no degree whatsoever, as long as the work itself is good. (More on this in a few posts.)
- I’ll be doing Slate’s Doctor Who podcast next week, alongside my regular review here. That’ll be Time Heist, which is by Stephen Thompson, so was hopefully rewritten into something nice like Reichenbach Fall was. If nothing else, it’s apparently making Abslom Daak canon.
- Yes, there will be a Capaldi book, and this will be the Listen entry in it. No, there’s no time frame on that, but I am 100% convinced that the second Tom Baker book will be out in late September/early October. I have turned the last round of copyedits in to the copy editor, so she just has to go over those. The cover is done. And I need to get one more essay written, but there’s a thing I have to do for that, which is an awesome thing, assuming it comes through, which I really, really hope it will. Seriously, if this essay comes off, it’s going to be a real treat for people.
- The “real treat” was an interview with Gareth Roberts, so that’’s certainly aged interestingly. But this is neither the time nor place.
- Right, so, coming back to this in 2018. For the most part, I’m relatively happy with my on the day take. I sold Clara a bit short, but she also had mostly only had scenes that demonstrated newfound potential, as opposed to any of her definitive moments (save for the Half-Faced Man interrogation). But this episode was generally how it looked; a beloved triumph with an enduring legacy.
- The most interesting part of that legacy, in hindsight, is that this really is the episode that “made” Capaldi’s Doctor. His first two episodes were rough drafts; his third (filmed after this) a comedy that didn’t quite line up with how he’d eventually do comedy on the series. But given his first properly great script, he starts finding an ease and comfort in the role. As I said in the review, he largely approaches things by just being the Doctor. But this is the first time he feels fully confident in that, and it sparkles in a way it simply hadn’t before.
- The other interesting thing, though, is how business as usual it turns out to have been. At the time this felt like the return of the guy who wrote Blink and Girl in the Fireplace; an ambitious, hungry writer with talent to spare. But it turned out that writer had no intention of leaving. Moffat remained hungry for a good while after this. He said in interviews that he took a small, cheap episode in the middle of the run to show people he could still write, and given his propensity for self-deprecation, it seems reasonable to assume that was a real fear for him. And if this was meant to give himself a kick in the ass, it succeeded: he wrote a similarly technically ambitious script for each of his remaining seasons while also developing actual new registers and styles. He never backs away from all of his tricks because that’s not how it works, but the litany of standard Moffat tricks in the review feels in hindsight more like a viking funeral for them than a revival tour. For the next two years this was the level Moffat consistently operated on; his run of solo stories from here to The Husbands of River Song is the best run of six consecutive stories by a writer since Robert Holmes’s run from The Time Warrior through The Ribos Operation, and doesn’t contain two of the most racist stories in the series to boot.
- Put in that context, where this story falters is its direction. Three of those six stories are directed by Rachel Talalay, who will turn out to be Moffat’s definitive directorial pairing, and it’s hard not to wonder what she could have done with this. Instead it gets the ultimate in workmanlike directors, Douglas Mackinnon. And he’s just not up to the job. Listen is in part about the jarring tonal shifts between its horror bits and the relationship farce. But Mackinnon does’t seem to get that. He underlights the restaurant scenes to maintain a tonal consistency that doesn’t belong there, and completely misunderstands the cold open, which is supposed to be the Doctor going stir-crazy without Clara, but which he shoots as a horror movie. This isn’t disastrous, but it does sell the episode short, and is part of why, for all it was an insta-classic, it was surprisingly easy to depose as king of the season.
- It is interesting to consider, as a conceptual structure, Moffat’s Barn Trilogy. With two near-universally agreed classics and one story I enjoy more than either of them, it certainly makes a case for being the most important structure in the latter part of Moffat’s tenure. But like most supposed Doctor Who trilogies, it also proves a frustratingly loose-knit thing. The easiest claim is that all three offer important revelations about the Doctor’s nature. But the more interesting angle is the symbol of the barn itself, which in each story serves to highlight a different aspect of the Doctor’s alienation from his people. Taken together, they present the clearest account of why the Doctor stole a TARDIS and ran away that has ever been given, and probably the clearest one that can possibly be satisfying to boot.
- Listen is in many ways the peak of the running gag of the Doctor insulting Clara. This continues not to bother me as much as it does some people; the object of ridicule in this gag is the Doctor, not Clara. (Indeed, this episode has the best iteration of it, when Clara enthusiastically pervs on her own butt.) But it’s still a relief when the joke goes away. Although I stand by my previous defenses of Moffat’s writing of women, jokes like these that are self-evidently going to upset people who already have concerns about the show’s treatment of women are just a bad idea in the context of those complaints, and including them comes perilously close to suggesting that Moffat simply doesn’t give a shit about those concerns. There’s plenty of evidence elsewhere that he does, and more likely he just has a bizarre weakness for middling sitcom jokes, but there is no planet on which these jokes are funny enough to be worth it.
- There’s a curious lack of consistent thought that emerges when you compare Listen and Robot of Sherwood to Death in Heaven. Robot of Sherwood makes clear that the Doctor does not consider himself a hero, and Listen has him furiously agree that he’s an idiot, and yet these claims are treated as major self-realizations in the season finale. (This is not the only place where the season plotting gets a bit sloppy; there’s never actually an explanation of all these robots seeking the promised land either. It’s clearly meant to be Missy’s heaven, but it never quite finds a clear path to fitting into that scheme.
- One place where the plotting is appreciably less sloppy than people complain, however, is Orson Pink and his connection with Clara. Certainly the episode goes to great lengths to imply that he’s a descendent of Clara and Danny, but it also goes to considerable lengths to refuse to actually confirm this. It’s still a little tricky to get the information to work—Danny never actually travels on the TARDIS, and it’s not especially easy to figure out how his stories of tangentially and unhappily knowing the Doctor would be passed down across the generations to a guy who isn’t actually a direct descendent. Nevertheless, it’s clear what’s going on here is deliberate misdirection; the audience thinks they’ve been given a promise that they haven’t actually, enabling the rug to be pulled out from under them seven episodes later.
- You know what I always liked about the bullet point structure of reviews over proper Eruditorum entries? They just end.
- Deep Breath
- Into the Dalek
- Robot of Sherwood
- Deep Breath
- Robot of Sherwood
- Into the Dalek