It’s one of those days where, as I’m going to bed, I say “crap, I forgot to format and queue Last War in Albion, I’d better run a TARDIS Eruditorum in its place.” Whatever am I going to do in a month when I don’t have TARDIS Eruditorum for that? In any case, Last War in Albion is Friday this week.
I noted on Monday that it was an obvious mistake to ignore the fact that Moffat’s ex cathedra statements on the history of Doctor Who have always been performative, both in his cranky Internet fan days and in his “not allowed to have opinions anymore” days. Which makes the introduction to Remembrance of the Daleks at the end of this episode something to behold, in that Moffat both admits that he thought Season Twenty-Four was a disaster (which I disagree with, but recognize that Moffat is exactly the sort of Doctor Who fan for whom the panto aspects of Paradise Towers, for instance, are going to be disqualifying in considering any other merits it may have), and then frames his reaction to Remembrance of the Daleks in terms of the fact that his own television career had begun at this point. His description of cutting short a production meeting to watch Remembrance and being blown away by it is visibly Moffat speaking as an outright fan, and not as a particular performance of fan opinions that he’s putting on for a puff piece.
All three of the 80s-era episodes have felt like conscious decisions to build to the episodes they show, whether in a strangely subverting way, as with Earthshock, or as a concentrated and focused attempt to get an episode to shine, as with Vengeance on Varos. In this case, an odd weight is put on Remembrance to illustrate something that is claimed several times, but never actually displayed in any of the clips, which is that there’s a darkness to McCoy’s portrayal. The episodes used for clips here are tremendously revealing: there is not a frame from Season Twenty-Six. Everything from McCoy’s first two seasons is used save for Delta and the Bannermen, which gets photos. The emphasis is overwhelmingly on the clownish aspects of McCoy’s performance, at least in terms of what actually gets shown.
Nowhere is this clearer than the treatment of Remembrance, where the Doctor and Davros’s confrontation is shown, only it completely evades all discussion of blowing up Skaro. Instead, it focuses on McCoy’s performance of “mock the ranting bad guy,” which does lead to McCoy’s memorable description of Davros as “Hitler only rotting,” but is an approach to talking about that scene that I don’t think anyone had ever tried before. And yet the talking heads bring up the way that McCoy added mystery to the performance repeatedly, even as the clips ostentatiously lack all mention of it.
The shocking absence, of course, is the climax of The Curse of Fenric, which would have allowed them to press the fleeting claim that McCoy set up the modern Doctor in a real and sincere way. Instead we get a focus on the Rani, in which we must try to keep a straight face as Steven Moffat of all people tries to present a serious case that the Rani is a good and compelling idea. (And yet even there, his defense of her could serve as a description of GUS in Mummy on the Orient Express. Over and over again, one gets the sense of him drawing inspiration from this exercise in picking through the old toybox and coming up with a redemptive reading of everything.) But, of course, by then showing Remembrance of the Daleks, which is so straightforwardly a triumph, and which watches as well twenty-five years later as An Unearthly Child did when it was made, they end up making the case in the most compelling way possible. Instead of the darker notes being presented as aspects of a character, they’re allowed to be experienced in terms of the storytelling they allowed. For a viewer who’s been along for the ride and learning about the Doctors in monthly lessons, this must have felt like the revelation it did to Moffat, withouit even having to sit through Time and the Rani.
Another way of putting this is that the somewhat arbitrary simplifications of the earliest episodes start to become an advantage when turning to a relatively disputed era of the program’s history, in that they give the opportunity to present a Seventh Doctor Experience instead of a definitive account of the Seventh Doctor. Or a Sixth Doctor Experience, let’s be fair, since I am obviously much more fond of the Seventh than the Sixth.
Which seems an excellent place to leave off, given what comes next.