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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later.Support Elizabeth on Patreon.

41 Comments

  1. Carey
    September 24, 2014 @ 12:47 am

    Moffat finds, in other words, an intersection between a couple of things he’s good at and commences to build something at that intersection. But it’s striking just how weird the intersection is. Love stories and puzzle boxes are not really the same thing at all, and although Moffat has written loads of both, including the Doctor/River romance, he’s never really stripped it down to this bare a level before.

    I believe Russell T Davies said in his Writer's Tale that he felt Moffat was an incredibly romantic writer, and this is for me the secret of his success and his protege, Stephen Thompson, is an example of what happens when that is missing. For all the complaints people make of Thompson, he is an incredibly elegant plotter,* but what he misses is emotion. All three of his Doctor Who stories are puzzle boxes asking the audience to work out what's going on along with the protagonist (most cleverly, he has the Doctor acting like an actual doctor in The Curse of the Black Spot by continually diagnosing the problem based upon the facts before him and then altering that when he comes across a new symptom). But in all three of his Doctor Who scripts lack Moffat's romance: the puzzle box is all, and any human element is subservient to the plot. In this respect he can come across as the 21st century writer most like a 20th century Doctor Who writer.

    Moffat, for all that some may complain that his interests are too heteronormative (not that I necessarily agree), has the ability to blend his puzzle boxes with real human emotions, and indeed, to suggest that the greatest puzzle boxes are other people** and then mirror that in the structure of the screenplay itself.

    As you say, he is at the height of his powers with A Scandal In Belgravia, a television writer on par with the heights of those the UK have produced in the past.

    *Before anyone complains, the disappearing Botswain in Curse was not Thompson's fault: the scene was written and filmed, and then removed when the episode proved too long. Indeed, I think that until Time Heist, Thompson has been poorly served by his directors in Doctor Who, who seem to miss the point (the three salvage brothers in Journey To The Centre of the TARDIS are written as archetypal comedy characters such as Steptoe and Son or Del Boy, Rodney and Grandad, and then miscast and asked to act far too naturalistically, with the director compounding the error in his shooting of some scenes) or make poor editing choices.

    **Moffat seems to be very aware of his leaning on this theme by addressing it directly through the Doctor's attitude to Clara in series 7. She is a puzzle box to be solved to him, while forgetting until reunited with River's ghost at the end of the season that no, she is a human being with her own autonomy. Of course, Moffat fails to see the wood for the trees, and by viewing Clara through the Doctor's eyes, there is the criticism that Clara comes over as too much of a cypher.

    I'd dearly love to know how much Moffat rewrites in Sherlock: I find it interesting that Moffat is getting so many co-writer credits since the beginning of this year (both in Sherlock and Who).

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  2. Spacewarp
    September 24, 2014 @ 1:12 am

    Reading this has crystalised something I've been feelling subconsciously ever since the 8th Series of Doctor Who started – how closer the character of the Doctor is now to that of Sherlock. Whether it's the direction, Moffat's script editing, or Capaldi's performance (or simply coincidence), I find PC's Doctor alternately veering close to, then away from, Cumberbatch's Sherlock. The moments of Capaldi's performance I feel most comfortable with are his socially-aloof, all-knowing, detached moments, whereas I find the times when he gets it wrong, loses his temper, and generally behaves like an arse, less likeable. The physical similarities between Cumberbatch and Capaldi (apart from age)( probably help as well.

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  3. Oliver Bain
    September 24, 2014 @ 1:12 am

    Now that was interesting. Moffat has in my view been greatly underrated in recent years, mainly due to the circumstances around the two split seasons of Who and being buried under the Fiftieth Anniversary, and it's great to get back to something so archetypally classic. When I watched 'Scandal in Belgravia' the first time it was instantly a stone cold classic. (See, in addition to Phil's recommendations, the season 4 finale of MAS*H, amongst many other things.) No following episode has come anywhere near to being as good or concise as 'Belgravia'. Only the first episode is close in the preceding shows.

    Since it was so good, there's not much to say, except that the post for the next episode will be far more interesting since 'Hounds of Baskerville' was lauded to the heavens, despite my thinking it was mostly rubbish and one of the worst examples of self-indulgent writing in 'Doctor Who' or 'Sherlock'. Oh, Gatiss, you have your talents but discipline is not one of your virtues… And then Thompson strikes again.

    Thanks for the great post!

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  4. Oliver Bain
    September 24, 2014 @ 1:14 am

    Also, all round good casting in 'Belgravia'. Forgot to add that the getout from the previous episode's cliffhanger was pretty weak, but probably inevitably so.

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  5. Oliver Bain
    September 24, 2014 @ 1:32 am

    On rewrites, I imagine he's revelling in the comparative leisure he has now in the wake of finishing the 50th!

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  6. Anton B
    September 24, 2014 @ 1:34 am

    I agree. It's also struck me that Capaldi's Doctor would be a much better fit than Smith's for the Sherlockesque 'Doctor Vision' deduction effect used in The Eleventh Hour but subsequently dropped.

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  7. Ombund
    September 24, 2014 @ 2:09 am

    I wouldn't say The Reichenbach Fall is a case of Thompson striking again. Depending on how charitable you want to be it's either a case of Thompson massively upping his game and suddenly writing as well as Steven Moffat or a case of Thompson being entirely rewritten by Steven Moffat. Either way, it's a great episode.

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  8. Oliver Bain
    September 24, 2014 @ 2:24 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.

    Reply

  9. Oliver Bain
    September 24, 2014 @ 2:24 am

    I did overstate it, yes, and thank you for the correction. However, 'The Reichenbach Fall' does lack an awful lot of the heart that I associate with the other two writers, and that leads me to think that it's more a case of Thompson upping his game. It's pretty good as an episode but maybe not as a 'Sherlock'.

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  10. Daibhid C
    September 24, 2014 @ 2:33 am

    Was the Guardian article the one that claimed Irene came out worse in Belgravia than she did in Bohemia, illustrating this with careful cherry-picking and making allowances for Sir Arthur being a man of his time?

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  11. ReNeilssance
    September 24, 2014 @ 3:34 am

    "introducing the only character anybody ever romantically pairs Sherlock Holmes with"

    The only female character, perhaps.

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  12. Bennett
    September 24, 2014 @ 3:43 am

    The article is available at this link.

    I'm wary of commenting on this, particularly as I know of several regular commenters here I would much rather field this question. But the strapline stating that Adler "was sexual, not intellectual" when she was clearly both is immediately worrisome. And the sentence "However, even this ambiguous portrait of female power proved too much for Moffat to stomach." was, for me, the tipping point between presenting a valid critical perspective and launching an uncivil personal attack.

    Also, I last read Doyle's A Scandal in Bohemia a few months ago – and my recollection of the plot tallies much closer to Phil's description than that presented in this article. But again, I'd rather someone with more knowledge of Sherlock Holmes take that one on.

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  13. Bennett
    September 24, 2014 @ 3:47 am

    Oops. Messed up that bit about the strapline. It actually states that Adler's power "was sexual, not intellectual". But I would still claim that in the episode it is emphatically presented as both.

    Reply

  14. Andrew
    September 24, 2014 @ 5:45 am

    That Guardian article does seem to set out to attack Moffatt by ignoring several key things within Scandal in Belgravia.

    Firstly, it says: "Doctor Who has never just been about a dashing alien who happens to be wicked smart. The Doctor cares about stuff, and uses his considerable noodle to fight injustice, tyranny and exploitation. By contrast, Holmes is in it for no reason other than Reason. An insufficiently stimulating case will be summarily dismissed as "boring".'

    In fact, this episode of Sherlock goes out of its way to show that Sherlock does indeed care about things. After an extended conversation with Mycroft in a morgue about the futility of caring about people, we're shown Sherlock getting furious about the CIA man who's beaten up Mrs. Hudson, and treats him to several trips out of the window. Apart from being quite funny, the scene seems to exist purely to show us what Sherlock will feel something about.

    The Guardian also has an issue with Irene Adler being outwitted by Sherlock when he guesses her missing phone code: "her scheme is ultimately undone by her great big girly crush on Sherlock, an irresistible brain-rot that leads her to trash the security she has fought for from the start of the show ".

    Well, this seems to ignore that it was Sherlock's own falling for Irene that led him to show off and compromise British and US security and reveal the plan with the doomed airline.

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  15. Daniel Tessier
    September 24, 2014 @ 6:08 am

    I particularly like the exchange between Irene and John, in which they compare their feelings for Sherlock (reluctantly in John's case). John protests that he's not gay, and Irene retorts that she is, "and yet look at us both." It's a far more fluid depiction of attraction and sexuality than is usually seen on TV.

    Some have said that any kind of romantic relationship between Sherlock and Irene is doomed because he is asexual and she is gay. More likely it would be doomed because they're both Doms.

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  16. Jarl
    September 24, 2014 @ 6:18 am

    "Sherlock Holmes" and "John Watson" both contain most of the letters necessary, but only when put together can you make "SLASH" with them.

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  17. Jarl
    September 24, 2014 @ 6:24 am

    So many quotable moments in this episode. So much character, I love it.

    I'm an Elementary fan as well, so I've thought a lot about which version of Irene I like more. It really comes down to each series being its own thing, with Sherlock being more of a superhero series and Elementary being a cyberpunk police procedural, so of course each is going to have its own take on The Woman. In Sherlock, she's a fairly clear Catwoman analogue, whereas in Elementary, she's more of a cypher in identity, in action, even in choice of hobby. More in keeping with the disguise motif of the original character(?), at least.

    I like Moriarty's ringtone.

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  18. Allyn Gibson
    September 24, 2014 @ 6:35 am

    Manly Wade Wellman pairs Holmes romantically with Mrs. Hudson (!) in Sherlock Holmes' War of the Worlds.

    It's an interesting, though not very good, book, by the way. It's not a mystery in any sense; rather, it's what the title says — it's what Sherlock Holmes did during the Martian Invasion.

    All other romantic pairings that I can think of come from outside the Canon — Mary Russell, the woman in Sherlock In Love, Gillian in the Faction Paradox novel Erasing Sherlock, etc.

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  19. Alan
    September 24, 2014 @ 6:37 am

    And I'm glad it was. When the Doctor vision kicked in, my first thought was "Man, it's gonna be a long season if THIS happens every episode."

    The comparisons here between Capaldi's Doctor and Cumberbatch's Sherlock are interesting to me because from the start, I have seen parallels between this Doctor and Tony Shalhoub's Monk, another brilliant but troubled detective. The current Doctor is brilliant but mentally unstable and oblivious to social cues, he rather distinctively wears a shirt with the top button done up but with no tie, and his relationship with Clara seems to resemble Monk's relationships with Sharona and Natalie more than they do any prior Doctor-companion relationship. Clara even expressly (if jokingly) describes herself as "his carer."

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  20. Alan
    September 24, 2014 @ 6:40 am

    I'm sure I'll talk about this more in depth next week, but I HATED Reichenbach Falls so much that I really hope it was all Thompson, because I'd be very disappointed in Moffatt to know he played a big role in writing that mess.

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  21. Scurra
    September 24, 2014 @ 8:10 am

    I tended to work from the position that this Sherlock assumes the worst of everyone whereas the Doctor assumes the best of everyone, and both of them are continually surprised.
    But, like the Doctor, when Sherlock chooses to care for someone, then he will stop at nothing.

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  22. Ombund
    September 24, 2014 @ 8:31 am

    @Bennett “Also, I last read Doyle's A Scandal in Bohemia a few months ago – and my recollection of the plot tallies much closer to Phil's description than that presented in this article. But again, I'd rather someone with more knowledge of Sherlock Holmes take that one on.”

    Our host actually did a very good expansion on this over on Tumblr. I won’t link to it directly because I’m not sure how separate he likes to keep things, but if you follow him on there it’s from April the 27th this year.

    Reply

  23. Charles Knight
    September 24, 2014 @ 10:53 am

    Just as an exceptionally minor point – wearing a shirt with the top button done up isn't particular interesting in 2014 as it's been a mainstream trend for the last few years – indeed it's so mainstream that it makes the Doctor's current outfit very mundane in a strange way that I am not sure they were going for.

    Reply

  24. Oliver Bain
    September 24, 2014 @ 11:06 am

    I think there's a problem in using that Moriarty more than once and so much in one episode. He's very much best as a 'hit and run' shock element. Still, let's wait and see.

    Can't wait for the eventual 'Pandorica Opens' and 'Big Bang' post finally.

    Reply

  25. encyclops
    September 24, 2014 @ 11:20 am

    This time, she's gay and he's an alien….

    Reply

  26. encyclops
    September 24, 2014 @ 11:21 am

    One of the lines I did enjoy in "Time Heist" was something like "What do you think of the new outfit? I was going for minimalism, but I think I ended up with magician."

    Reply

  27. Anton B
    September 24, 2014 @ 11:45 am

    It's an homage (acknowledged by Capaldi in interview) to Man Who Fell to Earth/Thin White Duke Era era Bowie.
    http://davidbowielyrics.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/david-bowie-station-to-station.jpg

    Reply

  28. encyclops
    September 24, 2014 @ 12:26 pm

    I just posted a blog entry the other day about that very album — in fact, I thought for a split second you'd linked to it, before realizing what was going on. I can't believe I didn't notice the resemblance. I'll blame the round things on the wall.

    I don't think there's a cooler or more appropriate choice of homage he could have made. Though it does make me sort of hope the next Doctor dresses in homage to Prince.

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  29. John
    September 24, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

    I think we've already had our Doctor who dressed like Prince: Prince. The Doctor

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  30. encyclops
    September 24, 2014 @ 1:37 pm

    Damn it. OK, Janelle Monae. In fact, let's just have Janelle Monae as the Doctor.

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  31. Matthew Blanchette
    September 24, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

    I still absolutely loathe this series' Moriarty, though. Also, the plane scheme makes absolutely no sense (as well as possibly being extrapolated from one of those heinous "9/11 truther" theories).

    Reply

  32. Sean Daugherty
    September 24, 2014 @ 2:26 pm

    Wait, "Hounds of Baskerville" was popular? I didn't really follow the critical reaction of the time, but it's easily my least favorite of the second season, and possibly my least favorite of the entire show. It's only real competition, IMO, is "The Blind Banker." I'd say that this indicates that the show has problems with its middle episodes, but season 3 upends all that with "The Sign of Three," which is my favorite episodes of the show.

    Reply

  33. BerserkRL
    September 24, 2014 @ 5:37 pm

    No mention of Doctor Who and Star Trek references in this episode? (There's more Trek coming in the next two episodes also.)

    Reply

  34. Oliver Bain
    September 24, 2014 @ 9:59 pm

    This comment has been removed by the author.

    Reply

  35. Oliver Bain
    September 24, 2014 @ 10:27 pm

    I remember Hounds going down remarkably well critically, and it propelling Gatiss up to the heights of next potential Doctor Who showrunner, which has thankfully gone away since. It was absolutely baffling!

    He and Moffat gushed over it on the DVD commentary too. I just don't get it. Again, baffling! And the middle episode of Season 3 was the only one I did genuinely like too, in a complete upending of the natural order of 'Sherlock'. Fascinating. Still, none of this is relevant to 'Belgravia'!

    Reply

  36. Anton B
    September 24, 2014 @ 11:59 pm

    My head canon with The Man Who Fell to Earth is that Bowie's playing a Timelord. I mean check it out. Odd sense of style, British accent, companionship with young earth girl, time slips and chronological glitches, unexplained access to large sums of money, inability to cope with alcohol, builds a space vehicle with round things on the walls. It all adds up.

    Reply

  37. Daru
    September 25, 2014 @ 11:08 pm

    Not much to say apart from love this episode and thanks for a great essay Phil! Yeah, absolutely stunning episode.

    Reply

  38. Thessaly
    July 4, 2017 @ 11:52 pm

    ‘I think you can make the argument that Jane Clare Jones’s article about this story in the Guardian two days after it aired was a tipping point in the “Moffat is sexist” line of argument’

    says a man who happily smeared Doctor Who producer John Wiles as a misogynist on the basis of a story in which he had no creative involvement.

    Reply

    • Elizabeth Sandifer
      July 5, 2017 @ 12:49 am

      Did you really come all the way from GallifreyBase to dig up a three year old post and make a completely non-sequitur comment on it?

      Reply

  39. Last Of The Jagaroth
    October 29, 2017 @ 6:53 pm

    You describe this as ‘a phenomenal piece of television’; I call it ‘a 90 minute summary of everything wrong with Moffat’s writing on Sherlock’.

    Moffat entirely misses the point of the story. Scandal was originally effective because Sherlock worked for a villain, and had to learn that his prejudice towards Adler prevented him outsmarting her. Moffat’s Sherlock is made into someone trying to stop Adler from stealing secret intelligence, meaning the ambiguity of the original is sacrificed at the cost of Sherlock being an all-perfect hero. In turn, he is prevented from failing or learning anything, and as a result from having an interesting role in the story.

    Adler is abysmally recast as well. Instead of outsmarting the prejudiced Sherlock, she loses to him, having been made too stupid to even work out a plan on her own without Moriarty acting as an informant to her. To make matters worse, she falls for Sherlock and has to be saved by him, further undoing the protofeminist subtlety of the original story.

    In effect, Moffat doesn’t understand the story is about a character we’ve generally been expected to like doing something wrong and having to learn from it, which is impressive given that’s a fairly simple but effective conceit of drama.

    I’m fairly sure you don’t care about or agree with any of these problems given your constant defense of Moffat as feminist, but I feel like it needed to be said given no one in the comments has pointed these glaring flaws of Scandal In Belgravia out.

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    • BeatnikLady
      November 2, 2017 @ 9:42 pm

      Have to say I agree with a lot of this, Last of the Jagaroth. The Sherlock stories are very glossy and well-made, but I think it’s perfectly reasonable to point out the deep flaws in character writing. I’ve watched Scandal several times, but I really don’t get a feminist vibe from it. It may be judged as better overall than the original story it was based on – fair enough – but given that story was written in 1891, I don’t think we’ve got much to boast about there!

      It’s a shame if we get to a point where criticism is seen as attack – no TV show is perfect and criticism is a necessary part of finding ways to improve matters.

      Reply

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