You Were Expecting Someone Else 32 (Night and the Doctor)
When the DVD set of Season Six came out, one of the biggest special features was a cycle of five shorts collectively titled Night and the Doctor. They total about sixteen minutes in length, and consist of two pairs of two shorts, one called “Good Night” and “Bad Night” focusing on Amy having insomnia on the TARDIS and catching glimpses of the Doctor’s extra adventures, the other called “First Night” and “Last Night” that are an explicit two-parter about the Doctor and River’s first date, alongside a fifth short, “Up All Night,” featuring Craig and Sophie in the immediate lead-up to Closing Time, and which feels not entirely unlike an unused prequel that was grafted onto the other four episodes somewhat arbitrarily.
These shorts fit into a larger tradition within the Moffat era that began with two special features on the Season Five box set, a pair of scenes entitled “Meanwhile in the TARDIS” and paired with early episodes. Both basically involve going through a bunch of standard premises of Doctor Who (“why did you make your time machine look like a Police Box” and “have there been other companions” and the like) as comic sketches. And it continued on the Season Seven set, with a trio of mini episodes there. At which point we should probably talk about the prequels to Name of the Doctor, The Bells of St. Johns, the couple of prequels to The Snowmen, A Town Called Mercy, Asylum of the Daleks, The Wedding of River Song, Let’s Kill Hitler, A Good Man Goes to War, The Curse of the Black Spot, and The Impossible Astronaut. And, of course, the two Day of the Doctor prequels, “The Last Day” and “Night of the Doctor.” And the “Time” and “Space” shorts for Red Nose Day. And Pond Life. So all told, there are something like thirty shorts set within the Eleventh Doctor era, comparing to, I believe, three plus Attack of the Graske for the entire Davies era. And one of those was by Moffat too.
Clearly the short is a thing within the Moffat era. This is not entirely surprising. Setting aside the prequels, which tend to serve as just a different sort of trailer, the bulk of the DVD-based shorts are comedies. Within Night and the Doctor, for instance, there’s “Bad Night,” which is an extended farce built around a plot in which aliens have apparently turned the Queen of England into a goldfish, in which all we get is a brief scene between Amy and the Doctor (and Rory, very briefly) in the middle of the adventure. “Good Night” is a sweet little thing about Amy’s changing memories that ends with Amy buying her past self an ice cream cone to cheer herself up on a bad day.
This is, of course, a familiar structure for Moffat, who got his start in sitcoms. He’s good at structuring a sketch, knowing how to get in and out before a gag runs dry. (As “Time Crash” demonstrates, really.) And that’s all most of these are – well-structured and well-delivered gags. Individual shorts have various things to recommend them – from the way the prequel to Let’s Kill Hitler fills a major emotional beat absent from that story, to the way “Space” and “Time” actually do fall down kinda badly on the whole feminism thing, to the way that “Last Night” goes through three minutes of a multiple timeline farce before suddenly resolving to a not-actually-a-punchline in which the Doctor is confronted by the knowledge that it is in his Matt Smith incarnation that he’ll take River Song to the Singing Towers. But it tends to be a thing where you can say one or two sentences worth of good observations about a given short, and then you’re kind of done.
But let’s go back to that last one, because it actually is interesting. For almost its entire runtime, “Last Night” is a comedy, but it pays off with a stark and painful reminder of River Song’s mortality and of the fact that the Doctor goes into this relationship with the knowledge of its ending already written and fixed. It may be short and mostly the most Moffat-on-autopilot filler imaginable (since Moffat writing farce is basically the Moffat equivalent of white noise at this point), but it’s structured with a very strong and brutal tone-change. The easy farce is there precisely to be easy and give way to something else.
Which is where it starts to become understandable why there are so many mini episodes in the Moffat era. Because they pair well with the structural innovations that Moffat has been bringing in. Moffat has increasingly been favoring using Doctor Who’s ability to do genre switches repeatedly and quickly within episodes, so that they change tones and approaches multiple times in the course of forty-five minutes. Another way of looking at this, then, is that episodes are increasingly structured like sequences of mini-episodes. Where Doctor Who used to be one story spread out over multiple episodes, now it is serialized in the sense of being several stories concatenated into one episode.
Some of this is simply the natural consequence of Moffat’s approach to writing – a logical response to, say, The Great Game. But it’s also, I would argue, a consequence of directorial decisions that play to Moffat’s style, and have over the course of 2010 and 2011 been part of a cycle of influence that has honed and refined a new style. Things like Toby Haynes’s effective use of the Silence as figures that interrupt and break the visual storytelling of the show pushes towards doing a show that really is a pile of broken-up styles. Nick Hurran’s approach of abandoning the idea that the camera depicts real spaces instead of genres does too. The approach of inserts as in the “praise him” montages in The God Complex feed into it too, reinforcing the way in which Moffat is prone to use repeated phrases as metonyms for entire thematic constructs. (Note how the impact of “Last Night” depends on the audience recognizing the phrase “Singing Towers of Darrilium.” Or on how Moffat grabs phrases that evoke the long history of Doctor Who, as with “not one line,” or “never cruel nor cowardly,” or “fear makes companions of us all.”)
And again, that lends itself to the mini-episode. One of the things that definitely happened in the latter half of Season Six was a sudden acceleration of the pace at which narrative unfolds. And the way that manifests is in a willingness to experiment with what can be left out of a narrative without losing the basic function. Increasingly, the focus becomes how quickly you can do world-building and how few lines you need to actually set something up. At its worst, this becomes little more than fetishizing narrative velocity for its own sake, and at times in the remainder of the Smith era it will feel like stories are moving quickly for the sake of it, as opposed to because they actually have a lot to say and need to get through it. But equally, given the experimentalism of the approach, it’s only to be expected that a fair amount of effort is going to be spent learning what does and doesn’t work. But the mini-episodes are a key part of that, inasmuch as part of their point is figuring out what Doctor Who can do as a five-minute container. Or as a one-minute container.
But it’s also worth commenting on the turn towards mini-episodes as a turn away from what made up the bulk of extra content during the Russell T Davies era, namely behind-the-scenes features. The Moffat era has consciously shown less about how the show is made, and has instead opted to give the audience extra little chunks of show. The rise of the mini-episode, in other words, is part of a turn towards focusing more on Doctor Who as a text and less on Doctor Who as a production. This also goes hand-in-hand with Moffat’s aesthetic. His intensely allusive, reference-based approach to writing, and his self-conscious love of structure invite a degree of attentiveness and even obsessiveness. Moffat increasingly writes to be rewatched, especially when he’s doing narrative substitutions, in which case much of the first viewing of a story is wasted being taken in by the red herrings, and it’s not until a second viewing that it becomes possible to watch an episode on its own terms.
There’s a turn here, though, in which Doctor Who becomes a show that is about the pleasures of the text. It exists to be taken apart and read closely, so much so that there is almost no point at which the phrase “reading too much into things” applies. It is a show that is about reading extremely and perversely into things. When every single sentence can be as pregnant with meaning as this structure allows, what can “reading too much into things” even possibly mean? Moffat’s work, around this point, becomes strangely and wonderfully obsessed with testing the limits of what an episode of television can do. It is, in its own way, as fascinating and radical as Doctor Who has been since the Hartnell era.
Stuart Ian Burns
September 15, 2014 @ 12:27 am
Of course the reintroduction of Doctor Who Extra could mean the metronome skipping in the opposite direction and a lack of any minisodes in the first Capaldi boxed set.
September 15, 2014 @ 12:51 am
The mini episodes are good fun, and I'd definitely take a few minutes here and there of extra bits to the several hours of worth of Doctor Who Confidential. I've never rewatched any Confidential segments. But something like Good Night with a line like this…
"The thing is, Amy, everyone's memory is a mess. Life is a mess. Everyone's got memories of a holiday they've never been on or a party they never went to, or met someone for the first time and felt like they've known them all their lives. Time is being rewritten all around us, every day. People think their memories are bad, but their memories are fine. The past is really like that."
I could watch that over and over.
September 15, 2014 @ 3:14 am
Pointlessly trivial pedantry time: The "prequels" really annoy me because they're not prequels. A prequel is something released after the the thing it's a prequel to but set before it. These are preludes; released and set before the thing. (Except the prequel to The Name of the Doctor, which was released before and set after, and is therefore the exact opposite of a prequel. A selude?)
September 15, 2014 @ 3:54 am
The thing that annoys me the most on the DVDs is that these scenes don't play if you choose "Play All" so there's a lot of messing around in the bonus features before watching an episode.
September 15, 2014 @ 4:02 am
In usual Moff-style, he's addressed this somewhere by saying "eh, whatever they're called, doesn't matter." What niggles me is that some 'prequels' have titles, and some don't. It makes it a little trickier for those of us who love to have titles for everything :p
September 15, 2014 @ 5:10 am
There’s a turn here, though, in which Doctor Who becomes a show that is about the pleasures of the text. It exists to be taken apart and read closely, so much so that there is almost no point at which the phrase “reading too much into things” applies. It is a show that is about reading extremely and perversely into things. When every single sentence can be as pregnant with meaning as this structure allows, what can “reading too much into things” even possibly mean?
September 15, 2014 @ 6:25 am
@Daibhid. So you're the one who keeps pedantically hammering this point home on the forums!
No I agree with you. "The Hobbit" is a prelude to "The Lord of the Rings" (which is a sequel to "The Hobbit")
While we're on things that annoy us, "Demons Run 2 Days Later" and "Clarence and the Whispermen" were only released on Itunes in the US I believe, which made it the first Doctor Who content not covered by the Licence Fee, and therefore unavailable for UK viewers to download.
September 15, 2014 @ 7:42 am
Now, commentors, what's alchemical meaning of Moffat's beginning credit scenes? Hmm…the current credits show the TARDIS moving through space and time, without the "inside the TARDIS" theme of the Season 7b. Perhaps it means that we are no longer inside the adventure, as active participants. This new Doctor, and by extension the show, is keeping us at a distance. To the point where even we are being invited to "Listen", it's a trick: our participation isn't narratively rewarded–actually, it's rather anticlimactic. There is no monster. The viewer's rug, and sense of balance, has been pulled out from under them. You are no longer allowed inside the TARDIS.
Except that, I lied just now . Because, in the new credits, the TARDIS isn't travelling through space. It's travelling through symbols: clocks, reflections, symbols that move around like mercury. And with that realization, we realize that it's not that we've been locked out of the TARDIS. We've actually been let inside: the symbols and reflections are a peek into the special world as the TARDIS sees it. (After all, a alchemical time machine probably wouldn't see time the way we do.) We were able to accept the Doctor with a new face, and in return the beginning credits promise us an even more magical set of adventures. It doesn't matter that there's no monster. And if that makes you a little nervous– afraid even–well, fear makes companions of us all.
Wow. Guess you really can't read too much into things…I actually believe my own crazy theory now (I started the post as a joke)!
September 15, 2014 @ 7:53 am
Sorry that my grammar is horrible above–I'll proofread before commenting next time.
September 15, 2014 @ 8:02 am
Moffat increasingly writes to be rewatched, especially when he’s doing narrative substitutions, in which case much of the first viewing of a story is wasted being taken in by the red herrings, and it’s not until a second viewing that it becomes possible to watch an episode on its own terms.
Yes! This has happened to me with four out of four episodes of this season — maybe least with "Into the Dalek," and most with "Listen," as I commented last night. It's challenging to watch the episode twice (usually before I go to bed in the small hours Sunday morning) and write some kind of coherent review before allowing myself to read anyone else's reviews or comments, but it's absolutely necessary if I want to get anything like the full picture and get my thoughts out unswayed.
September 15, 2014 @ 9:36 am
I think that Moffat was also consciously trying to point out the limitations of the tv schedule. In a world in which we no longer need to watch things when they go out, then the constraints of an arbitrary fixed length become more frustrating than not. Having the opportunity to play around with different sorts of lengths must have been a little bit liberating (kind of like being able to write short stories as well as novels.)
On a separate but related note, I am increasingly of the opinion that 50 minutes is almost entirely the wrong length for an episode of Doctor Who. Yes, strictly speaking it's the same running time as two of the old episodes, but that's about all they would have in common. Indeed, the period of "classic" Who when they tried this length showed how much of a problem it actually is – you'd think someone might have noticed!
September 15, 2014 @ 2:28 pm
Oh, very nicely done Gallifreyan Immigrant!
Only… Well my gripe with the new credits (and it's a tiny one, but one that niggles every time I watch them) is that the Roman Numerals in spirals, numbering from I to XII are a very specific cultural method of measuring time. Not Time Itself. I'd prefer something much more… symbolic.
So, can you help me square that away? (I think you can…. Go on – invent something even wilder than above. It'll be fun.)
Pen Name Pending
September 15, 2014 @ 2:35 pm
This isn't going to stop books from having short "prequels" at the beginning, is it?
I suppose the words are interchangeable nowadays.
September 15, 2014 @ 2:36 pm
As a busy dad, on the other side of the world from where this is broadcast (I just CAN'T get up at 4am for a TV show, not even my beloved Doctor Who) I didn't even know these things were being made and posted online when they were going up.
Kind of wish I had, now. I've seen the odd one or two, but didn't experience them while I was watching the era they were relevant to. I sort of assumed they were just alternate promos.
So I've just watched "Good Night", "Bad Night", "First Night", and "Last Night" in the half hour I had at my desk before everyone else got in at work. Awesome stuff. Hadn't seen any of them before, and they have just lifted my appreciation of the whole Smith era.
September 15, 2014 @ 2:39 pm
They are heaps of fun. I wonder what their budget was like? There is a terribly bad edit in "Bad Night" just between the Doctor saying "I've got the wrong fish" and "River, we've got the wrong fish!" but it's such a funny and well delivered moment they get away with it easily.
I'm assuming they did the edit for the timing of the gag, but normally you'd expect a reshoot or retake, as there are no other jump-cuts like it in the short.
It's also an interesting one in that it has one of those supposedly "Problematic Moffat" scenes where the Doctor treats Amy in a belittling way by calling for Rory when she is "having an emotion", and apparently they collude about taking turns dealing with her behind her back. But the look on Rory's face when the Doctor says "it's his turn" is enough to sell to me that Rory is not exactly down with this either, and it's more likely something our non-human Doctor spoke at Rory one day. But he knows he's been dropped right in anyway, regardless of whether he was actually complicit.
Anyway, I meant to talk more about how humour can cover a bad edit than bring up a problematic scene I don't find problematic.
September 15, 2014 @ 2:45 pm
@5tephe while I recognised the I to XII are very specific to a clock face, I assume they have a double meaning in that Timelords lives come in cycles of 12, reminding us each week that our Doctor is starting afresh on his I to XII
September 15, 2014 @ 2:57 pm
Are they? I've heard "preface," "foreword," "introduction," and "prologue," but I don't think I've ever heard of a book having a prequel in the same volume.
Regarding Moffat's "prequels," time travel is tricky, isn't it? I suppose the main thing about them is that they're intended to be watched before the thing they're ostensibly a "prequel" to, no matter when the events in them actually occur.
September 15, 2014 @ 7:11 pm
Well, off the top of my head, the Roman Numerals allude to Marcus Aurelius, and Caecilius. I to XII are also associated with clock faces in general. Actually, old time faces–we don't use those type of clocks anymore…now we're all digital. The TARDIS is literally moving through old faces…and into a new face.
September 15, 2014 @ 8:04 pm
Doubtful, given there's been a behind the scenes bit on most if not all episodes of the Series 7 boxset, which was usually the stuff that was available online. Despite that, there are 3 minisodes exclusive to the boxset, as well as several others that were otherwise available.
September 15, 2014 @ 8:30 pm
I have been, and will continue, to make the point about screen time used to tell a story and how its been changing under Moffat's Doctor Who, and these small slices of story and life, and tiny chapters of a time traveller's life. They help add to the number of screen minutes that Matt's Doctor had, and also add to the complexity of his life.
For a Doctor who, esentially, is the first to have his entire tenure written completely differently from the prior 47 years of the show. While we, as the omnicient observers, have gotten used to following the time traveller as opposed to the audience identificiation figures, the fractured aspect of Smith's Doctor spins us into new narrative terrain so to speak, because we finally get to see what it might be like to live life out of linear order. And not just once, but continuiously through two + full seasons. And freed from "the monster of the week" (or really menace of the week), Moffat writes tiny brilliant emotional moments right next to the comedy and Smith blends them seamlessly (in the most multi-layered TARDIS set ever, a shame that it couldn't have been kept). Seriously, without having to stretch for 45 minutes, those things are great. I would love to have an option on the DVDs to insert them where they belong into the stream of tthe season.
September 15, 2014 @ 8:35 pm
I honestly think these are truly beautiful bits of Doctor Who – especially Good Night and its line about how people's memories are ever-changing, but 'the past is really like that'. It has a particular emotional resonance with me at the moment, as I try to to come to terms with something I've only recently realised about myself, but was signposted going back a fair while in my life. Or at least appears to have been. The past is indeed really like that.
Also 'He’s taking me to the Singing Towers of Darillium. He’s been promising for ages.' is one of the most effective Moffat era gut punches. It's up there with 'Where are my mummy and daddy? They said they wouldn't be long. Are they coming back?'
September 16, 2014 @ 12:16 am
Twelve Doctors. Also who says nobody uses analogue clock faces anymore? My watch is analogue. There are three clocks in my house, all have analogue faces; the largest one has Roman numerals.
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western spiral arm of the galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this, at a distance of roughly ninety million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet, whose ape descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea"
Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
September 16, 2014 @ 1:30 pm
since Doctor who has become about the power of text, a better, slightly less annoyingly on-the-nose moment, rather than having robin hood talk about it to the Doctor is a bizarrely post-modernist way, is the ending of the Pandorica, which is as much a metaphor for us fans who kept the faith and kept Doctor Who in the world with books and comics and fan fiction and reruns. We birthed Doctor who back into the world again, as Moffat did by writing text during the wilderness years and it has been as much about the pleasure of being able to decode the text for us long timers as it has been sharing that with, finally, the entire world. it takes guts and brains to figure out how to create a series with meta text that doesn't turn into a horrible continuity morass
September 16, 2014 @ 10:56 pm
I love the 90-minute format of Sherlock, and sometimes I feel like Doctor Who could benefit from that as well. But then I saw "Deep Breath" and while I acknowledge it's a story that deserves more than 45 minutes to tell, I really feel there was 10-15 minutes of padding in it. I have the distinct feeling that it began life as a sensible hour-long special, but got stretched out only because it was going to be a cinema event and therefore needed to be feature length. If I were someone with loads of free time, I'd probably do a fan edit and make a version of "Deep Breath" that has room to breathe but doesn't hold it in too long.
September 17, 2014 @ 4:38 am
It's interesting that they don't seem to have bothered with "prequels" this year (not counting Deep Breath – but that one, with Strax's rundown of the Doctors [wait, didn't they do that last year? sigh]).
September 17, 2014 @ 4:41 am
Interestingly, I find most of the classic series two-parters to be some of the best.
September 17, 2014 @ 4:42 am
(The 2x25mins ones, I should clarify.)
September 17, 2014 @ 6:04 am
My single favorite moment of the Matt Smith era, he says belatedly, is the moment when Eleven realizes just what night it is, and where he's taking River. He doesn't say a word, and it lasts a second, but there is a cosmos of grief in the Doctor's face. Matt Smith could do more with a two second expression as the Doctor than some actors could do in a ten minute monologue.
September 17, 2014 @ 11:00 pm
"When every single sentence can be as pregnant with meaning as this structure allows, what can “reading too much into things” even possibly mean?"
Yes at last !
September 17, 2014 @ 11:37 pm
I love these mini episodes, as that's what I feel they are, rather than other names that get argued over. Quite brilliant experimental storytelling that it helping the format break out of the constraints of watching things when they air and expanding the possibilities of storytelling structures beyond discrete episodes.
There's an interesting interview with Steven Moffat called 'A Nerdy Chat with Steven Moffat' by Officiallynerdcubed which took place in his own home I think at the request of one of Moffat's sons. There is lots of good stuff but the part relevant to this essay is where he discusses his views on ratings and how television is transforming and the role of such mini episodes in this process.
September 19, 2014 @ 4:15 am
I would love to have an option on the DVDs to insert them where they belong into the stream of tthe season
It's actually not clear when "First Night" and "Last Night" take place. Presumably after "Wedding"; but during a period when Amy & Rory are still in the TARDIS, since the Doctor tells River her parents are asleep. So apparently not before "Asylum."
September 19, 2014 @ 4:19 am
One of the best things about Space/Time is that it takes the Heinleinesque causal-loop paradox that Moffat has been playing with ever since "Blink" and turns it into the tightest possible causal loop ever: the ultimate self-parody.
September 19, 2014 @ 5:45 am
Did I say ever since "Blink"? I meant ever since "Time Crash."