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Doctor No

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, TV Criticism, TV History with tags , , , , , on September 20, 2015 by Tom Steward

Last night, new episodes of Doctor Who began airing in Britain and America. This is not a review of the season opener because I didn’t watch it. I didn’t watch it, because for the first time since the series re-launched in 2005, I won’t be watching Doctor Who. I don’t – like some fans – have an aversion to Peter Capaldi as The Doctor. In fact, I’ve said here before I think he’s probably the best actor to have played the role. This also isn’t the first time I’ve had serious issues with the direction that the showrunners have taken the series in, or some of the casting. And I’m not so naïve as to think that the ‘classic’ series – which I greatly prefer – wasn’t at times just as unwatchable as the new series is today. So why am I boycotting it now? Well, it’s for the same reasons that I don’t eat at McDonalds or (knowingly) use Nestle products. There are just too many reasons not to.

'What do you mean you're not watching?'

‘What do you mean you’re not watching?’

The main reason, of course, is Steven Moffat. Still showrunner and head writer after six years – with his creative control increasing annually – Moffat’s scripts and season arcs are incoherent, ramshackle rubbish and his dialogue is formed of soundbyte-friendly non-sentences. You can count the good ideas he’s had during his time on Doctor Who on one hand, and yet they do the job of keeping him afloat while he peddles plagiarism of everything from Source Code to That Mitchell and Webb Sound inbetween lightbulb moments. That’s before we get on to his politics. Moffat is incapable of writing strong women without sexualising them, sabotaging the progress made by breakthrough characters like transgender Timelady Missy with nymphomaniacal nonsense. His treatment of the material is invariably tasteless and perverted, encompassing romanticized suicides, desecration of dead Who actors like Nicholas Courtney, and treating time travel as some sort of incestuous gangbang! It was bad enough when this was in the name of change, now it’s billed as a return to the classic formula.

Much as I would like to, I can’t blame Moffat for all that’s wrong politically with Doctor Who. The series has had two women writers since 2005, a record easily beaten during the classic era which is often held up for being unfair to women and stretching back to the tenure of showrunner Russell T Davies, who supposedly opened the show up for a female audience. That said, Moffat did do a Lorne Michaels when it came to the issue of hiring women as writers, claiming that the entire gender did not have the appetite (nor presumably the talent) to take on the job much as the Saturday Night Live did when confronted with the absence of women of colour on the late-night comedy institution. Missy is not enough of a concessionary flip-flop, and certainly not when she’s this badly written. The Bechdel Test and various academic studies have singled out the sexism of Moffat’s era, though Davies set the idea of women talking adoringly about The Doctor in motion.

If I’m being honest, it’s actually the way that Moffat has tried to rectify the female companion’s Adam’s Rib relationship to The Doctor that has made Doctor Who so difficult for me to enjoy. Jenna-Louise Coleman’s Clara has a domestic and work sphere independent from The Doctor and his TARDIS, albeit one that still centres around her romantic interest in another man. The upshot of this is that one of the most shoddily conceived – and irritatingly portrayed – lead characters in the series’ history is at the heart of the concept in virtually every episode. There’s nothing innovative about The Doctor being The Companion’s sidekick, for that’s the status William Hartnell had when Doctor Who began, and it is a good bit of Bechdel-proofing, but for Clara to get that privilege – and, crucially, not Amy, the previous companion – is a kick in the teeth. For the past couple of seasons, Moffat has been working back from Clara’s original introduction as a mere plot device, and still can’t make her sufficiently human.

A Missied opportunity!

A Missied opportunity!

It’s no surprise that the creator of Sherlock and writer of The Adventures of Tintin re-boot can’t organize a piss-up in a brewery when it comes to Doctor Who. Steven Moffat has inherited perfect pop fiction formula time after time, and always drops the ball. So when he finally goes – and providing Jenna makes good on her recent promise – I’ll come back to the best concept on TV. Because we Whovians live to be disappointed.

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In With The Who

Posted in Americans watching British TV, British Shows on American TV, TV Acting, TV History, Unsung Heroes with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2014 by Tom Steward

Here we go again! In August, Peter Capaldi replaced Matt Smith in the iconic title role of the British family science-fiction series Doctor Who, a programme that’s changed actors more times than a Mindy Project midseason re-tool. Capaldi is joint-oldest to play the part with the Sean Connery of Doctors William Hartnell. His age, along with his otherworldly physicality and fannish investment in the history of Doctor Who have led some to assume that Capaldi will resurrect some of the mystery, mastery and manipulation seen in the earliest incarnations of the character. While this is undoubtedly the case, it forgets that Matt Smith’s performance – an actor nearly half Capaldi’s age – was always pushing in that direction, even if the writing for him was not. Smith had managed to convince us that age was no obstacle to playing The Doctor. Now it seems the show is happy to pass The Eleventh Doctor off as some reckless young buck to help viewers come to term with an older Twelfth. It’s double standards, and a very dangerous game!

Who Needs You?

Who Needs You?

Capaldi is probably the best actor to have played the role, and I don’t say that lightly. Unlike Christopher Eccleston – another actor I admire greatly – he also seems a comfortable fit for the role. But essentially this is a repeat of what Doctor Who did in introducing Colin Baker as The Sixth Doctor; a more sinister, less personable variation on the character. Despite Baker’s best (and loudest!) efforts, it was a sea change they were never really able to pull off. So is the show making the same mistakes as before? Short answer: No. Long answer: They’re making different mistakes. This time, the writers have remembered to round out the edges of the character early on, rather than leave character development for a time that may never come. However, somebody needs to tell Steven Moffat that the moral ambiguity of a character is best represented in their actions not in constantly talking about how morally ambiguous they are. Hence, genre pieces like ‘Robot of Sherwood’ and ‘Time Heist’ have been this season’s most successful episodes.

We’re halfway through Capaldi’s first season and it’s hard not to notice the discrepancy between the quality of his performance and the material he’s given. As the absurdist, Godot-like vignette between The Doctor and a Victorian tramp in debut ‘Deep Breath’ indicated, Capaldi’s actorly flow offers new dramatic possibilities for the programme (and puts the show’s use of Eccleston to shame!). But there’s only so much even the finest actor can do when compelled to speak in Moffat-ese baby talk for the majority of episodes, although the head writer has shown some restraint in contracting his idiomatic ‘thingy’ to ‘thing’. Moffat presents the biggest obstacle to Capaldi’s success. Now micro-managing most of the season’s scripts, in addition to several of his own sole pen, the same laziness and hackery that beset Smith’s tenure is already starting to permeate Capaldi’s after only five hours of television. While Capaldi is completely fresh, Moffat’s schtick after five years as showrunner is tired, and tiresome; never more evident than in laborious, tenuous allusions to a familiarly mechanical-looking season arc.

Waiting for Who?

Waiting for Who?

There’s dead weight in the cast too. I sincerely hoped that the character and performance of companion Clara would improve once she was released from her status as story point in the ill-advised ‘impossible girl’ arc. But between the clipped, garbled diction of the dialogue and exponentially annoying inflections of actress Jenna-Louise Coleman (and the smugness…can’t get over the smugness), she’s a lost cause. I’m glad the writers haven’t resorted to the bickering married couple dynamic that made The Doctor and Peri’s TARDIS scenes so unwatchable, and I’m grateful for the buffer that teacher Danny Pink (a considered performance by Samuel Anderson) provides – yes, if there’s one thing Moffat can write well it’s awkward men! But as long as Clara’s the main focus of Doctor Who, which she is more and more since the show revived the autonomy of The Doctor’s companions, it’ll always feel like there a little Moffat running around in the world of the programme. It also doesn’t help Capaldi that the writers insist on keeping the spectre of Matt Smith around.

Doctor Who has always surrounded new Doctors with familiar elements of the series to cushion viewers in times of transition. Indeed, this season began with a Victorian-set adventure featuring the ‘Paternoster Gang’ who were regulars in Smith’s era. But Moffat went so far as to have Smith in the episode (calling Clara from the past) and allusions to the actor in later episodes. As wonderful and apposite as these moments are – because they feature Smith – they’re holding viewers back from really embracing Capaldi’s Doctor. You begin to suspect that Moffat’s vanity is partly behind this effort to build a dramatic whoniverse unified around his time as showrunner. Prior to his debut, I suspected that Capaldi, an Oscar-winning director no less, might excise a little more control over the show than befits his brief, as did auteur Orson Welles who liked to put scare quotes around the term ‘actor’. I can see Capaldi’s influence on the change in pace, the contraction of melodrama, and even the language…in that it sounds like language! Long may it contin-who.

Goodbye Mr. Smith!

Posted in British Shows on American TV, Reviews, TV Culture, TV History with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2013 by Tom Steward

This blog seems to be nothing but obituaries these days but I’m happy that, after reporting the dreadful loss of James Gandolfini, I’m only talking about the death of a fictional character this week and not even that. In essence all I’m really discussing is an actor leaving a role and something that’s happened ten times over, which on the surface doesn’t seem to be much cause for mourning and sadness. But this time it’s not a relief to say goodbye or a feeling that the pleasure has reached its capacity just that of being deprived of something truly wonderful.

So it’s come to Tardis: Matt Smith leaves ‘Doctor Who’

In 2009 there was nothing but alarm amongst fans of the TV show Doctor Who as the younger ever actor to be cast in the eponymous role was announced as the replacement for David Tennant. Matt Smith was 26 at the time but his uneven hair, emo style and awkward deportment made him seem much much younger. Concern and panic was only exacerbated by a number of appearances in which he seemed illegible and incapable. Unlike most, I was happy to see Tennant and his lazy shortcuts leave the series, but became prematurely nostalgic for him after learning the news.

Matt Smith in 2009, looking more like Adric!

A terrible debut scene at the end of one of the most tedious and portentous Doctor Who episodes ever broadcast didn’t help matters. Horribly written and directed in a needlessly elliptical style, Smith’s performance in the final few minutes of ‘The End of Time’ seemed fragile and misplaced, falsely suggesting a performance of infantile nihilism that was the worst everyone feared. Expectations sufficiently lowered, we started to get reasons to be cheerful. In the previews Smith looked and sounded commanding and unique and word spread that Smith had reconsidered his approach after studying Patrick Troughton’s groundbreaking interpretation of the role.

The jury was still out when in Easter 2010 Smith made his full debut in ‘The Eleventh Hour’. Quietly assured in the Bond-teaser opening, he went from strength to strength in his first hour of television, re-injecting a genuine sense of fun, humour and warmth into the show (without resorting to saccharine) and refusing to romanticize the character, making The Doctor a troubling proposition of unpredictable behaviour and sinister tendencies despite his innate affability. Unlike Tennant it wasn’t a needy performance that asked you to idolize the actor as you worshipped the character, just an actor doing a part justice.

As Smith’s first season progressed, his ability to judge the demands of the role became increasingly evident. He knew exactly when to let loose the pantomime of the piece and when to tone it down and squeeze out the profundity. While honouring the previous ten performances of the role-in a way that his last two predecessors had not-Smith stamped his authority on the part with a wholly original spin on the character. Each actor playing The Doctor has to find a way to capture his alien qualities. Smith played The Doctor as a social misfit, comically illiterate in human beings’ behavioural orthodoxies. He talked to children like adults and adults like children, gleefully misjudged fashion and etiquette, and moved and gestured in disregard of convention.

There are definitely two aliens in this photograph!

As the second season of the programme veered head-first into pure space opera, Smith brought to the melodrama an understated honesty and brevity that gave the emotional core of the show a raw power unseen in its mawkish, self-pitying previous few years. Tears were no longer an inevitable part of a cloying formula but hard-won and always accompanied with restraint. As such, Smith pulled off that fine balance between the outlandish and the sincere that makes Doctor Who. He was able to suggest age and wisdom well beyond his years, and with it the overgrown teenager we initially saw evaporated.

Hard-won tears from Matt Smith as The Doctor

Smith’s third season as The Doctor saw him finally getting the mature, heavyweight material he needed to showcase his pedigree as one of the finest performances of the part. Toby Whithouse’s ‘A Town Called Mercy’ allowed Smith to shine in a powerful and disturbing story of genocide and war. However, a rapid fall-off in the quality of the 2013 episodes of Doctor Who-and a gradual slowing of the rate of episodes per year-has left audiences wanting more from Smith, and more of him. It was announced in June that Smith will leave the role at the end of the year, with only two episodes remaining. It is a part that will always outlive any actor that plays it but it will never escape Matt Smith.

 

 

 

 

 

Asylum of The Daleks (Review)

Posted in British Shows on American TV, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 8, 2012 by Tom Steward

An advantage of having a themed blog is that it challenges you to find suitable topics to talk about each week. A drawback is that you can’t talk about whatever you like. In some ways that defeats the point of blogging as the form is so conducive to a diary-like outpouring of what you want to say as it comes to you. So readers looking for a connection between my review of ‘Asylum of the Daleks’, the opener to the new season of Doctor Who, and this blog will have to be content with the knowledge that I watched it…in America.

The anticipation for ‘Asylum of the Daleks’ couldn’t have been higher. Not only had viewers waited 5 months longer than usual for the new season of Doctor Who to begin but the episode heralded the return (albeit from a bogus publicity-stunt hiatus) of the Daleks, the show’s lynchpin villains and one-time Beatlemania-emulating pop culture phenomena. Also, since the annual run of episodes has been cut in half for 2012, viewers watched the episode in trepidation of it constituting 1/6th of their Doctor Who fix this year. The close-season publicity for the series had also tantalized long-term fans of the show with staged, Abbey Road-style photographs of Dalek models stretching back to the 1960s, luring people into thinking that the episode would be a Dalek retrospective reflecting on how these Dyson sink-unblockers had figured in the series (or even British art and culture) in the past 49 years.

The Fab Four!

It all started very promisingly. Writer-producer Steven Moffat’s scripts for Doctor Who are often deeply flawed but he is adept at cold opens, as seen in the pre-title sequence of the 2011 Christmas Special which would have graced any Bond film. The teaser in which The Doctor and his companions are kidnapped from their times by Daleks and taken to their Parliament with a cryptic agenda was mouth-watering. But it also demonstrated a conspicuous whittling-down of extraneous dialogue (Moffat’s greatest weakness as a writer) in favour of imagistic storytelling, making the first 5 minutes of this effort eminently satisfying. The dialogue that remained was sparse and terrifying, especially in The Doctor’s opening exchange with an emptied-out, human-style Dalek on the mysteriously resurrected home planet Skaro, which effortlessly captured-and yet did not aggrandise-the cynicism and deep-seated resentment at the heart of Matt Smith’s portrayal of the central character.

Tough room!

As soon as the re-vamped credits-which managed in true digital-era BBC style to be simultaneously utilitarian and gaudy-ended, the problems began. Moffat seems to believe that to over-complicate something is to improve it, and the shock introduction of-and premature farewell to-The Doctor’s future companion (Jenna-Louise Coleman) was an ill-advised overegging of the narrative pudding, appropriately for an episode with a dairy-based leitmotif. It also completed unbalanced the episode, like Faustino Asprilla did to Newcastle (Google it, young’ns!). And here lies the problem with all the stories featuring classic villains since Moffat took over in 2010. The Daleks play second fiddle to the characters and their emotional dilemmas and all the potential of the set-up, in this case a planet inhabited by disturbed Daleks, is wasted. Contrary to the promo pictures, the episode had no respect for the Daleks or what they have meant to the show.

Hello new companion-Goodbye new companion!

The spectre hanging over the forthcoming departure of Amy and Rory (Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill) loomed larger after the first look at their replacement. It’s a dispiriting thought, especially as the most compelling moments of this episode revolved around Rory. Darvill has the alchemy to turn Moffat’s entry-level humour into comedy gold, exemplified in this episode as Rory attempts to make peace with a Dalek by returning what he assumes is its egg spawn. Without this kind of performance polish, Moffat’s half-witticisms are going to look pretty pointless in the future. And it’s not long before the terse force of the minimal dialogue gives way to the excruciating baby-talk that Moffat increasingly takes as his signature meter. Moffat even seems to have lost the knack of writing the domestic life of the Ponds, throwing a red-herring divorce in their way reminiscent of the water-treading ‘marriage trouble’ storylines given to couples in soap operas.

Those aren’t chickens!

But worse was to come. Now I’m well aware that Doctor Who has leant heavily on popular culture over the years to inform its storylines. In fact, some of the best stories-like Victorian-lit romp ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’-are pure pastiche. I’m also entirely cogniscent of the dearth of new ideas in Moffat’s scripts for the show since his first in 2005. There are, for example, none between ‘Blink’in 2007 and ‘The Wedding of River Song’in 2011. But the Martin Bashir-meets-Johan Hari level of plagiarism in this episode is just inexcusable. Inexcusable because it brazenly lifts the plot twist and visual imagery from Duncan Jones’ Source Code without acknowledgement, adaptation or play. And inexcusable because an intriguing original idea had been abandoned to make way for a wholly derivative one. We saw nothing of the implicitly terrifying concept of a planet ruled by rogue and maddened Daleks. Instead we got a few broken plungers.

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