The Night Of The Doctor, and more besides
I know it’s a bit churlish to tear into something so inconsequential. So hey, that’s exactly what I’m about to do. My issue isn’t with The Night Of The Doctor so much as what it represents. I’ve liked quite a lot of the series lately, but there are a few things that I dislike intensely and The Night Of The Doctor is almost exclusively made up of them (there’s even a dash of crap sexual politics thrown in!). This review probably takes longer to read than it will to watch the actual short, but rest assured that I’m being deliberately disproportionate. If I pour all my annoyance in here, I might be able to talk about the good recent episodes without complaining. I might even enjoy the finale, if I’m lucky.
So, what is this? It’s not a story in its own right, and it’s not intended to be. It’s a dramatic introduction into a new corner of the Doctor’s mythology, and in the purely functional sense it does what it’s intended to. Paul McGann gets the farewell he never got in any medium. In the 90s you could easily imagine that they would have tried to reboot the series with an opening scene like this, and that – in its way – tells you exactly why the climate in television of 1996 ensured that McGann never became the Doctor he could have been (increasingly, one of the most impressive facets of Rose is the all the things RTD didn’t do). This little short is designed to leave the viewer shouting for more, and it does that in one way only: I really, really want them to do a mini-series starring the McGann Doctor. He’s great.
As for the rest… well, there’s not a great deal to say. The return of The Sisterhood of Karn, though, is interesting for precisely one reason: the question of who they were introduced for. Casual viewers will almost certainly find them baffling, alienating and clichéd, while fans who’ve seen The Brain Of Morbius will be nonplussed by their perfunctory appearance. So they really only appeal to people who’ve read about The Brain of Morbius, but haven’t actually seen it. Doctor Who is beginning to resemble its 80s self in one of the worst possible ways but, as the links to the past tends to be introduced with – let’s be fair – a rarely-wavering fannish accuracy and competence, many fans find this exciting rather than derivative and tired. It’s the twenty-first century, and we’re all JNT now.
One of the odd things about Steven Moffat is how determined he is to style himself as some sort of antifanboy. He’s happy to send up parts of the series’ mythology, ranging from the guff about dancing in his earlier stories, to the TARDIS dematerialisation noise being ascribed to the handbrake being left on in The Time Of Angels. All of that might seem like the actions of a self-styled enfant terrible, except that demythologising elements of the series always seems to goes along with an emphasis on absurdly mythologising the Doctor. Moffat’s not the first writer to do this, but he’s certainly the most relentless; he’s pulled the trick of the Doctor resolving a situation by saying“don’t you know who I am” more times than most of us can count at this stage (lest we forget, Matt Smith’s very first episode finishes up with him frightening off the bad guys by showing them a highlights reel). It reached its apex, or rather nadir, in A Good Man Goes To War, really; that’s a story where the Doctor spends twenty minutes showing up and frightening people just by being there, but – beneath all that sound and fury – he doesn’t actually do anything on-screen. He performs two meaningful acts (that’s literally correct, I’m not being sarcastic), and we don’t see him doing either. Between blowing up a Cyberfleet to show how double-hard he is (which gets the story off to a crass start from which it never recovers) and somehow impersonating a headless monk as if we’re not even supposed to even ask “how” or “why” any more, we get repeated scenes of people talking about him. Look at how important he is! Look, look!
So. Mythologising the Doctor is what this mini-episode is about, and all it’s about. It’s not as obnoxious as A Good Man Goes To War, thank goodness – that’s a low bar, obviously, but the Doctor doesn’t wind up giggling like a sociopath in front of two traumatised parents who’ve just had their child kidnapped – but it’s still the work of a writer who thinks he doesn’t have to even try to impress his audience, he just has to tell them to be impressed and that’ll do. The Night Of The Doctor expects us to be awestruck because the Sisterhood keep going on about the Doctor and prophecies, and that’s it. There’s nothing on-screen to even tell casual viewers why the Sisterhood matter, bar some opaque stuff about their potions; we’re meant to wowed because they foretell vague things in a cave, and – y’know – soothsayer types are always important, right?
Similarly, Cass is scared of the Doctor just because of who he is. In a way that’s appropriate, in fairness, but it still means the interaction between her and the Doctor is just jotted in like dramatic shorthand. We don’t get know her or care about her, really; we get less insight into her than we’ve got into fairly minor characters like (say) the doomed consultant in Smith And Jones, and her death is treated with less importance than that of fairly minor characters like (say) Lynda’s doomed housemate in Bad Wolf. Some people might retort that the story’s not really about her, but it still means that none of the impact on the Doctor feels meaningful. Cass is supposed to be a catalyst for the Doctor doing something momentous but, prior to the arrival on Karn, all we get is two ciphers jumping through character hoops to set up The Doctor’s Big Decision. Get beyond the artifice and look at how these scenes really work: this Doctor’s swansong is terrifyingly similar to Colin Baker’s, except people make Big Important Speeches and the effects are better.
And there’s the second problem – the only way this show seems to know how to up the stakes is to be more portentous than last week. It reminds me of Rob Matthews’ old maxim that the most interesting Doctor Who story is always the next one. This was a wise observation in the days of Gary Russell “novels,” but these days I’d modify it to say it’s the one that’s on now. Why? Because under Moffat it feels like the focus is always on what’s going to happen, and telling us about big things to come is increasingly what this show does instead of – well – actual drama. Moffat was promising us things from the start – Silence will fall, the Pandorica will open, the Doctor will die, his name will be revealed – and it was intriguing initially, but it’s resulted in a version of Doctor Who where the form is more predictable than ever before. It’s like the way that trailers for the show might display different things… but you know they’re going to open with moody close-ups and a voiceover, and then feature fast-cut action sequences and a one-liner before the screen goes black and the music goes thud at the end.
So: we always know there’s going to be an overarching plot for the season, and we know the big questions won’t be answered until the end. Moffat didn’t start this trend (hello Russell!) but, more than ever before, the stories themselves aren’t as important as reaching the Next Big Revelation. It makes the series into an extended trailer, essentially, with all the predictability that implies. To pick the most recent example – there’s no reason that The Name Of The Doctor couldn’t have aired immediately after the Rings of Akhaten or Hide, and just allowed the remaining stories to be interesting in their own right. Unfortunately this just wouldn’t occur to anyone involved, because the stories themselves aren’t as important as disembodied heads shouting portentous infodumps about the oldest question in the universe. Many people described the end of The Almost People as “shocking” because of its plot-twist, but I’d rather have been shocked by an episode that didn’t exclusively feature a load of Caucasian knockoffs from Alien, didn’t have people shining blue light at shadows (again), didn’t conveniently make sure there was only one surviving iteration of everyone by pure coincidence, and didn’t provide a quasi-cliffhanger to a finale regardless of whether it was appropriate or not.
The big example can’t be avoided any longer. Ever since Clara made her appearance we’ve been repeatedly told she’s impossible, and this is why we’re supposed to be interested in her. But bar a backstory they can barely get out of the way quick enough (the Doctor guesses it and rattles it out in six seconds) and the honourable exception that is The Rings Of Akhaten, we hardly know a thing about her. There’s no sense that she even exists. What makes her tick? What does she do when she isn’t babysitting? What are her interests? Did she go to university? Did she have many boyfriends? If Clara were to reveal she’s married, or a lesbian, or has an estranged heroin-addicted brother, or gave a daughter up for adoption… none of this could genuinely shock us, because she’s nothing more than a walking MacGuffin. We know she’s Important, because she’s Impossible, and that’s all that’s really supposed to matter. When her impossibility is finally explained it’s actually pretty underwhelming, a good premise thrown away on a montage sequence that doesn’t really tell us anything about how such an experience would feel, but we’re not supposed to notice because the show’s now expecting us to ask OMG OMG WHO’S JOHN HURT????
To summarise: if the COMING SOON looks momentous enough, this programme now thinks it doesn’t matter how dramatically inert the rest is. Doctor Who is essentially a two-hander of a series (if there’s one companion, anyway) so having one of these as yet another shiny middle-class girl in her early twenties, but with no discernible character traits beyond a Buffy-inspired hyperwit, should be a non-starter. All of which shows you that Doctor Who isn’t really about the drama right now, its about the iconography. Clara is just A Companion, filling a particular niche within the brand, and that’s all that we need to know. The “movie poster” line has unwittingly become the raison d’etre of the whole experience.
And ultimately, that’s what The Night Of The Doctor is. It’s a trailer, a movie poster, leading into yet-another-story promising us big revelations. Which is fine, really, except… except that its one big reveal, where McGann regenerates into John Hurt to kick some Time War arse, just makes the show less dramatic than before. Part of the allure of the new series is the Doctor’s struggle with what happened in the Time War – but now we’re given a comfortably “rogue” figure into which we can just decant all that tension, and this immediately makes the Doctors of Smith, Tennant and (particularly) Eccleston into less interesting figures than previously. If John Hurt’s not-Doctor is anything, he’s a government-created Bad Bank. He’s NAMA, for fuck’s sake.
So it goes. The more I’m told to quiver in anticipation at the coming spectacular, the more I just want it to be over and done with, get the decks cleared, and hope that Peter Capaldi knocks the self-indulgence out of what’s becoming an alienating corporate behemoth.