Sunday, September 20, 2015

8.5 Time Heist

In 1926, mystery surrounded Agatha Christie, who was discovered staying at a Harrogate hotel eleven days after disappearing from her home. She had become distressed after learning her husband had got a young woman pregnant, although in his defense, he claimed that the policeman did it.
I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue

In this week's episode of Doctor Who, the Doctor and his companions are in terrible danger. Does he have a plan to get them out of it?  "My personal plan is that a thing will probably happen quite soon”. 

Last week, at the crucial moment, Wonderful Clara realized how the TARDIS telepathic circuits worked, she said that she thought the could "do a thing". When asked to explain her plan, she replied "it's not a plan, it's a thing." 

Two weeks before that, when they were trapped inside a Dalek, the Doctor and Clara both separately said that they were going to do "a clever thing".

Four years ago when Doctor Who was good, Matt Smith delivered what, at the time, seemed like a funny line. River Bloody Song had asked him how he was going to save Amy, and he replied “I'll do a thing.” What thing, asks River. “I don't know. It's a thing in progress. Respect the thing.” 

It was a nice hint about the Doctor Matt's emerging persona. Smith’s Doctor admitted that he rarely knew what he was doing -- that he winged it, and then let people think that whatever happened was his plan after all. He himself was on some level pretending to be the Doctor and not quite sure he could pull it off. He said that he wouldn't know what he intended to do until he had finished talking about it or that he was going to do something incredibly clever that he hadn't even thought of yet.

But as soon as the Doctor says anything at all, that thing becomes a catchphrase, a cliche. One of those things which the Doctor says. Any scene in any episode can be given instant gravitas if the Doctor says something a bit like something he once said before. 

I wear a Scottish accent now. Scottish accents are cool. 


Having rebooted itself three times already this season, and deconstructed itself to death last week the only thing left for Doctor Who is to play about in the wreckage. If the character we knew as the Doctor basically doesn't exist then why not drop the bit that's left into a "high concept" action movie and see what happens. 

Nothing wrong with this story. Didn't need to be a Doctor Who story; but nothing wrong with it. Didn't see the twists coming. Didn't throw anything at the TV. 

The Doctor, Wonderful Clara, and two nondescript NPCs have been told by an unknown third party to rob a bank for an unknown purpose. They have amnesia, so they don't know why they agreed to it, or how they came to be there there. This is the sort of plot summary Douglas Adams came up with when he had writer's block, which was always. He hoped that if he just started writing, the blank bits would fill themselves in.

In fact, it turns out not to be so much a Hollywood Heist movie as a computer game based on a Hollywood Heist movie. The Doctor actually asks the supporting characters what their special powers are. The person who hired them as left helpful technological artifacts hidden all round the bank he wants them to rob.

It turns out that there is more to the person-who-hired them than meets the eye. The "robbery" is not all that it seems, either. Both twists are quite clever, but they seem to come out of Big Book of Quite Clever Twists. They are not twists which arise organically from the story -- twists which make sense but have been cunningly hidden with red herrings and false trails. They are ha-ha fooled you twists which muck about with the expected structure of the story. Not that there is anything wrong with that, necessarily. I once played a big computer RPG where you are a semi-amnesiac hero hunting down a dark lord who had vanished some years early and about halfway through it turns out, quite unexpectedly... Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. You can probably imagine how it turned out. I quite enjoy being quite surprised.

Old Old Who was a perfect TV format. The hero had a Time Machine that didn’t work and some companions who didn’t want to be there, and it would plonk both of them into a random location each week. The Time Travelers would get involved with whatever was happening in their randomly chosen destination. The TARDIS is a big blue answer to the question “what excuse is there for a hero to be in tenth century England one week and a far future super-bank the next week?” 

Once you have changed the set up (and I understand why the set up had to be changed) and allowed the Doctor to chose his destination each week, then you have to come up with more and more contrived pretexts for the Doctor to get involved in a plot. This week, the contrived pretext is a mysterious shadowy figure who turns out to be...oh, come on, surely you can guess? It's quite fun, of course. But each episode feels like a bigger, more horribly overwritten contrivance than the one before.

In the old days, last Autumn, what would have kept me watching the Doctor and some one-note supporting characters robbing the Biggest Bank In the Universe (a bit like the Biggest Library in the Universe) would have been Matt Smith. In the Old Old Days, it would have been Tom Baker or Sylvester McCoy. These were Doctors who fascinated us, and more importantly, Doctors who it was impossible not to like.

Steven Moffat has cleverly come up with a Doctor who it is impossible to like. Colin Baker was meant to be an un-likable Doctor but after an interestingly deranged debut story he settled for being nice but sarcastic. Peter Capaldi is a Doctor who says things like “She is dead and we are alive. Prioritize if you want it to stay that way.” A Doctor who two weeks ago had “Doesn’t like soldiers” on his character sheet but is now talking like a sergeant major. Or a Dalek. Or, indeed, a P.E Teacher. Doctor Tom could occasionally be harsh, but he had a big grin and a bag of jelly babies and a twinkle in his eye. Doctor Capaldi couldn’t twinkle if he tried. 

Wonderful Clara is, I suppose, meant to be a counterpoint to the Nasty Doctor, just as Ace counterbalanced Sylvester McCoy and Evelyn counterbalanced Colin Baker. But all she actually does is walk around with a big arrow over her head saying "I AM WONDERFUL" and banter with him. 

Capaldi is a fine actor, of course. But he is beginning to look like a series wrecking piece of miscasting. 


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