Chapman On The New Doctor Who

The Monsters Under The Bed: Doctor Who Series Five So Far

by Patrick Chapman

According to Steven Moffat, its new showrunner, Doctor Who isn’t set in outer space, it’s set under your bed. That’s where the monsters are. At least it is if you’re eight. And that age group has always been the show’s core audience. The difference is now that the core audience includes girls. Moffat’s earlier episodes for the show always had a young girl at the heart of the mystery, except Blink, which was adapted from a short story which had. Back in the mists of time, one reviewer called Doctor Who ‘the children’s own programme which adults adore.’ There’s probably never been a truer description of the show, and never has that description been truer than today, as the series, now established in its fifth run of the revival, or the thirty-first overall, shows itself to be a true modern fairytale. In Moffat, it has a lead writer who knows about children and how to deliver the safe scares for which the show is celebrated. And in Matt Smith, it has a new Doctor who is almost a child himself, after the brilliant but more knowing Tennant. The new companion, Amy Pond, is introduced first as a seven-year-old girl, praying for Santa to send someone to fix the crack in her wall. By the end of the first episode, The Eleventh Hour, thanks to time travel, that little girl begins her adventures in the TARDIS fourteen years – and four psychiatrists – later. In that first episode, the newly regenerated Doctor crashes into young, abandoned Amelia Pond’s midnight garden and demands an apple, which she gives, and when he spits it out, yoghurt, and then, bacon (‘You’re Scottish. Fry something.’) Then beans, spewed into the sink. Then bread and butter, hurled out the door. Then, the food a child might choose for herself, fish-fingers dipped in custard. It’s a perfect way of letting the child audience identify with both the little girl (played with uncanny natural talent by Caitlin Blackwood, incidentally Karen Gillan’s cousin) and the Doctor himself. ‘I’m on your side,’ he seems to say. And he agrees with her that it’s brilliant that he doesn’t even have an aunt. (The first ten minutes or so of this episode are possibly the most charming writing the show’s ever had.) For the children in this new adventure, adults are definitely outsiders, but the Doctor is a guide they can trust. More or less. In The Eleventh Hour, The Doctor deals with that scary crack in young Amelia’s wall, but not the crack in her psyche that his arrival and departure have left. He tells her he’ll be back in five minutes but doesn’t make it for another twelve years – plus a further two when he goes for a spin in the TARDIS at the end. And he therefore fills her childhood with longing and loss. Or does he? Moffat’s default setting, he has said himself, is ‘complex’.

Late in the episode, the TARDIS rematerialises in front of the waiting Amelia, but the scene cuts immediately to the grown-up Amy, waking as if from a dream, as the TARDIS arrives again in her garden. Either this was indeed a dream, or the Doctor, thanks to the wonders of time travel, realises he has let her down, and goes back in time to fix things. We will find out later. For now, we are off on a trip into the future, in the second episode, The Beast Below, which again introduces children as the key to a mystery. In the future UK, now a spaceship, with skyscrapers named after old counties – Surrey, Yorkshire, Kent – a totalitarian government allows its citizens to vote on whether to forget the terrible secret that is the basis of their society, or protest. If too many people protest, goes the narrative, the ship will fall apart and everyone will die. So the citizens routinely vote to forget. Although the episode was written a couple of years ago, given the then-imminent election, its broadcast was timely. Amy is the one who solves the dilemma, for she is the audience’s representative, as the companion has always been. And then it’s off to wartime Britain, and Churchill’s bunker, where the Daleks are, amusingly, on the side of the Allies in the fight against the Germans. ‘Would you care for some tea?’ asks one of the pepperpots.

Victory of the Daleks is a bit of a romp, written by Mark Gatiss, and it has several lapses in logic. It appears that a man called Bracewell has invented machines he calls ‘ironsides’, as well as other advanced technology, but the Doctor recognises the ironsides as Daleks. They want to lure him into acknowledging them as Daleks, so that they can open a ‘progenitor’ device that contains pure Dalek DNA, and will create a new breed of orignal Skaroans. It’s a bit unbelievable that in five minutes or so, Bracewell can fix up an anti-gravity bubble from blueprints, that allows Spitfires to fly in space and take down the Dalek threat, but this episode asks you to suspend disbelief as well as gravity, in exchange for which you get, well, Spitfires in space, and how cool is that? The Daleks emerge victorious, which isn’t spoiling anything, given the name of the episode. A new paradigm of Dalek is created in a range of merchandise-friendly colours that, happily, recall the designs from the Peter Cushing movies of the 1960s, giant bumpers and all. If this episode does one thing important, as well as being a lark, it’s to reestablish the Daleks as an ongoing threat that can pop up at any time. This was much needed, as the show now no longer has to find a reason for them to have survived their last encounter with the Doctor, who was always defeating them, only for one Dalek to escape and build a whole new army. We are, essentially, back to the good old days before Davros, when the Daleks were like a virus that could never truly be cured. The following pair of episodes are a stunningly good two-parter written by Moffat, The Time of Angels, and Flesh and Stone. They’re a sequel to both Blink, his BAFTA-winner that gave us the Weeping Angels, and his Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, which introduced the fascinating time-travelling archaeologist, River Song.

For those who don’t know, River Song is a very important person in the Doctor’s life. She knows his name, and not many people have that kind of information. His first meeting with her, during his 10th incarnation, was her last meeting with him. They’re having a relationship backwards, or forwards, or sideways. River Song has a diary that records all their encounters, and the Doctor doesn’t know what’s in it. The Weeping Angels are quantum-locked creatures that are alive only when you’re not looking at them. Otherwise, they resemble statues of angels. This adventure opens with one of the most audacious sequences in Who. River Song is on board a ship called the Byzantium, which has a Weeping Angel in its hold. The crew is after her, and nearly catches her, but she etches a message on the surface of the ship’s ‘home box’ (a black box for spaceships), and dives backwards out of the airlock, wearing high heels and a cocktail gown, throwing a kiss, looking for all the world like Servalan’s sister. 12,000 years later, the Doctor finds the home box in a museum, reads the message, gets the co-ordinates, and travels back in time to save her. It’s this kind of complexity that wins Moffat praise, but the story isn’t over with being clever. River Song, the Doctor and Amy follow the ship, which crashes on a planet, releasing the Weeping Angel into a ‘maze of the dead’, full of statues. What better place for an Angel to hide? But it gets more complicated still, as it turns out that anything which contains an image of an angel, itself becomes an angel.

You’ll really have to see it to understand, but you probably already have. Helping the time travellers on their quest are some soldiers, who are also priests, led by the honourable and dignified bishop, Octavian. When Amy asks why the priests are soldiers, the Doctor says ‘It’s the fifty-first century. The Church has moved on.’ There’s a moment in Flesh and Stone that looks like a continuity error but I suspect it isn’t. What appears to be another version of the eleventh Doctor comes back in time to save Amy. He’s wearing his jacket, when the ‘real’ Doctor has just walked off having lost it to an Angel. I expect that, as with the ‘dream’ materialisation in The Eleventh Hour, all will be revealed. These two episodes are among the very best that New Who has produced, with twist upon twist, and uncertainty as to the identity and purpose of River Song. It’s implied that in her past and his future, she will (have) kill(ed) the Doctor. The crack in Amy’s wall is revealed to exist throughout space and time, its original explosion out there somewhere, happening already. Having dispatched the Angels, the Doctor says goodbye to a now more mysterious River, and takes Amy home, where she immediately throws herself at him. She wants him to ‘sort her out’ and, unlike the lovestruck Rose, or mooning Martha, just wants a quick shag. The Doctor, bless him, is still only 907 years old, so he’s a bit too young for that kind of mallarkey. He does however realise that he needs to ‘sort her out’ in a different way – get her ready for her wedding, which she more or less ran out on the night before, to go travelling with this strange alien in his blue box. He is next seen jumping out of a birthday cake at the stag party of Amy’s fiance, Rory. Ever the gentleman, the Doctor asks them to bring a jumper to the girl outside, who is freezing. And he whisks Rory and Amy off to Venice in 1580 for a romantic trip.

The episode is called The Vampires of Venice and in true Doctor Who tradition (The Deadly Assassin, for instance), it does exactly what it says in the title, sort of. There are ‘vampires’. There’s Venice. An alien race, pretending to be vampires, are hiding from the effects of the same crack in the universe that seems to be following Amy. The Doctor needs to come up with a solution, as the aliens are intent on turning Earth into their new breeding ground. He saves Venice, but lets the alien race die. As she finally commits suicide and condemns her species to extinction, the head alien taunts him– does he have the strength to carry another genocide on his conscience? He did, after all, wipe out his own people. This episode is written by Toby Whithouse, and the dilemma therein is similar to that in the same writer’s School Reunion. It illustrates the bleakness at the heart of Doctor Who’s new incarnation as a fairytale. All the romance and the fun is engaging and thrilling – except that people die. They really are not rescued when you’d expect them to be. There are consequences. In some ways, it’s a world of steel beneath the velvet fairytale glove, but that was ever the way with fairytales. This is shaping up to be a darker series than before, beginning with a psychologically damaged companion, who is slightly mad and reckless, and a Time Lord who is both eccentric and captivating, but in some ways tougher and more prone to anger than his predecessors. It has to be said that the acting throughout has been superb. Even though some of the dialogue seems to have been written for Tennant’s Doctor, this could be intentional, easing the transition and helping the audience to accept the new man.

After all, Moffat has said there’s no such thing as the eleventh Doctor. He’s the same character in the same show. And he’s right. However, each actor naturally brings something different to the role. Smith is perfect from the beginning, blending the occasional gravitas of Troughton with the lunacy of Tom Baker, the romanticism of McGann and the innocence of Davison. He does all this while making the part completely his own. He pirouettes, he uses his hands – lots of fingers – he is expressive without being showy and he’s got immaculate timing. Also, comedy hair. Karen Gillan as Amy Pond is both kooky and vulnerable, and as well as Smith, is an accomplished actor. Her interpretation of the character is complex and subtle. The two of them make an impressive pair. Arthur Darvill is quietly great as the ordinary, and therefore sympathetic, Rory, who is more than just the new Mickey Smith. He’s someone we can root for, as his reactions would most likely be ours, if we were to have our world turned upside down by a visiting alien who was practically stealing our girlfriend. As mentioned, Caitlin Blackwood was superb as the seven-year-old Amelia. The guest stars are top drawer too. Ian McNeice as Churchill, Alex Kingston as River Song, Sophie Okonedo as Liz 10, Helen McCrory as the head vampire, and Iain Glen as Bishop Octavian, all shine in their roles.

The look of the new show is very filmic, moving away from the brightness of the Davies era, to a more crepuscular feel of magic and dark woods and shadows and, yes, fairytales. It may be too early for a full verdict, but so far, with the series only half-way through, and with the Pandorica waiting to open, this is already one of the best series of New Who. Indeed, it’s looking like one of the best series since the show began 47 years ago in a junkyard, from where an old blue box whisked a pair of unsuspecting schoolteachers off into history.

Patrick Chapman is an Irish poet, screenwriter and novelist.  His new collection of poems will be forthcoming from Salmon this autumn.


Echo said…
Great breakdown Patrick of the first few episodes of the 11th doctors travels. I think Matt is doing a superb job of portraying Dr. Who even though there tough shoes to fill. I agree with you this run by Mr. Moffat seems darker than ever. I wonder why River Song will kill the good Doctor, maybe this will just end Matt's run as the Doc. While I was searching the web for all things Who I stumbled across this guy Tim, and though you Who fans would love his enthusiasm for the show.
Steve1492 said…
Great article Patrick, I think we're living through a golden time of Dr Who with this present series. I love the nightmare fairy-tale theme and Moffat treats us all like media savvy adults. Where "continuity error" of the Doctor returning to Amy with his jacket on is concerned, I suggest you refer to Steven Moffat's first published Dr Who story about the Doctor rewriting time. The title - "Continuity Errors". I'm also reviewing the present series on my blog "Hollands' Miscellany"

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