On Saturday I had a very strange experience. For the first time I got to see a production of one of my own scripts, but one that I wasn’t involved in in any real way. I wrote the script, obviously, and had talks with the director along the way — and did some ruthless editing in the final stages when the show was over-running — but by and large I came to the show with completely fresh eyes.
It was fun, and a great production and great central performance, but also had the quality of recalling a dream. I’d written the first draft back in November, caught in a feverish few weeks with a throat infection and not much time on my hands. Couple that with it being my first time working from biography to adapt someone’s life, and I was afraid that everything was muddled. But in the end everything worked out fantastically, and I didn’t have to use my prepared speech where I stand up in the middle of the performance and scream “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO MY WORDS?”.
A friend of mine who’d seen the show complimented me on my writing of a female character, and I did a bit of a theatrical spit-take. I always find that a very strange thing to say, and my friend acknowledged the strangeness of it, but said it had crossed her mind. The play was about Eva Gore-Booth, who was a crazy awesome suffragist and lesbian, so she had woman written all over her early 20th century body.
It just feels strange, like if you designed a house for someone and they’re first compliment was “I like that it has walls”. I mean, thank you, but…
This is a round-about way for me to talk about character motivation. To write someone as being a woman doesn’t excuse you from doing all the other character work required, otherwise you just end up falling into the trap of The Smurfette Principle. But making a person female should inform their character, because societal conditioning means that men and women so often experience the world differently.
This is what happens when I get a compliment, I just start talking until the person forgets what they originally said.
The subject of character was, then, what floated to top of my mind when I was watching this week’s instalment “Nightmare In Silver”. With Neil Gaiman back in the fray, many Who fans were expecting this episode to reach the dizzy heights of the last season wonder “The Doctor’s Wife”.
A direct comparison is unfair, as for all its bombast Gaiman’s last episode was a tighter, more character-focused affair. This week his remit was to re-introduce the Cybermen (Moffatt dictated that he “make them scary again”), which is the kind of thing that isn’t normally accompanied by much introspection.
Which is a shame, really, because the core psychological questions of the Cybermen could be at their best in a smaller piece: it just seems that nobody realised that.
Instead we got an episode that hewed closely to the over-arching theme of this series of Doctor Who: lots of interesting elements that do not make a lick of sense.
The Doctor and Clara arrive on an alien planet along with Angie and Artie, Clara’s two charges who discovered — because Internets — that Clara’s been time-travelling, and have hitched a ride on the TARDIS. The reason they’ve come to this planet is because it’s the site of Hedgewick’s World, the greatest theme park in the universe. Of course, this being Who, the park is shut down and is now occupied by a “punishment unit” of soldiers too incompetent to be left anywhere else.
There’s also a curiosity collector named Webley (Jason Watkins, aka Being Human’s Henrik) living in secrecy on the planet, and he’s got a shell of a Cybermen that faces off with the Doctor in a game of chess. Turns out the Cyberman is rightly inactive, but controlled by the diminutive presence of Warwick Davis as the friendly, feisty Porridge. It doesn’t take long for the Cyberman to come back to life, take over Webley, Angie and Artie, and kick-start a plan to release thousands of Cybermen into a future that presumed them long obliterated.
The episode’s ace in the hole, the element that truly departs from previous Cybermen lore, is to have the Doctor infected and in the process of being converted. What is it like to be infected by the Cybermen? How does it prey on the very human (or Gallifreyan) desire to not feel emotions? How much of it is infection and how much is choice? And what happens when a Time Lord is battling himself, inside his own head?
Much of the visuals of this strand were interesting — the rendering of the inside of the Doctor’s mind, a mishmash of Gallifreyan geometric loops and cold, blue Cybermen calculation. It was also interesting to watch Smith go full Gollum, with the direction even poaching the trick of using opposing angles on the face to represent a different character.
The episode reached its denouement with Clara — now in charge of the incompetent army — fighting valiantly but almost being destroyed, but the Doctor distracting the Cybermen (and the Cyber-Planner infecting his head) with a game of chess. Porridge revealed he was actually the runaway emperor of these galaxies, teleported them to safety, and set off a bomb to destroy the planet and these soldiers.
I mentioned character above, and this was one of the problems under-pinning how this episode developed. After shocking Clara with the revelation of their knowledge last week, Artie and Angie were introduced just long enough to be dispatched from the plot altogether by way of a Cyber-Coma. Why have these children involved at all? It sounds like a diktat from Moffatt, which is fine, but it felt like Gaiman was sulking over having to include them and didn’t bother to give them a shred of character.
The lack of development of these kids also bled into everyone’s favourite blank slate, Clara Oswin. I’d hoped that the now fairly explicit theme of parenting and parent-less children would take centre stage with the presence of the kids, but Clara proved herself the worst baby-sitter since Louise Woodward — leaving the kids to be attacked, then apparently not caring at all about saving them.
She was tasked with leading the army, which doesn’t really fit with the characterisation of Clara from previous weeks as someone who can be brave but usually wears the mantle with difficulty and realistic fear. Then again, she was paired up with the incompetent army, making it a nice one-two punch of under-developed characters. It was stated early on that they were incompetent, but took about thirty minutes for this to really register in the story, to the point that I thought that I missed a scene where this had been adequately laid out.
To round out the lack of characterisation we had Webley and Porridge, who appear to have set up a secret hide-out on an abandoned planet so they can… trick tourists? But there are no tourists. So… what?
A few weeks ago “Hide” — Who’s strongest entry of 2013 — proved that a small group of characters and a few simple ideas can be propulsive elements for an engaging, logical and deep story. Gaiman proved that he’s capable of doing this in “The Doctor’s Wife”, but this instalment he tripped up on his own rich imagination. There were too many ideas — world’s biggest theme park, secret emperor, duelling doctors, chess saves the day, incompetent army, planet bomb — for any character to get a chance at developing themselves. What’s worse, it would have been so easy to just cut Angie, Artie and Webley from the story altogether, as they had no impact on proceedings.
The concept that was central to the episode was one that I’ve ached to see properly explored in a Who episode: what Cybermen conversion feels like inside a person’s head. I don’t have much taste for the “classic” monsters, so they only work when their more interesting themes are honestly explored.
I was delighted then, when Eleven was facing off against himself, hoping it would reveal details about the Doctor’s character and desires. I was hoping we’d go inside his head, and held a brief wish that Clara herself would have to “go in” — a development that would have been visually interesting but also propelled her search for answers forward.
As it was, the Doctor played chess against himself, and no amount of Matt Smith’s acting could make that more interesting then it sounds. In fact, while I usually commend Smith’s work, it seemed an odd choice that both versions of the Doctor were similarly manic — surely the Cyberman side should be more cold and calculating?
Some of the visuals here were beautiful, and props go to the art department and CG workers who brought them to life. However it did fall into the trap of the rest of the episode: many pretty elements, but did it ever feel like we were really in a real place? Natty Longshoe’s comical castle, lovely an idea as it was, felt as distant and unconnected as the random British location it undoubtedly was. Compare that with the house in “Hide”, which by virtue of being a real location felt more spacious than this whole theme park.
There were other disconnects throughout the episode, and once again they came down to an ineffective amount of script editing in the writing process. It’s stated that the bomb is meant to implode the planet, yet at the end the planet clearly explodes. And as a keener eye than me pointed out, the Cybermen’s heads shouldn’t really come off as they are organic humans in metal shells.
It’s a shame, really. Gaiman delivered one of the best episodes of Who ever in his first trip to this world, but his sophomore outing felt like it wasn’t reined in by any clarity of purpose or character.
Clara, too, remains a cypher above all else. Even at the end, the Doctor quotes my last review almost word for word when he describes her as a “mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that’s just a little bit too… tight” (my description was a little less creepy old mannish). She appears to have no curiosities or desires, especially to answer questions that are bluntly lying at her feet — the Doctor has ulterior motives, not to mention that picture she has of herself in Victorian London.
Listen, there is nothing wrong with stand-alone episodes that don’t propel the arc forwards. They can reinforce character themes (“The Girl Who Waited”), age-old questions about the show (“The Doctor’s Wife”), or just be a rollicking good time (“Blink”). But this series billed itself as a group of stand-alone, epic stories, and then failed to have the writers or the leadership to make sure these episodes were of high enough quality. In fact, if this year’s goal was to eschew complexity for bombast, then this episode fell at the first hurdle — I’d have an easier time trying to explain River Song’s life story than unpacking the plot of this week’s story.
I come into next week’s finale with hope (for the presence of River, if nothing else), but fear that once again a sense of momentum, narrative and character will play second fiddle to what sounds “cool” — giant theme park, motorcycling up the Shard, dinosaurs on a spaceship.
And the greatest “cool” of all, the reveal of the Doctor’s name. A revelation which in itself means nothing. A name doesn’t reveal character, a name doesn’t change the world, a name is fan service and nothing else.
Give me some real people, and then we’ll talk about naming them.
– Theory corner! Clara is the TARDIS, Clara is the Doctor’s mother, Clara is the Doctor and River’s daughter. Clara is a cloning experiment gone wrong, disseminated and dispensed throughout the universe, and now the universe is collecting its debt by wiping them all out. Though, of course, none of it matters if Clara doesn’t actually develop as a character.
– Seriously, what was up with Artie and Angie? The problem with them lies purely at Gaiman’s feet, as any character can be made interesting if someone takes the time.
– The world needs to wake up and realise that there are more complex games than chess out there. It’s the go-to board game to say “intelligence” and “war” and “death”. Anyone for an apocalyptic game of Settlers Of Catan?
– Warwick Davis could probably have been better used, but I still don’t feel he necessarily has dramatic chops. That marriage proposal was badly written, though, so any chance of drama probably escaped him.
– Tamzin Outhwaite? I didn’t recognize her at all. Jesus.
– I hated Henrik in Being Human, and I hated Webley here. Jason Watkins, I’m sure you’re lovely, but get parts that don’t make me angry!
– Another special effects disconnect: the Cybermen doing bullet-time Matrix moves once and never again.
– Also, I don’t see how Moffatt’s directive to make them scary again made up part of the writing process at all.
– I hope things are kept simple next week, but I fear it may turn into another “The Wedding Of River Song”.