Retrospective: Series 7 (2013) From Bells to Hide

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Guest contributor David Selby begins his overview on the second half of Series 7.

There’s an old quote by Israel Zangwill which encapsulates how to write Doctor Who:

“The Past: Our cradle, not our prison; there is danger as well as appeal in its glamour. The past is for inspiration, not imitation, for continuation, not repetition.”

series-7-part-2-postersThere’s a danger in developing clichés and traditions in such a well-established, world-famous show. The 50th Anniversary is a year to honour the past, but sometimes, when an over-enthusiastic aficionado writes for such a momentous era, they risk verging on imitating those before instead. Moffat, I’ve found, recently, has been falling into the trap of re-using the same ideas over and over. His clever witticisms and solutions have become cringe-worthy banalities that are even more predictable than the annual decision to take a ‘creative’ turn and delay the series further. Thus, my concerns lay within the 50th Anniversary: is Moffat really the man for the job? It’s a celebration which will be looked back on for decades and will reflect over Who eternally. I was beginning to doubt whether it would be an enhancing reflection, or an undermining one.

My sentiments about the first half of the series have grown in cynicism on re-watch. I’ve found the episodes increasingly lacklustre, contrived, unoriginal and badly-paced (not to mention the blatant plot-holes). This is mainly noticeable in Moffat’s episodes, or in other episodes influenced by Moffat’s decisions. I’m not trying to entirely disparage Moffat. From previous articles, you’ll remember that I enjoyed The Snowmen. The Girl in the Fireplace, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, The Eleventh Hour, The Beast Below and A Christmas Carol are five of my favourite ever episodes of Doctor Who. The man is, perhaps, a genius, but he seems to me to have lost sight of what he had before. So, giving as my opinions have changed so much, here’s my current scoring for the first half of Series 7. Hopefully this will affect how you see my ratings for the second half of the series, in terms of how I feel the series has improved/worsened over time:

  • Asylum of the Daleks­ – 4/10
  • Dinosaurs on a Spaceship 7/10
  • A Town Called Mercy10/10
  • The Power of Three4/10
  • The Angels Take Manhattan4/10
  • The Snowmen8/10

So, with that out of the way, here’s my verdict on the second half of the series:

The Bells of Saint John

1-bells-of-saint--john-posterThere’s quite a formulaic structure to Moffat’s writing in this one. Not only does he re-use some of his own plot devices: robot Doctor controlled by real Doctor (The Wedding of River Song), dramatized air-based scene (The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe), humans being ‘uploaded’ to a virtual existence (Forest of the Dead), he also borrows some ideas from the Russell T. Davies era: Doctor drives motorcycle out of the TARDIS and invites companion along (The Idiot’s Lantern), secret, powerful, manipulative organization situated inside famous London skyscraper (Army of Ghosts) etc. to add padding to his story. But it’s not a huge issue, really. Use of inspiration/replication isn’t unusual for a screenwriter who’s turning out several episodes a year, and these ideas are all used uniquely within the narrative.

It’s undeniably the better of Clara’s introductory stories. Here she’s a well-rounded, compassionate and suitably normal individual; less coquettish and specious than her caricatured counterparts. We’re given reasons to like her (“You don’t run out on the people you care about… wish I was more like that”), we’re presented with a heartening backstory, and we’re familiarized with her as a character who isn’t too far from the norm – a woman in an urban environment, still planning to fulfil her childhood ambitions. It also gives the companion an innovative basis on which to travel with the Doctor other than the standard – because he has a time machine.

Miss Kizlet is a refreshing change as a villain; perfectly evil, classily sly, compellingly sharp and dangerously astute, but not over-exaggerated, neither unrealistic – we learn that she’s been unwillingly indoctrinated by the Great Intelligence; a revelation that, whilst demoting her superiority, also exhibits the true malevolence of the Great Intelligence itself.

It’s not all positive, though. I’m not entirely sure what Moffat was thinking when he scripted the Doctor. There’s rarely a moment where he’s not acting like a hyperactive, irritating and illogical child with an attention disorder – for example, why would Clara know who he is? And wouldn’t he try to be at least a bit inconspicuous?

But nonetheless, it’s a brilliant story. It has a superb resolution, some electrifying moments, fascinating concepts, and at the core, is 45 minutes’ worth of pure fun.

Overall Score: 8.5/10

The Rings of Akhaten

2-rings-poster-series-7 To put it simply: a flawed masterpiece.

The flaw at the heart of this beautiful tale is the horrendous underuse of the antagonists. The Vigil had great potential; potential which was sadly never lived up to – there was nothing on screen that wasn’t in the trailers! Their hissing of “Merry” earlier on suggested that they’d have some kind of role in the climax; leading Merry to her predetermined fate. Instead, they seemed to vanish almost straight away, the use of the screwdriver just got plain silly. Grandfather, meanwhile, had an intriguing and eerie entrance; the ominous shot of him in his throne casting a shadow over the room raised questions about his existence and capabilities. These questions were seemingly pointless because he did little apart from growling and banging the glass. Whilst the planet/sun (clear scripting error) made for a stimulating variation and an enjoyable twist, its destruction should have surely caused a supernova which would have wiped out anything in a vast radius (including the Doctor, Clara and all the civilians).

Neil Cross is more enriching in his vivid description and his imaginative ideas. Most importantly, though, Akhaten is Clara’s story. In the pre-titles sequence, we delve into Clara’s past through the eyes of the Doctor. “She’s not possible”: it’s a fact that’s been reminded to us during the on-going Clara arc, but for the first time, we see Clara as a person. Visiting her history, in essence, brings the audience to her level: based on her psychological experiences, we can begin to invest in her emotionally, as well as appreciate her as an individual, as a person – not as a guessing game. Clara’s past is suitably moving and we’re shown how her childhood memories and her mother’s guidance have influenced her and allowed her to become the person she is today.

The Rings of Akhaten is a magnificent story in terms of scale, grandiosity, substance and style.

[You’ll be able to read more of my thoughts in my upcoming: The Rings of Akhaten in Perspective]

Overall Score: 9/10

Cold War

3-cold-war-poster-ice-warriorsCold War was, in a nutshell, underwhelming. It promised much but delivered little. I was left feeling cold (oh, dear – that was a painful joke – I won’t mention that Gatiss was out of his depth). For me, in fact, this was the worst episode of the series.

The characters, excluding the professor, were uninteresting; even the Captain, whilst displaying some potential (his patriotism being contrasted to his humanity), never shined any more than any of the other crew members, and whilst Clara wasn’t portrayed too badly, the Doctor seemed to be awfully written. Remember the days when the Doctor would see a victim and murmur “I’m sorry”, even though the person was already deceased? I’m becoming less and less emotionally invested in the Doctor now, giving as this time, he didn’t show the slightest concern for the dismembered body.

Skaldak, again, wasn’t bad, but was nowhere near the success of the Dalek in Shearman’s masterpiece. He was clearly driven by revenge, yet split because of the Doctor; another alien who was demonstrating superior moralities. This is why the conclusion is so dreadfully unsatisfactory, because neither character got the closure they deserved – would Skaldak press the button, and would the Doctor blow up the sub? Instead, more time is placed into the twist with the armour, which whilst being undeniably creepy and clever, is ruined by an sub-standard visual revelation (OK, that one was forced), and robs the time which could have been spent forming a backstory for Skaldak, perhaps even an explicit flashback which tells of how he came to be frozen in the ice.

I’m not sure what to make of this one. It did well in some aspects (the Ice Warrior, the concepts) but failed in others (the pacing, the resolution, etc.). “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”, goes the old saying. In Cold War, the parts aren’t up to much, so there’s little hope for the whole.

Overall Score: 3.5/10

Hide

4-hide-series-7-posterAfter The Rings of Akhaten, I found myself initially disappointed. There was so much thought that went into Akhaten: the structure, the side-plots, the characterization, the symbolism, the references to the past – I’d hoped, giving as Hide was actually Neil Cross’ first script, that it would be even more superior in these aspects, as he’d have truly treasured the opportunity to write for the show. It seems not.

Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t bad per se. Cross made some interesting decisions with the script which allowed for some light adult drama is the background – primarily the romance between Emma and Alec. It relied on a lot of stereotypical romantic developments (mixed signals confirmed as mutual feelings, ‘near-misses’ – for example, when they nearly kiss, or nearly hold hands), but that didn’t matter; it was sweet and watchable, and gave the characters the depth they needed. Cross is also skilled in drawing parallels between certain aspects of the episode – particularly the use of ghosts and the dead/living (“We must be ghosts to you”/”You brought me back from the dead”). Then there were the obvious similarities between the Doctor and Alec: both men with a macabre history; both guilt-ridden and hiding from their regrets, having sent men to their deaths and fought themselves. Alec and Emma were both characters I’d have been happy to have as companions; they were inimitable, charming, deep and fundamentally real. The series could have developed with them realising their love for each other. Their departure would have entailed their desire to lead a life together. “The spirits need me – and I need you”, could have been Emma’s last lines, as she returned to her world of communicating with the lost souls – but no longer alone.

The idea about the ‘pocket universe’ was good, and the atmosphere of it was eerie but also quite mystical, and thus suited the tone of the episode.

The story falls apart when you examine its use of the ‘ghost story’ genre. The ‘not a ghost story’ ending completely undermined the tension mounted throughout the narrative and contradicted the chosen category. It would have made more sense if the ‘Hider’ was an evil creature, native to the pocket universe, that dragged Hila off-course, becoming her predator, and stalking her like a prey. The Doctor could have recognised the Hider as an evil being he’s previously encountered when confronting it face-on; a small detail, but one that confirms that it is an evil entity. At any rate, it’s better than the alternative: a talking tree looking for its girlfriend. I’m not even going to mention the ‘Help Me’ messages on the wall – they made absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Hila also annoyed me. I’d like to have seen more depth into her. Time travellers aren’t exactly everyday people, after all. In fact, she deserved a whole story arc. Why was she travelling? What was she running from? How can she travel in time? How did she get involved with time travel? Where is she from?

Despite this, the episode was satisfying, particularly the ‘Earth history’ scene, which was thrilling, poignant and ingenious. It’s not the finest script ever but doesn’t hinder from my desire for Neil Cross to return as a writer.

Overall Score: 7.5/10

So we finish off, and, it has to be said, it hasn’t been an especially bad series. However, it seems to be lacking something. Clara is lively and resourceful, but is hardly anything else other than a mystery – and one which is taking a long time to develop. The Doctor’s so-called ‘low-key’ status in the universe is thrown aside for narrative conveniences, and generally the blockbuster format has proved to be detrimental to the storytelling from nearly every writer. The question now is: did the second half of this half-series prove me wrong? Find out tomorrow.

Step back in time...