Two of my childhood heroes let me down on Christmas Day. The first was Michael Jackson… There I was, cosied up on the sofa, a paper crown perched skew-whiff on my head, with a belly full of turkey and the telly on in the background. As I was flicking through the channels, I happened to catch the end of the This Is It tour rehearsals – MJ’s sell-out show that never did make it on the road owing to Jacko, well, moonwalking off this mortal coil.
The King of Pop
Back in the Eighties, when I was about seven or eight, Michael was nigh on a god in my eyes. Together with Madonna and Prince, he made up that mighty superstar triumvirate of pop which pretty much defined the tracklistings of Walkman mixtapes the world over – mine included.
He’s Still Got It
As you can imagine, I was pretty excited to see the King of Pop in action once again. I entered the proceedings just at the moment he was performing Billy Jean – one of my favourite Michael Jackson songs. He was pitch perfect. He was busting out those iconic staccato dance moves while sidewinding across the stage. God damn it, the guy was even grabbing his crotch. Not bad for a bloke in his early 50s.
Same Old, Same Old
But for some reason, I couldn’t help feeling slightly underwhelmed by it all. It was a case of, I’ve seen this all before. There was nothing different, nothing innovative about his performance. I think I would have preferred to have just watched a compilation of his old videos, truth be told. And that also goes for my other Christmas Day let-down which came courtesy of… the Doctor.
I should have known better than to expect great things. After all, when it comes to traditional Christmas disappointments, the Doctor Who Chrimbo special is on a par with brussel sprouts and the plastic toys you get in crackers. And if that 50th anniversary debacle was anything to go by… well let’s just say the writing was on the wall.
To be fair though, it started off well – really well in fact. The story began with a pan-out to reveal an alien planet which, we were told, was beaming out a signal that was luring beings from around the universe to its Saturn-esque rings. An armada of CGI saucers, ships and spacecraft then swooped into view – the quality of which I’d never seen before on Who. With effects like those, I think it’s fair to say the show has firmly shaken off its bubble wrap image of yesteryear.
Cyber C-3PO Wilson
And it didn’t stop there. In the following minutes, we were treated to shrieking Daleks, Cybermen threatening to upgrade the Doctor and even a new sidekick – a kind of C-3PO/Wilson from Cast Away character that came in the form of a severed Cyberman head which apparently the Doctor had picked up at some junk market, reprogrammed and affectionately called Handles. And that’s all before the title sequence had kicked in. Flippin’ heck.
Post dumpa-de-dums and we were seated around the dining table chez Clara. This was the first time we’ve had a glimpse into this companion’s family life. Granted, it wasn’t a patch on what we used to get from Jackie Tyler and co back in the Ecclestone-Tennant halcyon days but we did get some amusing one-liners from the rather wonderful Sheila Reid – AKA mobility scooter Madge from Benidorm – who played Clara’s gran. When the Doctor rocked up apparently naked, she looked at Clara and said with a wink ‘are we playing Twister now?’.
Too Good To Be True
But there endeth the fun and games. Much like the 50th anniversary special aired in November, what followed was about 45 minutes of dull storytelling tacked together with a desperate need to try and tie up all the loose ends that have ever existed in the Whoniverse. The result was a plot so convoluted and bound up in previous adventures that even the Big Bang Theory boys would have struggled to explain what the hell was going on. The edited lowlights run something like this…
The Church (think the intergalactic equivalent of UN peacekeepers) makes a reappearnce. I kind of remembered this group from a confusing story arc a few seasons ago that left me feeling a bit lost.
The Silence (think monsters that look like the Scream painting) make a reappearance. I kind of remembered these guys from a confusing story arc a few season ago that left me feeling a bit lost.
The Crack (think a nasty Polyfiller job by a cowboy plasterer) makes a reappearance. I kind of remembered this fissure from a confusing story arc a few season ago that left me feeling a bit lost.
You get the picture – this episode is so full of self-referential elements that you’ll need a masters degree in Who Studies to piece them all together. God forbid if you’ve missed an episode or two inside the past 3 years. And woe betide you if you’re a casual viewer tuning in for a festive Doctor Who romp on Christmas Day.
I guess, though, when all’s said and done, this episode is Matt’s Smith’s swansong as the 11th Doctor. Only he’s not the 11th Doctor. He’s the 13th incarnation. Lost? It’s another one of those confusing story arcs. Last one, I promise. As we discovered in the 50th anniversary special, John Hurt is actually Doctor No.9. That makes Christopher Ecclestone No.10 and shunts David Tennant to No.11. Oh, and he’s No.12, too. There’s some waffle about Tennant using up two regenerations, which I really didn’t understand or indeed remember. Anyhow, the upshot of all this is that, because a Time Lord can only regenerate 12 times, Matt Smith is actually the final embodiment of the Doctor. Got it? That’s why he looked like the bizarre lovechild of Benjamin Button and the grandpa from the Werther’s Original adverts towards the end.
Wip Off Your Wig Mark II
Talking of which, the BBC costume and make-up department clearly learnt the hard way that HD is a very unforgiving medium in their bid to add some years to Matt Smith. Honestly, the last time I saw ageing make-up that bad was in the French and Saunders ‘Lucky Bitches’ sketch. And don’t get me started on that scene towards the end featuring ex-companion Amy. I’ve not seen that many ill-fitting weaves in the TARDIS since that now infamous ‘wip-off-your-wig’ regeneration back in 1987 when Slyvester McCoy doubled up for Colin Baker.
As for this regeneration, it was really lacklustre. There was no shock factor as there was with the William Hartnell baton change. There was no heroic last stand a la Peter Davison. There was no Tennant-style tear-jerking final moment. Instead, there was too much dialogue, not enough tension and a blink-and-you-missed-it changeover. I felt really sorry for Matt Smith. It was a really vanilla departure and frankly he deserved better. In fact, he deserved better since he first took to the helm of the TARDIS back in 2011. The root cause? Stephen Moffat.
Ever since Stephen Moffat took over the reins of Doctor Who, I’ve felt a bit let-down. Each season I keep telling myself, don’t worry, it’ll get better. Trouble is, it just keeps on being a bit ‘meh’. Worse than that, the writing is becoming ‘complex meh’. But’s it’s not always been like that. Before Moffat ascended to the lofty heights of head writer, he was responsible for some of my all-time favourite episodes of Doctor Who such as The Empty Child, The Girl In The Fireplace, Blink and Silence In The Library. They guy is undoubtedly a consummate scriptwriter but perhaps more so when it comes to penning more compact one-off tales. I get the feeling he’s not as adept at churning out scripts en masse. And when he does, it would seem he gets all knotted up in his own storytelling. This is where the previous incumbent, Russell T Davis, came into his own. He knew how to keep things simple, accessible and fun.
True, RTD’s writing style was a little bit panto and maybe even a little bit Carry On in places. However, he was able to inject real tension and emotion into his stories, pulling on his previous experience as a soap opera writer. We really cared about the characters he created. I can still remember crying like a girl when Rose and the Doctor were separated in parallel universes and couldn’t get back to each other. What RTD lacked in sci-fi writing skill, he more than made up for in emotion and drama. And that’s what’s lacking currently on Moffat’s watch. He’s creating a drama devoid of drama.
Too Clever For His Own Good?
I get the feeling Moffat’s a very clever man. Perhaps too clever. What RTD did so well was to reinvent and repackage Who for mainstream audiences. That doesn’t mean he dumbed things down. He understood the value in keeping stories simple, filled with emotion and compelling instead of nerdish, cold and complex. His story arcs had a subtlety and lightness of touch to them that Moffat is yet to grasp. Basically, RTD democratised the show. Mums could dip in and out quite happily without having to be able to recite what happened in episode three of season five. What I fear now is that Doctor Who is veering back down the geeky-niche path. If we’re not careful, I’m worried Who will lose its hard-fought status as one of the Beeb’s most popular shows.
Ratings Success. Comprehension Failure?
Thankfully, the overnight ratings look good for Who. In fact, it was one of the most-watched shows on Christmas Day. But I’d be very interested to see whether all those people who watched it actually understood what the hell was going on. My hunch is probably not. Judging from the fan forums, it left a lot of people scratching their heads. Anyhow, looking to the future and on the plus side, we have a new Doctor – which is wonderful. Even more so given that Capaldi is a fantastic actor. Fingers crossed, with a new Doctor to write for, Mr Moffat gets things back on track again.