Making Peace with Doctor Who Season 8

There’s a moment in the first episode of Season 8 where The Doctor turns to Clara and says: “You can’t see me. You look at me, but you can’t see me.”

Re-watching the episode recently, along with the rest of the eighth season, I felt that line was delivered from Peter Capaldi to me, to the audience, a plea for us to give him a chance, to let go of anything we thought we knew about The Doctor and just see him, see his version of The Doctor, and judge him based solely on that.

I’m glad I gave him that chance, and watched Season 8 all the way through, because Capaldi’s Doctor is in many ways amazing, and very fun to watch.

He’s got the grumpiness I liked from the First Doctor, the alien perspective of the Fourth, and the arrogance of the Third. Those happen to be some of my favorite Doctors, and his blend of their characteristics, combined with his own no-nonsense take, is fantastic.

Capaldi’s no-frills, no apologies, no sentimental nonsense version of The Doctor is a refreshing change after Smith and Tennant. Gone are the dewy pauses and the hand-wringing. Instead, we get a Doctor that doesn’t waste time over the lives he can’t save, not when he can spend that time saving others.

The perfect expression of all this is in the Mummy on the Orient Express episode. The Doctor doesn’t hesitate to use the mummy’s victims to gather all the information he can, asking them question after question even as they’re dying, with no apology for not being able to save them and no comfort offered — save that their answers can help the others escape the same fate. He’s splendidly hard-nosed, which makes his last-minute gamble in directing the mummy away from its next victim and onto himself all the more powerful: you know this is a Doctor that would not put himself in danger lightly.

Granted, in order to enjoy Capaldi’s performance, I had to drop a lot of habits I’ve built up watching the new seasons of Doctor Who. I had to let go of any need for continuity, taking each episode as it came and forgetting anything that had gone before. I also had to drop my need for plausibility in plot and circumstance; most (ok, all) of the episodes contained elements that stretched beyond the merely fantastic and into the completely impossible or nonsensical.

In this, it helped that I’d just come off watching a lot of Classic Doctor Who episodes. The same approach let me enjoy them: don’t worry about continuity, don’t worry about the special effects, don’t worry about the setup making any sort of sense. Just watch The Doctor and his Companion having adventures, enjoy the dialogue, and let your imagination fill in the rest.

Pushing Characters and Buttons: Lessons from Game of Thrones’ Season 5

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

I’m not sure I’ll be back for Season 6 of Game of Thrones. I feel like this last season was the weakest one so far. I’m still processing why, but I suspect it’s because of the following things, mistakes that I’ll try to avoid in my own writing:

1) Focusing on the wrong things.

I think this season spent a lot of time lingering over details that it didn’t need to, and shouldn’t. I’d count Sansa’s wedding night sexual assault as one of them, for multiple reasons. First, I think sexual assault is one of the most terrible things that can happen to a human being, and I don’t really want to watch even fake ones any more. Second, we didn’t need to see the actual assault to know it’d taken place: the very next scene with Sansa, where Reek comes upon her laying battered and half-naked on the bed, tells us everything we need to know.

But because they did decide to show us the assault itself, they weren’t able to show us other things, like Sansa trying to work out different ways to escape, or talking to the different servants to find out which ones she could rely on. They couldn’t show us the preparations for a siege at Winterfell, with Sansa trying to take advantage of the chaos to send a raven to Littlefinger or study the walls to remind herself of the best way over them.

I think it was a similar mistake to insist on showing us the full extent of Cersei’s humiliation, including the entire walk of shame. I didn’t want to see it, I didn’t need to see it — seeing her at the next small council meeting, head shaved and face cut, shaking as she reaches for her wine, is enough — and it prevented them from showing me other things, like Kevan trying to get her back, or the whole of them dealing with the aftermath.

I’ll admit that GoT takes place in a nasty world, where nasty things happen. But I didn’t need to see Craster actually rape his daughters to know he was a nasty man and understand what was happening there. I didn’t need to see King Robert’s sexual orgies to know the humiliation his antics caused Jaime and Cersei. And I didn’t need to see Viserys force himself on his sister to know she lived in fear of him.

2) Moving characters around instead of letting them move.

A lot of the decisions characters made this season felt forced, as if they needed to move across the game board for plot requirements, and the writers found an excuse send them there.

Take Jon Snow going to Hardhome. Why was this necessary? I understand that without Jon Snow there, there’s no perspective character to show us the assault of the army of the dead. But it would have made more sense for Aliser Thorne to have gone instead of Jon: he’s First Ranger, and known to hate the Wildlings more than Jon. Wouldn’t the oath to give them safe passage have been more impressive coming from an old and known enemy?

Jaime and Bronn going to fetch Myrcella also didn’t make sense to me. I mean, I understand wanting to show a buddy knight trip between the two of them, but Jaime has little reason to go and Bronn has less, and their presence didn’t affect the outcome at all. If they hadn’t been there, the Sand Snakes would have tried to kidnap Myrcella, failed, and any messenger from Cersei asking to see her daughter would have given Doran the excuse he needed to send Myrcella away to safety.

Finally we have Jorah. His decision to sign up for gladiator combat the first time made sense, since it gave him a chance to see Daenerys again. But submitting to slavery a second time after being banished again? Only made sense as a way to place him near her during the Sons of the Harpy attack. For the character, it didn’t make sense at all.

3) Trying too hard for big moments.

So many times during this season, I felt like I was watching the “Are you not entertained?” moment from Gladiator. The music would swell, the camera would zoom in on some character’s face, and they would say a line that was supposed to carry a lot of emotional weight. But it fell flat for me, every time, no matter the character or the situation.

I think the first two mistakes, made often enough over the course of the season, robbed the emotional high points of any impact. Instead of caring that Brienne finally got to confront Stannis, I just saw a knight come upon an old wounded man in the forest, tell him her name, and deliver a killing blow. Instead of dying a little inside at seeing Jon bleeding out in the snow, I knew from the moment Olly came to fetch him that he was about to be ambushed, and the circle of knives was way too much “Et tu, Brute?” to make me do anything other than shake my head.

And Drogon saving the day . Well, of course he saved the day, then dumped Daenerys in the middle of nowhere instead of somewhere else in the city. How else were the writers to setup Daenerys being standard in the wilderness, needing her two bravest knights to come save her (groan)?

None of it worked for me, and the parts that did deliver an emotional impact — Sansa’s assault, Cersei’s humiliation — were entirely negative. For me, this season was a set of lessons in what not to do. Here’s hoping I take them to heart.

The Decline of Movies

Browsing iTunes this weekend, I realized there were no recent movies that I wanted to watch, only televison shows.

This was weird for me. For most of my life, movies were better than television. If you had a choice between watching a movie or watching a TV show, you chose the movie. But these days, more and more I find I’m either not interested in the movies that are being released, or that they’ve gotten such bad reviews that I’m not willing to risk the money on them. Instead, I find myself firing up Hulu or Netflix to pick from the plethora of television shows that I’ve been wanting to try.

I think this is a sign of something deeper: television has replaced movies as film’s long-form narrative. Where it used to be each TV episode was a short story, now they’re a chapter in the longer narrative arc of the season. Television is the novel of film, and movies – with less screen time, plus the need to be a complete story within one viewing – are looking more and more like short stories.

And just as the novel is now the dominant form of written fiction – it pays writers better, and it gives readers a longer sustained narrative – I think television will become the dominant form of film.

I think one sign that it’s already happening is that both Amazon and Netflix chose to make TV shows, rather than movies, when they wanted to become studios that generated their own content. Presumably they ran the numbers and decided a long-running television series would make the best return on their investment.

Another is that we’re already seeing both actors and writers talking about working for TV as preferable because of the steadiness of the paycheck and the ability it gives them to explore or inhabit characters longer.

When the people making the art come to prefer working in one medium rather than the other – for whatever reason – you’re going to see most of the new, exciting art come out in that medium.

The Decline of Doctor Who

Earlier seasons had episodes that were standalone: the Doctor and his Companions having adventures.

Moffat’s tenure shifted the focus away from the Doctor, away from adventure, and toward drama: Amy and Rory’s relationship, Amy and the Doctor’s relationship, the Doctor and River Song’s relationship.

In the first four seasons, these sort of themes were subtext, part of the background fabric of the show. Moffat’s tenure brought these elements front and center, to the point where you can’t pull an episode out of the Sixth Season that doesn’t deal with some aspect of the Doctor’s death scene from the first episode. The entire season is basically setup for that one event, which means you can skip the entire season and be happier for it.

This leads me to the contradiction in my feelings about Smith’s time as the Doctor: I like Smith’s Doctor, but I hate the episodes he’s in. Smith’s ability to portray a younger, more quirky Doctor one minute and an older, more stern Doctor the next was and is amazing to me. His portrayal is still one of my favorites, and yet, because of the way they used him, I don’t enjoy watching his seasons nearly as much as I like watching Tenant and Eccleston’s.

It’s not until Season Seven that we start getting episodes that are fun to rewatch (“Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, for example). And only once Clara joins the Doctor do we get consistently good episodes.

Even with Clara, though, we can’t escape the Moffat approach of wrapping the Companion up with the Big Bad of the season and defining her mostly by what she does for the Doctor (Impossible Girl? The Girl Who Waited?). Martha Jones used to be my least favorite companion, but compared with Amy or Clara she’s incredibly kick-ass: a doctor, a smart woman who kept her head when the hospital she worked in got transported to the Moon, who had a life beyond the Doctor and went on to be a hero in her own right.

I almost think Doctor Who needs a reboot. Not just a new Doctor (we got that, hooray), but a scratching-out of most of the Doctor’s history since Moffat took over. I mean at this point, the Doctor we have is pretty lame: he’s 2,000 years old but lived in one single town for half of that time, his grave at Trenzalore – where he must never go – is not really his grave, and he’s given up caring or acting in the world because he’s lost his confidence.

We need to wipe the Moffat years out, and start over.

We can do it by making the current Doctor not the real Doctor.

During the end of Season Five (“The Big Bang”) what Amy Pond remembered back into existence was not the real Doctor. It was the Raggedy Man, her Doctor, not the real one.

The real Doctor got shunted off to Gallifrey during the explosion to seal the rift (emergency temporal shift). He was trapped there, and regenerated into a new body.

We introduce this as a season closer, when Gallifrey comes back. The fake Doctor sacrifices himself, the Time Lords return, and the real Doctor emerges. We can drop all the history we don’t like from the last three seasons, and go forward with a revamped show. We can get a younger Doctor, a not-so-needy Doctor, and (if we’re lucky) a female Doctor.

How to Fix Doctor Who: Into the Dalek

This episode is irredeemable. From the bad acting, the heavy-handed rehash of ideas that have been explored in previous Doctor Who episodes, and how bored the Doctor seems at everything that happens (I swear, Capaldi takes deadpan to a whole new level), it’s one of the worst episodes I’ve ever seen. The only thing we really learn about the Doctor or Clara is confirmation that yes, Capaldi and Coleman have absolutely zero chemistry on screen.

Skip it. Watch episode “Dalek” from Season One instead. It’s the same theme, executed better, and without the Doctor-is-just-anti-Dalek retcon.

How to Fix Doctor Who: Deep Breath

(Warning: Major Spoilers Ahead)

This episode is so uneven, like a miniature version of Moffat’s tenure at Doctor Who. There are some brilliant ideas – having the Doctor bring a dinosaur along for the ride after it swallowed the Tardis – and some utterly daft ones – who wants to see an older man flail about in a nightgown? – all mixed together, but never congealing into something coherently enjoyable.

Of all the things that went wrong, though, there’s a huge missed opportunity that stands out.

Clara should have left at the end of the episode.

Imagine if she did. There’s no last-minute phone call from Matt Smith manipulating her into staying, no puppy-dog eyes from the current Doctor to beg her to stay. No. The Doctor touches down in Clara’s time, she asks if she’s home, and he says “Yes.”

He drops her off, and explains why: his past self made a mistake in thinking of her in a romantic way, and some unknown person is manipulating their relationship. Until he knows who that person is, and why they’re doing it, he’s not going to play into their plans and perpetuate his predecessor’s mistake. This is a different Doctor, a Doctor that’s not as needy, and he’s strong enough to let her go when he sees it’s best.

Making that the final scene would recast the episode as the breakup of the Doctor and Clara, giving it some emotional heft, and making his abandonment of her in the middle a kind of foreshadowing. It would also give the season a little more tension: will Clara and the Doctor ever travel together again? Will he find out who’s been manipulating them? Will he take on a new long-term companion, or will this Doctor be more independent than the past?

I feel like this approach is something an earlier Steven Moffat would have done. The writer of The Girl in the Fireplace and Forest of the Dead would have seen the opportunity for a defining, bittersweet moment, and taken it. Instead Moffat’s new Doctor, perhaps like Moffat himself, does not know when to let go.

Elementary vs Sherlock: Which is Better?

Both Elementary and Sherlock offer modern takes on the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Watson. While I watch both shows, I think Elementary is the better one. Here’s why:

Watson is more than just Holmes’ biographer

In most versions of Holmes and Watson, including Sherlock’s, Holmes is the primary mover of the relationship. Watson is there as the audience’s stand-in, someone Holmes can be brilliant next to. He’s there to make Holmes more relatable, but that’s it.

Elementary’s Watson is a stronger, more complex character. She begins as Holmes’ sober companion, becomes his mentee in deduction, and grows into an equal partner in solving crimes.

Holmes is a more complex character

Part of what makes Elementary’s Watson better is the fact that she manages to change Holmes. He starts the series as a recovering addict, oblivious to the feelings of others and convinced of his superiority. Unlike Sherlock’s version of the character, Elementary’s Holmes changes under Watson’s influence, becoming humbler and more sensitive to how his behavior is perceived.

Elementary’s version of Holmes is vulnerable, and knows it, something we never see in Sherlock.

Moriarty finally makes sense

I think Elementary’s portrayal of Moriarty is brilliant. The writers of Elementary managed to finally give a good explanation for the two main problems with Sherlock’s Moriarty:

  1. Why doesn’t Moriarty kill Holmes? I’ve never bought the “I admire him” argument. What criminal mastermind wouldn’t eliminate a threat as great as Sherlock Holmes as early as possible?
  2. Why doesn’t Holmes track down Moriarty earlier? Both Sherlock and Elementary have Holmes encounter Moriarty early on without recognizing him, but only Elementary has a good explanation for why such an observant man as Holmes would have a blind spot where Moriarty is concerned.

Update: The Onion’s AVClub agrees that Elementary is the better show.