Talking Movies

April 20, 2011

TARDIS: Time And Relative Dimensions In Smartness

Dr Who returns to our screens on Saturday so here’s my ha’penny worth on how ace writer Steven Moffat’s first season as show-runner and chief writer went.

Moffat, of course, was responsible for the best and most ingenious episodes of the first three seasons with his rousing two-part Blitz story, incredibly poignant linking of the Doctor and Madame de Pompadour over the course of her life, and the incomparable ‘Blink’ in which his terrifying villains the Weeping Angels, who can only move when you don’t look at them, made their debut. The fourth season saw a slight dip in the quality of plotting in his two-part adventure but he still created a hugely memorable character in Alex Kingston’s River Song. The news that Moffat was going to replace Davies as show-runner led, after the initial jubilation, to the fear that in stepping up to write so many more episodes a year the quality of Moffat’s work would inevitably fall. Well, it did, but only slightly. His season premiere, ‘The 11th Hour’, was an amazing episode, full of many Moffat trademarks, like the heartbreaking realisation that the Doctor came back years rather than minutes later after promising the young Amy Pond he’d return, and which triumphantly announced Matt Smith as a worthy Timelord by giving him a fantastic speech before he walked thru a hologram of his previous incarnations.

Moffat managed, without writing ‘Blink’ every week, to knock out more episodes yet still insert conceits that would make your head explode, such as Liz 10 in ‘The Beast Below’ being finally revealed as Queen Elizabeth X, and hence ‘subject to no one’; and his two-part Weeping Angels story was by turns hilarious, terrifying, upsetting, and also just dazzling in its cleverness. The fact that Moffat was still operating at such a high level though created an all new problem, which, rather than current scapegoat Matt Smith, may explain the falling ratings. Moffat’s writing is so good that it makes the rest of the writing staff look really bad. When Davies was show-runner there was a uniform level of quality that only Moffat rose above. Now that Moffat is show-runner there’s a uniform level that no one else can rise to… This means that while ‘The Lodger’ with James Corden was hilarious, you might just as easily tune into the sub-par ‘The Vampires of Venice’ or Richard Curtis’ embarrassing ‘The Doctor and Vincent’; where Curtis felt impelled to give Van Gogh a trip to the future to have Bill Nighy tell him how great he was, before Van Gogh killed himself anyway. In other words Dr Who has become incredibly hit and miss; if Moffat isn’t writing you must lower your expectations, but the casual viewer will not know that and so may easily watch half a season and pronounce it rubbish – by missing every Moffat episode.

Last year Stephen Fry, decrying the infantilising of television, instanced Dr Who as an example of something that was brilliantly written but was for children, not mature adults. Moffat’s filthy gags and general sauciness are probably no more unsuitable for children than those of Davies (while being considerably better) but Moffat avoids the cheap sentimentality that marked Davies as pandering to children. His season finale ‘The Big Bang’ was for adults as it thrillingly showed a whip-smart writer having immense fun with the non-linear narrative possibilities of time-travel, while it also showcased the quality of an old soul in a young body which had secured Matt Smith the part of the Doctor in the first place. The incredibly feel-good ending with Amy Pond remembering her imaginary friend the Raggedy Doctor and insisting that he was real, he was, but that she’d forgotten something she once knew, something that the Doctor had told her (in very carefully chosen words) about who he was and what the Tardis was; it was something old, something new, (we suddenly realise the Doctor was counting on Amy’s impending wedding triggering her memory of him), something…. borrowed, (cue a very familiar sound), something… Blue (enter the Tardis and the Doctor in a tux); exemplified how Moffat outdoes Davies by achieving wonderful emotional effects with a smidge of cleverness over pure cheesiness.

So perhaps Fry was right, Davies surely infantilised the audience if they can’t recognise that what Moffat’s doing is brilliant…

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