Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Twelve Moffat Era Episodes Worth Keeping

After almost eight years in the driving seat, Moffat's time with Doctor Who is at an end. I have made no secret over the past couple of years how much I grew to dislike his time on the show, sometimes to the point of recommending that new fans skip entire seasons just so they don't get led down the same garden paths I did. But, now we've reached the end, I decided it would be charitable to pick some episodes from Moffat's six seasons of the show that I actually like; two for each series. They're not the only ones I like, but they are the standout few that I would recommend to people, and they are my personal highlights of what I consider to be a terrible part of the show. In order of broadcast...

The Eleventh Hour - Series 5, Episode 1 (2010)

It's easy to forget after all that followed just what a strong start the Eleventh Doctor had. After a lot of initial misgivings following the bizarre ending to The End of Time, Matt Smith's first outing was full of fun action and witty writing that reassured a lot of us about the show's future. Smith's Doctor is yet to degenerate into his later self-obsessed creep and is instead energetic and warm, giving us memorable post-regeneration moments like fish fingers and custard. The time-bending nature of the new companion's introduction strikes an innovative note across the new series, and more than makes up for the run-of-the-mill nature of the rather dull bad guy in the Atraxi.

As I said in my review of the episode, there was definitely a "moment" where the Eleventh Doctor clicked with me as the same character as the previous ten. What interests me now is that despite his actually fairly competent beginning, the bad writing for this Doctor as the show went on led to him becoming my least favourite version. That knowledge makes it difficult to watch the scene here with the same excitement, but I think it just about works. All told, I would say that The Eleventh Hour is the best first episode for any of the NuWho Doctors, and the irony is delicious.

Vincent and the Doctor - Series 5, Episode 10 (2010)

A show like Doctor Who often goes into the past for cameos from historical celebrities, but this episode stands out. Instead of simply placing said celebrity into a story and having events happen around him, this episode is directly aimed at establish Vincent's character and backstory. British comedy writer Richard Curtis uses Doctor Who's conventions in unconventional ways, taking a monster-of-the-week pseudohistorical format and using it to explore the depression of one of Europe's great unappreciated artists.

While the 42-minute format of a Doctor Who story requires that a lot of the real-world subtleties are smoothed over, the story's decision to look into mental health and the legacy of art makes something beautiful out of what would otherwise be an end-of-season filler episode.

The Doctor's Wife - Series 6, Episode 4 (2011)

This series is my least favourite of the revival show by a country mile - long arcs which constrain real story-telling, bizarre decisions like Amy's forced pregnancy and the Doctor's fake-out death, and the mid-season split that exacerbated all of the other issues. The only episode of the season that isn't affected by the all-absorbing tendrils of mediocrity is this one, written by acclaimed fantasy writer Neil Gaiman for the previous series and moved over to this one.

While at times the episode veers into fan-fiction territory, the discussion of the idea of the TARDIS as a sentient entity was a long time coming, and could not have been brought into reality more perfectly than by Suranne Jones. Add to that lots of nostalgic nods to both RTD and the Classic Series, a fab villain in Michael Sheen's House and a general sense of fantastic whimsy, and you have one of NuWho's best episodes.

The God Complex - Series 6, Episode 11 (2011)

So what if Toby Whithouse took the ending straight from The Curse of Fenric? I *love* The Curse of Fenric! And I love Toby Whithouse. Despite me saying that The Doctor's Wife was the only episode that had escaped Series 6's terribleness, this one is actually my favourite from the season, and the only one I consider worth rewatching. The unnerving hotel which exploits people's fears is such a fantastically Doctor Who kind of plot, and with the episode's well-realised cast of characters the episode hits every beat it needs to in terms of action and plot. I remember especially liking the fake-out companion Rita, even if the exchange "You're a Muslim/Don't be frightened" is even more tone deaf now than it was in 2011. And, although it wasn't permanent (it never is with Moffat), I loved the fact that Amy and Rory left! Needless to say that they had outstayed their welcome considerably by this point, and I was glad for the small hope that this was the back of them.

A Town Called Mercy - Series 7, Episode 3 (2012)

The only decent episode of the five episode "September Series" from 2012, A Town Called Mercy is another decent Whithouse episode, this time putting the Doctor, Amy and Rory into a Western town that has been infiltrated by an alien war criminal and the cyborg sent to bring him to justice. Aside from just loving Westerns, I liked this episode because of the fact it actually asked some moral questions. You know, like this is actually science fiction or something. While it has its goofy moments, and the main moral conflict isn't satisfied in a particularly interesting way, the fact that it actually inspires thought makes it an oasis of civilisation in a period of the show that was veering wildly out of control.

Cold War - Series 7, Episode 8 (2013)

Guys, I was so excited for Clara. After watching Amy and Rory's terrible writing for three years, I was looking forward to some Northern charm from Jenna Coleman's new companion. Clara is difficult to parse for me, because her three-ish seasons varied so wildly. In Series 7, she had little to no actual character that we could see, with a great deal more that was simply told to us by other characters without much evidence. Cold War, the third episode of the 2013 half of Series 7, is the best because it manages to take this and, for one episode, subvert it.

Finding themselves on a Russian submarine in 1983, the Doctor and Clara find themselves trying to pacify an Ice Warrior, making their first appearance since 1974. Clara is seen to be compassionate and empathetic, and is ultimately the solution to the episode's dilemma. I love the 80s soundtrack, the base-under-siege plot and the new-look Ice Warriors, who manage the difficult task of respecting the Classic Series and still feeling modern.

Flatline - Series 8, Episode 9 (2014)

True story: this list was almost a ten episode list, because I forgot Series 8 existed. Capaldi's first season suffers from writing that is usually more bland than painful, as the writers tried to make Twelve into an ambiguous moral figure. This has been attempted before, but the issue with this was more that instead of spending time showing Twelve making questionable moral choices, the end result felt a lot more like Capaldi being constantly grumpy and rude, and going "Am I a good man?" every other episode. The only upshot of this was that Clara seemed to gain a personality overnight and the relationship between her and Twelve became more complex and real as a result.

By comparison to the season around it, Flatline felt a lot more like an early Tennant episode - set on a council estate with some unique aliens and TARDIS hijinks. The standout performances of Jovian Wade and Christopher Fairbank as graffiti artist Rigsy and council worker Fenton respectively help to flesh out the premise of 2D aliens trying to enter our dimension by providing stakes we can work with. Add to that the element of The Doctor being trapped in the TARDIS and relying on Clara throughout the episode, and what could have been bland comes alive.

Dark Water - Series 8, Episode 11 (2014)

You will notice later that every one of Capaldi's eleventh episodes is on this list. Capaldi's finales have a flare for the ridiculous that usually start off on the right foot with a strong premise and go downhill in the second half. In this case, the episode actually culminates a lot of the season's slightly nebulous themes and brings it together in a way which threatens to change the status quo of the Doctor Who universe, as well as providing a double whammy cliffhanger that left me excited to be watching the show again after so many boring episodes.

Danny Pink is not my favourite NuWho character, especially as his relationship with Clara gave off some abusive vibes in the mid-season with Clara scared to let him know that she was with The Doctor for fear of his reaction. The finale worked with his character and gave us a side to his soldier past that felt three dimensional and worth the build-up. It also let us have the moment at the start of the episode with Clara and the Doctor where they finally have a stand-off, and it's great stuff.

This in turn leads us into the grander plot of the episode - the Nethersphere, and Missy's plot with the Cybermen. While I questioned whether some of the comments in the episode were wise ("The dead can feel it when you cremate them, lol!"), I really did like the concept and how it was executed. Missy is a bloody masterstroke - Michelle Gomez brings a brand new personality to The Master that is playful and unpredictable in a way that is more endearing than Simm's Joker-like performance.

The Woman Who Lived - Series 9, Episode 6 (2015) 

Season 9 had a number of gimmicks that felt a little off. The main one, apart from it being split up into two-parters, was a RTD-style keyword, The Hybrid, which fed into each episode in more subtle way than the previous series' inclusion of Missy in almost every episode's epilogue. Like most of Moffat's running stories, it ended in a copout, but it also gave us the character of Me, a character I genuinely thought was really cool. The only episode where that character gets the right amount of focus is this one, The Woman Who Lived.

Introduced in the first part of this loose two-parter as a Viking child who the Doctor hubristically resurrects by bonding with alien technology, we see her here as an immortal being, slowly losing her morality and memories, and desperate to be The Doctor's companion. I initially dismissed the casting of Maisie Williams (Game of Thrones) as stunt casting, but she really can act. I guess it was hard to see that at the time, with her storyline in the 2015 series of Thrones mostly consisting of her wiping corpses and selling cockles.

The only bad thing I have to say about the episode is that it has one too many talking lions. And that is almost entirely negated by there being almost no Clara in it.

Heaven Sent - Series 9, Episode 11 (2015)

Because of this season's odd nature, the finale two-parter is a lot more loose than usual, and this is immeasurably for the better. Simply put, Heaven Sent is one of the program's finest episodes, way beyond the likes of Blink. And I mean it; unlike the previous season finale, where I have to overlook glaring faults, this is a really well-crafted story, with everything just coming together. It's essentially a Capaldi one-hander, seeing him trapped inside a bigger-on-the-inside Time Lord device which makes him relive the same sequence of events over and over again. The theme of persistence and certainty in the face of death is a strong one, especially with Capaldi at the helm, giving it his all, portraying a man so determined to escape that he repeatedly resigns himself to death just to make a millimetre's progress.

Oxygen - Series 10, Episode 5 (2017)

Due to personal goings-on in my own life, I have not reviewed Series 10 and I don't know if I will, but on the whole I enjoyed it. I liked the semi-reboot of the series and Bill Potts is a light shining down on the show. Oxygen was a great base-under-siege episode that had some good ideas, my favourite of which was the Adams-esque dilemma of the parent company making them pay for their oxygen. It's kind of a like a traditional Doctor Who Base-Under-Siege story where the enemy is the life-support system.

Unlike a lot of Base-Under-Siege stories in NuWho, it avoided the pitfall of not feeling like there were any stakes by seriously threatening the lives of both Bill and The Doctor. They both experience the vacuum of space and are choked and chased and electrocuted. Just when you think the status quo will be reasserted, we discover that The Doctor is now blind! This was a great way to end the episode, as well as a lead-in to the following three-part story where The Doctor's need to protect Bill is a major theme.

World Enough And Time - Series 10, Episode 11 (2017)

In the year-long hiatus between Series 9 and 10, I started listening to Big Finish audios - I've listened to about a dozen now, and when they are good, they are good. My favourite, predictably, is the Fifth Doctor audio Spare Parts, which takes place on Mondas and gives a very thorough look at the kind of world that would create the Cybermen. It's spooky and full gruesome moments. I bring it up because World Enough and Time borrows extensively from Spare Parts and it's legacy, even more than the supposed "adaptation" that was Rise of the Cybermen back in 2006.

The marketing was full of spoilers for the return of John Simm as The Master. I will admit that Simm's disguise fooled me for a good while; his reveal at the end to Missy is fantastic. I had always wanted a multi-Master story, and it was a real coup to get Simm back to the show after his ambiguous exit seven year prior. Not only was it fun from a fan perspective, but it was also the perfect way to highlight the character development that Gomez' Master had been undergoing throughout this weird and wonderful season. 

For the first time in a while there was a palpable sense of horror in this story, as Bill Potts spent time in the creepy hospital at the base of a ship falling into a black hole, with The Doctor and Missy at the top watching her life pass on fast-forward. The most memorable parts of the episode are the parts that surround the Cybermen, with pre-formed cloth-faced bodies crying out for death, and the crushing blow at the end of the episode when Bill is transformed. I was annoyed that this amazing character had been given so tragic a fate, but the following episodes made up for that slightly. Scenes like the ones in the hospital are what I have been asking for for so long - actually exploring the body horror of the Cyberman premise and using it to bring nightmares to whole new generation.

Epilogue

I can't honestly say, now that it's over, that this part of the show wasn't entirely bad. The Capaldi era feels like a much-needed improvement over the Smith era, which went downhill fast. I think the key difference is that during those first three or so years, the writing of the Doctor and his companions entirely focused on archetypes and "mysteries" which never amounted to anything resembling human behaviour. The Twelfth Doctor is much more of a complex personality, even outside the narrative constantly informing us without evidence that he's morally shady. Now that I've lended the era some charity and genuinely discussed episodes I liked, I think it's time to do a top ten worst list. This is going to be fun.

Thanks.

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