Oscars! I’m okay-ish at predicting these, I think – last year I got 17, which was decent, and the year before that 12, which is slightly better than what you’d get guessing completely at random – but I’m hoping that this year I do marginally better. We’ll see, I suppose.
A word on the format: the nominees are listed below in order of predicted likelihood (so I expect Nomadland will win Best Picture, but if not The Trial of the Chicago 7 strikes me as the second most likely, so on). Three points for a correct first guess, two points for a correct second guess, one point for a correct third guess, you get the idea.
You can find the full list of nominees here (and I assume that page will be updated with the winners eventually), but otherwise, my predictions are as follows:
The Time of Angels on one level is about the return of the Weeping Angels. The inevitable return, in fact; after the huge popularity of Blink, the episode that secured Steven Moffat the job as Russell T Davies’ successor, there was an expectation that they’d appear in an episode alongside Matt Smith fairly soon. (After all, if Blink secured Moffat as showrunner, by extension the same is true of the Weeping Angels.) But at the same time, it’s also about reinventing the Weeping Angels – taking them out of Wester Drumlins, and recontextualising them such that a neat, one-off idea to sustain a haunted house story can become the basis for an iconic returning villain.
We’ll look at this more next week, but suffice to say it’s a successful reinvention (or, maybe more accurately, evolution of the concept.) The Time of Angels grows naturally out of Blink, playing with similar ideas while at the same time managing to offer a genuinely new story – there’s a really clever reuse of the same camera trickery from Blink with the looping video, that same central conceit repeated but presented (literally) through a new lens. Unsurprisingly, the Angels fit really nicely with that storybook aesthetic Moffat introduced as showrunner (“the image of an Angel becomes itself an angel” is a real stroke of brilliance, because it’s at once entirely new, but also, of course that’s how it works).
If – hypothetically, of course, with no spoilers whatsoever – the Weeping Angels were to return in Series 13, it’s difficult to imagine how Chris Chibnall might opt to reinvent them. Moffat makes it look easy here (though, again, it’s not a surprise – of course his monster coheres with his wider concept of the programme) but you do get the sense it’d be easy to go wrong, to overcomplicate what is at its core a very simple idea. (I often wonder about Patrick Ness’ plans for a second series of Class, and that idea of going to the planet of the Weeping Angels, and a Weeping Angel civil war – maybe it would’ve worked, but I’m immediately very resistant to the idea of the Weeping Angels even having a planet!)
Of course, it’d be perfectly possible to do something much more closely aligned with Blink, and maybe even desirable in 2021 in all the ways it wouldn’t have been here: The Time of the Angels needed to reinvent the Weeping Angels, but any hypothetical future appearance wouldn’t have the same obligations. And, again, The Time of Angels is very successful in that respect – but we’ll pick up on that next week.
Otherwise, the episode itself is a little rough. We’ve noted a few times over the past few weeks that there’s a certain lack of polish to the episodes filmed before The Eleventh Hour, and The Time of Angels – which formed the very first production block of Series 5 – is no exception to that. There’s a real sense of things being worked out in real time on screen, of a style that hasn’t quite settled and an approach that hasn’t entirely cohered.
For the most part, that’s obscured by the big ideas in the episode: the return of River Song and the Weeping Angels. Just like last week with Victory of the Daleks, it’s a sleight of hand, a known (ish) quantity to take attention away from what’s still being worked out in the margins. Matt Smith’s performance here isn’t quite what it’ll eventually be, and Adam Smith follows in the footsteps of Andrew Gunn by not living up to the standard set by Adam Smith’s direction of The Eleventh Hour. (It’s an instructive comparison in a lot of ways, not just because of how much smoother the earlier-broadcast-but-later-produced episode is, but because of that Doctor/director union – watching one then the other, it’s plain to see which aspects of the former are built on the latter. There’s a better sense of the Doctor’s spontaneity, of those idiosyncrasies and thought processes, the mood swings that Matt Smith doesn’t quite nail here but are pitch perfect in The Eleventh Hour. It’s not a problem particularly – as intended, the strength of the impression left in the earlier broadcast episodes is enough for the viewer to fill in the gaps here – but it’s noticeable if you’re looking for it.)
Perhaps oddly, though, the most apparent roughness (or maybe more accurately here, imprecision) is in Steven Moffat’s script. For all his strengths in writing clever, engaging exposition, The Time of Angels struggles to convey important details at the right time – the reveal of the Aplan statues is underplayed, for example, and the gravity globe cliffhanger isn’t telegraphed strongly enough ahead of time. Again, it’s not exactly a problem: there’s a certain a rough, unfinished quality, things being overlooked here that wouldn’t be in the future, but the episode as a whole still works, there’s no question of that.
There were plenty of criticisms to make of WandaVision, but there was also at least always the sense that showrunner Jac Shaeffer and director Matt Shakman wanted to make a television show, and on some level knew what they had to do to do that. There hasn’t been that same sense with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which – five episodes in and nearly finished – doesn’t seem to want to be a television show at all.
The contrast between the two is striking. Where WandaVision was consciously and deliberately episodic, each week evoking a different era of sitcom history, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is entirely serialised: episodes of the former felt distinct from one another in terms of style and aesthetic, while also having their own discrete plotlines too, but episodes of the latter have tended to blur together. The end of each episode of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier feels less like the conclusion of an individual, coherent whole that might stand on its own terms, and more like an act break in a particularly long movie. (Or, rather, that’s how it feels when it works – just as often they’ve felt much more arbitrary than that, a case of having reached the fifty-minute mark and not much else.)
At its best, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is built around a handful of big moments and individual ideas. Sometimes that works: the slow pan around John Walker, the new Captain America, his shield drenched in blood, onlookers filming him with their mobile phones, is one of the more striking images the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever offered. But for the most part, though, the series struggles to take advantage of the strengths of its medium. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is built around those big moments, yes, but otherwise it’s formless – there’s an emphasis on plot but little momentum, always moving forward but rarely going anywhere. The middle stretch of the series is sluggish and lethargic, spinning its wheels to fill the runtime and little else; the fifth episode, the strongest of the show, is the one that most feels like an actual episode of television, rather than fifty-minutes of moving pieces around the chessboard to set up for next week. In fact, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier often feels like the rare show that’d be improved by binge-watching it, with the weekly release schedule imposing breaks where it’d almost be better to let one episode lead straight into the next.
In fairness, it’s also possible, as has been widely rumoured, that The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was heavily edited prior to broadcast to remove a storyline about a viral outbreak. That’s the sort of rewriting that could leave any show feeling formless, especially one already intended to be quite heavily serialised. Equally, there’s a sense that some of the structural choices the show made wouldn’t have helped much anyway: pandemic storyline or not, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier still left a lot of its character work to that fifth episode, with most of the series feeling like a preamble before getting to the story it seemingly promised. It’s the rythms and pacing of a film applied to the structure of a television show, without much thought devoted to how they’re different, and the distinct ways in which each medium works.
Eventually, there’s going to be a fan-edited version of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier that turns it back into a two-hour movie. More likely than not, it’ll rely quite heavily on the closing episodes, and condense down the opening three into something much sharper and more concise. That doesn’t speak to a television show that’s conscious of its medium, that takes advantage of what its medium can offer – both in terms of what longer-form storytelling can do, and what more distinct episodes can let the series do. Maybe the series would’ve benefitted from an episode more explicitly from the perspective of Karli Morgenthau, clarifying the Flag Smashers’ beliefs and motivations; maybe the series would’ve benefitted from a flashback episode about Isiah Bradley, akin to the HBO Watchmen episode This Extraordinary Being. Of course, it wouldn’t necessarily have to commit so wholeheartedly to that kind of discrete storytelling – but it would have been improved by taking advantage of what an episodic structure allows that a film doesn’t.
Ultimately, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier suffers for its structural choices. It’s never quite as entertaining as it could’ve been, it never feels quite as coherent or invested in its themes as it otherwise might’ve been. You get the sense that’s why the show hasn’t been a television phenomenon in the same way WandaVision was: week to week, it just doesn’t want to be a TV show.
You are everything I despise! The worst thing in all creation.
There’s a profound awkwardness to any story like this, one that so almost could’ve been fantastic but quite conspicuously isn’t. With Victory of the Daleks, you can pinpoint the moment where Mark Gatiss looks at all the interesting things he’s set up, and chooses not to write about them – opting instead to do, well, not much of anything actually. It’s remarkable, after the sheer density of ideas in The Eleventh Hour and The Beast Below, how little is going on in Victory of the Daleks – it’s a chessboard episode, the first part of a storyline we now know never quite concludes, ultimately only really offering exposition without much else. If nothing else, that’s a shame: the first genuine misstep of the Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor.
It’s easy to be sympathetic, in fairness; watching Victory of the Daleks, you do get the sense that production got away from the team here, even moreso than on The Beast Below. Their ambition clearly strained against what they were able to realise, and you can tell when compromises had to be made and priorities were clearly elsewhere. (There’s a shot on the Dalek spaceship – a disused cigarette factory, acting as a replacement because the original location was unavailable – where a vent lights up, and you wonder how desperate they were to include that at all, as though drawing attention to it in the hopes it’d be less noticeable somehow.) With any series of Doctor Who, particularly the first of a new production team, there’s a learning curve, and there are always episodes that don’t quite come together for various reasons; there are mistakes made and corners cut in Victory of the Daleks that won’t happen in future episodes. Of course, though, that’s part of why the Daleks appear in this episode at all – it’s a sleight of hand, a known quantity to take attention away from any roughness-around-the-edges from a brand new Doctor, companion, and production team. (The first half of Series 5 is structured this way – Daleks, Weeping Angels, and River Song in the episodes shot first, with The Eleventh Hour part of a later filming block to give Matt Smith space to make a more confident debut.) It didn’t work, perhaps because the Daleks are as difficult to get right as the Doctor.
But, as noted, it very almost did. Lots has been written already about Victory of the Daleks and its failures, and the kind of episode that it is. So instead, let’s look at the episode that this isn’t.
The Daleks have always, on some level, been a metaphor for the Nazis. When the series began in 1963, World War Two remained a relatively recent memory; Terry Nation cited the Nazis as an inspiration on his early work, and you can trace that influence through later Dalek stories too, always lurking in subtext if not necessarily explicitly stated. (That allegorical aspect has lessened, somewhat, in recent years, though not entirely – according to Rob Shearman, Christopher Eccleston considered Dalek akin to the story of a holocaust survivor meeting a Nazi, and tailored his performance accordingly.)
Despite – or perhaps because of – the looming legacy of the second World War, the classic series rarely actually visited that time period. (Only The Curse of Fenric, one of the last stories to air during Doctor Who’s original run, was set during WWII. Interestingly, it’s one of the most frequently visited periods of the revival, with Christopher Eccleston, Matt Smith, and Jodie Whittaker all appearing in WWII-set episodes. There’s perhaps something to be said of how that iconography is used and reproduced, not a million miles away from some of the themes touched on in The Beast Below.) In any case, then, it means that the pitch given to Gatiss here – rooting the Daleks in the time period that inspired them, grounding the allegory in the real thing – is a genuinely clever one. ‘Daleks in WWII’ isn’t just a basic genre mashup, but something that offers a lot of potential to engage with and recontextualise the basic concept that underpins them.
Contrasting them not with the Nazis, but with Churchill instead, is genuinely inspired though. There’s potential for something thoughtful and critical, to sidestep (or even better, refute) the hagiography and engage with a deeper portrait of the man. There’s a version of Victory of the Daleks that’s about nationalism, that’s about imperialism, something layered and nuanced rather than a collection of pop culture memories alone. (It feels odd to point to Daleks in Manhattan as a success, exactly, but it’s more thoughtful than this episode in a lot of respects – that conversation between Dalek Thay and Mr Diagoras seems like something that might’ve been worth imitating here.) But Victory of the Daleks isn’t interested in that, not particularly. It’s surprising to rewatch the episode, actually, and see how little time it actually devotes to the premise of the Daleks working with Churchill, abandoning that idea quite quickly – almost as if it’s too uncomfortable to bear.
That’s no surprise, though.
In part, that’s because this is a Mark Gatiss episode. I’ve always had more time for him than most – I think he’s a reliably interesting if not stratospheric writer, for all his many fl – but Victory of the Daleks is, I think, comfortably his weakest episode. It was never a premise he could’ve handled well, I suspect, even if it does seem an obvious one for him to tackle on the face of it – Gatiss is (as many have noted) first and foremost a nostalgia artist, and where that works it works because it’s rooted in a fairly personal and idiosyncratic taste. Here, those skills sour; he’s doing an unreconstructed take on something that demands a more subversive eye, deliberately and consciously opting instead to do a popular imagination bank holiday war movie style piece. Victory of the Daleks is, if you like, what you’d get if you could distil a Keep Calm and Carry On poster into forty minutes of Doctor Who, presented entirely without reservation, critique or insight – I suspect Gatiss finds those posters delightfully charming, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he owned one of these.
(I’ve wondered, from time to time, if Gatiss might’ve been a better Doctor Who showrunner than Chris Chibnall; much as Chris Chibnall’s episodes make the case for Gatiss, Victory of the Daleks makes the case for Chibnall. Gatiss has been more interesting more often, but I suspect his attempts at mass populist appeal would look more like this than episodes like Sleep No More, which would be the register I’d rather he work in as showrunner.)
The thing is, however, it’s not Gatiss’ limitation alone. That’s the nature of Doctor Who, as a mainstream BBC One drama. I doubt, personally, it had the capacity to offer any sort of subversive or radical take on Churchill in 2010; certainly, there is no chance, whatsoever, you’d get anything other than an entirely fawning take in 2021. (Genuinely, could you imagine the response if Chibnall and Whittaker even tried?) That’s not an excuse, to be clear – if anything, it makes it more of a mistake to have tried to do a Churchill episode at all. It’s a shame; maybe the series loses something if it’s popular, if it’s not something marginal. There is a good Churchill/Daleks episode to be written – one that engages with Churchill and imperialism, maybe one that engages with the Daleks as the national icon (and merchandise) they’ve become and asks what that means, potentially one that interrogates the colonial adventure fiction the show is rooted in too – but it’s never going to come from a series in the midst of a fraught reinvention, with one eye on sales to America. Doctor Who can be thoughtful and subversive, but it’s not inherently so, and that’s why you get episodes like Victory of the Daleks.
(All of which having been said: I do genuinely quite like the multicoloured Paradigm Daleks, and I wish we’d seen more of them.)
Once every five years, everyone chooses to forget what they’ve learned. Democracy in action.
In the months leading up to Twice Upon a Time, I had this idea that I should write a short piece about each Twelfth Doctor episode, publishing one a day until the actual regeneration. I didn’t, in the end, in part because of my awful time management skills, but also because I could never quite work out where to begin. Deep Breath was the obvious choice for obvious reasons, but maybe I should start with The Day of the Doctor, because that was Peter Capaldi’s first appearance as the Doctor? Except, of course, the story of the Twelfth Doctor is as much the story of Clara Oswald as it is anything else – so maybe I should start with Asylum of the Daleks?
Eventually I decided that the most sensible starting point for a series of articles about the Twelfth Doctor was, obviously, The Beast Below. (The idea made me laugh, but it’s also a large part of why I never actually got around to doing it.) The thinking, anyway, was that this story introduced a lot of those ideas about names and identities that came to be such a huge part of the Capaldi era – “and then I find a new name, because I won’t be the Doctor anymore”, seemingly just a stray little aside, containing within it most of the next seven years. Obviously, one of the things that was most striking to me about last week’s episode was how many of those ideas and concepts arrived fully formed from the start (my sense is that what this series is going to demonstrate, more than anything else, is quite how thematically coherent Moffat’s writing actually is), but even still, The Beast Below feels like it’s secretly the key to understanding Steven Moffat’s take on Doctor Who. It’s got a long legacy: it’s not exactly that you can feel its influence on The Day of the Doctor, on Kill the Moon, on The Doctor Falls, so on, but rather this episode is where a lot of those ideas crop up for the first time.
Which isn’t a surprise, really – The Beast Below is as much redefining what Doctor Who is and can be as The Eleventh Hour was, not only as the first episode Moffat wrote of his own accord (i.e. not writing to a premise offered to him by Russell T Davies), but also as the first “normal”, non-event episode of the show since Midnight. First and foremost, The Beast Below is an attempt to establish a whole new register for Doctor Who.
One thing that’s striking about The Beast Below is how it repositions Doctor Who as a fairytale, finishing the reinvention of the series that began with The Eleventh Hour – the show is no longer, as it was under Russell T Davies, so wholly and entirely at home in the television schedules. Moffat, for all his strengths, would never think to write the evil television shows of Bad Wolf; instead, Doctor Who is grounded in a different vocabulary, and it’s to be understood and approached from a different lens. It’s not a populist drama in touch with the zeitgeist anymore (or, at least, not in the same way) – it’s framed in terms of a different type of storytelling now.
That’s all over The Beast Below: Amy has her Wendy Darling moment; Sophie Okonedo is a storybook Queen by way of Star Wars; the Doctor is at his most Sherlock Holmes; even the nominal villain of the piece is the Demon Headmaster. What’s more interesting, though, is that recurring motif of the poem to introduce and close the episode. It’s a device Moffat will get a lot of use out of over the next few years (sometimes more successfully than others), but here it’s essential – establishing the story as something to be retold and recounted, like a fairytale or a fable or a myth. (The whole ‘world’ of Starship UK is constructed that way, really – not strictly a coherent setting, but an abstraction, all leading to that final reveal.) That’s what the episode hinges on: it’s all about which stories are told, by whom and to what end, which are remembered and which are forgotten, and which should be accepted, which should be rejected, and which should be rewritten. Much has been written about how The Beast Below compares to The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas (this piece in particular is one I’d recommend). That story, as part of its thought experiment, asks if a utopia might be made more credible by the necessity of suffering, but it concerns itself primarily with what happens next – The Beast Below is rejecting that story, and insisting against the necessity of that suffering.
That’s how The Beast Below offers the key to the Moffat era. It’s the next evolution of that idea in The Eleventh Hour – not only to say that the Doctor and Amy and their world are stories, but that you can choose which stories to tell. It’s not just a case of making it a good story, it’s a case of making it a better one. It’s Amy that notices that, insightful enough to understand what the Doctor doesn’t, a clever repositioning (and advancing) of the Davies era “companion as the Doctor’s conscience” conceit.
What’s interesting, then, is where else The Beast Below applies that lens, to this idea of national myths. In a way it’s surprisingly daring, pointed and angry in a way Doctor Who often isn’t but could stand to be more – an episode about how any idealised fairytale Britain is a myth built on the back of suffering, one that consistently chooses ignorance over reckoning with its sins. (Incidentally, contrast that with The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, where everyone knows the truth about the suffering – in The Beast Below, there’s this conscious decision to forget rather than just regret.)
There’s something admirably blunt about doing this story – about a government committing torture and a population that ignores it, prioritising their comfortable lives over the harm that causes – in the weeks before an election. It’s perhaps being charitable to call the story radical, but there’s an awareness and a potency to it that doesn’t always surface in Doctor Who, and leaves The Beast Below feeling genuinely quite sharp in places; I suspect the series today would be in a much healthier place if it took a few lessons from The Beast Below. Not, of course, that those lessons were entirely understood at the time, which is particularly obvious as we lead into next week – Doctor Who spends forty minutes here puncturing national myths, then slips into one itself. I’m yet to rewatch Victory of the Daleks, though I suspect it’ll make an interesting-if-not-flattering comparison piece to The Beast Below, especially with a decade’s worth of hindsight.
In a way, though, that’s The Beast Below all over. As much as it finishes the reinvention started by The Eleventh Hour (you could almost argue they form a two-parter together, really), at the same time it doesn’t quite stick. It might be the key to the Moffat era, but it’s also an oddity within it, sitting awkwardly and never quite replicated. It’s a shame: there’s a vision of Doctor Who here that really, genuinely works.
New interview! Spoke to Sophie Rundle about her new film Rose: A Love Story, coming to the end of her time on Peaky Blinders, and what she’s going to do next. This is another one for the Radio Times’ The Big RT Interview series, so that’s pretty neat too.
This is actually the second time I’ve interviewed Sophie (making her the first person I’ve interviewed more than once!) – the first was a couple of years ago now, about her Sky One historical drama Jamestown. Always really nice to speak to her, very thoughtful interviewee both times.
Which is easy to forget! Over a decade on, The Eleventh Hour is one of five (or seven, if you like) debut episodes for a new Doctor, and – more importantly – one of three inaugural episodes marking the transition to a new creative team behind the scenes. Hindsight obscures, in this case, making The Eleventh Hour look like something resembling routine, just Doctor Who doing what Doctor Who always did. It almost is, but not exactly, and it certainly wasn’t in 2009, and not with a reinvention quite so stark as this. The most obvious antecedent, The Christmas Invasion, hardly compares at all – recasting Christopher Eccleston aside, there’s a real (deliberately and consciously created, but real) sense of consistency to that episode. Part of that is because The Christmas Invasion was ‘only’ replacing the co-lead, where The Eleventh Hour had to reintroduce the programme’s main character – you could make the case, actually, that The Eleventh Hour has more in common with Smith and Jones than with The Christmas Invasion, but even then the scale doesn’t quite compare.
What makes it more unusual is the fact that more-or-less the entire behind the scenes creative team has changed. Which, again, feels almost routine in 2021 – three years into the Chris Chibnall era, over five year since Steven Moffat announced his departure, and about nine years since people started demanding he leave – but, at the time, was huge. For the most part, that just doesn’t happen: if the three executive producers and the star are leaving the show, the expectation is not that the show carries on without them. Yes, Doctor Who had form for that with the classic series, but the new series existed in a different context – the 2005 revival was largely (if admittedly not entirely) driven by a desire to do Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who specifically, rather than an appetite for Doctor Who generally. The show was hugely popular, sure, but it had also seemed to reach a natural endpoint – it’s not a massive surprise that there were conversations at the BBC about just ending the show, or that there was an expectation it might’ve failed. It could’ve! If it’d been anything less than perfect, it would’ve been abandoned in droves.
You can feel the panic onscreen, sometimes: The Eleventh Hour is fraught in a way Doctor Who hasn’t been since Rose. Most of the time, though, you don’t notice it – because the episode more or less almost just about is, in fact, perfect.
So, at a point when the need to impress people has never been greater, that’s exactly what The Eleventh Hour does. It’s a sixty-minute showcase, an exercise in swagger and panache, demonstrating not only the confidence to insist on your attention but also the skill to back it up too. (To pick two examples of several: Murray Gold offers some career-best compositions, and Adam Smith’s direction raises the bar visually for the entire series going forward.) You can see how that grows from Moffat’s comedy background, actually, with so much of the episode almost acting like a sleight of hand – writing one of his most difficult scripts, he’s fallen back on something he’s familiar with, writing The Eleventh Hour essentially as a farce about a man whose day keeps going wrong. It’s a huge part of how – and why – The Eleventh Hour works, with those huge strides it takes to reinvent the programme, all the different plates that are spinning throughout, grounded in something that Moffat can do in his sleep.
It gives the episode space to take more risks in turn. Again, there’s an undeniable panache: not in choosing to build the episode around Matt Smith (they were always going to have to; the approach taken by The Christmas Invasion or Deep Breath wasn’t available here, for obvious reasons) but in building the episode around the default assumption that everyone will like Matt Smith as the Doctor. Or, no, actually – that they’ll love Matt Smith as the Doctor. It all relies from his charms, from his quirks, from his skill as an actor, from his chemistry not only with Karen Gillan (more on whom in the coming weeks, but she’s brilliant), but also Caitlin Blackwood. (It’s easy to forget what a remarkable stroke of luck it was that Gillan not only had a cousin who was the right age for the part, but also one that could actually act, and act well. So much of this episode – and the next three years, really – is reliant on how good Caitlin Blackwood is as the young Amy, to the point that it’s difficult to imagine the Moffat era without her.)
And it works, of course, because he genuinely is that good. One of the more common criticisms Smith receives is that he plays the part too similarly to Tennant – which is a superficial read of them both, obviously. You can see Smith redefining the part as the episode goes along, building an entirely new take on the part by the time it finishes – there’s individual line reads Tennant might’ve done similarly, sure, but not many. One that stands out in particular is his reaction to Prisoner Zero’s taunts: you can imagine Tennant playing “no, she’s dreaming about me because she can hear me” much more defiantly, the big moment of triumph. Smith is quieter, faster, there’s a note of insecurity – he’s not dismissing the taunt, he’s denying it, and suddenly the character feels so much bigger on the inside.
What’s really striking, though, is how much of the next seven years is already there on screen – not all of it, not yet fully formed, but the shape of it is there.
One of the key themes of the Moffat era is this idea that the Doctor isn’t a person, the Doctor is an idea, somewhere between a character to perform and an ideal to aspire to. You can pick up on it a lot during Capaldi’s tenure (particularly in, say, The Witch’s Familiar or Hell Bent, but most obviously in Extremis, which finally makes it explicit) but it’s right here too. The Eleventh Hour pares back the iconography of the Davies era – no sonic screwdriver, no TARDIS, Matt Smith spends most of the episode wearing a version of David Tennant’s costume – but that’s not just about reinventing the programme, it’s more than “this is recognisably the show you love, just not how you expect”. It’s about deconstructing the character to demonstrate how much of it is just posturing – that’s why the big hero moment, the confrontation with the Atraxi, the moment where the character finally becomes the Doctor, is explicitly about “putting on a show”.
And that’s all over the episode – look at Prisoner Zero, shapeshifter, inhabiting different roles; look at Jeff, on call to the experts, pretending to know what he’s talking about – but it’s most obvious with Amy. That as much as anything else is what makes her a Doctor Who companion: she’s solving problems in the same way he does, assuming a role, improvising. It fits nicely with the fairytale aspect, too – she’s still a child playing dress-up, in a roundabout sense, and so is the Doctor, his heroism the same kind of make believe. It’s deliberately framed in those terms – that idea of the Raggedy Doctor as her imaginary friend, someone she used to draw cartoons of, someone she made Rory dress up as and pretend to be – and based in those same questions of identity. Is she Amy, pretending to be a policewoman, or is she Amelia, the lonely child? There’s an implicit (if uncomfortable) equivalence drawn between her as a policewoman and his police box – so there’s traces of Amy-as-a-Doctor-figure, which is the same idea explored more deeply with Clara in Series 9, The Eleventh Hour again echoing the future of the Moffat era. At the same time, that lonely child is how Moffat wrote the Doctor in The Empty Child and The Girl in the Fireplace, calling back to the past. “Look in the mirror,” the Doctor texts. It’s not just a reminder of her uniform, it’s highlighting how similar they are to each other.
That’s The Eleventh Hour, then: the Moffat era, putting its best foot forward, and showing exactly where it’s going right from the first step. Anywhere in time and space, anything that ever happened or ever will. Where do you want to start? Well, right here – it’s hard to think of a better place to begin.
“No-one’s said or written a word about him in years. Someone so vain must hate that. He pulls a stunt like this, and the world remembers his name.”
The Serpent, Episode 8
“Maybe it’s because the more civilised we become, the greater is our need to stare into the darkness.”
The Investigation, Episode 6
The Serpent and The Investigation each represent different extremes for true crime fiction. The former, a co-production between BBC One and Netflix, dramatises a series of murders committed by Charles Sobrahj in Southeast Asia during the 1970s; the latter, a piece of Nordic noir broadcast by BBC Four and HBO, depicts the police investigation into the 2017 murder of journalist Kim Wall. They make for interesting comparisons to one another – in part simply for being released in tandem, but largely for all the ways in which each stands as a rejection of the other. Where The Serpent (named for its lead) places a charismatic killer at its centre, The Investigation (named for its process) refuses to feature or even name Kim Wall’s murderer, instead focusing solely on the slow and painstaking work leading to his eventual conviction.
On an immediate level, at least, it’s obvious why The Investigation’s approach holds an appeal. There’s always a certain tension inherent to any true crime project, be it documentary or dramatization – an underlying ethical murkiness, the discomfort that comes from treating real trauma and suffering as a type of entertainment. Arguably dramatization is worse: there’s no academic remove, no pretence made that this might be on some level informative or educational. Instead it’s lurid, even voyeuristic; it’s perhaps a little simplistic to suggest that true crime drama in the vein of The Serpent glorify the killers they centre, but it’s not that simplistic. Actors are hailed for their transformations, glowing profiles are written about how they confronted a darkness within themselves to evoke whichever celebrity murderer they’ve been tasked with portraying – there’s an assumed prestige to it all, a glitz and glamour (look at how much money was clearly spent on The Serpent, look at its prime-time BBC One New Year’s Day slot) that cuts against the inherent griminess that can’t help but pervade. That’s very much the model The Serpent operates in, seemingly almost despite itself: the non-linear structure, skipping back and forth between different perspectives on Sobrahj, is a clever conceit that could offer a route to interrogate his crimes without granting him protagonist status – but the series always returns to Tahar Rahim as Sobrahj, never quite able to break its gaze, forthright about who and what it finds most compelling about this story.
Immediately, obviously, The Investigation seems more respectful – more ethical – than The Serpent. Certainly, it’s clear that Sobrahj is the star of The Serpent, but that’s not the real contrast between them. They’re both true crime fiction, but they’re operating in different modes: The Investigation is a procedural, but The Serpent is a thriller, its dramatic engine predicated entirely on tension and suspense. Cliffhangers are built around capture and escape, the camera lingers on violent images; whatever else The Serpent might be, it’s not trying to be about Sobrahj’s victims in the same way The Investigation aims to be. You get the sense it almost was, or almost could’ve been, about Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman) and Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle) primarily, with Sobrahj a more marginal figure, but it’s as though the fascination with the eponymous killer was too great to ever really leave him. In turn, there’s something that feels almost exploitative about it, as is so often the case with true crime drama.
However, there’s an argument to be made that The Serpent at least is aware of what it is and honest about it, while that The Investigation – for all the praise its received – isn’t, in fact, quite so ethical as it seems. The Investigation doesn’t name Kim Wall’s murderer, quite pointedly so, but it strains to do so: it feels artificial. Worse, it almost feels as though the series is still mythologising him, because it doesn’t eschew the sort of cheap psychoanalysis that typifies the most lurid true crime – the suspect is offscreen, but talk of his serenity, of his temper, of his sex life, doled out via interviews with his friends and colleagues, only serves to position him as a figure of intrigue. (Perhaps notably, most discussion of the series has still focused on the killer, with some reviews affording more detail to describing the brutal crime than engaging with the show itself.) It’s as though The Investigation doesn’t believe in its own premise, leaving that central conceit feeling less like an innovation of the form and more like a marketing gimmick.
More to the point, it’s not like The Investigation isn’t still fundamentally a piece of entertainment built on a trauma. First and foremost, it’s a crime procedural: it’s not really a show about Kim Wall’s parents, who are supporting characters at best, their emotional lives an afterthought in comparison to the painstaking, glacial investigative work that makes up most of the series. Notably, the series approaches Wall’s parents by contrasting them with lead detective Jens Møller (Søren Molling, previously of The Killing and Borgen), framing their loss in terms of his strained home life – which is, reading between the lines, seemingly an invention on part of Tobias Lindholm. (In those moments, The Investigation resembles nothing more than a string of ITV true crime dramas, at this point almost a subgenre unto themselves, which all seem to be made with the same script.) That clichéd dysfunction is the weakest part of the series, and if the only way the series can engage with grief and trauma is through such tired, overwrought stereotypes, can it actually be said to be engaging at all?
The Serpent is the better piece of television, to be clear. It’s not perfect – the first half of the series struggles with glacial pacing, and its non-linear structure is presented in a needlessly confusing fashion that takes a while to get used to – but it’s more engaging than The Investigation ever manages to be, an actual drama series rather than an extended intellectual exercise. The series is well cast (much will be said about Coleman, Howle, and Rahim, and with good reason, but even the supporting roles impress, Amesh Edireweera in particular proving magnetic throughout) and it remains, in spite of itself, very watchable. There’s something to be said, too, for its story of an increasingly desperate, low-level civil servant investigating crimes the local law enforcement had been happy to ignore; it’s a stark contrast from the explicitly pro-policing approach taken by The Investigation. (Which isn’t to suggest that The Serpent is, for lack of a better word, ‘unproblematic’ – the patina of orientalism to its depiction of Southeast Asia makes that clear enough – merely that it offers a more complicated narrative than crime drama tends to, and to note that The Investigation doesn’t necessarily have the straightforward moral clarity it purports to.)
What’s striking about both series, though, and it’s something they share, is the sense that they’re both a little uncomfortable in themselves. The Investigation makes a laughable gesture towards psychoanalysing its audience, suggesting that if one is too happy or secure, they’re drawn to the catharsis of true crime – almost looking to the camera to insist it really is okay to treat a recent murder as ballast for television schedules, in fact not just okay but necessary, as though struck by the sudden insecurity that it might not be enough to just avoid naming the killer. There’s no attempt to understand that on a deeper level, to engage with the sensationalist journalism that drove interest in that particular crime: in the end, The Investigation proves superficial. Meanwhile, The Serpent ends by condemning the attention given to Sobrahj, insisting that he was doing it all for attention – all seemingly without noticing the irony of that insight being offered by this show.
That discomfort raises the question, ultimately, why either series actually exists. There’s a sense that each one stumbles around and just misses being a better programme: if they’d opted to be about something more than just one man (or his absence), if The Investigation put more emphasis on a media circus it only briefly acknowledged and if The Serpent had delved more closely, and more delicately, into the conditions that allowed Sobrahj to thrive. True crime is best when it uses its real-life subject as a lens to interrogate a much broader set of themes – something like The Assassination of Gianni Versace is surely the benchmark here (as well as being one of the few such series that could make a genuine, and convincing, case that it centres the victims). As it is, though, The Serpent and The Investigation taken together don’t just represent different extremes of the true crime genre, but are also a stark demonstration of its limits.