Inspired by Real Events: The Serpent, The Investigation, and true crime drama

serpent investigation review tahar rahim charles sobrahj jenna coleman tobias lindholm kim wall borgen netflix

“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.

Watching The Investigation¸ the difference is palpable. There’s no attention-grabbing stunt casting, no recognisable actor made to look eerily (or vaguely) similar to the murderer – who is, pointedly, only ever referred to here as “the accused” – it’s all decidedly, pointedly low-key. Tobias Lindholm, who wrote and directed all six episodes, said he wanted to tell “a different kind of story here, not just another tale of a “fascinating” man who killed a woman […] a story where we didn’t even need to name the perpetrator. The story was simply not about him”. The Investigation is quiet and careful, as methodical in its writing as the process it depicts, and it’d be difficult to seriously argue that it’s particularly sensationalist or sleazy – compared to The Serpent, it’s aseptic. In lieu of focusing on the suspect, or depicting the crime itself in any detail, Lindholm centres the people affected (or tries to, at least).

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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.

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this article – or if you didn’t – please consider leaving a tip on ko-fi.

Christopher Eccleston on The A Word, his career highlights, and more

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There’s an element of ease, because I’ve played [Maurice] for a while, so I have a sense of what the writer wants me to do with the character. I don’t really think about challenges, I just think about the pleasures of working with Pete Bowker’s writing. Obviously, Maurice is a bit of a departure for me: a broader, more comedic role than I’m known for, and I’ve really enjoyed trying to learn and understand comedy, because it’s a huge element in playing Maurice. I don’t think I’m a naturally gifted comic, so I’ve had to work hard to understand how that works.

And I think one of the virtues of the piece, certainly for audience members who have people in their family with autism, is they’ve been grateful that it’s not been treated in a very poker-faced, sanctimonious way, that we’ve normalised it with humour and lightness. It’s just a pleasure. It’s just a pleasure to have a job again, and a character that I love playing and a character that I’ve played for so long. No challenges, just all positives.

New interview! A career highlight for me, this – it probably would not surprise long-term readers of this blog to know that I am quite fond of Christopher Eccleston as an actor, so it was very exciting to be able to talk to him about The A Word. (Quite nerve-wracking, too; I think this might be the single interview I’ve been most nervous about, across the past five years or so of doing this.)

Got another interview about The A Word coming tomorrow, this time with writer Peter Bowker (who Chris spoke about at length in our interview). That’s another great one, I’m looking forward to sharing that one with you all.

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Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: Amy’s Choice

doctor who amys choice simon nye catherine morshead toby jones review

This is not an episode that would have worked at any other point in Doctor Who.

At its most basic level, yes, the science fiction conceit that frames the story could be applied anywhere. You could do a version of this with Clara and Danny – arguably it’s not a million miles away from Last Christmas, I suppose – and you could do a version of it with Rose and Mickey, and maybe you could even do a version of it with Bill and Nardole at a push. In and of itself, the tension between the dream and the reality is a familiar one, not especially unique to this episode on its own terms.

Immediately, though, Amy’s Choice is distinctly better placed to make it work than most alternatives would be. Imagine an equivalent in place of, say, Boom Town or The Girl in the Fireplace: any dichotomy between dream and reality would be quickly punctured by how obvious the charade would be. The same isn’t true of Amy’s Choice, though: there’s still an instinctive suspicion towards the world of Upper Leadworth, yes, but it’s a suspicion that’s much more easily shaken than it might’ve been otherwise. Memory of The Eleventh Hour lingers – by this point, the idea that Doctor Who might skip forward another five years, that Upper Leadworth might be the reality and the series will continue with Amy and Rory, married and with a child, is plausible in a way any hypothetical Rose’s Choice wouldn’t have managed.

The episode is genuinely invested in Upper Leadworth too (itself a nice little detail, both as a way to explain why the location is different and to make the world feel a little more real). Part of that is the visual language of the episode – director Catherine Morshead makes the perceptive decision to largely eschew any particularly surreal or dreamlike staging, treating both Upper Leadworth and the TARDIS with a degree of realism such as to position them as equivalent to one another. There’s also a certain integrity to the character writing: Amy’s insistent defence of Upper Leadworth (“This is my life now and it just turned you white as a sheet, so don’t you call it dull again, ever. Okay?”) lends that world a validity that makes it stand as a real possibility, while at the same time displaying a deft understanding of the character in that context.

In fact, there’s a deftness to the character writing throughout – Simon Nye has a really strong handle on Amy, Rory and the Doctor together (in part because his episode was amongst the last written and produced for Series 5, so he’d seen and been influenced by some of the stories filmed earlier). You get a sense of confidence from the cast, too, each clearly relishing the most complex material they’ve had all series.

One particularly nice detail – and I think it speaks to a strong understanding of the characters – is how understated Rory’s death is. There likely would’ve been a temptation (and I suspect probably an expectation on behalf of the audience), given the realisation the scene is meant to prompt, to position it as a grand sacrifice – Rory not just caught randomly by an Eknodine, but pushing Amy out of the way. Subverting that is admirable in its subtlety; it takes the focus off the death (there’s no melodrama there, no drawn-out last words) and keeps it firmly on the relationship, and in turn strengthens the actual realisation. The alternative would’ve felt contrived, I suspect, and undercut the moment – as it is it’s very squarely about Amy realising she can’t live without Rory, rather than being about Rory demonstrating his feelings for her.

That she then turns to suicide is striking – you could make the case, quite convincingly I think, that Amy’s Choice is one of the darkest episodes of Doctor Who ever? It’s a huge contrast to the euphemisms of Can You Hear Me?, which touches on a similar idea but in a much more implicit fashion – and may well have been correct to do so! I think the character work in Amy’s Choice is really well-done, and I think there’s a lot of nuance to it (albeit some that’s unintended, and a lot that’s necessarily left unexplored), and that quiet despondency and visibly repressed trauma is some of Karen Gillan’s best work in the part all series. It rings true for the character, I think, resonating with a stray line from The Eleventh Hour and Vincent and the Doctor, and in those final moments in Upper Leadworth you get a really deep portrait of Amy as an individual – but I do wonder if it takes it too far, if it steps outside the realm of what’s appropriate for Doctor Who. (Particularly given the reveal about the Dream Lord’s identity, and the implication that this was all staged by the Doctor, an extension of what he was doing in The Vampires of Venice. It’s not just manipulative, it’s monstrous.)

Nonetheless, the episode still works, and works well – caveated though the praise is, the episode is clearly one of the strongest of the series so far, my favourite I think since The Eleventh Hour.

It’s a nice counterpart to The Eleventh Hour, in fact, and not just for the return to Leadworth. Amy’s Choice shares that same sense of the Moffat era arriving fully formed (despite, in this case, not actually having been written by Moffat). This episode makes literal all the themes you can trace through this era – those ideas of identity, those ideas of the tension between the dream world (or rather the fairytale world) and the real world, and the ultimate idea that, if it’s all a story in the end, you can always tell a better one. The eponymous decision is, ultimately, a false choice – Amy doesn’t have to choose one world or the other, she can carve out her own, better one. (Eventually – in 2023! – it’ll be interesting to return to this in light of The Angels Take Manhattan, to see how consistent that ending eventually is. Not to get ahead of myself – spoilers, obviously – but I wasn’t particularly fond of that one on broadcast, and I don’t know that I’ve ever revisited it; be curious to see how much my opinion changes, if at all.)

That, anyway, is why this episode wouldn’t have worked at any other point in Doctor Who. It’s not just a quirk of the lingering storytelling choices of earlier episodes, it’s because Amy’s Choice is so completely of its era, of its characters, of its themes. (There’s a real investment in that, at every level – in a story on one level about a threat of maturity, the Eknodine hide in pensioners, and reduce children to ashes.) It’s emblematic of the Moffat era, of its idiosyncrasies and its innovations; the push and pull between real life and TARDIS life was a fixture of the Davies era too, yes, but approached from quite a different angle. Amy’s Choice is an episode perfectly tailored to the era it’s in and the characters it features, and a testament to how intricate and thoughtful Series 5 is in its construction.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Vampires of Venice

doctor who vampires of venice review toby whithouse arthur darvill saturnyne girls

Think of it as a wedding present because frankly, it’s either this or tokens.

What’s striking about The Vampires of Venice is quite how similar it is to School Reunion. Not just in terms of the parallels between Mickey and Rory, each episode serving to reposition a supporting character as something closer to a lead, but also on a much more basic level: The Vampires of Venice is about disguised aliens operating a mysterious school, replacing some students and eating others, and generally getting up to no good. (Oddly, one review of The Vampires of Venice described it as an episode “about the fear of knowing what your life will entail and the sacrifices you might make to be forever young”, which feels to me like one of few things you could say of School Reunion but not The Vampires of Venice.)

That makes sense, of course: both School Reunion and The Vampires of Venice were written by Toby Whithouse, in each case doing exactly what was asked of him by Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat respectively. Whithouse’s original Series 5 pitch was an early iteration of what eventually became The God Complex, pushed back a year because of fears the dilapidated hotel labyrinth might be too similar to the maze of the dead in The Time of Angels; when that script was postponed, Whithouse began to develop The Vampires of Venice, prompted by Moffat to write something “big, bold, [and] romantic”. Presumably, the version of The God Complex written for Series 5 would’ve done similar character work for Amy and Rory – it’s easy to imagine the wedding present trip leading to the space hotel, fitting a different premise around the same basic character arc. (The reuse of the school setting is more likely than not just a coincidence, though it’s an interesting repetition nonetheless, particularly given Whithouse’s original version of School Reunion was set in an army base.)

Taken together, they make for interesting points of comparison to one another – less in terms of Whithouse’s work, though, but in how Moffat continues to reinvent the structure Davies applied to Doctor Who. (A word on Whithouse briefly anyway, though: it’s a well-written episode, and had he eventually taken over from Moffat, the fact that he could write something solid and reliable like this would’ve been as much to his credit as his more high-concept episodes like School Reunion or The God Complex. Equally, though, you can start to see the narrow focus that would eventually prove limiting, those portentous references to the Time War sitting awkwardly here as the series is beginning to move on from the idea; you get the sense that Whithouse was probably the writer most interested in that angst after Davies, his take on the show always very grounded in that, even defined by that.)

Within the structure of Series 5, then, The Vampires of Venice is something of a Davies-era throwback. Or, at least, it’s where that influence feels most pointed: the whole of Moffat’s first series as showrunner is closely modelled on those of his predecessor, with the initial present/future/past trilogy, the celebrity historical, and the returning monster two-parter having already opened the series. But it’s more easily highlighted with The Vampires of Venice, which mimics Davies’ innovations in terms of character, rather than just structure – as already noted, it bears some obvious similarities to School Reunion, but there’s a resemblance to The Long Game as well, another episode that develops the Doctor/companion relationship by introducing a new character into an established dynamic.

(Incidentally, it’s also interesting to note that The Vampires of Venice was being positioned as a second jumping on point for the series, for anyone who’d missed the episodes already broadcast. How exactly that isn’t so clear – something like Dalek makes sense in that role, with the iconic returning monster, as might Mummy on the Orient Express, with the heavily promoted guest stars, but The Vampires of Venice is much less consciously attention grabbing as those counterparts.)

It’s not the sort of thing you ever see Steven Moffat do again, not really: there’s no The Vampires of Venice style episode devoted to Danny Pink in Series 8 (arguably the closest is probably In the Forest of the Night, but that’s a fairly strained comparison). Even Series 10, which opens with an episode clearly written in the same style as Davies’ Doctor Who contributions, largely eschews this with its relationship plotline – Heather appears briefly in the opening and closing episodes, but there’s no effort to make her stand as a character in her own right exactly. Meanwhile, in one of the more surprising moves from Chris Chibnall, there’s been no particular attempts at any developing romantic relationships between the characters (or, if you’re feeling less than charitable, relationships full stop) – which makes The Vampires of Venice not just a throwback, but essentially the last hurrah, not just reinventing a Davies-era innovation, but putting it to rest instead.

Which brings us neatly, ish, to Rory. What makes The Vampires of Venice so distinct from its predecessors, ultimately, is that it’s far more invested in Rory than The Long Game ever was in Adam, or School Reunion was in Mickey – where those episodes were, on some level, demonstrating the inadequacies of their focal character even as they developed them further, The Vampires of Venice is a much more straightforward, and much more earnest, showcase for Rory as a character. (You can make the point, reasonably, that School Reunion is fairly invested in Mickey – he gets that vote of confidence from Sarah Jane, after all – but it’s as much about what the episode is leading into as it is anything else, and Series 2 is not making a case for Mickey Smith in the same way Series 5 is for Rory Williams.)

This as much as anything else is how The Vampires of Venice is disrupting the Davies era structure – because it’s invested in a different approach to character, both in the abstract and in terms of these characters, Moffat’s perspective on the Doctor and romance markedly different to that of Davies. Positioning the episode specifically as the Doctor trying to repair Amy and Rory’s relationship is a genuinely clever conceit, affording Matt Smith space to continue redefining the role and giving Gillan and Darvill something more distinct to play too (for all that there are similarities to something like School Reunion, it’s difficult to imagine the Tenth Doctor, Rose, and Mickey appearing in this script verbatim – that’s not even remotely what that dynamic was like). They both impress – Gillan is clearly confident and comfortable in the part by now, and Darvill has this very immediate control over the role, settling into his character faster than his co-stars did theirs.

On the whole, then, it’s another strong instalment in Series 5. There are moments that feel a little rote, maybe, details that hew a little close to familiar archetypes – but with the remove of over a decade, it’s easier to notice what this episode is doing, and how it’s subtly progressing the show. Even the more traditional aspects work – Helen McCrory is fantastic casting, her laugh is one of the more memorable acting choices from any of the year’s guest stars – and in the end it’s clear that while The Vampires of Venice might not be an obvious highlight, Series 5 would be appreciably weaker without it.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: Flesh and Stone

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We stare at them to stop them getting closer. We don’t even blink, and that is exactly what they want. Because as long as our eyes are open, they can climb inside. There’s an Angel in her mind.

It suffers somewhat from the same flaws we discussed last week, of course. There’s that same imprecision to the script, the same roughness to Smith’s performance, the same struggle in the direction to balance the two. The imperfections to Flesh and Stone are easily highlighted and difficult to miss; the first-production-block inexperience is as obvious here as it is in The Beast Below or Victory of the Daleks, if not even moreso.

Equally, though, there’s a lot that really works. It’s full of really nice little details, from the Angels’ screeching laughter to the casual sadism of Angel Bob, and where the performances are strong, they’re really strong. Father Octavian’s death scene is a particularly nice moment, in fact: Iain Glen gives a very affecting performance, balancing the pathos of the scene well, to the point that it’s surprising he’s not cited more often as one of Doctor Who’s better guest stars. It helps centre Matt Smith, too, and this scene – his first, I think, attempt at a Doctor Who staple – is probably amongst his best of the two-parter as well. You get the sense of him marking out his approach, marking out what makes his Doctor distinct, lending the scene a much quieter sorrow than Tennant’s more mournful “I’m so sorry” apologies.

You can see the beginning of Moffat working through some ideas about how two-parters work, too, making real steps to differentiate Flesh and Stone from The Time of Angels in a way he didn’t quite do with The Doctor Dances and Forest of the Dead when compared to their counterparts. There’s this real emphasis on making Flesh and Stone feel like something with its own identity, a distinct whole on its own terms – it’s not exactly that you could watch one without the other (they’d each be poorly served by that, I suspect) but rather than they very pointedly don’t blur together. That new, forest setting is a really clever idea, disrupting what we’d become familiar with already while also adding a neat little sci-fi quirk to the wider story: Flesh and Stone is really densely packed with different ideas and concepts, lending it an appreciable energy that obscures the roughness. (It also follows on, somewhat, from what we discussed last week about reinventing the Angels as recurring monsters – it’s as much about translating them to a new iconography as it is expanding the concept, taking them out of the Wester Drumlins haunted house and demonstrating how well, and how easily, they can work in other contexts too.)

More interesting than that sense of an inexperienced production, though, is a little quirk that never reappears – a clever little trick that doesn’t compare to anything before or since.

What was ostensibly a production mistake – the Doctor’s conversation with Amy, wearing his jacket even though he’d just lost it – was actually a tie-in to The Big Bang, an appearance from a future version of the Doctor. It’s a result of more forward planning than Russell T Davies had ever been able to undertake, or that Steven Moffat would ever really be able to do again; as the (brilliant) Shannon Sullivan archive notes, Moffat finished writing The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone towards the end of 2008, roughly a full year ahead of completing his scripts for The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang (which themselves had to be written ahead of schedule anyway). He’d never have that amount of time again – indeed, several of his scripts for Series 6, most notably The Wedding of River Song, were functionally filmed as first drafts – and it’s interesting to see Moffat’s inclination towards that sort of structural playfulness fits around a full series, rather than individual episodes, manifests itself on the one chance he gets to attempt it. (The Time of Angels and Flesh and Stone are also significant in a wider sense, as Christa Mactíre notes, for being at once a sequel and a prequel to the events of Series 6, the first episode filmed at the same time sitting right at the heart of the Moffat era as it stretches outwards in both directions.)

There’s this oft-repeated truism that Steven Moffat is a good writer of individual episodes, but a poor showrunner. It’s a suggestion that, perhaps, has a kernel of truth to it, but not strictly in the sense that it’s meant: the argument is about the creative obligations of his showrunner role, and not the production responsibilities it entails. Which is to say, if there’s any insight to that now-banal comment, it’s one that’s being approached from the wrong angle: Moffat-as-showrunner is a much more interesting figure, I think, to consider as a producer than a writer. (Or, at least, it’s a vastly underexamined area of discussion.) We’ll consider this again over the next few years – particularly, as aforementioned, with those hastily-written Series 6 scripts – but it seemed worth raising here with an episode that’s almost their inverse. It’s interesting to wonder what Moffat might’ve done with Series 6 – or indeed Smith’s tenure as a whole – if a similar sort of lead-in had been possible (either by result of different producing partners alongside him, a different broadcast schedule, or indeed no Sherlock).

It’s also worth spending a little time talking about Amy, if only because I’ve not really done that enough of late. We’ve spoken a few times now about how she’s a character that exists in two worlds, an almost Doctor-like figure in her own right; there’s also, implicit in the subtext at least, this idea that she’s been grappling with abandonment and trauma. (Vincent and the Doctor, as we’ll see, is a big part of this.)

How that manifests here, though, with that last scene, doesn’t work. It’s a deeply uncomfortable way to present what perhaps could’ve been… well, it’s hard to imagine it straightforwardly working in a programme like Doctor Who, to the point that the whole concept feels like a mistake, but in theory there’s a version of this scene that’s much more thoughtful, that casts the kiss much more obviously as a response to trauma. Moffat has since said much the same, commenting “I don’t like Amy coming on to the Doctor at the end of Flesh and Stone. I mean the idea is good and sound – young girl reaches out after hours of deranging terror. But I played it for Coupling-style sitcom laughs. And it doesn’t work. Brilliant episode up till that point […] and then I screw it up with sniggering sex comedy. Bah! [Script editor] Lindsey Alford (as she was then) called me out on it, and I disagreed and stuck to my guns. And I was wrong, damn it.”

The scene sits awkwardly here, as much for what it could’ve been as for what it is – again, my instinct is that it’s better removed entirely (or, perhaps, played much more subtly as well as less comically, but I wonder how in-character subtlety would be) but it’s a shame to miss out on the potential it offers. It’s rare to have a relatively quiet moment of something resembling reflection for these characters, simply because of the momentum the show often demands – the better version of this scene, if it could’ve existed, would’ve been a genuine triumph. (Perhaps tying into that real/fairytale dichotomy through spending time on the consequences of the adventures?) As it is, though, while it doesn’t quite ruin the episode, it comes far closer than any individual scene ever should.

Still. We’re now almost at the halfway mark of Series 5; Vampires in Venice will be the first episode we’ve seen filmed after The Eleventh Hour. It should, in theory, be the start of a show that’s much more confident in itself, lacking the roughness and imprecision we’ve seen this week.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Oscars 2021 Predictions

oscars 2021 predictions nomadland mank promising young woman father oscar statue mask coronavirus soderbergh

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:

Best Picture:

Nomadland

The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Father

Best Director:

Chloe Zhao, Nomadland

Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round

David Fincher, Mank

Best Actor:

Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Anthony Hopkins, The Father

Gary Oldman, Mank

Best Actress:

Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Frances McDormand, Nomadland

Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman

Best Supporting Actor:

Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah

Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Paul Raci, Sound of Metal

Best Supporting Actress:

Youn Yuh-Jung, Minari

Olivia Colman, The Father

Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

Best Original Screenplay:

Promising Young Woman

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Minari

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Nomadland

The Father

One Night in Miami

Best International Feature:

Another Round

Collective

The Man Who Sold His Skin

Best Documentary Feature:

My Octopus Teacher

Crip Camp

Time

Best Animated Feature:

Soul

Wolfwalkers

Onward

Best Film Editing:

Sound of Metal

The Trial of the Chicago 7

Nomadland

Best Original Song:

“Speak Now” from One Night in Miami

“Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest

“Io Si (Seen)” from The Life Ahead

Best Original Score:

Soul

Mank

News of the World

Best Cinematography:

Nomadland

Mank

News of the World

Best Costume Design:

Mank

Emma

Mank

Best Makeup and Hairstyling:

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Emma

Mank

Best Production Design:

Mank

News of the World

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Best Sound:

Sound of Metal

Soul

Greyhound

Best Visual Effects:

Tenet

Love and Monsters

The Midnight Sky

Best Animated Short:

If Anything Happens I Love You

Genius Loci

Yes-People

Best Documentary Short:

Colette

A Love Song for Latasha

A Concerto is a Conversation

Best Live-Action Short:

Two Distant Strangers

The Letter Room

White Eye

I’ve not actually written about most of these films, or even had the chance to watch many of them, but you can find my round-up of all the films I saw across 2020 here, and my reviews of Another Round and One Night in Miami here.

You can find more of my writing about film here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this piece – though I can’t think why you would, it’s just a list – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Time of Angels

What do you know of the Weeping Angels?

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.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

The Falcon and the Winter Soldier doesn’t want to be a television show

falcon winter soldier anthony mackie sebastian stan malcolm spellman kari skogland captain america movies tv

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.

falcon-winter-soldier-wyatt-russell-captain-america-john-walker-shield-murder-blood-cliffhanger-chris-evans

It’s meant to be that way, of course.

Anthony Mackie described the series as “instead of a two-hour movie, a six or eight-hour movie […] cut up into the show”. Meanwhile, director Kari Skogland made a similar comparison, saying they “made it like a six-hour movie” then “kind of sliced it up at the perfect moments”. Part of that is just marketing. (Much like, presumably, showrunner Malcolm Spellman’s distinction between “regular TV” and “top-shelf, Marvel” content.) These comments are a statement of intent as much as anything else – a way for the debut series to emphasise its similarity to its parent cinematic universe, differentiating itself from television almost as a mark of prestige. But they’re also revealing about a lot of the structural choices made by The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and explains why the series is struggling to make an impact – it’s caught between two mediums and not doing an especially good job of being either. That six-hour movie feeling isn’t a fault, it’s a feature.

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.

Related:

WandaVision is an escapist fantasy, but there’s no escape from the Marvel machine

You can find more of my writing about television here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed this article – or if you didn’t – please consider leaving a tip on ko-fi.

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: Victory of the Daleks

doctor who victory daleks churchill bracewell ironside matt smith karen gillan mark gatiss andrew gunn

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.)

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Beast Below

doctor who beast below steven moffat andrew gunn matt smith karen gillan starship uk omelas

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.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Sophie Rundle on Rose: A Love Story, the final series of Peaky Blinders, and more

rose a love story sophie rundle interview matt stokoe peaky blinders gentleman jack jamestown

“Matt [Stokoe, Rundle’s partner] wrote it, just for the exercise of writing and wanting to explore that genre,” she continues. “He very flippantly said ‘oh, do you want to be in it?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, sure,’ thinking, ‘Oh god. I hope it’s good!’”

“But then when he sent it to me, I just loved it. It’s such a clever take on a genre and a style that we’re so familiar with, the vampire story – you sort of think ‘well, I don’t know how you could put a fresh spin on that’, but then when I read his script, I just thought it was so smart.”

“It was so clever to frame it as this couple, one of them dealing with this life changing illness that’s all consuming. I hadn’t thought about that before, and I thought it was so tenderly drawn and it was such a beautiful musing on a relationship and what the burden of illness can do to a couple. I just loved it. So, he sent it to me and then I said, ‘Well, no, actually I’d really like to be in it’”

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.

You can find more of my interviews here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this piece – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor: The Eleventh Hour

doctor who eleventh hour review matt smith karen gillan apple lens flare adam smith steven moffat

To hell with the raggedy. Time to put on a show!

By all rights, this should not have worked.

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.

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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.

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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.

Related:

Eleven Years of the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who Review: Series 12 Overview

You can find more of my writing about Doctor Who here, and follow me on twitter @morelandwriter. If you enjoyed reading this review – or if you didn’t – perhaps consider leaving a tip on ko-fi?