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Doctor Who: Listen

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I was so ready to have nightmares from this episode.

One-off scary episodes are what Steven Moffat does best. There are no long-term plots to manage, or emotional arcs to develop. The episodes don’t even have to be internally consistent. They just have to be absorbingly, atmospherically creepy, playing on subconscious childhood fears. It’s small scale, deeply focussed, characters-in-the-basement-while-the-light-flickers stuff. We don’t have to know or care about anything beyond this particular moment and how terrifying it is.

Which is why Listen only half-worked. Half of the episode is about hiding under the bed while an unseen monster may or may not lurk in the room, while half of the episode attempted to go grand scale, confusing-character-timeline, big picture story. And the two halves just didn’t click.

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Doctor Who: Robot of Sherwood

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Now that was a fun episode.

The plot only made sense in a “don’t think about it” sort of way, but after things Got Serious last week, it was really fun to have an episode that was all historical figures and running jokes and banter and peril that isn’t really perilous at all.

Everything about this episode said “don’t take me seriously.” The main conflict was the bickering between the Doctor and Robin Hood, the disguise during the archery contest was so obvious that it was literally just a hat, and the Doctor engaged in and won a swordfight with a spoon. It actually reminded me a bit of Merlin — it’s so ridiculous that you’re either going to love it, or think it unbearable dumb. I was glad to be in the first group.

It also showed the potential of a grumpy, less friendly and adventurous Doctor. While Capaldi’s Doctor had hints of whimsy this week, it was also great to see how the Doctor can be funny and entertaining without being the “timey-wimey” speaking figure of recent years. I feel as though the first episode tried too hard to show how the Doctor was more distant, and the second episode was determined to make him dark. Here we finally got to see the more light-hearted and human side to him, and finally see a Doctor that someone would actually want to adventure with.

If only the episode hadn’t made him so stupid. Considering that the Doctor is a supposed genius who has seen all of time and space, the show often struggles to show how any other character could possibly be useful. Often, it goes the road of “emotional intelligence,” with the companions providing the voice of reason, or just plotting things so that the Doctor isn’t around to help the companions out. But sometimes, as with this week, it seems to decide that the only way to have companions be the hero is to turn the Doctor into a temporary idiot. Clara was definitely the hero of the week, and the only one to keep a level head, but this is weakened slightly by the fact that everybody else was utterly useless. They’re too busy bickering to come up with a plan. They’re too stubborn to see what’s going on. The Doctor refuses to accept that Robin Hood could be real for no apparent reason. And he’s shown to be pretty much useless without his sonic screwdriver.

Which is all fine and fun for a light-hearted episode. But then, should the joke be that the guys are idiots and Clara’s the one handling everything after all? Does it have to be “the boys are useless, thank god Clara’s a badass”? It’s fun in a 1990s Girl Power kind of way, but shouldn’t we be able to do better than yoyoing between “underdeveloped secondary character” and “Outspoken Strong Female Character” here? Can’t we have a female character be awesome without everyone else having to be an idiot to make it happen? Please?

And, side note: “I’m just as real as you are”? Please tell me that’s going to be as ominous and plot-relevant as it sounds.

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Doctor Who: Into the Dalek

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Now here’s a surprise: Into the Dalek was a pretty darn enjoyable episode of Doctor Who. Painfully cheesy at times, with some rehashed material from other Dalek episodes, it still managed to be fun and dramatic and intriguing, while asking interesting questions about bot the Daleks and the Doctor.

Compared to last week’s confusion, it basically deserves an Emmy.

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Doctor Who: Deep Breath

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I wasn’t going to watch Doctor Who season 8. I really wasn’t. But my old love for the show combined with curiosity over Capaldi’s debut meant that I ultimately couldn’t resist.

Sadly, the episode was pretty “meh.” Not fantastic, not terrible, just… “meh.” And although Capaldi is a talented actor, I had some pretty major issues with the way he fits into the show. He’s taking the Doctor in a new direction, and the writing simply isn’t strong enough to support that.

And, unfortunately, most of the problem lies with Clara.

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How much do promo images matter?

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The BBC have released their official promo image for the new season of Doctor Who. Although it’s nowhere near as controversial as last season’s “unconscious Amy” promo picture, the image has come under fire for reflecting the continuing sexism in Moffat’s Doctor Who.

Which begs the question: do promotional images really matter? They’re not stills from the show. They’re marketing tools, and as such, they might not even properly reflect the content of the show. They’re single images, a different medium from whatever they’re representing. How can we criticize something based on that?

But they do matter, precisely because they’re marketing tools. A promo pic is designed to represent the spirit of the show in a single memorable image, so that people get a sense of what it’s about and hopefully get excited to watch it. The promo pics might not always be entirely accurate, if there’s disagreement between the marketing department and the show creators, but they are supposed to represent the spirit of the show in a way that appeals to the masses.

And in television, they usually reflect this pretty well. Every year, Downton Abbey‘s promo pic is of the whole cast standing in front of Downton, telling us (accurately) that this is an ensemble show, set in a country house in the 1910s and 20s. Orange and the New Black, meanwhile, has had two different approaches to promo pics. The image for the first season focused on Piper, dressed in orange, in the middle of the other girls, who are less noticeable in grey. In contrast, in the second season promo pictures, Piper’s just one face in the group, showing that she’s now less important, and that the show has become a true ensemble. In Sleepy Hollow‘s image, Ichabod and Abby are center stage, glaring into the camera, with a couple of secondary characters in the background, and the creepy misty woods declaring that this is a horror show. And on and on and on. Promo pictures have a message. They are designed to represent the show.

So what does this latest promo pic tell us about the new Doctor Who? Fabulous new TARDIS, fabulous new Doctor. The Doctor stares into the camera, a challenging and perhaps even irritated expression on his face, while he stands in a power pose. He is commanding, authoritative, ready to take on the universe. And then there’s Clara. A smaller figure, more in the background. She’s looking into the distance, not at the camera, and so is not engaging with the viewer. She’s holding onto the TARDIS and standing with her knees bent, a much weaker position, with an almost dreamy smile on her face. She’s definitely the passenger in this image, the dreamy-eyed girl that the Doctor is taking on an adventure, not an adventurer in her own right. And it’s a far cry from previous Doctor Who promo pics, where the companions have been shown on equal footing with the Doctor, engaging with the camera, in power positions, ready to fight and explore.

Yes, it’s just an image. But it’s an image that tells us a lot. At best, this depicts what the BBC thinks most viewers want to see, the image that they think will appeal the most. At worst, it depicts precisely what we should expect from the new season of Doctor Who. Exciting adventures with a moody new Doctor, with his pretty little assistant along for the ride.

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Against “Historical Accuracy”

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Historical accuracy. God, I’ve come to hate that phrase. It is used to cover all manner of sins. Have a historical narrative that treats its female characters as objects? Historical accuracy. All your characters are bigoted jerks but we’re supposed to sympathize with them? Historical accuracy. Have racism or sexism in your fantasy series? Historical accuracy!

Of course, “historical accuracy” is sometimes a good explanation for a character’s attitudes. I cannot sit through an episode of Downton Abbey without wanting to punch Lord Grantham in the face, but his sexist attitude is realistic. The key thing is that the narrative never makes you think he’s in the right. He’s the old-fashioned one unable to cope with the changing world, and his mother, wife and daughters, who argue against him, are the ones you root for. It’s very different from a show where the script, the direction, everything actually places female or minority characters in an inferior position, or supports their exploitation or dismissal. And it happens all the time. It’s as though a “historical” setting (or something like it) gives writers and creators free rein to embrace as many old-fashioned and bigoted views as they like, for viewers to enjoy whatever messed up portrayals they like uncritically, and for everyone to wave it away as “it’s not us, it’s history!”

This is especially frustrating on fantasy shows like Game of Thrones. The story is set in an entirely made-up world. There is no “historical accuracy,” because there is no history. And even if we literally took Westeros as middle ages England, there are enough dragons and snow zombies hanging around to make “accuracy” a bit of a moot point. Yet cries of “historical accuracy” crop up every time anyone criticizes the show’s problems. It’s historically accurate that Brienne thinks all women are weak. It’s historically accurate that Tyrion (at least book Tyrion) is a complete misogynist, so we should be sympathetic to him. It’s historically accurate that the show has random naked brothel scenes every episode. “Historical accuracy” becomes a catch-all cover-up for “you can’t be PC here, because it’s NOT THE MODERN DAY!” Anything can be excused if the reader can shrug and say “oh well, it’s only history. That’s how it was.”

Which is why I’m so thrilled that Sleepy Hollow has decided to do away with the whole thing. It’s a show where the Headless Horseman is one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and a time-travelling British revolutionary soldier and a modern day cop must fight all manner of demons to prevent the coming of the end of days. In that context, terms like “accuracy” no longer completely apply. Of course, it’s fun when a show gets actual tidbits of history right (the Georgian nerd in me was a little thrilled to hear Ichabod refer to “Miss Mill’s” little sister as “Miss Jenny,” as an 18th century gentleman would), but it really doesn’t matter when you already have witches and monsters and undead creatures hanging around, especially when the show takes place in the modern day.

Is it historically accurate that Ichabod Crane, an 18th century British soldier, was friend to Native Americans and opposed to slavery and is more accepting that many modern day people of equality between different races and cultures? That, apart from one congratulatory comment about Abbie’s “emancipation,” he accepts the idea of women and non-white people being cops and being in charge absolutely without comment? That he is ready to start another revolution over the taxation of donuts, but women wearing trousers is no big deal? Probably not. And I could easily imagine a show where Ichabod’s ignorance is used as a source of comedy, or even where he’s treated as refreshingly un-PC. But in skipping that whole nonsense, the show gets to both be a generally progressive genre show and focus on the important things. Like its really diverse cast. And fun, non-offensive banter. And scary demons. And really hot British guys in wigs.

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The Doctor? A woman? Perish the thought!

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The 12th Doctor is Peter Capaldi.

I haven’t seen much of his acting, but the people who have are really excited, so it seems like he’s a good choice. A fairly predictable and traditional choice, but a good one.

But after yesterday’s special, I may actually be done with Doctor Who.

They cast a white, male actor as the Doctor, as they have done twelve times, ever since the 60s. And everyone involved knew that. It was their expected default move. Yet they spent an LOT of time hyping up how this Doctor is going to be unexpected, a change in direction, something that might take people out of their comfort zone. They made sure that their press release, and any mention of the actor before the reveal, explicitly said “the man or woman,” “he or she.” And a lot of time was dedicated to the discussion of whether they would cast a female Doctor. 

They hadn’t, of course. The big “shock” with this Doctor was that he was an older white male than usual. But they still pushed the idea, over and over again, that there would be change. That a female Doctor would be a possibility.

In other words, they were using the very real issue of media representation as a PR device. They used it to build up hype, without actually having to do anything hype-worthy.

As I’ve said before, I’m pretty glad that Steven Moffat isn’t responsible for a female Doctor. That would be a mess of sexist stereotypes just waiting to happen. But it’s frustrating and disappointing that they used the idea as part of their promotion, especially when Moffat made it explicitly clear that he would never, never never never, consider casting a woman for the part.

As he said on TV last night:

I like that Helen Mirren has been saying the next doctor should be a woman. I would like to go on record and say that the Queen should be played by a man.

This is not a paraphrase. He actually said that on live TV. Apart from confirming that Moffat is completely oblivious about his sexism, I think this statement shows two things:

1. Moffat sees the Doctor as a 100% male character. The idea of casting a woman to play him is as preposterous as casting a man to play Queen Elizabeth II.

2. He truly doesn’t understand the issue, or any of the criticisms of the sexism of the show. At all. He thinks that casting a woman to playing a traditionally male part is the same as casting a man to play a female part, despite the fact that male protagonists are the norm in science fiction and that there’s a dearth of good female roles and role models for viewers. Add in the preposterous fact that Queen Elizabeth’s role has actually been played by both real men and male actors throughout history (they’re called kings, Moffat. We had a lot of them), and that last year was literally the first time it was possible for a woman to become ruler over younger male siblings, and you have to wonder what planet he lives on. One where men and women are completely equal and have been throughout history, but where women are still “different” and somehow less capable, apparently.

And I’m not sure I want to watch a show run by somebody so stuck in his own privileged ignorance any more. Especially when that show uses the idea of progress and equality and change as a promotional tool rather than something that deserves serious consideration.

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A Female Doctor?

Art courtesy of ch4rms on deviantart
Art courtesy of ch4rms on deviantart

 

Matt Smith is leaving Doctor Who

You know what that means. The internet has spent its five minutes mourning the loss of the current Doctor, and is now ready for endless speculation and debate about who the next Doctor could/should be. And there’s one major argument that gets hashed out to raise tension and vitriol levels every time: could the next Doctor be played by a woman?

My answer? Absolutely. But not as long as Steven Moffat remains at the helm.

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Doctor Who: The Name of the Doctor

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The Name of the Doctor is a surprisingly enjoyable finale for the season, as long as it’s watched with your Doctor Who glasses on. Forget plot continuity, forget what’s come before (even in Moffat’s own run as showrunner), forget the fact that we don’t really know who this so-called Great Intelligence is and live in the moment, and it’s fairly dramatic and good fun to watch.

And if you can’t forget all that… well, it doesn’t make any sense.

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