The Name of the Doctor

Blogging Doctor Who, New Series 7

The Cheat of the Doctor

Manipulative set-pieces and strong performances

Can hide creaking machinery for only so long

Screenshot from 'The Name of the Doctor', Doctor Who copyright 2013 BBC

Lord, I was supposed to have written this months ago. When did it first air? Last spring? Checks Wikipedia: yes, last spring. Last May. I'd said I was going to blog that series no matter what; I'd made a commitment, no matter how tired I grew of my own complaints and criticisms. Apparently, I'd grown very tired indeed ...

And yet, in truth, I remember that — very much to my surprise — I rather enjoyed the episode when I first saw it.

In fact, I wrote at the time (but I can't find the referenced tweet — apparently I never actually posted it):

How far fandom has fallen! How far I have fallen, that on first watching "The Name of the Doctor" I was brought nearly to tears. How far I have fallen in my expectations that a decidedly mediocre tale (and an unfinished story at that!) elicited the following tweet:

Credit where it's due. Moffat's series finale creaked in places, but was surprising as hell & far better than expected. #DoctorWho

On the surface there was a lot to like, including some very good performances by the principals. And fan service? O! there was fan service! Images of previous incarnations of the Doctor appeared throughout (even a colour version of the first!), that thrilled as they were meant to. Old fans love the sense of continuity such gifts provide and, I suspect, new fans enjoy the sense they are privy to glimpses of a deeper past. For both old and new, such moments create the illusion of depth, the sense that we are dipping into what Tolkien called a Secondary Creation, a true and entire Other World.

It is was well-done. Had it also served a good story it would have been very well done.

As usual, Moffat's script moved fast and loud and if you blinked (sorry about that), it was easy to miss the fact that so much of it made so very little sense, or that Moffat was bringing so many of his old tricks out for yet another turn about the stage.

  • Faceless monsters (the "whisper men")? Check;
  • Villains standing around and talking about how bad they are? Check;
  • In-jokes that are only funny as in-jokes, and which of course serve to pull us out of the illusion all the aforementioned allusions had been so elaborately crafted to create? Check indeed!
  • Lots of loud, frenetic music and screaming instead of actual plot advancement? Naturally!

Later on, in that same unfinished review, I also wrote:

Mea culpa. I fell victim to some very strong acting and a whole lot of manipulative fan service in the form of old Doctors rushing about the screen.

What am I complaining about this time? Same whine, new bottle, I'm afraid; this time with the added sting that Steven Moffat actually had the germ of a good story way back at the start of this wasted season.

And now, after a long break and, yesterday, a third viewing, I must disagree with my revisionist self. Same whine, old bottle.

The flaws that mar "The Name of the Doctor" are the very same which have saddled Moffat's scripts and stories since before he took over the program.

Let me enumerate just a few of the ways, then I'll leave you in peace (at least until my inevitable response to Saturday's (real?) finale — surely to god, Moffat will tie up some of his loose ends then, won't he?).

First, from a meta perspective, the episode was a cheat. We had, all (half) series long been promised that this would be the climactic episode for Moffat's long arc, that "The Name of the Doctor" would give us some answers and, especially, come to a fucking conclusion!. It did nothing of the kind.

Not only did it turn out that we didn't learn the Doctor's real name, but that that mystery doesn't matter anyway. In any event, this flabby thing, from its pointless inclusion of fan-favourites who did nothing really to advance the plot (Hello Jenny! Hi, Madame Vastra! And Jesus, Strax, you're an embarrassment to the entire Sontaran race!), to the nonsensical presence of the very dead River Song, whose in-story existence was explained by a logic that had all the explanatory power of "she was a ghost!", to the fact that nearly 24 minutes into the episode nothing had really happened, "The Name of the Doctor" was almost nothing but a cheat.

Worse still, it was a boring cheat. By the time Matt Smith's Doctor collapses in a heap while his past selves are being erased from his timeline (or something like that; I'm not going to watch the thing a fourth time just to get the techno-babble right) and Jenna Louise Coleman's Clara realizes she has to go in after him — "I'm the impossible girl!" — it was all I could do not to shout at the screen, "This is so boring!!" (Wait. My notes suggest that I did shout at the screen. Well, then ...)

More scenes of previous Doctors, now being rescued by various incarnations of Clara. Then our Doctor declares he has to save her, he has to risk going into his own timeline &ct &ct &ct ...

Which brings us to the Great Big (non) Climax! John Hurt! Another Doctor! A mystery between 8 and 9! And the absolutely biggest revelation of all: that this episode, in which almost nothing happened but a lot of shouting interspersed with shots of Coleman doing her best to dramatically flap her arms against a green-screen backdrop ... that this episode was not the season finale after all!

No! It was just a prelude to the real (we should be so lucky!) finale! For which we, er, would have to wait a full half-year to see.

If Steven Moffat has no shame, the BBC ought to. Or maybe not. After all, I enjoyed the Paul McGann mini-episode that came out the other day and even praised it. And it managed to get me back onto my pale writer's behind to finish this review, didn't it?

Screenshot from 'The Name of the Doctor', Doctor Who copyright 2013 BBC

God help me, and despite re-watching "The Name of the Doctor", I'm a little stoked about Saturday, even if I'll probably be too busy getting ready for my own event the following day to watch it live.

Somehow, I am willing to give Moffat's Who yet one more shot.

I guess that's because it's not really Moffat's baby, is it? Doctor Who isn't really even the BBC's. Whatever the legalities, they are only custodians of a creation which at this point is like a myth that lives in the hearts and minds of those of us who believe in it. I'm going to watch the next instalment, even with some hope against experience, because Doctor Who is a part of me, however silly that may sound.

So let's raise a glass in hope that we'll all be cheering come Saturday — lord knows, we deserve it, having stuck around through so many disappointments.

Spread the word!

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