This has been a tough few days for Doctor Who.
On Friday, the world lost the War Doctor. John Hurt’s career has been long and varied: I suspect, given the depth and breadth of his filmography, that his are the footsteps in which David Tennant has been following. (Not too closely, David, Sir John was married four times!) But it is for this tiny slice of a role that so many of us will remember him.
The War Doctor was conceived in an emergency. Christopher Eccleston had declined to participate in the 50th Anniversary special, and so his Doctor’s experience of the Time War could not be portrayed. According to himself, Stephen Moffat asked, “What if there was an incarnation of the Doctor none of us knew about? And, coincidentally, he was played by the most famous actor in the world?” Hurt was Moffat’s idea of Wilderness Years stunt casting: the Doctor who never was. Also according to Moffat, Hurt was tickled by the opportunity. “So I am properly Doctor Who now. I am a Doctor Who. I can say it?” Clearly he was delighted by the role: one of my favorite anniversary-special accessories was a short video in which he affectionately refers to Matt Smith and David Tennant as “the boys.” As a result, every one of his scenes is magic:
Yes, even that one.
On Monday, as we reeled, our beloved Twelfth Doctor disclosed his departure. While not surprising, it’s still terribly sad: he still feels so fresh, his tenure so brief, and he’s been such a delight in the role. I had hopes for Chris Chibnall’s powers of persuasion. Yet it was not to be: Capaldi is a film actor first, and not one for lingering television roles. (Film and TV are different worlds: the demands, the shooting schedules, the ongoing commitments of each suit different actors differently.) I will mourn and miss this Doctor, and feel grateful for the three seasons we got. (Will get? Will have gotten? Tenses are funny.)
Which I will watch over and over, as I have the single season my own first Doctor gave me.
Series 11 will be a jolt no matter what: new showrunner, new Doctor, for all we know a new companion. (Please, Pearl, stick with us!) It’s not as if this hasn’t happened before: Moffat’s era began so, and managed a reasonable amount of success. But DW was on an upswing of popularity at that time, new to BBC America and a blazing international audience. Now, if anything it’s plateaued, removed from streaming, with a whole year left fallow between seasons. Capaldi himself expressed misgivings about how his beloved show had been treated by its administrators; does it retain the strength it needs to overcome the trauma of this change?
And what will this change look like?
For years fans have clamored for someone other than a white man in the role. The opportunity here is of course immense, for Chibnall and the BBC. But so is the risk. America demonstrated this past autumn how much it still hates and fears women and people of color. In spite of its Queen is Britain really so different? Will the BBC have the courage to make this kind of statement with the crown jewel of its history?
Somehow I doubt it.
Current fan speculation is not without its bright spots. Richard Ayoade, Miranda Hart, and Olivia Colman make the short list. Other suggestions are more bland and typical. I’m sure we’ll ultimately be surprised, not necessarily unpleasantly, but I don’t expect to be inspired.
My personal one-two are Helen Mirren and Alexander Siddig. Both have the charm, the flair, the gravitas, and the range the Doctor demands. Mirren has expressed how much she’d love the role – and as much as I’d love to see her in it, I can’t help thinking of the statement Siddig would make. Refined and British he may be, but does television have the vision in these times to cast Siddig El Tahir El Fadil El Siddig Abderrahman Mohammed Ahmed Abdel Karim El Mahdi in that most beloved and iconic of British roles?
Star Trek would do it. The play is yours, Doctor Who.
*what the TARDIS probably contains.
I have been remiss here of late. Other than the holiday special I have mentioned none of the fun DW related things that have abounded.
Well, maybe not abounded as such…
Ages ago, we finished watching the spinoff “Class.” As of yet the show has no future – it has not aired on actual TV and no second season is confirmed – although the series ended on a hell of a cliffhanger. It was a lot of fun overall: well made, well performed, with no more adolescent melodrama than you would expect from a show about teenagers and rather less than the supposedly grown-up Torchwood. Miss Quill, played by Katherine Kelly, is one of my new favorite characters. She is badass, vengeful, unfriendly, and unkind – the antithesis of the pretty blonde alien. I enjoyed the hell out of her.
Unfortunately our DW meetup group more or less disintegrated toward the end of last year. The organizer came down with a series of malignant viral infections, cancelling first the “Boom Town” and “Bad Wolf” screening and then the series-ending three-parter from “Bad Wolf” through “The Christmas Invasion.” Our S1 rewatch effectively ended with “The Doctor Dances” – not a bad place to stop, of course, but I was looking forward to finishing the season among my nerd horde. Still, we could resume come spring. A new organizer has stepped forward, and he hopes to add more social events as well as screenings to our calendar.
I thought I had posted earlier about a certain writer’s return to the show, but it appears I never finished the post. Ages back – last summer? last fall? it was teased that a classic DW writer would be writing an episode for S10. When I heard, I thought instantly of Ben Aaronovitch. Aaronovitch wrote “Remembrance of the Daleks,” in which Ace defends Coal Hill School with a baseball bat, and “Battlefield,” an Arthurian story with the Doctor in the role of Merlin. Both are strong, memorable stories from a difficult time in the show’s history. Since then, Aaronovitch has created his own ongoing series of novels about a young mixed-race London cop who can see ghosts and who learns how to do magic. The Rivers of London series is great fun and very nerdy – any DW fan will relate to Peter Grant right off the bat.
However, it isn’t Aaronovitch. The returning writer is Rona Monro. Monro wrote the very last aired classic DW story, with the oddly prescient name “Survival.” Since then she has written extensively for film, television, radio, and the stage. Her return, and that of Sarah Dollard, marks the second series in a row in which two (or more? 1 writer may still be TBA) episodes are written by women. Yes, a pittance against the 5 or more male writers appearing every season, but better than the long drought of series 5-8. (Not to mention 1, 2, and the vast majority of classic DW.)
I have not seen “Survival” but I plan to fix that before S10 begins.
On the topic of women behind the camera, I note that the director slot has yet to be filled for episodes 11 and 12 of the new series. Rachel Talalay has admirably taken that role the last two seasons. Dare we hope for three in a row?
Finally, the holidays may be over, but I only recently stumbled across the Doctor Puppet’s latest Christmas special. It’s adorable, as always. Enjoy.
I wrote this ages ago, but it seems strangely relevant just now.
The Aftermath of the Unspeakable
I’ve mentioned The Librarians a time or two on this blog. It’s a silly show with a lot of love for Doctor Who and decent entertainment value but not a lot of merit otherwise. The writing tends to be weak, acting over the top, and any point to be made tends to get bashed over the viewer’s head. It’s not bad TV – not as bad as the original Librarian movies at least – but it doesn’t score a lot of high marks generally.
This season, the show’s third, has struck me as particularly flimsy. Stories have been less engaging, less charming than previous outings. Still fun, but extremely lightweight. Then while watching the last episode, I recognized a name in the head credits: Tom McRae.
I recalled the name because I’d looked it up before. McRae contributed two stories to Doctor Who: “The Girl Who Waited” and “Rise of the Cybermen/Age of Steel.” (He also apparently wrote a mini-sode of “Night and the Doctor,” which I had never heard of until just now.) Both are solid episodes of Doctor Who. And McRae’s contribution to The Librarians is just as solid.
All other episodes of The Librarians are written by John Rogers – known for Catwoman, Transformers, and Leverage. Occasionally another writer has served as co-writer, but McRae is the first to get an episode to himself. And while he may not stand out on Doctor Who, on The Librarians he surely does. More please!