A Strangely Compelling Masculine Figure

It’s nearly Dr. Who’s fifty-first birthday. Twelve months on from the celebration that encompassed The Day of the Doctor, Light at the End and Destiny of the Doctor ( plus a line of reprinted novels), how is the series faring?

The Drama Channel is very late to the party with a series of sequential  repeats that began with The Aztecs and tomorrow revisits the Pyramids of Mars. While it’s a welcome move to show classic Who on tv, what about the real BBC deal?

The final quartet of episodes have strayed far from the 60s mission to educate as well as entertain. The Tardis has left the mathematics and computer science of the 80s far, far behind as it whirls into Harry Potter territory. Is the magical thinking and Blakeian allusion another manifestation of Cycle 24, like the mind-expanding imagery of Capaldi’s early episodes?

Flatline, like Mummy on the Orient Express was a popular episode by writer Jamie Mathieson. Part urban horror and part tribute to Banksy, it focused on Clara’s gradual transformation into a Doctor-figure. Frank Cotrell Boyce’s urban fantasy In the Forests of the Night was a whimsical fable, with more poetry than logic and less well-received, although I thought the writing was better.

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Moffat’s traditional season finale (Dark Water/Death in Heaven) reminded me of the DWM strip The Flood as Cybermen harvested the dead in an elaborate revenge scheme fostered by Missy, the “gatekeeper of the Nethersphere”. The new female incarnation of the Master was typically “bananas” – an evil Mary Poppins. But I found the episodes quite dissatisfying. The first part was  macabre but in poor taste with the cremation terrors of the newly deceased and the second resounded with the jingoistic militarism that post -Referendum Britain revels in.  Twelve’s antipathy towards the armed forces seemed to be resolved in a glutinous tribute , awkwardly poised before Remembrance Sunday.

I haven’t warmed to this  reactionary Doctor, crabby and choleric. Smith’s second season was about River Song and her timeline. The third was about Clara and her timeline. Capaldi’s first season has felt like  an extended epilogue to the Eleventh Doctor, wasting time on the “Am I a Good Man?” question which can’t really go anywhere- and didn’t.

I have no issues with the actor’s suitability for the role: his grouchy delivery makes me laugh and I find his Cushing-like scuttling particularly amusing. But the Rude Magician’s next outing already looks like a pastiche of 1965’s TV Comic adventure with Father Christmas.  Sentiment and whimsy seem tonally jarring after the grisly boneyard horror of the preceding story. I don’t want to descend into a cliche “Moffat Must Go” routine but in modern ministerial style, one might hope lessons had been learned. A fun-free Doctor in “just -pre-watershed” adventures isn’t a brilliant idea.

The three novels featuring the Twelfth Doctor are for the most part undemanding Young Adult fare.  The prolific Justin Richards writes prose that’s often flat and tedious: Silhouette, a Paternoster Gang Penny dreadful where aliens weaponise circus performers, plods through Victorian tropes. Another BBC stalwart, Mike Tucker evokes the Pertwee era- as suggested by Capaldi’s costume- in The Crawling Terror. This undemanding  invasion- by -giant- insects is very Terrance Dicks although the sprightly Home Guard veteran in action in 2014  stretched my credulity somewhat.

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The most successful of the three is The Blood Cell. Although I can think of three other  Doctor- Captive- in- Inescapable -Prison stories, James Goss’ novel is very well-written, blending dark humour and horror in a way that Moffat can’t quite get right.

Meanwhile in the parallel universe of audio Who,  Peter Purves plays Steven Taylor as King Lear in The War to End All Wars. Purves’ energy lifts a very humdrum story of a phoney war inspired by the writing of Alex Comfort.

Philip Olivier makes his final exit(?) as Hector/Hex in two tales: The Mask Of Tragedy, again by James Goss, is a comic sci-fi romp in ancient Athens which takes a very dark turn. A gossipy alien insect healer and a living god with mind-control powers clash in a very theatrical adventure.

Matt Fitton’s Signs and Wonders is quite reminiscent of the Virgin New Adventures as a Northern Revelationist (played by Warren Brown) summons aliens in a near-future Liverpool. A truce is eventually called between Doctor Seven and the Elder Gods- thankfully, since these stories are too apocalyptic to wear every day. Even better, Hex gets a happy ending after all his trials. I never felt Phil got to play Hector very differently from Hex, despite being possesed repeatedly and while I’ll miss his boyish energy, the character’s resurrection was squandered.

Coming soon: Titan’s Doctor Who and Iterations of I

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