Sunday 15 May 2011

The Doctor's Wife. Review.

Dr Who, Idris, Auntie and Uncle, the Doctor's Wife by Neil Gaiman
Hiring Neil Gaiman to write a Dr Who episode was always going to be a risk. Despite the acclaim that's been heaped on him over the years, the truth is Gaiman's never totally mastered many of the basic skills of story-telling, such as plot, character and endings. He also has a tendency to go for style over substance to a degree that can leave his work teetering on the cliff edge of total pointlessness. In a comic book these weaknesses can be overlooked and even become a strength. Comics are a visual medium - and an abstract one to boot - in which a writer can get away with plenty as long as his scripts give an artist the ability to weave a certain kind of magic. No one ever accused Stan Lee, for instance, of being the world's greatest writer but that didn't stop his comics being classics.

Television, on the other hand is a more demanding mistress. There's no artist to fill the chinks in a writer's armour, and the use of real people and sets, rather than stylised drawings, gives it a literalism that demands a whole other mindset.

Dr Who, Suranne Jones and Matt Smith, the Doctor's Wife by Neil Gaiman
Receiving what appears to be a message from another Time Lord, the Doctor leaves the universe and lands on a living planet called House - but not before House steals the TARDIS' matrix - its "soul" - and put it into the body of a woman called Idris. After the Doctor's had the chance to meet the annoying locals, House's life-force leaves the Doctor and Idris behind, takes control of the TARDIS' physical shell and sets off to wreak havoc in our Universe. Can our hero catch up with him and restore the TARDIS' soul to its body before it's too late?

Of course he can - it'd be the end of the show if he didn't - but not before he gets to spend time with the woman the TARDIS has now become.

Dr Who, ood, the Doctor's Wife by Neil Gaiman

It's hard to know what to make of it. On first viewing, the thing's so inept in its story-telling that it feels like we've been TARDISed back to the grim days of Sylvester McCoy, while the actors playing Auntie and Uncle produce some of the worst acting you'll ever see on a TV screen. In fairness, as they're acting just like you expect Neil Gaiman characters to act, I suppose you have to absolve them of blame and assume they're simply doing what they've been told to.

If in the episode's first half, Gaiman at least pays lip service to trying to tell something that resembles a story, in its second he gives up altogether as we're given the Doctor trying to build a TARDIS from scratch while Rory and Amy run around corridors for what feels like an eternity. For fans of fake deaths, we also get the sight of Rory seeming to die and then being alive again. There's a novelty.

It doesn't help that, as House, Michael Sheen delivers all his lines with the vigour of an "I Speak Your Weight" machine, guaranteeing that Gaiman's inevitably weak - and hard to follow - ending is even less involving than it needs to be.

Dr Who, Idris, the Doctor's Wife by Neil Gaiman
On second viewing, the first half does feature some neat foreshadowing that relates to events in the second half, and the episode's real saving grace, Suranne Jones' performance as Idris, shines through, meaning it's not the complete disaster it initially seemed but, after the poor Neverwhere and now this, should Gaiman be allowed to write for TV again?

Probably not. His weaknesses are simply fatal in such an on-the-nail medium and his strengths have no way to express themselves amid such literalism.

But that's for Gaiman to worry about. For the viewer, the main concern has to be that, after a hugely promising debut, each episode of this current series has been weaker than the one before, and the trailer for next week's really doesn't look promising at all. Steven Moffat's proven he can write Dr Who but the worry is that, as show runner, he's threatening to be the man who steered the ship straight at the iceberg. The Doctor found his way back to our universe but can the show find its way back to where it needs to be? Or was my feeling that I'd been transported back to the late 1980s disturbingly apt? Will subsequent episodes bring a stirring turnaround or merely the beginning of the end?


Kid said...

You've hit the nail on the head, Stevey-boy. I'm fast losing the will to watch it. It almost seems that it couldn't get any worse, so let's just hope that it can only get better.

Anonymous said...

Ehh, I disagree.

Steve said...

I am getting a bit worried about this. Before I reviewed it I deliberately went out of my way not to find out what anyone else thought of it, so my opinions wouldn't be tainted by any kind of received wisdom. As we all know, I like to avoid wisdom of every kind. Then, after I'd reviewed it, I discovered that almost everyone else in the world thought it was a masterpiece.

Because I don't enjoy not liking my favourite show and I don't like slagging off writers, in case I ever have to borrow money from them, I wish I could see what it is about this episode that everyone loved but, to me, as I was watching it, it just felt like a self-indulgent irrelevant mess from a show that now seems to have wilfully disconnected itself from anything that actually matters.

alistair robb said...

Steve, here's something I wrote over on a yahoo group I'm a member of, I really think you should go back and watch the episode again. Also, while I believe everybody has the right to an opinion ( especially on their own blog!), I do beleive that Neil has had a number of international bestsellers so it's a bit harsh to state that he can't write (Yes...yes I know Dan Brown and all that, but I think you get what I mean :D ).

Please keep in mind that the following was an email and not a review. cheers...great blog by the way.

"I think it was a particularly strong episode that built on the Doctor from series 1 to 4, certainly stronger than the first 3 episodes of series 6 so far. The thing that has always been great about the series has been its ability to take elements from previous series and incoporate them into each new incarnation, which Moffat didn't do with series 5 and has moved even further from in the current series, giving us a programme that is being tailored for the American market and away from its British fantastical roots. RTD even brought in the 90s Doctor, even though we didn't get to see the regeneration, it was at least acknowledged as part of the canon.

What we have with Moffat's Doctor, is an attempt at internationalising the concept, which is exactly the wrong thing to do, it has had a British fantasy sensibility from the get go and Neil certainly brought that back in with his episode. I won't say that this is the best story ever, it certainly isn't, but it certainly was more akin to the Doctor in series 1 through 4. Perhaps, more tellingly, it was the first time I actually enjoyed Matt Smith as the Doctor.

The quicker that Moffat gets away from trying to Americanise the concept, the longer the series is going to stay with us. After all, isn't that what attracted foreign viewers to the series in the first place? I presume so."

Steve said...

Hi, Alistair. Nice to hear from you.

I watched the episode twice before reviewing it because I'm aware that my first opinions on shows aren't always my final ones. While I enjoyed the episode more on second viewing than the first, I still found my attention wandering badly once we got to the TARDIS building and the corridor scenes, and the climactic sequence felt somewhat flat and empty to me.

I certainly wouldn't accuse Neil Gaiman of not being able to write. When I first started writing short stories, he was one of my early influences and the first story I ever had published was partially influenced by the style of his Sandman tale, The Sound of Her Wings. However, all writers have their strengths and all have their weaknesses and I just feel his strengths and weaknesses lend themselves better to the more stylised medium of comics than to television. Horses for courses and all that.

In the end, I think I'm just going to have to accept that my tastes are simply not in line with those of the rest of the world when it comes to certain things, and that this episode is one of those things.

Kid said...

Steve, trust me (I'm a Doctor) - you were right.

Steerforth said...

You hit the nail on the head - McCoy. It felt like an episode from the days when the series had disappeared up its own backside. RTD knew that Who would only work if it was aimed at a mainstream audience. Any more episodes as baffling (and silly) as this and the viewing figures will drop off a cliff.

Visually, this was a stunning episode and it got quite exciting towards the end, but as far as the plot was concerned, I think most people were scratching their heads.

And what happened to the claim that Matt Smith's youth was belied by the fact that he was the only actor in the auditions who behaved as if he was 900 years old? So far, he seems more like a flippant teenager. Less of the 'spacey-wacey' jokes and more gravitas please.

Steve said...

Matt Smith's performances are a strange thing, veering wildly between the flippant and the dark - sometimes in the same sentence. Generally I approve but would like to see him tone down the hyperactivity a little in places.

Kid said...

Didn't you have five followers recently, Steve? Has one just done a runner?

M. D. Jackson said...

Oh, come on Steve, you big party poop! This episode was brilliant!

Okay, well, we'll just have to agree to disagree, because I gather you didn't like NEVERWHERE either, which I thought was an absolutely brilliant series hampered only by poor production values.

True, the episode was long on characterization and short on story, in that it was similar to VINCENT AND THE DOCTOR which eschewed a complex plot in favour of examining the relationship which formed between The Doctor, Amy and Vincent VanGogh. Still and all I would put that episode up against almost any other in the Matt Smith seasons.

But what a genius idea, to make the TARDIS into a person and have it be her who felt like she stole the Doctor rather than the other way around. And to have the doctor not even recognize her for who she is until almost halfway through. Brilliant!

I'm not going to try to change your mind (I have too much respect for your opinion to do that) but I am absolutely unapologetic in my liking for this episode.

Steve said...

Kid; you're right. I had five followers. Then I had four. Now I have five again. It's a regular roller coaster ride of popularity/unpopularity.

M.D; I'm just hoping I like next week's episode. I'm getting fed up of having to say negative things about my favourite show.

PS. I loved Vincent and the Doctor too.

Anonymous said...

I'm with M D Jackson. I thought this was a brilliant episode in so many ways. Of course the tardis is the love of the Doctor's life, his most constant companion. What a brilliant idea to turn it into a woman. I think this episode adds to the mythology of Doctor Who. That's why I am reading reviews - something I've never done before (so what do I know!) I may be biased, I love Neil Gaiman's work. But like Alistair Robb, I also felt that Matt Smith has finally become The Doctor in his own right. My favourite bit:
Idris: "Are all people like this?"
Dr: "Like what?"
Idris: "Bigger on the inside."

Anonymous said...

I really doubt that you have read much Gaiman based on your review and I wonder if you saw the same show as me.

This was an excellent episode in it's own right and I wonder can we even view the doctor at the controls of the TARDIS in the same way again?

For me the storyline was strong and packed an emotional punch with that word "Hello". Smith really is fast becoming a great Doctor and I think Gaiman's script allowed him to show a bigger range than usual. Gaiman also wrote some great humorous pieces including the "pull sign", "bunk beds" etc

I don't agree with your view on this series either, personally I think it's shaping up well so far.

Kid said...

Nah, Steve - they don't mean that. Otherwise they wouldn't be too embarrassed to put their names to it.

Steve said...

I do wish people would put a name, even if it's a false one. Otherwise how're we all to know if it's the same "Anonymous" each time or if it's a whole horde of different ones?

I've now found out my sister agrees with me on the episode, and I take great strength from this.

phantom_tiger said...

I trailed over here from the Glass W. Stick to read your review. Poor Sylvester McCoy! Some stories let him down, but he could be dark and brilliant. The whole episode was a conceit, a metaphor, something you might find in a play. Possibly it needed a bit more development. It might have been more fun as a two parter. Corridors! How nostalgic, and I thought there was a chill with the whole Rory got abandoned for years idea, but it just didn't get finished. I found myself sidetracked by your iceberg comment though. People have argued that veering to avoid the iceberg did more damage than it would have done to steer the Titanic straight for it. Certainly I'm willing to see where the story arc goes before I give up on a whole season. As for Matt, I can't imagine the amount of energy the Doctor's character needs in order to be convincing. It's exhausting just thinking of it.

Steve said...

Hello, Phantom. Welcome to the site.

I've always had a lot of sympathy for Sylvester McCoy. There were always glimmerings that, given a decent script, he could've done the business but, sadly, he was nearly always lumbered with terrible scripts and terrible directing. He's the one former Doctor I'd like to see make a return appearance in an episode, if only to give him a decent story to get his teeth into.

Anonymous said...

best Doc Who story ever. but hose of you without taste would find fault with it because it was better then you expected and now you want to tear down Neil. you are all so wrong......

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