Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Story That Tried (on New Doctor Who)

The Story That Tried
***Spoiler Alert!***

Hey, Vikings! It's been fifty years since we last seen them on Doctor Who, so Jamie Mathieson's script idea was a welcome breath of fresh air we thought. We loved his last season's scripts for Mummy on the Orient Express and Flatline, both which are possibly the best written episodes in several years. Then we caught the co-writer's name--Steven Moffat, the show's producer who seemingly feels compelled to write or re-write every episode. Oh, well... maybe Jamie's magic will outshine any alterations Mr. Moffat makes to the story?

When people write together as a professional writing team, the reader/viewer usually can't tell where one author starts writing and then stops and his or her partner begins writing. (For instance, my husband and I just recently sold a jointly-authored Y.A. sci-fi novel series--more news to come!) Alas, there were several things that jumped off the screen in The Girl Who Died that just didn't seem to mesh as well with the overall writing-style. I suppose these rough bits were Moffat's additions? The first thing that really jarred was the title itself. Like last week's introductory scene, where the Doctor explains the entire story premise upfront, the title sort of gave away the "big secret" that a girl was going to die. Since it probably wasn't going to be the companion character, that left Ashildr, the Viking girl who helps the Doctor and Clara. Talk about killing all the mystery and tension!

The Vikings had a lovely village set, and it was great to see the Doctor materialize in another place rather than contemporary London or Wales again. Since the Vikings ruled an area from North America to Russia and south to Turkey, the village could have been anywhere within their realm. However, one thing jumped out that shouldn't have been there: the horns on the helmets. 

According to my daughter, who attended graduate school in archaeology at the University of Southern Denmark and is a professional Viking re-enactor in Europe, Vikings warriors never wore helmets with those big longhorns on the top. That's a fallacy perpetually kept alive by Bugs Bunny's famous What's Opera, Doc? and Asterix and Obelix comic strips. Take it from me, they just didn't, and my daughter can provide the historic proof to back it up. Also, the modern belt buckle I spotted on Ashildr's costume (why was she wearing pants and not skirts like Viking women usually did?) wasn't found in that time period, either. Vikings used beautifully forged decorative pins to hold their clothes together in the places that weren't tied or sewn together. One would hope the BBC costume department had enough of a budget to call an expert in Viking clothing to double-check these things, but perhaps Mr. Moffat thought such anachronisms funny?

The "Mire" villains reminded us of Sontarans or the Judoon from previous seasons. "Odin" looked like the pirate captain in the Douglas Adams' script The Pirate Planet in the Key to Time series during the Tom Baker years, too. The Doctor's odd nasty remark that "God never makes an appearance" (like he does in Monty Python and the Holy Grail) to explain the appearance of the aliens to the Viking villagers sounded more like an atheist's complaint than something the character of the Doctor would say, as he generally respects other cultures. Once again, it sounded like an addition made by another writer with an ax to grind--Mr. Moffat, by chance?

Peter Capaldi seemed to be channeling bits of Tom Baker--along with Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee--in his performance. His Troughton-like plaid trousers looked a bit out of place with his "'90s grunge band look" hoodie and t-shirt under the jacket. Last year's more sophisticated style of dressing seemed to suit him better than the uber-casual teenage boy look he's sporting this season. 

The Doctor's more warmhearted approach (he actually hugs Clara without prompting) is a nice touch this time out, but his unusual decision to re-animate "the girl who died" seemed completely out of character for him. The Doctor usually insists that the time line shouldn't be altered for anyone and that death is final.  (If it isn't, why has he not gone back to save his companion Adric who died during his fifth incarnation?) One suspects neither the girl's death nor her resurrection was included in the original story idea Mr. Mathieson pitched, and that it was added to give a guest appearance slot to Maisie Williams for two episodes as a ratings gimmick. 

The "reason" for the Doctor changing his mind about bringing her back to life came across as an weak attempt to appease fans.  Some must be dying to know why the Doctor looks very much like the Roman father from the 2008 Fires of Pompeii episode, but it seemed contrived. After all, Colin Baker appeared in the fifth Doctor episode Arc of Infinity as Maxil, a Gallifreyan guard, and we were never given an explanation for why the sixth Doctor had Maxil's face, and the audience handled it just fine. Yet another example of an alteration made to Mathieson's original script?

We're given hints that poor Ashildr is now immortal, and she's going to hate it and go insane since she will outlive all her loved ones. It makes sense, but then again, Captain Jack Harkness is also an immortal Doctor Who character who hasn't gone insane, and he's outlived everyone and died horribly numerous times to boot. (He just keeps coming back no matter how many little pieces he's pulverized into, poor man!) Why is Ashildr different? And does this mean that Jack has a chance to come back on the show to help a fellow immortal cope with the meaning of her existence? Captain Jack fans are anxious to know!

Over all, The Girl Who Died seemed like one long set-up for its second part/sequel next week. If some of the "additions" to the script had been left out, and the story focused more on the Doctor and the other characters, perhaps it would have been stronger. So far this season's writing hasn't lived up to the quality of  last season's non-Moffat written episodes--not including the dreadful Moon/Dragon's Egg "worse episode ever" as it's been called. (We suspected it had been written by Moffat as well.) If Jamie Mathieson is allowed to write for Doctor Who without a "co-writer" tampering with his story ideas, perhaps the writing will improve. 

Or not. Let's hope they keep trying.

What do you think? Please leave your comments below. And check out my reviews of earlier episodes of this season of Doctor Who:


A J said...

Jamie Mathieson is a great writer, I just wish Moffatt would leave him alone. I like the idea of the Doctor going back in time to a Dark Age village, but Vikings with horns on their helmets? Pah! Ridiculous! =(

Kathryn O said...

Okay, about the girl's belt buckle: She said she was odd. she dressed like a boy. that speech with her resonated in my soul about the boys and the girls and making puppets. the only difference is she was loved where I have yet to find that. (I am loved but not accepted by my family) So hence, her clothing is odd with her personality

Cynthianna said...

Yes, she's an "odd" young girl, but HISTORICALLY the modern belt buckle didn't exist in that culture. So, putting a 21st century costume detail into an outfit supposedly from a medieval culture is a poor costuming choice, IMO. When you're costuming for a particular culture and time period, you should be cognizant of what is appropriate for that particular time and culture and do your research and ask experts for their feedback so your costume design is accurate. (For example, Vikings didn't wear horns on their helmets. It's historically inaccurate. Women didn't wear pants in that culture, either, particularly during that time period you could say as well, but I'm willing to let that one pass as long as the costume pieces came from that time period.)Sorry if you misinterpreted my critique. You could say I am looking at the whole of the script and the integrity of the elements from a professional's point of view. Research and script editing are essential in order to make informed decisions. ;)

But I am glad you are loved and hope you find acceptance from your family soon. :)

Tommy said...

The whole story was by the numbers, and seemed to have been knocked out with no real goal in mind.
Fine... separate the Doctor from The TARDIS and remove his sonic technology and give him a short time frame to save the day; when Moffat did that in 11th Hour, there was a genuine feel of pressure and burden on The Doctors shoulders... but in this he STILL managed to rig up a 3D holographic projection, and a super battery made from electric eels that don't, and have never existed in Denmark.
Why push the point of him having no technical back up, if he can just ass-pull all that gadgetry and technology? More of the "Just accept it" mode of story telling I'm afraid...

I am now at the point of being given the two responses that "It IS really clever!" and "Just turn your brain off don't think about it so much..."

I fail to understand how anything that discourages THOUGHT can qualify as intelligent.

Maybe it will turn out that Ashildr is a fob watched timelord... and that's why she had a printed, bound book that wouldn't exist for several hundred more years...
Or maybe they just couldn't give a shit about getting the little things right?

Hamlet said...

While it is true that Vikings in OUR universe did not have horns on their helmets--and that was the first thing I noticed in the episode as well--but one needs to remember that the Doctor Who universe is NOT our universe, as much as we would like it to be. I like it when the show gets as historically accurate as possible, but it seldom if ever is perfect on that score. In the Doctor Who universe, Vikings DID have horns on their helmets, and this was established as long ago as The Time Meddler (remember the Doctor's comment to Steven about "a space helmet for a cow").
If we can accept the inaccuracies of the Aztec culture, and the wrong people being present for the Gunfight at the O.K. Corrall, then we can accept that in the Doctor's timeline, Viking helmets had horns. :)

Cynthianna said...

Tommy--spot on about the eels and the bound book. I got too tired to mention those little faux pas. ;)

Hmm, Hamlet, if we say that the Doctor isn't in our universe, then whose universe is he in? One where it makes sense for a warrior to wear a helmet that can be easily grabbed by his opponent and twisted off, thereby exposing his head to a deadly blow? That's one reason why it's been argued Vikings didn't wear horned helmets. (There was actually one artifact found with horns and it's been argued it's not an actual headpiece or it could have been a priest's ceremonial headpiece, not a warrior's protective helmet. Thanks to Bugs Bunny and Steven Moffat, future generations will continue to think it was a warrior's helmet.)

With the classic series, you can forgive some of the historical mistakes since the Internet wasn't around yet to do fast checks, and the BUDGET was so TINY by comparison, and they were always rushed for time to put out the next show on schedule. Nowadays, the budget is HUGE and there are many, many knowledgeable folks out there who can edit and do research to improve a script, and they don't film anywhere near the same number of episodes per season as the classic series did. Why not take advantage of the expertise out there and the extra time in the schedule?

Why should any TV show writer try to "write down" to a lower standard of intelligence? Does that mean the show producers feel that their audience is of "low intelligence" and to create "smarter" scripts is a waste of time? Does that mean that the viewers of New Doctor Who "switch off their brains" easily and are easily fooled? It's a bit insulting and disrespectful, don't you think, that the current show runners think of the viewers as being of "low intelligence" with their "brains switched off" and so we don't deserve to have a well-researched and well-written television program? Don't we, the audience, deserve better?

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