(For part one, see here.)
“It’s the Flesh. Definitely the Flesh.”
I have to say, I don’t think I was totally off base with this one. Oh, you remember. Moffat writes himself into a corner. Just to show us he can also write himself out of it. The Doctor dies by the lake, except it turns out he was hiding inside a robotic duplicate, which also has the ability to grow facial hair. There’s a pointless wedding sequence on a rooftop and then Dorium asks the First Question, which unfortunately does not turn out to be “Rice, chips or half and half?”.
I have whinged about the inconsistencies of the Teselecta resolution before, so we won’t dwell on it. But oh, I was so sure it would turn out to be the Flesh. Because we’d not seen them for half a series, which is enough time to leave a dish to simmer before bringing it back to the boil. You have two Doctors running around for two hundred years, taking it in turns to wave at Amy and Rory from history books. There was no way I could be wrong about this. (On the other hand, I was also once convinced that the Flesh would turn out to be somehow related to the Zygons, so meh.)
Here’s the crux of my argument: we don’t actually see the Flesh Doctor die. It’s heavily implied, but by no means established – and you know as well as I do that unless you see a corpse, you can always cheat death (and, in some cases, even a corpse doesn’t mean anything). It would have been interesting to have the Flesh Doctor willingly surrender to the Real Doctor, who shoots him in order to make the Silence happy. Except the Real Doctor probably wouldn’t have done anything of the sort, so it would have been River instead. Meanwhile the Real Doctor is hiding in the back of Canton Delaware’s truck, playing Bejeweled on his iPhone.
But that’s the thing with twists. With Moffat you’ve come to expect them. The climax of ‘The Pandorica Opens’ – that dual revelation that Rory is an Auton and that the impenetrable prison was empty, and intended for the Doctor – was extremely effective, but it’s arguably the last time that a twist of that magnitude has worked (and it’s a shame that the closing episode of that series was so piss poor). By the time we get to ‘The Impossible Astronaut’, and the realisation that there is a twist of some sort coming (because a twist is the only way you can get out of the on-screen death and cremation of the Doctor), we no longer care.
As a recently graduated student still convinced of my own importance, I can remember seeing The Sixth Sense and then bragging afterwards to anyone who’d listen how I’d spotted the plot twist coming a mile off. To be honest, this isn’t strictly true. What actually happened was that I visited the cinema knowing there would be a twist, and then tried my utmost to figure it out. Which meant that when Haley Joel Osment drops a big hint halfway through (in a line that Shyamalan says he almost deleted), I picked up on that. If you know there’s a twist – i.e. if it’s been mentioned in every single review – you’ll look for it. But if you don’t know that, say, “______” has one of the most unexpected things to happen in any movie ever, despite gratuitous (if subtle) foreshadowing, it’ll catch you totally off guard. (I am purposely not mentioning the title here, but that underscore includes an IMDB link.)
Just to jump off into a tangent for a moment, I think I can speak about The Sixth Sense openly here because there can’t be that many people reading this blog who haven’t seen it. But if you’ve been living under a paving slab for the last thirteen years, now might be a good time to jump down to the next bit. See you there.
Right, he’s gone. We can continue. I can remember a conversation I had with Emily about this movie, and about how our respective parents had reacted.
“It was funny,” she said, “because mine figured it out straight away. We were watching and they had the opening bit where he gets shot, and my mother sniffed and said ‘Oh, I bet he’s dead now’, thereby ruining the film for my dad.”
“See, I had the exact opposite,” I replied. “We watched the entire film, and then they had the big revelation, and then the denouement where he says goodbye, and then the credits roll, and then halfway through the credits my mother suddenly sat up and cried out ‘Oh! So he’s been dead all the time!’. I despair of her, I really do.”
(Spoilers end here.)
Anyway, you see where I’m coming from. The first five series of the revived Doctor Who constructed their story arcs around obvious foreshadowing looming to a big climax. The sixth starts at the end and then works its way towards it in what is in many respects a colossal flashback. Moffat is essentially throwing down the gauntlet and asking us to solve a puzzle, something he’s done with increasing frequency over the years, as we ponder – even now – exactly how Sherlock could have survived that tumble from the roof. Forced to confront the issue, we find ourselves going through a myriad different solutions in order to come up with the most plausible (knowing, of course, that Moffat will then do something that’s neither plausible nor well-written). So I was convinced it would be the Flesh, and it wasn’t. But you can see how I got there.
“Matt Smith? Nooo. Way too young.”
I think it’s a coming of age thing. It’s not as big a deal as that first kiss, or a graduation – it’s a small milestone that you only really think about later on as one of those tiny moments when you realise your life is ticking away. I’m talking, if you hadn’t guessed, about the first time they cast a Doctor who’s younger than you are.
I was thirty when Matt Smith hit the big time. I can remember being at a petrol station in Craven Arms and seeing him on the wrinkled cover of The Sun, along with the headline “The New Doctor is Matt…Who?”. It was a fair question. He’d done his share of theatre, but wasn’t what you could call a household name. There was a lanky, floppy-haired young man grinning at me from the front page of the newspaper, and I was appalled.
“He’s too young,” I complained to Emily, when I got back in the car, carrying a crumpled receipt and the large bar of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut that would see us back to Oxfordshire. “They’re casting a hip-and-trendy bloke who’s going to be, like, the cool Doctor. I’m sure of it. He’s younger than I am!”
In one respect it turns out I was right about the ‘cool Doctor’ thing. My timing was a little off, though, because Smith – while the youngest actor to date – was only three years Peter Davison’s junior, at least with respect to the age he’d been when he got the job. So I was thirty, but Davison had been twenty-nine. Still, that wasn’t the point. When Davison was in the TARDIS I’d been three years old. He was a grown-up – a young grown-up, but still a grown-up. It wasn’t the same at all. Even after the reboot and Davies’ insistence that you have to cast younger actors because of the amount of running about, they were still looking at older, established actors for the part. (And besides, the Fifth Doctor was my Doctor.)
Things got worse not long afterwards, when the BBC released this publicity shot:
Which only made things worse. “Look at her! She doesn’t look a day over sixteen!” I remember bleating. “It’s like they’ve left a couple of kids in charge of the TARDIS!” I must have been fun to be with in those days.
The problem, as it turned out, was that I was imagining Smith as he’d been in the Sally Lockhart stories, or at least the two that were adapted for television. There he was young, permanently sheepish and borderline cockney, or at least that’s how I remember him. I was convinced he’d bring the same approach to Doctor Who. The series five trailer – which involved the Doctor punching out Bracewell in the execrable ‘Victory of the Daleks’ – didn’t help.
Then we got to Easter 2010, and ‘The Eleventh Hour’. And I think there’s a reason why this remains in my top ten New Who episodes some three years later. Over the course of sixty-five minutes, Moffat introduces a new Doctor, one-and-a-half new companions, a whole new approach to the show, a host of gags, an unfortunate meme-that-should-never-have-been-a-meme and a cameo from Patrick Moore. And a story, of sorts. The threat of Prisoner Zero and the Atraxi were hardly among the most interesting that the show has faced, but in an episode which basically served as a game-changer I think we can let that go.
It was fast and frenetic and incredibly English, but at the centre of it all was Smith himself, who absolutely blew me away. From his exasperation at the villagers’ reaction to the eclipse of the sun (“The end comes, as it was always going to, down a video phone”) to the moment he faces Prisoner Zero’s mimicry of his own as-yet undiscovered appearance with “That’s rubbish, who’s that supposed to be?”), Smith plays a character who’s simultaneously young and old – a pattern that was set to continue. Whatever you may think about Moffat’s done to the show (and I’ve written about that in ample detail, so we won’t re-tread old ground), and however much Smith’s current performance as the Doctor seems loaded with the same gravitas and weariness that was arguably Tennant’s undoing (it’s like they’ve learned nothing from ‘The End of Time’), there is a brilliance about this opening episode that solidified the Eleventh as a Doctor who could be fun without being smug, who was as utterly alien as Baker’s Fourth, and who would take things to the brink before saving the day. And in Amy, Moffat created a lovably off-the-wall character who became my favourite companion, at least for a while. I’d got it wrong before, of course. But seldom have I been so pleased about it.