“The deep and lovely dark, you could never see the stars without it.”
Listen – that’s the sound of a thousand Moffat critics eating their hats. Well, alright, maybe only nibbling on them a bit.
But, by and large, the latest Doctor Who episode in Peter Capaldi’s first season on the series has proven that, no, not all stories written by show-runner and Coupling creator Steven Moffat are bad. The characters are sound, more or less. The story is good, for the most part. And although the script still carelessly flaunts some of the man’s trademark tack, it is generally less obvious than glaringly pronounced.
First on the Moffat chopping block was the usual timey-wimeyness, so linguistically challenging due to a Moffat-penned trope that harks back to 2007 and has since divided Who fans on the basis of stupidity versus humour. It’s not completely gone, though. The time travel trickery is set, you could argue, at just the right level. There is enough to enjoy the story, and not enough to induce heart-wrenching sighs of frustration.
Even more relieving is the lack of now-monotonous grandiloquence – the baby-speak, which insulted not only the neurolingists in the audience, but the whole left side of every viewer’s brain. There are two notable exceptions to this improvement, though: the “not”-as-an-adjective routine and the equally annoying “I can do a thing” thing.
One loss on the Moffat front is the near-bombastic “usage of abusage”. The Doctorial insults present in the first three episodes of Season Eight were turned up to twelve on a ten point scale in Episode Four. The sheer disrespect of the Doctor for his companion Clara Oswald, played with care by Jenna Coleman, is practically impalpable. While presumably for comic effect, the result is an overtly sexist, ageist, weight-biased and all-round prejudiced Doctor. It’s as if, in response to complaints of the Doctor’s flirtation with his companion, the character has spiralled into the opposite direction in a way that is unacceptable and downright rude.
And the rudeness is not only uncalled for, it’s inaccurate. Clara is perfect, and unbelievably so. Where previous companions, particularly Martha Jones or Donna Noble, would be clueless or frightened, Clara is cool, confident and all too ideal. The laziness of writing in Clara’s character fails to provide a flawless transition from action to drama, drawing attention to elements of plot that would benefit from inconspicuous treatment.
In fact, the whole story is hardly inconspicuous, and not necessarily in a bad way. Knowledge of the recent Doctor Who universe is a must, but the interconnectedness of the story will slap even the most accustomed Moffateers briefly in the face. Unlike past stories in the season, though, it feels tender and unrushed. Even the ending scenes are lengthy – they are the only part of the episode that is too long. The pace seems uncharacteristically skewed towards the end, quite unlike the rest of the episode, which is clearly deliberate right from the beginning of the pre-title sequence.
This sequence is the strongest scene in the episode, and possibly the strongest introductory sequence in all of New Who. Following the rhythm of its predecessors, the beginning sets up an intriguing and thoroughly absorbing premise, then the remainder of the episode struggles to recuperate the losses and problems posed by this opening sequence. It feels like the writers of Season Eight were given a brief to spend months writing the most interesting two minutes they could think of, then fill in the rest of the episode over a weekend.
Harsh though this assumption may be, it seems apt for all episodes so far – including Episode Four (and it’s just lucky Moffat is a talented writer and can nearly pull off such a feat). With impressive effects, a mostly-original musical score and good acting by all the cast, the production values of Episode Four triumph over the writing, and the episode somehow succeeds. It’s a great premise, a mediocre realisation and a commendable production.
It may be a success for the struggling show, but non-fans won’t be impressed. As for the fanbase, the sounds of the Moffat critics are deafeningly loud – it’s up to you whether you listen.