October 13th, 2011
I suppose I should apologise for how late this post is, coming as it does nearly a fortnight after the final episode. Partly, this is because I’ve been ill recently and unable to write. But also, it’s because I couldn’t beat Illogical Volume’s summation:
When I was a kid, there was a famous TV magician called David Copperfield. He once famously made the Statue of Liberty disappear.
Unfortunately, that’s not the full performance, but the performance itself followed a standard set of rules. He said he was going to make the Statue of Liberty disappear and reappear. He said it wasn’t going to be a camera trick, and he did it in front of a live audience, and then he (or rather Jim Steinmeyer and Don Wayne, his illusion designers – with a few exceptions stage magicians often have little or nothing to do with the actual trick) made the statue disappear.
In this, he played fair. The statue disappeared, there was no camera trick. Therefore it was an effective magic trick. Of course, he didn’t actually remove the statue and then replace it, but he never said he was going to. The fun is figuring out how, within the rules he set out, he got the effect.
(It’s never been officially revealed how, but the general consensus is that Copperfield and his audience were on a rotating platform, which turned a small amount while the curtain was up, so when it came down again they weren’t looking at the statue. All the best magic tricks are very, very simple at their heart).
So in The Impossible Astronaut, on April 22 this year, in between ripping off a lot of Lawrence Miles’ stuff, Steven Moffat included the following dialogue following the Doctor’s death:
“Maybe he’s a clone or a duplicate or something?”
“Let me save you some time, that most certainly is the Doctor and he most certainly is dead.”
Mystery stories work the same way as magic tricks, they’re all about sleight of hand. You’re meant to think, when you’re told who the murderer was, “Oh, that’s obvious now!” (this is why, for all her myriad faults, Agatha Christie is still so popular. You read, say, The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd and you can’t help but admire the sheer construction of it, the way the murderer is hidden in plain sight. In that one, of course, she does a Penn And Teller and shows how the trick was done afterward.) But you don’t lie to the reader.
In all these cases, we know there’s a trick, we know we’re being tricked, but we don’t know what the trick is. We want to see if we can figure it out, and if we can’t we want to be amazed at a trick well done.
So when David Copperfield disappears Lady Liberty, we know she isn’t really going to vanish. When we read an Agatha Christie novel and read about a man in a room locked from the inside, dead from a gunshot wound, with a gun in his hand and a suicide note we know he’s a murder victim.
In the same way, we knew, all along, that the Doctor wasn’t going to be killed off for good. The question was “How is he going to get out of that one?”, because Moffat had tied himself down pretty well:
It was definitely the Doctor.
He was definitely dead.
He wasn’t ‘a clone or a duplicate or something’.
It was a fixed point in time so no amount of time-travelling shenanigans could alter it.
But then jump forward to the end of this episode, and the resolution? It was a robot double. So it wasn’t the Doctor. He wasn’t dead, and it was ‘a clone or a duplicate or something’.
This is like if David Copperfield had pulled down that curtain and the statue was still there, and he’d tried to defend himself by saying “Of course it wasn’t going to vanish! None of you thought it would! You all knew it was going to be a trick! You can’t vanish the Statue Of Liberty, that’s absurd!” or if you got to the dramatic denouement at the end of an Agatha Christie, and Poirot called all the suspects into a room to announce that he didn’t have a clue who’d done it. It doesn’t play fair with the audience.
If you’re given a mystery to care about, the mystery is dragged out over six months, and then the reveal at the end is “You didn’t actually care about that mystery did you? What a nerd!” then one has to question why we’ve been bothering to watch at all, especially if the episode it’s the climax to is packed full of ‘Mad Ideas’ (as opposed to actual ideas, mad ideas seem to involve putting together some combination of pirates, dinosaurs and steam-powered technology or airships, without any logical coherence) and sexism.
Of course, there is one very good reason for continuing to watch the programme for the moment, and that’s Matt Smith. When Smith was first cast, I was horrified, but the more I watch him the more convinced I am that he is, if not the best actor ever to have played the part of the Doctor, certainly second only to the Mighty Trout himself. Look at that photo. That’s the Doctor advancing on a dying Dalek, one that he’s about to torture for information, and telling it it’s seeing “the face of the Devil himself”. A lesser actor, one say with the initials DT, would have scrunched his face up in a pantomime of anger and roared the words out. Smith, on the other hand, plays it gently, speaks softly, shows concern, and is utterly horrifying as a result.
The other thing to note about this episode is that it featured the death of the Brigadier, off-screen, after the real-life death of the great Nicholas Courtney. In fact, given that the Doctor finds out about this on the 22nd April 2011, is told it was ‘a couple of months ago’, and Courtney himself died on the 22nd February this year, we can assume that the Brig died on the same day as Courtney.
But the way he finds out makes it clear that the Doctor never visited the Brigadier during his last illness, and the Brig may well have died alone. That’s just not right, and to be honest a better tribute to Courtney would have been to have the Brigadier an unseen presence in future stories, so the thirteenth Doctor one day would be told he’d just missed the Brig, who’d gone off to visit the Moon Base just that morning. But the Doctor whose adventures I love would have visited his old friend on his deathbed (thankfully in real life, Courtney seems to have died knowing how much he meant to people and with friends and family visiting him).
So Season 6B is over, and I won’t be writing about any new Doctor Who here until shortly after Christmas. But in a few weeks I’m going to be starting a new series of reviews of older Doctor Who stories. In Fifty Stories For Fifty Years I’ll be looking at one story from each year from 1963 through to 2012. Look out for it in a couple of weeks – for those of you who think I’ve been too negative in this series, I’ll only be looking at stories I enjoy…