Thursday, August 11, 2016

Everything Old is New Again – The Seventh Doctor as Template for the Moffat Era?

I had the privilege of sitting in with the Earth Station Who crew a few weeks ago. The topic of discussion was a Seventh Doctor story, The Curse of Fenric. Here, go have alisten.  Rewatching the story for the first time in a number of years with the intent of analyzing various aspects of it I started to notice something somewhat interesting, and this led me to start looking at some of the other stories from the same period of Who history. Strangely, the last two years of classic Doctor Who appear to be one of the largest influences in the shaping of Moffat’s template for much of his era on the show.

I say strangely here because of Moffat’s own words when discussing the classic era show. When asked to give examples of his favorite Doctor Who stories, only one Seventh Doctor story makes the cut. Worse still, in an article he wrote for ‘In-Vision’ magazine back in the 1990s he describes neither Colin Baker nor Sylvester McCoy’s time on the show in particularly flattering ways. He even stated that neither made any sort of impression at all on him as a fan. But, be that as it may, the 25th and 26th serials (seasons for us Yanks) really do seem to have had a huge influence on his stewardship of the Doctor.

Secrets and Story Arcs

One of the things that Moffat is both praised for and condemned for in equal parts by the fan community is his tendency to start long and sometimes multi-season story arcs that play out in bits and pieces in the individual stories. That’s the last two Seventh Doctor seasons in a nutshell.

Yes, we did see season-long stories before Sylvester McCoy took on the role. Both The Key to Time and The Trial of the Time Lord come to mind as well as the plotline around Vislor Turlough. However, the basics of the stories with these examples were made clear to the fans from the start, and they were contained within their season.  They also seemed to have clearing beginnings, middles, and ends.

With Moffat’s era, we saw the hints and seeds of ideas that built stories over multiple seasons, and it was often the case that with Moffat’s story building it took the form of a mystery. We didn’t know the Doctor’s dreaded secret, what it meant when the Silence would fall, or the secrets to the mysteries around the Doctor’s various Moffat era companions. Again, that’s the last two Seventh Doctor seasons in a nutshell, and it would have been the next few had the series not “gone on hiatus” after Survival.

One of the show directives in that period was to bring some of the mystery back to the character of the Doctor. He’d been on TV for a quarter of a century at that point, his world and his character fleshed out and explained in great detail over the years. It was decided that the Doctor would now have a secret that no one else knew- perhaps not even the other Time Lords -and there began to be a series of hints along those lines throughout the episodes of the final two seasons.

The mysteries in the Moffat era tried to be big, canon shattering types of secrets. So too would have been the reveal in the Seventh Doctor’s era. McCoy’s Doctor was frequently making comments that seemed to be designed to imply that the Doctor was in fact far older than most fans thought, and that he may have been there when some of the major origin moments for the Time Lords were happening if not in fact having had a hand in engineering them. Had we seen more seasons of Doctor Who with McCoy, the ultimate reveal seemed to be heading towards the Doctor being Omega, Rassilon, or something even older and more powerful. This is something that the various creative team members of that era have confirmed since the end of classic Who.

The last two seasons of McCoy’s time as the Doctor also had signs of long-game planning with some advisories. Just as we saw signs and hints of the big bad of the moment in the parts of the Moffat era we’ve gotten so far, we actually saw hints of one of the big bads the Seventh Doctor would face in several stories before the actual reveal of that big bad.

Then there’s the nature of the threats and the big bads.

The Big Bads

If there is one thing that bothers me about new Who, especially under Moffat’s guidance, it’s how many of the things the Doctor faces off against and defeats are universe shattering or universe altering characters or events. Bigger isn’t always better, and occasionally too much bigger makes it harder to accept the idea that the smaller threats are in fact threats. Likewise, the Doctor sometimes too easily taking down empires, governments, and armies all on his own gets a little out of hand under Moffat and has the same effect.

In McCoy’s short tenure as the Doctor, his Doctor tricked seemingly unstoppable armies of enemies into destroying themselves, singlehandedly toppled an entire government in an evening, faced off against and bested the Gods of Ragnarok, and defeated the ancient evil in The Curse of Fenric. The ancient evil (“Evil, evil since the dawn of time!”) was THE force of evil in the universe. The Doctor not quite explains it to Ace thusly.

“The dawn of time. The beginning of all beginnings. Two forces, only good and evil. Then chaos. Time is born, matter, space. The universe cries out like a newborn. The forces shatter as the universe explodes outwards. Only echoes remain, and yet somehow, somehow, the evil force survives. An intelligence. Pure evil!”

We learn that not only does the Doctor have to face off against this evil here, but that he has in fact faced off against it before. In a very myths and legends inspired tale, we learn that the Doctor has beaten and thus contained the evil in the past, saving the universe from horrible things. Even in this story we (quietly) get a future altering outcome thanks to the Doctor.

The Ancient One- the vampire threat of the story -turns out to be from the future, an evolutionary descendent of mankind. He was plucked from the future and placed into the past by the ancient evil. His Earth is a devastated planet, oozing with toxins and filled with death. But the events that led to his Earth coming to pass started with the events in The Curse of Fenric, and the Doctor stops them. The Doctor reshaped time, rebuilt the universe, and/or created a forking point where one reality split off parallel to the “real” one. The budgets were lower, the FX were cheaper in appearance, and the overall production values were less than those seen in modern Who, but the idea of the threat, the epic nature of it, was the same as we started to see more heavily during Moffat’s time on the show.

Throughout Moffat’s era we saw advisories that changed reality. We saw the Doctor win battles that altered timelines or recreated the universe. We also saw that the Doctor himself was so important that the universe and time itself could be destroyed by his actions or his timeline being altered. He beat these situations, surviving them by in large part rebooting and recreating the universe and various timelines around him.

He was also very good at showing a surprising level of control over the events that were going on when these things happened.

The Doctor as Manipulator

Just as the ancient evil attempted to manipulate events in Fenric, the Seventh Doctor started getting portrayed as something of a master manipulator himself. He manipulates people with ease; especially his own companion. But he also seems to manipulate events with actions started in the distant past and the far future in order to set up a victory in the here and the now.

In Remembrance of the Daleks we see a long game for the Doctor’s victory that’s implied starting point was back with the First Doctor. In Battlefield we learn that the Doctor will in a future regeneration become Merlin and he as Merlin leaves his past regeneration a few helpful pointers to deal with events. In a number of the stories in the Seventh Doctor’s last year on TV there were also a lot of moments where the Doctor seemed to already know exactly what was going on and even to some degree how it would play out if not actually seeming to have a had a hand in starting it all into play.

The Doctor was always the smartest guy in the room. But the Seventh Doctor, more so than any Doctor before him, seemed to be pulling the strings behind or around events to a greater degree than what we saw before. More than a few times he infuriates Ace by seemingly knowing everything that needs to be known about a situation, but only telling everyone, including her, what he feels they need to know in order to play their part as defined by his plans. In some stories he even manipulates the story’s evil characters into destroying the threats to mankind they themselves created.

The Doctor of the Moffat era absolutely had some of this as a part of his character. Certainly a few Eleventh Doctor stories (and a few Twelfth Doctor stories as well) involved resolutions that depended on the Doctor manipulating events and either keeping information from his companions if not outright lying to them. The Eleventh Doctor would enter into the events of some stories seemingly clueless at the beginning only to reveal he had far greater beforehand knowledge of events towards the story’s end.

The Doctor has always been a manipulator when the need was there, and he was always able to set things into play that would push the resolution of events towards his favor. But the Seventh Doctor took it to a whole new level, and the Doctors of the Moffat era reflect the Seventh Doctor’s style in that regard far more than the previous two Doctors in new Who.

Of course, we also saw a manipulation of a companion in the Seventh Doctor’s era that wasn’t the doing of the Doctor. Interestingly, we got to see it again in the Moffat era. But being manipulated wasn’t all these two companions had in common.

The Companions

Ace was the Seventh Doctor’s companion. She was brash, she’d occasionally lie to the Doctor, and she had far less of a problem with getting in the face of the Doctor and arguing with him or calling him out on his games than just about any companion before her. She ended up traveling with the Doctor after a mysterious event caused their paths to cross. Unbeknownst to the viewers until the reveal in The Curse of Fenric, she was placed where she was by the ancient evil with the hope that the Doctor would decide that this curiosity had to be solved and that he would take her on as his companion.

The actual end game of this plan was a little murky, and Ace was much like the viewer in that she didn’t know she was being placed with the Doctor in order to hamper his efforts or scuttle his plans. We’re also made aware at the time of the reveal that the Doctor knew someone or something was manipulating events to put Ace in his path and to have him take her on as his companion. To a degree you get to the reveal and wonder what it was ever about since it really had very little negative effect on the Doctor’s plans; quite the opposite occasionally. 

Fast forward to recent era of Who and you have Clara. Proving that there’s sometimes a lot more value in the execution of an idea than the idea itself, you can point to Ace as an almost perfect template for a lot of the attributes found in the companions under the Moffat era. But none were more like Ace in origin and concept than Clara.

She argued with the Doctor, lied to him occasionally, and it was revealed that she was placed in his path by Missy (the Master) as part of some scheme that never really fully made sense. She was headstrong and clever. Near the end of Capaldi’s first season she was passing herself off as the Doctor (complete with special opening graphics for the episode) and by the end of his second season she was flying off in her own TARDIS with her own companion to have adventures of her own. It was an interesting sendoff when looking back at Ace. One of the plans for the character of Ace had the series continued would have been being groomed by the Doctor to go off to Gallifrey and enter Time Lord Academy.

Again, it seems a bit odd given Moffat’s own past comments about the era of classic Who and the various Doctors that sprang from that time, but there really is a lot to be found in McCoy’s final run as the Doctor that makes it seem like it was the prototype for the Moffat era. I’m in no position to say whether it was deliberate, unconscious, or coincidence, but for a Doctor that Moffat once described as “miscast and floundering” in the role and also remarked on how that Doctor’s time made little impression on him he certainly seems to have modeled a lot of concepts for his run on Doctor Who on that Doctor’s time.

Jerry Chandler is counting the seconds to Dragon Con. He may also be counting the extra grey hairs he’s giving himself with prep this year, but we shan’t discuss that here. 

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