Tagged: Stephen Moffat

John Ostrander: Happy Christmas, Doctor Who

There are all kinds of traditions connected to Christmas. One tradition in our house is the Doctor Who Christmas Special playing here on BBC America. If you don’t know, Doctor Who is the looooong running BBC series about an alien time traveler and his (usually) human companion(s) who all travel through time and space having adventures. The Doctor regenerates into a new body – and a new actor – when his current body is at its end. If you don’t know the series and/or don’t care, you can probably skip this column.

There was a sort of Christmas Special as far back as the first incarnation over a half-century ago, but mostly it’s only been over the last ten years. The latest one will be tonight (if you’re reading this on Sunday). The first in this series began after the show returned from a sixteen-year hiatus and featured the Doctor’s tenth incarnation, played by David Tennant, and his companion, Rose Tyler, played by Billie Piper, and Rose’s mother and her ex-boyfriend. The episode was also our introduction to this incarnation, the Doctor having just regenerated in the previous episode.

It’s a good, solid, interesting episode, establishing the new Doctor’s persona. The plot is about an alien invasion (the episode is called “The Christmas Invasion”) and written by showrunner Russell T. Davies; it’s sturdy enough and there are some nice Christmas touches like a Christmas tree that becomes a spinning instrument of death. The Doctor is recovering from his transformation and is in a coma for most of the show but when he finally snaps into action, it’s a treat.

By the following year, the Doctor has just parted with Rose Tyler and is feeling mopey when a woman in a wedding dress just materializes in his TARDIS. The woman is Donna Noble (Catherine Tate) and she is “The Runaway Bride.” She’s outraged, abrasive, and very rude to the Doctor who she holds responsible for her abduction. Russell T. Davies again did the scripting and this one is a hoot. I’m a big fan of Donna and was very pleased when she eventually returned as a full-time companion.

The next year brought us “Voyage of the Damned,” again written by Davies. The Doctor, temporarily without a companion, finds himself on an alien, space faring replica of the Titanic during a Christmas party. Why would aliens have a Christmas party and a replica of the Titanic? Just go with it.

There is, of course, a disaster and the Doctor must lead a group of passengers in a “Poseidon Adventure” like attempt to get to safety. One of them is a waitress, Astrid (played by pop singer Kylie Minogue) who looks as if she will be the next companion. Alas, no. Too bad; I thought she had promise. It’s fairly somber for the season and really could have been set at any other time. It’s okay but only okay.

Christmas Special #5, again scripted by Davies, is “The Next Doctor.” Our Doctor travels to Dickensian London and encounters someone who could be his own next incarnation. Interesting concept. He also encounters an old foe, the Cybermen, including a gigantic robo version. That part is sort of weird but there’s some very nice touches in the episode including David Morrisey as the “Next Doctor” who showed he could have played that part very well. The ending is kind of goofy though and I found it far fetched… which is saying something for this show.

Onward. The following year presents up with “The End of Time” and it is both David Tennant’s and Russell Davies’ respective swan songs. It’s a two-parter with the first half shown on Christmas and the second half on New Year’s Day. Put simply – this one is a mess. I won’t pretend to explain it because I’m not sure I fully understand it. David Tennant’s Doctor gets a “farewell tour” at the end when he should simply be dead. It is interesting to note that Tennant’s tenure began in one Christmas Special and ended in this one.

Stephen Moffat became showrunner the following season and Matt Smith replaced David Tennant as the Doctor. I run hot and cold on Moffat; sometimes he is simply brilliant and other times he’s too clever by half. He got into taking other Christmas stories as the inspiration for what he’s writing in his Specials. This year it was A Christmas Carol and the episode was also titled “A Christmas Carol.” It takes place on an alien planet and, among other things, features sharks that swim in the atmosphere. Over all, more than a little odd and, for me, it doesn’t really work.

On the other hand, the following year brought us the “good” Stephen Moffat. This episode. “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” takes its cue from C. S. Lewis’s classic Narnia story “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” This one is really good; simple straight ahead plot, touches of comedy, and deeply felt emotion with a nice bit at the end that makes me tear up.

The following year’s offering, “The Snowmen,” introduces the young woman Clara (played by Jenna Coleman) who, in slightly different form, will be the Doctor’s next companion. The Doctor has suffered a devastating personal loss and has retreated to Victorian London and is in seclusion. He wants no part of the world. That, however, wouldn’t make for very interesting TV and Clara, through her spunk, draws him out. I’m not as crazy about Clara as Moffat seems to be but this episode works all right. The setting is fun ans the supporting characters are great, especially the alien butler, Strax. I love me some Strax.

Which bring us to the ninth Christmas Special, “The Time of the Doctor.” This is Matt Smith’s swan song as the Doctor and it’s too bad because the episode is wretched. There is a planet called Trenzalore that has a town called Christmas filled with humans. Why? Who knows? Moffat tries to reconcile every offhand prophecy and prediction he made along the way about how this Doctor would end and its labored and beyond incredulity.

Next Christmas is better… but not by much. It’s called “Last Christmas” and it starts with Clara, on the outs with this Doctor (now played by Peter Capaldi), encountering Santa Claus on her roof on Christmas Eve. The Doctor shows up and he and Clara go off to the North Pole, not to Santa’s workshop but a research station that’s having the crabs. Well, crab like aliens. Things happen within dreams and there are dreams within dreams. Somebody else sort it out; my brain hurts.

Last year we had “The Husbands of River Song” and this may be my favorite of the Christmas Specials. It features the inestimable River Song, played by the inestimable Alex Kingston. River is the time-tossed daughter of the Doctor’s former companions Amy and Rory and, by the way, she’s also the Doctor’s wife. She has a way of traveling through time and she and the Doctor keep meeting in a non time linear fashion so they always have to check where they are in their own time lines in the diaries they keep for this purpose. (“Spoilers!”) At this point, she has not yet met this incarnation of the Doctor and therefore doesn’t recognize him. The adventure is fun and outrageous (with River, things often get outrageous) and ends perfectly – romantic and sadly sweet.

This year is titled “The Return of Captain Mysterio” and, from the previews, it appears to have a masked and caped superhero (supervillain?) which definitely is not usual for Doctor Who.

Over all, I’d have to say that while some of the Specials were indeed Specials, some tried too hard to be “special” and as a result were not. The good ones, however, were really good. We’ll see what Santa Moffat has left under the tree for us this year. Naughty or nice?

So – while I’m here – let it be said before I fade out of sight,

a Merry Christmas to all…

… and to all a good night!

John Ostrander: Think Of The Children!


Doctor Who, the long-running BBC TV series about a humanoid alien transversing through time and space with his companions, has wound up its current season, its tenth since it’s return following a long hiatus. The current actor playing the part, Peter Capaldi, is the fourth actor (or the fifth depending how you number it) since the show returned or the twelfth or thirteenth since the show’s inception. The numbering differential is a wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey thing.

The show has sparked a discussion among the fans lately because, well, that’s what fans do, especially of a cult science-fiction show such as this one. There’s great passion and great heat as usual with these things along with the absolute conviction of one side that they are right and that those on the other side are wrong. It doesn’t matter which side of a debate you’re on, the other guy is wrong. There’s a lot of passion and maybe some thought and that’s what happens with a fan disagreement.

The current issue under debate is that Doctor Who began as a children’s show back in 1963 and it should always be a children’s show. The position of some is that the current monsters are often too scary for children, the continuity has become too complex for children, the relationships are inappropriate for children.

There’s some truth to all this, and there’s a lot of bullshit as well. The current show-runner, Stephen Moffat, also writes a number of the episodes and his fingerprints are usually all over the ones he doesn’t write. I started out as a big fan of Moffat, especially in the seasons before he became the show’s producer. At his best, Moffat writes very clever episodes with great heart. At his worst, Moffat is just being clever. I’m less impressed with those episodes than he seems to be.

Are the Doctor Who monsters too scary for children? The show has always scared children. Part of its initial burst of popularity, indeed its initial survival, rested on the Daleks, a group of alien cyborgs. They’ve been described as deranged pepper shakers, bent on conquest and the death of any species inferior to themselves which they consider all other races to be. They’re catch phrase is “Exterminate!” They scared the bejabbers out of British tykes since their first appearance. I’ve read reminiscences of Brits saying they watched the show from behind the couch or through their fingers. The world can be a scary place and all children know this. Being afraid and then seeing the monsters defeated is, I think, very healthy. Many of the classic fairy tales do this. Scaring the little bastards is a good idea. It’s part of growing up.

Should Doctor Who have remained a children’s show? I’ve worked for a long time in a medium (comics) that was considered the bastard child of children’s lit. It was off in a ghetto of its own despite the fact that elsewhere in the world, the comics medium wasn’t considered to be only for children. I’ve never considered my work to be primarily for children and, in fact, have several times steered a parent away from my work. We’ve since broken out of that artistic straightjacket with works of art such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus showing what the medium is capable of being.

That said – there haven’t been enough comics for children any more. The medium has catered to the fan and the cult without paying attention to where the next generation of readers are going to come from. That’s short-sighted. Given the multiple versions of the characters that exist, the two major publishers – DC and Marvel – should publish versions of their main characters to attract the young reader. As the kids grow into adults, you could introduce them to the more grown-up editions of the characters. That’s investing in their own characters and the future of the medium.

The question for the comics – and Doctor Who – is not just what they are but what they can be.

Mindy Newell: On Being Fucked Up

new-york-108The President: What’s his plan? Ohila: I think he is finishing his soup. • Hell Bent, Doctor Who Season Finale, Series 9

“Sometimes I think about what my mom told me. How I was really, really sick when I was first born and the doctors thought I was going to die. But there was this one doctor who wouldn’t give up. And sometimes, when things are really bad and fucked up, and I’m just so fucking tired of hauling myself out of the abyss one more goddamn time, I wish he had.” • Mindy Newell, On Her Depression

18 October 1990

Dear Ms. Newell,

Thanks for the letter and the story, which I liked enormously. I’m glad you liked my little book and that it may have helped in some way.  I’m sure you’ll avoid your Jack the Ripper and pull through with grand success; remember that most people do. I did. So will you.


William Styron

Postcard I received from William Styron after I sent him a copy of “Chalk Drawing” along with a personal note after reading his “Darkness Visible.” I treasure it.

I recently had the fun experience at my day job of assisting with ECT – electro-convulsive therapy. While the procedure has come a long, long way from the days of One Flew Over The Cuckoo Nest, it ain’t – to put it mildly – pleasant.

Oh, the patient is put under general anesthesia with a hit of succinylcholine to control tonic-clonic activity, so it’s not exactly Torquemada’s House of Medieval Torture, but there’s still something ugly and uncomfortably sadistic about purposely sending an electrical charge through a brain, isn’t there? Even if it has proven to be a successful intercession against intractable depression. And something profoundly impersonal that disturbs me, too, in the way a human being is treated like a slab of meat on the grill. “How would you like that, sir?” asked the waiter. “Well done,” said the diner, to twist W. C. Fields.

Or is that I feel it more deeply because of my own acquaintance with the Darkness Visible, as Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Styron titled his memoir of his own battle with the disease.

At any rate, as I stood looking down at the patient as the doctor was about to go to Defcon 5, I couldn’t help thinking…

There but for the grace of God go I.

At the time I co-wrote “Chalk Drawings” (Wonder Woman #46, September 1990) with George Pérez, I hadn’t told anyone about the depression since I hadn’t been officially diagnosed with it; in fact, I didn’t even know that I had it, only that something was “off” and “wrong” and had been for a long time…a very long time, actually. IIRC, the only one I had ever even mentioned my anxiety episodes to – which are frequently symptomatic of the condition, though they can stand “alone” – was my editor Karen Berger, and even that discussion was on a friend-to-friend basis one night over dinner in a restaurant on Columbus Avenue (I think) in Manhattan, and only because I was in the midst of having a giant panic attack over my plate. So the story of teenage depression and suicide was a bit – well, the word serendipitous comes to mind, but I usually use that word connoting something good happening, as in good karma.

So I can’t say that the depression made the story easy to write – I only know that it came pouring out of me like milk from a carton. At the time I guess I thought it was because of my empathetic ability – not in the way of Betazoid Deanna Troi on Star Trek: The Next Generation, of course – to get inside the head of my characters. At least, that was what everybody (editors, fellow writers, and so forth) was telling me.

It’s well known that many creative people have suffered from depression, and you can Google “creativity and depression,” or “writers/artists and depression” and get a zillion hits. While the psychiatric community is still out on the actual conclusive evidence, i.e., the biological/genetic/chemical linkage, there is a lot of subjective support out there. And while by no means am I putting myself in the category of writers like David Foster Wallace or Virginia Woolf or F. Scott Fitzgerald or William Styron, I do somehow just know that my illness, while certainly fucking up my life in so many god-awful, totally horrible ways, has also led me to that oft-touted “empathetic ability” to get inside my character’s heads

But can I get into my head?

I have a dream, a dream to write a “personal memoir” in the form of a graphic novel (of course, I can’t draw worth a damn so I’ll have to find an artist) about my experiences with the “darkness visible” of depression.  It won’t be a “my mommy and daddy fucked me up” account, as in Prozac Nation or in Girl, Interrupted, although, dearest family, you’ll be in there; you’ll have to be. I think, rather, that it will be more along the lines of Carrie Fisher’s Postcards From The Edge, vignettes or short-short stories.

Like the time, way, way back in 1976 (I told you it’s been around me for a long, long time) when I ran from my dorm room at nursing school through the streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan to the L train subway station because I thought the clouds were falling down on me. And if you know the L train subway line, you’ll understand just how crazy I was, that the L train subway station at 14th St. and 1st Avenue could be a sanctuary.

That’s a great visual, isn’t it?

•     •     •     •     •

Holy Shit! Holy, Holy, Holy Shit!

Awesomely Amazing!

Abso-fucking-lutely Brilliant!

That’s my review of Hell Bent, the Season 9 finale of Doctor Who.*

SPOILER ALERT! As I told editor Mike Gold on the phone last night after the broadcast, I though that Stephen Moffat was about to pull some time-winey stuff when the Doctor and Clara stole the TARDIS – taking us back to the very beginning of the story, with Clara “renaming” herself Susan, i.e., the Doctor’s “granddaughter.”

Mindy Newell: Paul Is Dead


Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman): Let me be brave. Let me be brave. • “Face the Raven” • Episode 10, Series 9 • Doctor Who

Well, that was… uh… umm…

Kinda flat.

It’s because it was all over the Internet, including an interview with Doctor Who show runner Stephen Moffat, that Jenna Coleman, a.k.a. Clara Oswald, a.k.a. The Impossible Girl, was leaving the series and that her exit would be horrible, dramatic, terrifying, and final – or words to that effect, anyway.

And it really wasn’t.

I don’t blame Peter Capaldi or Jenna Coleman for this; both of them turned in their usual brilliant performances. I don’t even blame Stephen Moffat all that much; he has to answer to the higher-up-the food-chain suits.

Those are the ones I blame – the suits who are obviously so frightened that Doctor Who will lose its “worldwide phenomenon” (as the New York Times called it around the time of the 50th anniversary) status and return to where it belongs – the little show that could, the ½ century-old cult that, like a Time Lord, regenerates itself every so often to become an obsession with a new generation of fans.

Seriously, guys, your obsession with keeping the media spotlight on Doctor Who since the 50th anniversary and The Day of The Doctor has become so relentless that I’m expecting any moment to see an announcement from you that Peter Capaldi wiped his ass after taking a shit.

Memo to the Doctor Who marketing department:


Let it go!

Let it be, already.


Mindy Newell: Take A Deep Breath

“Help him. And don’t be afraid.” – The Eleventh Doctor

The best things about the return of Doctor Who this weekend. (Yep – SPOILER ALERT!)

  1. Hello, the Paternoster Gang!
  2. T. Rex in the Thames!
  3. Awesome opening credits! This time around they were created by a fan. Stephen Moffat saw his work on YouTube and said: I thought it was the only new idea for a Doctor Who title scene since 1963. And we got in touch and we said ‘OK, we’re gonna do that one.’”
  4. “Hold your breath!”
  5. Clara Oswald facing down the droid!
  6. The Eleventh Doctor!
  7. And the Twelfth!

“I don’t think I know who the Doctor is anymore,” said Clara, standing in for the rest of us. Of course the companions have always played the role of the de facto us, but I think this is the first time that an overtly honest reaction to the Doctor’s regeneration has been expressed. Yes, I know, Clara is the Impossible Girl who has been there at every turn of the Doctor’s long, long, long life, and she was witness to the meeting of three separate “faces” of the Doctor in the 50th anniversary special (The Day of the Doctor). So some may argue that she should have not been so questioning, so insecure, so bollixed by her witnessing the transformation of the young, exuberant, and sexy (more on that in a bit) Matt Smith into an old(er), aloof, cranky, and totally out-of-his-mind gentleman.

But remember, Clara did not just stumble into the Doctor’s life and onto the TARDIS, as did Rose, Donna, Martha, Amy and Rory.

The Doctor sought Clara out – intrigued by the mystery of this woman who died again and again and again, and yet lived again and again and again to cross paths with the Gallifreyan. And because of this, the dynamics of their relationship were inherently, from the beginning, different from any other the Doctor had experienced…

For Rose, for Donna, for Martha and Amy and Rory, the Doctor justified their existence.

Clara justified his.

So it isn’t any wonder that Clara so desperately wanted her Doctor back? She knew what she had meant to him, she was important to him, he could not, literally, live without her.

But what does she mean to this man, this alien, who claims to be the Doctor, but… Is he hers?

For the first time, Clara is dreadfully aware that this man, this stranger, is an alien and she cannot help the fear and distrust and dread that rises in her, threatening to choke out of existence her love and her loyalty to the man she knew.

And though Vastra and Jenny and even Strax, in his own potato-head way, try to convince her that the Doctor is the Doctor and will always be the Doctor, now and forever…

It takes a phone call from Trensalore to make her see that the Doctor needs her. He will always need her.

He will always need his Impossible Girl.

And don’t tell me that Peter Capaldi isn’t sexy!