One of the pleasures of watching the new Doctor Who as it’s live-broadcast in a theatre with a number of dedicated Whovians (Northampton chapter) in attendance is that when the Sontaran on screen goes “Sontar-ha!”, you hear several people behind you respond instantaneously with a reflexive “ha!”. If you’re going to open with a section sending up the Doctor’s previous incarnations, it’s important that these people laugh at your jokes – which they did, knowingly but also cheerfully. The reactions from that contingent were generally warm and appreciative – there was an audible “well done, Mr Wheatley” at the end.
(Irrelevant aside: when I was growing up in Ross-on-Wye, the local vicar was a Rev. Paul Wheatley, later Archdeacon of Sherborne, who reminded me somewhat of Roger Delgado as The Master.
His response, when my mum told him “my son thinks you look like The Master”, was “how does he know I’m not?”. Which was quite cool of him, really).
My 11-year-old daughter, who’d never particularly been into the series before, was also enthused – it was the right kind and amount of scary, the story was good and it looked cool. So, that’s two important criteria of success met: please the fans, entice the n00bs.
Two things seem to have happened to Stephen Moffatt since the end of the last season. The first is that he’s had time to think, and has apparently realised that giving your audience time to think – and something to think about in that time – is one of the marvellous things Who can do. This episode had lots to say about masks, veils, the faces we put on, and about the permutations of identity over time. What about the Doctor is invariant under regeneration? Each new Doctor poses a different answer, or a different part of the answer, to that question. Capaldi’s “am I a good man?”, is worth chewing on a bit, especially because the “I” in question is so unsettled: does he mean this “I”, the “I” he is going to be from now on, or the ancient and inscrutable alien underneath, the “I” he has always been, who is somewhat beyond Good and Evil and is not necessarily (in spite of appearances so far) a “man” at all? Another clergyman of my acquaintance liked to speculate about Who’s implied Christology – are we to think of the Doctor as “wholly human and wholly alien”? (So that was how Jesus survived the crucifixion – two hearts…)
The other thing that’s happened with Moffatt is that he seems to have spent some time considering the shortcomings of the previous series with the help of a focus group consisting entirely of Laurie Penny. Either that or he’s just sat down with a big stack of Sarah Waters books, and gone “lesbians in Victorian period costume with cockney accents – righto!”. I’m hoping we’ll see more of the Clara that was promised in her first appearance last season – clever, boshing, with stuff to do – and less ornamental sass and “oh my stars!”-ing. It’s difficult for any episode of Who to pass the Bechdel test, just because all the other characters are fairly inevitably going to be talking about the Doctor for much of the time, but there were definitely moments here where the female cast were going about business that was distinctly, authentically their own, and that was encouraging.
Here’s an awkward question, just to be annoying: why do we have to pick out the black girl in the classroom flashback to be the inspiration for the white woman’s defiance? Doesn’t she kind of get reduced to a bit of a gif in the process? You know, the way tumblrists love using images of African-American women going “hell no” or whatever to illustrate their disdain for things? There’s probably a name for this. It’s become a bit of a cultural tic, and is no doubt fairly harmless as such things go, but I do think this giffification – there’s a name for it, in case one is wanted – is what those same tumblrists would probably call “problematic”. On the one hand, it’s no bad thing if your demotic iconography puts Rihanna or RuPaul right alongside Patrick Stewart and, um, Benedict Cumberbatch. On the other, you maybe need to think a bit about what you’re stealth-essentialising in the process. Anyway, don’t listen to me.
Oh, one more thing. Just because Strax is a Sontaran doesn’t mean he’s not also a comedy ethnic minority sidekick, even (and perhaps especially) if the actor playing him is white. Don’t get me wrong: I love Strax, he has a lot of great lines, Dan Starkey’s extremely funny. But the running joke is that he’s a foreigner from a campily-militaristic empire of swarthy barbarians who tries but often amusingly fails to understand how civilised people do things, and isn’t it just hilarious to dress him as a butler? This is jarring in (modern) Who, the same way having Madame Vastra yell “in the name of the British Empire” is jarring. Come on, Madame Vastra – you’re the sole surviving Silurian lizard-person from the Time Before Humans, in a Victorian-costumed-cockney-lesbian relationship with a woman you have to pretend is your maidservant (although Moffatt can’t resist making it obvious that they’re both actually getting some sort of kick out of the whole arrangement). Fuck the British Empire.