Hands up if you were truly excited by Doctor Who Season 12? Nope, me neither.
I can remember the days I used to plan my entire Saturday night around this show, particularly in the era of Steven Moffat, who decrypted and deconstructed the very premise of the BBC’s strangest show, still on air after almost sixty years. Nights out with friends would be regularly predicated on whether new Who was watched or taped or somewhere in between. That started to change, in fairness, before Chris Chibnall’s era arrived. The final season or two of Moffat’s run, with Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, lacked the same kind of narrative or creative impetus than earlier years. The show began, to some degree, to eat its own tail.
Many fans, those who hadn’t been inexorably alienated by Moffat’s eternally divisive, glib and throwaway style of meta-fiction (or in this case meta-science-fiction), saw with Chibnall and the first ever female Doctor, as played by the already strong character actor Jodie Whittaker, a chance to clear the decks and provide something fresh and new. A move away from Moffat’s style of long-form narrative arcs, inverted stories that chewed away at traditional ideas, and the innate cynicism of Capaldi’s slightly curmudgeonly take on the character. Which is, by and large, exactly what we got with Season 11. It was lighter. It was self-contained. It had no real narrative through-line of note. And it was deliberately unburdened by eras past.
It was also, almost universally, rejected by critics and fans alike. Very few people enjoyed Chibnall and Whittaker’s first year. The knives were out. And as Season 12 premiere two-parter Spyfall proves, Chibnall has course-corrected in the most inevitable of ways. He’s turned back.
Everything pointed toward Good Omens being one of the TV highlights of 2019 yet, in truth, it could likely turn out to be one of the year’s greatest disappointments.
The ‘why?’ of this is, to an extent, confounding. Good Omens derives from much loved source material, a one-off 1990 fantasy comic novel by the joint literary powerhouses of Neil Gaiman and the late, great Terry Pratchett. It tells an epic, cosmic story across 6000 years of human history, tackling the classic Biblical concept of Armageddon and the rise of the Anti-Christ through a delightfully oddball British lens. It is festooned with a variety of inventive comic characters, from ancient angels and demons through to surly modern witchfinders and ever-present prophets. It never takes itself too seriously while remaining a potent reminder, right at the end of the Cold War era, of man’s ability to self-destruct in the most apocalyptic of ways. It is also underpinned by an unlikely, history-spanning friendship between two ideological enemies which, again, reflects the end of an era. The world is ending. Long live the world.
While personally I don’t consider Good Omens anywhere near the best work of Pratchett or Gaiman, lacking the finesse, wit and structure of their strongest novels, there is no reason Good Omens couldn’t and shouldn’t have made for a strong TV adaptation. And TV is certainly the ideal medium for a fractured, multi-strand, ensemble story that weaves everyone together at the end. Terry Gilliam was all set to make it in the early 2000’s with Johnny Depp & Robin Williams headlining, boasting a script Gaiman claims was in fine fettle, but you wonder just how adequately a two hour or so film could have threaded everything in Good Omens together. TV gives it room to breathe, room to build up the core dynamic between angel Aziraphale & demon Crowley which exists at the heart of the book. Gaiman’s scripts all live up to this over the six parts and yet… it doesn’t work.
The more I think about why Good Omens doesn’t work, the more the answer becomes… well, ineffable.
“Part of the journey is the end” says Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark at a key point in Avengers: Endgame, a phrase which could neatly punctuate Marvel Studios’ remarkable conclusion to the first era of their Cinematic Universe.
Endgame is a staggering achievement. It is, without question, *the* biggest superhero movie ever made. It makes last years Infinity War look, at times, like an indie movie. Okay, that’s a bit of an over-exaggeration, but there is one sequence in particular toward the climax of Endgame which is just, quite frankly, jaw-dropping in its ambition and scale. It was one of several moments over the next few minutes which had the audience in my screening cheering, whooping and gasping in joy, surprise and the impact of what Endgame provides, and provides in absolute spades: payoff. Payoff to ten years of narrative and character investment from an audience which has grown, some who have grown *up*, with the Avengers.
It therefore comes as a surprise to report that Endgame, on first blush, is not as solid or accomplished a piece of cinema as Infinity War, or Avengers Assemble, or Black Panther, Thor: Ragnarok and certainly the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. It easily dwarfs every single MCU movie to date in scope, without a shadow of a doubt, but by its very nature there are structural issues, and problems with certain beats of characterisation, which are going to become more of a sticking point for critical fans once the euphoria and magic of Marvel’s fan service begins to wear off. This is a euphoria I share, by the way, right now, to the point I am itching to see Endgame again very soon.
Endgame is a film which, certain problems aside, will absolutely make you feel a whole range of emotions by the end. If you’re invested, this is a powerful experience.
Every July weekend at San Diego Comic Con, the biggest geek showcase on the planet where all the major studios and productions roll up to drop exclusives and surprises, you always get one announcement which courts a level of controversy and/or deep analysis. This year it wasn’t even the debut of a trailer for the Jodie Whittaker-fronted, Chris Chibnall-era new series of Doctor Who—which is going to almost certainly lead to a Star Wars-esque online tirade from grown man children at the idea of a woman playing the Doctor. 2018 had another major female figure from popular culture waiting in the wings get people talking: Buffy, she of the vampire slaying.
Let me tell you a story about Marvel, more specifically my relationship with the Netflix corner of the Marvel Cinematic/Television Universe. Having just digested all of the second season of Jessica Jones, the latest entry in the Marvel TV stable, it’s time we had an honest chat about these shows and how there’s a problem I just cannot get past.
Jessica Jones had a really impressive first season, and still could well stand as the strongest run in what, at the current count, stands as eight thirteen episode seasons that have encompassed the Netflix TV corner set in and around Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, with a ninth on its way in the next few months. Melissa Rosenberg’s adaptation of the comic Alias Jessica Jones (the Alias dropped in part to prevent confusion with ABC’s spy-fi drama of the same name) made a star of the biting and droll Krysten Ritter as Jessica, a super-powered private detective with a caustic attitude and few social skills, and told a quite violent, harrowing and dramatic story all about an abusive, controlling relationship & the psychological scars of rape. It was, on the whole, pretty superb television.
Bidding goodbye to another incarnation of the Doctor has now become as much a staple of Christmas Day every few years as Del & Rodders or Morecambe & Wise used to be in the days classic comedy dominated the British television landscape. Doctor Who over the last decade has cemented itself as *the* storytelling event in the UK on Christmas Day, after Russell T. Davies revived the series with a new, modern, American ‘showrunner’ style of production in 2005. We have in twelve short years got through four Doctors (five if you count John Hurt) and their life-cycle has become a repeating standard – barring Christopher Eccleston, every successive Doctor has roughly been around for three seasons over a three to four year period. Peter Capaldi has been no exception but this regeneration, in ‘Twice Upon a Time’, is different. We’re not just getting a new Doctor. We’re about to get an entirely new Who.
The last time this happened was 2009, at the very end of David Tennant’s hugely successful run as the Doctor. ‘The End of Time’ saw an emotional goodbye for Tennant, which perhaps reflected outgoing showrunner Davies—the man who had revived this entire world. “I don’t want to go!” the Doctor admitted before regenerating into Matt Smith, who sailed into a new era in 2010 with Steven Moffat at the helm. Moffat had already been well-regarded during RTD’s reign, writing some of the cleverest and more memorable stories over the first four seasons such as ‘The Empty Child/’The Doctor Dances’ (“are you my Mummy?”), ‘Blink’ which introduced the terrifying Weeping Angels, and ‘Silence in the Library’/‘Forest of the Dead’ where he introduced Alex Kingston’s River Song and her unique, complicated relationship with the Doctor. Moffat was the natural choice to take over.
Arguably, Moffat changed the very texture of Doctor Who. His term as show runner coincided with a move to HD and a ramped up budget, allowing for numerous filming excursions abroad to places such as Spain or New York. Davies’ style of storytelling had been earthy, grounded and accessible; his Doctors were broad-accented Northerners or charming, swaggering men. Their companions were council estate girls or traditional British working class, strong women who were swept away into a world of adventure, carried off from their humdrum lives. Davies’ stories centred heavily around Earth or the defence of Earth from alien invaders, introducing classic monsters from the Original Series of Who, tapping into B-movie concepts, and generally having a similar arc each season, building to an apocalyptic battle to save humanity and the planet Earth.
Moffat immediately changed that paradigm when Smith’s Doctor was born. His Doctor was famously an old man in a young man’s body, far less aware of his own charm and sexiness than Tennant’s incarnation, and stripped of Eccleston’s severe angst. Moffat’s companions were far more caustic, sarcastic and in many respects middle-class professional; women who were embroiled very much in the dark, strange fairytale Moffat converted the style of the show into. Smith’s Doctor was presented as ‘a mad man in a box’, a modern-day wizard entrenched in a level of myth and legend; indeed Smith’s entire run was characterised by how the Doctor was viewed by the rest of the universe, how he tried to reinvent himself as a different man, before facing his ultimate, unspoken sins at the end of Smith’s run. To time with the series fiftieth anniversary, Moffat literally asked, in dialogue and subtext: Doctor… Who?