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The Moffat Moment: The Lasting Legacy of Steven Moffat’s “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock”…

Hindsight is a powerful tool.

It’s hard to recognise patterns in the moment, to understand how a larger design is unfolding as it actually unspools. It’s a lot easier to process the larger context once the work is complete. Many important works only reveal themselves in retrospect, once they can be properly contextualised as part of broader cultural movements and placed within the larger popular consciousness. By this measure, Steven Moffat’s run on Doctor Who is a particularly fascinating piece of work.

Moffat’s Doctor Who is an interesting piece of work, in large part due to the sheer volume of venom that it generates online. This is to be expected with any writer working on a major geek-friendly property. Fandoms are inherently protective of what they deem to belong to them, and this can lead to excessive and aggressive campaigns of hatred against those writers and directors they believe to be betraying the object of their affection. This is most obvious in terms of the response to Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, with harassment campaigns against actors and insane petitions and misogynist edits.

Moffat was subject to that sort of online hatred to the point that he was chased off Twitter, but the most interesting thing about the hatred of his tenure was that it seeped into professional journalism. Professional websites like The Daily Dot were so aggressively critical of Steven Moffat that they even made a point to blame him for decisions made by his direct predecessor; even when issuing a correction of that simple fact-checking oversight, they made a point to leave his sarcastic commentary on that narrative choice within the article without any context so that it might look like an endorsement.

There was an interesting dishonesty in the criticism of Moffat’s tenure. The most obvious example might be Rebecca A. Moore’s infamous study that argued that women’s speaking roles actually decreased under Moffat’s tenure, which was circulated in mainstream media and press. While it’s possible to have subjective arguments about the content of such dialogue and characterisation, the study itself was easily demonstrably inaccurate and read very much as an attempt to manipulate the numbers in service of a predetermined editorial perspective.

It is, of course, perfectly reasonable to dislike the work of a particular writer or to dislike the direction of a particular show. Life would be boring if everybody liked the same things. However, a large part of the fan-press coverage of the Moffat era seemed dedicated to arguing that the series was objectively awful with little room for debate. This resulted in a very heightened tone in online discourse around it in which the producer had to give interviews to the mainstream press insisting that he was not a misogynist. This critical environment was less than healthy, and its spread to professional outlets was regrettable.

As with most things, including the tenure of Russell T. Davies and Andrew Cartmel, the reality of the Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner was complicated. It is, for example, true that the overnight ratings did drop during the final years of his tenure. It is also true that the manner in which people were consuming television changed as well, making overnights less important. It is similarly true that Moffat’s tenure saw the series breaking into America; synchronising broadcast on BBC America, record high ratings and shooting episodes like The Impossible Astronaut, Day of the Moon and The Angels Take Manhattan there.

More to the point, it was the Moffat era that saw the series’ impact on American popular culture increase dramatically. To be fair, at least some of this was a delayed reaction to the hard work done by Russell T. Davies who had made smaller-scale efforts at outreach such as second-unit shooting in Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks. Nevertheless, the impact was felt. For example, Christopher Eccleston showed up on The Sarah Silverman Program playing “Doctor Lazer Rage.” Similarly, Community featured “Inspector Spacetime”, with a superfan played by future Moffat-era co-star Matt Lucas.

Whatever the precise cause of this increasingly mainstream interest in the show in American popular culture, and it seems fair to credit at least some of that to the increased access that American audiences had to the show during Moffat’s tenure as showrunner, it gets at one of the larger and stranger overlaps between Moffat’s work on the series and broader cultural trends. Moffat’s Doctor Who often seems like a template for certain strands of contemporary popular culture, whether through coincidence or design.

Rewatching Moffat’s Doctor Who, removed from its original context, it often seems like Moffat had a much stronger understanding of the direction of contemporary culture than many of his critics would allow.

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The X-Files – Dreamland II (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

Morris Fletcher is (and remains) one of the more interesting aspects of the Dreamland two-parter.

Fletcher would go on to become perhaps the most unlikely recurring character in the history of The X-Files. Michael McKean would reprise the role for a brief cameo in Three of a Kind at the end of the season. As with Kersh, he would disappear from the show’s world for the troubled seventh season, but would return the following year. He made a guest appearance in All About Yves, the finalé of The Lone Gunmen. Fletcher would then follow the Lone Gunmen back to The X-Files, appearing in Jump the Shark during the final season.

And the shippers went wild...

And the shippers went wild…

A large part of what makes Fletcher work is the wonderful guest performance of Michael McKean. McKean is a veteran actor with a long history of great work, dating back to his breakout role as Lenny (and Squiggy) on the sitcom Laverne and Shirley. Along with the move to Los Angeles, the sixth season of The X-Files began to drift away from Chris Carter’s initial reluctance to cast recognisable actors in significant roles. The X-Files: Fight the Future had featured guest appearances from Martin Landau, Blythe Danner, Armin Muller-Stahl and Glenne Headly.

The two-parter built around Michael McKean paves the way for appearances from Ed Asner, Lily Tomlin and Bruce Campbell. These are all superb guest performances, and consciously play into the idea that the sixth season of The X-Files has taken on a more playful or vaudevillian style. It is too much to describe these guest roles as “stunt casting” in the same way that putting Jerry Springer in The Post-Modern Prometheus or Burt Reynolds in Improbable was stunt casting, but the casting decisions are part of a broader change in the show.

Our man Morris...

Our man Morris…

On paper, Morris Fletcher could easily come off as a one-note creep. After all, he is a character who thinks nothing of using his body swap with Fox Mulder to cheat on his wife of twenty years. There is a creepy and pervy banality to his evil, one that mirrors that of Eddie Van Blundht in Small Potatoes. However, while Small Potatoes felt a little too sympathetic to pathetic Eddie Van Blundht, Dreamland strikes a better balance in its portrayal of Morris Fletcher. McKean plays Fletcher as a very human character, but one who is no less creepy for his well-practiced charm.

It goes almost without saying that Michael McKean’s guest performance is a major reason why Dreamland (mostly) works.

Not particularly reflective...

Not particularly reflective…

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The X-Files (Topps) #14 – Falling (Review)

This November (and a little of December), we’re taking a trip back in time to review the third season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Space: Above and Beyond.

Falling is a delightfully nasty piece of work.

It is, to be fair, something that has been gestating for quite a while in Petrucha and Adlard’s extended run on The X-Files. If their first year on the title explored the loose boundary between reality and unreality, their final few issues shifted to more grounded and cynical themes. Most explicitly, the idea that humanity makes the best monsters. It is a gleefully subversive twist on one of the core elements of The X-Files: the idea that monsters are real.

Falling to pieces...

Falling to pieces…

Petrucha and Adlard had broached this before. This was the key point in Big Foot, Warm Heart, where the eponymous creature shows more humanity than the human antagonist of the story. One Player Only featured a delightful red herring when it suggested a murderous artificial intelligence had driven a developer to a killing spree at a software company, only to reveal that the developer’s actions were entirely his own. It will be taken to the logical extreme in Home of the Brave, essentially the duo’s grand finalé.

Blending together the Americana and nostalgia of Stand By Me with the brutal cynicism of Lord of the Flies, Falling is a compelling and unsettling read.

If a tree falls in the woods...

If a tree falls in the woods…

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Doctor Who: Robot of Sherwood (Review)

Shortly, I shall be the most powerful man in the realm. King in all but name, for Nottingham is not enough.

It isn’t?

After this, Derby.

Right.

Then Lincoln. And after Lincoln…

Worksop?

The world!

– the Sheriff outlines his plot to Clara

Robot of Sherwood is a functional piece of television, with a wonderful closing scene capping a very light forty-five minutes. Mark Gatiss is a writer who tends to trade on nostalgia, and who clearly holds a great deal of affection for the past. As such, Robot of Sherwood provides a fairly effective and straightforward counterpoint to the heavy moral questions of Deep Breath and Into the Dalek. Is the Doctor a hero? It doesn’t matter, because his story is that of a hero.

There is a sense that perhaps Gatiss is being a little bit too glib here, to the point where Robot of Sherwood almost plays defensively – a justification of the writer’s tendency to rose-tinted nostalgia and a rejection of critical approaches towards history or story. Nevertheless, Robot of Sherwood does pretty much what it sets out to do. It provides Peter Capaldi with a suitably light script and a chance to flex his comedic muscles, while providing a suitably fairy-tale-ish pseudo-historical.

Legendary outlaw...

Legendary outlaw…

This season is introducing a new lead actor, a risky proposition for any show. As a result, the first half of the season tends to play it rather safe. Robot of Sherwood is the only episode in the first half of the season not to credit Steven Moffat as writer or co-writer; however, it is still written by an established Doctor Who veteran. After all, Mark Gatiss wrote The Unquiet Dead, the first episode of the relaunched series not written by Russell T. Davies. He also wrote Victory of the Daleks, the first story of the Moffat era not written by Moffat himself.

Indeed, the season returns to the classic “home”/“future”/“historical” opening triptych structure that defined the Davies era; it is the first time that this structure has been seen since Matt Smith’s opening season. (For Davies, “home” was twenty-first century London; for Moffat, it is the Paternoster Gang.) Robot of Sherwood is the show’s first proper “celebrity historical” since Vincent and the Doctor in that same opening season. “Safe” is very much the name of the game for this stretch of the season. Robot of Sherwood is very safe.

"You'll ruin the paint work!"

“You’ll ruin the paint work!”

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Star Trek III: The Search for Spock by Vonda N. McIntyre (Review)

This June, we’re taking a look at some classic Star Trek movie tie-ins. Check back daily for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home form a loose trilogy following the death and resurrection of the franchise’s most iconic character. The events of each leads into the next, and there’s a very clear pattern of cause and effect that brings you from Saavik’s Kobayashi Maru test through to Kirk’s assignment to the Enterprise-A. The start of each of the three films picks up from the end of the last one. It brings the characters involved on a full arc.

However, despite this, there is a bit of a disconnect between the feature films – perhaps inevitable for three movies conceived separately one-after-another. The Wrath of Khan is a story about how Kirk is perhaps broken, too old and too reckless to keep doing the stuff that he does; The Search for Spock shrugs that off by having Kirk joyride on the Enterprise. The Wrath of Khan introduces a next generation of characters in the form of Kirk’s son David Marcus and Spock’s protégé Saavik; The Search for Spock kills David and The Voyage Home dismisses Saavik.

While The Search for Spock might begin with the Enterprise limping back to Earth following the confrontation with Khan, it seems to gloss over every part of The Wrath of Khan that isn’t directly related to the death of Spock. Genesis is carried over as Spock’s final resting place, but Khan isn’t mentioned, nor is the Reliant; Carol Marcus doesn’t appear; the deaths of the cadets on the cruise and the staff of Regula I are somewhat glossed over.

The most interesting aspect of Vonda McIntyre’s adaptation of The Search for Spock is the way that it makes a point to carry over elements from The Wrath of Khan into the story. Indeed, McIntyre is almost a third of the way into the book before reaching the actual plot. The result is an interesting novel that feels more like a sequel to The Wrath of Khan than a direct rebuttal, as the film had been.

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Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers – Disassembled (Review/Retrospective)

April (and a little bit of May) are “Avengers month” at the m0vie blog. In anticipation of Joss Whedon’s superhero epic, we’ll have a variety of articles and reviews published looking at various aspects of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” Today and tomorrow we’ll be taking a look at the two Brian Michael Bendis events that kick-started the writer’s work on the franchise.

Avengers: Disassembled welcomed Brian Michael Bendis to the Avengers franchise. The super-star writer had enjoyed long and well-received runs on Ultimate Spider-Man and Daredevil, but his tenure on the Avengers franchise proved much more divisive. Taking over for a three issue arc on the main Avengers title, Bendis literally destroyed the team. Not only did he demolish a lot of the iconography associated with the bunch of superheroes, he also launched a fairly scathing deconstruction of the stalwart superhero team. Bendis wasn’t just going to adopt a caretaker position on the series, he clearly planned some very serious remodelling. That meant that some walls had to get knocked down. In many ways, Disassembled feels like a brutal demolition.

Things come apart…

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Non-Review Review: Cabin in the Woods

Part of me wonders when it’s appropriate to start ranking the year’s films. I say that, because I’ve just had the pleasure of catching The Cabin in the Woods, which is easily one of the best films of the year so far, and the best horror movie I’ve seen in a long, long time. I know those sound like trite clichés, but Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s exploration of the horror genre just bristles with a raw energy that sweeps up the audience.

It’s a rare horror film that has you laughing when it wants you to laugh, while keeping you anticipating shocks that you know it knows you know are coming. In many ways, it seems like Cabin in the Woods comes from a very raw and personal place from both director and writer, one conflicted over the genre as a whole. From the outset it’s clear that Whedon and Goddard truly love the conventions and the thrills, while loathing the inherent voyeurism and nihilism that is almost inseparable from those aspects. It’s a weird dichotomy, and Cabin in the Woods is a weird film, but weird in that most brilliant of ways.

Who is afraid of the big bad wolf?

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