Jokerside’s occasional review sets can’t resist a game, not least the end of the Game of Thrones. The genre TV phenomenon of the 21st century set itself a steep challenge for its eighth season. Long removed from its ongoing prose source, was there any chance it could end the Game in a way that lived up to its previous highs?
We were there every week with a full review of each episode – here’s our summary of its final year.
IF THERE IS TRUTH IN ANYTHING IN WESTEROS, IT’S THAT GAME OF THRONES NEVER HAD A DRAGON IN THE NORTH’S CHANCE OF BRINGING ITS EXPANSIVE SAGA TO A CLOSE IN A WAY THAT SATISFIED EVERYONE. It’s delayed arrival, shortened episode count and boosted set of near-feature length closing chapters didn’t help in the prolonged run-up. For all the regular shocks, which lasted as the sex and violence waxed and waned, the show’s previous seven years had taken their time reaching an end game.
With that end in sight and two wars on the boil, characters with targets on their back were increasingly hard to find. Morbid as it is, abrupt deaths and the peeling of characters from the plot were integral to the show, and Thrones had carefully constructed a reputation for surprise and shock. After this season opened with two exquisite hours of build-up to man’s great battle (The alive versus the dead), the deaths that came were naturally more predictable, less heart-wrenching, and more plot-grinding. The build-up to Winterfell’s finest hour, stretching back far longer than those two opening episodes of preparation, chat and reminiscence, put it on a high pedestal. But the epic battle that took over a month to film exceeded expectations, matching surprise with survival horror and proving one of Thrones‘ true successes: introducing elements of horror and fantasy to audiences who’d normally steer clear.
Funnily enough, the expected anticlimax was derailed. Logic dictated that the Army of the Dead would be halted in their tracks in the North, but the fine-tuned, distilled battle of the Queens in the south didn’t quite engage with the expected focus.
Winter of Discontent
In the end, Game of Thrones pulled off something rather spectacular. The criticism of the lighting during Episode 3‘s Last Great Battle of Winterfell (we hope) was batted away by the cinematographer but proved to be a warning shot. In between the errant coffee cups and plastic water bottles that made their way onto the screen, the character arc for the Khaleesi of the people Daenerys Targaryen was the focus for mounting ire.
Thrones’ pre-eminent position meant there were a lot of smiths sticking their irons in the fire and unusually, a large number who followed the books and more who don’t. The harshest critics were in the minority, but they roared like a Lannister and cast a light on the extraordinary state of new fandom, where a bitter taste of entitlement drowning out reasoned responses. It’s hardly restricted to fandom, but it’s particular galling to us becuase the presumption that stories must comply with an individual or group expectation and can be remade to do so doesn’t fuel creativity. Quite the opposite.
Thrones‘ high-profile meant external reaction had to filter into our reviews to evaluate the show as a story and a phenomenon. Books and spin-off media aside, Thrones is far more than a television show.
Dream of spring
Come the finale, any hope that fans all across the realms of man could be united had been dashed. But showrunners David Benioff & D. B. Weiss were surely steeled for the impossible job of ending the Game. They delivered a finale of extreme ambiguity that’s evoked extreme reactions and will endure decades of analysis. Hopefully, the final two books of the saga will have arrived by then.
In our review of the fourth episode, inspired by Thrones‘ legendary title sequence, we semi-joked that the saga could end with hands moving chess pieces in and out of place. It’s more than implied by the changing armillary that opens each show; the positioning of pieces has often been blatant throughout the seasons and was particularly evident in the shortened, quickened final run. Those hands never appeared, but the common prediction that the in-universe record of events A Song of Fire and Ice would appear in the arms of Samwell Tarley came true. It was far slimmer than the books series of course, but that’s probably down to excising Tyrion Lannister from the story. That’s the last great joke of the show, along with his final line, both at the cost of the show’s most important character – and thanks to Peter Dinklage’s performance, a huge part of the show’s success.
To summarise why, here’s out story by story rating and summary – see the end for our overall season score.
Episode 8.1: Winterfell
“What is dead may never die… But kill the bastards anyway”.
A saying often heard from followers of the Drowned God, true. But it also sums up the steep challenge facing this season of Game of Thrones. The small screen phenomenon may be immortal, but it still has to end. When Varys points out that “nothing lasts”, it’s like the show’s easing us into the inevitable. It’s gentle of course, we don’t want horses ruined for us.
So, we can excuse them a bit more of a build-up. For all that hanging sense of an ending, this is a quietly sublime opening that cranks down rather than cranks up. Its brilliance is in the simplest touch or look. The past catching up with “old friend” Ser Jaime when he sees Bran Stark; Cersei’s game-playing reaction to Euron’s gauche promise of a prince; the brief wallop and make-up of the Greyjoy reunion; Samwell’s distracted lack of small talk. Compact and minimal, the opener relies on the immense goodwill that the audience has invested in these characters as it serves up reunion after reunion, but can’t feel like anything greater than a damn fine prologue.
The real dragonglass isn’t in the foreword, but the punchline. When Jamie meets the daughter of the king he slew; When Cersei commands the Golden Company; When Theon finds final redemption at Winterfell; When Jon next sees Daenerys. Only GoT can afford a prologue like this and imbue it with such craft. Inevitably, sign me up. Continue reading “Game of Thrones Season 8: Our verdict on the final season”
As Avengers Endgame arrives to close to 11 years of Marvel storytelling (even if it isn’t quite closing off the MCU’s Phase 3), we take a look at the film that remains a benchmark for the MCU.
“Call in the asset”
THE MARVEL UNIVERSE HAS A HEALTHY FUTURE AHEAD OF IT ON THE BIG AND SMALL SCREEN SCREEN. BUT ENDGAME, NOT LEAST IN NAME, PROMISES TO COMPLETE THE CYCLE THAT BEGAN IN 2008. It’s strange too look back to the stuttering beginnings of what was then the Disney-free Marvel Studios, long before they could command three theatre releases a year. It wasn’t too ago. That the MCU arrived from nowhere with what appeared to be a difficult hand and a surprisingly cautious opening act.
Marvel just about had a grip on the big screen Incredible Hulk (then unaware, like the rest of us that Big, Green and on the Big Screen struggled in isolation), but no other key players with that level of popular fame. Its first family, the Fantastic Four along with key rogue Dr Doom, were parked over at the Fox lot along with the consistent victors of comic book sales at the time, the X-Men. Professor X’s gang had been making a dent at the box office since 1999, even if they fell short in their third outing. Superhero poster-boy Spiderman was ripping up receipts over at Sony, even if, again, the third instalment of Sam Raimi’s trilogy had demonstrated the dangers of overloading comic book adaptations.
But like Tony Stark trapped in a desert, Marvel improvised. And like Tony Stark, they nailed it. The properties that followed Iron Man into the MCU didn’t have a given right to sequels, but the phenomenal performance of that first film in 2008 had Captain America and Thor following within three years and Joss Whedon masterfully forging a team, with a little help from Nick Fury, within four.
Building to success
Until The Avengers, Phase 1 wasn’t commanding the outstanding box office the MCU enjoys today. Excluding that billion-breaking team up, it averaged a $458m worldwide haul compared to the $885m average pulled in by the first five films of Phase 3. In short, Marvel built something from very little, with the confidence and determination to create a shared universe which reflected the interlinked comic book life of a superhero in a way no studio had attempted before. What they had and what they wanted to do with them required more risk.
The very different Phase 2 showed how that risk was a crucial component of Marvel’s strategy. Phase plans required new properties to join existing properties, through shared characters and standalone debuts, which hopefully meant creating household names from the broadly unknown. Even though Thor had opened up the Rainbow Bridge, the space opera shenanigans of Guardians of the Galaxy were a gambit. Most importantly, Marvel Studios was quickly snapped up by Hollywood giant Disney. That turned the issues and risks that accompanied the formation of the studio five or so years before on their head, as if Thanos had snapped his fingers.
Challenging diminishing returns
Moving away from their proven origins, Captain America, Thor and Iron Man (even if his second film proved a mythically overladen early warning shot) carried different pressures into their sequels. New properties would now be built on their shoulders as Studio’s eyes were set on universe building. Released second in the phase, Alan Taylor’s Thor: The Dark World immediately stumbled by choosing a darker and underwhelming direction, but Iron Man 3 was a divisive triumph in the hands of Shane Black. It was the first Marvel standalone film to break the billion barrier on the back of Avengers, even if it was their most divisive film to date. It wasn’t surprising that the stable centrepoint of the MCU, Captain Steve Rogers, managed to combine risk, arc-propulsion, and a visible confidence in his new Disney-stable in a way that defined what the MCU could and would be.
For what it achieved and the legacy it set, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (TWS) hasn’t been beaten yet. It influenced the whole universe on and off screen and here’s why The Winter Soldier remains the MCU’s best…
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
“Grandad loved people but he didn’t trust them very much”
Much of Marvel’s success comes from internal checks and balances that limited repetition and guaranteed a certain distinction. For all the criticism that the early phases pitched like-for-like villains against heroes, that was a problem inherited from the page. While not taking it to an experimental extreme, a masterstroke was ensuring that each film tapped on the window of a different genre, ensuring an undulating texture throughout the MCU, even if directors were appointed for their cooperation with universe building as much as a singular vision.
At the end of Phase 2, Ant Man lent on the heist genre. In Phase 3, Doctor Strange would bring horror to the Marvel-mix. The First Avenger had been a period piece. Its sequel may have brought things right up to a futuristic present, but it was rooted in political and conspiracy thrillers, mainly of the 1970s. That brilliant choice enhances the material in a pivotal film, introducing edge-of-your-seat intrigue, but most importantly letting Captain Steve Rogers shine at its heart.
The potential complication of new and returning villains and allies becomes a strength in a script that fuels conspiracy riddled with misdirection and a lack of trust.
At the time, franchise supremo Kevin Feige pointed out that the MCU timeline excluded their Cap the disorientation of the swinging ’60s, the darkness of the Watergate Era or the tough right of Reagan’s 1980s that his comic book counterpart experienced. He told Empire, “We wanted to force him to confront that kind of moral conundrum, something with that ’70s flavor. And in our film that takes the form of SHIELD”
After the slight Kryptonian appearance of SHIELD’s executive council in 2012’s Avengers, TWS solidifies the government bureaucracy behind the gigantic organisation including Alexander Pierce at the top of the Triskelion. But the film doesn’t dwell on menace. There are no furtive glances from Rumlow (the future Crossbones) and no real aspersions on Secretary Pierce until his unambiguous night-time meeting with the Winter Soldier, with its heavy nod to Watergate-era meetings. At the climax, the data-dump of Hydra and Shield secrets acknowledges the WikiLeaks era of the film and shows that there’s plenty of material to mine in the modern day.
Even better, most of this thriller happens in daylight. The scenes in the Triskelion, including the infamous lift set piece, have an oppressive backdrop of bright white and blue skies. The real beacon is Rogers, as he moves from “this isn’t right” to fugitive, his relationships with Fury, Black Widow and the 21st century revolving around him.
Man out of Time
“The real success is allowing Cap to convey the values of his time to the modern day just as the past rushes up to catch up with him.”
The Avengers did more than enhance MCU characters when it forged them into a dysfunctional team. It carried the initial leg work of bringing Cap into the 21st century and defining his role in it, through Joss Whedon’s sharp script. That gave TWS valuable breathing space to catch up on the First Avenger two years later. It also marked the return of Cap to the pen-custody of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who would continue to shape the overall arc of the character, including the creation of the Agent Carter television show. They are very much the fathers of this incarnation of the character, and they have to take much of the credit for his success.
Captain America’s gleaming light isn’t as dull as it could be, thanks to a murky plot that highlights his fundamental character as much as it keeps his relationships moving forward at every level. “All the guys from my barbershop quartet are dead” and “secure the engine room, then find me a date” banter leads to the bedside of an aged Peggy Carter, then on to his neighbour, who happens to be Peggy’s niece and a nice bit of misdirection for followers of the comics.
Fury and Pierce’s tussle mirrors, or rather inverts, Cap’s relationship with Bucky Barnes, while they also represent mentor and chain of command archetypes at points. Acts like reclaiming his old uniform from an exhibit that demonstrates he’s an icon and curio as much as a man is carefully sewn into the narrative (Spike cameo: I am so fired”) as he unravels a classic ‘you are not alone’ story line – one that manages to have its cake and eats it: sacrifice and ambiguity.
Small touches like Cap’s notebook, where he lists the things he needs to catch up on are humorous and emotive. It captures the scale, large and small. Some entries apt, like Falcon’s suggestion of Marvin Gaye’s Troubleman soundtrack (1970s, of course); some are just worth it, like Thai food; some are a little more, well, Moon Landing and Berlin Wall sized.
TWS’s real success is allowing Cap to convey the values of his time to the modern day just as the past, in the form of Hydra, rushes up to catch up with him. But he’s no boy lost in time – after the notebook, the opening mission establishes his supreme leadership and strategic abilities, as well as that formidable attacking force. Some of that Cap sheen would be lost in the horror of Zukovia and a hasty Civil War. But that’s not at error here, this is his peak.
The SHIELD problem
“Getting a little tired of being Fury’s janitor”
You can tell the concept of SHIELD is a problem from the number of shared universes that tried to emulate it. Some have proved more successful than others, but from Universal’s shelved Dark Universe and the Jekyll-run Prodigium to Monarch at the centre of Legendary’s MonsterVerse, they’ve been presented as a cloying necessity. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby set SHIELD up as a central pillar of Marvel Comics in 1965. Four decades later Marvel’s Ultimate comic imprint saw Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch define a lot of what the Avengers could be on screen, including a prescient Nick Fury based on Samuel L Jackson, even if their Captain America was a right-wing throwback. When the Division arrived on film, it was caught between Men in Black parody on one hand and all-powerful organisation that threatened to cut Marvel’s valuable ties to reality on the other.
At the start of Phase 2, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD emerged on ABC and cemented some of the weaknesses. The show was one-part a derivative Joss Whedon team, ten-parts dull bureaucracy, lacking the X-Files timing or pastiche that would serve them better in 90s-throwback Captain Marvel. Until TWS that is. The catastrophic events of the film not only create one of the series all-time great climaxes but unravelled SHIELD to the point of framing the organisation’s appearance ever since Nick Fury’s popped up in the Iron Man post-credit appearance as an elaborate ruse.
SHIELD had to go, and even better that it’s Cap who points it out. At stake here is the future of the MCU and Cap saves it with a literal clearing of the cache.
The Phase structure
“The 21st century is a digital book – Zola taught Hydra how to read it”.
The disintegration of SHIELD had immediate repercussions for the MCU and the phase that followed. Agents of SHIELD was saved by a stunning tie-in season close that transformed it into one of the twistiest shows on the small screen. The Earth-centric side of the big screen MCU jumped forward a step, bolstered by newly layered history and setting the scene for Civil War and personally explosive drama as bureaucracy retreated to a higher level. A Deus ex machina had been removed (although no one told Ultron). TWS is the pivotal Marvel film and interestingly considering its position right in the middle of the Infinity Stone arc, those fabled stones don’t make an appearance beyond the mid-credit scene.
Either side of TWS, Thor and the Guardians overdid the Stones, so this respite gives a refreshing boost to Hydra’s plans and Zola’s predictive data algorithm. Mention of “Stephen Strange” was a future echo and a sign of intent at the time – he would float into the Sanctum Sanctorum two and a half years later. The destruction of SHIELD and the threat of the future that Hydra’s Project Insight comes so close to ending invests the audience in supporting the MCU’s survival, not just a two-hour film. That’s real confidence from a lynchpin film.
It’s astonishing how little direct adaptation has fuelled the comic book boom. While all printed sources require literal adaptation to work in motion, the many years of continuous narrative in comic books has made it less likely that one specific story or arc will make it to the screen. With many established characters, origin stories from the golden or silver age of the medium (up to the 1970s) will have been rewritten many times by different creators. In the case of big hitters like Batman, Superman and Spider-Man, they have moved into myth. As such, most comic book films have opted to slotted in traits and scenes from their source material rather than directly adapting. It’s more astonishing that this approach has failed than adaptors haven’t chosen a simpler approach. The Avengers for instance, could only reference the comic book origins that had a lot to do with Loki, but little to do with SHIELD.
The MCU changed as it moved away from origins. Iron Man 3 had borrowed heavily from Warren Ellis 2005 Extremis arc, elements of which would further spark onto the small screen in Agents of SHIELD. TWS borrowed from Ed Brubaker’s Winter Soldier story line, picking up a natural narrative development from the first film, albeit modifying elements that were bedded into Marvel mythology. Interestingly that meant radically reducing the role of the Cosmic Cube.
The Action Set-pieces
For all the parts that come to work in TWS, from Chris Evans’ stirling performance to the writers who really know their Captain, most praise must fall on to the Russo brothers. Their impact with TWS was devastating, in a good way. It secured them the job of closing the Avengers arc, including Avengers 2.5, Civil War. But why? Well, just take a look at the set-pieces, which we’ll list as:
THE END OF SHIELD.
Emphasis all ours. Each set piece, in this well-paced film, are pitch perfect. During the boat raid, the vibranium shield pings, the action is brutal and perfectly designed to showcase the super soldier at work. The Russos had the good sense to cast former MMA pro Georges St-Pierre as Cap’s antagonist to ram that home. The famous lift sequence deservedly sticks in the mind. Set against that blue sky, the claustrophobic masterclass demonstrates three things: Don’t be afraid to shoot from the back; Don’t underestimate Captain America and; A super soldier never switches off.
It’s on the road and in climactic, epic, final battle that the Russos’ style is clear. Punchy and direct, their fluid fluid camera waves around, ready to snap with the action. The smoke, the cuts – it’s all very tactile. But there’s also the exquisite sound design. The bullets, the vibranium – they absolutely zing off the screen. There’s a rhythm that’s utterly captivating and thrilling mixed with crisp, clear and rugged cinematography. Each sequence has a threat behind it. For Fury, after taking a pounding, there’s the chilling introduction of the the Winter Soldier himself. And at this point in the franchise, six years in, it’s really not unbelievable that Fury could die. Coming at the 75 minute mark, the major road set-piece remains the pinnacle of the MCU: the ultimate Marvel moment. It sums up what the Russos brought to Marvel perfectly. They found a way to make the Marvel universe not so much work in a believable universe, but make it burst from the screen. No other director quite managed that.
The risks of overloading a comic book film have been well recorded, particularly in the abrupt demise of the 90s Batman franchise. MCU films had a mission to build but they used that to, more often than not, find news ways to incorporate characters. Sam Wilson’s introduction is playful, but their shared military experience connects the two across the decades. Drifting from ability and hubris to a fugitive in her own right, Black Widow’s addition – crucially not a romantic interest – is more effective than in Iron Man 2 or Avengers.
Disney’s acquisition of Marvel lifted expectations, but it also oiled the wheels that allowed the MCU to achieve its goal of becoming the world’s largest franchise. Risks like Guardians of the Galaxy were mitigated, but there was also the weight to secure high-level actors, talent and budget. In the first wave of this, came the extraordinary addition of Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce. Not only the kind of Hollywood heavyweight blockbuster’s long for, but one of the major players in the 1970’s political thriller All The President’s Men.
“Peace isn’t an achievement, it’s a responsibility.
As the cliche goes, a man is a measure of his enemies. TWS tells a once-in-the-MCU story of the man out of time having the past rush to overtake him. Captain Rogers is ready-made to defy a world of clandestine orders and moral ambiguity, but all the better when the real foe is proved to be the Nazi off-shoot that sealed his fate during WWII. That could backfire into an awkward repainting of the whites and blacks of the first film. But this Hydra was born in response to the War. As Zola puts it, a ‘beautiful parasite’, where modern life requires humanity to accept Hydra. Astonishingly Hydra, for all their pantomime, isn’t overblown – even when Zola reappears as a sardonic computer intelligence. The hook of the quantum surge in threat analysis and justice before the deed is top notch. And on the 70s side, Redford is an unexpectedly superb choice as the villain.
“Your work has been a gift to mankind…You shaped the century. And I need you to do it again. Society is at a tipping point between order and chaos”
As for Bucky Barnes, well we all knew he wouldn’t stay villain for too long…
“Admit it, it’s better this way”
The Winter Soldier rewards repeat viewings by impressing more and more. That’s especially true as 11 years of storytelling come to a close. It manages to heighten almost every part of the MCU it touches and is unrivalled in setting the tone for the Phase and a half that followed. It does have flaws, the majority of them SHIELD related. Restricting Maria Hill to an ‘Oracle’ role is a mistake, but it’s astonishing how much it got right. And that five years later, it still shines like a gleam from Cap’s shield. If not the SHIELD it left broken, and in a far better place.
As an underused Baron Wolfgang von Strucker puts it mid-credits, “it’s not a world of spies anymore, not even a world of heroes. This is the age of miracles, Doctor. There is nothing more horrifying than a miracle. “
We don our flippers and take a swim with the curious monsters of the early 1960s that, though intended to be the new Daleks never to return to the television, but whose enigmatic appearance proved fertile ground for writers and creators in other media…
11 April 1964 and the fifth serial of Doctor Who screened on the BBC. Fans that the show had scooped up since its arrival the previous November had no idea that the 21st episode of the series, The Sea of Death, would originate an element that would become a recurring component of the show: the quest-based story arc, famously employed for a whole season with The Key to Time in the late 1970s and the Fifth Doctor’s tussle with the Black Guardian a half decade after that. It would also form form a simple, exciting framework for stories as diverse as The Chase, The Daleks’ Master Plan (1965) and The Infinite Quest (2007). Ideal for the show when it was in a tight spot. A simple story was enhanced by diverse mini-adventures, but the weight of those smaller stories was also bolstered by a light if compelling backbone. While the the concept would remain with the show, pioneered by the writer of The Sea of Death, the monsters of the piece wouldn’t be so lucky.
The Voord, the Milk Tray Men of Doctor Who, would never reappear on screen to attempt a chocolate delivery again.
Flipping stand ins
When rewrites of Malcolm Hulke’s Dr Who and the Hidden Planet pushed it out of the production schedule, script editor David Whitaker turned to Terry Nation, the writer who’d propelled the show into popular consciousness with its second serial, The Daleks, and was already lined up for its eighth. Confronted with a narrow window to write it, Nation was drawn to the idea of a quest and he and Whitaker settled on a light arc that would take the TARDIS crew to a number of varied settings. From the interior of the first two episodes the travellers would encounter a vast city, a courtroom, a jungle and arctic terrain. Linked to the overarching acr and waiting for them on the sea world of Marinus were the villainous Voord. Few were happy with how these monsters turned out. Carole Ann Ford, who thought the script took Susan’s character back to school, director John Gorrie who had eyes on boosting his career which allowed him to overlook issues with the speedily produced script, the audience and critics who gave it a mixed result – none were too impressed. But few could have been more disappointed than the Voord themselves.
As was customary, Terry Nation added very little description for the creatures to his script, so designer Daphne Dare used vulcanised rubber from prop builders Jack and John Lovell to sculpt heads of the monsters that sat atop a customised rubber wetsuit. Three costumes came in at under £70 which must have pleased the production. And while impractical and rather silly, their enigmatic and strangely effective appearance would provide ample opportunities to expand on the creations. Although, the reception of The Keys of Marinus put pay to them appearing on screen again.
Dalekmania had caught many off guard, while ensuring Doctor Who’s survival. The Pepperpots that had famously contravened show creator Sydney Newman’s “no bug-eyed monsters” rule had surfaced from nowhere and joined Beatlemania in setting a tone for early 60s Britain and ensuring a quick return. Hopes were high for a successor, but of the long line of pretenders who never reached that, the Voord were the first to fail. They got the merchandising deals and exposure, made it into the comic strips and even made their way to Amicus, who snapped up the rights to The Keys of Marinus along with the early Dalek serials. Neither the Keys nor the Voord made it to the big screen or back to the small. Though it’s important to note that Peter Stenson would later contribute his experiences of portraying a Voord in 1964 for a leather fetish magazine.
The Voord found a new, if not huge life in the show’s expanded universe, beyond the pages of fetish magazines. Let’s take a shifty through four of the interpretations of the Voord from four big names: Terry Nation, Grant Morrison, Andrew Smith and Paul Cornell.
Terry Nation – The Keys of Marinus (1964), BBC
The One Where: They’re the new Daleks
“Choice? What choice?”
The Sea of Death is an ominous episode title and setting. The locale of the island of glass that the episode pores over at the start could come right from of the final act of Rogue One, the prequel to the original Star Wars trilogy that would bring its black suited, black-hearted antagonist back to science fiction almost 50 years later.
Flipper first, the dark and menacing Voord appear on this silent island, emerging from their craft backed by the flute flourish of Norman Kay’s score. A tidal pool, acid water – it’s a beautiful, idyllic locale with a dangerous undercurrent – a Nation set-up familiar from his Dalek story lines. The Voord’s mysterious arrival adds to the unease. Even as they stumble across crafts and structures that should be quite evident, they carry mystery with them. Chiefly, it’s an inexplicable assault. Continue reading “Chairmen of the Voord – Four Writers, One of Doctor Who’s Oldest Monsters”
Can it really be 10 Comic Reliefs since Doctor Who and the Curse of Fatal Death? The sketch showpiece of the 1999 fundraiser that amused, reminded and affected 10 years after the classic series ended. A further 20 years on, it’s proved to be more than a novelty.
It told us pretty much all we needed to know about writer Steven Moffat’s time in charge of Doctor Who…
“Die Doctor, Die!”
WHEN STEVEN MOFFAT TOOK ON SCRIBING A 20 MINUTE SKIT FOR CHARITY IN THE LATE ‘90S, HE NO DOUBT HAD ONE THOUGHT ON HIS MIND: THIS IS THE ONLY SHOT I’LL EVER GET AT WRITING DOCTOR WHO. Who cared if it was a short, standalone, or defiantly comedic… It was Doctor Who! A decade before he was asked it had limped to a ignobly-funded, underwatched end on BBC One. Three years before, it had failed to spark on an American network.
It wasn’t coming back anytime soon, right?
Of course, Who would return six years to the month after The Curse of Fatal Death’s broadcast. Triumphantly so, and with Moffat among its writers. Twenty years on from broadcast, Moffat stands as the most prolific writer of on-screen Doctor Who, contributing to 12 years of the rebooted show and steering seven of those, arguably providing the greatest single influence in its history – new villains, monsters, ideas, humour and… Head scratching. Perhaps then, it’s not surprising that a microcosm of those 12 years is found in the third of an hour broadcast on a Friday night in March 1999.
“936 years in a sewer”
If you wrote a concise summary of the show under his guidance, you’d struggle to beat The Curse of Fatal Death, the last action Doctor Who realised in the twentieth century. In that unmissable chance, Moffat packs in not just great and knowing witticisms, but everything he loved about the show. He’d achieve a similar – although more serious feat – in 2010 with The Eleventh Hour – the regeneration story that had been running around his mind for decades. But with the astutely named Fatal Death, it was a punchy jab at respecting the past and predicting the future, telling us far more about what Moffat would do with the series proper than seems possible. Here we count an absurd 20 of them…
“Say hello to the spikes of doom”
1. A sense of humour
Fatal Death is a parody of Doctor Who, yes, but it’s a knowing one, written by someone who knew the show inside out. All those ‘knows’ mean someone who, er, knows the show is above parody. There was no continuing television franchise to scupper, no threat to be undermined or seriousness to break. There was just nostalgia for a show that had inherent comedy and was supported by huge goodwill. That’s what three or so decades will do for you.
Still, it runs a fine line, wringing comedy out of the thin plot at speed, rather than stapling plot onto comedy. The beats are all there, even the middle cliffhanger that stars a wonderfully obvious set of flashing toy Daleks.
The 50-odd episodes Moffat has penned for the show since its return retained that fine line of comedy and drama, as well as a willful mischievous with continuity. Moffat stories were happy to contradict each other and canon if it made for a better story (remind us, is regeneration more like death or a cold?), sometimes for a joke, sometimes in smart scripting that undermined a scene or character. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but overall Moffat balanced comedic and scary highs during his time. Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that he had got lines like, “It will be the deadly vengeance… Of deadly revenge!” out of his system.
The name itself is a preposterous, hifalutin parody that played on people’s memory. But it’s also a tribute to the show’s high point and a bona fide franchise legend. 1976’s The Deadly Assassin got there earlier, from the pen of legendary Who writer Robert Holmes. Moffat’s script was always witty, something played on by his actors. Comedy an essential part of the show – Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith is among one of the greatest comedic actors to have taken the role and Capaldi wasn’t bad bad either!
But in Fatal Death, he had some comedy greats to delivery lines with exquisite timing. There’s barely a zinger that goes wasted in a skit with a higher joke scatter fire than many other Comic Relief sketches, astonishing considering how broad many are. Crucial to its success is the way Rowan Atkinson and Julia Swahala play everything wonderfully straight.
2. The timey-wimey
It’s a show about time travel – that’s a phrase Moffat batted back to interviewers a lot during his early days as showrunner. Sure, the classic series had hardly let up on that, but seldom over-played the concept within serials (City of Death, The Time Monster, Day of the Daleks were key serials that did). Moffat’s era would play fast and loose between stories, in stories, and use it as a central plot propellent that created headaches the size of Professor River Song’s temporal footprint along the way. Fatal Death is probably only matched in its time-trickery-per-minute ratio by Moffat’s stunning contribution to Series 2, Blink.
3. Temporal paradox
It’s a big point, so we’ll take it a step further. It’s what some may call the meat and bones of the Moffat era. With the line, “You forgot I too have a TARDIS” we have the schematic for cheating all manner of mysteries around death and imprisonment during the Moffat years.
The friend and foe dynamic emerged as familiarity breeding contempt in 1999. The Master is a humiliated figure, always outfoxed, destined to fail, often insecure. Fatal Death’s version, is ramped up in wonderfully desperate fashion by Jonathan Pryce. While Fatal Death brought back the eternal loser, it also reminded us of how closely the character’s tied to his Time Lord foe. See how upset he is with the idea of the Doctor retiring – surely on many levels. The villain was ready to take a more prominent role than the 1980s or 1990s had allowed him, even if Moffat’s era could never agree on who the Doctor’s greatest foe is, or achieve quite the happy ending Fatal Death did.
That ending is a tiny bit The Doctor Falls though, isn’t it? Only with less death and deception.
5. Dalek cameo
Those were the days: When Daleks were a given in any Doctor Who. This time, brought in by the Master in a rather neat flip of the fingers to the events of 1996’s TV movie. They tick boxes (an overpowering cliffhanger and dramatic entrance) but struggle to ratchet up the threat level. They would continue to be similarly untroubling during Moffat’s tenure – a bit of a failing after Russell T Davies brought them back to planet-stomping glory.
The Moff would develop Dalek Technology with a fervour of the 1960s creators. “Augmented by superior Dalek technology” in Fatal Death emerges as a wonderful hand plunger and comedy bumps.
The Pepperpots do provide the cliffhanger as a lovely fleet of toy Daleks. While Moffat’s been known to question the repeat of the last few minutes of the previous episode during the classic era, the two-part version of Fatal Death is Doctor Who’s first summary – such a ‘90s conceit, and brilliantly reduced to the Master continually falling into the sewer system
6. A female Doctor
It was in Fatal Death – notably pre-social media – that we saw the first female Doctor. Up until that point, the idea had been restricted to sensational tabloid rumours (and possibly the odd mischievous office leak). As such, it was more a glorious in-joke than anything else. The Doctor’s rapid regenerations cycled through a tabloid’s dream list before the Lumley-Lord gave us the punch-line.
The Davies’ era may have played around with gender, but it was under Moffat that the true seeds of a female Doctor were set. That’s when we saw Time Lords change gender during regeneration, although he missed his shot to make the show’s definitive change himself.
7. The female companion
Oh, you’d be hard pushed to forget female companions in the TARDIS console room during the Classic Series’ 26 years. But memories of the Doctor and single female companion always exceed the reality of a busier Type 40 – thanks to icons like Leela, Sarah-Jane and the final companion of the era, Ace.
Moffat always professed to be a fan of the fuller TARDIS and certain stories depended on it during his era (River Song would have struggled to come into existence), but both his Doctors were defined by singular female companions – Amy for the Eleventh and Clara for the Twelfth. They were so important, each appeared at their respective Doctor’s death.
On top of the succession of brilliant solo companions who’d travelled with Davies’ Ninth and Tenth Doctors, Moffat’s decision to go that extra mile and put them in a relationship in Fatal Death was a bit of a tawdry joke has only gained credence over the last two decades. Still, Julia Sawalha, inheriting the mantle in less enlightened times, shines in her naive ‘60s stylings.
8. Being reverential
Parody can’t work without reference, and as much as Moffat stove to create new monsters, mythology and time loops, his was the most reverential of all. Davies had eased into the show’s rich mythology, taking the subtle but satisfying route of the odd Macra or introducing the Doctor’s main foes in their original chronological order. But the Moffat era was happy to head back to the very beginning, and change our perception of the Doctor on Gallifrey.
9. The casting
Yes, that succession of dream Doctors is both a joke and curse.
Casting would be never more scrutinised than during the Moffat era, as names like Hugh Grant became strangely more possible as the gap between small and big screen lessened. Richard E.Grant, two decades on an Oscar nominee, would play the alternative Ninth Doctor in the anniversary webcast Scream of the Shalka (2003). The television revival would sadly wipe that from canon, although many elements (the TARDIS-bound Master particularly) would be echoed – quite rightly, as they were great ideas. Incidentally Shalka was written by Paul Cornell, who brought Moffat closest to Virgin’s New Adventures range, including him as a character in his original Human Nature.
10. The Planet Terserus
It’s an ominous planet, signalling destiny for the Doctor. It may be condensed parody, but it sure has a feel of Trenzalore, the planet that promised the end of the Doctor’s Eleventh incarnation in Series Seven, and delivered it in Time of the Doctor.
The inverted pyramid left by the doomed Tersurons population couldn’t help but remind us of the pyramids that would help morph the Twelfth Doctor into an odd and unnecessary hybrid of Dracula and Sherlock during his final series (The Lie of the Land), but that’s more personal disgust.
In fact, Tersurus has a long and distinguished history in the wider Doctor Who universe of books, comics and audio, tying back to the plight of the worse for wear Master in none other than The Deadly Assassin. Even that incarnation, bug-eyed but menacing in 1976, didn’t fall in the sewer.
11. TARDIS tampering
The Master’s TARDIS, cosy, and a lovely shade of green, is strobed by lightning when its owner cackles. He needs to get those lights fixed – much like the Eleventh Doctor who really should have looked into the “Silence will Fall” presence that cracked his TARDIS console screen at the conclusion of Series Five. Perhaps he never knew…
12. An alien twist
The Terserons unusual communication is pivotal to Fatal Death’s plot, but it would be Davies who brought bodily functions into canon for some light relief six years later (Aliens of London). The way Moffat took the effort to tie this into the resolution (Chekov’s – oh, never mind), and his predilection to search out imaginative hooks for his alien species does stick out.
13. Ageing fast
Again, this is nothing new in Doctor Who. Alister Pearson’s spectacular rendition of an aged Fourth Doctor on the paperback of The Leisure Hive sticks in the mind. But seldom has the lengthened time span and enduring patience of a Time Lord been been clearer than in Fatal Death. This would be taken to the extreme near the close of both the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctor eras.
14. Legend of the Doctor
“I recently calculated that I have saved every planet in the known universe a minimum of 27 times” says the Doctor in Fatal Death, a prologue to announcing his retirement.
During his Eleventh Doctor run, Moffat would blow up this legend, before removing it entirely as that incarnation wiped himself from universal history. In Nightmare in Silver (2013), Neil Gaiman would gleefully rip that concept for pieces (You’d just have to look for the gaps). Coincidentally, he never wrote for the show again.
With three cliffhangers, Fatal Death almost rivals the whole of the Moffat run. We’re being facetious, but that may be true in terms of satisfyingly resolved ‘hangers. All-too-often, the Moffat era jumped them – even during the excellent opener of Series Six. That said, there was gold enough to wilt a Cyberman. The breaks that that met the end of The Empty Child and The Time of Angels are about as good as Doctor Who ever served up. In Fatal Death, the first is a narrative follow-through, the second a leap to capture, the third the first ever regeneration cliffhanger. Not groundbreaking – but as the central one sets up a change of scene and tone for the special’s second half, there’s the hint that he saw differently to many other writers.
16. Starting the Mill
Founded in 1990, Post prod and visual effects company The Mill followed up work on 2000’s Gladiator with a huge contribution to the BBC’s fantasy output in the early 21st century. From the RTD-era title sequence to Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures and Merlin. They parted ways with Who in 2013 – mid-Moffat. Quite the shame when their first involvement with the show was providing special effects for Fatal Death.
17. Richard Curtis
Steven Moffat’s wife Sue Vertue produced Fatal Death, but he was invited to script it by Red Nose Day honcho Richard Curtis. 11 years later, Moffat would return the favour, with Curtis contributing the rather brilliant Vincent and the Doctor to 2010’s Series 5.
18. “I’ll explain later”
Less a judgement on exposition than explaining away some of the stranger parts of Who lore. It’s a joke that almost creates itself, Bad Wolf-style. That said, explanation would never be so relevant, or lacking, depending on your perspective, than during his time running the show.
19. “He was never cruel and never cowardly”
Well, goes without saying. Astonishingly it took until the 50th anniversary for this to become the shortened CV of the Doctor. Sod canon, you heard it here first people of the universe!
20. Retirement of the Doctor
Fed up with his tremendous success rate, this Doctor plans to “settle down and get married”.
Moffat’s Doctor slunk off more than once, in spite of companions’ best efforts to keep him in the game (most irritatingly in the middle of Series 7 when he didn’t pay any attention to what Amelia Pond told him). The impossible idea of the Doctor’s retirement was there at the start.
“Your mother’s going to get a surprise at the wedding”- almost as though 2019’s Red Nose Day Four Weddings and a Funeral update was a 20th anniversary tribute to Fatal Death.