How Mark Gatiss Found His Mojo

Let me take you back a few years. It’s April 2010 – and Steven Moffat, it seems, has worked a miracle. The Eleventh Doctor has sprung fully formed from the ashes of his weary predecessor, last seen bending over a TARDIS console and regenerating simply to shut up the Ood (hashtag #Dontyouthinkhelookstired). The new Doctor is sprightly and sophisticated, and fun, in the best possible sense of the word. So, too, are the scripts, moving along at a rollicking pace, clever and amusing and…well, more grown up, somehow, being oddly respectful towards the show’s audience and working on the assumption that Doctor Who can be a little more complicated, and that the audience in turn will hold sufficient intelligence to be able to keep up.

Then along comes Victory of the Daleks, and there are Spitfires on the dark side of the moon. The bloody moon! As if this hadn’t already stretched the bounds of credibility to breaking point, there’s a far more serious problem: the fact that said Spitfires go from blueprint to space in approximately fifteen minutes, which is barely enough time to get from Paddington to King’s Cross in central London, let alone from the War Room to the exosphere. We know the window is ludicrously small because it’s there in the script, although it occurs right around the time the Doctor spends five minutes holding the Daleks hostage with a Jammie Dodger without crumbling it, so I suppose that sort of thing is easy to miss.

Doctor Who TV series starring Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Matt Smith, Billie Piper, Karen Gillan, Freema Agyeman, Catherine Tate, Alex Kingston, Jenna Coleman, Paul Kasey, Nicholas Briggs, Arthur Darvill, Noel Clarke, John Barrowman - dvdbash.com

While many would protest that it’s churlish to complain about scientific implausibility when your central dramatic conceit involves a thousand-year-old time traveller roaming the universe in a disguised police box, this really is too much, and the fans are quick to voice their dissent. For the first time this year, the knives are well and truly out, and most of them are pointed in the direction of Mark Gatiss.

It wouldn’t be the first time. Gatiss’ early work for the show, whilst by no means unilaterally bad, is a laundry list of things to avoid: Night Terrors is all over the place, The Idiot’s Lantern is riddled with structural problems and paper-thin characterisation, and his circumnavigation of the immigration argument in The Unquiet Dead is unforgivable. Even Cold War (which, despite containing too many Duran Duran references, is one of Gatiss’ better scripts) is undone by the fact that the needlessly ‘updated’ Ice Warrior is shoehorned into a story where it doesn’t fit, simply because Gatiss really liked them and Moffat really didn’t. Things don’t get much better when he’s on the other side of the camera: Gatiss did most of his best work with the League of Gentlemen and anything he’s appeared in since tends to suffer from Resting Smug Face. (Curiously, just about the only time this actually works is in Wolf Hall, which is easily his best performance in a long time.)

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I’m not going to pretend I’m a fan of any of these stories. Even An Adventure in Space and Time, the 2013 docudrama telling the tale of the show’s creation, seemed only anomalously good, the sort of begrudging acceptance we give to things we didn’t think we’d like because they’re written by writers we don’t. Still. There was a point at which I began to actually see what Gatiss was doing. It was the day of The Crimson Horror – that anachronistic, deliciously silly tale of industrial intrigue, in which the Doctor is a supporting character in his own story, Diana Rigg acts her daughter off the screen and we get to see Strax actually behaving like a Sontaran instead of an undersized comedy butler.

That the episode succeeds to the extent that it does is down to visualisation and direction as much as anything else (the grainy, whitewashed flashback scenes, echoing classic TV drama, are simply delightful). But Gatiss gets the lion’s share. He tells a ridiculous story with a knowing wink at the audience. He puts in a joke about sat nav, for god’s sake. It is Doctor Who that we are clearly not to take seriously – from Strax’s irritation that he has to eat another horse to Brendan Patricks’ turn as a man whose sole job is to faint, everything here is gratuitously over the top, and glorious fun as a result.

Perhaps that’s just me. But I wonder if fun is something that’s lacking a little bit these days. With every year that passes, Doctor Who feels more and more like a show cocooned in its own self-importance. It’s the price you pay for being a high profile export (well, that and Downton Abbey, which is similarly dreary). There is a sense of not messing with it, of doing it right, of being groundbreaking and telling important stories. And there is a place for important stories. No one would argue against the jaw-dropping game-changer that was Heaven Sent, or the political discourse of Peter Harness’ Zygon narrative.

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Simultaneously, I think you can overdo it. There’s a much-repeated trailer for Series 8 featuring the Doctor and Clara standing next to the TARDIS console: when Clara asks where they’re going, the Doctor replies “Into darkness”. It’s a theme that pervades throughout Capaldi’s run: an antidote, perhaps, to the boyish adventuring that characterised much of Smith’s turn at the helm, at least until his last series. It starts at Deep Breath and it’s still going even as the TARDIS flies away at the end of Series 9. Moral ambiguities are endemic and empathy all but absent. The Doctor may or may not have pushed that clockwork robot off the tower. The Dalek’s reborn hatred is fuelled by its greatest enemy. Secondary characters are manipulated, abandoned, and discarded with a sense of apathy that is eerily reminiscent of early Colin Baker. It is acceptable to not actually like this Doctor very much: tough, brilliant, uncompromising, and unapproachable, like a deputy headmaster at a private school. The blackboards are not a coincidence.

And then along comes Gatiss with Robot of Sherwood – in which the Doctor tips his hat to Indiana Jones, rolls his eyes at all the thigh-slapping, and duels with Robin Hood using a seven-inch piece of cutlery. Said Robin Hood is just like he was in the 1930s – all green tights and stiff upper lip – and crucially, there is no explanation: he exists just because he exists, and Gatiss sees no need to tell us why. It is the episode that made my friend Gareth give up watching Doctor Who completely. It was critically lambasted and the fans were out for blood. Den of Geek had to delete a hundred comments. “Both [Ben] Miller and Tom Riley’s performances were too caricature for this new era of Doctor Who,” wrote the hopeless Neela Debnath in the Independent. “Where has all the darkness that we were promised repeatedly gone?”

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Perhaps the problem was scheduling: two episodes of darkness establishing a pattern that was abruptly broken by the sort of silliness you would have expected under Davies. It’s a problem that’s dogged the show before – Fear Her is situated too close to Love & Monsters, and The End of the World was too early in the series to bring in a potential love interest (even if she was a tree). Given that Clara spends half the episode flirting with Robin, there is perhaps nowhere else you can put it, but Sherwood arguably suffers from being rather old school at a time when things seemed to be changing. It’s just a mystery as to why this has to be a bad thing. “This was one for the kids to enjoy,” Debnath continues, as if that were a capital offence. In the absence of darkness, Capaldi substitutes weary outrage for malevolence, whether he’s aiming a bow at a retreating spacecraft or trading insults with Robin on opposite sides of a prison cell. (When the Doctor insists that he is “totally against bantering,” it’s tempting to reply “Yes, but you’re so good at it.”)

A year later, Gatiss would return with Sleep No More: an experiment which, despite being rather less than the sum of its parts, stands on record as one of the few times Doctor Who has managed to be genuinely innovative in recent years. The Found Footage approach is only partially successful – the dialogue still feels too scripted, and the Shakespearian quotes are yet another example of the creative team scrabbling to get Capaldi a BAFTA nomination. Equally, there is much that works: Murray Gold’s atonal score is wilfully subversive (and refreshingly quiet), and the ridiculous punch line a crowd-pleasing slice of child-friendly horror, just before bedtime. (If Sherwood was about pleasing the kids, Sleep No More is surely about scaring the pants off them.) The biggest problem with the story, if anything, is its preposterous setup, and you get the impression that had there been cameras at the read-through, the conversation might have gone a little like this:

INT. DOCTOR WHO PRODUCTION OFFICES. DAY

[A read-through is in progress. JENNA COLEMAN, PETER CAPALDI, REECE SHEARSMITH, MARK GATISS, STEVEN MOFFAT all present.]

PETER [reading]: “What used to be sleep in your eye has turned into a carnivorous life form.”

JENNA: Oh, you are s**tting me.

PETER: Yeah, that’s – I’m pretty sure that’s not in the script, Jenna.

[There is laughter, with an underlying tension.]

STEVEN: Problem, Jen?

JENNA: This is utterly ridiculous! You’ve written –

STEVEN [pointing at Mark]: Hey, he! He’s written –

JENNA: I mean, he’s written, whatever, he’s written a monster that’s made out of sleep dust.

MARK: It’s never been done before, though.

JENNA: No, because it’s a f**king stupid idea! It defies common sense and logic! It’s the worst kind of pseudoscience! This is supposed to be new levels of realism and my suspension of disbelief just had its strings cut.

STEVEN: Don’t hold back, Jenna; tell us what’s really bothering you.

JENNA: Shut up. Look, it’s as bad as that episode of Red Dwarf where Chris Barrie was gonna clone himself out of dandruff. And that was supposed to be funny.

PETER: Yeah, that one was funny, actually.

JENNA: Was. I don’t know. Yeah.

MARK: Look, it’s – they’re gonna look horrible. In my head, I mean, they’re like big brown things. Big wrinkled brown things with enormous mouths.

STEVEN [to the room]: Don’t spread that around, everyone, it’s not on the list of controlled leaks.

JENNA: Made of sleep crust.

MARK: Yeah.

[There is a very tense pause.]

JENNA: Probably a good thing this guy wasn’t trying to cure the common cold.

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But there’s a pattern here. It’s a stupid idea, and Gatiss must have known it. To deny him that luxury is insulting. This is the man who weaves all manner of complicated threads when he writes those long monologues for Benedict Cumberbatch. This is not the mark of a man who doesn’t know what he’s doing; it’s the mark of a man who simply doesn’t care. Bob Dylan once asked ‘How many times must a man turn his head / Pretending he just doesn’t see?’, and we might, in turn, ask ‘How many stupid ideas can we watch / Before we accept that they’re deliberately stupid?’. Steven Moffat tells his writers to stay off social media, purely for their own sake. It’s a warning Gatiss has gleefully ignored – “I was delighted,” he remarked on Twitter, the morning after the episode aired, “to go on the internet today and get told by thousands of people that I’m the one who saved / destroyed / reinvigorated / condemned Doctor Who”.

I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. Perhaps it’s a chronic misreading but Gatiss gives the impression, above all else, of someone who’s having fun – not in a malicious sense (we’ve come a long way from that notorious ‘Any old f**ker with an equity card’ sketch) but simply in the sense of making entertaining, wildly implausible TV. His episodes are ridiculous because he likes them that way. Doctor Who is, or should be, a fun thing to write, and Gatiss’ game plan is, above all else, to have fun. Of course he’s not taking it too seriously; he’s got Sherlock for that.

And I can’t help wondering whether he’s on to something. I wonder if our tendency to take Doctor Who more seriously – to critically appraise and condemn, amid the insistence that we, as fans, know best – is part of the breeding ground for this rampant toxicity I see online. There’s a time and a place for bringing down sycophancy, but I wonder if in the process of doing so we’re using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I wonder if these days we treat this lumpy, battered old show with more reverence than it deserves. I wonder how many collective sighs of relief were uttered across the Twittersphere when it was announced that the Chief Writer’s baton was to be passed one way and not the other, and whether this was actually deserved.

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And I wonder if we rage against Gatiss and his ilk not because his episodes are bad – although some of them undoubtedly are – but ultimately because they’re not the direction we’d like to see the show taking. What price might we pay for this, further down the line, when the programme has become so insular that it dies a quiet, ignoble death, condemned by its own fan base? How might we be liberated if we were to follow Gatiss’ example and simply have fun, however preposterous the result? And how might we be rewarded if we responded more positively to the ludicrous and the implausible, if the result is good entertainment? Oh, we’d have to stop putting Doctor Who on a pedestal. We’d have to acknowledge it as silly, superficial family drama – but if that’s what it takes to keep it fresh, isn’t that a price worth paying?

Just no more Spitfires, please. They really were s**t.