I’m going to say something that will get me into trouble. So come the fuck in or fuck the fuck off, as Malcolm Tucker would say.
I don’t think I like Peter Capaldi’s Doctor.
It’s taken me some time to admit this. When his casting was announced I was ecstatic because, well, Peter Capaldi is awesome. I loved The Thick of It and Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker is what elevated that show to instant classic status. And Capaldi’s inaugural Who season has been the best since, well, Matt Smith’s first season as the Eleventh Doctor.
It’s not because Doctor Twelve is grouchy. I like grouchy. And it’s not because he’s older than previous NuWho Doctors. No, the problem is that I have Malcolm Tucker to compare him to.
Malcolm Tucker and the Doctor should switch costumes next season. And there should be a next season of The Thick of It.
On Armando Iannuci’s The Thick of It, Capaldi’s Malcolm Tucker is a “Fixer.” When there’s a problem in the Prime Minister’s government, Tucker descends out of nowhere, takes control of the situation, prescribes and implements the proper solution and does it all before breakfast. He’s all-knowing and all-hearing. He shows up when he’s most needed and when he’s least expected. His origins are mysterious and the stories about him legendary. His enemies shudder at the mere mention of his name. And, sometimes, so do his friends.
Sound familiar? Malcolm Tucker’s Fixer is the Doctor with the sweary bits left in. And the sweary bits are what made Tucker’s chicanery so sublime. And the swearing is not just for yuks. No. It transcends potty humor. It’s poetry.
I fully admit that this has nothing to do with Capaldi as an actor and everything to do with me. For me, Capaldi’s defining role will always remain Malcolm Tucker and not the Doctor. And Doctor Who, today more than ever, is designed to operate as a cultural event. Anyone tasked with casting a new Doctor should know that, for better or worse, the cultural baggage an actor carries will precede them.
Which is partly why Matt Smith was such a revelation as Doctor Eleven. Smith had no such encumberances. Aside from a brief stint in a show called Party Animals, in which he played a very un-Doctor-ish character, Matt Smith came out of absolutely nowhere. And that allowed him to be the Doctor in a way nobody has since Tom Baker.
But there was a sense of inevitability to Peter Capaldi’s casting, wasn’t there? Capaldi’s own credentials as a Doctor Who fan are well established. (A 6 year-old Capaldi famously wrote to a fan publication declaring his intent to become an actor so he could play the Doctor one day, among other shameless acts of fandom.) Showrunner Steven Moffat had made it known that he already had Capaldi in mind to take over from David Tennant as Doctor number eleven before 26 year-old Matt Smith walked through the door, bowling him and everyone else in the room over (and quite right to). Capaldi himself had already guest-starred in an episode of NuWho, as well as playing a prominent character in Who-spinoff Torchwood as the cowering Frobisher, a very un-Tucker-like civil servant. (A role in which he shone, lest you think I’m questioning Capaldi’s ability to play anyone but Malcolm Tucker.)
And the kicker: we all wanted to see Malcolm Tucker be the Doctor, didn’t we? We all wanted the Doctor to show the Daleks his bollocking face. We just never imagined we’d get it. I’d venture to say that I liked the idea of Capaldi as Doctor more than the reality of it.
So call it a lack of imagination on my part. Peter Capaldi is, by most measures, a fantastic Doctor. It’s just that his tenure in the role will always be eclipsed by his turn as Malcolm Tucker (a distinction he doesn’t have to share with any other actor). Malcolm Tucker was the role that Peter Capaldi was born to play. Sorry, 6 year-old Peter.
But he still has (at least) two more seasons to change my mind.
You know what we need? We need Armando Iannucci to take over Doctor Who when Steven Moffat steps aside. Then the show can overthrow the government properly, just as Andrew Cartmel always wanted.
Doing PIONEER ONE was an eye-opening experience for many, many reasons. One of the most interesting was the huge lesson we got in the dynamics of creator/viewer relations. We were thrown off the deep end when we released the pilot, receiving dozens of emails and tweets and Facebook messages daily for weeks afterward. It was an incredible feeling to know that people were watching and enjoying the work we had done, and to all of a sudden be on the other side of the fan/producer divide. We courted this engagement, as one does, but were unprepared for when it actually happened. It was a hell of an adjustment going from an idea in your head, living with it 24/7 while struggling to make it a reality, to all of a sudden being dissected and discussed by people you’ve never met.
Something that’s happened with content creators’ access to and participation in social media is that the boundaries that traditionally separated producers and fans have broken down. As a fan myself, this is a great thing. More than ever, people know what it takes to make a TV show or movie because they have regular access to those who make them. It’s great for creators too, because for the first time, they are able to get real-time, unvarnished feedback from their audience.
Well, mostly great. In some cases, this increased access creates a sense of “fan ownership” of the work. Sometimes, fans feel because they’ve been given a glimpse of the process, they’re experts on that process. Or because they’re so invested in the work, they somehow have a say in the direction that the work takes.
That can be problematic. Especially when fans get nasty. And, as anyone who’s ever read a YouTube comment or a message board can attest, people can be pretty nasty. And the nasty ones are usually the ones with the loudest voices.
I don’t think most people actually want to have a say, even those who would argue otherwise. At several points while we were making Pioneer One, there were suggestions that we open up the writing process and allow viewers to contribute to the story. I understand that impulse, especially since we had already broken ground by crowd-funding and crowd-distributing the show. But what people who had supported us, either by donating money or spreading the word, were really doing was giving us was freedom to make the show we wanted to make the way we wanted to make it. They were allowing us our creative freedom. And, at the end of the day, I think most people still want to sit down and be told a story, and have confidence that that story is coming from a specific point of view and the people telling it have a specific vision. To open up the creative process to the masses would dilute that vision.
We always encouraged fans to engage with us and we always tried to give them a glimpse “behind the curtain,” as it were, on the theory that showing the process would help them understand where we were coming from. But it was always to a point. I think there has to be a space where creators feel free to create without taking into consideration the whims of every Twitter follower or YouTube commenter. And the audience has to be willing to allow the creators to make mistakes, because having the freedom to take creative risks is how you end up with great work.
I think it’s a net-gain. It’s a good thing that people are more aware of how a show or movie is made. The price is that you sometimes have to deal with people who feel like you owe them something and are nasty about it. How you respond is a case-by-case thing. You can tell by the tenor of the comment whether or not its worth engaging that person. I’ve generally tried to stay above the fray, but sometimes, something gets under your skin and you have to weigh in. Most of the time, the person takes a step back and the hyperbole falls away. But not all the time.
It’s amazing that we’ve had this experience, and we owe it to all the fans who have followed us. It’s flattering because it means we’ve successfully engaged people enough that they are chomping at the bit for more show, and want to know every little thing that’s going on with it. If we could do it over again, I would have tried to be a little more transparent about what our plans were. But the simple fact is, back in 2010, there was little precedent for a project like ours. And, more to the point, we didn’t know exactly what it would take to make the show, how much it would cost, or how long it would take. Obviously, armed with this knowledge, we would have done things differently.
We still get the errant irate fan demanding to know what’s going on with the show and chastising us for our radio silence. I understand their frustration. We share it. But, at the end of the day, we’re just a group of dedicated people who shared a vision that was Pioneer One and did everything humanly possible to make it a reality. What are our obligations beyond that?
See reddit user beardsayswhat’s original list of “unpopular” screenwriting opinions here.
1. Most amateur screenwriters write movies they wouldn’t see. I read a lot of loglines that are poorly written, but even if they were snappy and sharp, they’re for what could be generously described as character dramas and more accurately as tedious faux-deep nonsense. Write rad shit. Write things people want to see.
If there was ever a point where I would have bristled at advice like this, I can’t remember it now. This is just common sense, and frankly, I don’t understand why this would be an unpopular opinion. Maybe some read that and think he’s advocating becoming a sell-out, or to stick to churning out formulaic, commercial fare. But what he’s really saying is don’t be boring. Not to never write something experimental, or that explores real issues, or that says something important. Do any or all of those things. Just don’t be boring while you do it.
As for bit where he seems to shit on character dramas, I don’t think he means you can never write a character drama, or that your high-concept script shouldn’t include strong character drama. Remember, this is advice for non-established screenwriters. Writers who are trying to get noticed. A screenplay about a lovelorn white guy who finds new meaning in life when he meets his manic pixie dream girl isn’t going to raise any eyebrows. (I admit that The Lionshare has surface similarities to some of those cliches, but I think it successfully tells a story with deeper meaning. Plus I made that movie seven years ago, sue me.)
Don’t be boring. That’s a great motto. You know how to tell if you’re writing something boring? If you are bored while you’re writing it. Even if you think you’re writing something with limited appeal, if you have enthusiasm for the material, that enthusiasm will come through. Enthusiasm is infectious. Don’t be boring.
This also doesn’t mean you have to write something that appeals to everybody. If it excites you, there are others out there who will feel the same.
In my last entry I gushed over meeting Ronald D. Moore. You know one of the most important things I learned from him? Not to treat your characters, or your stories, like porcelain dolls. There’s no reason to play it safe when you’re writing a story. You can, and should, take risks. If what you’re writing feels perfunctory, take a step back and re-evaluate. What’s the craziest thing that could happen in your story? How would it change things? What if you, gulp, went ahead and did it?
Go ahead. Kill that character. Jump a year ahead in time. Have the will they/won’t they relationship be consummated between seasons when no one is looking. How did that change things?
Maybe you decide it’s not right. That’s fine. It’s probably not a good idea to shock for shock’s sake. Whatever you do should work within context and should enhance the story you’re trying to tell. But, at the very least, this is a good exercise to challenge yourself and make sure what you’re writing is the best, and most interesting, that it can be.
The Fall of 2006 was probably the height of my obsession with Ronald D. Moore’s “re-imagining” of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. The third season had just premiered and somehow surpassed, at least for me, the high expectations set by the second season cliffhanger.
I was near the end of my time at Binghamton University when my friend Russ noticed a flyer posted outside of the Cinema Department lounge: Ronald D. Moore was going to be giving a talk at Cornell.
Cornell is an hour away from Binghamton.
Do the math. We were going.
Some set-up: When the first season of BSG first aired on SciFi (still SciFi then, not Syfy), Ron Moore (RDM as he’s referred to online) started doing podcast commentaries for each episode. What was great was that he took the opportunity to give a frank, unvarnished look at the process behind each episode, freely admitting when he didn’t like something and why he thought it didn’t work, and always making clear that, ultimately, the buck always stopped with him. It was an amazingly insightful and, at that time, unique peek behind-the-curtain of a television series. (The only other example I can think of is jms’s Usenet posts chronicling the making of BABYLON 5.)
As both a fan of the show and someone with aspirations of making television, you can imagine how much I enjoyed these podcasts. By the third season, I sometimes looked forward more to the podcast than the episode it was commenting on. RDM had also settled into a ritual of using the podcast to “put each episode to bed,” as it were, over a few glasses of scotch and some cigarettes. (The varieties of which he’d announce at the beginning of every podcast. He smoked my brand, at the time.)
Ronald D. Moore, Cornell almost-graduate
Knowing there was a Q&A period after his presentation, I had an idea. Instead of asking a question, I would present Mr. Moore with a bottle of scotch and a pack of cigarettes, so the next podcast would me “on me.” I went to my local Binghamton liquor store, asked what a nice bottle of scotch was, and walked out with a bottle of Macallan 12. (Not cheap for a college student.) The cigarettes were no issue because at the time I was a smoker and was buying American Spirit Lights by the carton.
I threw the contraband in a backpack and off we went. There were a fair amount of people in the theater, but no one in the front row. I looked at Russ and Mickey and we sat slightly off-center at the very front. There remained a buffer of two or three empty rows behind us (why, I do not know). Mr. Moore came out and started his presentation, remarking that this was his first time back to his alma-mater since dropping out during his senior year twenty years prior. Hard to argue with his decision on that one.
The presentation was mainly about how he went about adapting the original series, how it was both a reaction to 9/11 and to his time as a writer/producer on Star Trek, etcetera. Mostly stuff that I had heard in other places. I really just wanted to get to the Q&A.
I raised my hand. Glancing behind me, I saw I was the only one with my hand up. After what seemed like a very long silence, he pointed at me.
What happened next is a blur. I had just been spoken to by someone who, at the time, was the man on the earth I most wanted to emulate. Someone who I was used to listening to only from afar. So, adrenaline happened. Forgive me.
I know I said something similar to what I described above and gave him the bottle and the smokes, leaving him kind of dumbfounded. I don’t think he was expecting anything like that at all, but at the urging of his wife who was sitting off to the right front, he invited me up to join him on stage and shook my hand. And then something unexpected happened. while sharing the stage with one of my idols, the audience erupted with applause. Honest-to-god applause. A lot of it. It went on, at least in my memory, for quite a while.
I remember none of the questions after that. I’d done what I went there to do, and it was awesome. Better than I expected, even.
After the last question and people were getting up to leave, I was stopped by Mr. Moore’s wife, who had been sitting off to the side. She had popped on the podcast before and from time to time would drop in on the Sci-Fi Channel message boards to answer questions under the handle “Mrs. Ron.” After introducing herself to me, she said
“I just want you to know, we’ve done a million appearances and conventions. But no one has ever done that before.”
“I was happy to,” I hope I said.
“What’s your name?”
“Thank you, Josh. I’ll make sure he remembers to mention you on the next podcast.”
Russ, Mickey and myself strolled outside, past the crowd surrounding RDM for autographs, and coolly smoked a round of victory cigarettes on the sidewalk. As Mickey remembers it, “You could tell he was standing there surrounded by Trekkies just wanting to come smoke with us.” (No knock on those Trekkies, by the way; I can talk Trek with the best of ’em.)
This went on for quite a while. He signed autographs, took pictures, and spoke to everyone in the crowd. I figured I’d had my time, and it was a better move to stay above the fray. I think I was right. As he was being escorted to a waiting SUV, he stopped to say goodbye to us before being whisked away by mrs. ron.
And we headed back to Binghamton, riding high.
I couldn’t wait for the podcast the following week. Was he going to mention me? Did he forget? I eagerly downloaded the podcast commentary to “Torn,” the sixth episode of season three.
And my heart sank. Well, maybe it didn’t sink, but I was disappointed. Cause RDM was a guest lecturer in a film class at Cornell, had shown the class the new episode a couple days early, and did the podcast while they got to ask questions. An interactive podcast. My dream. If I’d only known, I would have gone back and snuck in!
Back in 2008, I made a feature film called THE LIONSHARE. It was about how people relate to each other through technology and media. What’s interesting is that the further we get away from it, the more the movie becomes an artifact of its time.
Think about it. 2008. iPhones weren’t everywhere. There was no Facebook chat. And when there was, you did it on your computer. (In the movie, Google Chat is the messaging app of choice, which I guess is still used widely today, but if I were to make the movie now I’d probably rely more on iMessage texts.)
Electronic communication is a difficult thing to represent. Tony Zhou of Every Frame a Painting has made a video depicting the evolution of texting in film and TV. Check it out: