DOCTOR WHO: Stephen Thompson - The Disappointment Man

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Tony Fyler marvels at the Who career of Stephen Thompson, and argues that, knowing Moffat, it has to be deliberate.


The Emperor Tiberius, who followed Augustus Caesar in the dictatorship of ancient Rome, was, let’s face it, a bit of a miserable old perve. Augustus had been clever, but more than that, he had been generally affable to most people, so – as is the way with people – once he’d popped his clogs they made him a god. Tiberius, knowing that he himself was a bit of a miserable old perve, and that people generally hated him, decided to sweeten himself in their memory once he was gone – by choosing a successor who was even worse, the thoroughly despicable and barking mad Caligula.

Now, before the literalists start sharpening their pitchforks, I am not suggesting for a moment that Steven Moffat’s any kind of miserable old perve. Nor am I suggesting that Stephen Thompson is thoroughly despicable and barking mad but I would like to suggest that Moffat has the TV equivalent of an imperial weight on his shoulders – he’s the showrunner of one of the BBC’s biggest audience-grabbers and moneyspinners. He’s also in his own right a fantastic writer. But we know Rule 1 of understanding him is that he’s got a cunning brain in his head, and Rule 2 is that he’s now concerned with blending the tones of the episodes of any series to ensure there’s a bit of everything, and that it takes the show forward into new territory. I’m suggesting he’s using the Tiberian strategy to ensure that we all focus most of our disdain in any series on one or two episodes, to sweeten how we think about the rest of them. And I’m suggesting that Stephen Thompson is Moffat’s go-to guy when it comes to writing the deliberate clunker of any series: yes, Stephen Thompson is The Disappointment Man.


Not that most of us will need this history lesson, but Stephen Thompson is the man who gave us the big underwhelm of Series 6, The Curse of the Black Spot. In a series full of timey-wimey, twisty-turny what-the-hell-is-going-on complexity, Cap’n Thompson gave us a basic, guessable, solidly-rooted Doctor Who annual story that depended on the Tardis crew going “Never mind all the weird stuff that’s going on right now – pirates!”


In Series 7, there were admittedly more clunkers to choose from – The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe was another idea that shouldn’t really have outlived the comic strip in Doctor Who Magazine, and Neil Cross probably has to take the stinky laurels of that season for The Rings of Akhaten, but Thompson is right up there (or down there, depending on your point of view) with the stolidly-scripted, barely-more-than-a-title idea that was Journey To The Centre of The Tardis.


Now in Series 8, Mr Thompson reliably gives us a heist story (idea by S. Moffatt), in which there’s no particular suspense, a shady architect that, the moment you think about it, can only be one person, and – for those who thought Listen was a re-hash of Hide – a heist that turns out to be a love story between two creepy googly-eyed creatures that are only bad because they’re separated.

It’s almost as though, when Steven Moffat is in his subterranean Who lair, stroking his pet Adipose and plotting the arc of the next season, he actually has the thought “Everyone else is doing exciting, challenging, modern stuff. Who can I give an idea to that could really sing…and then watch them do practically nothing with it, so the people pick it as their least favourite episode, and everything else looks shiny and new by comparison, bwhahahahahaaaa… Oh, note to self – make sure everyone knows the idea was mine, so it’s only the writing that let it down...”

And barely moments after that thought has crossed the Grand Moff’s grey matter, he seems to pick up the phone to the Christopher H Bidmead of New Who – Stephen Thompson.


Back in the 1980s, comedian Ben Elton had a riff on teapots in motorway service stations which you couldn’t pick up until the tea had gone cold. He called such things the product of the Ministry of Crap Design, and asserted that you couldn’t design a teapot so stupid by accident, so it had to be deliberate. On that rationale, Stephen Thompson must surely also be New Who’s Minister of Uninspired Writing. I mean, given the chance to write a Doctor Who episode, you have to ask yourself – would you want to go down in the show’s history as the person who wrote Curse of the Black Spot? Or Journey To The Centre of The Tardis? Or Time Heist? More seriously in support of the contention that the regular clunky episode must surely be a deliberate strategy by the show’s Machievellian showrunner, ask yourself this: Where are Nick Briggs’s episodes? Or Nev Fountain’s? Where the hell is Paul Magrs’ screen credit? Yet now, reliable clunkmeister Stephen Thompson has three stories to his name.

Still, on the bright side, it’s over now till at least 2015. Bring on Gareth Roberts and shenanigans at Coal Hill, and let’s – as we did with Black Spot and Journey – forget Time Heist was actually part of the series, and focus on the positives…

…Just as Steven Moffat probably planned we would.

(SFX: The sound of fading, distant, cackling Scottish laughter)

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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