Monthly Archives: September 2014

Doctor Who and the Impossible Collaboration

This is something I have been meaning to post for some time. With the exception of the inaugural episode “Deep Breath” (dinosaurs, cyborgs, Victorian London), I have been quite taken with this season of Doctor Who. Peter Capaldi has made quite an impression as The Doctor, and that has caused me to ponder. My train of thought follows.

Up until now, I had been disappointed with Steven Moffat’s tenure as show runner for the series. I was out-and-out hostile as some on the Internet seemed to be. But there was always something missing. But I couldn’t put it together. I like Matt Smith’s Doctor. I had liked Moffat-penned episodes from the Russell T. Davies era; “Blink”, of course, stands out in particular. I liked Amy, I liked Rory, and I liked Amy & Rory. I wasn’t sure how Clara fit in with the #11 emotionally, but that wasn’t surprising. But other than “Vincent and the Doctor” and “The Day of the Doctor” — with “The Doctor’s Wife” as a possible runner-up — none of the episodes from the first three years stood out as classic and necessary episodes that needed to added to pantheon of the canon.

And then comes “Robot of Sherwood” and “Time Heist”, which are definitely a couple of outings that can hold their heads high on the fun end of the spectrum, and “Into the Dalek” and especially “Listen” which are some of the darker and more disturbing pieces from the whole of the program’s run. “Listen” has some startling twists and turns that genuinely surprised this writer.

So what changed? Yes, they brought on some new directors, including Ben Wheatley (one of the great directors of the British indie scene). And, of course, the elephant in the room: Capaldi.

Is that all it takes to make a good show great? Change your lead?


There is something very special and wonderful and impossible to define about the collaboration between writer and actor. You can have skilled and talented actors and writers, but if the magic, the alchemy, the shared sixth sense is not there, the work while still good will lack that ability to create something transcendent in its audience. Maybe Moffat, a Scot, can only write for Scottish doctors (David Tennant and Capaldi) — I kid, but only a little. With Capaldi, he found an outlet for his voice that clicked. And perhaps Capaldi too found new levels of meaning and emotional intricacy that Smith could not. Even Jenna Coleman, who was a character with too many plot devices last year, really shines this year and is on fire in her two-handers with Capaldi.

There is a reason that Martin Scorcese always used to work with Robert de Niro and now Leonardo DiCaprio. Or John Ford with John Wayne. Or Woody Allen with Diane Keaton. At its best, the successful actor/writer/director collaboration creates a language all its own. Despite the presence of a Tardis, dinosaurs on a spaceship, Daleks, and Cybermen, Doctor Who, like all great science fiction, works best when the humanity of its key players is front and center. And now that is what Moffat has found in the 8th year of The Doctor Who reboot. Miracles more often that not happen in the writers’ room, not a time machine.

All You Need is a Man with a Rhyme

Last night, I had the good fortune of seeing A Sucker Emcee at the Labyrinth Theatre.  Craig muMs Grant — rap artist, poet, playwright, actor (Oz) — performs a rap/poetry/dramatic monologue. Rich Medina provides key support as a DJ; though silent throughout, he creates conversation with muMs and serves as chorus to the play. A Sucker Emcee is at once very new and very old. And it is because it very much dwells in this paradox that it is an extremely powerful, honest, and wrenching evening of theatre.

I consciously used the term “chorus” above because muMs and his director Jenny Koons craft something very elemental here. Before Thespis stepped before an audience as something other than himself, theatre was a poet and a musician weaving a tale on stage. The music is hip-hop; the theatricality is elemental, primal, old when the Dionysia. If you don’t think that such an old form has relevance to the modern theatrical sensibility, go to Labyrinth and be amazed.

muMs tells the story of his life, his artistic life, how he came to be a poet, a rapper, an emcee. It is a life of triumphs and tragedies, mistakes comic and painful, good times turned bad and bad times turned good — because it is a life. The poet came of age in the Bronx in the late 70’s and 80’s. He touches on how his youth intersected with the birth of hip-hop. In so doing, he fits very much into that vein of American poetry that finds its home at that intersection of the personal and the political, the historic sweep of a nation or community and the closely observed moment of the individual. Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, Frank O’Hara and James Baldwin would welcome muMs into their clubhouse with open arms.

It is the great paradox — its magic, its genius, its madness — that the more specific a work is, the more universal it is. James Joyce’s Ulysses testifies to that wonder. When you sit in the dark and are caught in the rhythm and rhyme of the performance, you cannot help but be carried away to a place of emotional truth caught floating on the rushing current of the elegance and rawness of his verse. muMs’ family is not your family, muMs’ struggles are not your struggles — and yet you recognize your family, your struggles in the frenzy of his poetry. It is a supremely human moment that only theatre can provide. What hits home is the extreme humanity of this gifted compassionate man who wrestled with his fears and became the artist of authenticity that he wanted to be.

Go. Be amazed.