I guess this should go without saying, but seriously – do not read this if you don’t want to learn any spoilers about all seasons of New Who
Just like Kevin, we need to talk about The Doctor. You may not realise we do, but really, we do.
This is something that has been on my mind for a while now, and with the 50th Anniversary and special Day of the Doctor episode airing next weekend, what better time to put my opinions down on cyber paper.
The fact is this. Doctor Who, somewhere along the way, has gone horribly wrong. Realistically it didn’t have to, and many people (myself included until recently) tried to ignore the problem. But there definitely is a problem.
When New Who was unleashed upon the public in 2005 we were treated to some great new/reincarnated television. Looking back now, those first season episodes with Christopher Eccleston have arguably dated – it all feels a little plastic and with the exception of some of the later episodes, starts off by playing safe with the family friendly tone. As David Tennant began to steal our (and Rose’s) collective heart, we witnessed television gold. But even so the cracks started to show. Season 3’s introduction of poorly written, 2 dimensional love lorn Martha was a mistake, superbly rectified by Season 4’s chummy mate Donna – and for many this is where the show hit its stride and is arguably the strongest season to date.
As time wore on we grew tired of Russell T Davies, resuscitator and showrunner for the first four seasons and subsequent Specials. The show, though slowly growing darker and more that of the hide behind the sofa TV of many of our childhood’s, was occasionally silly or childish in a jarring way. Some were annoyed by RTD’s ideas of the future, what they felt was his “agenda” being served up with a heavy hand. Personally I never had a problem with the mention of character’s sexual orientations and that in the future our idea of gender and sexual norms has changed (if anything I feel that is healthy TV for kids!).
But the real problem, was the writing of the Doctor as a character. By the end of the Specials, the Doctor (Ten) had been written into a corner. He had become so damaged by his experiences, in his words – heartbroken, that the only way out really was the giant reset button.
Although there were some good and entertaining moments in the Specials, it felt like they were somewhere between ever spiraling towards their conclusion, and racing out of control like a car with cut brakes. As tear jerking a moment as it was, when Ten finally reached the inevitable fate this had all been building to, he didn’t want to go. In fact, him saying as much felt like a punch in the stomach. Where had the classic Doctor gone? That irrepressible spirit that even death could not hold back, and yes occasionally dark, a man in control of so much power – but now declaring his wish not to regenerate and lose that version of himself. On the one hand, it was an interesting idea, something intriguing to delve into, but on the other hand, it just felt… wrong. For a being who was able to regenerate with the same memories and often companions, if not the same looks and personality, this felt like a huge misstep. It was jarring and I remember having discussions at the time as to how difficult it would be for Eleven to come in after Ten’s phenomena and THAT ending.
All in all, RTD’s time was done, that was something that was felt keenly. And we can’t be blamed for being excited about Moffat taking the reins, after all he had written some of the best episodes to date (even if he hadn’t always checked his stories with continuity first – the relationship between Mickey and Rose in The Girl in the Fireplace is completely off from where we last left them). He wrote Blink!! The point is, we had every right to be optimistic.
So why have I found myself increasingly muttering, with tears in my eyes – “Come back Russell, we made a mistake, we didn’t know!”?
I won’t lay all the blame at Moffat’s feet for the current state of affairs, after all some of the paths were already being trodden by RTD – making the Doctor so all powerful, introducing the idea of a predestined Companions (Rose and Donna), romance (Rose, Martha, Astrid, Lady Pompadour…). It’s not like there was a huge reset button that could have been pressed to start over from scratch, with maybe a mcguffin here or there to make sure it made some kind of sense. You know, some kind of built in way of making huge changes in an acceptable manner… oh, wait.
When Moffat had the chance to call time on the things that didn’t work, he instead barreled on and made things worse. Here is my break down of the problems facing The Doctor as he lurches towards his 50th anniversary.
As much as we were engrossed and invested in the Doctor/Rose relationship, Doctor Who’s foray into the romantic world should arguably have ended there. It was a well written, well acted, and an engrossing story line that lasted through two Doctors. Very organically, we could see, Nine was becoming Rose’s world – and it wasn’t just the travelling and excitement and all the damn running – they were clearly if slowly and subtly, falling in love. And it was a beautiful thing.
The devastation Rose, and by extension – the audience – felt when he regenerated was palpable. We felt keenly her sense of betrayal, bewilderment and loss. But then for some of the same reasons, the Doctor that she saw inside, and for some new, she began once more to fall in love with the man who had already been in love with her. She was going to stay with him forever. So, we collectively died a little inside when they were torn apart and fated never to see each other again.
But in some ways, it worked, it was fitting. Did we really want to follow this story to it’s conclusion and watch as the romance becomes on open and ongoing aspect of the show? Probably not. But to have them forever lost to each other, with the faintest hope that one day they might find their way back – well, that’s actually good telly. The romance of Rose was so well written and brought to life, that we had to believe that this was the first time in more years than most people’s living memory, that the Doctor felt this way. And it worked, and it was glorious and devastating. It taught a whole new generation of fans all about love and loss and, in the end, the benefits of keeping a spare hand in a jar.
Unfortunately, the show was a victim of its own success – a new element had been added to the mix – romance. So, then there was Martha. And it was painful. After the end of Season two, I was very vocal that the companion needed to be a man or a couple – we, and The Doctor, needed a break from even the remotest possibility of romance. He needed a chum, a best mate to help him move on. And instead we had a character who, on second viewing is not quite so bad, but at the time had me shouting “oh shut up Martha!” at the box. Because we just didn’t need someone following the Doctor around like a puppy. Perhaps it was done to illustrate that the Doctor had no further interest in romance, but it was done poorly, and poor Martha was left lacking full dimensions and interest. Despite this, there are some fantastic episodes in Season 3, which for me just highlight how much better it could have been if Martha was just content to be a friend.
And this is where Season 4 rescued the show – Donna was exactly what we all needed. She was repulsed by the idea of romance with the Doctor, she was just a best mate that kept him grounded, and helped heal some pretty big wounds that had been festering for some time. Thank goodness for Donna!!
Skipping over the would be companions of the Specials, we had found equilibrium again in terms of romance, and this is how it should have stayed. I found myself once again hoping for the casting of a man or a couple as Companion(s) to the upcoming Eleven, to belay even the slightest possibility of yet more romance (which would gut the Rose romance) or more love lorn moping (which had worked so badly with Martha). Instead we get Amy, a girl, we discover, who has been obsessed with the Doctor since meeting him as a child. And that we further discover runs off with the Doctor the night before her wedding, which turns into her lusting after the Doctor on more than one occasion (including at her subsequent wedding). The stories constantly draw Amy and the Doctor together and once her fiance Rory is added to the mix we are treated to several occasions of who will she chose – Rory or the Doctor. Rightly, and happily, it is always the lovely Rory – so why does this continue to happen. For the love of all things holy, why can’t we just have her be in love with the man she is going to marry instead of being another love lorn case – which on the whole was kinda mean spirited and sometimes hard to watch.
Which brings us to River Song. Oh what a waste of a life. When we are first introduced to River in season 4, I was a little gutted – the implication was that her relationship with the Doctor would eventually be something even more than he had with Rose (*sob*). Even so, she was a fascinating character and the idea of them passing in and out of each other’s lives throughout time, was original and intriguing. So, what the hell happened? When she was brought into Season 5, and our new Doctor (Eleven), I had hoped they would use her sparingly – keep that mystery, don’t show their hand. After all how beautiful would it have been to have her remain something of a mystery, much like the Doctor himself. But, nope. The way River was written into the 5th and 6th seasons, it felt like Moffat was in a hurry to explain more about her and just get her out of the way – to gut that rather intriguing and sweet story that we had first seen in the library. So then, she becomes a marriage of convenience in a way, with no real basis behind the relationship which at times seems either terribly one-sided on her part, or completely in her head. Making her the child of Amy and Rory just added to the weirdness of the whole thing, and brings us to our next massive problem – predestined Companions.
Again, this started with RTD, but he did it so well! It started with Rose’s Bad Wolf. But for that we just had a glimpse – a sprinkling of words across time (and episodes), concluding with the Season 1 finale, after which all went back to normal. She wasn’t so much predestined as taking control of destiny.
But perhaps this is what planted the seed and brought us Donna, who was an amazing character in her own right, but as time went on was revealed to be more than met the eye. She was in fact predestined to be a Companion – her eventual fate, echoing back through time, and marking her out as special. And it worked! The end of Season 4 – wrapping up all lose ends and adding some kind of closure to the Rose situation, could have gone horribly and terribly wrong. It could have been an unwatchable mess, but the three story arc starting in Turn Left, was just phenomenal, and with a great deal of thanks owed to Donna. She was destined to resolve this massive interplanetary situation and forever impact upon the life of the Doctor.
And Moffat just won’t leave this damn idea alone!! Will we never just have every day, normal people as companions again? Apparently not. We get Amy and the crack in the universe; then Amy and Rory parenting Melody Pond/River Song; River killing the Doctor; and just when we thought it was safe, we get Clara and… I have no idea – from the looks of the last few episodes it appears they have re-written it to make her the most important person in the Doctor’s life ever. I kind of gave up.
And with all these Companion’s lives being drawn to and around the Doctor – or vice versa, we come upon the ever growing omnipotence of the character, that is almost now completely unsustainable. Again, this arguably started with Ten, more over in the Specials, and was in delicate ways touched on more than once. The idea of the Doctor’s effect on those around him, but most especially his past companions. A lot of this stems from RTD having made the Doctor the last of the Time Lords, loading upon him a large responsibility. Even so, for the first 4 Seasons this remained in check – self contained. With the Specials it started to unravel and where Mofatt could have reset this along with the Doctor’s still not ginger hair, he instead threw fuel onto those flames.
When we get to Eleven, this cause and effect logic is practically off the charts. This is something really well covered in Charlie Jane Anders’ The Central Problem With Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who, so I won’t attempt to better cover it myself, but just to reiterate her points – there are so many problems that come from making the Doctor the centre of so many people’s universes – and for me the biggest one is it is creating a weaker character and weaker show – all in an attempt to make must watch television.
This brings me to my final point.
When Doctor Who was first brought back to life by RTD it’s own history made it news worthy. The fact that the show turned out to be not only good, but compelling viewing, sealed that. By the time we hit Bad Wolf there was a whole new generation of Whovians and a well received and accepted show that accomplished a connection with the audience that had been lost in Sylvester McCoy’s time and was unable to be rekindled by Paul McGann. It was a hit.
By the time the Season finale and Christmas Specials of Season 2 came around, it was must watch television. It was newsworthy – with speculation rife and eager anticipation. And it did not disappoint. A worldwide sensation, it was almost effortlessly event television. The kind of television where whole families of all ages gathered around to watch those big episodes. This was never more true than of the Season 4 finale and Ten’s last two-part special.
So what happened? When Moffat took over and had the chance to take the show in any direction, or at the very least, improve on some of the shows weaknesses, instead he continued to use the tropes that had let the show down – predestined companions, romantic interest in the Doctor, never living up to it’s own mythos. But the biggest thing he did wrong is try and make it “Event” television. RTD managed it almost by accident because the show was compelling. Moffat has constantly sought to make his Doctor Who event television, to garner the kind of must see reaction of his predecessors run, but by doing so he constantly falls massively short of his own hype.
For both show runners there have been plenty of events that have happened off screen, that no doubt would have paled in comparison should we ever really see them (we’ve never really seen the Time War, and I for one never want to see the Nightmare Child). But Moffat has continually fed us mythos and then shown us, but more importantly, when he has shown us – he hasn’t delivered. The mythos of the Doctor’s name, his marriage to River – endless wittering on by the characters of these massive things that turn out to actually be nothing and almost always pointless. The biggest example of this must be the mythos of the battle of Demon’s Run being the Doctor’s “darkest day”. What battle? THAT was a battle? And what happened that was particularly dark as I think I missed it?!
With the amount of hype surrounding Day of the Doctor, there is every chance we are in for a massive disappointment on many levels – the story itself, but also the handling of our beloved RTD favourites, Ten and Rose. You may be surprised to read from the above, that I am actually remaining happily optimistic. I am excited to see Ten and Rose back and interested to see how that is handled, as well as this whole new warrior Doctor (Eight.5? Nine Actual?) and his birth into bloody battle. Both RTD and Moffat have fallen short at times of living up to the mythos they have created, but there is still time to turn that around and show us a Time War worthy of the hype.
Either way, I will be watching, possibly through splayed fingers one way or another.