Don’t Be Such a Russell, Steven.
Budget cuts have no effect on the new series of Doctor Who.
On the eve of a general election that has the potential to change the nature of British democracy forever, my thoughts naturally turn to the latest series of Doctor Who.
This series is notable, of course, for being the first since the resurrection of the programme in 2005 not to have Russell T. Davies at the helm as Head Writer and Executive Producer, and the baton passing instead to Steven Moffat.
This change was anticipated with some excitement by many fans because, although the Russell T. Davies era had many strengths, with some cracking stories, ideas and characters, the flaws were far from negligible, and inescapably the result of Davies’ storytelling style and attitude to narrative.
As Head Writer, Davies was responsible for a significant number of the episodes himself, as well as dictating the overall story arc. The problem was that, of the excellent team of writers that he had assembled, Davies was by far the weakest. Consequently, watching Doctor Who was often a bit like buying a Rolling Stones album only to find all of Side One having been written by Bill Wyman.
At the end of a Davies story, myself and many others would be left with the sense of violated trust. It was as if we had placed ourselves in the hands of someone who’d promised he wouldn’t let us fall, only to be dropped from a great height. Basic tenets of storytelling were ignored. Leading characters would become weirdly passive, just because it suited the story for them to be that way. Meanwhile, the character of Donna (played by Catherine Tate) had her memory wiped, meaning that all the development in her that we had followed over the preceding weeks was rendered irrelevant. Ultimately, storytelling is all about watching people change through experience. You mess with that, and you’re effectively sticking two fingers up at your audience.
Alongside all this, the Davies era became increasingly turgid, with David Tennant’s Doctor so weighted down with the pain of his responsibility and guilt to the point that he was just a chore to be around, repeatedly dwelling on the same problems week in, week out. The promise of Moffat, and with him a new Doctor, Matt Smith, seemed to be just what was needed.
Moffat came with an impressive CV. He’d been behind the landmark teen series Press Gang, the good-if-you’re-into-that-sort-of-thing ‘British Friends’, Coupling, and the excellent horror reimagining of Jekyll, as well as some of the very best Who episodes of the Davies era. And in many ways, his version of Who doesn’t disappoint. The first episode felt very fresh indeed, and even the weakest story since hasn’t felt like a kick in the shins in the way that bad Davies often did.
Hand on heart, however, I don’t think I can say that he’s quite managed to provide the programme with the new direction that I and other fans deep down know it needs. There are still some lingering issues that mar otherwise perfectly decent stories, and stop Doctor Who from all it can be.
Here are the things I feel need addressing.
1) Action set-pieces. The series introduced the Doctor with him hanging out of a malfunctioning Tardis as it flew over London. CGI now allows the BBC to stage scenes that would once have only ever featured in Hollywood movies. This diminishes the character. The key to the Doctor is that he is absolutely unique in the world of fiction. If you can imagine anybody else doing the things he does, then the programme is not being true to itself. You could have had a similar scene with Inspector Gadget or any other madcap character who uses technology. Doctor Who is not Inspector Gadget.
2. The Doctor’s awareness of his own legend. At the end of the first episode, the Doctor scares off the alien menace by informing it of his past victories. This is tiresome. The charm of the Doctor Who universe used to be its very lack of coherence. Although, logically, news of the Doctor should precede him, the fact that it didn’t meant that he always served as an unexpected factor thrown into a situation. The bad guys should win, but don’t, because the Doctor turns up. Take away this, and you just have another fantasy adventure series with a load of intertwining strands like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer (good though that was). Doctor Who needs to protect its boundaries, and maintain what is unique about it.
3. Wasting good ideas in too-short stories. Both the second and third episodes of this series suffered from this. ’The Beast Below’ had a fascinating future Britain on a spaceship, the intricacies of which were never explained (Why, for instance, were the fairground heads in the cases there in the first place). ’Victory of the Daleks’ meanwhile completely threw away its brilliant idea of the Daleks fighting for Britain in WWII. This could have run over three episodes, with the audience waiting and waiting for the Daleks to turn bad, then all hell breaking loose when they finally do. Instead, they revealed their evil intentions almost immediately, and the episode just ended up looking rather silly. The audience needs to be trusted to wait for things. And if they don’t know how to wait, Doctor Who needs to teach them. Waiting was what much of the original series was all about, to its credit.
4. Overarching storylines crippling standalone stories. In this weeks’ ‘Flesh and Stone’, returning villains the Weeping Angels would not have been defeated had the crack in time from episode one appeared and ate them. This was not the story we were promised. We were meant to be watching the Doctor defeating them using his own ingenuity. Instead he just manouvres them into place and feeds them to the metanarrative (Even though this episode was popular, I think it was a mistake to bring back the Weeping Angels. They would survive in the memory better if their only appearance was in the classic ‘Blink’. There was nothing gained by elaboration.)
5. Companions fancying the Doctor. Amy Pond’s efforts to seduce the Doctor at the end of this week’s episode were beyond painful, and not in a good way. Doctor Who is, at heart, a children’s programme, even though it’s audience contains a healthy slab of adults, as it always has. If it forgets it’s a children’s programme, however, it instantly stops working.
The companions, even though they are adults, are stand-ins for the child viewer, who can imagine themselves travelling through time and space with the Doctor, who is always in some way a manifestation of the original ‘grandfather’ Doctor of William Hartnell. Unless they’re downright freaks, kids don’t fancy their grandfather, however dapper objectively they think he might look. Instinct should tell them he’s off-limits. Again, although it doesn’t make sense that the Doctor’s companions become weirdly asexual as soon as they step on board the Tardis, it’s another thing that makes Doctor Who itself. If you mess with it, then the programme becomes just like other programmes, at which point it stops being interesting. There’s no point deconstructing something if all you’re left with are a bunch of broken parts that don’t fit together anymore.
6. No Adric. I was very upset by Adric ‘dying’ in 1982, and have never fully accepted it. I don’t believe he’s really dead, and should be brought back forthwith, complete with his star badge he got for being really good at maths.
With all these elements fixed, I firmly believe that Doctor Who will transcend Chocky’s Children to become the best science-fiction show EVER. Make it so.