I, like many geeks of my generation, have been a rather rabid Doctor Who fan for a few years now. I had the unfortunate luck of attempting to get into Doctor Who with the episode Fear Her, which is widely considered to be the worst episode of New Who created. About five years ago I got through the first season and became very interested in the show. I have even named my pug after Delia Derbyshire, the woman who engineered the theme song.
I noticed about a year or so ago that I really was not digging Doctor Who anymore. I really liked the first few seasons, but there was a certain point where everything just sort of stopped working for me. I was on the train to Denver for 360|iDev when the season premiere happened and I honestly didn’t care about missing it. I got home and saw it a week later and I wasn’t surprised that it wasn’t very engaging. I nearly turned it off before the end and I was tired and really didn’t care about how it ended.
I’ve been trying to determine exactly why Doctor Who has been bothering me, and I have tentatively come up with some points about what it is about the series that has drained all of its interest for me.
I know at this point, some people might be like, “What are you talking about?! The special effects for the first few seasons were terrible! Look at the pilot episode!”
That is exactly my point.
There was a certain charm about the show when it had terrible special effects. It allowed the actors to have some fun and kind of ham things up because no one in their right mind would think that the horrible rubber special effects were real. It let the show have a goofiness that is sorely lacking in the last few seasons.
Additionally, I feel that the increased special effects budget has acted as a crutch to the show for the writers so that they don’t have to write particularly interesting or compelling characters and plots.
In the seventh season, we had the episode The Rings of Akhaten. There is an interminable portion of the episode with the Queen of Years singing a song that feels like it lasts forever. The scene is beautiful. The special effects and the world building are breathtaking, but I don’t care about what is going on.
I feel like I am watching a piece of art created by a computer that makes things really pretty, but it has no soul. I feel no reason to watch it because the characters never learn anything, their stories don’t touch me on any fundamental level, and the whole thing just feels like a practice in artistic masturbation.
The special effects in the first season were terrible, but the writing was compelling. Because you couldn’t blow a million bucks making an entire virtual world, you wound up with such great episodes like Father’s Day where Rose got to meet the father she never knew. The vast majority of that episode took place in a church in the 1980’s. That episode is compelling because you can see a character you’ve never seen before slowly come to the realization that he is going to die and never see his daughter grow up and that he must sacrifice himself to save the world. Pete Tyler wasn’t a super hero, he was an ordinary person who was able to put his own self interests aside for the greater good of everyone. If that isn’t a compelling story, I don’t know what is.
You get compelling stories when there are constraints on the writers to do something to fill the gaps that can’t be filled with special effects.
I went back and watched Jurassic Park recently. I forgot how much of the movie is made up of scenes without the dinosaurs. The movie is great not just because of the realistic dinosaur rendering, but because it had really good, fleshed out characters whose fates you cared about. It had humor. All the characters had distinct personalities. If it was just about the dinosaurs, then I highly doubt it would be remembered as fondly as it is.
The special effects are now movie quality, but since I really hate most movies that come out, that doesn’t really appeal to me anymore.
We are seeing a similar thing happen with the new Star Trek movie series. We have a writer, J.J. Abrams, who has absolutely no idea what made Start Trek compelling to begin with, who is kind of throwing around what he thinks Trek fans want to see, without fully grokking what it was about the show that kept people around. You have things slicker and prettier than they were, but without the soul that kept fans coming back year after year.
I do not like the habit that Steven Moffat has introduced in his reign of terror at having the entire series be serialized. I know that many shows on today are serialized and that is the thing du jour for episodic television, but I really don’t feel it works for Doctor Who.
The first series we had Moffat for, where we were introduced to Amy Pond and Rory Williams, had the interesting and different tack of talking about the crack in the wall and how it was a crack in reality. This was an interesting concept that had not been explored in New Who yet.
However, after the first season of serialization, things began to drag and that began very rapidly. The next season, where we discover Amy Pond is pregnant and was replaced by a doppelgänger, was compelling for the first half of the season until baby Melody is spirited away and we discover that she is, in fact, River Song.
After that, things really go off the rails. We are sort of expected to believe that Amy is not irreparably despondent about her kidnapping and the theft of her baby, because she sort of goes on about her life like it never happened and it is not particularly mentioned again.
A lot of this stuff is happening because the characters, as portrayed by Moffat, are nothing more than
living action figures to go off and play certain parts in weird fan fictions. He is more interested in having puzzles to figure out than in the actual compelling questions of what it means to be human. Once a puzzle has been solved, Moffat has some trouble figuring out what to do with the character afterward. We are seeing this issue with Clara where now that we have discovered why she was the impossible girl, the writers have no clear idea about who or what she was. It has been announced that she is going to be leaving the show at the end of the year and I feel she is being forced out to make room for the next MacGuffin. I don’t particularly like the character, but I feel kind of bad that the actress never actually got to explore who the character actually is.
You can have serialized plots in a show like Lost where you are following the same characters through a multi-year character arc. It works less well when you have a predetermined cycle of actors that will come and go. Back in the first few seasons having a lot of one-off episodes that had a few multipart episodes sprinkled through really worked for the show.
Some of the best episodes of the show were stand-alone episodes. Look at Blink, one of the best episodes of the entire series. The show barely has the Doctor in it. It exemplifies what is great about Doctor Who. It is weird and funny and has compelling time travel paradoxes, but most importantly, it wraps up in one episode. It is a tightly written piece of fiction. Imagine trying to drag that episode out over a whole season long arc. It loses so much in that scenario.
I guess I feel like Doctor Who is turning into the M. Night Shyamalan oeuvre where he feels compelled to add a stupid twist to the end of his movies and they get lamer and lamer with each iteration. Try shaking things up a bit and go back to what works rather than sticking to a fluke that worked once.
No Hanky Panky in the Tardis
The single biggest thing that has bothered me about this season is the question of romance between the Doctor and his Companion.
First off, I thought it was rather refreshing to have the married couple of Amy and Rory because it closed off the idea of the Doctor and his Companion having a relationship. I think that Billie Piper had great chemistry with both Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant and that having that one relationship go in that direction was not the worst idea in the world.
Rose Tyler was followed up by Martha Jones, who had an unrequited crush on the Doctor that was never reciprocated. Martha was followed by Donna Noble, who was brought on to be a friend to the Doctor and to show a character who has a life changing encounter and grows as a human being. I don’t really think that Doctor Who has earned the reputation of having too many romantic relationships between the Doctor and the Companion.
Imagine my surprise when nearly every article I read about the new season of Doctor Who revolved around this theme: No hanky panky in the TARDIS. I began to get a very bad feeling about how this season was going to proceed. No one talked about anything else going on this season beyond the fact that the people representing the show wanted to make damn sure you knew there would be no relationship between the Doctor and the Companion.
Why did anyone feel it was necessary to make this explicitly clear??
Watching the first episode of the season really hammered this point home. I think they talked about boyfriends and relationships more than they talked about sex in “The Secret Life of the American Teenager.”
You don’t want a relationship between the Doctor and Clara? Fine. I don’t think they even got to that point when Matt Smith was around because Clara was only on like ten episodes. Just don’t do it. Don’t fucking talk about it every other minute in the premiere.
I also find this worrying because I feel that Steven Moffat doesn’t know what to do with a female character if he can’t hook her up in a relationship. I think Amy lasted as long as she did because she was married to Rory. At the beginning of Season Seven she tries to divorce him to set him free because she can have no more children and she feels like she can’t fulfill his needs as a man because she can’t give him babies. The fuck? The multitude of wrong associated with this plot line hurts my brain.
I think Jenna Colman was sort of urged to leave the show because no one knows what to do with her anymore. Her puzzle has been solved. The hot guy left the role and has been replaced by the old guy. What on earth could they possibly do with a female character if she can’t screw the Doctor?
Will I continue to watch Doctor Who? Yeah, probably. I watch a lot of things that stopped being good a while ago. Will I go out of my way to see it when it is on initially? Probably not.
Right now the writers have no reason to go to the effort to make Doctor Who good. The Fiftieth Anniversary special was aired live all over the world. Doctor Who is the crown jewel of the BBC right now. It is basically printing its own money. It has no incentive to make itself better.
I have no hope that things will get any better as long as we have the same crew of people running things. If they ever replace Moffat with someone else, I will be legitimately excited about the show again. Until then, I will suffer and rewatch the Eccleston season back when the show had something to say.