After having watched and reviewed the last episode of DOCTOR WHO this Series, I feel the need to get a few things out. So bear with me as I go over a few things, and perhaps vent a bit.
I have watched the re-launched DOCTOR WHO (circa 2005-present) since it began airing week to week on the CBC in Canada (who ponied up some of the dough for the show in 2005 and is considered co-financier company for Series 1). I got to re-embrace a TV show that I LOVED as a child, and over time the show took my top spot for weekly viewing. I never missed it, talked about it endlessly, debated it with friends, and purchased many t-shirts and collectables.
Six (nearly seven) years later, the show has moved on from its re-launched showrunner Russell T. Davies and its first two stars Christopher Eccelstone (9th Doctor) and David Tennant (10th Doctor), to be run by a different person and have different stars. This is a long running aspect of the show. Since its inception in the early 1960’s it has been about the character moreso than the stars playing him. So when Matt Smith took over the TARDIS duties (as 11th Doctor) it was somewhat par for the course for DW. Yes, we’d all miss Tennant, but the show would go on and in the hands of arguably its most capable writer (other than Davies himself) Steven Moffat (BLINK, THE GIRL IN THE FIREPLACE) right?
Chris and I talked at length about the issues we had with the 6th Series of DW in the last two Giggle Loop Podcasts, and I’m sure you can see my feelings about the show in my reviews, but I felt like I had so much more to say beyond a review about the show in general that I’d write a Post-Season wrap up article, and this is going to include some rather venting-type statements.
The differences between Steven Moffat’s DOCTOR WHO and Russell T. Davies DOCTOR WHO become more glaring with every episode that airs, and after the finale THE WEDDING Of RIVER SONG I feel that the shows have become so different as to be unrecognizable from one another. In fact, I’d wager if you had someone unaccustomed sit down and watch Series 2 and chase it with Series 6 they’d tell you that it was two different shows. I’m going to break down my issues into categories.
RTD’s Doctor (both 9th and 10th) had a level of mystique, but rarely made anyone feel like they were lesser because of not knowing. They were also charming, funny and emotional. When the scene called for it those two incarnations could be comedic, unrepentantly angry, near tears emotional, or even just manic and running. RTD’s Doctor had a soul. He had a dark history that was layered with things like being forced as a child to look into the vortex of time itself (the un-tempered schism) to become a time lord, he had witnessed and been on the front lines of a war that decimated both the Time Lord and Dalek population to the point where it had to be locked out of reality lest it destroy everything. RTD invented the Time Lord infantryman. The shell-shocked, PTSD Doctor who had not only experienced horrors of a war, but had been responsible for sealing his own people into a locked state of hell. Imagine carrying that around and STILL wanting to save the universe. That was what RTD brought when he revived the franchise. He gave us something to identify with, while at the same time not entirely human and in need of such humanity to make him whole. He gave us the broken, hollow, shell of a great man who could do so much good, and told us how his interactions with some people started to fill him up inside and make him better again. But he never lost the core of who he was, and what he had experienced. So that even by the time we got to Series 4 he was still acting off the impulses of a man who had been through these things. Week to week he showed some aspect of that personality, and it always made each of the stories that were being told that much more compelling because of who he was as an individual. That was part of the magic in the show and part of what kept me coming back every Saturday.
Moffat took that man and turned him into something different. Whether the reasoning behind that was to wipe away what RTD did or not I can’t say. I must admit it feels that way sometimes though. Very little of the person who both Eccelstone and Tennant played exists in Matt Smith’s Doctor. Yes he’s mentioned the Time War, and shown his regular contempt for the Daleks and Cybermen ect., but it’s always as an afterthought. And while I’m not saying I want an emo-Doctor all the time or something, it would be nice if the 11th Doctor had to deal with his past more often and at least show shades of his previous incarnations. Yes, he’s been filled up with humanity by the companions he’s come into contact with, but he shouldn’t forget who he is and where he came from either. So now he’s a madman with a box. He’s scatterbrained, plays his cards close to his chest, and for the most part doesn’t treat his companions the same (see Companions category below for more info) as his past incarnations did. It seems he thinks that damned near everything is a secret and should not be shared with anyone. We not seen that level of secrecy since the 7th Doctor’s (Sylvester McCoy) last season, and I’m now totally positive it’s a bad thing. The Doctor should still be mysterious to an extent, but whereas the 9th and 10th Doctor’s would share important info with their companions, 11 rarely does. In fact, never has more been kept secret between The Doctor and the companions (Amy’s Schrodinger baby, pregnant/not pregnant, Rory doesn’t know about Flesh Amy), nor from the Doctor himself (River, Amy, and Rory not telling the Doctor of his impending death) and such cracks are showing their wear to me. The whole point of this show has always been how the Doctor has companions who temper him, make him better and more human and more often than not HELP him solve the mystery or issue at hand in any given episode. Chris and I were discussing it and he noted (paraphrasing) “it seems like more and more as the 11th Doctor matures as a character he’s becoming more condescending and dismissive whereas 9th and 10th were merely excitable with poor impulse control.” And I think he’s totally correct on that. I’m also fairly positive I dislike the condescension and dismissiveness that 11 shows.
RTD’s era had more than a few memorable companions. Rose Tyler, Mickey Smith, Martha Jones, Donna Noble, and Jack Harkness were the main ones and then we can add a few of the smaller role companions like Sally Sparrow, Wilfred Mott, Sarah Jane Smith, Adelaide Brooke, Lady Christina de Souza, and Jackson Lake to the roster. With every one of those companions the Doctor had a different relationship, but one that was always poignant to the story told and especially to the overall personality of the Doctor himself. What I mentioned before about tempering him. While they all exhibited some of each of the following traits I think we can break them down into a few specifics: Rose (basic love), Mickey (sacrifice), Martha (unrequited love), Donna (strength & humour), Jack Harkness (passion), Sally (conviction), Wilfred (blind faith/belief), Sarah Jane (loyalty), Adelaide Brooke (truth), Lady Christina (admiration), Jackson Lake (emulation), and even The Master (not that he was a companion) eventually showed the Doctor something (brotherly conflict, and ultimately familial love). That’s what RTD gave us in companions. One thing Chris noted this morning to me and I think it rings excessively true was that no matter what was going on in any given episode, the Doctor more often than not had his companion at his side and they’d jointly solve the issue. Whatever happened they would always work together as equals and whatever the problem was they would approach it as a team. The base was ALWAYS the friendship. Always.
Moffat has removed a significant number of things that made companions relevant to the Doctor. Another paraphrased quote from Chris is that “whereas RTD had the Companions working alongside the Doctor as equals who always punched above their weight, Moffat has Smith treating Amy and Rory like kittens that need to be protected so they don’t get killed.” And I think he’s bang on there. If you think about it Amy and Rory almost never are on screen with the Doctor at the same time during the crisis, and they rarely solve the problem or issue at hand as a team with him. Instead he usually has to tell them what to do to save the day. Like when Amy is lost in THE GIRL WHO WAITED and the Doctor issues orders to Rory as to what to do from the TARDIS. Though Rory eventually does a few things on his own in regards to the situation, it’s still basically the Doctor who is in control at the end of the episode. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing as he clearly knows a lot about the perils and pitfalls in the universe, but we rarely get into a situation where the companions are doing anything to help the Doctor in which he NEEDS them at all. So gone are the days when the companions fulfilled their tempering job and made the Doctor more human it would seem. In fact any time one of the two tries to show the Doctor how harsh he is being (usually Rory yelling at him) he kind of just shrugs it off and I guess we are expected to accept that this Doctor is just a less human inside and more of an alien. But I think that’s going to be missed, simply because part of what has always made the character so compelling is the humanity inside him. So here we have a Doctor who won’t allow an older Amy into the TARDIS with young Amy because it’s a paradox, but the same person will allow a paradox like the whole Amy/Doctor in the Pandorica Sonic Screwdriver escape thing. I think there is a disconnect there. Like in THE GIRL WHO WAITED the aspect of the Doctor not allowing old Amy into the TARDIS paradox is cashed in as an emotional heartstrings moment, because the show has crossed the timey-wimey paradoxical bridge more than a few times in the last few seasons. So having two Amy’s briefly in the TARDIS (something that funnily enough actually DID happen in the mini-sodes that aired last year) while they find somewhere for old Amy to go to seems exceptionally harsh as an act by a man who has said things are impossible and paradoxical A LOT of times and overcomes them. I’m probably nitpicking, but this is an example of another difference in the show recently that I think is detrimental to overall enjoyment. And the base of it now never actually feels like friendship as it did before and instead feels more like master and servant.
I also don’t really care as much what happens to either Amy or Rory most days and I certainly don’t care about what happens to River Song. None of their various mortal perils' has created in me any kind of tension about them surviving. Add to this aspects like Amy seemingly not caring about her child after she’s taken and accepting that someday she’ll be River so all will work out well, it all rings sort of blankly to me. I got more out of the frozen/out once a year/opera singer from last years Christmas Special than I think I’ve ever gotten from Amy or Rory. Though Rory has frequently gotten the badass award from me, I don’t think it’s enough in the long run.
I just want to note something Chris mentioned to me. In RTD’s era there was always a big bad, and it was almost always dealt with in one Series (Daleks, Cybermen & Daleks, The Master, Davros, The Time Lords themselves) and though he might revisit previous big bad’s (see Series 2, 3 and 4) you always had some sort of closure going into the following Series. With Moffat, The Silence/Silents, have been used from the outset of Series 5 and you’d think that by the end of Series 6 we’d more than simply vague information about who they are, why they care and the like. It seems like they are going to continue to be a big bad in Series 7 (unless I miss my guess), and at this point I’m simply fed-up with them. They aren’t interesting anymore and I got more out of 3 episodes with the Weeping Angels than I ever have with the Silence. My big gripe here is this: Fresh ideas Moffat. When you use the same villain (sometimes secondary villain) as the big bad in 2 full series and then set them up as the big bad in the 3rd Series under your tenure, there’s a problem. Give us something else. I would have been happy if the Silents had been revealed at the end of Series 5 and dealt with…but no we continue to use them and the weirdest thing about it all is that every time I think they are the big bad, something happens that drops them into the secondary villain category, which only serves to confuse me. And don’t get me started on Moffat treating the Daleks and Cybermen like secondary citizens in the Who-niverse. I realize that they shouldn’t be overused, but then DON’T put them in at all is my advice! The Cybermen especially have been CRIMINALLY used this Series. In the mid-series finale they were pre-credits cannon fodder, and even in the penultimate episode CLOSING TIME they are treated like a flies to be swatted. I’m not going to lie it feels entirely disrespectful to the lineage that these various villains have been created to exemplify to use them and make them out to be just an irritating piece fluff that should be swept from your coat.
Overall Narrative and Plot Arcs
RTD took us on a long journey and showed us many things. His Doctor’s both saved the earth and the universe multiple times (sometimes to his own detriment), dealt with many enemies and friends, saw wondrous things and achieved amazing heights. What always was front and center though throughout was a fairly straightforward narrative arc. Sure sometimes he did monster-of-the-week episodes (usually with some subtle nod to the overall Series arc), but they were always clean stories with clear beginning, middle and end points. Even when they were concentrated on the overall Series arc they were not using any gimmicks to tell the story. Say what one will about RTD, he always approached the story FIRST and FOREMOST, and everything else came later. He was always concerned with his characters relationships across the board. He always addressed what his companions families thought of him whisking them away and putting them in peril, Jackie Tyler and the Noble family are the biggest in this category. I don’t care what story you are telling me, you should always pay attention to the interactions between characters as a reality for the viewer. RTD always did that during his tenure, and after reading his book about Series 4 and the 2009 Specials I am convinced of the fact.
As to Moffat's dealing of characters and reality in relation to their earthbound lives: Have we seen Amy's parents again, or Rory's parents EVER? Don't they wonder what the heck is going on?
As to Moffat's dealing of characters and reality in relation to their earthbound lives: Have we seen Amy's parents again, or Rory's parents EVER? Don't they wonder what the heck is going on?
As well, Moffat likes to use visual and narrative trickery. He always has. If you go back and watch COUPLING he had episodes concentrated on split screens in different timelines, and even one where a character speaks in another language for ten minutes and we watch it again with the opposite character speaks in another language and we understand the former. In those instances he also was telling a compelling story and it worked. He’s probably one of the most non-linear screenwriters on the planet and it always shows. You can always know his work for being his work. The problem that has arisen partly in Series 5, but really moreso in Series 6 is that it appears as if he’s using his narrative trickery as a jumping off point instead of story. So it’s almost as if he’s sitting down and thinking “I want to do a story where we introduce a character that the main character has met later in his timeline and show how their interaction would be wholly skewed and messed up by their meeting in the wrong order” and THEN cobbling a feasible story around it to fit that idea. He seems to keep doing this and every episode he writes in this way ends up being a total narrative mess that has to depend on strange plot ideas, tricks and even sometimes paradoxes to makes any sort of sense, and even then they don’t really if you look at them with any kind of discernable eye. We therefore get a situation in which the Doctor can do great things, have great moments, and look and sound really cool while he does it…but where is the heart? Where is the emotional resonance? Where is the level of humanity I need to care? Is it cool to see the Doctor stand on the middle stone of Stonehenge and shout a speech to the alien enemies above? Yes certainly it is. What my issue is falls on the fact that it’s all rather hollow when he’s not the same person he’s always been. The 11th Doctor likes to speak fast, be glib and make references to things no one knows about, but when the entirety of the dialogue starts to depend on that to move things along, there's a problem. It definitely confuses me when he spends all of Series 5 grandstanding like he should be feared and then Series 6 closing with him feeling he needs to retreat to the shadows and be less of a presence so he can do more. Why do we even have to go to either of those extremes at all? The 9th and 10th Doctor’s always seemed to ride that line between being feared and being only one man so not worth the bother. The same thing was true of Classic Who in fact. Why did we have to go through the motions of the 11th Doctor being too big for his britches and realizing it (after two seasons) when he’s already over 900 years old and likely is already aware that he shouldn’t be too much of a presence in the universe, lest he summon the ire of his enemies? It seems like pointless busy-work to me, and should be par for the course to the Doctor.
Long story short, it’s official. No mater how much I try and no matter how much I respect what Steven Moffat has tried to do with DOCTOR WHO, the current incarnation of the show isn’t even really a shadow of the one I fell so in love with in 2005. It’s strange, even my girlfriend who is far less discerning than I in what she expects from a TV show (who I got into DW and she LOVED RTD’s era of the show), and rarely even watches Sci-fi anything, seemed a little less than excited to watch the finale (which she hasn’t done yet). I asked her why she wasn’t excited and she said “It’s just not been that good this season”. Add to that the convoluted, Series arc-dependant nature of Moffat’s DW has actually alienated a few “casual” viewers that I know, including my own fifteen-year old niece and another good friend of mine. Making every episode depend in some way on the one that came before or the three that came before totally destroys any aspect that makes it easy for a casual viewer to come miss an episode. So unless you see the ones that came before you can’t figure out what the heck is going on and those casual viewers are going to flip the channel.
I’m still a big fan and I’ll continue to watch of course and hopefully enjoy some more episodes down the line, but I think there will now forever be a part of me that is more at home watching RTD’s era Series on DVD than I ever will be with what is airing on TV. And to me that’s sad.