Doctor Who – What, and Where Next?
We’ve come to the end of the first half of Doctor Who season six, which makes it a good time to pause and reflect on the state of the Whovian nation.
As someone who has loved and admired Steven Moffat’s work ever since the early days of the superb The Press Gang, this should be a no-brainer question and a short blog post declaring everything is just brilliant and wonderful. Should be … But I’m afraid it isn’t. There’s something nagging away at me, something making me uneasy about the future of the show we love so much.
(And this was before today’s Private Eye story suggesting there was trouble in the production team and that there might not even be a 2012 season, rumours subsequently squashed by a BBC announcement confirming 14 more episodes have been commissioned.)
This is the battle of demon’s run, the Doctor’s darkest hour, he’ll rise higher than ever before, and then fall so much further.
It’s hard not to agree that the Doctor has truly risen higher than he ever has before right now, at least as far as Doctor Who fans are concerned: we have the writer/producer we admire more than any other, who is at the top of his game and producing the most fabulous scripts, season arcs and characters. Matt Smith has made a genuinely brilliant Doctor; the threesome combination of the Tardis crew has given us something authentically different and new after too many years of the tired Doctor/female companion formula – even before we add the fantastic recurring character of River Song who we just yearn to join full-time. The production team also seem to have managed to get over the funding squeeze that compromised key moments in season 5 with below-par CGI, because season 6 has all looked fabulous (well, save for one Flesh Jen monster CGI too far…) – even before the impressive jaunt to America that added to the sense of sheer scale and substance.
But I can’t shake the feeling that this almighty high does indeed potentially come before the biggest fall and darkest hour, and that there are signs and portents that should worry all Who fans at least a little.
Some of these are external matters: the tabloids loved reporting that viewing figures for the early episodes were sharply down, and while this was not entirely accurate (the iPlayer/view on demand figures pretty much reversed that situation so it’s more a sign of an error in the scheduling of the show at 6pm or so on warm, sunny May and June evenings that’s a mistake of the network programmers rather than the show itself) it did lead the papers to gripe about how it’s no longer a family show, that it’s too dark, too scary, too bloody complicated for children now.
Actually the children are fine by all accounts, and follow it perfectly – as least as much as they need to. It’s the adults who are feeling lost, puzzled, worried or horrified. But that’s still a problem for the show, because this is the BBC’s family tent-pole offering, and if the adults are scratching their heads and shrugging before going off to do something else – or deciding it’s not suitable for the little’uns – then it’s undermining a major element of the show’s success and profile, both of which are vital to keeping the show mainstream and properly funded.
When Russell T Davies took on the task of regenerating the show in 2005, he was commendably open about how this was the most commercial, market-tested, focus-grouped project he’d ever done. Every last bit of it had to be hand-crafted to make sure it hit the market properly, delivered the whole-family audience, spun off the merchandising and won the awards. It had to, if this wasn’t to be a one-season flop. Artistic integrity be blowed: to make any expensive TV show, first you have to make the show a proven success to earn your right to experiment. It might sound cynical, but it’s survival in the modern broadcast arena and RTD knew it better than anyone. I’m sure a little piece of him died everytime he had to subjugate his artistic inclinations in favour of ensuring the commercial success, but he pulled it off: he took a revival that no one gave much of a chance of really working and delivered to the BBC’s their biggest international blockbuster property.
As a result, Steven Moffat doesn’t have the same pressures: the show is a hit right now and he doesn’t have to permanently look over his shoulder fearing cancellation. That security has given the show an undoubted confidence and swagger; and in any case, Moffat is not the kind of person to ever allow anything to override his artistic integrity. He will do the show his way no matter what, believing it’s the best for the show: focus groups and market testing be damned.
It’s admirable, and arguably is giving us a better, higher calibre show than we’ve ever seen before as least as far as hard-core fans are concerned. But it’s also markedly different from the show that was reborn under RTD that we grew to know and love in its own right. Davies might have had his problems as head writer (and not really seeming to grasp what a science fiction story really was, and continually relying on cheap deus ex machina get-outs were definitely among them) but every episode was suffused with a sense of love of the show and with a huge feeling of fun that made it accessible and enjoyable by everyone of any age or level of interest.
You don’t get that with Moffat’s seasons. I have no doubt that he loves the show every bit as much as RTD or you and I do, but he never allows that passion to override his story judgement – or to show through in the episodes themselves. Instead they’re far more coolly cerebral, intricate and complex, always eschewing the obvious even when it might end up frustrating the viewer. He is not writing for the casual fan who may dip in and out, miss a week or read a paper at the same time: this is a show for people who watch. And rewatch. And sit and think and talk about it for a week afterwards. And even if you do all that, it’s still likely to have scrambled your brain and leave you with a headache (as the end of “Day of the Moon” did for me, I confessed at the time.)
It’s asking a lot of viewers to submit themselves to this mental overload; casual fans will depart, and even die hard fans have been struggling to sustain the level of absolute concentration the show now demands. Instead of the fun, easy, family viewing under RTD, the show just got worryingly difficult, fan-ish and closed-up by comparison.
For those fans who push through and keep watching, it’s worth every minute. It comes together like the most wonderful puzzle box, and not only can you appreciate how perfectly it all comes together but you can also see how all the clues were left in plain sight all along and it only seemed complicated but actually you really did understand it all along after all, giving a lovely frisson of feeling like you’ve cracked it and are worthy of being one of the Whovian nation – and that your brain isn’t as broken as you thought after all.
But then we hit another snag: where does the show go from here? After being raised to such eye-popping heights, what’s next?
It’s hard to imagine the show going back to the nice, fun “adventure of the week” format. Indeed it tried that with “The Curse of the Black Spot” and how poor that episode felt, even though in previous RTD seasons that would have been a perfectly fine albeit average episode (no offence intended to RTD.) Not every episode can be a Silents/Flesh/Gaiman/Demons Run blockbuster every single week, but these episodes have raised the bar so high in season 6 that a merely ordinary episode is now a deep disappointment. You pity anyone who is tasked to take over from Moffat, because no one can reach the sort of heights he’s been delivering this season – and anything less is doing to be the Doctor’s darkest hour and his furthest fall (and potentially at worst, his latest cancellation.)
This problem is echoed in a development in the Doctor’s character in the show itself: he’s become so big, so epic, so unbeatable that the loveable old eccentric “mad man in a box” has never seemed so far away. These days he can wipe out entire Cyber battle fleets as a rhetorical flourish in a pre-credits teaser, or reboot the universe, or send aliens running away in fright just by reading them his CV. This started back in RTD/David Tennant’s era with “The Christmas Invasion”, was echoed in “The Eleventh Hour” at the start of the Moffat/Matt Smith era, but has now becoming a recurring problem with both “The Pandorica Opens” and “A Good Man Goes to War” both essentially focusing on it.
Quite simply, there is no one left who is more powerful than the Doctor. He is a God. Even the Daleks – who were revamped so successfully in season 1 as the ultimate nemesis of the Time Lords and the only race able to defeat them in the Time War – are now so “reliably beatable” that Moffat himself has concluded that they have no credibility left and have to be rested from the show. But if not the Daleks – who can threaten the Doctor anymore? It’s rather like the ‘scope creep’ that infected the character of Superman, in which a character who could initially simply jump high and run fast suddenly became invincible and as a result lost both empathy with the readership and also potential plots. How could Superman bear to spend his time dealing with muggings with all his powers?
So to it is with the Doctor. He’s now so powerful that nothing really seems to threaten him anymore. Some lovely dialogue in “A Good Man Goes To War” stressed how he is now more myth than regular person: how “Doctor” is becoming a galaxy-wide synonym for “great man of learning” or “warrior” depending on your point of view (apparently an idea Moffat had in 1995 according to some links on the Internet pointing to ‘proof’, but we’ll take these with a pinch of salt for now – you can fake anything on the Internet. Even Moon landings, I hear.) Did you spot the sublime way that Rory is made to see that this is happening to him, too: as he consoled Commander Strax, he realised he was talking to a warrior who had become a nurse, while he himself was a nurse who was now a centurion warrior? An uncomfortable realisation for both.
The stakes have been raised too high too many times: the show has seemingly killed off the Doctor, Amy and/or Rory too often, just so that we feel something bad really did/could happen, but it’s backfired and now they’ve all died and restored in too many ways that so we just roll our eyes, say “oh, not again” and wait for the plot to unravel and restore everyone to life.
Moffat seems acutely aware of this “Godhood” problem with the Doctor now, and it’s why the trope has been returned to in “A Good Man Goes To War” with dialogue specifically riffing on this (which in turn is an echo of dialogue that RTD’s Davros used on Tennant’s Doctor in “Journey’s End”.) I suspect Moffat’s overall intentions for the current convoluted plot arc are to do something about this “all-powerful” Doctor and restore him back to something like his old original self, the eccentric traveller.
The trouble is that the genie is out of the box, and we can’t go home again: would we be remotely satisfied with a show of a group of friends amiably poking around investigating a deserted city or scrapping with some cavemen?
Steven Moffat’s a sharp guy with far greater writing and creative skills than I possess – maybe he’s figured all this out and has an answer for us, and that’s what we’re heading to. We should certainly hope so, for the sake of the future survival of the show hinges upon it. Far more than the side questions of identity of River Song or whether the Doctor will retrieve Rory and Amy’s baby, this is the most important and pressing question facing the Whovian Nation this morning as we head into the summer recess.