I find myself at a loss to say anything original about the latest episode of Doctor Who, – for this was another brilliant, striking, daring, surreal episode of the series, with great playing (once again) by the regular cast, an effective guest cast including the instantly appealing Rita – the companion who never was – and the cowardly Gibbis played with nuance and subtly by David Walliams, and some lovely imaginative direction that resulted in the best-looking hour you’ll see on television this week.
It was as good as “The Doctor’s Wife” and “The Girl Who Waited”. In many ways it was even better than last week’s superlative episode, because Toby Whithouse’s story was so much more richly textured, daring and deep than last week. Where the strength of Tom MacRae’s script for “The Girl Who Waited” was that it took a potentially complex, abstract and difficult story and actually made it a very simple but emotionally compelling and even devastating experience, Whithouse’s work this week revels in the surrealism and complexity.
As a fan, I loved it. This is everything that Doctor Who can and should be – challenging and original, unlike anything else you’ll see on TV. The more you thought about it and turned it over in your mind, the better it became: the way that the Minotaur/hotel/framed photos became parallels for the Doctor/Tardis/roll call of companions was psychologically valid, real – and devastating in its way.
But for all that I loved it as a fan, I am also acutely aware that this is exactly the sort of demanding episode that doesn’t play well to a mainstream audience, for whom it may have been confusing, disjointed and unsatisfying – a story of a man in a (well-realised) monster suit charging up and down hotel corridors, looking for all the world like a live-action version of Scooby-Doo. How many adults, I wondered, had started to watch this only to give up on the silly kids stuff and turn instead to whatever X-pap was on the other channel? I think that it’s no coincidence that this episode had strong echoes of “Ghost Light”, the very last regular Classic Who story to go before the cameras before the series was axed in 1989 because it had lost the connection to a mass audience.
That’s a worry, for the show needs to retain its mainstream audience and high ratings that gives it the budget and the artistic freedom that it’s enjoyed up to know thanks to the credibility bedrock that Russell T Davies gave it over the first four years.
And there’s another problem. When the show started I saw a number of people online dismissing it as “just a bottle show” or “filler” – because it seemed like a standalone story unconnected to the series arc begun by the banks of Lake Silencio in “The Impossible Astronaut”. In fact the “filler” accusation proved to be factually incorrect – the ending really did have a major impact on the series arc after all – but it worried me that viewers are now so quick to dismiss any and all standalone shows as “mere filler”. When I levelled that description at “The Curse of the Black Spot” I meant it from the perspective of it being a waste of space in and of itself, rather than merely on the grounds that it was a standalone episode.
Once upon a time, every single story was standalone save for some basic aspects of series continuity. Even in a themed season like “The Key to Time” the constituent serials were broadly self-contained; and this persisted right into the RTD years where despite little hints about “Bad Wolf” or “Vote for Saxon”, the stories were very much their own thing. But in seasons 5 and 6 it seems that such standalone efforts are now seen as throwaway fillers between “the important stuff.”
This is hugely wrong. It’s completely the wrong way of looking at the series. The Silencio arc might be a nice embellishment of the show, but it should never become the be-all and end-all of what Doctor Who is – otherwise it squelches the opportunity to do new, interesting, daring and innovative work that thrives mainly in the single-story/episode format. An arc necessarily becomes more complex as it goes on and builds on the last – and more familiar, and hence more constraining. It limits, where single episode stories liberate. It’s no coincidence that the episodes I think have been by far the best of this season have all been stand-alone ones, while the arc episodes have become increasingly problematic and flawed for all Steven Moffat’s writing wizardry managing to make them fly regardless.
But really, we’ve got to a point where this needs attending to and correcting: the show needs a reset to allow “filler” episodes to return to the fore and once again demonstrate the true strength and diversity of the series. In other words, we need more episodes like “The Girl Who Waited” and “The God Complex” and “The Doctor’s Wife”.
And we need it very soon, please.