I have, perhaps for the first time, the cold certainty that the show has taken a wrong turning and found itself in a cul-de-sac from which there seems no escape, only an inevitable and fast-approaching end.
I wrote that sentence in May 2013 at the end of my review for “The Name of the Doctor”, the last episode of season 7. I’d liked the episode well enough but had nonetheless come to the conclusion that Doctor Who urgently needed a major change in direction; and coincidentally just over a week later, series star Matt Smith announced that he was quitting the show.
I’m sure he never read my review (well, pretty sure…) and in any case the sentiment wasn’t anti-Smith by any means – indeed, I’ve always considered him an excellent actor well-cast in the role and who has taken the show to new heights. I’m actually very sorry to see him go; and yet at the same time excited, because it gives showrunner Steven Moffat the chance to effect the necessary changes to reverse out of that cul-de-sac in order to set a new direction and revitalise the show – because that sort of rejuvenation of the show itself is ultimately what a Doctor’s regeneration is all about.
At the same time the old saying “be careful what you wish for, it may come true” comes to mind. A new Doctor and a new direction for the show is all well and good, but will it be one that I actually like? As of time of writing, it’s almost exactly two weeks to go before Peter Capaldi’s first proper outing in the role hits the screens – although a lucky few select fans in Cardiff and London have already seen the first feature-length 80 minute story “Deep Breath” in special preview showings. So far the response has ranged from “enthusiastically positive” to “utterly rapturous” so the signs are very encouraging – even taking into account the self-selecting supportive nature of the audience. Actually, even the hardened press corps have been joining in with the upbeat assessments.
But perhaps I need to think this through for myself and decide what I think the show really needs at this point, and nail my own colours to the mast regarding what I would like to see from the show in the Capaldi era, and what I think needs changing from the Smith incumbency.
The first thing on my wish list is: a completely different Doctor. Ever since Doctor Who came back in its modern rebooted form in 2005, there’s been a consistency to how the character is envisaged. It has felt that the series settled upon Tom Baker’s 1970s portrayal as very much the definitive version: moments of seriousness interspersed by manic activity as the Doctor uses madcap and borderline insane humour to wrong-foot and outwit his opponents. Christopher Eccleston was outstanding at the moments of gravitas and darkness but to me he always looked uncomfortable and strained doing the ‘loony alien’ clowning-around aspects; David Tennant was much better at being able to handle both extremes, often switching from one to another not just in the same scene but even the same sentence; while Matt Smith has tended to the more user-friendly comedy end of the spectrum for the majority of his outings, closer to Patrick Troughton than Baker. But overall they have seemed like the same character filtered through different actors’ performances; indeed, Moffat’s predecessor Russell T Davies once said that the change from Eccleston to Tennant didn’t affect the writing of the character at all and that the Doctor still said the same things with the same words and that it was just the actor’s delivery that was different.
That always felt wrong and rather limiting in imagination to me: in the days of the classic Who, consecutive incarnations of the Doctor were made as different in personality as possible, from the stern Hartnell to the Chaplinesque Troughton; the patrician Pertwee to the bohemian Baker; the young and uncertain Davison to the pompous arrogance of Colin Baker’s portrayal and the slyness of Sylvester McCoy’s. Each were written very differently and played accordingly, and as a result each had a freshness that was reflected not just by the casting but by the writing and the very feel of the show around them. This was the dynamo behind the original series’ longevity and the variety is much needed now as the ‘new’ show comes up to its tenth year on air: we need something new, something different, something risky from the Doctor and not more of the same old thing. And fortunately that seems to be just what Moffat has in mind with his casting of the significantly older Capaldi in the role rather than going for more of the same.
“We couldn’t just go for another Matt Smith-type, we didn’t want another quirky young man with interesting hair,” Moffat has been quoted as saying in the run up to the new series.
“We haven’t made much of change to Doctor Who since it came back in 2005. I just felt it needs to be a bit more different now,” he said when speaking at the Hay Festival in June. “It’s needs to be surprising again!”
It’s not as if the show hasn’t evolved or changes at all since 2005, of course: while there was complete tonal consistency between Eccleston and Tennant’s time in the Tardis under Davies, Moffat’s arrival did lead to a very different type of show with a more fantasy/fairytale feel to it – an approach of which I was dubious at the time and have grown increasingly disenchanted with over the last four years and very much want to see the back of. The show has always been a science fiction show with the Doctor specifically rejecting the notion of magic but it’s strayed very close to that in some of its story telling under Moffat. That was especially the case in that first season wherein the universe is rebooted and the Doctor’s life saved because of his companion Amy Pond’s memory of him as a character in a children’s storybook which somehow allows him to … Oh, I give up. It never did make a lot of rational sense because Moffat was more interested in telling a fable instead. The same flaw was also behind my irritation with “The Angels Take Manhattan” where story logic was similarly abandoned for ‘the effect’.
Even though the fairytale aspect has diminished since then its impact has continued to be felt. Have you noticed how seldom people die in the show these days? Back in 2005 Moffat penned the brilliant two-parter “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” at the end of which the Doctor celebrates because that time, just for once, no one at all died. It was a wonderful moment as a result of its uniqueness; but in the last few years it seems as though jeopardy and drama has been drained out of the show and these days it’s a rarity when a character does die – and invariably it’s the baddie in any case such as Solomon the trader, Dr Simeon or Mrs Gillyflower. There is seldom any time when we feel like anyone we care about is actually at risk. Without wishing to sound bloodthirsty, I miss those days.
Partly the lack of jeopardy is because Moffat has overplayed the card of seemingly killing off the companion: Rory’s many deaths became something of a running joke akin to South Park’s “Oh my god, they killed Kenny!” gag; new girl Clara has also died a couple of times and yet has come back again. Even the recurring semi-companions like the Paternoster Gang have suffered this faux-death, with Strax pronounced dead at the end of “A Good Man Goes to War” only to have merely revealed to have fainted when we next see him; and Jenny’s haunting ‘death’ in “The Name of the Doctor” also just a passing plot beat before she was revived again. After a while you get used to it: if Rory had actually ended up being killed off it would have been a series and a half before we actually realised and stopped waiting for his inevitable return.
The reason why Moffat’s had to play this game of kill/restore a companion (or recurring semi-companion) so often is that there is so rarely any one else in the story that we know well enough to care about. If you think back over series seven, it’s remarkable how often the other characters in the story are there simply to provide an initial scenario and a reason for the Doctor to leap into action, after which they become nothing more than background extras devoid of personality or purpose within the plot. For example, Tom Ward’s Captain Latimer in “The Snowmen”; Emilia Jones’ Merry Gejelh in “The Rings of Akhaten”; the Van Baalen brothers in the Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. Even when you have big name guest stars in a show (such as David Warner, Liam Cunningham and Tobias Menzies in “Cold War” or Dougray Scott and Jessica Raine in “Hide”) they’re given precious little to do once they’ve been introduced. Some episodes such as “Asylum of the Daleks” had no main characters at all outside the Doctor and his companions, while the bizarre ‘gang’ that the Doctor accumulates in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” is just too overtly cartoonish to take seriously – like the episode itself.
No wonder there’s no where to go to find any sense of jeopardy any more: the show has become all about watching the Doctor being amazing and fabulous and clever and funny all the time. To a degree, that sort of self-referentiality and focus on the main character was fitting and proper for the 50th anniversary year, and hence the plethora of stories that were explicitly about the Doctor: “The Name of…”, “The Night of…”, “The Day of…”, “The Time of…” Well, that was fine for 2013 but that’s over with now and we urgently need a new direction for the show, because Doctor Who is supposed to be about the places the Doctor travels to and the people he meets, not a show that is week-in and week-out just about the Time Lord and the monster of the week.
Part of the problem with creating realistic locales and supporting cast is the lack of space within the 45 minute running time. The show starts and plunges straight in and carries on at a relentless pace with so many ideas fizzing around that by the time the end titles crash in your head is spinning and you’re left breathless with the pace of it all. The show has had so many plates spinning on poles that it doesn’t dare to let up for a moment lest they start to crash down all around. Partly that’s the legacy of the fast-paced kinetic model set by Davies for the reboot in 2005, but in recent times it’s been heightened by Moffat’s incredibly dense style of plotting and by the accretion of so many story arc loose threads left dangling from show to show and series to series. That approach rather imploded in the 2013 Christmas special, “The Time of the Doctor,” which had so much to pack in to its hour-long running time that it felt like more like trying to digest all the pages of legal disclaimers at the end of an informercial than enjoying a piece of quality entertainment.
It seems – and I hope – that maybe Moffat’s had the same sort of epiphany in concluding that the furious pace of the show cannot be sustained or heightened any further than it has already reached. Maybe that’s why he wanted to cast an older actor in the role, someone who would help pull things back to a proper, slower storytelling rhythm.
“One of the hardest things to notice is when your new idea has become your old idea and it’s time to get rid of it,” said Moffat at last week’s London premier of the first episode of the new series. “Certain things we were doing a little reflexively. Some of the humour was getting a bit glib.
“There was a danger we were getting faster every year and soon the episodes would be over in four minutes,” he added. “I thought we have to do something else.”
“Over the past two or three years, which I’ve loved, there has often been a breathless vigour,” Capaldi agreed. “We still have that attack, but we have another level of drama, another tone. And the scenes are longer.”
Moffat has said that the new season “more sombre” and “more rooted dramatic scenes” which I really like the sound of, although personally I hope and trust that the show won’t lose all the humour it’s developed under Smith – just temper it a little.
Capaldi of course has been a Doctor Who fanboi even longer than I have and knows the character inside out – and what he wants to do with it. His performance has been described as a mix of Troughton and Baker (which is a shame as that’s pretty much the template of his two immediate predecessors in the role) but also of Jon Pertwee, which is more promising as far as I’m concerned as he remains my sentimental favourite of the classic series leads. Indeed, Capaldi’s costume looks like a de-ruffled, modernised version of Pertwee’s and eschews some of the ticks and foibles such as bow ties that have crept in over recent years. There’s no need for such gimmicks for the new Doctor, it seems.
So let’s summarise: what do I want from the new series of Doctor Who, what would make me happy and stop me from incessantly carping on about the show as I have done periodically in this blog (in between other weeks where I’ve been praising it to the skies, I should add) – and how well does that line-up alongside the stated intentions of Moffat and Capaldi?
To start with, the overwhelming season arcs need to go. By all means keep some sense of continuity and development of course, just don’t let it take over the show or else viewers will start to become dismissive of the standalone episodes that should actually be the bread and butter of the series. Russell T Davies had the balance about right in his four years on the show, while Moffat has consistently and annoyingly compromised the show week-on-week in order to engineer his overarching grand plan. That needs to be rolled back and simplified.
I hesitate to say there should be more consistency in the show, because diversity and different ideas has been one of Doctor Who’s greatest and unique strengths. However the most recent run of stories was wildly erratic and there needs to be more of an overall quality control and sense of cohesion to the show. Look at the recent Doctor Who Magazine poll of fans’ marks out of ten for all 240 episodes of the series’ 50-year run and it’s fascinating to see several of season seven’s episodes near the top – and just how many are near the bottom. That sort of wild swing shouldn’t be happening with a firm showrunner with a vision for the show overseeing things at the helm.
Let’s end the fairytale approach once and for all and get back to a more action oriented approach. We need more drama, more jeopardy, and more interesting places and people to explore rather than to dash past at a full run barely exchanging a word. There have been times (and I think this is related to BBC budget cuts rather than Moffat’s preference) when the universe has been conspicuously underpopulated; compare the cast count to that of the BBC-Starz co-production Da Vinci’s Demons which is teeming with performers in every shot, and you realise just how boutique-stylised and insular the show now often appears on the screen.
Moffat is undoubtedly able to create some wonderfully vivid characters but he needs to spend less time concentrating on the Doctor himself. And it’s not just memorable one-off characters for that week’s story we need, either – how about some character development for Clara, who has been all over the place since her introduction as ‘the impossible girl,’ which positioned her as more of a mystery for the Doctor to solve rather than a real person in her own right?
While I’m not advocating a return to Russell T Davies’ ‘soap opera days’ when the Doctor and Rose were constantly batting their eyelids at one another – one of the great things of the last few weeks was hearing Capaldi say that there will be no flirting in the Tardis on his watch! – it would be great if the show could get back to some grounded everyday emotion rather than the relentlessly abstract ideas-driven approach of the last few years. I miss the days when the companion was someone down to earth with something approaching the same background as that of the viewers: Rory was probably the most normal and accessible of Smith’s companions, as Amy was too busy being “the girl who waited” going through experiences we could never fully relate to, notably the whole ‘abducted while pregnant’ arc of season six.
Until we see “Deep Breath” – and to be honest, not for a few weeks after that when the series has properly settled down – we won’t know for sure how far along these lines the new season is going to go, if at all. The advance PR soundbites from the cast and crew are undoubtedly all very promising and encouraging, but I’ll also refer you back to the adage I used at the top of this piece: beware what you wish for. Even if it comes true, it might prove to be not what you and I wanted after all. All we can do is hope that the show’s magic regeneration trick delivers the goods once again, as we step into the second half of Doctor Who’s centenary run!
Doctor Who season 8 starts on BBC One on Saturday August 23 with an 80-minute special, “Deep Breath”. There’s a strong possibility that I may be reviewing it here after it airs…