I met a friend for lunch last week who, in the course of conversation, asked me if I still watched ‘Doctor Who’. While asking this she caught herself and said, “Is it even still on?” She said she had loved it during the RTD years but had drifted away after David Tennant left. I forgot about this until out a couple of nights later with other friends who joked about my well-known habit of insisting on watching Who on Christmas Day. Two of them also said they had once watched it and had now ‘given up’.
Clearly Who’s ratings are still healthy – people are not deserting it in droves. Yet I think it’s fair to say that there is a disconnect between the unfailing enthusiasm found in critics (and hardcore Who nuts) and the response found in many casual viewers. I’m not really sure where I fit in – I watched Who when I was young, I read many of the spin-off novels and I dressed up as The Doctor at Halloween. When Who returned, however, I wasn’t hugely interested. I watched Christopher Ecclestone’s year if I happened to be in and missed most of Season 2 (having just moved to London that year, I had other things going on) until I watched the finale ‘Doomsday’ in Retro Bar with a friend visiting from Glasgow. I hadn’t even watched the first part of its two-part story but I loved it. I bawled my eyes out at that beach scene between The Doctor and Rose and laughed like a drain at Catherine Tate’s appearance in the dying seconds. After that I was hooked, spending money I could ill-afford on the Season 1 box set and making a religious appointment to watch every episode since. The finales of both Season 3 and Season 4 coincided with Gay Pride in London and watching them provided the climax of both days. A group of us gathered at my boyfriend’s flat to watch David Tennant’s departure on New Year’s Day 2010 and about 8 of us got together to view Matt Smith’s debut later that year. So I would never claim to be one of those super-fans who can identify every reference to the ‘classic era’ but I would definitely class myself as a fan.
I know that there was much criticism and ridicule of aspects of the RTD years, some of it justified. Yet RTD’s main strength is writing characters and I fell in love with The Doctor, Rose, Donna…heck, even Martha. The show amused me and moved me and whilst it was sometimes ridiculous and its endings too convenient, the characters kept my attention and my affection. When RTD left, however, I was thrilled to hear that Steven Moffat was taking over. Moffat’s episodes in the RTD era were rarely less than brilliant, sometimes awe-inspiringly so. In ‘The Eleventh Hour’ Matt Smith turned out to be a hugely appealing Doctor. Everything looked good.
Now, two years into Moffat’s reign, I sadly find myself approaching episodes like ‘The Snowmen’ with a mixture of trepidation and flat resignation. It’s been a while since I loved this show and unfortunately this episode was archetypal of many of the reasons why. A quick look:
- Foremost – Moffat’s elevation of a core ‘mystery’ above all else. Arcs are nothing new for the show, certainly existing before RTD. Yet while RTD fit the arc (sometimes clumsily) into the show, Moffat seems to bend the entire show to the arc. Season 5’s crack and Season 6’s ‘death of The Doctor/River Song’ loomed so large over proceedings that the mystery of how they would be resolved became the central driving force behind the narrative. Yet both turned out to be an utter mess. Many of the questions the show raised remain unanswered. Many of them make absolutely no sense, even within the show’s universe. The Melody Pond/River Song issue of Season 6 became so ridiculous that it became impossible to simply enjoy a random story without thinking “WHY AREN’T THESE PEOPLE UPSET ABOUT THEIR MISSING BABY?!” It called for a suspension of belief verging on a lobotomy. Nonetheless, Moffat was largely given a free pass by critics who seem to think that because Who is a sci-fi show, it doesn’t have to make too much sense. This would perhaps not be so noticeable if RTD hadn’t managed to pull all this off reasonably well very recently. The characters need to be at the core of the show, not a ‘Lost’-esque series of questions which causes the characters to act in ways which defy all sense in order to accommodate them. In ‘The Snowmen’ it became clear that Clara was there almost entirely to set up another arc. The story was absurdly flimsy with a resolution which even the most ardent RTD ‘deus ex machina’ apologist would have found lazy. A big name like Richard E Grant had almost nothing to do. It was telling that the only fleshed out characters (beyond Clara and the Doctor) were a trio returning to the show for no apparent reason other than to provide emotional hooks for regular viewers without requiring much effort. Clara spent the final 20 minutes of the episode being entirely unconnected and irrelevant to the ‘main story’ but rather setting up the ‘mystery’ which will presumably drive Season 7b. It made my heart sink. For all Moffat’s distaste for certain breeds of internet dweller (I’ve no doubt he would think I am a twat) much of his Who tenure relies on ardent fans going off and filling in plot holes on forums. It’s already been pointed out by quite a few folk that Clara’s date of birth was the same as the original air-date for ‘Doctor Who’. Her surname was Oswald, recalling the man whose assassination of President Kennedy took place the day before this and so overshadowed Who. She was 26 when she died and Who was 26 years old when it was originally cancelled. You could even go further and say that she has now died twice and Who was cancelled, then brought back in the tv movie, then gone again. Perhaps these are all little points for nutty fans to pick up which will turn out to be inconsequential but given the show’s upcoming 50th anniversary, it’s easy to see them being important. It’s easy to see them being so important that they largely become the point of Season 7b.
- So, Clara. She’s likeable! She’s funny and intelligent and sassy and bold. She’s…Amy Pond! When she did her duel accent thing it recalled adult Amy’s first encounter with The Doctor and caused me to imagine Karen Gillan playing Clara. I quickly decided that there was no discernible difference between the characters. The first thought arising from this is that the funny and intelligent and sassy and bold female companion is done. RTD made no secret of the influence of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ on his Who reboot and this pretty much explains Rose. The template has barely changed in the 7 years since, with even Rory being decisively second-fiddle. The second thought is to notice that sexual tension between Clara and The Doctor was quickly established, just as it was with Rose, Martha and Amy. The only companion for whom this hasn’t been a major issue has been Donna who, not coincidentally, has been the only one who wasn’t under 30 and stereotypically ‘beautiful’. Nice!
- This leads nicely into Moffat’s much-discussed inability to write decent women characters. He really, really can’t. It’s beyond parody now. I won’t expand on this much as there’s already a lot out there, but someone should take him to the side and tell him that making women sexually-forward and maybe even GAY (but mibbe just actually a bit bisexual!) isn’t being brave or liberal – it’s being embarrassing and condescending. This really painful “I’m really right-on, me” strand is actually much wider in his writing than just the main female characters. It’s typical of a dominant strand of liberalism which goes something like ‘oooh, he mentions gays and I like gays – SCREAM!’ Last year’s ode to women-as-mothers was woeful in terms of the clear gap between Moffat’s belief that he was writing something rather admirable and what actually ended up on screen.
Who still has moments of brilliance and I’ll keep watching for a while yet. ‘The Snowmen’ was, however, a foreboding large hint that more of the past two years is coming. If that’s the case I can’t see myself lasting. No big deal, of course, nothing anyone should care about. But it’ll definitely make me sad. I certainly approach things critically (I think everyone should) which can come across as overly negative but I have so many lovely memories associated with this show. I just want it to be great again!