[This post was written in May 2011. For updates on recent Doctor Who episodes, scroll down.]
Tragic news, I’m afraid. Something terrible has happened to one of my favorite shows of all time. I don’t quite know how or where to begin in describing the enormity of the problem. So let’s just get going and see where it takes us.
Years ago, I worked as a freelance reporter on a BBC news show in Greater London called Newsroom South East. It was a pretty gruesome, routine job, but with one brilliant and major perk: I was given a full studio security pass, allowing me round-the-clock access to Television Center, the BBC’s large doughnut-shaped HQ in Shepherd’s Bush.
So far, not terribly interesting. But hang on, there’s more.
Also broadcast from Television Center at that time was one of the best, most seminal drama series ever, and I mean EVER: Doctor Who. If you’ve never seen it, then I’m afraid there’s a large void in your life that nothing else will ever be able to fill.
Doctor Who at a glance
The nutshell version: it’s about a very old but extremely brilliant and eccentric man from another planet. He’s a Time Lord, the last of his race, who freewheels through time and space, sometimes alone, but usually with companions he picks up in transit. These companions are integral. They give him someone to say his lines to, for a start, rather than just thinking them to himself. Also, they’re there to: a) scream when they’re scared or captured, and b) ask dumb questions as they go along that will help explain to the viewer at home what’s happening.
Assistant: “Doctor, what does this button do?”
Doctor: “That? Oh, it makes the balloon matrix defigrigater drive inflate. Whatever you do, don’t touch it.”
But of course they do touch it. Sometimes twice. And the consequences are generally dire, prompting an invasion of this cosmos by creatures from an entirely different cosmos, followed by hours of fighting and plotting to wrest planet Earth back from their grip.
It’s all extremely basic. You’d soon get the hang.
Oh, and one other thing you need to know: transport-wise, the Doctor scoots around the universe in a stolen and very temperamental vehicle called the TARDIS, an obsolete Type 40 TT capsule that, according to the instructions, was built to blend automatically into its surroundings, whether it be Pompeii in 79AD or the base camp of an expedition heading to the frozen wastes of Antarctica (see picture right; utterly inconspicuous). A nice idea, the program-makers found, but costly. So, rather than go to the trouble of thinking up new ways to disguise the TARDIS each time it landed in a new place, with all the resources that would mop up, the early producers hit on a shrewd solution: they told viewers, “The TARDIS’s ‘chameleon circuit’ has broken down. Now run along and don’t ask any more questions.” This meant that it would have to stay forever in the shape of a blue 1960s British police box, the kind that bobbies patrolling the streets would make emergency calls from (or sit inside and sleep). In fact, since 2002 the BBC has owned the design patent to the police box so that they can cash in on it with merchandising.
Along the way, the producers devised explanations to many other similarly vexing questions too.
Such as: “But wait, how can one guy, two companions, and a whole bunch of machinery fit inside a single small police box?” Answer: the box was bigger on the inside than the outside. “Ahhhhh, of course, I see. Thanks.” And “How come the interior of the TARDIS looks so different now to when the show started?” Answer: Easy, the TARDIS can reconfigure itself and basically do its own makeover more or less whenever it wants to. “Ahh, yes, sure. That makes perfect sense. Nothing to quibble with there.”
As for the more troublesome issue: “Surely, don’t alien civilizations speak different languages to us? How would anyone communicate?” they gave the TARDIS a fully-functioning inter-species translation capability. You speak – everyone else gets what you’re saying, anywhere within a fifty mile radius of the box. The Translation Matrix, as it’s called, also interprets the written word. Phew, what luck, eh?
You can even open the doors in deep space and still breathe – the TARDIS takes care of the whole oxygen thing too. Oh, and just in case, it’s indestructible. All in all, they had the whole space-travel thing pretty much sewn up.
In other words, no matter what the writers or producers sought to do in a story, however ridiculous and far removed from the original plan, TARDIS folklore would simply be amended to absorb it.
Anyway, at the start of each adventure, the TARDIS dematerializes in a new place in history or the future, or, very occasionally, if the budget’s running low, present day Cardiff, which is where the show is produced. At one time, the traveling aspect was considered thunderously amazing. The Doctor and his companions would pile out of the door and be awestruck. “Wow, look at this – we’re on a new planet.” Or: “Wow, Doctor, is this really Atlantis?” But not any more. Awe’s for old people. Nobody does awe convincingly any more.
For instance, the other week, they spun back in time to an island castle in the 13th Century, which, if this were real life, would be considered pretty cool and awe-inspiring and certainly worth a photo. “The 13th Century? Oh my god, you’re kidding me, man. Seriously? Wow, smell that air – no pollution.” Or whatever. And yet the only comment, when the Doctor and his two-dimensional companions emerged from the TARDIS, was a jaunty, cynical, “Oh, we’re going all medieval, are we?” And off they went without another thought. They may as well have been visiting Tesco’s.
Monsters are also integral to the show. In the early years, this would amount to a bunch of men dressed up in giant ant costumes (named Zarbi, which is an abbreviated anagram of ‘bizarre’) or low-paid extras rolling around the studio floor in large wooden crates called Daleks. Later on, with advances in TV technology, the costumes became more sophisticated and the crates a little more streamlined. In the end, though, nobody was fooled. It was still just actors in outfits. Nothing has changed on that score.
Anyway, the joy of Doctor Who adventures – which, I grant you, isn’t immediately obvious from the above description – is the endless permutations on a theme that the idea allows. No adventure, no place, no time in history or in the future is ever off-limits – unless it would cost a lot of money to reproduce on TV, in which case he simply doesn’t go there. There’s plenty of genuine playfulness and affection thrown in too. Above all, despite the let’s-pretend world the producers created, it’s always had an edge of plausibility to it that kept us engaged, scared when necessary, and fond of the characters.
So there you have it. That’s Doctor Who. It’s also the essence of the current problem they have with the show.
What makes Doctor Who more important than, say, the science fiction you like?
Created by a Canadian, Sydney Newman, the show launched in quaint old black and white in 1963. Forty-eight years later, it’s still going.
I was there for the first episode, just as I’ve been there for every episode since, as well as two blindingly fluorescent and largely terrible spin-off movies starring Peter Cushing, which got most of the mythology wrong, and a lesser TV movie that blew a hole in the franchise so big that it almost saw it off for good.
Over the years, I have witnessed the Doctor regenerate multiple times (which, ingeniously, happens whenever the actor playing him gets too sick or very bored, or doesn’t gel with the public and ratings start to tail off, and he needs to be replaced.) I’ve also bought into the lives of countless of his young traveling companions along the way, many of whom, when I was in my youth, made up for the friends I didn’t have in real life. The best by far was Sarah-Jane Smith in the 1970s.
I was a lonely, bullied, isolated child back then, someone who took refuge in TV as a means of escaping real world rejection and terror, and I remember vividly how the news that Elizabeth Sladen, who played Sarah-Jane, was quitting the show in 1976, affected me. It shook my faith in grown-ups at a profound molecular level. So much so that I had serious abandonment issues for a long while afterwards. And I’m not kidding about this. Even my mother’s death didn’t affect me a fraction as much as Sarah-Jane’s departure from the show. To a kid’s eyes, it was a tragedy. I felt like an orphan. Though even then, even as this strange relationship was playing out, I wasn’t unaware of how odd it was for a child to have such a level of commitment to something he absolutely knew was fake and just a drama. Didn’t matter. It became the sole focus of my week and my life. Everything I did seemed to be just filling in time while I waited for the next Doctor Who to come around.
As I said, the show originally aired in black and white, and stayed that way for years before finally upgrading. When it did, we unfortunately still had a black and white set at home, which was no use at all. So each week on a Saturday afternoon, this peculiarly distant kid would take the bus into Stockport town center to visit a store called Nield and Hardy, because they sold TVs there. And for half an hour he would stand, with shoppers and assistants staring at him wondering if someone should notify the authorities, intently watching Doctor Who play out on a new technology being touted as a sensational alternative to monochrome and the Next Big Thing: color.
Such was my attachment to, passion for, and love of, this amazing show.
Years later, the lonely, isolated kid, who’d by now grown up to become a lonely, isolated adult, moved from the north of England to London, where he figured he wouldn’t get beaten up so much, and where, by some miracle, he was given free access along with his job to the legendary home of Doctor Who - BBC Television Center. It was the most wonderful opportunity. Not only that, but I happened to live a few streets away (coincidentally, with a woman who’d actually worked as a production assistant on several episodes). From then on, I would go along on Sunday afternoons to the BBC, flash my pass at the security guard, but instead of going to the news department offices – which would have been a pointless mission, since news in those days only happened Monday to Friday, never at weekends – I took the lift downstairs to the Props Department, where the real TARDIS, the one used in the show, was kept….and I would play in it.
I’m not embarrassed to say this either. Many Sundays over many months, I played in the TARDIS.
I was 34 years old. (Okay, this bit is embarrassing. And quite sad.)
There was even a trip to Pinewood Studios arranged once, I remember, which is where the Peter Cushing movies were filmed. So of course their props department had a TARDIS too. And I played quite happily in that as well for maybe an hour or more, only to discover that, the very next day, the police box was taken out and burnt, as a way to reduce the number of unwanted props at the studio.
These days, I like to think I’m a lot more balanced and nowhere near as lonely or distant as I was then. But it was touch and go for a while. Obviously, though, when one has invested this much emotional and mental energy into something, one develops a somewhat proprietorial interest in its welfare. As a lifelong fan, you want those who have guardianship of it to understand what precious cargo is under their control and to show a high degree of care for it. You want them to respect it and love it the way you do. And you’re constantly on the alert for when they’re about to screw it up.
That’s why I’m writing this. I’m doing it as a long-term fan. A fan who sees Doctor Who heading down the wrong road, and doesn’t like it one bit. Not one bit, d’you hear?
How Doctor Who got hijacked by misguided people
Another great advantage of hanging out at BBC Television Center in the 80s was that you got to be within arm’s reach of so many famous and influential types. On the side, I’d been writing material for another great TV show - The Two Ronnies. But this was just one amazing series out of many. Virtually every big household favorite came from TV Center.
I recall once cornering a woman called Biddy Baxter, considered a legend in British television for creating and running the kids’ magazine show Blue Peter. Having grabbed her attention, I proceeded to tell her in mind-numbing detail how I thought Doctor Who had lost its way and was becoming a disaster and an embarrassment.
“Oh really? Why?” she asked. “What’s happened to it?”
Quite honestly, I was shocked that someone so eminent would give over a couple of hours of her busy day to hear me explain. But that was how people were back then – they listened. Took in all different viewpoints and embraced them.
At the time, the show was being produced by John Nathan-Turner, who, I told her, was single-handedly wrecking it by making one cretinous decision after another. For a start, he brought in the insufferable red-headed all-singing, all-screaming Bonnie Langford to be the Doctor’s assistant – a calamitous selection. He’d also decided at one point to get rid of the police box idea and let the TARDIS be another shape, shattering one of its most iconic characteristics. Plus, his choice of actors to play Doctors #6 and #7 was appallingly miscalculated, I felt. Number 6 was Colin Baker (who was distinctly unlikable in the role). Then, after he left, came Number 7, a Scottish comedian and mime artist called Sylvester McCoy (real name: Percy Kent-Smith), who, for reasons known only to himself, played the Doctor as a clown. Then, when that didn’t work, as a sinister bizarro man with evil intent, which didn’t work either.
Within a matter of years, it had become campy, ridiculous, cheap, and pointless. So it was hardly surprising, perhaps, that ratings fell into an abyss, as the show repeatedly missed its mark and went way off the rails. In the end, the unthinkable happened. The BBC cancelled it.
“They are completely missing the point of what the show is about,” I complained to Biddy, who made like she was genuinely interested, even though she must have been bored out of her mind.
“It’s about finding a secure place in a difficult, dangerous world. It’s about being in awe of the universe and adventurous in the exploration of it, but always having a safe spot you can run to when things get too dangerous. A spot where nobody can touch you, where you are in control. The TARDIS is a surrogate, albeit temperamental parent. That’s what it means to kids. The producer doesn’t understand that.”
Biddy, who no doubt realized that these were my own personal issues, not John Nathan-Turner’s, nevertheless assured me that what I was saying was valid and important. “I will tell him immediately,” she said. “Thank you for letting me know.”
And she hurried away. Possibly to alert Security.
Let’s fast-forward now to the present day. If you have a time machine, go ahead and use it. The rest of us will resort to a heading in bold letters.
How Doctor Who then got hijacked by smart people
In 2005, Doctor Who was rebooted under Russell T. Davies as a much darker, more troubling show. He took the whole thing very seriously, giving it a breadth, depth, and overall scope that made anything that had gone before seem as light and fluffy as lint from a tumbledryer. His best decision of all was to hire a young actor called David Tennant to take the lead.
Up to then, the title of Best Doctor Ever had gone to the 4th incarnation, Tom Baker, who was a mind-blowing iconoclast in the role. But Tennant was different. He raised the bar a hundredfold by making the alien Time Lord more human than ever, blowing previous perceptions and expectations out of the water, bringing to the show a pathos and soul that could have you laughing one minute and weeping the next.
A trust developed. There was a sadness and vulnerability to this character that we all identified with. Up until then I’d cared very much about the show. But when Tennant took over, I noticed that I started caring about him. He brought resonance and humanity and meaning to this hitherto crazy character that somehow went way beyond what it required. He grounded the Time Lord in verifiable feelings. His needs became our imperatives. The Doctor was a sad, distant, haunted, lonely man, we discovered – ah! – someone who couldn’t be happy for long. In playing with our emotions in such a broad, complicated way, this guy turned a show I’d loved as a kid, but which had become increasingly trivial and superficial, into something of importance, something of depth; something fascinating and gripping that was worth watching again.
Then Tennant left before he could become typecast, which was bad news. And I, like many others, experienced a real sense of loss all over again.
His departure episode was a little overplayed, I thought, but still managed to move me as much as any modern dramatic piece ever had. I didn’t want him to go, same way I didn’t want Sarah-Jane Smith to go in my teens. Though a middle-aged man by this time, I felt a pang of the same abandonment issues.
With David Tennant leaving, Russell T. Davies went too, and this was the really bad news. He’d shot his bolt, taken it as far as he could, he figured, so he handed over stewardship to Steven Moffat, a clever man who you’d think would be a natural choice, given that he wrote possibly the best Doctor Who episode ever, called ‘Blink’ (which, bizarrely, hardly featured the Doctor at all). However, he also wrote what was, to my mind, one of the very worst sitcoms ever, Coupling, which I thought was horribly unfunny and lame in ways that mere words cannot explain (unless you use unfunny and lame) and whose U.S. adaptation tanked after four episodes. This was not a good sign.
At the same time, David Tennant’s successor was named as 26-year old Matt Smith, a man deemed by many to be way too young and lacking the wisdom of a guy who is supposed to have lived many lifetimes. Indeed, at the time that I was ruining an afternoon of Biddy Baxter’s life by regaling her with my abandonment theories, Smith was five years old. And Karen Gillan, his current assistant, was barely a foetus.
David Tennant was the Doctor, bringing a complicated span of layers to the part, whereas Matt Smith is merely playing him, I feel. Not only that, but he’s playing him as a manic, ADD-afflicted, wisecracking for no reason, run-around-saying-things-faster-than-the-audience-can-catch them kind of uppity schoolboy. He’s taken the natural smarts of the character and his other-worldly eccentricity, and made them virtually all there is, top and bottom. Plus, the TARDIS is no longer a safe harbor and place of refuge, it’s become a traveling spa, one that has a swimming pool and which keeps breaking down and exploding or catching fire. To my mind, the producers have blown any mystique the show might have had right out of the water.
As a result, this eleventh regeneration of the Doctor led to a degeneration of the entire show. It immediately became silly and soulless, oftentimes played only for laughs. A series of dizzy sight gags, a droll excursion into absurdity.
Are there moments when it all comes together? Why, sure. Is it fascinating sometimes and worthy of our attention? Most definitely. But if the show doesn’t take the emotional side of things very seriously, why should we? That’s what I’m saying.
Nowadays, the peril the Doctor and his companions find themselves in seems wholly unreal a lot of the time, and therefore unmoving. There’s implausibility at every turn. You find yourself shouting at the TV, “Oh, come on, that would never happen!” Even though you know that none of this would ever happen anyway, because it’s utter fiction. That aside, I’ve reached a point where I honestly don’t care if these people survive or not. I’m not involved in their lives. They’re just actors playing characters.
A Separate Heading
People constantly refer to Moffat as a genius. His ideas are rarely short of clever, convoluted, and technically brilliant, and his past scripts have been extraordinary. For that he deserves his weight in accolades and thanks. But what use cleverness and brilliance and accolades and thanks, I say, if your show has no soul and has become a smug, bloated, overcomplicated, ludicrous farce? Bigger on the outside than it is on the inside? Isn’t that a tragedy?
Here are some reviews I read recently:
“Noisy, repetitive and obnoxious. The… sensory overload is somehow blindingly dull. The barrage of onscreen overstimulation will keep kids glued to their seats, but won’t make them care about or cherish the characters.” (The Diva Review)
“The action grows wearisome as it grinds on, and…becomes a succession of dazzling set pieces devoid of simple feelings.” Wall Street Journal.
No, wait! Those are reviews of The Adventures of Tintin.
And guess who wrote that.
There was another review I saw, this time in The Guardian newspaper, in which journalist Nicholas Lezard says, “Coming out of the…film, I found myself, for a few seconds, too stunned and sickened to speak… [T]he sense of violation was so strong that it felt as though I had witnessed a rape. I use this comparison not as a provocation or to cause unnecessary offence: I am using it in honour of a very good joke made by an episode of South Park, in which the cartoon’s children watch the final Indiana Jones film and are so traumatised by what they have seen that they go round to the police station and try to get Spielberg and his colleagues charged with the crime. “What did they do to poor Indy…?’… As it is, the film has turned a subtle, intricate and beautiful work of art into the typical bombast of the modern blockbuster, Tintin for morons.”
Now, of course, many hands went into the making of Tintin, it’s not just Moffat, and there’s no telling how much of his original script got lost on the way to the finished film, because other writers were brought in later to fine-tune it, so we need to be careful here, and also as fair as we can be to the man. Plus, when I saw the movie I liked it very much. There were some dumb, quippy parts, but generally speaking it was highly engaging. Even so, Lezard’s view about the film applies to how I see Moffat’s version of Doctor Who. I have a sense of violation.
Many times, the stories play with our minds now, not our hearts. It’s smart, fast, bright, and trying very, very hard to be engaging. A Rubik’s Cube of intricate components, slickly delivered and not impossible to unravel, obviously, but lacking the incentive to make you want to. The show is cerebral and shallow suddenly, rather than emotional in ways we can relate to, as the human component gets wedged into the tiny gaps between wisecracks. And even when there is emotion, when people cry at a loss or out of fear, it doesn’t touch us. Not me, at least. It’s too often fleeting and contrived. Consequently, I find I’m not involved. Not the way I used to be under Tennant and Davies’ stewardship. Why? Because I don’t care about these latest people. I don’t recognize them as real. They’re quirky caricatures. They mean nothing to me.
Where once the series was packed with mystery and awe and presence and took its time to breathe, the new episodes are glib and fanciful, filled with sudden left turns and surprises we can scarcely follow, because there was barely any build-up to them. Oh, Amy’s pregnant suddenly. Sure – right. Ah, River is, out of the blue, Amy’s daughter now, and simultaneously Amy’s best friend from her school days. Of course she is! Whatever you say. But it’s meaningless, don’t you see? Doctor Who in its present incarnation has become a series of long-term plot-points connected by one-liners and “situations.” For some reason, the producers seem to have it pinned, not as a quality drama that spans generations, but as a science fiction sitcom in space with a few serious bits thrown in. I can’t tell you how depressed that makes me feel. Whenever anyone in the cast or crew talks about a new script, they seem to begin, “Oh, it was so funny…” When they talk about a performer on the show: “Oh, he was just so funny….” Plus a bunch more adjectives. That word comes up again and again, though: funny. Why is this amazing drama suddenly all about being funny?
There’s a more important issue, however. In previous incarnations of the character, the stories have always involved exploring planets and historical or future time periods, saving lives, winning battles, outwitting enemies, whereas under Moffat’s charge, the show has become about the Doctor himself. He is the whole focus. Who he is, what he wears, how fast he can speak. Everything boils down to him – his problems, his death, his history, him him him. And that, in my eyes, betrays everything the show’s about.
My partner is American. He discovered Doctor Who during the Tennant years and became hooked. We’d watch it together and he would marvel at the intricacy and the mythology and the sheer inventiveness and craft that went into every episode. Now, too much of what was good has been eaten away. He often walks out during the show, saying, “They’re losing it, aren’t they?”
And he’s right. They’re losing it. And they’re losing me. And I don’t think they see it at all.
My guess is that, somewhere between seasons, an expert with a graph and a Powerpoint presentation showed up in Moffat’s office and said, “Look, we’ve figured out that if you switch the intended demographic of the show away from older, established fans, and aim it more at kids, adolescents, sci-fi geeks, and the totally undiscerning who’ll watch anything as long as it’s fast and has running and explosions in it, the emotional quality might drop, but we’ll draw bigger numbers. Plus we can then sell it to kids, adolescents, sci-fi geeks, and the totally undiscerning in America too.”
This wouldn’t surprise me in the least. It’s how TV works nowadays a lot of the time. And, sure enough, ratings are rising nicely, though that’s no measure of the quality of a series. Look at how many truly lowest-common-denominator trashy shows are top-rated in America.
“Oh, and while you’re at it,” the expert with the graph must have said, “be a poppet and update the design of the Daleks and the TARDIS, would you? That way we can get the geeks to buy the merchandise all over again.”
I tweeted Steven Moffat recently on a whim, reminding him of the legacy he was carrying and how I thought he was spoiling something wonderful. “Glibness,” I told him, “is a sin in drama.” Alas, he’s no Biddy Baxter; he didn’t want to hear. He tweeted back, snarkily, “Okay, I’ll axe it immediately. Happy now?” Or something like that. I replied, “Don’t axe it, improve it. Take it more seriously”, and was promptly showered in abuse by irate Whovians, as they call themselves: fanboys and girls who are obsessive, like me, but without half the objectivity. They tend to cream themselves over Doctor Who no matter what, to the point where they’ll forgive the most major transgressions. I know that feeling, and it’s tempting to be that way, but it doesn’t help.
The third episode this season, about pirates, was a clunker, filled with moments of jarring implausibility and numerous attempts at jokes, the likes of which I’ve not seen since the Sylvester McCoy years. Quite a few sharks were jumped that night, and Moffat was justifiably pilloried for daring to put out such rubbish.
The fourth episode was penned by comic book writer Neil Gaiman, and was a good deal better, even haunting in some ways. It featured a junkyard of old dismantled TARDISes and the voice and soul of the TARDIS itself that had become locked into the body of a woman. Oddly, though, my partner still walked out. The episode, he complained, was unfocused, manic, and failed to captivate his interest. There was a lot of shouting, a lot of running about, some explosions, a lot of fast talking, and some one-liners that were meant to be funny. But in the end, where was the heart? (Well, okay, there was a bit of heart – but not enough, d’you hear?)
Despite the fact that the companion Rory died (which he does in most episodes), and Amy cried, and so did the Doctor, and therefore it should have been moving – it wasn’t. Tennant would have had me sobbing into a pillow. Matt Smith, the uppity schoolboy, left me cold. He acts the part, but somehow, to me, he doesn’t convey the truth of the role. This is slowly undermining the visceral power of the show to move and inspire and shock, turning it instead into a series of jokes and postures, dancing and Pythonesque prancing, crazy stunts and wrap-around conundrums. Plenty of brain stuff, but very little heart stuff. And it’s the heart stuff that counts. Ask Russell T. Davies. That guy knew a thing or two.
These are not exactly the Sylvester McCoy years all over again, but the show fails in serious ways, not the least of which is how hung up it is on its own cleverness. A hit in America suddenly, it’s become too big for its reboots.
I’ve seen giant billboards on Sunset Boulevard here in Hollywood advertising it, and I can scarcely believe how far it’s come. Yet I fear the extent of its popularity is starting to strangle the last breath of plausibility from the concept in its efforts to please a specific youth demographic. For the Easter episode in the UK, ratings apparently plunged 1.5 million. That’s staggering, and worrying. It’s like learning that a dear old friend has just received a horrible cancer diagnosis. They may look fine and tell you they feel okay, but on the inside you know they’re slowly dying, one bunch of cells at a time.
That’s how I feel about Doctor Who now. We keep watching, because it’s on and it’s there. Doesn’t mean it’s good or that we haven’t noticed the obvious – that, one bunch of cells at a time, the spirit is dying. It all makes me very sad.
Since this post first appeared, I’ve heard from many annoyed Matt Smith fans, telling me, “If you don’t like it, don’t watch it. Go get a life.” I consider that to be sound advice. Maybe it’s not a matter of whether my favorite show is better or worse, more that I’ve simply outgrown it. It is a kid’s program after all, and I am no longer that lonely, bullied, unhappy, distant child I was when Doctor Who started and my imagination needed somewhere to run to and hide each week. Nowadays, I believe I’m upbeat and well-rounded, and certainly very contented with my life. Maybe that’s why, for the first time, I honestly don’t care what the future holds for the Doctor and his jokey, glib chums.
So tonight I am doing something almost as unthinkable as when the BBC canceled the show in the 1980s – I am canceling it myself. Off the Season Pass list of my TiVo.
Friends, I have an official statement. Please gather round.
I – meaning me – formally declare that I am no longer a fan of this series. Thank you, people who make the show, for providing me with almost five decades of compulsive enjoyment. But it’s time. And I need some space. Like a middle-aged Trekkie finally realizing what a total doofus he must seem, and hanging up his James T. Kirk Starfleet uniform for good, I, after 48 years of love and adoration, have decided that I am all grown-up now and ready once and for all to let go of Doctor Who, as I did with Joe 90, Absolutely Fabulous, Monty Python, the cartoon Tintin, and many others, and not only move on with my life, but actually get one.
With that, then, I’d like to bid you all a very good night.
Okay, TiVo, do your worst.
TV Swami – he say NO to Doctor Who for all kinds of entirely valid reasons.
[UPDATE May 16th 2011]. After a little light toing and froing on a Doctor Who fansite, the gist of which was that they believe the show is the best it’s ever been, while I think it’s technically the best, but emotionally failing us in a big way, Steven Moffat himself pitched in with a snippy, “The ratings, reviews, and audience feedback are all superb. Disagree without me.” Needless to say, I disagree. He’s right, though – I overstepped the mark. We shouldn’t have included him in the tweets. I’ve said my piece. Discussion’s over.
[UPDATE: May 22nd 2011] Here’s something strange. Yesterday, I was flicking through the channels and inadvertently came upon Doctor Who. It was the Rebel Flesh episode. Out of habit more than anything else, I naturally began watching it. After 48 years, it’s a hard commitment to drop, obviously. But you know what? Everything I said in the blog post applied to this episode too. It was dreadful. So poorly written and so emotionally uninvolving that after 20 minutes I fell asleep – which has NEVER happened before during this show. Furthermore, I have absolutely no interest in going back to find out how things worked out in the remainder of the program. That takes some doing, believe me. Seems I was right – the spell is broken after all. We’re done, the Doctor and I.
[UPDATE: July 22nd 2011] Private Eye is running articles about chaos behind the scenes at the BBC in Wales where Doctor Who has been produced. According to them, a couple of problem-causing producers were let go in haste. Don’t know if it’s true, but if it is….well, I hate to say I told you so…. Something has gone very, very wrong with the show. It is now a silly, fatuous mess that has shot right off the rails.
[UPDATE: September 5th 2011:] Over the summer I read some encouraging comments emerging from ComicCon, that Doctor Who might improve. It was going to become darker and more serious as the year went on, went the rumors. Ah, I thought, finally the message is sinking in. So I tuned in to the first episode, Let’s Kill Hitler, hoping it would win me back. Really, really hoping. But – no. Oh my lordy, was it dreadful!! DREADFUL. The worst one since the dire pirates episode in the Spring, for which the show deservedly got a public drubbing. The story was, again, all over the place. An out-of-control whirligig of plot points and jokes, always trying way too hard, desperate to be clever, seeming not to care whether we followed it or not, and filled with manic shouting and running about and locking Hitler in a cupboard. Rubbish. Mental masturbation. And, I would respectfully contend, little more than the Executive Producer’s New Clothes.
That said, the next episode, Night Terrors, written by Mark Gatiss, was considerably better. Considerably. And yes, before you say it, I’m back watching it again – damn! It may not have been scary enough – story: little kid is frightened by monsters in his cupboard at night. Turns out he’s responsible for turning everyone he’s scared of into big, stiff, giggling dolls) – and of course I had to fast-forward through a lot of the dialogue, because everything’s a quip still – they’ve learned nothing on that score. But overall, it was better. Better and more engrossing, and very reminiscent of classic Doctor Who stories from the past. It had structure, good acting, and thankfully much less of the producer’s heavy-heavy ‘I have an overarching grand plan and here’s a meaningless clue to what it is’ plot-pointing, which is dragging the series to its knees – for me at least.
One of the best things I’ve discovered is that I can watch an hourlong show in about 25 minutes with my thumb on the FF button. So I skip the dross, kangaroo hop over the silly dialogue that infects everything now, and still stay broadly abreast, so that, hopefully, when a better team is put in charge of the series later on, I will be able to rejoin it and not feel as if I’ve missed too much. That’s the plan anyway.
[UPDATE: September 10th 2011]. Having established my particular ground zero last week with Night Terrors, which involved a new way of watching the show – mainly on fast-forward, stopping only for the action and skipping the horrible quippy dialogue, I applied the same technique to this week’s episode: The Girl Who Waited. Only, here’s the thing: I didn’t have to fast-forward at all. It was great. Really. Very enjoyable. They couldn’t help throwing in a few stupid lines of dialogue along the way – seems there’s no expunging those; someone on high must like them – but I found the story gripping, the execution of it fantastic, and once again it reminded me of the Doctor Who of old.
Seems the complaints to Moffat didn’t go unheeded. Not that I was the only one, mind; there must have been tens of thousands. Is it crazy of me to think that maybe my words on Twitter may have struck a chord at just the right moment? How fantastic. Because here it is, suddenly – a far better, more focused program that’s actually watchable for once in the longest time. Good job all round.
(I have amended the above para, BTW, after it was pointed out, quite rightly. that my ego had run away with me. Apparently, I mistakenly gave the impression that, due to my complaints alone, Doctor Who changed course, which is nonsense. (See comment below). But I do think waves of unrest most likely forced them to reconsider the tone as they went along. I hope so. That would be democracy in action then. However the current improvement was arrived at, the shows are better than what went before, for which we are very thankful. We are left hoping that things keep on improving.)
[UPDATE: September 17th 2011] The God Complex. Oh dear. I take it all back. Seems they learned nothing after all.
This episode had its moments. A few. Love the clown on the bed, for instance. And David Walliams’ eye movements. And the claustrophobic corridors. And the The Shining parallels. And the underlying dichotomy of faith and fear battling for supremacy. But otherwise, it lapsed once again from its slow path back to greatness, packed as it was with the usual raft of glib, needless one-liners, spots of drama school acting, and bursts of rapid cutting and weird camera angles, topped off with the ultimate confection: a man-in-a-costume minotaur monster with a papier-mâché head, sort of. Oh, and quick left turn: Amy and Rory departed from the show. Suddenly. Maybe. This, despite the fact that they’re supposed to be worried that the Doctor is about to get shot and up to a certain point wanted to prevent that happening, but now seem to have lost interest, same way we have. At any rate, no mention was made of that.
Anything could happen now. There seem to be no rules any more. It’s like someone went to a neighborhood non sequitur sale and bought everything they had.
On the positive side – and this is huge, so brace yourself, mateys – I saw glimmers here and there of a Matt Smith-style Doctor that I quite like. A-ha! Surprised? I’m serious. Wasn’t much. Looks in the eyes, twists of the head, tantalizing glances and intonation. There’s definitely something. If only the script weren’t plastered wall to wall with quips, I could eventually find myself warming to him, I swear.
Alas, it’s probably too late. The damage is done.
[UPDATE: September 25th 2011] Closing Time. Words fail me. Except for unwatchable. One of the most excruciatingly horrible episodes ever produced. The sitcom in space continues to nosedive.
[UPDATE: October 1st 2011] The Wedding of River Song. Usual jumble, jammed with improbabilities and conjuring tricks that fooled the eye but left the heart begging for something tangible to go at. There were moments, definite moments, when it came close to redeeming itself. Not enough, though, and not in ways that felt truly satisfactory. The Doctor didn’t die. Why? Because there were two of him, one inside the other.
This was the season finale, and everyone in our house is mightily relieved it’s over. What an unsettling, uneven mishmash experience this has been.
[UPDATE: December 25th 2011] The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe. I was about to coin a word – mofftsturbation, to describe a self-flagellating, full-of-itself pleasure ride whose faux cleverness pleases only the person who wrote it and nobody else. Moreover, I’d read on Twitter that people in the UK were hating this year’s Christmas special. Horrible, they said. Self-indulgent, they said. So, with my thumb on the fast-forward button, I sat down to watch. And you know what? I actually enjoyed it. I did. Yes, it was needlessly quippy, and yes it had sitcom moments that didn’t sit easily at all. (Moffat never learns). And yes, my partner walked out, disgusted at how stupid it was.
But then, almost like a Christmas miracle, it got better, and I actually began to admire the inventiveness of it. Kid opens Xmas present early, finds that one side of it is in the house, the other side opens up into a magical snowy forest, where people made of wood are desperate for help from acid rain. Sorry, haters, and sorry too to those who expected me to hate it as well, but I thought it was fine. Better than fine, a rather nice way to fill Christmas Day evening.
I quite shocked myself.
In seven days’ time, coinciding with the end of my BBC TV review slot on Radio 5 Live, I will be ceasing to watch TV completely. So there will be no more Doctor Who updates when it returns at the end of 2012. But at least my favorite show ever went out on a favorable note. Thanks for that, at least.
[UPDATE: September 1st 2012] Asylum of the Daleks. It’s back. New season of the show I’m not watching any more.
I remember the very first Dalek episode that ever went out, on a Saturday night in the 1960s, and being scared out of my wits. There are no words that adequately describe what it was like to be a child of that era watching this robotic creature make its debut appearance on Britain’s TV screens. So it’s odd, almost fifty years later, to be sitting on a Saturday night, albeit in a different country, and watching the Doctor continue to battle that original enemy.
And I have to say it was….brilliant. That’s it. Riveting, imaginative, scary, unpredictable, and for once not too quippy. Well, a little bit quippy. Bearably quippy. Eccentric reactions and one-liners passing for humor. But not enough to spoil it, the way they did in previous series. Without quips, the drama actually means something. And this episode proved it. Maybe Stephen Moffat is finally getting the message.
I want to gush. Really gush. But I’d better not. They have this habit of doing one amazing one, then completely ruining it the very next week – “Dinosaurs!……On a ssssspaceship!” – so you’ll forgive me if I hold back. But I’m thrilled and optimistic. Maybe these guys have managed to turn this around.
LOVE the bit where the girl who’s really a Dalek looks at the camera and says, “Remember me”, by the way. Nice touch. This is, of course, Jenna-Louise Coleman who, in the Christmas episode, becomes the Doctor’s new companion. Sadly, she makes quips aaaalllllll the time, making her this Doctor’s Bonnie Langford. I have a real bad feeling about that. But for now, I’m trying not to think about it.
I seriously don’t watch TV any more, but this, if it stays this good, could lure me back.
[Update September 8th 2012] Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.
Well, I was right, wasn’t I? They couldn’t keep the quality consistent even for two consecutive weeks! What a slap in the face.
Apparently, this episode was due to run first, but I guess someone at the BBC must have taken Moffat to one side and pointed out how unutterably horrible it was, and they went with his superior Asylum of the Daleks last week instead.
Everything I wrote above about the failings of recent seasons is encapsulated in the Dinosaurs episode. Shallow, quippy, uninvolving, rambling, evoking negligible awe from assistants at seeing dinosaurs, being on spaceships, meeting Egyptian queen…and so on and so on. It’s as if the writer, Chris Chibnall – who should never be given another episode of this show to write EVER, in my opinion (too late; he has another coming up soon. D’oh!) – sat down and felt he had to jam almost every line with something clever or jokey, never once realizing, I suppose – and nobody had the guts or the heart to tell him – that it simply doesn’t work. It wrecks the show and leaves us numb with disinterest.
All credit to the effects guys for holding their end up. They do a sterling job week on week, only to be let down too often by the ceaseless prancing jokery. Thanks to them, and some deft handling towards the end, the last five minutes held my attention. But otherwise, just more of the same ADD nonsense. Imagine how much money, time, effort, acting, writing, editing, producing, and whatever else went into this clunker, only to result in something so fast-forwardingly mediocre that the word unwatchable is a compliment compared to how I really feel about it.
One of the worst so far.
[Update: September 15th 2012] A Town Called Mercy:
My partner gave up halfway through. Said, “Doctor Hooey” and went to bed.
Me, I struggled to the end. It would have been so much better had the first 15 minutes not been chockful of smartass quips that kinda ruined the mood. They simply don’t learn, do they? We want solid drama, they’re still making sitcoms. But once it settled in, this tale of a Wild West town under siege from an alien cyborg gunslinger was interesting enough. I mean, it must have been, because I didn’t fast forward once.
[Update: September 22nd 2012] The Power of Three:
[Update: September 29th 2012] The Angels Take Manhattan:
Grabbed me, lost me due to excessive quipping, then grabbed me again. Best one yet, though. Magnificent. Well done.
Seems like the show’s only good now when Moffat himself writes it. This corrected everything – almost – that was wrong with the show in the past couple of years, and made up a lot of ground. Clever, gripping, emotional, meaningful, intriguing, and whatever else. I was delighted, impressed, and very, very satisfied. Even my partner loved every second.
Also, the best part: we’re finally rid of Amy and Rory, our modern-day Bonnie Langfords, who quipped about everything, were impressed by nothing, and generally annoyed the hell out of me every time they were on-screen.
[UPDATE: March 30th 2013] After the extremely subpar Christmas epsiode – The Snowmen – which I honestly couldn’t even be bothered to review, it was so indescribably lame, I now turn to the beginning of the second half of Season 7: The Bells of Saint John.
Not bad. New assistant, newly-designed Tardis interior – just like that, out of the blue (box) – some story about souls being harvested on the Internet, featuring the villain from the Christmas epsiode, and lots and lots of running around and silliness. The best thing I can say is that I was doing a coffee enema while I watched it, and it made the process slip by a little faster.
[UPDATE: April 7th 2013] The Rings of Akhaten. Doctor Who finally grabs back its crown as the premier drama series emerging from the UK. We waited a long time for this – an episode from the Moffat stable that’s worthy of the heights attained by his predecessor, Russell T. Davies.
It helped that Murray Gold supplied a new stirring tune for it. But more than that, this episode actually had emotional impact. Hurrah – finally they get it. The script and acting were meaningful, moving, the climax was a tear-jerker, because now you’re actually starting to care again for these people, after a couple of wasted seasons.
Sure, there were the needless quips, but now that the Ponds have gone, this new assistant Clara has a depth to her that makes even the quips seem worth tolerating to get to the meaty stuff. And yes, the beginning set-up dragged on for an age. I’ve never liked watching child actors, except maybe for Jack Wild in the 70s. They’re usually just fresh from the British stage-school sausage machine, with that public school accent that’s beyond annoying, and the kid in this adventure with the cat-scratches Sellotaped to her face, was the same. After ten minutes, I wanted to tell her, “Very nice, kid, now be a poppet, go and stand over there and shut up while the grown-ups handle this.”
Still, the overall impression was magnificent, I thought. I’m one very happy viewer.
[UPDATE: April 14th 2013] Cold War It’s weird how these shows, in their desperate rush to be quippy, lose so much gravitas. This episode, set aboard a Russian submarine, which has a cargo of frozen Ice Warrior in the hold, which subsequently escapes, had moments that cried out to be taken to the next level. Instead, they fell back on smartass comments and sidestepping the horror that would accompany bodies torn apart by a monster, or being stalked by an alien in a confined space. Yes, I know it’s a kids’ show, but what’s the point of setting up a premise, then not following through on it? And not once either, but a dozen times.
So…good, but no good.
[UPDATE: April 23rd 2013] Hide. Good. Liked it very much.
It’s weird too how, so often, these episodes are ruined by the Doctor himself. Example: what began as a great haunted house story, and quite frightening, was demolished by a knock at the door and, oh look, “It’s that buffoon with the floppy hair and the non-stop flapping mouth, and his chick companion who talks faster than he does.” Such a shame. The fact that, after all this time, Moffat and his crew still seem to see this program as a sitcom in space is disturbing. Just shows how clever people can also be quite dim to their own mistakes at times.
That said, it was a bit confusing, and the pay-off of the monsters wanting to have sex across the centuries was dafter than most pay-offs I’ve seen, but I thought it held together well otherwise, and the haunted house spookiness was outstanding. Good job, SFX Guys.
[UPDATE: APRIL 28th 2013] Journey to the Centre of the Tardis I feel terrible saying this, but I hated this episode. Not for the usual reasons, but because, despite its best efforts to be constantly interesting, it was utterly boring. Tons of running, lots of twists, monsters running around growling, endless corridors etc etc…but somehow very dull. I can’t explain it. I actually started doing emails halfway through and lost interest. The whole thing could have been covered in 30 minutes, I’m sure.
It was one of those episodes where the writers invent new stuff about the TARDIS all over the place, stuff that’s never been mentioned before in 50 years, just to fit the story. Spout gibberish, wrap it in more gibberish, and the resulting humbug accounts for the improbable and for loose-end plot points. Why are there several control rooms all at once? Oh, you know…they’re echoes, breaches in time, the core is leaking…blah blah. And when it’s all destroyed….you can fix it by dusting it, and all’s well in ten minutes.
I’m ashamed to note that, having lived away from Britain for a decade and a half, I honestly couldn’t understand 90% of what the black actors were saying. Their accents were impenetrable to me. Clara, though, continues to be fantastic. Let me say that. Jenna-Louise Coleman is one of the best choices they’ve made in a long while, and redeems a lot that’s gone wrong of late.
[UPDATE May 7th 2013] The Crimson Horror This had the feel of a classic Doctor Who about it in some ways – time-travel, secret Victorian factory where people go in but don’t ever come out, run by wicked woman with lobster-like mutant welded to her chest….it was twisted enough and interesting enough to be quite a good episode, However, the whole thing was spoilt – and I mean totally spoilt – by the ridiculous comedy elements in between the good parts.
For some reason I will never understand, the producers have decided that sticking comedy interludes into Doctor Who will make the show better. It doesn’t. It ruins it. Those are the moments I get bored and my mind starts to drift. Inwardly, I’m yelling, “Get back to the story, you morons, quit trying to devalue your brand with this tripe.” All it says is, ‘we don’t have enough confidence in what we’re doing to go for it full-throttle.’ So they water it down with alien characters slotted needlessly into the show, trying to be funny.
This is a repeated problem since Moffat took over. He won’t be told. He seems adamant in retaining the sitcom element, and when you have an actor who’s playing the lead character as a prancing clown, it’s hard to take anything about the series seriously. I continue to be disappointed. And I can’t be the only one.
This week, the BBC appointed a new co-executive producer to work on the series. With any luck, this means that Moffat is planning his own departure. Personally, I can’t wait for that day to arrive.
[UPDATE: May 14th 2013] A Nightmare in Silver Doctor Who Magazine posted a tweet to its readers, saying, ‘Almost nobody’s emailed us about this latest episode. Why not?”
Let me tell you why not: it was horrible.
It featured the Doctor playing chess with himself – for so long, though, that I started checking my emails. A better actor could have pulled this off maybe, but Matt Smith seemed to need a stick-on silver tattoo on his face so that we could tell which one of him was which. Good guy, bad guy. Whimsical voice, harsh voice. Whimsical voice, harsh voice. Back and forth, back and forth.
I liked the cybermites – lovely idea. Liked the midget emperor too, played by Warwick Davis, who’s a very good, subtle performer, it turns out. But that’s about it. The rest: lots of quips – horrible. Lots of running around – horrible. But worst of all was the acting. Oh lordy. Now that this show is officially a sitcom, not a drama, it probably doesn’t matter how well anyone acts, because it’s always going to be subpar – if the producers don’t take it seriously, why should we? But it’s a shame, because this episode was almost amdram in places, and embarrassingly so.
Worst offenders: the two kids. OMFG. Did anyone tell them they were meant to be playing characters?
Stage-school kids with their phony stilted voices are always annoying anyway, but in this case their personalities didn’t even ring true. Okay, so two children get to travel through time and space and land in a cosmic amusement park on a different planet. Wow! There’s not a kid in existence that wouldn’t go nuts at that and become impossibly hyperactive if it happened to him or her. But not these two. They couldn’t have seemed more bored by the whole idea. One shrugged – called the TARDIS stupid, in fact – while the other remained largely expressionless. But of course - because they were only in a TV studio surrounded by the crew and wooden sets. Nothing to boggle the mind there.
Blame the writer – an off-his game Neil Gaiman – or blame the director, doesn’t matter. But the end result was quite appalling, I thought. A couple of startling moments, but otherwise one for the Rubbish Archives. Turns out, on June 27th, Gaiman will be making a public appearance very near my home. I’ve a good mind to go there and tell him to his face that this was a low point. The Doctor’s Wife – high point; A Nightmare in Silver – low point.
Next week’s episode is the season finale. Thank goodness. I can’t take much more of this. I find I’m only watching now to see if it gets any worse. I’m seldom disappointed.
UPDATE: June 1st 2013: The Name of the Doctor. I saw it two weeks ago and already I’ve forgotten what happened. But I do remember being interested enough not to write emails during it. So that’s good, right?
The red herring at the end of having John Hurt show up was great, but then pushed right over the top when they slammed a portentous title over it, like a Monty Python skit, declaring him to be The Doctor. Designed to be intriguing – and who doesn’t like a bit of intrigue? – but a complete genre switch for the show, done on a whim.
The reason I’m writing today, though, is because FINALLY Matt Smith has announced he’s leaving once the 50th anniversary episode has been shown. What a relief. There’s going to be some car-door slamming in the streets of Los Angeles tonight, I can tell you (to quote the real Monty Python). Here’s the story. I am, needless to say, very, very excited. Let’s hope they get it right next time and we can forget these last four years as an aberration that never happened.