Bigger Inside Than Out: The Attraction -and the Peril- of 'Doctor Who'
I was discussing the Doctor Who finale 'The Wedding of River Song’ (first broadcast in October 2011) with a friend and we agreed that the series was growing a little tiring after a while, constantly focusing on the Doctor and the ‘mystery’ of him. We wished we could just get in the Tardis, save the world and get back in the Tardis, like back in the ‘good old days’ (we were thinking of the very good, but very old, days of Patrick Troughton’s Doctor. We are very old fans).
Modern Who has been excpetionally good too at times, of course. We both loved Stephen Moffat’s 'Blink' episode, for example, but she wondered if he was being a bit too clever in that story, perhaps.
I had more mixed feelings including a little relief watching 'The Wedding of River Song’, because I was afraid through that series that Moffat was steering the show towards the rocks. Some of the earlier episodes were so complex and basically undramatic (for various technical reasons) that I found myself 'switching off' emotionally and I thought this was foreshadowing a series and serious catastrophe. Ratings have dropped since Russell T. Davies left and things looked perilous; Davies was good at grounding even the most outlandish moments in real human drama, tragic or comic. Moffat delights in plots so convoluted that fantasy disappears up its own artifice while character and humanity become sideshows.
This finale provided many cool moments (too many to list, but Amy appearing out of the mist wearing an eye-patch has to rate for something) and backdrops which were engaging on a different level, plus, at that time, it seemed to handle the central misdirection of the show and thereby open the door to a fresh new era.
By that I mean that for too long now the show has been about the Doctor himself and his ever-growing role in the universe, to the point where the character had become god-like, a living myth, whose shadow fell across every plotline and episode. I hankered after the old days when the Doctor himself was an untouched mystery, when the Tardis simply arrived, had an adventure and then left. For many years -six, in fact (imagine that!)- we didn't know anything at all about the Doctor- and we didn't need to know. That central unknown lay at the core of the show, lending strength to even the most tepid storyline.
Now it's become 'The Doctor Show' and that has been detrimental, I think.
Yes, I know that in 'The Wedding of River Song’ we were left with the question of The Question ('Doctor Who?') and while that seemed to suggest even more burrowing down into fundamentals that should stay buried, the hint that the Doctor would 'return to the shadows' gave me hope that the power of the show's original format would re-assert itself and that we might be able to look forward to more exciting stuff than of late.
Was that what happened? Well, yes and no. The show has produced great delights since -Matt Smith could energise just about any story, but since he’s left we have had gems like ‘Listen’ and the majority of Season 9 has worked. But it still lacks that vital thing which Davies made sure it had, but which has faded somewhat: the built-in bridge for the non-fan; the real human drama for the viewer who wasn’t into all the geeky fan references; the walking doorway back into the real world. This has usually been largely the Doctor’s companion. Clara, being somewhat an artificial construct, has made it worse (though Coleman is exceptional and magnetic to watch).
I’m a geeky fan of the references as much as anyone, but if we don’t get that bridge soon, the show will have a recurrence of the illness which almost proved fatal towards the end of the ‘80s: if you like, its own chameleon circuit will malfunction and it won’t be able to blend in to the reality of the viewer anymore. It’s not likely that it will ever perish again -the geeky fans now form a self-supporting constituency- but it won’t grow.
And that would be a great pity.
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-Grant P. Hudson is the founder of Clarendon House Publications. Download a free catalogue here.