Up until recently, I had believed that every Doctor Who fan was in some type of ecstatic love/dream state, ready to follow Matt Smith, Steven Moffat, and the rest of the merry TARDIS crew into whatever series 7 had to bring. It wasn’t until the mysterious scandal of the Moffat twitter deletion (one blog’s heading read “The Man Who Destroyed Doctor Who Left Twitter”) that I realized that the Internet vs. Steven Moffat had actually been… well… happening.
\\Beware…long post ahead//
Let me clarify two things: First, this post has very little to do with the accusations against Steven Moffat of misogyny or xenophobia. As for the Guardian article claiming that his treatment of Irene Adler was, in fact, sexist, I think it was an excellent and insightful piece on the episode, and shared a viewpoint I pretty much agree with, but did not necessarily reflect the intentions of the Sherlock crew.
Second, I’d like to relate a bit about my own relationship with Doctor Who. I first started watching the show in summer of 2007, when SciFi ran a marathon of the first and second series, leading up to the premiere of “The Runaway Bride.” I had seen a little blurb about it in the local newspaper, recognized Barty Crouch Jr., and suspected it would be really weird to see him play a good guy. I started in the middle of season 2 (I think my first episode was “Fear Her”) and almost immediately fell in love. Yes, it was cheesetastic, but Tennant, Billie Piper, and Catherine Tate carried everything so extraordinarily well.
Soon enough, I became a walking advertisement for the show. Back in those days (oh so long ago) I was one out of …one persons I knew who knew about the show. So naturally, I forced my friends to watch it and I delved deeper into fandom. For me, the show was never perfect. Good episodes were amazing and bad episodes were, well, pretty terrible. Sometimes I wished that DW would lose the corny sentimentality and get into nitty-gritty moral dilemmas. Then I saw Russell T Davies try nitty-gritty with Torchwood, and I figured I could do without it in DW (miss you, Owen!)
When Tennant left, I went through the seven stages of grief and everything in between. I remember when the first picture of Matt Smith’s episode was released. It was a picture of the TARDIS in shambles, crashed in little Amelia Pond’s yard. I put it as my desktop wallpaper. It was a perfect manifestation of how I saw the show’s future sans-Ten and I believed that if I saw that picture everyday, it would eventually numb the disappointment.
Well, whaddaya know? That summer, BBCA blasted the US with promos for the series. They also held the premiere in NYC, featuring Matt, Karen, and Moffat. And I waited about 7 hours in line to get in. I had streamed the episode beforehand. And I loved it. I loved Matt Smith. I loved Amy. I was pumped to see the dynamic play out between the wacky, new Doctor, his aggressive yet vulnerable companion, and her cute-ish looking boyfriend, who didn’t really do much except stand around and be deadpan and adorable. I approved wholeheartedly of about 70% of that season’s episodes, and of the solid arc with River Song popping in now and then for the fun.
Now it’s been almost six years since I first began watching and I feel as if I’ve been in an incredibly long relationship that is at the point of needed reassessment while everyone else is simultaneously still in the honeymoon stages. Do I still love DW as I once did, even as little as a year ago? No, I don’t, and it makes me feel like a terrible person (I’m not just saying that for the sake of continuing the relationship metaphor – I really do). But in many ways, I sense it’s my patriotic duty (patriotism to…Gallifrey? Earth? the BBC? what you will…) to express what I feel has gone wrong.
Do I feel like the quality of the show has changed? Well… it depends on what we’re comparing it to. First let’s compare series 7 (so far) with series 5. Series 5 opened with a dynamic shift from over-the-top emotional goodbyes to wacky, fantastical, wibbly-wobbly Doctor Who at its best. Meanwhile, Moffat’s superb writing allowed for great character development and motivating plot lines that, I would argue, go unequaled throughout the rest of his stint as head-writer. The Doctor’s main motivation in the episode is to quite simply regain his bearings. And yet, his heartfelt interactions with a young girl alone in her house, are pure fun and quite touching, and show exactly what kind of Doctor Eleven will be. Grown Amy, on the other hand, has more complex issues to deal with. But we understand her journey well enough to feel goosebumps down our arms when the Doctor gives her the apple and asks her to join him. In the short amount of time we’ve just covered, we already know that this adventure not only means a lot to the two of them, but also that they will grow through each other in unpredictable, entirely whimsical ways. Throw in a really creepy monster, an epic dressing scene/homage to Doctors past, and a subtle reflection on our digital age, and we’ve got ourselves quite a fantastic episode.
Series 7 had, frankly, none of that. Moffatt had previously stated that series 7 was going to go the route of the big-budget Hollywood action film. But I guess he implicitly meant that, like most Hollywood action movies, the storytelling would suffer at its expense. Apparently Amy and Rory have broken up. We get that explanation later. In like one scene. But otherwise there’s not much else telling us who/how/why/when/where this all happened and their interactions with each other don’t really feel different… Besides, Amy and Rory have absolutely no motivation for being there – they more or less getting kidnapped by Daleks… and that’s that. And as for Amy saying that she loves Rory just as much as he loves her, I’m still waiting for that evidence to come up. The moment was completely unearned because the entire audience whispered to themselves,” Um, girl, Rory loves you way more, I’m surprised he didn’t leave sooner.” In fact, I think the whole episode could have been done without an appearance from the Ponds, that’s how pointless they really are to the episode’s progression. But you know, we gotta keep up appearances. Then we got something about a Daleks planet with messed up Daleks and something something and Amy can turn into a dalek andwhatsgoingonnoentiendo.
And then we get Oswin, who is really Clara, the new companion, but oh that tricky Moffat will figure it out for you later on via super complicated character crossings. Oswin is the darling of the episode, but she’s no series 5 Amy. Besides getting out of her little space shuttle where she bakes souffles, she’s got absolutely no investment in the Doctor and no journey of her own. Instead of some kind of well-rounded character, we get cheeky, flirtatious one-liners and gimmicky stuff. She’s pretty much summed up with “souffle girl” because there’s not much else to remember her by, except that she makes souffles, shes flirty, and, oh yea, she’s a robot. Then we get pretty much all around sloppy writing like this:
I feel bad nitpicking this episode, because overall, Moffat has had some excellent, meticulously executed episodes. In fact, sloppiness is last on my list of the current series’ flaws. My main criticism, which I’ve already touched on, is that these characters have no motivation, very few feelings, and seem like they’re just along for the free ride.
While I love the hell out of Matt Smith’s turn at the Doctor, Eleven is predictably optimistic about EVERYTHING. Don’t get me wrong, I love his childlike curiosity and playful giddiness that bursts out of Matt Smith with every decision. And I understand that this decision came about to contrast Moffat’s fairy-tale-like, positively enchanting Doctor with RTD’s fatalistic, over-wrought, messianic send-off of Ten. But hey, if Ten had anything going for him, it was feelings. Big feelings. And Tennant became a fan favorite because of his extraordinary ability to balances the silly, the comical, and the adventurous, with the poignant, the heartbreak, the arrogance, and the sublime. Matt Smith has proven that he’s capable of much the same. However, Eleven hasn’t had a truly genuine moment since “The Doctor’s Wife” and the ending of “The God Complex.” This series is criminally low on good drama for the Doctor. There was the good old, ‘Doctor needs a companion to keep him in check’ plot that’s been done every year and this time didn’t work out. And Saturday’s “The Power of Three” had the sweet rooftop scene in which the Doctor admits he’s afraid of losing the Ponds. But the moment wasn’t exactly revelatory. Please give Matt Smith something to do besides play Wii Sports and bounce footballs around.
And again, the Ponds have no actual motivation for being there. In fact, no one actually has any reason for being anywhere anymore. Why don’t we just throw in Nerfiti (thanks for the eye candy), some African explorer (thanks for the eye candy), the Ponds (for the hell of it) and Rory’s dad (the only character in the episode who actually had some kind of interior experience). Yes, the Ponds are reaching their end. And they’re also having conflicting feelings about being with the Doctor anymore… and that’s about all that’s going on with them. And we can’t exactly say that character development has been substituted for complex storytelling, because that cube thing got exposed, resolved, and sent away in the span of like two minutes, complete with an out-of-the blue send-off line about the power of three (I don’t get it?) And let’s not even talk about “A Town Called Mercy”…
What a far cry from, perhaps, the best Christmas episode Doctor Who has given us, “A Christmas Carol” – a story that not only presented a wonderfully wibbly-wobbly time world and maze-like plot , but also established genuine characters with much at stake in their progress throughout the episode. Very quickly, we came to care deeply about Kazran’s journey and the Doctor’s new-found role as teacher/babysitter/Ghost of Christmas Past. The Doctor was not just saving a planet, he was guiding a jaded man back to happiness and love, however short-lived it may be.
But before I conclude, let’s go way back in time (writing this makes me feel so old) to “The Girl in the Fireplace,” another of Moffat’s best episodes and definitely my all-time favorite of the series (suck it, “Blink”). Again, an absolutely perfect blending of silly fun, layered plotting, and absolutely beautiful character development. There is not a single line in this episode that is a throw-away because each is essential to building the complicated clockwork world and the remarkable shifts in tone that the episode undergoes with natural ease and touching revelation. But, I’d like to focus on the characters in the episode, all of whom have some kind of motivation and genuine experience onboard the seemingly abandoned spacecraft.
Mickey, fresh off from being his “tin dog” realization, is on his first space voyage and getting a bit uneasy about the Doctor-Rose relationship. His motivation is part-‘let’s see where Rose goes off to,’ part-trying to be more than the tin dog, and part-genuine wonder. Similarly, Rose is figuring out her relationship to the Doctor, and his attachment to Madame de Pompadour brings these feelings to the forefront. One of my favorite shots of the episode is Rose looking off into the distance after the Doctor has broken to time barrier because we know with one look the multiple layers of grief she is feeling- not only has the Doctor decided to leave them, but he has also implicitly pursued a romantic interest.
As for the Doctor and Reinette, their relationship is intricately woven together with the storyline so that as the mystery of the clockwork figures progresses, so does their bond. The investment of their buildup is one with our investment in the plot and the tragedy of the ending is all the more emphasized because now the resolution of the plot aka getting back to the TARDIS directly clashes with the resolution of their feelings for each other. And this is ALL conveyed in the look of despair on Ten’s face when Reinette’s refuses to wish him luck as the fireplace turns. It’s a perfectly and painfully earned moment.
So, did Moffat destroy Doctor Who? Most assuredly not. In fact, he’s one of the best things to happen to it. But please, take a cue from past seasons. Good storytelling needs something at stake. When that thing at stake remains undefinable (or doesn’t get defined until well past mid-season) then there’s nothing motivating us to move forward. And when there’s little to no character development and everything remains flat, that’s a problem. One thing RTD knew well is that interest in character’s journey will keep us watching even when the monsters or plots stink (See: Donna Noble). And lastly, when you trade genuine experiences and drama for an overabundance of quirky one-liners and repetitious gimmicks, the two timelord hearts of the show suffer.