Culture Clash: Is Dr Who in decline?

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It’s the end of 2009, and Doctor Who fans are riding out the last few moments of their tenure as Russell T. Davies’ many beaten wives, and boy was ‘The End of Time’ an arrestable offence. I don’t know what RTD got out of giving The Master the ability to fly, shoot lasers from his hands and consume vast amounts of food at lightning speed like a Friedberg & Seltzer superhero ‘satire‘, nor do I know how much he got for having The Doctor instigate human race circle jerks at every available opportunity, but it should have been ten to fifteen years.

The Whovians took this final mauling in their stride, knowing that Steven Moffat was primed and ready to breach the production office with two bandoleers of brilliance strapped across his chest, canisters of genius gas lining his buckle. Doctor Who was to do away with convoluted, EPIC for the sake of EPIC stories that you couldn’t get a rope around, let alone your head, and introduce some sound, logical and entertaining storytelling. After all, Steven Moffat penned the outings of the gas mask boy, the clockwork robots and the weeping angels, while Russell T. Davies created a cross between E.T. and Zippy from Rainbow (or the Slitheen as he insists on calling them). It made perfect sense that Moffat would be the one to eradicate the cloying sentimentality and full blown cobblers that the series was belching forth with aplomb by that stage.

But like his stories, Moffat’s handling of Doctor Who subverted our expectations. Steven Moffat is being hailed for his superiority over Russell T. Davies, because RTD allowed the monstrous ‘Love and Monsters’, the fearful ‘Fear Her’ and the idiotic ‘Idiot’s Lantern’ to be filmed. Moffat, on the other hand, gave us ‘Victory of the Daleks’, in which the Daleks are thwarted by a Professor remembering how much he loves his old girlfriend. ‘Closing Time’, in which the Cybermen are thwarted by James Corden asserting his love for his son, and ‘Night Terrors’, in which the Dutch dolls are thwarted by a father emphasising the love he has for his son… notice a pattern, here? It was also the power of LURVE that resolved the plot to Moffat’s ‘The Big Bang’. LURVE is fast becoming a shamelessly flaunted throwaway resolution that takes Doctor Who out of the realms of sci-fi and unceremoniously stuffs it into the fantasy genre – a square peg in a round hole that Moffat is pioneering.

Yes, Moffat has undone the perception that the Tardis is a big blue comedy bus, and has worked hard to replenish Doctor Who’s creepy, unsettling air for the 21st century, but the optimistic thunders of his openers aren’t followed by the flashes of lightning the audience anticipates. The tone is better, but the former focus on the Doctor as some kind of demigod has been shifted to the next extreme, and the story-arcs are now barely about the Doctor. Instead, we have to ponder Amy’s highly improbable connections to the latest spree of universe fuckups and her largely dull relationship; taking the “you’re married to the force” sentiment of crime dramas and giving them to Rory to inflict upon Amy (and the audience). We GET it, Amy and Rory love each other very much, and every time there’s a bit of doubt as to who Amy loves the most, it’ll always be Rory no matter what because he was ‘the only one out of all the boys that I liked’ and he was the thousand year centurian (he got through that with the power of LURVE, no less) and he died sixty eight times and cut off some of his hair just to be with her; this does not need to be the centerpiece of every arc and every plot. Simon Nye’s SUPERB “Amy’s Choice” got all of this across in 45 minutes, even managing to balance it out with some Doctor centric dilemmas along the way; any more flogging of this idea and we might well end up with a hole in the Universe and Moffat’s next plot.

Steven Moffat has made a good start – he is a better writer than Russell T. Davies, but he needs to do away with story arcs that are never satisfyingly resolved and focus on delivering a series of 13 standalone episodes, linked only by continuity, that are scary, funny, sound and pleasing. That way, we might have a consistent stream of excellence on par with episodes such as ‘The Doctor’s Wife’, ‘The Rebel Flesh’, ‘The God Complex’ and ‘Flesh and Stone’, and not mind molesting carnivals like ‘Let’s Kill Hitler’ thrown in purely for the sake of having something to expand upon in a later series.

– Ronnie Rowlands

Ronnie’s got one thing right. The Russell T Davies era of Doctor Who, especially in retrospect, was ridiculously shocking. RTD should be given praise for bringing this beautiful show back to life for a new generation, but very quickly into his tenure as show-runner he clearly got lazy and just plain confusing with his scripts (see ‘Daleks in Manhattan’). I also had the feeling that his episodes were generally far too self-contained and that I wasn’t watching an actual Doctor Who series; no real overlying themes or goals, just some kooky but grumpy bullshit.

Enter Steven Moffat. He comes in and gives the show a much needed boost. Finally, stronger overlying themes are thrown into the equation, and twists are not shoved in at the last minute, which was so evident with the RTD series finales. The show began to regain some of its charm that helped make it an institution. They felt like serials again. You could argue that some episodes seem like lazy filler, but by doing sticking to his over-arching approach, Moffat has allowed us to become emotionally involved in the stories over the course of weeks rather than minutes. The companions now have personalities that aren’t just ‘Oh my God Doctor you’re so brilliant lets have sex’ kind of people. The show just feels better.

Yes, ‘Victory of the Daleks’ was pants. Yes River Song’s character is a fantastic idea, but has been overused and become a bit hammy. Yes, this latest series has been a wee bit weaker, but I put a certain aspect of that down to the mid season break. Yes, maybe he has put too much emphasis on the power of love this series, but it works so well for a show aimed at both children and adults. Having an incomplete story arc at the end of the series is a good thing; it allows the writers to revisit it without having one of those annoying ‘come back’ episodes where the Doctor may as well be having a brew with one of his companions for half the episode.

There’s a couple of points that I feel I really have to drill in, then I hope to never have this argument about ‘The Who’ ever again. Firstly, simple storytelling, if utilised well, is not a bad thing. Secondly, It’s a family show! Do you know how hard it is to write a TV show that is basically obliged to apply to every single demographic out there? Steven Moffat does, and boy oh boy does he handle that pressure well. Plus, he’s a complete sadist – and I actually quite like that! It seems that he loves to mess with our little audience heads and annoy his viewers. If you have twitter, check him out. The way in which he laughs in the face of fanboys is nothing short of brilliant, as is his writing, as is the show.

– Ross McCaffrey

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