Where Doctor Who Could Improve and How
Guest contributor Isaac Withers takes a look.
Disclaimer: the following views are in no way informed by a practical understanding of the workings of a television series and are solely the musings of an armchair critic with too much time on his hands.
Doctor Who has always been to me, a show which I couldn’t pitch to someone who had never seen it before (bear with me). As an avid viewer of quality TV, who binge watched the entire first three seasons of Game of Thrones in a few weeks like a depraved meth addict, a part of me feels slightly childish when I tune in to Who on those rare Saturdays. Sure, I hear you, it’s aimed at children, but I’d wager the majority of its following is adult.
For some reason, unlike the other childhood TV series of my life, I have never been able to shake off Doctor Who, I think it’s part nostalgia, and part reverence for something truly enraptured and terrified me as a child (trying to sleep after The Girl in The Fireplace when all I could hear was my ticking clock will always stay with me). This is not to say that it is not a good quality television in itself, but as the Tennant generation grows up, we’re exposed to other hugely impressive examples of television, and Who doesn’t always hold up next to them. However, as a show defined by its capacity for change, here are just some thoughts, on how Who could improve, to become a show which I could openly take pride in, a show which I could come out of my bigger-on-the-inside closet to defend.
This is basically a big word for when you go and mingle with monkeys and do as the natives do. For a show which can go literally anywhere, Pompeii, the end of the universe, New, New, New, New, New, New, New, New, New…. (how many again?) Earth and far flung worlds like Akhaten, Doctor Who never really lets us see in depth into any of them. Sure, in 45 minutes James Cameron couldn’t have given us the grand visual tour of Pandora that he did in his epic monster of a sci-fi film, but as the episodes always begin with the Doctor and his companion arriving, we only ever see the surface of a world, sort of like being in a country for one day, you never get a feel of its genuine culture.
For a man who spends his life travelling, it seems unlikely in the extreme that the Doctor never stays for extended periods of time at a place. In fact, this is one of my greatest qualms (great word) with Who, especially with Tennant’s Doctor. He saunters onto a planet and after informing everyone that he is the highest authority in existence and pretty much a God, he would take control of everything, fight a bad guy and then back to the box. Characteristically, the Doctor so far has been like an Victorian explorer, setting up shop with no care for the locals, doing sometimes as much harm as damage (the often scoffed at solar meltdown of a finale in The Rings of Akhaten) and never really appreciating where he is or the beauty of the world around him. I want to see episodes where we don’t even see the TARDIS, when the Doctor begins his episode around a Cherokee campfire, bare chested and painted all over, genuinely embracing a culture and appreciating its values rather than demeaning them. So, to follow up on the monkey analogy, I want to see Capaldi throwing faeces just like those around him. Yeah you read that right.
This is something that I think will spread from Game of Thrones to the rest of mature TV in general. When you watch Who, you know, with 95% of episodes, that no one important will die, or get seriously hurt, or that if they do, the Doctor will be able to somehow bring them back (*cough* Rory *cough*). However, this is not just a problem with Doctor Who it spreads to CSI, mid-day Agatha Christie based crime dramas, and really the majority of TV. However, this safety, is counter- productive when you want to create tension, so no matter how high the stakes are, the audience never actually fear for the characters that they route for. So, this safety, kills drama itself, and this, I think is why Game of Thrones is such a success, no one is safe, and so it fully engages the audience.
This is not to say however, that the Doctor never experiences consequence. I loved it when after the death of the Ponds, Matt Smith’s Doctor retreated from everything, into the clouds and let his misery catch up with him. This was genuine pain, something the Doctor avoids somehow, all the time. In all honesty, I was hoping he would travel alone for Series 7B, out of respect for the longest serving companion Amy Pond, and her husband. But no, Clara was put into the mix fast, and we never heard about the Ponds again. I’m not saying that Moffat should suddenly spring a Red Wedding style massacre on our heroes in the console room, but for a man who gets in so many battles, it is only realistic that he should lose a few more than he does.
What irritates me is the fact that there is always a loophole, always. Even when Rose was given that heart-wrenching departure at the end of Series 2, just two years later she was back, Captain Jack didn’t really die, Donna returned a bit after her tragic departure, those that died at Demon’s Run like Dorium, came straight back. Galifrey is apparently fine now (which I’m OK with by the way). Even River was stored in the Library database, suspended before death. When you really look at it, the Doctor’s friends don’t die and he never really loses.
This is one of the things I loathed about Series 7, the whole ‘every episode is a movie idea’. This was Moffat’s response to the criticisms about his arc heavy Series 6, which shows he listens to the fanbase, but I’m not sure that was a good idea in this instance. Every episode was so separate that you got the impression that the TARDIS trio’s adventures meant very little to them. Each episode felt like a different show, just with similar qualities here and there.
This was the chronic flaw in the BBC’s The Musketeers. Each episode, there was a new villain, love interest, political plot, but by the next episode, they were forgotten. I endured all of those ten episodes purely to cringe through them, because ultimately, if there are no threads, no narrative arcs or character arcs, the show loses its audience’s attention. They simply have no reason to tune in to episode 5, if it is just a variant of every other episode. Hopefully Peter Capaldi’s new project will have abandoned this format…
I’m all to wary that many of these changes will not come to be, but I thoroughly enjoyed offloading my musings in this article. However, my hope was sparked by a recent announcement by the Moff. ‘“We haven’t made much of change to Doctor Who since it came back in 2005. I just felt it needs to be a bit more different now. It’s needs to be surprising again!”’ Maybe some of these, and who knows, maybe one day I’ll be able to pitch Doctor Who to my fellow TV series addicts with pride…