by William Hohmeister
I do not know what to think about Doctor Who.
I want to greet Peter Capaldi’s Thirteenth Doctor (yes, he’s Thirteen, not Twelve) with an open mind. And I think I can, because I have no special attachment to Matt Smith’s Twelfth Doctor. I am afraid of the new Doctor Who because of the writing; while I hope Capaldi brings a new and interesting take on the Doctor, I have little hope that the writers know or understand what they’re doing.
Many articles point out the decline in quality since Steven Moffatt took over Doctor Who, and lay blame accordingly. I do not agree. People, especially fans, like when there is a single point of failure – just look at how many cried out against Ben Affleck as the new Batman. Moffatt may be part of the problem, but a television show has too many moving parts to lay the blame on any one thing.
The writers do bear the brunt of blame, however. They wrote the show, after all. And while there are not so many terrible episodes, there are few genuinely great ones. Most are mediocre. I examined the writers of series 1-7 and found something interesting: there’s little difference between the two groups. Moffatt and Davies share 6 writers between their eras, not counting Moffatt himself. Davies and Moffatt each wrote about half of their own episodes. And both have close to the same number of two-part stories and single, one-shot episodes. Analyzing the writing from a meta view does not explain the quality of the stories.
Are the writers responsible then? Maybe it really is Moffatt’s fault. He okayed even the bad episodes after all; and he wrote much more after taking over the show. Under Davies he wrote some great episodes, like “Blink” and “The Girl in the Fireplace.” “Blink” establishes the weirdness of a time loop, while “The Girl in the Fireplace” hands a heavy defeat to the Eleventh Doctor (David Tennant… yes, we have to get used to this. Blame Moffat and John Hurt). Compare “Fireplace” and Madame de Pompadour (Sophia Myles) with Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and series 5-7. Both characters are women who wait their entire lives for the Doctor. Madame de Pompadour dies waiting for him, but Amy Pond is rewarded by traveling with him longer than any other companion.
I think this indicates a shift in attitude. The Tenth (Christopher Eccleston) and Eleventh Doctors were both serious, and their stories often involved heavy lessons and moral defeats. Series 5-7 and the Twelfth Doctor are much more lighthearted, but the subject matter is not. The Silence, the series villains, kidnap and brainwash Melody Pond into an assassin. The Doctor kills and doesn’t look back. In “The Day of the Doctor,” the Moment describes the Doctor as “The man who regrets [Eleven] and the man who forgets [Twelve].”
This attitude toward Twelve as “the man who forgets” might explain why sayings like “Rule one: the Doctor lies” came to be. It absolves both the characters and the writers from ever really explaining themselves. By not offering explanations, bizarre events like Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill in The Wedding of River Song can exist just to be cool. A fine line exists between style and fanservice, however, as “The Day of the Doctor”shows. All the Doctors gather together, to reverse the Doctor’s greatest failure. Of course, that failure never really existed because, if it had, the Silence would not have tried to kill the Doctor. Because the Silence try to kill Twelve before he saves Gallifrey, we know that he never actually destroyed it.
Using “timey-wimey” is just a symptom of the attitude the writers of Doctor Who hold. Steven Moffatt has said in interviews that a time-travel show doesn’t need an established continuity. But as we see from the confusing explanation I just gave of the consequences of “The Day of the Doctor,” and the overall quality of series 5-7, this attitude drags the show down. It allows the fanboy side of each writer to run wild; fanservice becomes normal instead of occasional. “The Day of the Doctor” is pure fanservice from beginning to end; therefore, it’s boring. The Doctor’s victory is never in doubt, and the audience goes along with it, because it is just so cool to see thirteen TARDISes (plural?) flying together.
I think that’s what needs to change. I wrote earlier drafts in which I pointed out everything the show did wrong during series 6 and 7. The drafts were several thousand words long. But each came back to the same thing: the attitudes of the writers, the showrunner, and the audience. We’re not innocent: the series 8 premier got the highest ratings since 2010. As long as style triumphs over substance, as long as “are bowties cool?” remains the most morally complex question the Doctor and his companions have to answer, the show remains mediocre.
There is also just some really awful writing.