Thursday, 23 May 2013

Doctor Who Series 7 Post-Mortem

And so, as we find ourselves on the Fields of Trenzalore, in the final resting place of the Doctor, it seems a fitting time to examine the still-warm corpse of Series 7.
This series had something wrong with it from the beginning. We already had a look at the symptoms but, now that we have the whole thing laid out on a slab, we may finally be able to locate the cause. Let's cut this thing open and see what we find.

We learned an invaluable lesson this year: Doctor Who is only as good as its Companion.
This is something we probably should have known already. Series 4 didn't have the best of episodes, but it was elevated to greatness by the awesomeness of Donna. Series 3 had much better episodes, but it was dragged down by the simpering of Martha (note that the best episode is the one she's barely in). One of the main problems with David Tennant's final year was the lack of a constant Companion to give the audience a human anchor. The Companion makes or breaks this show, and always has.

To that end, I have a correction to make. I said before that, of the two Who showrunners, Steven Moffat is the better writer. That's not entirely true. While Moffat is definitely the better story-writer, I've come to realise, after a discussion with my sister, that Russel T. Davies is much better at writing characters.
Actually, that's still not true. Moffat has written many fantastic characters - dropping them into the middle of an episode, fully-formed, deep and engaging. Sally Sparrow; Madame de Pompadour; Jack Harkness; River Song. He writes great characters. Where Davies outmatches him is not in writing characters, but in writing people.
The difference is that while Moffat's characters are created to function within a story (and do so brilliantly), Russelty's creations have lives beyond the confines of that story - beyond the Doctor. They have families, and jobs, and hopes and dreams.

Rose Tylor was the Bad Wolf - she gave the Doctor something to live for - and that was her purpose, narratively speaking. But what was the purpose of Jackie and Micky? From a story perspective, what was the reason for introducing her mother and long-suffering boyfriend?
There really wasn't one - they didn't affect the story in any way. Micky stepped up in Series 2 but, originally, they had no reason to be there. But they were Rose's family; they were her life outside the Doctor. Without them, she'd just have been some random chav who climbed in a phonebox. They humanised her - helping us relate to her and understand her. Without her family's soap-opera antics, Rose would have been a very dull, blank character. Instead, she's one of the show's best.
A major reason Martha didn't work as well as Rose is that her life was less fleshed out. We saw her family a couple of times, but the connections never felt as strong or as real as her predecessor's. Donna, on the other hand, succeeded because her relationship with her mother felt so real, and because Bernard Cribbins is the best thing ever.
Notice, too, that Rose and Donna were both very flawed characters. Rose in particular could be outright horrible (usually to Micky) and Donna was an obnoxious, loud-mouthed idiot - even goody-goody Martha had that whole infatuation thing. Those aspects may have influenced the story in certain places, but they were independent of it. It's these faults, along with their personal-lives, that make them more than just characters. That's Davies' great strength - he creates living, breathing human beings.

Moffat... doesn't. His characters can be deep and interesting and textured but, in the end, they only exist to serve the story. When an episode ends, there is no life for them to go back to. Amy has no family or even any friends outside of the Doctor and Rory. Rory has no life beyond a job description; Clara, likewise. They are defined entirely by their relationships to the narrative.
Moffat simply cannot write people the way Davies can; but that isn't a problem because he writes such strong stories and, in many ways, his characters are stories. The characters have a beginning, a middle and an end - they evolve across an arc, where Davies' Companions were constant and unchanging. Those character-arcs are then intertwined with the overall arc of the series (think how integral Amy's lifelong relationship to the cracks is) creating a huge compelling whole. Amy and Rory don't need to be brilliantly fleshed out people, because so much interesting stuff is happening with their characters. That's why Series 5 and 6 work so well. It's also why Series 7 doesn't.

Which brings us to Clara. The problem with Series 7 is that the central story isn't a story at all, but a mystery. It's barely even a mystery, in fact - it's basically just an oft-repeated question.
As I've said before, that was the modus operandi of the Russelty era. But Russelty got away with it because the characters were compelling in their own right - I could happily watch Donna gardening with Wilf all day (let alone travelling space and time) because they're both interesting people. They didn't necessarily need a story to drive them, so a vague mystery was enough. But without the anchor of a strongly-plotted narrative, Amy and Rory wouldn't hold my attention the same way.
Clara isn't a detailed, complex person like Rose, and she isn't undertaking a compelling character journey like Amy. She's just sort of there. And because Moffat's characters are defined by their relationship to the story, not having a story means that Clara's character remains undefined. That's why Oswin (the Clara from Asylum of the Daleks) is a stronger character than the current Clara - that episode had a well-defined narrative and Oswin was built around it. With no story-beats to hit (other than the very basic "get in the TARDIS"), Clara's character doesn't need any specific personality or motivations (except "wants to travel") and she isn't given any. She's also not given any of the human flaws that made her predecessors more interesting.
This means that neither Jenna-Louise Coleman nor the writers have anything to work with. Coleman is good, and does the best she can with incredibly slight material - managing a shallow kind of likeability - but she's fighting a losing battle from the very beginning. The writers have it worse though. With nothing to go on and no real backbone to start with, the writers seem to have guessed at who Clara is and used her however they need at the time. As a result her personality fluctuates wildly from episode to episode.
This was clearest in Neil Gaiman's otherwise successful Cybermen episode Nightmare in Silver, where Clara is suddenly put in charge of a military unit and is just instantly good at it. Also, people are dying around her - because of her orders, in some cases - and this doesn't seem to affect her at all: she's told that a woman just died and she shrugs it off as a useful source of strategic information. Later she waves a gun in the face of not just a child, but a child she actually knows and cares about! We kept being told that Clara is perfectly normal, yet suddenly she was a warrior.

It was jarring. It was so jarring, in fact, that I was certain it was leading into some kind of reveal - that Clara would turn out to be some kind of adaptable chameleon, designed to be the ideal Companion in any situation. It would also explain why she seemingly has no faults. Clara is, after all, the one who saves the day throughout most of this series. She defeats a giant, evil god-face with a scrapbook that we never see again, appears to become an empath in the presence of another empath, talks down a warmongering Martian with peacefulness, and kills lots of Cybermen with violence. She changes to fit the scenario.
Further supporting the chameleon theory was this trailer for the final episode, where the Doctor calls her, "Perfect. Too perfect.” It seemed like all this weird, inconsistent character use might actually lead somewhere...

But no.
The final episode came, and it turns out Clara was inconsistent and amorphous just because the writing was inconsistent. The reveal - the solution to the series' big mystery - was that Clara actually was normal all along, just like everyone kept telling us. So she wasn't a robot, or a shape-shifter, or (as I thought for quite a while) a Dalek flesh-puppet; she was just Clara Oswald - a girl with no discernible characteristics.

That last episode, The Name of the Doctor, was actually very good. It was much better than it probably had any right to be, coming off the rest of Series 7. But it suffered, again, from the single-episode structure of this series. Where The Power of Three was all build-up, with no satisfying payoff, this episode was all conclusion with an incredibly rushed setup. The Whisper Men were creepy, but were just there for no reason. The Great Intelligence (played by Russelty Davies' spirit-brother, Richardy Grant) was just assumed to be evil, with no real explanation or motivation for what he was doing. Clara becomes aware that she's died twice - and that the Doctor has been lying to her and studying her - but there's no time to explore her reaction to this (yet another wasted chance to characterise her) let alone to explore how the hell she remembers it. A two-part story would have had room to breathe and make this all feel a little more organic.
But the rushed beginning at least means that the rest plays well. The Intelligence's plan is a cool and unsettling idea, and the solution is neat, if obvious. It explains the many Claras better than it might have (and it retroactively gives her a little more life - she inherits Oswin's personality, if that makes sense) and her sacrifice is handled well, though more time to see her struggle with that choice might have helped. In the absence of a compelling Companion this season, Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax have sort of taken that place - so watching Vastra's life unravel around her was a great, sad touch. Also, I personally like River Song more than most, so that farewell kiss meant more to me than any other moment this series (yes, including the Ponds).

It was a decent ending to a below-par series but, like everything else this year, there are definite things wrong with it.
I wondered before whether this series was trying to be more friendly to new viewers, who would benefit from a less serialised story structure. But if that were the case, why is this ending so steeped in Doctor Who lore? The episode opens with a montage of clips from Doctors and episodes past, which would fly over any newbies' heads, and it ends with a reveal that I didn't even understand the first time (I'm not entirely sure I understand it now).
If it was always going to delve so deep into the mythology, why has Series 7 stayed so detached until this point? Why did it shy away from mentioning the Question or the Silence? If we were going to end up on Trenzalore and the Question was going to be asked (if, indeed, it has been asked), then why were they never mentioned before this point, when they were so integral to Series 6? Has the Doctor even mentioned the Time War to Clara? The final moment of the series was a revelation about the most important event in the Doctor's many lives, yet that event has barely been mentioned (if at all) this series. It's loose and it's sloppy and it feels like it's tying up the wrong series. It's giving us conclusions to plot-lines that weren't actually explored.
As much as the reveal of John Hurt (freaking John Hurt!) was shocking and thrilling, it was also kind of irrelevant to anything else we saw this year. And, worst of all, it was a bloody cliffhanger.

At the risk of looking like an absolute self-obsessed prat, I'm going to quote myself:

"Series 6 also had a break in the middle... It had a cliffhanger ending... it didn't resolve everything, threw in a bunch of new problems, then left us hanging for a few months to let excitement build. This is how mid-season breaks are supposed to work.
The first half of the current series, by comparison, ended with the full conclusion of the Ponds' story, tying everything up nicely... It was an ending, not a pause. If it weren't for the fact that it was only the fifth episode of the series, it would have felt like the finale."

So Series 7 split for a mid-series break with an episode that felt like a season finale. Then Series 7 ended with a season finale that felt like a mid-series break. That's just a terrible way to approach a series!
The reveal of Hurt could be considered a tease, not a cliffhanger, in the same way that the blue head-in-a-box shouting, "Doctor Who?" at the end of the last series was a tease. But the difference is that Series 6 wrapped up all its other plotlines first. In this series, the mystery of Clara was pretty much the only thing resolved - the characters are still stuck on Trenzalore, and the Question has finally been asked (I think) which should not only cause the fall of Silence but also "the fall of the eleventh", and finally, of course, Clara and the Doctor are still floating within the Doctor's psyche! There was not a great deal of finality to this episode; it was definitely a cliffhanger.
I know that there is an anniversary special of some kind coming later in the year, and that this episode presumably feeds into it, but I had assumed that the special would be just that - a special - not just a continuation of the series. As it is (assuming that it does continue this story, and I can't really see how it couldn't) it's actually just a delayed finale - meaning that Series 7 has now had two stupidly long and unnecessary breaks in it.
Despite all that, the ending was a shocking enough moment - a big enough twist - that I was actually willing to give it a pass. But then the "Introducing..." caption flashed up, slapping us in the face with the incomplete story, drawing attention to how little this felt like an ending, and I actually felt a little insulted.

Ultimately though, the finale was still satisfying, incomplete as it was, if only because it provided an end and a point to all this faffing around with Clara. I wouldn't say that it was worth it, or that it made up for the shaky, floundering series that led to it, but at least it was something; at least it was good. It felt like the Doctor Who I want to be watching.
As we wheel this corpse back to the morgue, I just hope the show learns from this strange, disappointing year. The structure of the series has been messed with too much - with massive holes in the middle, no double-episodes, endings where there shouldn't be and none where there should - and the lack of a narrative arc has damaged and cheapened the power of the ending. Hopefully we'll see some of that addressed but, even if they fix it all, it won't mean a damn unless they also fix Clara. Now that we know who and what she is - now that she's no longer a mystery - hopefully she can become either a person or a story. Hopefully she can finally develop and emote. Hopefully she'll connect.

Doctor Who is only as good as its Companion. I've finally realised that - I just hope that Steven Moffat realises it too.