Friday, 10 May 2013

Journey to the Centre of Doctor Who (part 2)

Yesterday we looked at a broad view of Doctor Who, and saw that the current series is a strange, disappointing departure for the programme. Today we'll get deeper into it and try to work out how and why this happened.

Until this week the best episode of Series 7, for my money, was Cold War - a tight, Alien-esque thriller set in a claustrophobic Soviet submarine. It has no ties to the main story and barely any development of our main characters, but it's a solid, atmospheric episode.
In any other year, though, a solid standalone thriller would be a mid-level episode at best - does anyone even remember Series 3's 42, for example? The fact that Cold War is even in the running tells us that something is off this season; the fact that some people are then unfavourably comparing Cold War to The Curse of the Black Spot (which was dreadful) suggests it's even worse than that.

The truly great Doctor Who episodes are the emotional ones that explore the characters (Dalek, Human Nature, Journey's End, The Doctor's Wife) "wibbly wobbly timey wimey" ones that explore the show's mechanics (Day of the Moon, Blink) and especially those episodes that do both (Father's Day, The Girl in the Fireplace, Forest of the Dead, The Girl who Waited). But the current series has none of these. It doesn't even have any of those episodes that stand out just for their unique approach, like Love and Monsters or The Lodger.
Yes, there's emotional weight to The Angels Take Manhattan - but it's the residual weight of two series with these characters, not anything earned in the episode itself - and beyond that the entire series has been a succession of average, generic standalone episodes. They're mostly fine, but there's no spark or magic to any of them.
The closest we came to something unusual or special, in fact, was The Power of Three - which had a beautifully slow and creepy build-up, but then totally wasted it on a rushed, nonsensical ending. After that great set-up, it really needed more room to breathe - it would have worked much better as a two-parter.

And that's another thing - why are there no double-episodes this season? They've been some of the best episodes in the past and are a big part of the structure of the show - only having single-episode stories this year seems a really weird and limiting decision. Admittedly, it's not nearly as weird or limiting as the decision to cut the series in half, though. That just seems crazy!
Series 6 also had a break in the middle (from which point, arguably, it never fully recovered) but that split worked much better for several reasons. It had a cliffhanger ending, for one thing - 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. There was nothing to keep the programme on our minds - the Question hadn't come back into play and the mystery of Clara hadn't even begun. 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.
Why only five episodes, anyway? That's not a mid-series break - it's a one-third-of-the-way-through-the-series break!
And then there was Christmas. Last season's break lasted for three months during summer. This season's break lasted for six months and was spread across two years! I can find no way of looking at that decision that makes any kind of sense - it's ludicrous! I appreciate that, for the first time since the awesome The Christmas Invasion, the Christmas episode actually tied into the main story but, surely, that can't be the only reason that there was half a year between episodes 5 and 6? That's clearly madness! It was such a long wait that even Doctor Who's own website began talking about the "New Series" when advertising the show's return.
To put this into perspective, in 2012 we saw less Doctor Who than we did in 2009 - the year when David Tennant was too busy to work on a full series. And, much as I disliked roughly half of Tennant's final season, there's no denying that it was far more satisfying than the five episodes we got last year.

The final nail in the coffin, for me, is that when the show returned, a full six months after wrapping up the story of the Ponds, it filled the hole left by Amy and Rory with... nothing. We lost two fully realised, fleshed-out characters and we gained nothing in return. That void has not been filled.
Oh, there's Clara, of course. But what do we actually know about her? As a person, I mean - not as some strange recurring human construct. Clara is clearly meant to be an enigma, yes, but that doesn't excuse her painfully inadequate characterisation.
We know that she looks after kids, both as a job and just in general (the only time she actually resembles a character is in The Rings of Akhaten, when she interacts with a child) and we know that she was bad with computers but now she's great with computers. At least, I think we know that - or did her computer knowledge disappear again at the end of The Bells of Saint John? We don't know! Like so many things this series, her technical know-how has never been touched on again.
Five episodes in, all we can say for sure is that Clara Oswald is good with kids and is spunky; but that second one is a default trait of all Companions, so it doesn't really count.

Compare this to how much we know about Amy after just her first episode. We know that she is disillusioned with life, stuck in a crappy job with a prickly outlook - but we know that, deep down, there's an adventurous little girl who never stopped believing. We know that she is lonely - looking for affection and attention from both Rory and the Doctor, even as she pushes them away - and, above all, we know that she's terrified of commitment and boring normalcy. This is all after just one episode! There's then an arc and a lot of development on top of that!
Better yet, think of what we know about Oswin (Clara's first incarnation) who is, of course, only in one episode. We know that she's resilient and resourceful, and defiantly optimistic. We know that this bouncy optimism is actually how she copes with the constant terror of her situation (trapped on this planet, and also the other thing). We know that, despite that fear, she's not easily phased, and that when she is scared that still won't stop her. We know that she's an absolute genius. And, most importantly, we know that she likes souffl├ęs.
The souffl├ęs may seem like quite a little thing, but they're an important contrast to the current Clara: I can't name a single one of Clara's likes or interests. She had a scrap-book that one time but, like her computer skills, it's never appeared since - I'd actually forgotten it existed.
All we really know about Clara-the-third is that she's normal; which we only know because people keep telling us that, not because she actually acts that way. This new Companion is meant to be a compelling mystery - but she's no more than a blank slate. That may well be mysterious, but it sure as hell isn't compelling.

In summary, Series 7 has been a weird, failed experiment, bordering on a disaster. It was split up into two shorter series for no apparent reason, and neither one of those series has anything resembling a true narrative. It’s episodic to the point that it’s actually damaging - preventing the characters from changing or progressing week-to-week, and preventing the central mysteries from actually affecting anyone (especially the audience).
This disconnected nature, unhindered by a central story, should at least allow for some very inventive episodes, but they’ve all been fairly vanilla - examining neither the characters nor the universe in any real depth. It’s hard to imagine that any episode from this series will ever be brought up in future discussions of the show’s best. Likewise, the vacuous Clara will never, ever, be brought up in discussions of the best Companion - she’s somehow even less interesting than Martha.
All this adds up to the least successful series the reincarnated Who has ever had, and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is the crowning jewel of that failure - an episode with limitless potential (the inside of the TARDIS!) that was unforgivably wasted on a poor story with bad characters and unimaginative ideas.

That’s the current state of Doctor Who. It’s not pretty. What I want to know is why? How on Earth did Steven Moffat, who did such a good job shepherding one solid and one excellent year of the programme, let Series 7 fall so far off course?
I have a couple of theories, and they’re probably wrong, but I think they're worth a try. My first thought is that Series 6 was criticised for being far too serialised, where missing just one episode could potentially cause massive confusion, and that this series - a return to the earlier, more episodic style - is a reaction to that criticism. This seems plausible (there certainly was criticism) but, if it is the case, the reaction seems incredibly extreme. It makes sense for the show to want to become more episodic, but here that’s pushed to a point that doesn’t even allow for character development or the loosest of arcs. This is no mere course-adjustment; it’s a complete swerve in a new direction.

My second theory feels less likely, but possibly makes more sense. What if these decisions were not made with the current audience in mind - those of us who have been watching the show for eight years - but the audience that is only just discovering it. Namely, the American audience.
Series 6 was the first year to be broadcast in the US at the same as it was in the UK, meaning that it will have been the first series many Americans saw. And while the serial can’t-miss-an-episode nature of Series 6 was an annoyance for people who’d been watching for years, it must have been an absolute nightmare for anyone watching for the first time. That season is many things, but it is not a good entry point.
Viewed this way, Series 7 is a much better series for new viewers. That’s perhaps why it feels more like Davies’ work than Moffat’s: because it isn’t actually the seventh series - for many people, it’s only the first or second. This not only explains the unconnected episodes (most shows have a highly episodic first season, to not confuse newcomers catching episodes in the middle) but also the lack of two-parters and, more than that, it explains the weird six-month break and the lack of cliffhanger.
New viewers wouldn’t know the Ponds, so those first five episodes would resonate less. By presenting the second half as a new series (because, let’s be honest, that’s pretty much what it is) this new audience can learn about the show through this new character. This may even explain why Clara is such a blank - she’s an audience surrogate for viewers to project themselves onto.
It doesn’t really explain why there’s been no stand-out episodes, but you can’t have it all.

Whatever the reason, I stand by my statement that something is wrong with Doctor Who.
This series has almost driven me away several times now, but there’s always a glimmer of hope. If I’m right about the US connection (and even if I’m not) then hopefully the next series will have the courage to return to its grander, over-arching stories, without fear of losing potential viewers. Hopefully it can reignite the incredible creative spark of its best episodes, and hopefully we'll even get all thirteen episodes in the same bloody year!

Speaking of hope - this blog has taken me so long to write that another Saturday has been and gone, and it was quite a good one. I may actually have liked The Crimson Horror better than Cold War (note that both were written by Mark Gatiss) - it's not as atmospheric and tight, but it's much more fun. While still not an excellent episode it was certainly top-tier for this series, with well-written, well-acted characters, an unusual villain, a strong emotional kick, some wonderful northern accents and, at long last, some interesting (if tiny) developments in Clara’s story!
The truth is that it feels like too little too late - but at least it’s something and, while I still can't bring myself to actually be excited, I finally feel at least interested to know where it will lead.