Where ‘Doctor Who’ Should go in the Future
We have now had eight years of the revived Doctor Who. Throughout that time, the show’s transformation, from Christopher Eccleston’s leather-bound tough-guy to Matt Smith’s bow-tie loving Willy Wonka facsimile, has been pretty far-reaching. Take the latest episode, The Name of the Doctor (an episode which did not in fact reveal the name of the Doctor…conversely, my money’s on Dave), and the first episode of the new show’s run, Rose. Aside from the aesthetic differences, it seems that the entire ethos of the show has changed radically. Moffat and Russell T. Davies have given us, in their own ways, iconic visions of a program which before the year 2005 was viewed as a dusty, innocent relic of a bygone age where sex only existed off-camera and aliens with silly voices were made with sink plungers. Now, however, it seems appropriate, with Matt Smith’s exit nearing us and the identity of the Twelfth Doctor buried within the sands of time, to speculate on how a show which has reinvented itself for fifty years should do so again.
Moffat has overhauled a lot of things from the Davies era. Of course, many of the changes he’s made have been popular and right, but my potentially sacrilegious opinion is that, overall, the show has lost momentum (feel free to spit on me in the street for this). The Moff baulks at any suggestion that viewership is declining, but it definitely feels to me that the show is no longer must-watch TV. Since Moffat took the reigns, it has started to feel a little like the clockwork dummies of his own The Girl in the Fireplace: perfectly timed bantering between the Doctor and his companion ensues, but it is without a heart or soul underneath to match the wit. Take, for example, the moment in The End of the World when Rose, shaken by her first look at the Doctor’s world, says ‘they’re just all so…alien’. A statement of the obvious perhaps, but moments like this present a character who is identifiable, and we can believe someone would actually say that. Amy Pond or River Song would fire off a witticism or sexual innuendo with machine-gun speed but neither would have the same emotional weight of Rose’s fish-out-of-water characterisation- the show desperately needs characters onscreen that the audience, ordinary kids and adults watching on a rainy Saturday evening, can empathise with. Doctor Who these days seems to be missing the simple, heartfelt emotion which Russell T. Davies brought, and which made it feel like an essential television program, and not just another science-fiction show. Now, Moffat seems to have concentrated his focus on plot rather than character, and the show feels less vital. It seems to exist because it should, not because it must. Whoever is the next showrunner should remember that Doctor Who, at its best, is compelling drama as well as compelling science fiction. The show, in my opinion, has become too much about the extraordinary: the sparkling wit, the desire to always be ‘cool’ at any cost, and the glitzy effects, and not enough about the ordinary: what it actually feels like for a real person to travel with a Time Lord.
So where to begin in rethinking a fifty year old British cultural institution? I think the next showrunner could do worse than look back at Christopher Nolan’s work on re-imagining the Batman franchise. Now, before I become inundated with fanboy heckles, I am NOT advocating we see a moody young William Hartnell look-alike beating Gallifreyan security guards to a pulp and making off with the TARDIS. I do, however, think the show needs to embrace the same kind of thinking that Nolan brought to the Dark Knight; stripping away the gloss and extremities, returning the focus to a compelling central character, and ensuring always that the story is up to scratch, as well as never relying on gimmickry (cough…the Doctor’s name) or parody. Give the writing a bit of grit and spike again. Surprise the audience. Make them think. Make them uncertain. If you want a creative influence far closer to home, try Torchwood: Children of Earth, a fantastic sci-fi/drama thriller, tonally jet-black in places but one which still managed to be action packed, funny, and insightful. The show of course can’t go as dark as that five-night serial, but a heady injection of the grit and human emotional stakes that typified that series wouldn’t go amiss. I can’t help feeling that if Philip Hinchcliffe and Bob Holmes were taking up the reins now, their version might look quite a bit like Children of Earth.
Moffat has reversed a lot of Davies’ decisions, and I think it’s fair to say that he’s ditched some of what Davies did right, as well as what he did wrong. In certain areas, he seems to have thrown the baby out with the bath water. In others, he’s virtually launched the whole bath. For example, by lifting all of the limits Davies imposed and eliminating his trick of regularly returning the TARDIS to Earth and the companion’s home, Moffat has made the show a bit cold, as viewers (or this one, at least) feel they have less emotional investment in the human occupants of the TARDIS. The characters can go as far from home as is humanly possible, but without the knowledge that they will have a place to return to, and which peels interesting layers off their character when they do, the companion role starts to feel a little two-dimensional. Where Davies went wrong was in allowing the ‘soap opera’ elements to become the main point of the story, rather than adding character empathy to an otherwise interesting plot. Moffat, however, has gone too far in the other direction in virtually eliminating the idea altogether. In true fence-sitting style, I think what’s needed in future is some kind of middle ground between Davies and Moffat. In fact, I can think of a time when these two elements were in almost perfect synergy in New Who: Moffat’s episodes during Davies’ era. These episodes were the ones most fans (including myself) were most excited to see. Any future showrunner/producer should make it their mission to produce a whole series of episodes in this style: emotional but still with meaty science fiction concepts (Weeping Angels, Vashta Nerada) at their heart. That’s where the real gold can be mined in Doctor Who.
Another progression the show needs to make is in the Doctor him (or her) self. I think the last two actors, while excellent at certain demands of the role, have lacked the measure of mystery and authority needed to make a really excellent Doctor. In showing so much of the Doctor’s romantic dalliances, Tennant’s version took away a large chunk of the character’s persona; he didn’t keep any secrets, and I felt I knew him inside and out (you could time perfectly when he was going to say ‘Allons-y’). That’s fine for any other character on screen, but the Doctor isn’t just any other character. The audience should never feel they know everything about him. Matt Smith was a step in the right direction and carries a little more secretiveness and wisdom, but on the whole he still lacks the gravitas. It never struck me as natural that people would bow to Ten and Eleven’s orders as naturally as they did, and I think perhaps it’s because both look so baby-faced. I never had this problem with Eccleston’s Doctor, who was a little older and wiser looking (or maybe he just didn’t moisturise, I don’t know). Nevertheless, when he spoke and gave out orders, it just felt believable that people would listen. He seemed to have a face he had grown into and which contained secrets. I always had confidence that he would get his companions out of trouble and return them home safely. With Smith and Tennant, I always felt the companion would be safe if the writers felt like it, rather than because the Doctor was a powerful enough character in his own right to save them. For this reason, I think the casting of the Twelfth Doctor should follow an Eccleston route. The producers just need to remember: mystery and authority, as well as quirkiness (and get him or her to sign more than a one season contract…). The show has had enough of the cool younger brother Doctor, and it needs more of the hacked off older Doctor.
Another thing that needs to be put to rest is the show’s format. Moffat inherited a pretty sound structure, with thirteen continuous weeks in the spring, building to a season finale and then a standalone Christmas special; simple, clean, and understandable. But Moffat has tinkered with it, needlessly splitting the series into two, and incorporating the Christmas special into the series’ narrative, when it would be far better served as a standalone piece of festive fun. The next showrunner needs to end this unnecessary fidgeting with the time-slots, and just choose a time and stick to it. I know the intention with the schedule changes is to keep the audience guessing, but I think they’re just mildly irritating and confusing them. Moffat says Doctor Who should air when the nights are dark, rather than in the burning sunshine. I agree, and so perhaps a good compromise would be a thirteen week series, possible starting in September, as the nights begin to get darker? Moffat says he doesn’t want the show to be like an unloved but ever-present bit of old furniture; I think the best way to ensure it remains fresh and new is to write scripts which shock and excite, and any programme which does that will never seem stale. Moving the programme around the schedules just seems a bit gimmicky to me, and gives off the undesirable impression that it is a burden on the BBC. The show needs to simplify this in the future. As well as that, I think the show would do well to return to the old formula of a season-long arc building to a grand finale, but one which remains in the background and allows for exciting stand-alone stories. Now, the arc either overwhelms the standalone stories (series 6), or barely seems discernible at all (series 7). The structure of the series was fine as it was, it was the episodes themselves that were sometimes found wanting. Stick with a clear understandable format and let the script and acting be at the forefront.
In future, Doctor Who needs better writing; it is as simple as that. I know it is fashionable to claim that anything which challenges the viewer is great television, but what the producers need to learn is that there is a difference between challenging the viewer, and just mystifying them. Being challenged leaves an audience interested, but being overwhelmed with convoluted plot twists leaves them bored. The next producer should remember that moral uncertainty is always more interesting than logical uncertainty. The technical exposition of how aliens may invade the Earth is mildly diverting, but what is more interesting is the moral and ethical conundrum of whether or not another alien like the Doctor should step in and defend a sometimes immoral species like humanity. Harriet Jones’ destruction of the Sycorax ship in The Christmas Invasion, for example, is a challenging moment of television: whether or not the Earth has the right to use the ultimate weapon on an antagonistic enemy is an issue that can be debated long after the show finishes, and which speaks to dilemmas that we face in the real world. It can provoke thought and debate. Put human dilemmas and emotions at the heart of this extraordinary world of aliens and spaceships again, and the show will sing. In other words, make the audience care about the characters. If we don’t care, what’s the point of watching? Don’t just give us the how of a story, such as the technobabble of how the Doctor resolves a situation, but give us the why: how does he feel about doing it? Ultimately, it is the why and not the how that is timeless in fiction, and for a show about time-travellers, that’s a pretty valuable quality.
What do you think? Leave a comment.