Thursday, 9 May 2013

Journey to the Centre of Doctor Who (part 1)

I'm back! Did you miss me?
Sorry for the long wait. This post was supposed to be finished some time last week, but it was a lot harder to write than I hoped. I've been dreading writing it, to be honest. It's been coming for a while but, every Saturday at six, I've hoped I would find a reason not to write it. After the other week's Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, though, I knew the time had come to face it:

Something is wrong with Doctor Who.

Discounting anything with "fire" or "fly" in the title, Doctor Who is my very favourite programme. There's not much on television that I go out of my way to catch every week - but I've watched Doctor Who religiously since its revival (regeneration?) in 2005. It's not the best show in the world - it's not even close - but it's quite possibly the most enjoyable.
It's about a nine-hundred-year-old alien time-traveller; which is basically just another way of saying that it's about anything and everything. The Doctor, as he's known, doesn't just go to different places each week, or even different time-periods - he often visits completely different genres! The show is built on a foundation of (loose) sci-fi, but there's horror, romance, fantasy, action, drama, comedy, mystery, and a surprising abundance of tragedy.
At worst this means self-contained little episodes with simple stories and a few fun ideas; at best it means multi-layered explorations of life, the universe and everything. Either way, it just has such wild, creative energy that it's impossible not to love!
Which is not to say it's never bad. Every so often there are some truly awful episodes. New Earth, Smith and Jones, The Unicorn and the Wasp and The Curse of the Black Spot are all rubbish - and the first episode of The End of Time is utterly abysmal. But none of those - not even The End of Time (which, as David Tennant's swansong, deserved to be so much better) - disappointed me the way last week's episode did.

While pretty much every episode ends with the Doctor pulling a barely-reasonable solution out of thin air (that's just how it works) at least that solution is always interesting and inventive. Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS, however, basically ended with the Doctor going back in time and telling himself how to prevent the future. That's the most lazy, obvious, clich├ęd ending a time-travel story can have. It's so boring and overused that I've seen it subverted by My Little Pony!
Doctor Who itself actually has an in-universe rule about never crossing your own timeline, which exists solely to prevent this kind of cop-out. The episode may have had a tear in spacetime that allowed the rule to be broken, but a cop-out it remained.

That's far from the only problem with the episode. Almost everything on screen was either terrible or made no sense. Why would a burnt person's first instinct be to attack their past self (rather than, say, lie down in pain)? Why did the star not burn them for ages, then suddenly burn them to a certain point, then not burn them any further? How did the brothers learn their ham-fisted lesson about human decency if their day was erased from time? And why was that one guy ("Robot, make me a sandwich,") such a terrible actor?!
I could go on but, thankfully, I don't have to, because Badass Digest already covered it pretty comprehensively.

So, yeah, it was a bad episode - it was a very bad episode - but why was it so much more disappointing than the bad episodes of the past?
In part it's that this episode mattered. We were promised our first real exploration of the TARDIS - a spaceship of infinite size - but, other than a room with a glowy tree, a one-second shot of a library, and the admittedly cool Eye of Harmony, all we got was an exploration of short, tight corridors and rooms we've already seen.
It also didn't help that the episode kept referencing other, much better, stories - most notably Sunshine (the burnt-monster-people were filmed the exact same way as Pinbacker, the burnt guy in that film), Aliens ("They're in the room!") and, in one completely bizarre, out-of-place scene, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade ("Only in the leap from the lion's head will he prove his worth,"). Nothing causes disappointment quicker than being reminded of better things.
But, though those factors added to the disappointment, they are not the reason for it. The reason is that this was the worst episode of what is already a hugely disappointing season. Series 7 has been a weirdly hollow, empty experience - and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS is the hollow, empty embodiment of that feeling.

At this point, the standard course of action for a certain type of Doctor Who fan (I refuse to use the word "Whovian") is to whine and moan about how the show hasn't been good since Steven Moffat took over as showrunner at the start of Series 5. But I won't be doing that, because that's clearly insane.
Moffat has long been the show's best writer and putting him in charge was absolutely the right choice. The boost in quality since that moment has been quite wonderful, and I consider Series 5 and 6 to be easily the programme's best seasons.

Until Series 5, the four-and-a-half preceding series were overseen by Russell T. Davies (or "Russelty" for short). Davies managed the impossible in not only bringing back a long-defunct joke of a programme, but turning it into a hugely successful, and critically acclaimed, cultural juggernaut. What he achieved is truly incredible but, the fact is, he was never the strongest of writers.
Davies' approach to Doctor Who (and, indeed, most other writers' approach to Doctor Who) is to use time-travel to visit an interesting setting, and then tell a story there. Where Moffat sets himself apart is that, for him, the time-travel is the story.
The Girl in the Fireplace, Silence in the Library and, of course, perennial favourite Blink all deal with time-travel as a core mechanic of their plot. Even two-parter The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances - not content to merely be two of the strongest, most atmospheric episodes of the first series - deal with the dangerous meddling of the Time Agency (an organisation we, sadly, still know nothing about). Not coincidentally, all of these rank among the show's absolute best episodes. Even his signature monsters - the Weeping Angels and, later, the Silence - are based around manipulation and perception of time. Moffat just gets it in a way that Davies never did - he is exactly the right kind of person to be working on a show about time-travel.

Conventional fan wisdom holds that, while Moffat is indeed the better writer, Davies was the better showrunner because he had stronger season-long arcs. Again, I think that's insane. Davies didn't have season-long arcs at all! With the exception of the parallel-universe business in Series 2, his entire approach consisted of mentioning something throughout the series, then revealing what that something was in the last two episodes.
Bad Wolf. Torchwood. "You are not alone". Saxon. The stars going out. "He will knock four times". These are not arcs - they are teasing mysteries at best.
Moffat, on the other hand, works through slow reveal and domino effect. In Series 5 we learn straight away that there are cracks in the universe and, if it were an earlier series, that's likely all we would ever learn before the finale. Instead we slowly learn what the cracks are, what they do, and even what caused them. Five episodes from the end a major character dies. This is a completely different approach to Davies', and it's far more engaging on every level. Series 5 is my favourite series of the show, balancing great individual episodes with a strong overarching story - and that's before you take the wonderful new characters into account!

Series 6 goes even further in this direction and pushes its main story to the fore, and, in true Moffat fashion, it's a story very much about time-travel. It has the strongest opening the show has ever had - showing us the ending right at the beginning - then lets the series slowly show us how that point is reached and how it's overcome. And this works amazingly until the halfway point. If the whole series had managed to keep this up, it would be even better than Series 5 - but, alas, after A Good Man Goes to War things get messy.
The quality of writing, and of individual episodes, remains as good as ever, but the overall story becomes tangled up in itself - ending with River getting in an astronaut suit for no reason other than that's what we know happened so it has to happen. Anyone could have been in the suit (and why is there a suit anyway?) but it has to be River because it just has to be, so there, shut up. It does introduce the genius idea that Who's infamous "fixed points in time" are only fixed in terms of their impact, not their actual events (something also touched on in The Waters of Mars) - which is an excellent concept but handled extremely poorly.
The final episode itself is actually great fun, though, even if it ties things up badly, and the good parts of the series easily outweigh the bad. Series 6 is still highly enjoyable, despite its overcooked ideas and undercooked execution, and it remains my second-favourite series. When it ended, finally asking the ancient Question that had echoed throughout the season, I was buzzing with energy. I couldn't wait to watch the layers peel back from the mystery and see the answer slowly revealed - the show could not return quickly enough.

Yet here we are, a year-and-a-half later, three episodes from the end, and we are none the wiser. Series 7 has paid lip-service to the Question, but not in any meaningful way. It's had about as much narrative weight as "Why are the stars going out?" (or even "Where are the bees?") in Series 4: we know it's important somehow, but that's all we know.
Weirdly, the series then went on to introduce a second, unrelated mystery on top of the first - who (or what) is Clara? And, similarly, we've learned nothing in that respect either. The show keeps asking who this woman is, and it keeps not giving us even a hint of a suggestion of the beginnings of an answer. The way it's being handled is far more "Who is Harold Saxon?" than the much more engaging "Who is River Song?"

This series really does feel like a throwback to the Russelty days - far more episodic, and lacking the strong through-line of the last few years. Not that there was anything wrong with that approach at the time - Davies, as I've said, achieved amazing things in his time on the programme - but the show has grown and evolved since then; we've come to expect something more. Besides which, it feels episodic and unconnected to a far greater extent than any of Davies' series - the Ponds were getting a divorce at one point, for example, but then they kissed and by the next week it was forgotten entirely, and their final episode just happened without any real build-up.
The truly vital difference, though, is that the early episodic series all produced some truly excellent episodes.

Tomorrow we'll look at some of those great episodes, and how they compare to the ones this season. I'll also get into the more specific problems of this series, and try to figure out exactly what went wrong and why.