Doctor Who - Directionless?
Doctor Who is a longstanding and by and large beloved show about a time travelling alien and his companions in a blue police box, but has it lost its way?
The Doctor – Timelord, Gallifreyan renegade, and madcap adventurer through time and space with a penchant for absconding with young, attractive, and predominantly female companions whose age gap from him can be best described as “considerable”. Go almost anywhere in the world and you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t at least know a few of the basic details: no name ever given, blue police box called a TARDIS, travels through time and space, pseudo-lecherous undertones, etc. After all, the show has been around for 50+ years and is literally the longest running television show ever. And part and parcel for any TV series, like anything in life, is that you have your good days and you have your bad days. Well, seasons in this instance, John Nathan Turner’s infamous run in the 80’s springing readily to mind for one.
And for 39 years Doctor Who did well, relatively speaking, as something of a flight of fancy that the creators had complete freedom to do whatever they liked with. Occasionally you had large story arcs that spanned a season or two, The Key to Time and Trial of a Timelord serving as a couple of examples, but by and large the show didn’t tie itself to any particular overarching story arc, it was just the Doctor and his companions (TARDIS included) going wherever and whenever to do whatever, and that was fine. Then. Nowadays it’s a little different, audiences expect different things, it’s just sociocultural progress. And in fairness, I obviously don’t speak for anyone but myself here, really, and anyone who happens to sync with me on anything I say serves as little more than a marvellous coincidence.
Nevertheless, I have noticed something about the revamped series and its direction, or lack thereof now rather. When the series was first reintroduced in 2005 with Christopher Eccleston as the enigmatic Ninth Doctor, the creators had made the genre savvy decision to have all the Timelords killed off in a great offscreen “time” war of genocidal proportions, thus eliminating what would otherwise essentially be an easy Deus ex Machina to have at hand. This provided acres and acres of fertile ground for character and plot development as the revitalised seasons went on, a war between the Timelords and the infamous Daleks with all of Creation at stake and the Doctor as the only survivor. Or at least, the only known survivor.
And it was fantastic, the close of each season some new surviving element of the previous holocaust coming to confront the Doctor: the (spoilers ahead) Emperor of the Daleks, the Cult of Skaro, the Master, and finally Davros himself, Lord and Creator of the Dalek Race. Then Russell T. Davies’ era ended and Steven Moffatt took over to a largely mixed reception, to put it mildly. Nevertheless, despite many of the background elements being promptly done away with (Torchwood and Sarah Jane etc. – with only the quirky Paternoster Gang to replace them all), the story arcs revolving around the aftermath of the Time War continued on, albeit a little differently. We had the Order of the Silence trying to assassinate the Doctor before his true name could be spoken to unleash the Timelords back into the universe (ultimately), the difference being that this was the culmination of several seasons that spanned the entire Eleventh Doctor’s run instead of only being a single season’s arc.
Each season instead focused on an aspect of the overarching plot: the cracks in time from the deliberate destruction of the TARDIS, the cultivation of a Timelord assassin, the (eventual) revelation of the War Doctor and the subsequent saving yet imprisonment of Gallifrey from the end of the Time War, and the war for Trenzalore with the Doctor’s name as the key to the ultimate weapon: the restoration of the Timelords. So what’s the problem I hear you ask? That all seems well in order, the story hasn’t lost that focus at all. Well, it has and it hasn’t. Take season seven for instance, where the focus first started to get lost: you had the Ponds’ swansong in the first half and the impossible girl arc of the second half before the revelation of the War Doctor at the end of the season.
At no point was this revelation alluded to beforehand, at no point was the importance of the Doctor’s name during the season made mention of, not since the end of season six by Dorium Maldovar. Instead Clara became the overarching plot split between the Ponds leaving and The Great Intelligence making a sudden reprise from the Third Doctor’s era, not that The Great Intelligence showed up much during season seven’s second half where he was supposed to be the overarching antagonist. But he was nothing to do with anything in the end, just an old villain out to settle a petty vendetta, with River Song showing up at the season finale as a rough conclusion to a very long character arc. And where was this moment, this “only one time, only one reason” the Doctor could and would ever reveal his name according to Ten when we first met River?
Well, at no point particularly special as it turned out, apparently she just made him tell her once and that was the end of that. It’s just all a bit blasé really, the handling of old and current story elements. They did it again with the Zygons during the 50th Anniversary, another classic villain picked out of a hat and then promptly forgotten about when the main plot kicked into high gear. The point is, it’s all getting very token, very haphazard in the treatment of the main story elements. Eleven’s finale brought it all in together nicely, with everyone fighting over Trenzalore as the Doctor was caught between the Timelords and all of his worst enemies fighting each other for the opportunity to kill him and stop the Timelords from ever returning.
But then the Timelords simply left after giving him a new set of regenerations and then everyone else finally went home as well, albeit after a lot of death and destruction. And then along came Twelve and season eight and a seemingly entirely new villain, Missy, who eventually turned out to be the Master regenerated into a woman. Which was all right in itself, it was just that there seemed to be no larger consequence to this miraculous escape from Gallifrey’s final days in the War, which is where we last saw him/her. Again, a very token, if still engaging, use of a major classic villain with no regard given to the main overarching story arc.
This is what I mean by directionless, the seasons are just reverting back to the old style of the classic series where the Doctor and his companions just sort of meandered about the universe with no larger consequence to anything except where the writers decided to drop one in for a change in routine and then forget all about it (the White and Black Guardians anyone?). You have all these large galaxy or even universe spanning threats and elements: a Dalek empire on the galactically expansionist warpath, an equally threatening Cyberman empire on the indoctrinating warpath (one that was only slowed down by wiping an entire galaxy out of existence apparently), the Sontarins and their unending war with the Rutons (admittedly not seen since the classic series but still mentioned nonetheless) of fifty thousand years so far, and all the other factions that both allied during the Pandorica sequence and fought during the standoff on Trenzalore.
Oh, and the Silurians seem to just drop in and out whenever convenient too. And where’s the supposedly almighty Shadow Proclamation in all this? Never saw them again after season four. Instead we just have the Doctor and his companions gallivanting around the universe (a universe that has a remarkable tendency to consist largely of all things Earth past, present, and future, but anyway), which is still enjoyable on its own but none of it seems to have any significance to anything anymore. I mentioned Torchwood and Sarah Jane before, and about how there’s only really the Paternoster Gang in their place now. This is something else that Doctor Who is missing now, the fact that the Doctor used to leave lasting impacts where he went, that he inspired people like Captain Jack and Sarah and Rose and Martha and Mickey to go off and expand the larger narrative further.
Now, no such thing, almost. Before, there used to be the feeling that the Doctor was part of a huge wide-reaching universe full of stuff to be explored and developed and expanded on, and that serious larger than life threats and events hung over it all. Now it’s just roving from one conjured adventure town (or planet/Earth time period rather) to the next with barely a pause for development in between. One final quibble I also have: much was made of the Doctor’s name being written in fire and spread across the Medusa Cascade, the barrier between the Time War and the rest of the universe, and that Old High Gallifreyan (which is what it’s presumably written in) was a language that could, in Eleven’s words, “burn stars, raise up empires, and topple gods”. But no, his name was simply something the Timelords could recognise as a sign that they were escaping back into the correct universe. Right.
I understand that consistency has never really been a byword of Doctor Who writing, but really, nothing ever seems to have any permanence with the show anymore, which means it doesn’t have any real significance either, making it a struggle to care about.