I’ve been thinking about Doctor Who. Big surprise, eh. This contains spoilers, by the way. I’ll place the rest of this post under a cut – if you don’t want to read potential spoilers then fo’ srs, don’t read this.
A thought occurs to me, and it’s something I’ve wondered about for some time – one of the things that seems to be endemic to the new Who is the writers’ tendency to make stories that are epic, grand and sweeping – which is fine if it’s done in moderation. It really hasn’t been done in moderation. The Doctor is saving the Earth (from specifically very public and spectacular threats) – and often the whole Universe – on an alarmingly regular basis, sometimes from very stupid (and in at least two cases very farty) monsters.
It’s not that I have an issue with it, really. A sweeping epic story can be good. What I don’t like is the regularity of it. Counting double- and triple-episodes as one story I count about eighteen since the show was revived (that’s a conservative estimate). If you count all episodes separately that figure almost doubles. There’s been eighty-three episodes since the revival – if you’re wondering, that comes to 21.68% of the shows (not including numberless specials like the Children in Need stuff but it does include Christmas and Easter specials, that kind of thing). That’s right, almost 22% of the stories aired since the revival have been grand sweeping dramatic tales of a major planet (usually Earth), the Universe or both being saved in a particularly impressive and public manner.
These stories, for the most part, are all quite fine (though I disliked the Slitheen and John Simm’s Master just annoyed me, particularly when they reduced him from a genius villain-alien to a leapy-about glowy-sparky people-eater who can throw lightning). But more than one fifth is a bit much. More than a bit, really. Saving the Universe is certainly one of the things the Doctor is good at but that often? What does it do when the Doctor’s out for lunch? And why are the evils of the world even bothering any more, knowing that the Doctor has a 99.998% chance of turning up and screwing with their plans? There comes a point where you get the jist of the plot, sit back and go, ‘Well, the Doctor’s saving the Universe from an overly-visible threat again…’
The stories that have always stuck in people’s hearts, from what I can tell, have been those that happen on a small scale (such as Father’s Day), involve stopping a wide-scale threat in a very quiet manner (The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood) or both. Throw in some emotional tension and you get a heart-breaker like The Doctor’s Wife or (even though I detested the concept of the Statue of Liberty being a weeping angel) Angels Take Manhattan. Tense and dramatic episodes that hint at bigger things and carry an element of horror, such as Blink, are fantastic. And like I said, throwing in a big flashy world-saving story now and then, no problem, but I’d have expected more like, say, 5%. 10% at the outside. 21.68% is more than twice that.
I consider this in my own writing. You can get too epic. Or, to be more accurate, you can get epic too often. I call it the Saviour Conundrum.
A fair while ago now the series Happy Days had their most iconic character, The Fonz, jump over a shark on water skis. To this day it’s called ‘jumping the shark’ when your writing goes too far and anything afterward is likely to be a disappointment. After you’ve made The Fonz jump a shark on water skis where do you take the show after that? Everything either gets more grand and ludicrous or things get more tame and people go, ‘Oh, but he jumped a shark! Now he’s back to being a pizza delivery boy (or whatever it was The Fonz actually did apart from parading around in a leather jacket)?’
You can go too far and you can definitely go too quickly.
I may have mentioned before that I have no formal writing training beyond secondary school English (and English Literature). As a result I’ve learned how to write by making it up as I go along and sometimes I misstep enormously. So don’t get me wrong, I have an enormous amount of respect for (most of) the Doctor Who writers, in particular Mark Gatiss. I deeply respect Steven Moffat, though I disagree with some of the stuff he’s put in (for an example see the above comment about the Statue of Liberty; it’s made of bronze, not stone, and nobody has explained to me how it managed to walk through the famous City That Never Sleeps at all, let alone enough to get off its island, over to a hotel and back), and I think the tone of the show has gone up dramatically since he took over from Russell T. Davies as lead writer (the vast majority of the stories I dislike in the new Who are ones that happened in the Tennant era).
And bringing a dead show back to life is not an easy feat, particularly one with as much baggage and weight as Doctor Who. The revival was stunningly successful and the writers should be respected and applauded for that.
But seriously, guys. 22%? The shark isn’t just being jumped, it’s being assaulted by farting aliens, fiddled about with by an all-powerful Brit girl, upgraded with cybernetic parts from an alternate universe, blasted by magical Master-lightning, poisoned by Sontaran clone-food gas, made half-Time Lord through a ‘meta-crisis’, attacked by giant eyeball jailers, locked inside an impenetrable box, shot into an exploding TARDIS, invaded by cubes, forced to give up the Doctor’s name to get access to all of his life stream… and then jumped on water skis.
Stories need to have a climax. That’s just fact. Overarching metaplot, which the new Who writers are very fond of, also needs a climax. In a television series, which is not one story but a number of stories which are then tied together as smaller parts of an even bigger story, tend to have a lot of climaxes. Throw in elements like an impossibly long-lived alien, time travel and dimension-hopping – the Saviour Conundrum can creep in quickly.
Let’s be clear: I’m speaking as an observer, not from a position of experience. I’ve never written for television. But even those with no industry experience can have insight. And let’s likewise be clear that I’m not talking about the 50th Anniversary Special; that’s going to be big and epic, and rightly so. Half a century of Doctor Who is no small thing. I’m talking the ongoing seasons.
Unlike most popular television series (and, for that matter, most unpopular series) Doctor Who has a big advantage: the Doctor regenerates. He changes. Those changes aren’t small; he becomes a different person (and yet stays the same) with each regeneration. People expect (and dread) the change that comes with such dramatic events. The ultimate climax in Doctor Who, therefore, is actually the inevitable regeneration scene. But after that blast of energy is fresh ground, fertile soil to sow new seeds within. It’s unique, I’d argue, amongst all television series. Whether there are better or worse things than Doctor Who is a matter of opinion, of course, but there’s nothing else really quite like it.
We’re coming up to a new Doctor soon. Matt Smith, who plays the Eleventh (known) incarnation of the Doctor, is leaving; his regeneration scene is going to occur within the 2013 Christmas Special. It’s a dark day as far as I’m concerned and I’m both eager to see it and dreading it horribly; Matt Smith is my favourite Doctor. To know the TARDIS is going to be piloted by someone with a different face, well… That new Doctor will be good. I have faith in the casting team. They’ll pick someone good. But it won’t be my Doctor any more.
So what would I like to see?
I’d like to see more episodes like The Lodger and Dalek. I’d prefer if the ratio of small-scale to apocalyptic stories was closer to 9:1. I’d like to see metaplot building in a season, starting off as a gentle rumble in the distance, growing into a huge looming threat which, by the end of the season, everyone is outright dreading. I want more male companions; even most fan artists leave poor Rory out of their depictions of recent companions. I don’t think I’ve ever seen fan art of downtrodden, jilted, verbally and emotionally abused Mickey.
To be honest I would like to see Martha come back but considering the awful way they shoved her and Mickey aside at the end of Tennant’s era I don’t see how they’d redeem the mess. Not to mention that I wouldn’t at all blame Freema Agyeman for flatly refusing to do it (I believe Noel Clarke didn’t mind how Mickey’s character progressed). I don’t know, maybe she would.
I would like to see less flogging of dead horses. By the time we got through Series 2 (which ended with Story 177, Army of Ghosts and Doomsday) it was so agonisingly obvious that Rose and the Doctor were going to make googley eyes at one another forever and never actually get around to getting it done, so to speak; the Doctor couldn’t let himself return her love, even though he did love her, and it was very obvious that he was never going to. At the end of Doomsday we thankfully said goodbye to Rose and this aggravating love story – oh but wait, we didn’t. The shadow of Rose hung over Martha’s entire tenure as companion and poisoned it; she was forever The Girl Who Isn’t Rose. At any time the audience seemed to be warming to her it was made clear we weren’t permitted to because oh, hang about, she’s not Rose. And then, of course, they brought Rose back.
Likewise, the fact that Amy loves the Doctor is pretty bluntly put from the onset. She idolises him and not in the way a little girl does; she’s grown up and has grown-up feelings for him which, to my delight, completely confuses him. That she’s being unfaithful to her fiancé (emotionally unfaithful, at least) is equally clear, but while people completely ignore that Rose did the same thing to Mickey Amy is branded a ‘slut’ for it (again, I believe, mainly because she isn’t Rose). Enter a period of confusion where Amy has obvious feelings for the Doctor but still clearly loves Rory. She doesn’t want to give either up; she wants both. This could have been the moment to introduce the concept of polyamory to the Doctor Who fanbase but I guess that was too much of a stretch and they pulled back from it.
Okay, that’s a story choice, I respect that. But even after the episode in which that happens, Amy’s Choice, they continue to constantly revisit it. By the time they got to The God Complex I was about ready to throw my television out the window. Yes, we know that Amy loves Rory and the story is now that she was only infatuated with the Doctor. We understand that Amy has an unrealistic view of the Doctor and vice versa. We get that. Can we move on, please? These heartfelt sob stories are awesome now and then but a glut of them just makes me wonder if the writers think their audience is outright stupid.
Getting back to the point, though, I’m a big fan of the Doctor making big waves in small ways. Story 217, The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People, is an awfully good example of that. The Doctor not only secures for the gangers a chance of being treated like sentient creatures instead of meat puppets, but he demonstrates the biases and fears in his own supposedly broad-minded companion, Amy Pond. It makes her think, it makes the other humans in the show think and, hopefully, it makes the viewers think too. I don’t like seeing television shows devolve into nothing but political and social statements but the writers of Doctor Who are very skilled at making salient statements without being too blatant about it (unless it has to do with Rose loving the Doctor or Amy loving Rory).
I really want to see fewer Daleks and Cybermen. Gods, am I sick of both of them! Great antagonists but there’s so much more that the Universe has to offer. On that note I’d also like to see them get out of Quarry Syndrome – the budget-saving habit that Doctor Who has shown in the past of setting everything in the same rough place (the infamous quarry used in so many of the early Doctor Who episodes was utilised as a set for many different worlds but they were all noticeably the same damn quarry). I’m sick of 20th/21st Century Earth. Now, to be fair they have given us new places and many of them have been very inventively thought-out. One very recent episode, Cold War, is set on a Soviet submarine. One in the Tennant era, Midnight, is a fantastic little horror story set almost entirely within one passenger transport (and proves that while I didn’t like a lot of his stuff Russell T. Davies definitely knew how to write – mostly when he put his infatuation with Rose aside, even if he did have to shove a short cameo of her in).
Now I know a lot of people don’t like those small, closed-set sort of episodes but I think they’re great. They show a lot of skill on behalf of the actors and they force the writers to come up with some very inventive things (if you’re in doubt of that I invite you to try writing a story which doesn’t leave the one location – a room, perhaps, or a feasting-hall. It’s very difficult to do well). In addition to forcing the actor to work to maximum capacity it brings the best out of the character. The Doctor does a lot of running but he’s at his best when he can’t run any more.
Either way there will be a lot of changes come Christmas this year. Not only do we lose Matt Smith but, as I understand it, Steven Moffat will no longer be the lead writer. Moffat is the kind of writer that tends to go out with a bang (look at the ending of Season 2 of Sherlock for proof of that) and a lot of strange things are bound to happen.