Thursday, April 25, 2013
A year ago this month, I gave three different Doctor Who speeches in three different locales, including at the Pop Culture Association in Boston. To prepare for my presentations, my research expanded my love of the new series to the entire 50 years of cosmic madness. I watched all of the Classic Series running from 1963-1989 (with an awkward one-off in 1996), I started listening to Big Finish audio dramas, I read about the production history, critical analysis and I listened to the full run of popular podcasts like Radio Free Skaro. I know, my life is tough.
That all sounds ridiculous because it is but I am still nowhere near an expert. I’m just a big fish in a small (American) pond. There are those that have every production code memorized, they know the history of every planet and character and have seen every episode dozens of times. I don't know that much about the show.
So in many ways I feel that I have one foot in Doctor Who fandom and one foot in TV fandom. Right now I adore television. I like writing about it, I like reading about it, I enjoy spouting about how it’s more rewarding than movies and surprise surprise I watch too many shows. A lot of my friends are more in this TV fandom camp where throughout the week we enthusiastically chat and analyze the latest episode of Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Community, Bunheads, Justified, The Americans, Downton Abbey, Breaking Bad, etc.
I discovered the new series of Doctor Who between its second and third season back when I was in high school. During the Russell T. Davies run I happily enjoyed as a fun treat that only my brother and I seemed to know about. With each growing year, I became more enthusiastic and as David Tennant was leaving I started to get more and more friends into the show. (Thank you Netflix!) They weren’t going into the show as fans of science-fiction or British programmes, but simply they enjoyed great TV.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve noticed a number of TV critics like Mo Ryan and Ryan McGee on Twitter, TOR and other bloggers express extreme dissatisfaction with the current season of Doctor Who while I notice the fanbase is eating it all up.
The best example is the recent episode “Cold War.” It’s an Alien-esque adventure on a submarine where a lone Ice Warrior stalks the crew. The Doctor Who fanbase adored it because it was the return of a Classic Series villain who first appeared in the late 60s and had smaller cameos in the 70s. “Cold War” retained their creepiness but added a new element that fans of the villain adored. Yet some TV critics found it very routine with some jumps in logic. Again, I’m in the middle where I found it to be very fun and spooky but I wished it would have been more vicious and the supporting characters to be better developed.
This is the polar opposite of last year where the Doctor Who fanbase was disappointed with Season Six and the TV fanbase ate it up. I think I understand why this is happening. Let’s look at Steven Moffat’s run as Doctor Who showrunner.
The Eleventh Doctor begins with a new companion (Amy Pond), a new TARDIS, a fondness for bowties and a mystery involving cracks in the universe.
The Emotional Arc: This season it’s on the companions, specifically Amy Pond. The Doctor visited her and abandoned her as a child and this led her to a neurotic upbringing. Her relationship with the kind but plain Rory Williams is tested. The villain’s plot involving the cracks is even centered all around her. By the end, she is the one that saves the universe through her memory.
The Structure: This is modeled off of Russell T. Davies’ way of arcing a season where he teased at a codeword that paid off in the finale. (“Bad Wolf” in Season One, “Torchwood” in Season Two, etc.). The difference is that Moffat did it a whole lot better where instead of just sneaking in the cracks in every episode, he introduced more of their mythology in the middle of the season. Also the finale made sense, which was another step up.
When hanging out on the beach of Utah, an astronaut rises from the water and kills The Doctor. No regeneration, just dead. Amy, Rory and River discover that was an older version of The Doctor and spend the season trying to figure out how to prevent his death. Also almost all the gaps are filled about who is River Song.
The Emotional Arc: Season Six is very much focused on The Doctor. The whole run of the new series has hinted about the darkness of the character and the violence he has caused while saying he’s always about doing good. At first, the season seems like it’s all about prevention of the death but as the season goes on, it’s clear it’s all about if The Doctor knows the assassination will happen why would he ever choose to die?
The Structure: Due to the complicated serial nature of this season, this resembles more of other TV shows on the air where the plot moves forward every episode. Aside from “The Curse of the Black Spot” and “Night Terrors”, each one is sneakily about the mystery filled with clues, revelations and red herrings to this very timey-wimey season.
The final days of Amy and Rory cover the first half of Season Seven while the mysterious nature of Clara, the impossible girl who keeps appearing in different points in time, is taking over the second half.
The Emotional Arc: Oddly, enough, this time it’s on the adventures themselves. Moffat said he wanted to go away the arc-heavy season so this time it’s all about the “blockbusters”. In fact, every episode has come with its own movie poster. Every week is a different genre. So far we’ve had (in order): horror, adventure, western, family drama, film noir, Christmas, modern thriller, very sci-fi, submarine, and lately a ghost story. Every season has variety, but this one is striving for something new each week.
In fact, I've said in the past that while still about the adventures, Part One of Season Seven is about the show addressing finality of certain characters.
The Structure: This time the obvious influence is the Classic Series. Doctors 1-7 rarely had any sort of arcing story. Usually it was just jump to a new place and embrace the adventure. While we do have the Clara mystery running through this season, it is much lighter in focus than The Doctor’s death. There are more clues about what she isn’t than what she is. In fact, at this moment, Clara doesn't even know there is a mystery going on.
In addition, since this is the 50th anniversary, this season is very heavy with references to Doctor Who as a show. Thankfully nothing has been too overbearing for new fans, but the slight nods have been very fun in every episode. For example in the last episode “Hide”, the use of the Eye of Harmony and the Metebelis III crystal were references to Classic fans and the orange jumpsuit was for fans of the Tennant years.
Ultimately what it comes down to is that Steven Moffat seems to consciously be crafting the show for every fan imaginable. Since the show has been running for 50 years with every era and Doctor having their own distinct voice, there is never just one way to run the show. Personally, Season Six’s format is my favorite but what I like even more than that is how flexible and surprising the show can be. I don’t know what Moffat is planning for Season Eight, but it’ll be awesome if he hires even more new writers because having Neil Cross this season has been very refreshing.
So as I speak from both parties, I strongly want Steven Moffat to stay because although he has his own tropes he falls back on, he’s someone who is determined to make the show stay relevant. What it comes down to is, everybody needs to calm down. When the show is doing everything right, every episode and season should be something new and exciting. Even when an episode feels a bit familiar like "The Bells of St. John", it is structurally filled with elements that have never been on the show before, Classic or New.