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Wednesday, 3 October 2012

On falling out of love with Doctor Who

A friend asked me the other day if I had caught the final episode of the latest series of Doctor Who. I confessed that not only had I failed to catch it, but that I had stopped watching the show some time ago. The acknowledgment of that fact still makes me feel a little bit sad.

When Russell T Davies revived the franchise in 2004, he reclaimed Saturday night TV for the family. Doctor Who, with Christopher Ecclestone and then David Tennant in the starring role, was the only programme that our whole family could sit and watch. It seemed to have something for everyone. But much as I loved this reinvention of the show, I wondered if there would come a point at which I would eventually tire of it. When I was a lad (and it was all fields around here), it had a definite shelf life. Once you had worked your way through a couple of Doctors, it was usually time to move on. I lost interest towards the end of Tom Baker’s reign and, by the time the TARDIS was occupied by Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford, Doctor Who meant about as much to me as Andy Pandy or Emmerdale Farm.

I don’t, however, think that my current lack of enthusiasm has anything to do with Matt Smith. From what I’ve seen, he is a fine actor and a very good Doctor; he’s quirky, weird and funny, but with just the right hint of menace. My indifference may be something to do with the fact that my youngest child has also lost interest in the show, but I think the writing was actually on the wall during the last days of David Tennant's tenure. That series drifted lamely towards a prolonged and cheesy farewell that was utterly devoid of dramatic tension. While Russell T Davies may have stayed just a little bit too long, his successor at the helm, Stephen Moffat, is probably too much of a Doctor Who geek to have been left in charge of steering the ship. Under his direction, the show has become almost ridiculously self-referential and pointlessly complicated. At times, one gets the impression that elements of unresolved plot within the various timelines are accumulating like so many piles of uncollected rubbish. The narrative arc, for instance, around the character of River Song, is just too convoluted to care about. And if I ever hear the phrase "Hello, sweetie" again, I may well commit an act of violence.

I think, however, that my current lack of enthusiasm is mainly about what I believe to be a fatal flaw in the writing. This might best described as an absence of jeopardy, brought about through the current Doctor's unfortunate acquisition of messianic qualities and seemingly limitless power. For example: I can’t be the only person to have grown bored, and then irritated, by the infinite capabilities of the sonic screwdriver. In the old days, it was a handy little tool for getting the Doc out of tricky situations. Where once it might have unlocked a door or maybe sparked a broken circuit into life, it is now a fall-back device that can do just about anything, making Harry Potter’s magic wand look about as effective as a stick of celery. It does, however, come in handy for writers struggling to resolve awkward plot situations.

In order willingly to suspend disbelief, we have to believe that there is at least a chance that the Doctor might fail. When he can do literally anything, we have no stake in the drama, because there isn’t any. You can't have 'drama' when the central character has a bottomless pocket full of GET OUT OF JAIL FREE cards.

Without wishing to sound like too much of a traditionalist, omnipotence was never a characteristic of previous Doctors and I’m afraid that the notion of ‘rebooting’ the universe to resolve a plot was the writing equivalent of the infamous Dallas series #9 ‘it was all a dream’ debacle. These developments have painted the show into a corner, from where it can surely only benefit from some kind of downgrade.
It pains me to say it, but what Doctor Who probably needs now is several years off before trying another imaginative reinvention.

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