Well, it’s all gone a bit complicated really. But I think it’s going to be OK.
Looks like this is the year when Doctor Who the series makes its break with the extraordinarily successful formula established in 2005 by then-showrunner Russell T Davies. Back then the big Welsh guy with the glasses and the infectious enthusiasm took the venerable but moribund fantasy series and worked a TV miracle: pretty much overnight it went from being the butt of a thousand jokes about wobbly sets and staircase-thwarted Daleks to being the BBC’s flagship entertainment product, gathering stellar ratings and much critical acclaim and becoming a merchandiser’s dream, with DVDs, spin-off series, action figures and original novels rife. Davies was a massive Who fan, but more importantly he was a highly competent TV pro, and he knew how to re-tool the show for maximum impact and to make it appeal to an impressive range of demographics – there were bright wizzy colours and effects for the toddlers, scary monsters for the primary kids, cool sci-fi stuff and racy dialogue for the teenagers and genuine wit for the undergraduates and grown-ups. He even managed to work in elements of soap opera to provide some real emotional heft for the first time in the show’s history. By the time David Tennant was nearing the end of his tenure in the title role Doctor Who was even beating Eastenders and Corrie and was for a short time Britain’s most popular television programme, something which would have been beyond even the most hopeless fan’s imagination only five years before.
Davies made a point of not alienating the casual viewer, and it was noticeable in his first couple of series that continuity points to the previous twenty-six years of Who stories were kept to a minimum and that anything in an episode that related to prior events was set in context for anyone new to the series. Most stories wrapped up in a single episode, and those plotlines that did spread over two or more were sure to be reprised with a “previously on…” montage. There were running motifs through all the seasons, but these tended to be extras for the fans, and in general didn’t add up to much anyway (remember the gratuitous device of having characters namedrop Torchwood in series two?) The most important continuity was to do with the emotional states of the main characters, and as this kind of thing lies well within what one normally gets with a long running series it didn’t require too much of an effort from the viewer.
The big man bowed out in 2009 after giving Tennant a suitably operatic (and some might say, overwrought) send-off, and experienced writer Steven Moffat took over as head writer. Moffat had surely earned his place. He’d written some of the best received stories of the revived series, including the sublime Blink, which managed to be simultaneously the most ingeniously plotted and the most downright terrifying episode ever made. At the same time, the relatively unknown Matt Smith took over from Tennant – would the show still pack the same punch as before?
Moffat and Smith’s first season went out last year and seems in hindsight to be a bit of a transitional phase, with the similarities to what had gone before arguably more striking than the differences. Smith is undoubtedly a very canny piece of casting: for the first time since Tom Baker we have an actor in the title role who seems effortlessly alien, although it’s a bit disappointing that the trappings of the character appear to be gradually reverting to the hackneyed “eccentric professor” interpretation of the time traveller. There was a slightly stronger link between the individual stories than before, and certain developments definitely tended more to the cerebral than the emotional, but on the whole these were still stand-alone episodes, and one can easily imagine Tennant playing the lead in most of them.
This time around however it looks like Moffat has decided to cut loose. He’s always been fascinated with structural puzzles and the possibilities afforded by a format where characters can use time to play with cause and effect, and the 2011 series throws down challenges for the viewer right from the off. The opening two-parter (The Impossible Astronaut/Day Of The Moon) is stuffed with provocative unresolved events and mysterious plot strands that raise the bar considerably (The Doctor is shot dead five minutes in? Amy’s pregnant, but only sometimes? River Song knows something momentous but isn’t telling?) and even the main narrative involving an alien occupation nobody’s aware of requires unusual concentration to join the dots. There are deliberate gaps and jumps in the timeline and the whole experience of watching it represents a leap of faith that the writer knows what he’s doing and is going to be able to tie his loose ends up adequately. This is no longer a programme you can easily dip in and out of.
The ongoing plot threads continue to make their presence felt through the next three stories, although not so heavily. The Curse Of The Black Spot is on the whole a completely generic and pretty derivative pirate romp featuring Lily Cole as an extraterrestrial siren picking off buccaneers, but it does at least provide some light relief. The Doctor’s Wife, written by Neil Gaiman no less, provides a whole new mind-warping concept to assimilate as we finally get an angle on the TARDIS’s view of the Doctor. This is a bold, imaginative and very well-written tale, but like the season’s opener it does ask you to lean in a bit to get the full benefit. Then there’s another two-parter, The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People, an overlong runaround set in a monastery that’s also a refinery, that seems to have been included primarily to introduce another ongoing theme, namely the existence of doppelgangers and the possibility that people may not be who you think they are.
Another change this year is the splitting of the year’s thirteen installments into two chunks, with the second lot coming in the Autumn. This is probably a good idea, as it relieves some of the pressure on the production team, and reduces the chance of a sag in quality halfway through the run. It also means that for the first time we get a mid-season finale, the self-consciously epic A Good Man Goes To War, in which Moffat again shows his reluctance to bother with establishing scenarios and traditional build-ups and his delight in throwing a succession of ostensibly unrelated scenes at the audience. We do however eventually get a few answers here after an unfeasibly large stack of questions and some good old Star Wars influenced cosmic spectacle, as well as a wrenching and unexpected reversal, and this half of the season ends in a strangely downbeat manner. It’s been a bit of a weird ride, to be honest.
Doctor Who survived through the 60s and 70s, if not the 80s, through the willingness of successive production teams to ruthlessly throw out aspects of the show they didn’t like and steer the programme in different directions. So there’s some good precedents for Moffat making his changes – I just hope he can deliver on his flashy mysteries and take his audience with him.