A few months back I found myself ruminating about the first half of the 2011 season of Doctor Who and about how showrunner and lead writer Steven Moffat was risking alienating his audience by introducing complicated and nonlinear story arcs. The second half of the season has now aired, and I find that I’m somehow not as bothered about the convoluted nature of this year’s ongoing narrative as I was in July, though I don’t think this is because Moffat’s neatly tied up all his loose ends and explained all his murky plot elisions satisfactorily (I would have to re-watch both his seasons back-to-back to work that one out) – it’s probably more to do with becoming conditioned to this dot-to-dot style of storytelling, and the fact that I’ve gradually become more and more distracted by another change I’ve noticed to the traditional Who formula.
It’s like this, and while I know what follows is an over-simplification, I don’t think it’s a serious one. Way way back in the day, when there were only three TV channels and the Doctor was characterised as an eccentric outsider rather than an angry-God-slash-sex-object, Who tended to use and re-use only a very small number of stock scenarios, along the lines of: 1) aliens want to conquer the Earth/galaxy/universe, 2) mad scientist/emperor wants to conquer the Earth/galaxy/etc, 3) evil entity from before the dawn of time wants to destroy the Earth etc etc, or 4) over-curious scientists/greedy industrialists unleash primal unstoppable force that will inevitably destroy and so on and so on. These set-ups and slight variations on them would play out over and over again, but it really didn’t matter because, and much as I distrust sweeping generalisations I’m going for a biggie here, nobody watches Doctor Who for the plots. Now and then you’d get one that would make you sit up and take notice (the beyond-fabulous City Of Death, which deserves to be studied at degree level), but the appeal of Who was always to do with its wit, its charm, its occasional light satires on modern society and its ingenuity at devising reasonably-priced and family-friendly chills and thrills. The decline of the programme in the 80s had a lot to do with its makers losing sight of the importance of these qualities.
One of the many pleasing aspects of Russell T Davies’s hyper-successful reactivation of the franchise in 2005 was the clear sense that he fully understood the underlying reasons for the show’s long-running popularity. He made it a priority that the show should be funny and accessible as well as scary and escapist and was happy to rely on plotlines that used variations on the stock scenarios listed in the previous paragraph. We got a number of villains who were essentially extreme capitalists who just wanted to own everything, a re-introduction of the Daleks as arch-xenophobes who wanted to wipe everyone else out and a few episodes functioning as allegories on society that might be positive (the wonderful and uplifting Gridlock) or deeply troubling (Midnight, which may be one of the most disturbing dramas ever broadcast by the BBC at teatime). The Earth was being invaded on a fortnightly basis, lunatics were threatening to blow up the universe, petty bureaucracy and sleazy Murdoch-style oligarchs were being lampooned, and all was right in the world.
With this in mind, it’s worth now considering the latest tranche of episodes, and the 2011 season as a whole, and the contrast in scale between the threats presented here and those we’ve seen before starts to become really striking. If you disregard the five installments written by Moffat that deal with the series arc to do with the Doctor’s death and his relationship with his lover-or-assassin River Song you’re left with a clutch of small, personal, almost intimate, episodes that take place in closed environments and are mainly concerned with the relationships between the lead characters. Villains and plots to invade or conquer are almost entirely absent – there’s the capricious and greedy House from The Doctor’s Wife, and some particularly ineffective and mainly sidelined Cybermen in Closing Time but that’s about it. Drama and conflict are instead generated through ostensibly benign systems malfunctioning (The Curse Of The Black Spot, The Rebel Flesh, The Girl Who Waited) or misunderstood alien entities causing suffering unwittingly (Night Terrors, The God Complex). I’m not sure if the small-scale nature of these stories is to do with budgetary considerations, but they all undeniably look inward, and you’d be hard-pressed to find any comment on the real world within them.
Does it matter? Isn’t the main issue whether the stories are any good? Well, that’s a reasonable point, but I’d hate for this show to stop engaging with the outside world entirely and vanish up its own fundament. As it happens, some of these episodes are pretty good. I mentioned the lyrical and imaginative The Doctor’s Wife before, but for my money it’s beaten by The Girl Who Waited, a simple but heartbreaking scenario involving tangled time-streams that gives Karen Gillan the chance to show what a great actor she can be – her performance and the brilliant make-up job make the older, bitter version of Amy forced to spend thirty years alone in a hostile environment utterly convincing. The light relief Closing Time is also entirely successful on its own terms, and gives Matt Smith a chance to display his formidable comedy skills, and The God Complex, although coming across in parts like a weird throwback to certain “difficult” Sylvester McCoy-era Who stories, is tight and claustrophobic and boasts some very sharp dialogue. Only Night Terrors really disappoints from this half of the season – its tower block setting is nicely rendered, but the characterisation and scripting isn’t great, and spooky doll houses seem a bit clichéd and played out. All of these “small” stories do however have the whiff of filler about them, as though they’re marking time between more significant events.
Which leaves us where we came in, with Moffat and his grand design. He gives himself two episodes this time, and they’re both so uproariously confident and entertaining that I’m giving him a free pass on the fact that certain plot points that seemed very important earlier on appear to have been fudged or glossed over. Let’s Kill Hitler, kicking off the run, is almost insanely bold, with the TARDIS crew crashlanding in the Führer’s office and then insouciantly bundling him into a cupboard when the more pressing matter of the mysterious River Song’s psychopathic tendencies raises its head. Plus you get crop circles, lethal lipstick and a shape-shifting robot occupied by tiny people. The series closer The Wedding Of River Song is no less outrageous, starting as it does with scenes of modern London with steam trains coming out of high rise office buildings, pterodactyls in Hyde Park and Churchill annointed as the Holy Roman Emperor. The skilful and intricate flashback structure, frequent switches of location and endless cavalcade of witty one-liners help deflect one’s attention from the fact that the villainous and arch Madame Kovarian’s scheme to kill the Doctor is convoluted beyond all sanity – why go to the trouble to kidnap a child and spend years programming her as an assassin when you’ve had multiple opportunities to just shoot your target dead with a gun? The series ends on an interesting note: the Universe now thinks the Doctor is dead, which with luck will mean that all the tedious guff about him being an oncoming storm that can defeat foes purely through the force of his reputation can now be dropped.
So, Doctor Who, 2011-style. Different, unpredictable, undoubtedly alienating for the casual viewer and with at least one curious lapse in consistent script-editing (given that Amy and Rory had their baby abducted halfway through the run they seem remarkably unconcerned in subsequent episodes). It’s nice to vary the formula but I’m hoping next year’s series will be a bit more digestible, and a bit more outward-looking.