The concept is a timeless one. A wise, crotchety wizard, with otherworldly experience and a magic wand takes a young companion on the journey of a lifetime to faraway lands and times. With wit and intelligence, the pair battle monsters and villains in their many places.
Yet, the most impressive aspect of sci-fi’s longest enduring franchise can be traced back to an arbitrary gimmick created in the 1960s when the first doctor, William Hartnell, stepped down from the role he helped define. At that moment, the production staff of a plucky and popular kids show, needing a means to keep the series going, invented a novel in-universe explanation to switch actors.
It was a stroke of convenience that ensured, above all, that “Doctor Who” as a franchise can always refresh itself at the proverbial drop of the hat. (Or maybe a fez.) Because no one on the show was so important as to be required to be there the entire run. The series could pivot at any moment.
Unlike many, I didn’t watch the last two episodes of the season as they aired. Real life got in the way and, let’s just say, a less than enthusiastic reaction to some of this season’s episodes stunted my interest. So I waited until this past Thanksgiving weekend, when I endeavored to avoid familiar discussions, and watched the final two-parter that closed this season out. Then I took some time to consider my opinion and that of the rest of fandom.
In many ways I fully agree with a number of points raised by Michael Hinman in his story “‘Doctor Who’ Has Finally Run Out Of Gas.” I just disagree with some of his conclusions.
At the core of that disagreement is the idea that the franchise might need a break, or that the episodes we got this season are signs of a bigger problem of franchise fatigue.
What I find is the series itself, its concept, isn’t the problem. Neither is its longevity in these later seasons of the new series. The show isn’t getting long in the tooth. The concept is timeless and flexible.
The problem with the current series isn’t so much the day-to-day writing or acting, it’s a matter of scope creep — a lack of focus on the fundamentals needed to make the concept work well. (For those not of a technical persuasion, scope creep is a term used heavily in computer programming for a program that loses its focus and grows bloated with new features and ideas that are just outside of the core feature that defined the original idea.)
More simply, the series is growing too big for its britches.
For “Doctor Who,” the current problem is that the core staff, its producers and showrunner Steve Moffat, are too in love with the idea of the Doctor — the romanticized madman with a box traveling space and time to stop world-ending events on a weekly basis, facing impossible odds and pulling through with clever wit and improvised solutions.
We no longer get focused, intimate stories like “Blink” or “The Girl In the Fireplace” (which have come to define fans’ views on Moffat’s style of Doctor). What we’ve got is world-ending events on a near weekly basis, or ridiculously campy concepts pulled from a hat, designed with no other intent than to pay fanservice to writers too in love with the idea of “Doctor Who” as larger than life and full of magic and wonder. This leads to moments where “magic” effectively saves the day. (In other words, we call it a Deus Ex Machina)
To see what I mean, let’s review some of this season’s episodes.
A dinosaur running around 1800s London while the Doctor stumbles into an organ harvesting group of clockwork men.
‘Into the Dalek’
The last crew, and hope, of the human race capture a Dalek. They need to shrink someone down to go on a fantastic voyage. Or else the Daleks might destroy the human race.
‘Robots of Sherwood’
Stranded reboots, not the same ones from Deep Breath, are stealing gold to repair a broken reactor that will probably explode and destroy the world once activated.
The Doctor’s fears invent an unseen enemy and faces a childhood fear.
The Doctor masterminds a bank robbery.
An alien war machine, which is powerful enough to kill everyone on the planet, must be stopped, or the planet will face certain destruction.
‘Kill the Moon’
The moon is an egg for a space dragon. When it hatches, everyone on the planet will die. Maybe …
‘Mummy on the Orient Express’
The Doctor visits a space train replica of the Orient Express and fights the reanimated corpse of a dead warrior.
The Doctor fights 2-dimensional aliens that may or may not be trying to destroy the world.
‘In the Forest of the Night’
Trees appear around the world and save it from complete destruction.
‘Dark Water & Death in Heaven’
The Master has prepared an army of cybermen, using Earth’s dead, to destroy the Earth and many other worlds. It’s up to the Doctor to save everyone.
If you are keeping count, seven (maybe eight) out of 12 episodes this season involve world ending enemies the Doctor must stop. Many times when he does, the solution is derived in the last five minutes, lacking a logical basis other than magic or the Doctor being confused about the enemies intent. (The trees were trying to save us! The space dragon just laid an identical egg, with identical mass, and replaced the moon! That gold arrow you shot, comprised of an incredibly malleable metal, just penetrated an alloy designed for the depths of space! Those people who died in the bank heist, surprise, it was my plan all along … timey wimey!)
That is the real problem the series has begun to face.
When everything is world ending, nothing truly is. Especially if it’s stopped at the last minute through vague hand waving. When every solution comes too easily after nearly 40 minutes of rushing about, no danger truly exists.
The show becomes at its core the sound of fury and thunder, signifying nothing.
What the show needs is for Moffat to take everything down a peg. Episodes like “Flatline” and “Listen” were examples of the more intimate story style I mention, perhaps flawed only in their lack of experienced actors and out of place feel in such a rather busy season. The Doctor doesn’t need to face insurmountable odds every week. He doesn’t need to be a god we mere mortals rely on. He need not be a romanticized force of nature moving throughout history.
Imagine the episode “Breath” was the story of a single clockwork man stranded in 1800s London. It’s a confused machine AI taken in and used by human street thugs in some back-alley scam. The only consequence being the random injury of a handful of people who crossed their paths. What if the Doctor, having just regenerated, found him and tried to save him from his own actions, but suffering post-regeneration confusion actually made things worse? Or he was confused as the real killer?
What if “Kill the Moon” had involved a small island on Earth, an egg near the island’s center and a reactor that was killing that same, albeit smaller, space creature? What if it hadn’t even been a space dragon at all? What if the same moral question of saving human lives over this single unknown alien were the Doctor’s issue?
What if the Doctor landed on a modern day train, not a space train or an old train? With nothing but humans imagining some monster, which was actually an ordinary human killing people onboard? What if the Doctor was faced with having to defeat the idea of a monster?
What if “In the Forest of the Night” took place on a small satellite arboretum where a class trip was stranded because the trees had enveloped the station? (With the same outcome of the trees saving everyone?)
What if Missy had hooked up a number of comatose patients into her computer for the sake of some experiment, perhaps to lure the Doctor, perhaps not? But instead of some army, it was a twisted game of torture at some small hospital, all in a virtual world?
That is my ultimate point about the current state of this show. The series is too focused on making the series larger than life, more so than the last season (and continuously expanding every season). What it needs is to de-escalate the stories. Reduce their scope until the Doctor is no longer a force of nature moving throughout history, but a single being bringing wisdom and hope to people we can relate to in more approachable fashion — a hero with more intelligence, humility and approachability than we’ve had in the past few seasons.