Where exactly is Doctor Who headed?

takes a look at where the new series of Doctor Who has taken the show and gets a little nostalgic for the ‘good old days’ of Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant

Image: BBC

Image: BBC

This article contains spoilers

The Doctor seems to have finally met his greatest adversary: plot.

Ah, remember the glory days of Series Two? A Victorian were-wolf had me sleeping with the lights on, David Tennant’s sideburns were charming their way into the hearts of French royalty, and Mickey Smith had us all feeling infinitely better about our love lives. It was a simpler time. A better time.

In fact, every series from Messrs. Tenant and Eccleston had much to recommend it. From the ‘Family of Blood’ two parter (reclaiming the image of  Victorian boarding schools), to the skin-crawlingly claustrophobic ‘Midnight’ (the monster remained scary just as it remained unseen), as well as the memorably sinister Vashta Nerada (a subtle exploitation of perhaps our most primal fear); these were highlights that any showrunner would be proud of. Cool sci-fi concepts, thrillingly outlandish locations, and of course, plenty of running. Go back and watch them again. They’re awesome.

Sadly, this is precisely what I was doing last Saturday at 7pm, whilst over on BBC1 Peter Capaldi spent 20 thousand gazillion years punching through diamond, muttering to no one in particular about something called ‘the hybrid’, and ending up on what I’m unpleasantly suspicious might be the lost planet of Gallifrey. Ever since Steven Moffat took over, Doctor Who has been overrun with these contrived ‘plotty’ episodes, losing much of the carefree galactic frolicking that defined past series. Almost every storyline now has something vaguely thematic: either Missy has been somehow resurrected (again), River Song has turned into some sort of mutant time baby (can she go now?), or Maisie Williams has once more escaped from the Hound. Much less running. Much more talking.

By getting bogged down in plot-driven story arcs, Doctor Who has moved away from its escapist niche. Suddenly we need deep characters, compelling motivations and coherent narrative structure; all things that Doctor Who is patently terrible at. Almost all the best episodes of Doctor Who’s mid-to-late-noughties heyday were self-contained. New creature, new setting, lots of activity with just a little bit of exposition, and a resolution at the end. Wham, bam thank you Russell T Davies.

Prior seasons did have overarching themes but they were whispered rather than shouted. ‘Bad Wolf’ stalked the whole of Series One, but never interfered which each episode’s autonomy.

Pre-watershed BBC broadcasting cannot take the same route as Game of Thrones: spicing up all the talking with full-frontal nudity. Though Karen Gillan’s kissogram outfit kickstarted the new era with distinctly teenage bang, it appears to have been a fleeting highlight. The exposition remains fully clothed and extremely dull.

Indeed, I can’t help but feel that the show’s writers are running out of ideas. With plenty of reboots and sequels trying to leech off past ideas (is that four Weeping Angels episodes now?), and a new obsession with two parters (three in a row this series), it feels like originality is on the wane. Long, fan-service heavy discussions of Time Lord history do not fill the place of exciting new concepts, and nor do the new cohort of now-mandatory sidekick boyfriends.

These characters are terrible in pretty much every way. Together with the advent of UNIT, they’ve given Doctor Who an irritating focus on contemporary London, stripping the show of half its charm. Their personalities are equally sketchy; though Rory’s entirely justified sense of emasculation was at times painful to watch, it is difficult to credit Danny Pink with any emotional response at all. A faintly abusive, charmless, cardboard cut-out plot device with even less character than the Cyberman he became. A seeping pustule on the face of Doctor Who‘s decline; he’s undoubtedly the show’s Jar Jar Binks moment.

The more dignified Mickey Smith, by contrast, was a character frequently defined by his absence. There to provide light relief and to reflect upon Rose, he never got in the way of Doctor-heavy sci-fi fun.

Let’s face it, domestic tropes like babies and settling down just aren’t the show’s natural environment. “This is marriage!” declares Amy Pond, as she and Rory throw themselves off a skyscraper (ah, the romance of double suicide!), while Clara’s attempt to destroy the TARDIS keys after her boyfriend’s car accident were reminiscent of the worst excesses of Fatal Attraction. One wonders which BBC executive Matt Smith refused to sleep with to be landed with such appalling melodrama.

So, Doctor Who should stick to what its good at – self-contained, innovative, humourous sci-fi – and send characters like Danny Pink back into the sentimentalist cesspit from whence they came. Perhaps, somewhere out in the cosmos there is a parallel universe where Rose’s father is still alive, John Lumic has created an identikit army of Cybermen, and Russell T Davies is still in charge of Doctor Who. Lucky Buggers.


  1. Totally in agreement

    Been a fan since I was 6 (1987) loved the new series when it came back, it was genuinely thrilling and a show to be proud of

    I like Peter capaldi but the show has very much lost its way the last 2 doctors

    Maybe a rest is once again on the cards to keep it fresh

    It’ll always be ariund

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  2. Disagree completely.

    The Davies era was great for many reasons but ultimately it was often a bit hammy. Now, I loved it but the quality of production, plot, and acting has mostly gone up since Moffat took over.

    And I like a bit of change and a focus on character. I care more about a character who is more than just a vehicle for an idea.

    Moffat’s run may not be for everybody but neither was Davies’. They both have their pros and cons but it’s important to recognise when you’re looking at something through nostalgia specs.

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  3. Was never a fan of Doctor Who before it returned in 2005. However once it return under the control of Russel T Davis I loved the show! Thought Chis was good, but when David took over, wow, what an awesome show it was. It was exciting, emotive, cool and mysterious. I am afraid that I personally feel that Steven Moffat has destroyed the show for me. Matt Smith was a terrible doctor and lacked any personality like the past two doctors. Mr Moffat has destroyed the show totally now by bringing back the Doctors home Galafrey destroying the mystery of the Doctor. On top of that Mr Moffats plots never make sense, don’t add up, randomly stop with no explanation i.e. Clara being a dalek when she first appeared wtf?, not to mention quite immature, unbelievable plots. It’s a shame

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  4. Amen, brother.

    Russell T’s writing was as deep or as shallow as you wanted it to be… The average Joe could tune into any episode from ‘Rose’ to ‘The End of Time Part 2’ and enjoy it as a standalone feature, yet still intricately placing story and character arcs in that could be recognised by the – shall we say – more engaged audiences. That is genius writing right there, where any age group can take something away from the romantic escapism that is Doctor Who. But **** me, Moffat what have you done?! I realise Tennant & Davies are an impossible act to trump, lets face it – TV gold dust doest come around often – but hiring Smith, an actor who’s only depth is that of a puddle, tied in with horrendously complex story arcs and an “I’m going to undo everything that Russell’s universe ever did because he tied it up so damn nicely and I can’t think of a reputable angle” attitude has left the show in an abominable mess. Thankfully the world is far moved on from the forgettable 11th Doc and that Amy/Rory car crash, Capaldi & Coleman are jus the most delightful actors to watch and I’m just sorry that they have to deal with Moffat’s over-indulged, incomprehensible writing. It seems the more budget Doctor Who gets, the worse the writing becomes. I say kill the show so we can actually remember it with SOME dignity.

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  5. I’ve been a fan since “my” Doctor, Pertwee, lisped and Venusian Karated his way around, trapped on earth. From a long perspective, what’s best about the show is its ability to change. One episode to the next, one season to the next, one Doctor to the next, one “showrunner” to the next. Talk of someone “destroying” it just indicates a lack of flexibility to enjoy the many DIFFERENT places the show can go.

    Change is the only constant in life, and in Doctor Who. Embrace it.

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  6. Disagree
    I’m a second generation fan and I love the reboot series. Moffat and Davies have different styles and whilst Davies offered up many fun adventures, Moffat brought change, insight and depth to Doctor Who. If we learned anything from the show it is that change is inevitable. Your complete lack of willingness to follow the change because you don’t agree with it shows inflexibility in your imagination. However, to each his own. Geronimo.

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  7. Obviously some people are going to like/dislike what each show runner has done since the 2005 reboot and it’s not about inflexibility of the imagination or lack of willingness. If anything, the actual format (other than doing three 2 parters this season) is totally worn out and dull. We get a “start with a bang” first episode, followed by a couple of episodes irrelevant to the main story arc by cobbling aliens/robots or something into a Robin Hood/Viking Britain (insert oldy woldy English time here) scenario, the big budget ep, the small budget ep, then we have to wait for the final couple of episodes to find out what the answer is to an inevitable question asked at the beginning… it’s been like that since 2005. However, it’s done in such a lack lustre way that insults the audiences that completely undermines the point of having to wait for the resolution. For example, putting the “crack in the wall” at the end of an episode TOTALLY unrelated to that story arc is NOT clever, it’s just an insulting reminder. Having to go back through episodes and realising VOTE SAXON or BAD WOLF has been interweaved without you knowing – THAT is genius!! Anyways, writer preference aside – the overriding point is… Doctor Who is NOT accessible to the vast audience that it previously was, especially children. Yet no hard-core fan who proudly wears their 5th Doctor celery stick on a daily basis can deny it is and always was a family orientated show accessible to all ages! I would consider myself an avid viewer/fan, but I cannot understand what’s going on without using Google and trailing forums. And even for the hard cores out there who pre-date 2005, it was always meant to be a family orientated show where different kinds of viewers could enjoy on many different levels. Moffat is trying waaaay too hard on being ‘thought provoking’ and ‘avant-garde’ yet still adhering to the all too familiar episode format.

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    • If you think the crack in the wall is unrelated to the episodes, how is that any different to RTD’s story arcs? Vote Saxon, Torchwood and Bad Wolf weren’t “interweaved”. They were name-dropped half a dozen times with no effect on the season’s arc, and then hastily shoved in for the finale. That’s not genius, that’s the bare minimum for a story arc.

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  8. I think Series 9 has been as close to the RTD years as any of Moffat’s previous series. We had a ‘Big Bad’ episode but at the beginning of the run instead of the end. We had a threat to Earth from a classic monster and heavy UNIT involvement – whilst the story spun out completely differently due to the intentions of the antagonists, Moffat’s thought process can’t have been a far cry from RTD’s sontaran two-parter. We had a base-under-seige episode which has never been absent from Doctor Who. I felt like for different reasons the last four episodes would have been incredibly difficult for someone new to the show to start watching then, but from a fan perspective, the only one I disliked was ‘Sleep No More’.

    I think key reasons which made RTD’s iteration of Doctor Who such an institution was it’s Buffy-esque ‘monster of the week’ format with a series ‘Big Bad’ which meant fans could reap rewards from engagement but casual viewers weren’t left in the dark. I also think that RTD and Tennant understood each other’s strengths to a degree which I feel has yet to be matched (I personally think Moffat almost looked down to Smith and looks up to Capaldi in a way that prevents the lead man from too much input). I also think the variety of iconic species and characters available adds staying power to series 1-4 unlike 5-8. If the names sycorax, slitheen, judoon, ood, krillitane and weeping angels don’t mean anything to you then their faces will and they look right in place in any galactic space bar. Whereas I don’t think 5-8 have really offered anything quite as iconic: the mummy and the Fisher King were memorable but derive from being one-offs. The only species that was worthwhile was the Silence.

    I have three big contentions with Moffat. Firstly, is his reliance on bootstrap paradoxes – the number of times that the Doctor does something with help or influence from himself in the future really ramped itself up in the Moffat period. Whilst fantasy comes with a smattering of things which obviously don’t occur in the real world, some kind of coherent, logical consistency is key to a decent narrative instead of Moffat’s tendency to write something off as ‘because reasons’. My second contention is Moffat’s depiction of female characters. Particularly the overtly sexual, excessively flamboyant camp female character which Moffat utilises so frequently: the similarities of River Song, Tasha Lem, Madame Kovarian and Missy go well beyond the idea that the Doctor can have an un-cartoonish female adversary or strong ally. This might to an extent be countered by the introduction of Kate Stewart, were it not for most of her character substance being derived from the fact that she is the Brigadier’s daughter. In contrast, Russell T Davies did have camp villains aplenty – lest we forget Cassandra or Max Capricorn or even Simm’s Master – but he was capable of his adversaries having a diverse range of back stories and motives. The third contention I have are the labels and names which try to elevate the characters to almost legendary status with no particular effect. Amy as ‘the girl who waited’, Rory as ‘the roman’, Clara as ‘the impossible girl’, the Doctor as ‘the raggedy man’, ‘the madman with a box’ etc really grate after a while and bring about this Moffat-eque self-awareness where I can visualise him telling himself all the time on his word processor, ‘write, you clever boy’. Whilst Eccleston and Tennant could be ‘the oncoming storm’ or ‘the last of the Time Lords’, because of the rarity of the title it added slightly more dramatic effect whether used in threat or for pathos. I haven’t really seen it work with Smith or Capaldi.

    Besides all my ranting, there’s a lot I do like still about Doctor Who and series 9 is now one of my favourites. I fear that it’s become trickier to access, and ‘Hell Bent’ certainly wasn’t the event television that ‘Journey’s End’ or ‘The End of Time’ were. ‘The Day of the Doctor’ certainly got it’s public celebration but I think that was always going to reel in attention. Moffat has himself a task and a half with trying to sustain attention and appeal to all sectors of the fandom but I feel like characters being too fixated on how brilliant they all are, causality loops all over the place and the provocative nature of some elements like the ‘Doctor Who?’ storyline and the Doctor having a wife tries to tease the boundaries of the show without any successful game-changing execution.

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  9. Moffat is crap, Davies was quality. End of. Also David tenant was the best doctor

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