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.