The Death (And Rebirth) of Doctor Who


NB: Contains spoilers for series 9 of Doctor Who.

Far, far back in the sands of time, there was a man called the Doctor, who saved the universe from monsters and fought evil at every turn, before leaving our shores and going into the shadows, plagued by uncertainty and unoriginality, almost as though he were getting bored with himself – or, he got a sense, people were getting bored with him. But, as with all good men, he returned, reinvigorated and full of lives, only to later face the very same crisis he had before. A perfect circle, then…

Doctor Who has been on the wane for a while, but with the rather lacklustre ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’, in my opinion one of the very worst episodes of Doctor Who since its revival in 2005, I thought that the modern version of the show was dead and buried. It had the worst of Steven Moffat on show – a tendency towards frenetic madness and a plotline so contrived that it beggared belief. It smacked irretrievably of a writer who was running out of ideas. At one point the Doctor rode in on a tank wearing sunglasses in the Middle Ages, for crying out loud.

Even someone like myself who defended the show during some of its more questionable mid-Matt Smith days, when the quality was unquestionably on the slide, was now ready and willing to consign it to the scrapheap marked ‘Irredeemable’. It had been going downhill for a while, but now it was time to wave goodbye to a part of my young adulthood now almost unrecognisable from the almost universally-acclaimed Russell T Davies days. It had a spike in quality with Matt Smith’s first series as the Time Lord, which had great energy and boasted perhaps the best series finale since the show’s return to our screens, but sadly since then (save for the 50th Anniversary Special) Who has simply been getting worse. And with ‘The Magician’s Apprentice’, I thought the spark might have gone out altogether.

But the conclusion of the two-parter, ‘The Witch’s Familiar’, was a big improvement. Though I still only appreciate rather than like Peter Capaldi’s Doctor, there was unmistakable joy to be had in his literal unseating of Davros, leaving the Daleks surprised (can they feel surprise? I guess not) to see the Doctor wheel into their bunker instead and utter the immortal line ‘Anyone for dodgems?’ Spiky character exchanges between Clara and Missy also gave me hope – one line in particular – that all was not yet lost.

However, with the most recent two-parter about an underwater base, where the main villain only turned up for about ten minutes before dying, the show does appear to be following a pattern of good followed by bad, oscillating from clever and heartfelt to boring or maddeningly unexplained. And the main problem is that despite his best efforts, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor just doesn’t fit properly. He’s too erratic, sliding from the cold-hearted, questing Time Lord who runs around in search of answers, to a more emotional Doctor (ahoy cheesy quotes like ‘I’m the Doctor and I save people’).

He’s also not innately likeable, as per David Tennant or Matt Smith’s incarnations, and so for me, his attempts at being compassionate fall flat and sound as though he’s not even trying. So the stories may on occasion be interesting, but if the assistant’s constant perkiness starts to prove tiresome, and the Doctor doesn’t particularly impress either, then that rapidly leads me to the conclusion that the most personable creation in the whole outfit at the moment is Missy. And when your villain’s the one you want to see more than the hero, then TARDIS you have a problem.

Ah for the days of series 5…

And also there’s just no drama any longer – admittedly this probably would have been the case whoever had been in charge at this point, but still. The cliffhangers aren’t interesting, because you know, at the core, that the Doctor will never die and that somehow they’ll find a way out of whatever doo-doo they’re sat in. In a sense we’ve always known that, but at least in the past it used to be interesting. At least in the past the Doctor seemed to be more passionate about things. Now survival is not only a given, but the manner of his survival is without excitement, and that’s just…boring.

The good intentions are there, but Doctor Who is running at full tilt (I say running at full tilt, but if you happened to see Peter Capaldi in ‘Before The Flood’ you’ll know that he really can’t) into a cul-de-sac. When Capaldi is a good Doctor, the story is naff. When the story is good, Capaldi is uneven. On occasion, both occur simultaneously. Who at present is just not the entity it once was.

Viewing figures have been tailing off for the past couple of years, and justifiably – no story since Capaldi has been in the TARDIS could really be classed as vintage. Three series’ worth of Clara Oswald are also about enough, and so I am glad that actress Jenna Coleman is leaving at the end of this current series. However, for that matter I would also like to see showrunner Steven Moffat depart sooner rather than later. He has brought an admirably madcap touch to the show, but his excesses are now in evidence more often than his good points, and so it’s about time he moved on. He has always written very good individual stories or two-parters, but as head honcho he has displayed a tendency to often make overarching plots too complicated for their own good.

As per Marvel films in my eyes, the formula has run its course for the time being, and the show now needs a good three years or so off the box, plus a change of management, to get the spring back in its step and some freshness in its bones. Ten years is a pretty good run, but now it’s time for a change. And if it did go now, it might guarantee that when the Doctor returns, we’ll be happy to see him again.

So we have a dilemma on our hands. The good ship TARDIS, its inhabitants and its maintenance team have nine episodes left to convince me that Doctor Who still has life in it. But to do that they need to find innovative ways of changing the show, and breaking the perfect circle. But time is running out. 

Alex Nicholson


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