"Doctor Who" or: How I Learned to Stop Thinking and Watch the Mess
You ever had a friend since grade school or high school who now, years later, you have nothing in common with? There is no discernible reason not to continue your friendship — there’s been no backstabbing, no hurt feelings, no falling out. You probably even still like each others’ company well enough. You’re each just in different places in life than you were years or decades ago, and your friendship is little more than a continued shared commonality of a time and place long gone. Coming to this realization and accepting it can be sad and, from there, you have a few options. You can cut the friend out entirely, you can maintain the thinnest of connection through Facebook likes and the occasional text, or you can continue to actively socialize with the new understanding that this is more of a passive relationship of comfort and nostalgia rather than an active friendship.
As you may have gathered, this past weekend I came to a realization that I think I’ve been struggling with now for some time — “Doctor Who” has become one of those friends, and that it’s Steven Moffat’s fault breaks my heart. Putting aside the current wonderful things he’s doing with “Sherlock,” Moffat’s also responsible for three very funny seasons of “Coupling” (there was no fourth season, I keep telling myself, there was no fourth season…), and the surprisingly almost-brilliant “Jekyll.” And of course, before he took over as showrunner, he was behind some of the best “Who” episodes of Russell Davies’ lordship. So I’ll always have love for Moffat, just as I’ll always have love for “Doctor Who” dating back to a childhood watching Four (Tom Baker) grin his way through mischief and mayhem.
But it started to settle in while watching last week’s “Hide” that I don’t have the current love for this show that I wish I did. Like a jumbled up time loop, Moffat seems stuck on repeat. Was it a clever take on ghosts, that the ghost is just someone experiencing time at a remarkably different scale than us? Sure. But this is a well Moffat has dipped his bucket in too many times of late, and none of those times have been as good as the first (“The Girl in the Fireplace”).
But if that were the only problem with the show, I’d probably be fine, because it’s easy to brush repetitive tropes aside by performances from the likes of Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman. But this past weekend’s “Journey to the Center of the TARDIS” landed on a much bigger problem, a problem that Moffat has suffered from for some time now, a problem which is getting worse. io9’s Charlie Jane Anders has a long spoilery-discussion of the episode and hits the nail on the head:
When the current run of Doctor Who stories treats time as this magical force — with nonsensical rules that are made up on the fly — it’s not even good fantasy writing, because proper fantasy stories respect magic and treat it as something consistent that never gives you an easy “out.” This sort of story degrades the integrity of the Doctor as a hero, and of the universe he lives in.
Moffat is still very clever, there’s no question about that. His run of the show has given us numerous intriguing and perplexing plotlines. But too many times now, the way out relies upon an unexplained paradox, a universe implosion, a universe explosion, a pocket universe, or some form of purported timeline correction which, as Anders puts it, is more magic than science and an easy out. There no longer seems to be any rules, any form of internal logic.
This isn’t a new thing for Moffat. Even in his first season, he basically threw out the rule that the Doctor isn’t supposed to cross his own timeline, because it was a convenient (and yes, cleverly fun) solution for “The Big Bang.” Rules be damned. And that was fine once. And then he took River Song and the fantastic angle of two time travelers living out of sync with each into more inconsistency and almost, at times, incoherency, culminating in a pile of things in least season’s wrap-up which crumble upon closer inspection.
And then this past weekend we got yet another episode where the Doctor is crossing his own timeline and making up multi-universe mumbo jumbo in a way that lacks exterior logic or internal consistency. As the episode built up, I knew there was a cop-out coming. I didn’t even hope that I was wrong, because I lost the ability to have such hope. And that’s how I know our relationship has changed.
There are still enough things I enjoy about the show that I’m not quitting it. Nor am I even decrying it as a “bad” show. But it’s been a while since I’ve felt it was a brilliant show, or even a great show. And that saddens me. And yes, I’m well aware that Russell Davies broke the rules too, and that he started to have his own ridiculous crutches that he went back to too often. Davies’ setups weren’t about being clever or complex as much as they were about making things bigger and apparently more dire, but he similarly frequently had to use a logic-busting escape hatch to reset things back to normal. And when this happened too often, he started getting called out more and more for it. The frustration mounted and, while many a tear was shed over Tenant’s departure, I think very few were shed for Davies. “Thank you for reviving the Doctor, Russell, but please move over because we’re excited for Steven to take over.”
And so it’s come to this. I never thought I’d complain about Steven Moffat’s cleverness — and the man is bloody clever — but I would not mind a nice simple season, where the Doctor and his companion just get in some trouble, have some fun, and get out of some trouble. Without having to rely upon other universes or timey-wimey. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for the Doctor, Steven, but please move over because I’m excited to see some new blood take over.”