I have put off writing this review for a month for the simple selfish reason that I don’t want to write an article that says something bad about “Doctor Who.” But at some point there’s no other choice when I run out of think pieces to slip ahead of this cancer throbbing at the back of my skull. The sixth series of “Doctor Who,” (or thirty-second if you’re feeling pedantic) is a major disappointment.
My criticisms are not with the actors in the least. This is not a bashing of Matt Smith’s take on the character (which I quite like), nor of his companions. The problem is with a breakdown of the show’s writing.
The show has always had a tendency to cut corners and play fast and loose with the techno babble while retaining an emotional honesty. And that was forgivable so long as the show was still willing to work for it. Steven Moffat’s turn as show runner was not supposed to have this problem, not the guy who wrote some of the most brilliant episodes during Russell T Davies’ tenure heading up the show. But the sixth series hit a low point of tugging emotional strings without doing the heavy lifting of building the plot structure to support it.
There are constant proclamations of drama, that then dissipate in a strong wind. “Never has he risen so high, never will he fall so far,” it makes your blood simmer for what will happen next, but then the Doctor just shows up, tells the bad guys to run away, and then they sneak off with the baby again. There’s neither rising nor falling, just overly wrought dialogue. “We will find your baby”: here it is, the burning quest that he will never give up … that he actually never pursues even until the next commercial break. “They took my baby, they took my baby!” It’s cool, Amy’s over it by the next episode. The Doctor’s crib rolled out of the TARDIS with wrenching fanfare, it’s familiar to River and she shows them the awkward child carved symbols of her name … which is all very touching except for the fact that they never recover the child so she never actually uses this crib.
That’s just the last few minutes of one episode, and I could rip apart the entire season the same way, but it becomes a tedious exercise after a while, and ripping apart something that you used to love is vaguely nauseating instead of properly cathartic. Moffat is such a brilliant writer that these moments get to you, thrill you and tempt you with what will happen next, even after you’ve realized that the show won’t live up to its promises any more. It’s cheap, this playing of emotion without earning its impact. And that’s without even getting into the infuriating, underhanded, manipulative cop out of the central mystery of the season. The Doctor is apparently killed in the opening scenes of the season, but it turns out that was just a fake mechanical copy of him and he lied to all his loved ones about it because of some hand waving that they are too lazy to even bother trying to make convincing. Because JR and the shower makes more sense when there’s a robot involved.
If the sixth series of “Doctor Who” was but a random science fiction television show, it would be adequate. It has problems, as I’ve noted, but not so many that they are insurmountable obstacles to a viewer’s enjoyment. The real core of the problem is not that it isn’t as good as other seasons of “Doctor Who,” so that I am holding it up to some higher standard of television when objectively on its own it would be good enough. Oh, some might say, it might not be as good now as it was with Tennant, but those seasons were so good, that how could this not be a disappointment? It’s called a regression to mean in statistics, meaning that the most likely thing that can happen after an extraordinarily above average event is obviously something less spectacular. But that isn’t the case here. See, this season breaks the heart of what makes the Doctor, well, the Doctor.
The Doctor only kills as a last resort, and yet in the opening two parter of the season, without even pausing to ask why, without even an attempt to find a third way between repression of us or annihilation of the other, the Doctor orchestrates genocide across time and space. The man who always asks the Daleks to surrender, who tortures us with indecision in the face of choosing the lesser of two evils, who is willing to die for a principle with a smile on his face and sorrow in his eyes, he co-opts the proudest moment of humanity’s history and turns it into a massacre of an entire race of whom he never learned history, goals, reasons, or even their bloody name. That is not the Doctor.
Sure the solution is clever, is a fantastic science fiction twist, and would be a fantastic climax to any number of science fiction stories. But it is a violation of the character so profound that it renders the series unrecognizable. It has the trappings of “Doctor Who,” what with the blue box, the running around, and the travel through space and time, but they carved out the magic at its center.
Characters might evolve, but that word is not a light switch, it is a process. There was no process here, no slow slide of the Doctor into something he never was for dramatic effect. This is just bad writing.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.