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The Companion isn’t the problem with Doctor Who. It’s the fans.

July 29, 2015

A repost of an article I wrote for a site at the beginning of 2015, just after the last episode of the recent Doctor Who series. I do stand by what I said, but perhaps I came off a too critical at the time. Obviously an update post is due at some point!

Regardless, I hope you enjoy a longform critical analysis of Doctor Who. 

The Companion isn’t the problem with Doctor Who. It’s the fans.

Or how one person tried to explain the real reason Doctor Who is fucked up.

Recently a friend of mine made a somewhat spirited, if ranty, declaration on the current state of Doctor Who and how he thinks it’s all Steven Moffat’s fault for making the current series about Clara Oswald. Now I like David a lot and I tend to be able to see things from his point of view most of the time. That post was clearly catharsis on his part, just venting rage at how he sees the show in 2015. But like all rage, it’s scattershot and never really useful. With his rant, he managed to identify the symptoms, but in my view, not the cause itself.

So don’t consider this a rebuttal. If David started digging Moffat a shallow grave, I’m here to bury him.

So let’s get to it then.

The show is better in 2014 in almost every way – except where it matters.

Nostalgia is a weird thing. It can turn the most crap thing into something to be treasured and held aloft as untouchable. I think that’s the way many old Doctor Who fans feel about the old series compared to the new – the new show has too many young people in it, wizzy things, fast editing and romances and not enough slow moving men in costumes that are clearly not designed to be worn by humans.

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The actors were so happy to get a break, they didn’t mind the 5 years of physiotherapy it will take to get out of their costumes.

Now I’m not saying the old Doctor Who episodes are bad. Some of my most treasured memories as a kid were watching the John Pertwee era show. I’m just saying that it’s ok to admit the faults of even a treasured show – it doesn’t make you any less of a fan if you are aware of them. It may even make you treasure the good parts more. It certainly helps us grow if we can critically analyse something and break down what makes certain parts work and others fall flat. So can we start with admitting that the old format Doctor Who had its positives as well as it’s negatives, just like the new format Who? We can? Fantastic.

So, the old show did have its negatives, but where it did have strengths was it’s scripting. Being on a budget so tight meant the writers had to convey concepts with dialogue. Double meanings, subtext, setup. These were all integral parts of the old Who at it’s best and they’re the reason that the images that are now seared into the UK’s collective nightmares worked so well.

Whereas the new show – well I don’t know how they did it, but it’s looking mighty purdy these days. Whilst we still get the odd dodgy bit of CGI, the direction, cinematography and scoring have improved so much. So, very much.

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Seriously – LOOK AT IT!

But for all of that general improvement, it’s lead to quite a lot of instances where the scripts for those wonderfully shot episodes have slowly withered on the vine until all we’re left with is a show that even the talents of Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman can’t make engaging. It was especially noticeable this season when an episode had even a halfway decent script – Flatlines and Listen were both episodes where my partner and I literally jolted upwards – because all of a sudden, we were actually engaging with what was happening on screen.

The show has always been about the companion.

I’ve heard this complaint a lot of late – that by making the show more Companion focused, things have suffered because we aren’t spending time focused on the Doctor. Now, maybe you could argue that point. But I think it’s ignoring that the show has always been about showing us the Doctor’s world, and how our views change of it as we get to see more of it. All via our audience surrogate –the Companion.

In a great article by Film Crit Hulk, he addressed the thought that most good mysteries are about our understanding of the characters and their situation changing, rather than the characters themselves changing. Doctor Who is the ultimate mystery show with an emotional through line, where nine out of ten episodes are all about chucking people into an unknown and mysterious scenario and seeing how they figure a way out of it. And I don’t know about you, but the Doctor himself tends to remain pretty static as a character. This leaves all the narrative and emotional propulsion (i.e. the drama that keeps us glued to our TV) down to the Companion.

Sure, some of this is due to the format of the show itself, which necessitates a soft reset of the status quo by the end of each story and regeneration. But as arcs have become season long events, it’s all about how the Companions themselves (and through them, us the audience) change and come to view the Doctor and his world. And whilst I wouldn’t like it all the time, episodes like Blink, Turn Left and The Girl Who Waited show us that episodes with minimal to no appearances by the Doctor, or where the focus isn’t really on him, are just boiling down the essentials of what the show is about.

Which brings me to Clara Oswold and, to a lesser extent, Amy Pond and River Song. These characters aren’t what I would call Companions in the traditional sense. By design or sheer accident, all the main Companions during Moffat’s run haven’t been fully fledged people, instead being a plot point, mysteries for our author insert showrunner to ponder over/court. In Clara’s case, Moff cut out all pretence of treating her as an actual person and went right for the mystery angle from the start. Which resulted in all that Impossible Girl bullshit.

Now whilst you can tackle this from a perspective that it’s literal objectification (and that’s a whole other topic for another time), let’s talk about how it just makes these characters, built up to be besties the Doctor can’t live without, SO FUCKING BORING.

Because the audience isn’t stupid. Just because a show tells us that this person is super exciting, vibrant and the most important thing in the world, doesn’t mean it feels like it unless there is the story framework in place. Look at something like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which introduced Dawn about 5 seasons in. It took the combined writing staff of one of the best TV shows ever over a season to make her seem as valid and important part of the gang (and even then it was rather hit and miss). With all of Moffat’s Companions, we’ve had a short introduction and then we’re just supposed to like them, for no other reason than we’re told we should. Which is so frustrating, because apart from the fact that those actors are quite likeable in themselves, we have no reason to care about them as characters.

That’s not to say that this approach is wrong or that you shouldn’t do it. Just that, going back to what I was talking about earlier when it comes to the companion being the character arc for the entire season, when there’s zero narrative propulsion there…well there’s not much left in an episode of Doctor Who.

Because when you boil Doctor Who down to its essentials, it’s about allowing the audience to experience a flight of fantasy. The Doctor is the facilitator of these fantasies – an all knowing, wise, funny, best friend who means that the Companion (and through the Companion, us) get to experience the potential wonders of time and space where everything works out for the best. Now admittedly the show has had its exceptions to that – but they tend to be the exception to the norm.

Another strength of the show (and it toyed with more during the RTD and to and extent the Moffat run) is working on multiple levels. So whilst the Companions in the show are being affected and changed by the world around them, so are we, the audience. We’re viewing events mostly from the point of view that the Companion witnesses them. We’re feeling their rejection of horrible events or the Doctor doing something that appals them.

Moffat sort of gets all of that, but he would rather the show be Doctor centric and be a slave to the mystery. Looking back on it, basically any time Moffat thinks he’s being smart is when the show seems to suffer. The mystery element is pretty much gone, unless “here’s a really obvious clue” are the hallmarks of a great mystery. Gone too are any real human interactions that we would recognise – replaced instead with repetition of a set phrase or characteristics which again are used to hit us over the head again and again.

Think back to Rose or Donna – both are multi-dimensional characters, with families and lives that existed prior to the Doctor and that will continue without him. They had clear hopes and ambitions and you could see them grow as their respective seasons progressed. Even with what happened to Donna at the end – you can’t argue she wasn’t changed from the person we were made to hate when she made her first appearance in The Runaway Bride.

Whereas Amy and Clara’s lives revolve around the Doctor completely. And as for what we know about them – well, they’re young women who enjoy a fiery relationship with the Doctor. Do they have any other characteristics? Well, not really. Unless being willing to kill themselves to let him live counts as a ‘characteristic’.

Which brings me to my last point.

The show is for fanboys now.

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Doctor Who has had it’s ups and downs. Depending on whom you talk to, a particular writer or Doctor was the ‘best ever’, or ‘the reason Doctor Who sucks now’. I’m not sure what it is about the show, but it tends to inspire people to become fanatical devotees of it. To the point where several actors who have played The Doctor were mega fans as kids and the past two show runners were too.

Now that’s not a bad thing in itself – with a show that has been on TV as long as Who has, it’s nice to be able to have a show runner who can throw in a few things for the more fanatical fans to spot, whilst people just tuning in can enjoy a good TV show. RTD, for all his many faults as a showrunner got this. Under his leadership, the show became a family one, with bits of slapstick and action to keep the kids entertained and more adult themes to keep the adults watching. He got that whilst people may have been watching since the first episode; there could also be a whole lot of newer fans, drawn by the idea of the show being back after a break of 20+ years. It’s partially why it exploded in the US towards the latter half of David Tennant’s run. It was accessible, without losing its core identity that made people watch the show in the first place.

Under Moffat…I don’t know what it is he wants. When he started he said he wanted it to return to being a kid’s show. Fair enough – it’s not the first time the show has done that and Doctor Who has the concept of change built into it. But if it’s a kid’s show, why do multi-season arcs? Why have River Song? Why have Amy Pond be a strippergram? I suppose because, despite all he says, what Moffat really wants is old Doctor Who. But he doesn’t know how to recreate it using the current format. So he falls back on the laziest of writing tricks; assumption.

Assumption is actually a real problem with a lot of shows and TV at the moment, but Doctor Who is particularly guilty of it. Assumption is where the writers just guess that everyone must be on the same page they are, so they don’t need to take the time to explain things. It’s a sign of writers not being too aware of anyone outside the key demographic of the show, or else not caring. And Doctor Who has been heading that way for a few seasons now.

It flared up quite a bit during the 11th Doctors run, but the most blatant example was probably his regeneration episode, where huge chunks of the show were dedicated to tying up loose ends from several seasons ago. This being traditionally a part of the show that normally exists to draw in new viewers, it instead shut them out, holding aloft a sign that said “You must be a fan for a few seasons now to understand what’s happening”. Since the 12th Doctor has appeared, it’s only gotten worse.

Steven Moffar stated at some of the press events before the debut of the 12th Doctors debut that

This Doctor is going to be a bit darker. He has more of an edge to him than recent Doctor’s”.

It’s now quite clear that he was erecting a fence around the show, which only hardcore fans need to bother caring about climbing over. Because it sure isn’t a show to tune into if you like good TV, or an adventure show anymore. Moffat knows there is a massive hardcore audience out there that will devour and adore whatever is put out in the Doctor Who name. It’s been swelling in recent years, so now he clearly feels he doesn’t have to care about anyone who may have want to look at the show in a somewhat analytical light.

That’s not only bad for the fans, but it’s bad for the show in the long term. Ratings have fallen and people are turning away, the BBC is getting flighty about the show and the show’s quality slips down incrementally each episode. Even last season I have to admit I was only tuning in because the few high peaks sustained me. I’m not sure if I shall next season.

Moffat has stated many times that his real passion at the moment is writing Sherlock. It almost feels like he is holding onto Doctor Who out of a sense of possession, a ‘My Precious’ attitude. For make no mistake, even with the chance to shake things up this season, he instead decided to carry on with business as usual. Which will be a shame for the audience, the fans and Moffat. If things carry on like this, he may be known as the reason Doctor Who went off the air for a second time.

Yet there is a part of me that wonders if his ego would actually like his name being associated with killing Doctor Who. Keep digging that hole Moff. That time may be closer than all of us think.

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