These days I’m a lapsed Dr Who fan. I’m old enough to remember the first Doctor and I watched all the versions from the glory Tom Baker days to the not-quite-so-glorious Colin Baker era. I liked it because the format was quirky and because the stories were involving.
I’ve been less taken with the reboot. I enjoyed Eccleston and the Donna and Tennant partnership, but most of the Tennant era left me cold. When Smith arrived, I quickly gave up on the show. I could just about cope with Tennant leaping around to disguise the fact there wasn’t much going on in the story, but not a new Doctor doing the same routine. But the great thing about Who is, if you don’t like the current Doctor, a new one is just a few years away and so the news that Peter Capaldi is set to take over enthused me all over again. He has the right look and he has an acting style that makes me think he’ll be a great Doctor, so I decided over Xmas to dip my toe in the Who universe again. Unfortunately, that’s dumped cold water all over me again.
It wasn’t all bad news though. Amongst the plethora of recent Who-related offerings there were some gems that demonstrated what I liked about the format. There was a five-minute short featuring Paul McGann, and that crammed in a story along with wit and drama that showed just how great McGann could have been as a long-term Doctor. The five Doctors reboot featuring several old Doctors trying to get a role in the show managed that rare thing of being crammed full of in-jokes while actually being funny. My favourite moment was the Doctors piling into the Tardis and then just standing there until Sylvester McCoy moans that he wants to go home now. The best of the lot was the William Hartnell biopic that told a good story with emotion and with a sense of what makes the show tick. I enjoyed everything about these offerings, so suitably enthused I moved on to watching some recent Who episodes, and if they’re typical of the show now, I’m bemused as to what it’s trying to do.
I watched the last episode of a series thinking that was the most recent series, although it turned out to be from two years ago, followed by the 50th anniversary episode and the Xmas episode. All three stories merged into a surreal mass of light and colour and people running around where I never once cared about anything that was going on. With my mind wandering I longed for the Russell Davies era. I gave up on his Xmas episodes after that one where a giant cyberman invades London, but that no longer feels silly simply because it told a story the traditional way. New characters and the situation were introduced and time was spent letting us become interested in these people’s domestic lives, so when the jeopardy crept up on them we cared about their fate. Problems then mounted and everything the Doctor tried was thwarted until the big ending where the Doctor saved the day. That’s simple storytelling and it works every time, but clearly that’s no longer what today’s kids want. They want running around and soundbites and bogeymen leaping out of cupboards.
In all three stories the characters and situation weren’t introduced and then developed, but just sort of dumped on screen. In the Xmas episode there was a planet in perpetual winter, but we weren't told who these people were, whether they were real people with lives, or whether they were anything other than cannon-fodder. The jeopardy in all three stories was the same one that all of time and space for all eternity along with all alternate universes and anything else not already mentioned previously would be destroyed unless the Doctor does something that doesn’t make any sense and which he doesn’t want to do. And he solves the problem by doing something else that doesn’t make any sense, which is completely lacking in tension and isn’t very involving. To fill in the time before the non-conclusion random aliens turn up for a few moments to provide scary footage for the trailers. So the Daleks arrive and say their catchphrase scarily, and then go away. Then the cybermen arrive and stomp around scarily, and then go away. Then some statues move scarily, and then go away. Then some aliens with a big finger waggle their big finger scarily, and then go away. I assume the reason for this is that kids are deemed to have short attention spans and they can’t sit still through a whole story. But having an involving story worked before so I don’t understand the current style of replacing plot and believable characters and resolutions with running around, loud music, and narration to fill in the gaps in the storytelling.
Yeah, it’s light entertainment fluff for kids, but it used to be good fluff. Now with this desire to be clever and to fill the screen with dynamic stuff in every scene, even the good ideas are lost. There was a running joke about the Doctor and his assistant being naked, and if you’re going to inflict that on families on Xmas day there’d better be a good reason and it’d better work. Except there was no explanation of why they had to take their clothes off beyond the usual clever comment that’s provided whenever there’s no good reason for stuff happening. Worse, the scenes were so badly filmed that I had no idea if they were naked and wearing holographic clothes, or wearing clothes and being naked only on a holographic image, which made the punch line at a Xmas party fall flat as it was hard to tell if it even was a joke.
Anyhow, I’ll give Capaldi a chance because I still hope he can be at the head of a less-frantic and more-involving style of storytelling. I hope his show returns to the old-fashioned virtues of witty, quirky tales where the Doctor arrives somewhere interesting, faces an understandable problem, and solves it by the end, and there’s none of this smug, timey-wimey nonsense.