Parents of young children often say that the first day of school is the easy bit. Junior goes off filled with enthusiasm for an adventure that’s been long anticipated. The problems come with Day 3 or 4, when the penny drops that it’s going to be like this all the time.
That, more or less, is my feeling about the New New Who right now. It could just be that the honeymoon period’s worn off and, particularly after the dreadful Dalek episode, I’m less inclined to cut it some slack. Except that I can appreciate, intellectually, that Time of The Angels was really pretty good. It had pace, it had mystery, unpredictablility, scares and style. A lot of effort and money had been thrown at it, because clearly this is the story that Moff has been wanting to tell for years. And yet, like so much entertainment these days, it left me feeling empty. I want to know how it pans out and I’ll tune in next week, but something was missing.
Two little scenes, one from the episode itself and one from the Confidential, seem to pinpoint the problem for me. First, we had Amy discussing whether or not the Doctor should sacrifice her for the greater good. It’s the kind of moral dilemma that regularly comes up in the show and has always carried an emotional charge. You’d think it would be hard for it not to do just that. We’re talking life and death here. Here’s Rose Tyler in a similar situation:
But then I met the Doctor and… all the things I’ve seen him do for me. For you. For all of us. For the whole… stupid planet and every planet out there. He does it alone, mum. But not any more. ‘Cos now he’s got me.
If that’s a bit too shippy for your taste, let’s jump back to Series One for something more public-spirited:
But it was… it was a better life. And I – I don’t mean all the travelling and… seeing aliens and spaceships and things – that don’t matter. The Doctor showed me a better way of living your life.
(meets their eyes, speaking earnestly. To Mickey–)
You know, he showed you too.
That you don’t just give up. You don’t just let things happen. You make a stand. You say no. You have the guts to do what’s right when everyone else just runs away, and I just can’t–
(She breaks off, unable to carry on. She kicks the table in frustration and leaps to her feet, running out of the chip shop in despair. Jackie and Mickey glance at one another.)
(Parting of the Ways)
God knows, I had my issues with RTD. And Rose, particularly in S2, wasn’t perfect. But perfection isn’t necessary. Emotion is. Something has to be at stake. The Doctor vs Mickey, or vs Jackie, or just an ordinary life. We have to care, and we can’t care about someone if we haven’t a clue where they came from. Who’s waiting back home, wondering if they’ll ever see this companion again.
And we have to feel that the Doctor cares, too. We have to believe he’s envisaged the conversation he’ll be having with Jackie, Francine Jones or Sylvia and Wilf, if their daughter comes home in a body bag. It has to show in his eyes, in his voice. And, for that matter, in the dialogue. It has to either go straight to the heart, like Rose’s in the examples above, or be written and acted well enough to demonstrate the gulf between the Doctor’s account of reality and reality itself. It might sound banal, but a little line like, “I had this friend…she had this family. All gone now,” can break our hearts in the right hands.
Back to the scene with Eleven and Amy. He’s trying to tell her it’s all in her mind. She doesn’t have to die. She’s terrified – who wouldn’t be? But what’s the word she uses? She tells him she’s okay with dying because, “I’m not that clingy.”
Is that really what would be uppermost in her mind in that moment? The fear that the Doctor might regard her as a liability? She’s dying, for Christ’s sake, thousands of miles and light-years from home. It seems to me that the word “clingy” says more about Moffat than it does about Amy. Surely, even in a childhood as solitary as Amelia Pond’s, there’d be something that she’d long for at that moment. Sam got Frodo up Mount Doom by reminding him that back home in the Shire the first strawberries would be ripening. And I bawled, unashamedly, hearing the voice of who knows how many Tommies in the trenches trying to get their comrades through hell on earth.
I quite like Matt Smith and Karen Gillan, but watching the two of them in that scene was like watching two marbles knocking against each other. There was no depth, no subtlety. Too many times in this new series, we’ve been told, not shown. Sometimes, as in the case of River Song, the groundwork has been laid in previous series. Other times, we’re just meant to overlook the blanks. That’s relatively simple in the Doctor’s case because we’re been through a lot with him, but in Amy’s it’s like reaching into the Void.
Now, I was as weary as most other people of the endless angst and melodrama of the Specials, but I watched a little clip of Ten regenerating today and there was more emotion in the way he silently, helplessly, looked at his glowing hand and accepted the inevitable than I’ve seen between Eleven and Amy in four weeks. There may be a reason for it. I can accept that Eleven doesn’t want to open up to just anybody about his issues, but then neither did Ten – you knew they were there, unspoken, because Tennant’s acting style had such depth. Whether there is a connection between the Doctor and his companion is optional – a connection between the Doctor and the viewer, is not.
Moffat is a brilliant writer, and after a few years of RTD he’s a refreshing change. But then chicken nuggets are a change after you’ve lived for months on filet mignon – that doesn’t mean you want a lifetime of chicken nuggets. When I flipped over to Confidential I realised Matt’s brilliant, too – at video game acting. The photo session he did for the game developers was a delight – he had an instinctive grasp of what they wanted and was crazy, hilarious, compulsively watchable and very, very talented. And perhaps that’s what people want – at least some of them – a video game Doctor who can move effortlessly and seamlessly from one scenario to another, fundamentally unchanged as the game develops around him, bantering from a prescribed character sheet rather than reacting to the situation, trading wisecracks with his pretty sidekick. It’s probably easier to market to an international audience. The Doctor is a commodity now, rather than a character.
Okay, this is a personal view and one I hope I’ll revise in due course. But right now, I’m empty. I should have stayed home and cooked a proper meal. I’ll be back next week, though. The Golden Arches have a way of pulling you in.