What a frustrating show Doctor Who has become these days. Every week brings flashes of brilliance, but the overall effect is unsatisfying, more often than not. I think some of the problems, if not all, are structural. I’ve been reading a book by John Yorke, creator of Life On Mars and Shameless, among other hit shows – he’s now involved with the BBC Writers’ Academy and, interestingly, name-checks Stephen Moffatt, RTD and Julie Gardener in his acknowledgements.
After a first half devoted to the five act structure that is the DNA of most successful movies, Yorke turns his attention to TV writing and has some very interesting things to say. One of which is that there are fundamental differences between a TV serial and a TV series. In a series, the characters don’t change significantly between one episode and the next, but act according to a template. In its most common form, the detective drama, their function is to confront a crime, find the culprit, solve the mystery. In LoM, Sam doesn’t become all that much more intuitative, nor does Gene get more insightful, from one episode to the next. Their conflict is more or less replayed in each standalone episode.
Series are very popular. They give the viewer a sense of security; they know what to expect both from the characters and the plot structure. If actors and writers can live with the limitations of the form, they can go on more or less indefinitely. The problems begin when complexity of character and motivation is introduced. It’s a trade off; in the short term it makes the show a lot more compelling, but it is extremely difficult to sustain. Once the viewer invests in characters, they are generally unwilling to wait indefinitely for pay-off. They want the characters tolearn something, dammit – if it’s only to say something a bit more emotionally intelligent than, “And I suppose, Rose Tyler, since it’s my last chance to say it…”
In the format of the neverending series, otherwise known as soap opera, a different sleight of hand is usually at work. There is drama and conflict aplenty, but once the crisis has passed the characters affected, assuming they stick around, succumb to an unacknowledged amnesia, and seem totally immune to any emotional fallout. Yorke tells a lovely story about a character in Brookside:
There is an exchange between Sammy and her boyfriend which should perhaps be hung on every show-runner’s wall: ‘You remember, it was when I was in a wheelchair and you were an alcoholic.’
A notorious example of this phenomenon in recent DW would be Amy’s complete failure to refer to the fact that her baby had been stolen by aliens; she and Rory just carried on travelling with the Doctor regardless. Stephen Moffatt is very much of the “reset to zero with every episode” school of thought. But even he has been unable to resist the lure of the series arc, though while RTD tended to enjoy the emotional pay-off inherent in long-range narrative, Moff prefers the intellectual aspect of keeping everyone guessing.
It seems to me that Moff is most comfortable with iconic characters who come with a ready-made suite of mannerisms and as little backstory as one can get away with. Sherlock ticks those boxes and, regardless of the efforts of legions of fanfic writers, it is possible to enjoy the episodes without paying any serious attention to the precise nature of his private life with John, or for that matter anyone else in the story. It’s the very familiarity of Sherlock’s sketched mannerisms, his quirks of intellect and dialogue, that make him so enjoyable to watch.
I think Moff would like to treat the Doctor similarly, but here he labours under a number of disadvantages. One, his immediate predecessor (and for that matter, Matt Smith’s), was master of the five-act tragedy, preferably by Shakespeare. Ten didn’t just have an inner life, he radiated it like a lethal force field. Two, with Sherlock we get far fewer, longer episodes, allowing us to immerse ourselves in a complicated narrative. Three, Sherlock doesn’t offer writers the irresistible temptation of the whole of time and space as a playground. In Sherlock, as Scotty would say, you cannae change the laws of physics. That kind of discipline often makes for good writing. Sherlock is not allowed to jump into a Rift to return to the scene of the crime. He has to make do with being a genius.
This problem of narrative arc, which Yorke examines at some length, continues to plague Doctor Who. It can’t decide whether it is working to a time span of 45 minutes, 13 episodes or, more recently, 50 years. It tries to succeed on all levels simultaneously, whilst delivering a coherent plot. In the last respect, if not the others, it usually fails.
Back in 1963 we knew very little about the Doctor. Now there’s only one thing we don’t know, and it looks like we might find even that out before long. Because the Doctor was an alien and an enigma, the companions were the point of identification, the way into the story. I would argue that in New Who the last companion that really succeeded in the narrative role s(he) was given was Rose Tyler, which is why she remains so divisive.
Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean I like Rose the best. It means that the person who created her was reasonably clear in his own mind what she was there to do, and it mattered. She was Everywoman, our way in, and she was the catalyst of change and healing in the Doctor’s broken soul. Series One of New Who brought Nine to the point where he recognised this in accepting her devotion to him, sealing the bargain with a kiss that brought about his regeneration. If the show had been cancelled after that, it would have stood as a satisfying conclusion.
Series Two was concerned with whether the Doctor could have a romantic relationship and keep his identity and role as saviour of the universe within it. Even though it ended in tragedy, it was arguably a full narrative arc, ending with him opening himself up to that experience and all the joy and anguish it involved.
Things began to go awry in Series Three, however. Complete in itself, it largely concerned the Doctor’s relationship with his past and the Master as his mirror and shadow self. There were two difficulties with this, however. One was that it marginalised Martha. The other was that, by making it so clear he hadn’t got over losing Rose, it became by default the midpoint of a multi-series arc concerning their thwarted romance. It negated the closure of the finale of Series Two, and poor Martha was disposable in both relationships. No wonder she cleared off.
Series Four took this a stage further by negating Donna’s entire narrative arc, to the horror and dismay of her many fans. It is very difficult to keep faith with a story that shows such a wilful disregard for the narrative of change and personal development. It put the Doctor and his feelings centre stage, but sidelined both Donna and Rose. This lack of closure persisted throughout the Specials despite Tennant’s and RTD’s heroic attempts to wrest some kind of coherence from the overall narrative.
It’s all about retconning with Doctor Who. Nobody sits down and works the story out, from start to finish. Instead, the franchise gets renewed and the past rewritten (sometimes literally) to accommodate the opportunities afforded by the extended narrative. Hence the current mess.
I could blame Moff, I could blame RTD. I could complain about Moff’s characters being more symbolism than substance, or RTD setting up an epic romance and then chickening out of the only dramatically coherent way for it to finish. But in fact, I think they’re both trying to do the impossible. No TV show, not even Doctor Who, can survive for 50 years without collapsing under the weight of its own mythos and inner contradictions.
The parts of DW that we see on telly are best viewed, IMHO, as the tips of a huge iceberg. Beneath the sea lie vast tracts of story explored by fandom and the numerous spin-offs, both official and otherwise. What goes on at Big Finish, or A Teaspoon and an Open Mind, is as much DW as anything we see on TV. Arguably more so, since it flourishes under fewer constraints.
So I rather hope that after the 50th Anniversary, they retire it for a while, until we all forget what a muddle it has got itself into. Because at the moment it seems to be degenerating into an orgy of fanservice, less and less comprehensible to the uninitiated. There are some immensely talented people working on the show, as there always have been. This isn’t about Matt Smith vs David Tennant, or RTD vs Moff. It’s about a show not knowing whether it is a series or a serial, and until they sort that one out, it will just continue devouring itself and become less and less fun to watch.
And that would be a pity.
- “Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS” – Doctor Who (parallelevision.wordpress.com)