In another life I write about cars. And people ask me about cars. Why do they all look the same? And the answer is this: The reason all cars look the same is the same reason all Doctor Who seems the same these days.
Any car that goes on sale in the UK in 2014 must conform to a series of laws. Laws of safety, laws of aesthetics, laws of physics. That means that - at every point in the design process - certain facts must be accommodated. Bonnets must be shaped a certain way to mitigate pedestrian injury in the event of a collision. Side panels must be flared because all side panels are flared. And cars must adhere to certain shapes and sizes to offset aerodynamic drag that affects slippiness, fuel economy, speed and handling. By the time you've factored all that stuff in, you haven't got much room to play with.
I first thought that the 45-minute episode format was the most constrictive rule that new writers had to adhere to - there only so many ways you can set up a story, explore it, throw in the inevitable bait-and-switch, wrap thing up and have time for a coda in which the companion throws a hissy fit, the Big Bad has a surprise cameo or the Doctor unfurls one of his voluminous speeches.
Personally I think this is becoming more telling and even the self-consciously hyper-compressed episodes we've had from Season 7 onwards hasn't really changed the dynamic. You either have a very small, self-contained story or you have a breakneck episode that must sacrifice coherence for the running time. And while I didn't think many two-parters worked out, In The Forest of the Night could have done with some room to breath.
But I think there's another factor that's affecting Doctor Who at the moment - that factor is Steven Moffat. Frank Cottrell Boyce's episode promised great things. The set-up is quite wonderful - it put me in mind of Jim Mortimore's rather good New Adventure Blood Heat - and the promise of a rather lyrical, enigmatic story from a writer much admired was mouth-watering.
How disappointing then to see this wonderful premise progress along such familiar lines. Talking to the whole planet on a mobile phone, children being behind everything, some more of Danny and Clara's weird relationship dynamic, another 'silly old Doctor, of course!' realisation that concludes the episode, the huge lack of threat, a foe that wasn't a foe, some rather poor child actors, Murray Gold...
It really doesn't have to be like this. I have no doubt that Cottrell Boyce could fashion a beautiful novel from that same premise, but In The Forest Of The Night was the least engaging episode of the season thus far, in a season's worth of unengaging stories. All that promise - eyes in the darkness, the forest metaphor, monsters, an alternate London was suffocated under a ream of Moffat tropes.
While the writer was confident enough to do away with the Sonic Screwdriver, there were still mobile phone and mountain bikes and marking and newsreaders and TARDIS scenes. Elements that drag the concept back to a modern-day milieu that is the series' touchstone - as if we couldn't possibly relate to The Doctor without these everyday objects and settings.
On a more perfunctory level, the amount of mawkish sentiment hit new heights this week. That "Daddy, my Daddy" scene in The Railway Children has cast a long shadow over writers in search of a shortcut to emotion over the last 40 years and the incredibly clumsy 'missing child found under bush' scene was a genuine low point in the series.
Capaldi shines as ever and there are some nice directorial touches but this series is back to a parlous state after two strong episodes. Aside from a slight return in the second half of Season 7, Doctor Who has not been in rude health since Matt Smith first took the TARDIS controls back in 2010. And while companions, Doctors, producers and execs have moved on since, there is one common denominator to these underwhelming seasons.
Gatiss and Roberts seem to have given up on delivering anything outside their usual self-pastiches but when even the likes of Cottrell Boyce and Neil Gaiman seem unable to drag the series away from its cosy middle-ground, you have to wonder whether the series can ever thrive under such self-imposed strictures. Every story now seems Moffat-lite, as if the series can't escape his own personal gravity. You can't change the laws of physics and Doctor Who needs a rocket escape the fearful aerodynamic drag of Steven Moffat's tired vision for Doctor Who.
It was OK. I liked the Skovox Blitzer - genuinely great name - and at least it didn't get packed off with its mate and zoom off into the sunset. Chris Addison was good. The stuff with the young girl nicely raised two fingers to the appalling squits of Neil Gaiman's episode. I could go on about how astonishingly derivative this series of Doctor Who is - how The Caretaker was a straight-down-the-middle retread of School Reunion and The Lodger - but I'd be getting as repetitive as Season 8.
There was a recurring motif in The Caretaker and it was people being horrible to one another. The Doctor makes constant disparaging remarks about Clara's appearance that are sometimes funny and frequently not, so it's not without precedent this season. Elsewhere the Doctor refused to believe that Danny Pink was a maths teacher because - as a soldier - he clearly can't have much up top (forgetting that his bestest mate ever was a soldier, apparently).
There's another incorrect but not-wholly-unreasonable reading of why the Doctor goes out of his way to insult Danny's intelligence and preferred the unthreatening wavy-haired white guy - it's not so unreasonable as the Doctor's sudden and unexplained hatred of soldiers just comes from nowhere really. For his part Danny immediately locates an open wound - the Doctor's self-doubt and even self-loathing over his own character - and sticks a fork into it, goading the Doctor as an authoritarian control freak. It's hardly The Trout, Jamie and Victoria.
Throwing a traumatised soldier with emotional problems into a school environment is one thing, hoying him into the TARDIS crew might seem a little edgy but putting Danny Pink into a day-glo strawberry milkshake adventure such as The Caretaker seems rather jarring. That Pink - a trained soldier who is clearly intelligent, troubled and intense - should start burbling Mickey-and-Rory-esque stuff about Space Dads spelt it out in case no-one had spotted it earlier. That he defeats the universe's most efficient killing machine by performing a 20-foot Mighty Morphin Power Ranger somersault over its head is similarly problematic. But there's something even more problematic about Danny Pink.
Danny Pink strikes me as the kind of character who might tell Clara to wipe a particularly garish shade of lipstick off her face; encourage her to give up her job so she can stay at home and look after the kids; issue ultimatums to our heroine if she does not obey his commands. Actually, come to think of it, that's exactly what he did in this episode in the latter case - already this feels like a troubling power dynamic. Throw him into an episode of Cracker as a spousal abuser and you wouldn't have to change a stroke: a brooding, frowning, jealous control-freak with PTSD who gets handy with his fists from time-to-time only because he loves his missus so much.
I've little truck with the squadrons of lunatics who bay for Moffat's blood or would accuse him of being an unreconstructed bigot, but there is a case to be answered as far his writing of female characters is concerned. Tonight's episode had a good example where Clara - The Impossible Girl - mutely acceded to Danny's demand that he tell her the truth (his repeatedly growling that he doesn't like being lied to is similarly uncomfortable) or they were done as a couple.
Moffat's Doctor Who has a habit of setting up strong, independent women who lose all their agency - and frequently knickers - when The Doctor turns up. In this case it's Danny Pink who causes Clara to go all gooey. When strong female characters get all hot and bothered about the Doctor I don't mind too much: the whole set-up of the show (in the last nine years anyway) is that he's so remarkable anyone would follow him around the galaxy. But in that instant when Clara nuzzled into Danny's chest she just melts away as the character we've known.
Moffat's clumsiness at writing women, incidentally, is one of the one of the reasons why I was so against a female Doctor. But six episodes into the series I'm not sure Moffat is that great at writing for the Twelfth Doctor. This is odd, as Peter Capaldi is a middle-aged Scot with a love of Doctor Who. Sound familiar?
I started to question this while watching Time Heist last week. Just what is the Twelfth Doctor? He seems, in his worst moments, like an amalgam of the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors - the NuWho archetypes - in a bad mood. Capaldi seems to be bringing everything there is to the character at the moment, with little clue as to what this new incarnation is all about from the scripts, bar Deep Breath.
The series opener feels like an ever-more-distant memory a month on. It has been the only episode - halfway through the series - that felt like a confident statement about what makes this Doctor and this season tick (no pun intended) and what makes them different. Ever since it's felt like the show has been folding in on itself: rehashing old storylines, old monsters, old writers. The show, understandably and inexplicably at the same time, feels old.
Is this what Moffat, Gareth Roberts and Peter Capaldi would have dreamed of when they imagined the chance to create new Doctor Who? For what it's worth I expected far more riffing on the title of this week's episode, but it doesn't feel as if Moffat does care that much - what else can possibly explain the run of desperately unambitious retreads of former glories this season?
Yes, Clara and the Doctor look after one another; yes Danny wants to look after Clara and, yes, the Doctor looks after the planet. He's the celestial caretaker. Everyone cares. Alas, increasingly, I don't.