New Series

The Magician’s Apprentice: Must Doctor Who Be Stupid?

Capaldi with guitar

In amongst some nice moments and some arresting moments in The Magician’s Apprentice was a moment I simply fast-forwarded. Over the last ten years there are many such moments: moments where I go and make a cup of tea or change the channel. Or, in one case, a moment where I simply turned off the television. To this day I have no idea what happens at the end of The Rings Of Akhaten.

I mean, obviously I know. The Doctor talks the monster to death – probably with recourses to terms including ‘baby’ and ‘big boy’. And almost certainly saying something ‘come and get it’ and probably ‘fandabidozi!’. But there’s plausible deniability while it remains unwatched – maybe the Valeyard and Fendahl team up with the Gundan Robots, the Doctor regenerates into Clara and vice-versa and everyone speaks Old High Galifreyan for the rest of the episode.

But these moments I speak of – the ones that drive me behind the metaphorical sofa. These moments cannot be summed up on one choice turn of phrase. They are varied, they happen across a number of Doctors and are scripted by different writers. There is one unifying theme however. In all of the the doctor is an idiot.

Steven Moffat has dispensed with a lot of received wisdom that RTD brought to Doctor Who. Most obviously that you couldn’t have an older Doctor, but I remember other such Davies-isms. You couldn’t show someone getting shot, was another such example. I’d love to know what RTD made of Amy machine-gunning Silents to death – or the Doctor shooting them with his Sonic Screwdriver. This actually happened. The Doctor killed intelligent beings by shooting them with his Sonic Screwdriver. Incredible.

But one bit of received wisdom no writer seems to be able to dispense with in NuWho is stupidity. I use the term advisedly for RTD would no doubt exclaim that while bits of his DW were stupid, they were also brilliant Because the programme is stupid and the character is too. This has almost be one a truism among certain well established Who fans and Moffat had embraced it wholeheartedly. Despite his early reputation as a master of dark storylines, he has one of the stupidest moments on the whole 50-odd years on his CV. Namely the hard-to-watch ‘drunk doctor’ bit in The Girl In The Fireplace or any of the speeches to no-one-on-particular he makes Matt Smith say.

While I can admit the character behaves stupidly across any era of the show, it never struck me that he was playing at being stupid. And this is the rub. We can forgive – hell, we can love – eccentricities and quirkiness of character and foibles and flaws. But we hate affectation, braggadocio and self-satisfaction. And that’s what the Doctor reeks off when he’s off at the deep end.

Yes, the programme is silly and the character is ridiculous – but these things have to have an internal logic of their own. If your starting point for watching any episode of Doctor is to write it off as far-fetched or implausible you’re in for a miserable time. What irks me is when The Doctor is stupid within that universe. And he is – routinely – stupid, in-universe, since around 2006.

Interestingly Christopher Eccleston escaped pretty much unscathed, despite looking fairly uncomfortable when his character veers towards kookiness. It’s the Tenth Doctor where this stuff really takes hold. But Matt Smith is, of anything, more stupid that Tennant’s Doctor. Just hos many spittle-flecked, limb-flailing moments do they share in their combined eight years? Frustratingly both are gifted comic actors; Smith particularly has wonderful moments of embodying the awkward physicality of someone who doesn’t know quite how their body works. Which seems to be true of both Matt Smith and Eleventh Doctor.

My impression was that the Doctor, traumatised by the experience of the Time War, was driven to playful, boastful or daft behaviour as a means of escaping his memories of the past. This is made fairly explicit in The Day Of The Doctor, when John Hurt’s character asks Ten and Eleven what drives them to such childish extremes. My expectation was that this behaviour would be toned down or disappear completely, both as a result of the Doctor’s catharsis – and because that stuff would so obviously be unsuited to Peter Capaldi. And then the Twelfth Doctor emerged on a tank and paying a guitar. Stupid, it seems, is back in fashion.

This can only be, I guess, because the writers believe that this is an immutable part of the Doctor’s character – or because they fear viewers will think the show too po-faced without detours into idiocy. There are other recurring themes over the last ten years that make reappearances – I think it’s worth questioning whether they’re now indivisible from the fabric of the show.

Tennant and Smith both actors came dangerously close to pastiching their own performances towards the end of their runs, probably for a number of reasons not limited to familiarity, fatigue and repetitive scripts and direction. But something else too, for stupidity alone does not explain some of the Doctor’s most egregious behaviour – now, seemingly adopted by the Twelfth. It’s worse than that. It seems ingrained in the series that the Doctor behaves like an idiot. Not the buffoonish ‘actually-mad’ outer limits of Tom’s Fourth Doctor or the uncertain birth-pangs of Sylv’s early clowning – but a self-regarding, self-aware twattery.

Moffat had the nerve to write – in the current DWM – that the best story in the universe is about someone who doesn’t know they’re the hero. But the Doctor of the last ten years does know. Not only that, he never bloody shuts up about it. When the Doctor swaggeringly proclaims his own genius, or makes a self-aggrandising speech about what a hard bastard he is or emerges from the wings of a medieval court standing on a tank, wearing Ray-Bans and playing his own theme tune on an electric guitar, it’s quite reasonable to come to the conclusion that he’s a complete arsehole who basks in adoration. The invariable response to this from Moffat, Davies, Spilsbury and other professional fans (or fannish professionals) is “Oh, but he is a complete arsehole, you sweet deluded fool!”.

But he isn’t. At least he never used to be. Not for the reasons I think he’s an arsehole anyway. The Doctor may be dangerous and he may be grumpy – in most regenerations he’s flat-out rude. And sometimes we may catch a whiff of danger about him, this man with secrets. However we would not think twice about bounding into that blue box, in spite of it all.

But in his worst moments the Doctor – Tenth, Eleventh and now Twelfth – is someone we’d edge away from. That man at the party talking too loudly; the bar-room braggart whose friends catch each others’ eyes. That man who is the self-proclaimed office joker. That man who, when faced with his own mortality (for, what, the thousandth time in his televised adventures) fucks off to Merrie England to prance around and show off in front of a load of strangers for several weeks.

In those moments I don’t recognise that man as the Doctor. In those moments the Doctor is not a man I’d like to know – he is a man who is an idiot in all the wrong ways. A man who makes hearts sink when enters the room. In those moments the Doctor is nothing less than a twat.

New Series The Geek Clique

The Geek Clique on Season One

I have a theory with Doctor Who. You can break down Doctor Who series fairly evenly into a 30:30:30 split by my reckoning: 30 per cent great; 30 per cent mediocre; 30 per cent utterly awful.

This is something I’ve come to believe particularly since the advent of the new series, which can send me in raptures, fury or a doze over three consecutive weeks.

Distance and nostalgia lends the classic series a different aura. It’s more difficult to critically assess because it’s more familiar, but you also need to bear in mind that some of it was intended to be broadcast exactly once.

There are periods of the series where lack of cash or instability among the production team clearly show and there are certain peculiarities of the era that you need to bear in mind.

With the new series, by which I mean since 2005, there are a whole new set of considerations, but budget isn’t really one of them. Nor can it be argued that these new episodes have not been made in a DVD, Youtube and Sky+ era.

Certain rumours suggest that, once again (as of 2011), Doctor Who is again beset by production difficulties. But let’s forget about that. For now this is all about season one.

I bring my own prejudices and preferences to the new series, so I thought I’d ask a gang of friends to bring their own set of prejudices to the news series. There’s a good mix of people. People who dislike much of the news series. People ambivalent to much of it. People who love it pretty much unreservedly. People who enjoyed Russell T Davies’ take on the series, but not Moffatt’s and vice versa.

Some watch with their other half; some with the kids. Some love the old series and will always be loyal to it; some are unimpressed by it/ambivalent to it or believe the new iteration vastly superior to the new.

There is one common strand: We were all Doctor Who fans prior to the new series starting.

I asked them which new episodes they actually liked. No ratings, no reviews, no caveats. Just which ones they liked.

We’re starting with season one (or season 27 if you prefer); something that seems like a long time ago now. Eccleston, Billie, RTD, Slitheen, Daleks, Autons, Reapers, Keith Boak.

Are you my mummy? Run for your life! Do you wanna come with me?

Oh yes, we were willin’.

Season one – results

NB. The ones in bold are my selections

An unsurprising winner is The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, by far the stand-out story of the first year for me – and the start of fandom’s erstwhile love affair with the Moff. Be careful what you wish for, eh?

Second is Dalek, an oddity in the new series for me. Rob Shearman really does inject something back into the Daleks though, with a number of iconic scenes and a lovely prologue where the DOctor comes face-to-face with an Invasion-era Cyberman head. Why Shearman has not written again for the series is a mystery to me.

Third is The Unquiet Dead, Mark Gatiss’ only decent story by my reckoning. It was a clear nod to the glory days of Holmes and Hinchcliffe, the kind of story that has disappeared from the new series for some reason, and a good effort at that. Who’s first effort of the new series of doing frightening – surely the very raison d’etre of Who – does a very good job indeed.

Fourth was the end of season two-parter, Bad Wolf and Parting of the Ways. Watching Bad Wolf recently I thought it very good, but the second part has so many elements that became emblematic of everything I disliked about the new series. It’s ‘chips and work’ mise-en-scene, its ‘love saves the day’ conclusion and its deification of Rose, a character I never really cared for, even though Billie Piper was great.

Rose, The End of the World and Father’s Day got six votes each. The first two are interesting for me, as they’re both very clearly RTD scripts. I hated the former – and I don’t believe it would have received many votes at all if not the first of the new series – but I thought End of the World witty, touching and exciting.

Father’s Day is another first series oddity – one not without its problems but one that brought a bit of a New Adventures tone to the new series, something I was bound to enjoy.

Boom Town is next, an episode that is fun and then fascinating and then utterly fucking awful in its three acts, for me. Aliens of London/World War Three – a spiritual cousin to Rose – and The Long Game, a story I’d charitably refer to as filler get one vote each.

As for my 30-30-30 (good; forgettable; shit) notion, I can split them as follows:

  • The End of the World, The Unquiet Dead, Dalek, The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances;
  • Father’s Day, Boomtown, Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways;
  • Rose, Aliens of London/World War Three; The Long Game

    Here’s what the Geek Clique had to say about some of the episodes and the reboot on the whole:

    [Rose] changed everything about the show while keeping it all just the same, reached parts of the world, and myself, that it never had before, thus making this discussion even possible, had numerous excellent set pieces and passages of dialogue, introduced numerous inspired ideas and likeable characters, all of which hit the ground running, not least of which were the Ninth Doctor and Rose themselves, who were absolutely fucking great. IMO. And it had an utterly brilliant scene with a wheely bin.

    [Rose] may not be best suited to repeat viewing or the kind of close reading fans like ourselves bring to it but by the end of Rose anyone who had tuned in would know what the show was and wasn’t about and most of them would be coming back next week and be asking for a Christopher Eccleston action figure for Christmas. I’ll forgive a ropey CGI wheely bin and Noel Clarke thinking he’s in the Chuckle Brothers for that.

    [Rose is] a bit panto but that’s partly down to Keith Boak and partly because – at least according to Shearman – there was a genuine fear at the time that the BBC would not allow onscreen deaths in that timeslot, so they had to do a massacre scene in which nobody was seen to die. Nevertheless it does a far better job of setting out the show’s stall than the TVM did, and for all its flaws I remain very fond of it because it managed the impossible task of bringing back a series which most people had come to despise in such a way as to make it credible again and yet still feel like “Doctor Who”. That’s one heck of an achievement.

    The problem I have with Rose is that it goes so all out to be loved it’s waaaay out there. It’s really, really stupid. It’s like the aggressively pink fizzy pop we all used to drink full of e-numbers that sent us loopy. It laid down a marker for how Doctor Who was made for the next five years and it’s visible in most of the worst bits of the next five years. It didn’t have to be anywhere near as dumb as it was.

    [Aliens of London/World War Three is] so damn leaden! I really struggled to get through the first episode.

    The last third of Aliens of London was the cliffhanger, wasn’t it? Dear God, that was the most drawn-out cliffhanger in the show’s history.

    First third involves Jackie being upset that her daughter has been away for a year – only she hasn’t, from her perspective and from the viewers’ perspective. SO the emotion is all pretty meaningless. Second third involved the spaceship crashing, and the Doctor watching it on telly. The Doctor gets upset that they killed a pig. Last third involves large farty people about to do something a bit wicked. World war three involves them still being about to do something a bit bad, whilst the Doctor is fretting that Rose might get hurt.

    I actually think AoL/WW3 might be quite good if Keith Boak wasn’t directing it. I really like Aliens of London.

    Eccleston doing funny was dire. (On Aliens/World)

    Good writers edit for brevity, and brevity was painfully unapparent in either Aliens of London or the much worse Boom Town. Doctor Who isn’t a place for experiments into character. It’s a place where narrative drive dictates and personalities have to be cleverly and concisely fitted in between the plot.

    Badland’s great throughout, and her and Eccleston’s restaurant scene is a step above. [I] share the ennui with the Mickey / Rose situation, the time rift stuff looks tacked on for the sake of some supposed excitement and the way the TARDIS sorts everything out fails to convince. (on Boomtown)

    [Boom Town] was shit. False moral dilemma. Rubbish Slitheen. Unbelievable premise. And Captain Jack has an unflattering outfit.

    …if I’m being totally honest I will enjoy a Doctor Who episode with a good Doctor far more than a Doctor Who episode with a shite Doctor regardless of the relative merits of the stories – and Eccleston was a great Doctor.

    The thing this whole ‘which do you actually like?’ thing has really brought home to me is just much ‘mission creep’ there was in the RTD years. I think his great strength was realising that continuity was bad. Then he became part of continuity and he didn’t realise that was problematic.

    I would suggest that RTD requires the larger apologia for what happened after Season 1. He had no idea how to react to the hit he had on his hands and no long term plan. He panicked and started writing by the seat of his pants, leading to a very shallow series of episodes and seasons that relied too heavily on set-pieces strung together with no internal consistency, merely gooey clumps of pathos. What’s worse is that, as a writer, RTD was so much better than that: look at Midnight. He’d have been much better off if he hadn’t been showrunner. He needed someone standing over him (possibly with a two by four) and acting as a moderating influence on him.

    RTD’s target audience was 13 year-old girls rather than 8 year-old boys.

    Brilliant showrunner, great dialogue, excellent characters, but tended to push the limits until they broke. Without checking, I suspect if you look at how we have all voted, RTDs episodes will get a lower average than the majority.

    As a side note, the Geek Clique tends to hold the first season in high regard. 58 votes were cast, giving the series an average score of 5.8. That figure reflects the number of votes cast, so without knowing how many people participated it’s hardly a scientific rating, nor one that makes much sense in isolation.

    On the assumption that ten people voted on each season, however, season one received the second-most votes of all six NuWho seasons.

    Tune in at a later date to see which one has the current highest score – and vote for your favourites below.