So, that was the 50th anniversary season. Well, half of it anyway, or was it? Does season 7a count as the same season, really? And, if so, does this count as the 50th anniversary season?
I’m dancing around the fact that, for me, the split season thing is an absolute mess. The BBC seems less keen to invest in the show, in terms of in-channel advertising, scheduling and external promotion; less people seem keen on watching it, at least in my personal experience. And for all the time that Moffat buys the production team with the split seasons, you certainly couldn’t say that the quality has improved.
So where does this leave us? Doctor Who still seems reasonably healthy when timeshifts and the like are taken into account, but anecdotally the Beeb and my friends and acquaintances seem a lot less enamoured of Doctor Who than in recent years. Is Doctor Who still any good? And what exactly is going on with the production team?
In answer the latter, I seem reasonably confident that you can tease out the likely situation through cross-referencing a few different sources, applying a hefty dose of cynicism and adding a dash of common sense. For what it’s worth it’s my view that Moffat simply has too much on his plate to turn out episodes of the quality of his earlier stuff, but Sherlock brings certain personal financial imperatives that Doctor Who doesn’t, given that his mother and wife run Hartswood Films, which makes the updated Conan-Doyle drama. It’s a scenario straight out of one of Moffat’s own battle-of-the-sexes sitcoms and, in many ways, hardly an ideal one.
Furthermore, the fact that Doctor Who’s showrunner seems to shed producers like he does plot macguffins doesn’t add to an image of a programme in rude health. There are some rather more lurid suggestions, alluded to in Private Eye, as to why Caro Skinner left the show a few days after the most recent Doctor Who Magazine (soon to be brought back under BBC auspices if rumours are to be believed) published a glowing ‘best ever!’ column by the erstwhile exec.
If the rumours, commonly repeated from seemingly multiples sources, are to be believed the BBC wants more Doctor Who than Moffat is willing or able to produce, lessening the coporation’s faith in its flagship (?) show. But the Beeb is in a bind – Moff is in charge and doesn’t seem ready to give the keys; there are no obvious successors in the wings should there be a coup (surely Gatiss, Chibnall or Whithouse would decry such a situation and I suspect the Beeb would not trust a not-we with DW). The David Yates film rumour was, supposedly, an attempt to bounce Moffat into some sort of action, but the Scot simply brushed it off with an apparently-light ‘get your kids off my lawn’ statement that actually seemed very strident.
Hence split seasons that theoretically allow the misfiring production team more time and space to craft quality Doctor Who. If only. While I prefer to watch Who while it’s cold and dark outside, I can’t think of any other positives of the split series. It saps impetus, it means that story arcs are unbearably drawn-out affairs and, despite what Moffat says, the ongoing storylines are impossible to follow without repeat viewings. I don’t don’t have the slightest idea what Series Six was all about and I couldn’t really care less either.
So while the break in production should allow for more finely-honed tales, that really doesn’t seem to be the case. This season we’ve had perhaps the worst all-time duffer in The Rings of Akhaten, slated by such well-known haters as Radio Times and Doctor Who Magazine, and a pile of underwhelming episodes that include Nightmare in Silver, Cold War, The Power of Three, Dinosaurs on a Sodding Spaceship and A Town Called Mercy. Even the ‘big’ episodes – Asylum of the Daleks and The Angels Take Manhattan – were overplotted and unengaging, relatively speaking.
Secondly, is Doctor Who currently any good? It’s hard to say, objectively. The last two years of Moffat’s reign have seen a move to elaborate, tricksy and fairly incoherent storytelling that takes some of the excesses of Russell T Davies’ era and turns them up to 11. Stories are resetted continuously, notional rules are abandoned or ignored, stories or storylines appear to contradict one another and there’s very little that appears to make a huge amount of sense.
I personally find this mode of storytelling incredibly unsatisfying – and I suspect it’s born not of any intent, but necessity. It was frequently apparent that RTD wrote himself into corners and would end up simply making something up or pressing a big, fat reset switch. Moffat initially seemed to eschew these habits but he’s been far worse of late. Again and again in this series we’ve seen people die and come back to life; it’s as lazy as some of Moffat’s plotting and it becomes hard to care about characters who are not really subject to any threat.
Moffat has described his style on Who as compressed storytelling and suggested that all of season seven’s episodes are akin to a Hollywood blockbuster. I suspect this is an exercise in branding more than anything; suggesting that your breakneck, whizz-bang storytelling is some sort of new paradigm in television fiction does, after all, sound better than the more prosaic likelihood; block, lack of time and apathy. That last bit is perhaps a reach on my part, but I can attest to how the jobs you should love the most can quickly become just another job when the inexorable weight of deadlines and daily grind impinge on your life.
The unconvincing earnestness, the appeals to emotion, the complex plotting that doesn’t actually seem to stand up when observed, the seemingly-abandoned storylines (Silence Will Fall?), a Doctor veering closer to self-parody all the time, the apparent struggles with the anniversary appearances – they all suggest to me a man running of ideas, patience and love for the show, and a job he has surely coveted for most of his professional life. I honestly don’t understand how anyone could have commissioned The Rings of Akhaten, some of the worst television I’ve ever seen, unless something is going very wrong along the line.
And yet there are positive signs. Neil Cross’ other script, Hide, was excellent. Gatiss finally found his Doctor Who form with the wonderful, creepy, mischievous The Crimson Horror. And Moffat’s own scripts were much stronger than the underwhelming Silence arc of the previous season.
The Name of the Doctor was actually wonderful stuff, I thought, barring any of the bits that involved the execrable River Song, the worst Mary Sue in fiction and a character than never fails to make Doctor Who unbearable (barring, perhaps, The Time of Angels/Flesh and Blood). The vignettes of old Doctors, while shonky, were lovely to see and I fell in love with Jenna Louise Coleman over the course of the episode; I actually enjoyed the resolution to the story arc in the end. Strax is superb fun and there was more fanwanking than at a Doctor Who convention with John Nathan-Turner. But I think that’s OK now and then – if a 50-year-old show can’t get a bit self-indulgent now and then, what can? Plus that epic reveal, which I’d annoyingly spoiled for myself, was still epic.
So, Moffat still has it in him – the film-poster moments of the Daleks and Angels episodes and the wit and vim of the Christmas episode and finale prove it. But for how much longer? And how much is there in the tank? Moff himself has admitted that when something is over you know it instinctively. The questionable quality of Series 7 might suggest that Moff’s own Trenzalore is approaching. But he’s enough of a canny old campaigner that he knows to give viewers a hook to get them coming back. And what a hook this last episode gave us.
I’ve said this before, but I’ll be tuning in next time around with hopes high. With any luck they won’t be totally misplaced, but this is Moffat’s last chance to show that he’s genuinely up to the job – Season 7 strikes me as the being the first time the new series of DW has taken a significant wobble, following from an underwhelming Season Six. In the production break the team producing our series need to take a look at what works and what doesn’t, jettison some baggage and be honest about what isn’t working. If the quality doesn’t improve I genuinely believe that Who will move to an Only Fools And Horses-style format, with mini-series and specials taking the place of full series. Or, even worse, a Doctor Who movie.
For now I’m looking forward to an anniversary special and I’m personally glad Moffat is in charge. He’s a Doctor WHo fan first and foremost and I still have enough faith in him to pull it out of the fire – this is the man, after all, who wrote The Empty Child, Blink, The Girl In The Fireplace, The Eleventh Hour and The Time of Angels. For now we’ll just ignore The Beast Below, Let’s Kill Hitler, The Wedding of River Song, The Bells of Saint John…
Asylum of the Daleks
The Angels Take Manhattan
The Crimson Horror
The Name of the Doctor
Dinosaurs on a Spaceship
A Town Called Mercy
The Power of Three
The Bells of Saint John
The Rings of Akhaten
Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS
Nightmare in Silver