So long Sydney and Verity; bye-bye Billy, Coburn, Hussein, Pinfield and the rest. You didn’t invent Doctor Who anymore. Clara Oswald did. That’s pretty much what Listen told us – not only did Clara set the whole adventure in motion, she pretty much constructed the Doctor’s psyche.
The modern programme’s fascination with centring so much of the show around its companions is fairly undeniable, for better or worse. I expect this makes the show more relatable and I also expect that everyone would stop watching the show if we didn’t have relatable companions. Except that I don’t really believe that this is the case – I suspect another case of received wisdom that isn’t really born out by much of the most popular genre television.
Nevertheless, Doctor Who’s showrunners can’t resist centring their companions, making them the body around which the show revolves again and again and again. Weaving them into the show’s mythos – a bit like carving your name into a tree. Rose = Time Vortex Thing. Martha = Global Jehovah’s Witness. River = Timey-Wimey Sex Daughter Assassin. Amy = Centre of Universe Or Something. Clara = Impossible Girl. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. What it is is a very familiar thing over the last nine years – just like Moffat’s love of time-travel predestination paradoxes. And I think familiarity is a significant threat to Doctor Who.
One of the reasons the latest series has disappointed me is that it’s been unable to make a break from what’s gone before. This still feels like a show that Tennant or Smith could walk straight into, with only a little change in the Doctor’s characterisation. A Victorian runaround; a genre parody; a time-travel thriller with a Moffat-Thing. The tones, the styles of storytelling, the baits-and-switches, the timey-wimey, the self-referential mythos… Listen has moments of brilliance but it also feels far too much like Doctor Who past. When Capaldi hisses “LIS-TEN!” he might as well be asking the audience to keep an ear out for the references.
Here’s my theory. Doctor Who has survived for so long because the programme itself regenerates. Each new Doctor should basically be a reboot, a rebirth. New actor, new writers and directors, new music, a new vision. This is why fans who clamour for things to ape the more successful eras in the show’s history are – for my money – barking mad. It can’t, it has to keep going forward, shark-like: sometime for better; sometimes for worse. But it can’t stay the same.
Frequently the series regenerates even when the lead does not. In the classic series usually when a new producer and script-editor team came in. And most of the series’ problems, when it’s got stuck in a rut or hit the buffers in the past, have been as a result of those in charge not observing this fundamental rule, the mid-80s JN-T-Saward era most obviously. And at the moment Doctor Who feels in danger of ignoring this rule.
I liked lots of bits of Listen, despite the fact that it was – as a friend amusingly suggested – Peak Moffat. It looked wonderful, absolutely wonderful. The light and shadow, the shade and colours and texture. Murray Gold’s music was not awful. I think the two companions play well together. There were moments of classic Moffat, the stuff he does so very well. And Peter Capaldi.
Capaldi is magnetic – you can’t not watch him. Everything he does feels honest, real, raw. Not since early Tom has the Doctor ever seemed so unpredictable, so dangerous. The Doctor feels like someone who might just lead you to a situation where you might just get killed; this is a Doctor to whom all those ridiculous ‘fire at the centre of the universe’ speeches might almost apply. I wonder how Tom might have appeared back in 1974 to a legion of fans inured to the ‘mother hen’ style of Pertwee’s heyday when I watch the Twelfth Doctor now. I always thought that Capaldi’s obvious suitability to the part almost certainly ruled him out; I’m deeply grateful that I was wrong as he is by far the best reason to watch Doctor Who at the moment. But I fear our time with this mercurial Doctor, which has felt a little limited from the start, is being rather wasted.
In and of itself, Listen was almost perfect. A lovely self-contained character piece with a stunning set-up and eerie atmosphere. So small it could be on stage. Like all the best Doctor Who, it no doubt sent all the little ‘uns scuttling behind the soft furnishings. And that we didn’t necessarily get another Moffat-Thing as the antagonist was probably wise, given the Weeping Angels, Silence, Vashta Nerada and other sense-perception creatures. Like Midnight, an open-ended resolution feels indulgent but it also feels entirely right once in a while. Only this wasn’t quite open-ended – despite the care taken to allow for uncertainty and ambiguity, it felt fairly certain that the threat was all in the Doctor’s head.
Clara, again, happened to stumble into his timeline and set the ball rolling – this time scaring and consoling a weeping child Doctor in the Gallifreyan barn from The Day of the Doctor. Just parse that sentence for a second. Leaving aside the fact that seeing the Doctor as a child just seems rather ridiculous – it’s telling that RTD dismissed a CBBC Young Adventures of Doctor Who-style show as he thought it would diminish the character – we’re left with another of Moffat’s patented cat’s cradles and another situation resolved by a companion’s… well, what? Speechifying?
Crossed timelines, back-and-forth in time, loose ends tied up into neat paradoxes and fragile balancing acts, with the happy finish of some gloopy emoting that relies on a love for the show’s mythos to pack an emotional punch. In and of itself there’s nothing wrong with it and stuff like The Girl In The Fireplace, Blink and Listen are perfectly-formed little playlets that show off the show in its best light.
But the first was eight years ago now and it feels like we’ve known this form of Doctor Who for a long time. Despite the tonal shift in The Eleventh Hour and what felt like another attempted seachange in Deep Breath, Moffat has shown time and again that he’s unable to shake off the same narrative tics. The result is a Hartell historical the week after Terror of the Autons; a Pertwee romp turning up in Season 18; a Holmes-Hinchcliffe gothic pastiche halfway through Trial of a Timelord; a Graham Williams comedy splitting Happiness Patrol and Silver Nemesis.
This is not really a criticism of Moffat per se – it’s a criticism of the way that Doctor Who has worked since its return in 2005. By the time showrunners leave, people are thoroughly sick of them; as sick as I suspect Davies and Moffat were and are of the show after several years of full-throttle, seat-of-pants immersion. Five whole years of it with the worst excesses of a well run dry, there on screen for everyone to see. Imagine if John Nathan-Turner didn’t simply produce Doctor Who in the 80s, but wrote a third of the episodes too. The current system is insane and we the result on screen over and over.
It’s interesting that Moffat wanted to write Listen to prove to himself that he could craft something of that ilk again. It’s also worrying that those in charge of the show find themselves in situations where they’re creatively spent – pretty much by their own admission – yet so desperate to keep going. While Listen was a quantum leap in quality from the televisual gruel of Robot Of Sherwood, they both feel hewn from the same parlous set-up. The current production office seems out of ideas, jaded and tired – to extend the metaphor we passed peak Moffat at Day of the Doctor and are now desperately wringing out what little there is left.
As with fuel resources, the answer is not more of the same. It’s time for another mid-Doctor regeneration. Moffat should go with thanks at the end of the season – and so should Mark Gatiss, Murray Gold, Gareth Roberts, Toby Whithouse, Chris Chibnall, Stephen Thompson, Neil Cross and Jenna Coleman. Not because they’re bad at their jobs but because everything has its time.
That’s a truth the show has recognised over 50 years. It’s one the production office needs to recognise now, lest Peak Moffat become Peak Doctor Who.