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Last Christmas: Five Ways To Improve Doctor Who

Last Christmas was as predictably saccharine and self-indulgent, so what can Doctor Who can break our of its current rut?

All I see is when I tune it to Doctor Who on Christmas Day is Steven Moffat grabbing a handful of ingredients – a horror film here, a Christmas cliche there, a sprinkle of character actor – like a chef surveying a bunch of random ingredients in Ready, Steady, Cook and knowing that he can fashion something that gurgling, turkey-stuffed, sherry-sodden viewers will receive in the same way as they receive undesired gifts over the course of the day, because it’s Christmas and goodwill is prevalent.

Most Christmas Day episodes of Doctor Who – incredibly there are ten of the buggers now – have come and gone in this way and virtually every one of them is rubbish. While Russell T Davies confined himself to Christmassy cliches such as Victoriana, disaster movies and episodes that happened to be set around the festive period, Moffat appears determined to make Christmas a pivotal element in his Yuletide efforts. We should be grateful, I suppose, that there has never been a Doctor Who episode broadcast on Valentine’s Day.

Steven Moffat's actual prep for Last Christmas
Steven Moffat’s actual prep for Last Christmas

This reaches a nadir in The Widow and the a Wardrobe, which even the alcohol and impacted protein seemed unable to offset a couple of years ago, and the last two years have seen the show runner slip back into old habits.

The appearance of Nick Frost as ‘Santa Claus’ may be justifiable in terms of the narrative, but you know it was simply one of those pieces of jigsaw to be hammered into the wider picture. That we were then subjected to some comedic dancing to Slade and then an incredibly long sleigh ride over a snowy London seemed inevitable from the second we saw an actual red-nosed reindeer. How long before we get 60 minutes of Capaldi simply eating mince pies with Bing Crosby?

Doctor Who just becomes a vehicle for jokes, winks to the camera and diverting set-pieces in this context. For many that seems to be enough, but the acid test for these episodes is watching them in Summer, or simply in daylight. In the way that later examples of The Simpsons and Family Guy have got stuck in a similarly lazy rut, Christmas episodes of Doctor Who have been increasingly reduced to pop-culture pastiches and self-reflexive smart-arsery.

Maybe this is in keeping with the modern Christmas – colossal, guilt-free over-indulgence – but it’s as fundamentally unsatisfying as eating a load of bone-dry turkey.

What we did get, as we increasingly get at the end of a series these days, in Last Christmas was a big reset switch. Danny Pink turned himself off and Clara basically rebooted herself. It’s back to the ‘all-of-time-and-space’ ‘anything-can-happen’ dynamic, but it’s unclear what else there is for Clara to do, given that Moffat is unable to tolerate any companion’s existence without a ponderous story arc.

Predictable, familiar and a little nauseating – but we’re back every year for more. In that regard the annual Doctor Who episode is at least verisimilitudinous. But it smacks not of the freedom to do anything you want with the show, but the belief that you can’t move away from a proscribed template without alienating casual viewers.

Well poppycock I say. Look back at the show’s history and it thrives in reinventing itself, bucking trends and throwing out the bath water – baby too occasionally. And only when it hasn’t done this has it runaground. With that in mind, here are five suggestions for how Doctor Who can be successfully reengineered, with the caveat that Moffat spending more time with his awards doesn’t appear likely any time soon, or ever for that matter.

Five ways to make Doctor Who better

Strand the Doctor on Earth

When Derek Sherwin was told to reinvent Doctor Who with a reduced budget, (and when the BBC EDA publishers realised they had to do something to address how, y’know, awful the series was) what did he do? He stranded the show on a modern-day Earth and surrounded the new Doctor with a support network of recognisable characters (for what it’s worth the Eighth Doctor got stranded in Victorian Britain).

Very briefly I wondered if Deep Breath was a trial run for a series that worked along these lines. But it wasn’t and two episodes later we got Robot of Sherwood, an episode that could have been written and broadcast at any time over the last ten years. Ho hum.

No Christmas episodes

Personally I’m all for scrapping this tradition altogether – the production team certainly give the impression they can’t quite manage it, with only The Snowmen interrupting a run of duffers stretching back to 2005.

If there must be a Christmas episode, then what’s wrong with an ordinary episode held back to fill the void – an episode that isn’t as cloyingly clogged with festive references. 12 episodes a year plus a non-Christmas special would suit me fine if it meant an incremental rise in quality across the board. Which leads me to…

Less episodes

Ian Levine’s judgment of the health at any given time seems to depend on how many minutes of television BBC1 devotes to Doctor Who year upon year. I take a rather different view, in that I’d prefer less if the quality were to rise accordingly.

Arguably Moffat can still rise to the occasion, with the excellent Day of the Doctor showing what he’s capable of when he puts his mind to it. But he still managed to OK the likes of The Rings of Akhaten, The Power of Three and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS during that production block. Does anyone, even Moffat himself, really believe it’s possible to oversee virtually every element of the series, script edit the lot and write around 40% of all the episodes, every year? Surely not.

People would argue that series need time to breathe, change pace and tone. To them I’d say this: New Earth, Fear Her, 42, The Doctor’s Daughter, The Long Game, Night Terrors, Closing Time, Curse of the Black Spot, The Caretaker … and many more.

Why not lop a third of the annual episodes and invest everything into making eight knockout episodes every year? It might annoy BBC Worldwide, not to mention Ian Levine, but I bet those eight would be better as a result.

Murray Gold

JN-T rightly gets a lot of stick, but I think he went into the job with some good ideas (his casting of Peter Davison remaining one of the single bet moves in the show’s history). And while I think Dudley Simpson did not deserve the way he was treated I do believe that if Season 18 was going to get an overhaul – and by God it needed one – then Dud’s patented woodwinds, dominant over the previous six years, had to make way for the bleeps and tinkles of Roger Limb, Paddy Kingsland, Peter Howell and Malcolm Clarke.

This is not to suggest that I think the Radiophonic Workshop’s output of the time was beyond reproach, nor that there was anything wrong with Dudley Simpson’s work – simply that the fabric of the show could not be meaningfully changed otherwise.

I’m not really a fan of Murray Gold’s scores but even if I were I’d advocate for a change in the incidental music. Imagine if the series had used only one director during that time, or one writer. Alternatively imagine if Keff McCulloch had scored the TV Movie, or if Paddy Kingsland had simply scored every story between The Leisure Hive and Survival.

Imagine how it would have derailed Andrew Cartmel’s successful attempts to recreate the series. Imagine not having some of the wonderful scores from other composers during the 80s. No Survival, no Caves of Androzani, no Enlightenment. Imagine the lack of diversity, progression, evolution. Murray Gold’s incidental music in 2014 is interchangeable with his music in 2005; it’s like a millstone around the show.

No doubt people would complain that television has changed; that the function of incidental music has changed, merely to signal which emotion is the correct one on the coming scene. That production schedules mean five composers across 14 episodes would be impossible now. Whether that’s true or not, a different composer would be the one change – assuming leading man and head writer aren’t going anywhere – that would give the show a tonal overhaul that it really needs right now.

Ditch the companion

I suspect it would make the writing of the show too difficult to dispense with a companion completely, but changing the role of the modern companion – asking questions, getting captured, solving mysteries, season-wide plot device and love interest – needs a rethink.

The elevation of the companion reached its apotheosis with the Clara Who narrative of season eight but it feels like its run its course. Every time a companion appears now the audience starts trying to second-guess what the real story is. Rose was Bad Wolf, Martha was a globe-trotting Jehova’s Witness, Donna was the Doctor, Amy was the centre of the universe and Clara – well, Clara is whatever McGuffin she’s required to be from one week to the next.

Imagine how amazing it would be if the next companion wasn’t a fast-talking fuckable smart-arse who can take on The Doctor at his own game and didn’t turn out to be utterly pivotal in the end-of-season blowout. I’d like to. And, given how shagged-out companions become the second their inevitable arcs grind to a halt, I reckon I’m not the only one.