Like it or not – I don’t – Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who is based on throwing enough at the viewers that they daren’t leave the room nor switch over, lest they miss something surprising, revelatory or just sufficiently entertaining. Add in a lot of money and a production team that is well-oiled and has an understanding of what’s required of them and you can’t really go wrong as long as you observe that basic template.
Sonic sunglasses, messing with the theme tune, guest stars, returning characters and standing on a bloody tank playing an electric sodding guitar. The Doctor gurning, whirling around, shouting variations of “I. AM. THE. DOCTOR!” or pulling faces or doing something, well, a bit dickish. It’s a template that has served the series very well but there have been indications this season that Doctor Who is moving away from it.
The best episode this series by a long way – Under The Lake – was noticeably empty of this tiresome artifice and, barring some familiar “Vikings! But also SPACE VIKINGS!” stuff in The Girl Who Died (see also: Robot Of Sherwood, Vampires of Venice, Curse of the Black Spot, The Pandorica Opens, The Shakespeare Code – all romps if every I saw one but a also genre coined amusingly by someone else as Doctor Who Laughs At History) was fairly straightforward too. It boasted a lot of mood, a fair amount of talking, a nice scene where Capaldi did his Timecard Victorious bit and a silly device – the Doctor can ‘talk baby’ – that wasn’t simply mined for an idiotic pay-off but used to moving effect.
Even from The Witch’s Familiar onwards, it’s been possibly to detect a slight restyling towards a more thoughtful series. Slower, more considered, apparently attempting to wean itself off the watch-the-birdie style that has defined Moffat’s much of tenure as show runner – the show is also ‘darker’, not obviously for an audience of young children in the way that episodes such as Aliens Of London or even more recent episodes such as the very enjoyable Mummy On The Orient Express – are. The timeslot is so late that my recorder asked me to input the code that means a show is considered post-watershed.
This is a good thing, in my view, simply because the show has to move on. When Doctor Who stays still for too long it suffers and Moffat seems be aware that, despite Capaldi’s strong performance, The Twelfth Doctor has struggled to define himself in an idiom that still seems rooted in The Eleventh’s.
But the show is only as good as its stories, and this week’s was a stinker of historical proportions. Catherine Tregenna’s debut for the series was oddly stilted, dull and had some decidedly wobbly production problems – Maisie William’s wooden performance most obviously. Perhaps worst of all, though, it was tonally weird. The Woman Who Lived veered between rather childish and decidedly feeble humour (complete with two knob gags), a fire-breathing feline baddie, dead babies and the horrors of immortality.
So startling were the sudden switches in tone that Murray Gold’s unsubtle and often unsuitable music signalled just how jarring the writing was by segueing jarringly from his trademark Harry Potter-lite repertoire to the sort of sledgehammer incidental intoning that signals A Serious Bit. It was awkward and confusing to watch and for the first time in a while the production seemed somewhat inept. Within minutes The Woman Who Lived jumped tracks from Wodehousian slapstick to the Wandering Jew via Mark Gatiss’ Phantasmagoria and Thundercats. What was the audience supposed to make of it? What were Capaldi and Williams supposed to do with it?
In such a confusing piece of work, scenes such as the one where Rufus Hound’s character – perhaps offering the episode’s best moments – and The Doctor attempted to delay the former’s hanging, by cracking deliberately weak gags, just collapsed into dust. We had comedy historical yokels who conversed in yoofspeak – nullifying the BBC’s much-vaunted ability to accurately reproduce eras past – squeezed unceremoniously into Doctor Who’s hyperreality.
What’s more it felt old. That the Doctor wrecks people’s lives is not news to us and has been explored many times before. We also get several explorations of immortality and long life throughout Doctor Who – so the talky scenes feel rather tired. Through Sarah and Rose, River Song and Amy we have explored this issue, again and again. Yet The Woman Who Lived offered it up as if Cath Tregenna had never seen Doctor Who before and was under the impression she was breaking new territory.
No matter where the series goes these days, it never really feels as if it can escape its central tropes and themes. I’ve long since given up on Murray Gold ever leaving the show, but it will never feel tonally or texturally different until he goes. The same is true of Steven Moffat, but rumours suggest that there is no-one willing to step into his place. So the show chugs on, offering up diminishing returns – even with new writers attempting to explore what is clearly an effort to change the show. And even its fanbase seem wearily disappointed. Just look at the tweets below – the ‘top tweets’ on my stream about an hour after the episode started.
Doctor Who fans can’t be bothered with the show any more – and more than can be written off as the usual suspects. Viewing figures have taken a knock, the episode has one of the lowest average scores on Gallifrey Base since it returned in 2005 and the immediate future of the show seems to be in doubt. At most other times in the last ten years this would worry me. Now I genuinely think it would be a good thing if the show underwent the sort of reboot it did in Season 4, 7, 18 and 25. A year off may be no bad thing.
Following a tired story that dealt with the ennui and issues long life being with it, it was hard not to dwell on the problems facing the 52-year-old programme.
#DrWho a monumental moment just happened. My wife, massive Dr Who fan, told me to switch it off. It really is a load of Bulls Bollocks
— Tim Ducksbury (@timducks) October 24, 2015
#DrWho piss poor writing and REALLY piss poor acting !
— Sir Sid O'Knee (@Sidewindersid) October 24, 2015
Unpopular as this opinion may be, this Masie girl is putting in a notably below-par performance again #DrWho
— Dr Peter Knowles (@MedievalPete) October 24, 2015
Whats with Doctor who….. bizarre script/storyline, stilted acting ….pretentious rubbish #DrWho
— kevin (@kevin131987) October 24, 2015