I hate the word romp. It’s a shorthand for switching off your critical faculties, settling for the mediocre and acknowledging that the end result simply isn’t very good. I’m all for changes in pace in Doctor Who – not everything has to be serious, frightening, mythical, revelatory and nor would I want it to be. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to essentially make episodes of Doctor Who that are, almost by definition, rubbish.
In the olden days ‘romps’ tended to be stories that just weren’t very good. I sincerely doubt that anyone went into them with the express purpose of making a ‘romp’. It just so happened that they weren’t of a very high quality so, retrospectively, we excuse these stories as romps. “Oh, just a good old-fashioned Doctor Who romp,” someone like Gary Russell or Tom Spilsbury will say of, for example, Time And The Rani. What they mean is that it’s a load of old balls.
What has changed, I think, is that Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat have approached the new series of Doctor Who with a view that, every now and then, they will actively commission a romp. And this, I think, is a mistake. Because ‘romp’ remains code for ‘not very good’. That they veer towards meta-fiction due to the amount of self-reflexivity, in-jokes and general indulgence, amounts to barely more than a fig leaf.
The most egregious example of the self-aware, self-described romp in recent times is Robot Of Sherwood, only the second-ever Doctor Who story whose end remains a mystery to me. I simply went and did something else, unable to bear the colossal weight of archness thudding out of the television. Robot Of Sherwood was surely commissioned as a romp, written as a romp and executed as a romp. People are barely trying at any stage of the proceedings and it’s only the typically glossy production values and some ‘aren’t-we-clever’ dialogue that saves it from a reputation as bad as anything the classic series could throw at you.
Even The Magician’s Apprentice was unable to wrest itself out of the gravity of romp – the deleterious scene where the Doctor plays his own theme tune on an electric guitar for no meaningful reason is an example of the currency that the production staff seem to think the show must deal in. It exists only to be eye-catching, Vine-able and thoroughly pleased with itself. It reeks of romp. Moffat clearly believes that this is part of the fabric of the show these days. But it doesn’t have to be like this.
Toby Whithouse’s latest episode for the series was everything a romp should be. There is – so far – no narrative trickiness, no unreliable narrators, no postmodernist stylings, no mythicism (otherwise known as fanwank) and no scenes that exist just to give a platform to the Doctor to be boastful, idiotic or just downright twatty. It rattled along without sub-plots or series arc; it developed at a pace that, while fast, was not incoherent; it adopted the same tone throughout; it was funny rather than wacky; the Doctor was an alien, not a dickwad. It did not aspire to do anything more than tell a fairly straightforward story well. Put simply, it was a romp. And so much the better for it.
Doctor Who has been tiring me for a while now. My patience with the series has stretched to the point where, on two occasions in the last two years, I simply turned off the television halfway through an episode. I no longer watch the stories as soon as I can – often waiting a few days before watching it on catch-up or iPlayer. And last night I found myself discussing this with a couple of other fans who are tired of the programme. Despite the brilliance of Peter Capaldi, the odd flourish when Steven Moffat really tries and the fact that this is, after all, a constant companion, we’re all a little bored of Doctor Who. This brand of it anyway.
Moffat’s take on the show – after the enjoyably straightforward and rather ingenuous Season 5 – has tied itself up in narrative knots, so much so that Moffat’s production notes section in DWM has become a sort of addendum to his episodes where he explains – admittedly with amusing turns of phrase – what the heck is going on. It’s aware of its own cleverness – just like the Doctor as written by both showrunners – and, as with a boastful colleagues or loudmouth braggarts, this becomes tiresome. And like anything that becomes too familiar, it breeds contempt.
Davies and Moffat both demonstrated that they understood the show must evolve and change. In the worst moments of Season Eight – and the crashingly predictable Dalek two-parter of the last fortnight – the latter seems to have lost sight of that.
With a tight, pacy, funny and frightening episode Toby Whithouse has demonstrated how it can be done. The Doctor’s cue cards made me laugh out loud. A back-on-song Capaldi – socially inept but odd, funny and basically nice – thrilled me with the possibilities of his Doctor, written here as well as he has been by anyone.
And a scary, intriguing story harked back to Doctor Who’s best traditions – with a cliffhanger to match anything in the series. With its Weyland-Yutani company man and game of monster-tag there was Whithouse falling back on a reliable old Doctor Who trope of wearing your influences on your sleeve. It felt traditional – both in terms of the story and how it used to brazenly rip off genre favourites to make something greater than the sum of its parts. That’s how you do a romp.
Under The Lake also feels definitive in terms of where the current series – and Twelfth Doctor – can and should go. Cast against Steven Moffat’s recent efforts it was a breath of fresh air. Could it be that, over the past three weeks, we’ve seen the torch passed on? Just as Steven Moffat rebooted the series by playing against Russell T Davies’ weary interpretation – and in going back to a tight but simple storyline – Whithouse has demonstrated a template for how Doctor Who can thrive in a post-Moffat world.