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Giving Up on Doctor Who

I’m giving up on Doctor Who again. This time it may be final.

I first gave up on Doctor Who in 1966, after The Tenth Planet. Or rather, I was banned from watching it for a while after an incident involving my dreaming there was a Cyberman in my dressing-up box. (I’m not sure how long the ban lasted as I saw a fair amount of Troughton’s Doctor Who but I am still wary of classic Cybermen.)

Once back, I watched all the way to Colin Baker’s Doctor Who and then stopped because of Bonnie Langford, and completely missed Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor.

I watched Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor but finally gave up on the Doctor Who reboot halfway through David Tennant’s stint in the role.

I gave up mainly because I’d got tired of watching talented actors reduced to eye candy and acting out the fantasies of overgrown adolescents who had somehow finagled their way into writing scripts. Where they were writing scripts that looked like old-time Doctor Who, without necssarily understanding why old-time Doctor Who worked and more importantly why it didn’t.

For the sake of nostalgia, I watched the mainly incoherent mess that was the 50th anniversary episode and the Christmas episode that made the anniversary episode look as though it had been rigorously edited. (And was incidentally glad I’d never watched any of the other Matt Smith episodes because … well, Geronimo. And if you don’t know why that upsets me, watch this.)

And I started the new series because … Capaldi.

I like Capaldi. He’s an excellent actor (as indeed was David Tennant, and Christopher Eccleston before him; and I think Matt Smith will just get better and better, too).

But three episodes into this new series, I’ve had enough.

Where to begin?

First, bear in mind that I write as a casual viewer, one who has not assiduously watched every reboot episode several times (except the anniversary episode because the soundtrack was so noisy I couldn’t follow a thing and I hate watching with subtitles).

But I have to say the writing seems to have deteriorated since I last watched regularly.

Badly.

It really is true what people say about Moffat’s inability to write women, or for that matter, to encourge others to write them well. Episode 1 of this series was my first proper encounter with Clara, and several people told me she is written so much better this series than last.

Really? That poor girl. It must have been bad if this is better.

I gathered too that the lizard alien, Madame Vastra, and her human wife, Jenny, are previous characters, which seems not to explain why we then had to go over and over and over the fact that they have a relationship, even before the lizard-human kiss. Because I was having a really hard time figuring that out until Moffat told me, and then went on to recreate Brookside all over again. And all that inbetween the casual objectfying of women. (And yes, if one woman objectifies another, it is still objectifying, honest.)

I still can’t decide whether to chalk it up to schoolboy prurience or daring progressivism, Moffat-style.

“See, puny humans, I can so write real women characters. So, yeah, ok, one is a lizard. But she’s a lady lizard. And a bit like Sherlock Holmes, too. Wow. Edgy, or what?”

OK, let’s instead say “I’m showing my insecurity about my ability to write women again, aren’t I? My wife says I’m good at writing women. I am a grown-up, honest. Please like me.”

And indeed, all three episodes are marked by a terrible insecurity and anxiety, particularly about Capaldi’s age and appearance. I suppose, after the girl cootie hysterics, it’s almost refreshing to turn to male-directed ageism. Though given that Moffat is not exactly a spring chicken and many of Doctor Who’s most devoted fans are not themselves in the first flush of youth, one might wonder quite where this anxiety springs from.

Jon Pertwee, the Doctor I remember most vividly from my childhood, was in his fifties when he played the role, and I don’t recall as a child being worried about his age. So one might assume the current child audience is unlikely to be bothered either. But neither, as an adult, am I bothered that Capaldi looks older than recent Doctors. (Capaldi is in fact, just over a year older than me, and believe me, I enjoy seeing someone close to my own age playing an action character – or I would if the scripts were any good).

Which suggests that somewhere along the way someone perhaps decided there was a target audience who wanted to see a Doctor who was pretty much like them in age terms, and that might also be flattered by having a slightly younger version of themselves to identify with, only to have it brought home to them in this series that yes, actually, we are all getting older. Or, to put a good face on it, we can all be grown-ups and still have fun.

Which is fine, but why do you have to keep going on about it? One school of thought explains to me that this shows the script team being aware of the sensitive feelings of their audience and addressing their anxieties about an older Doctor directly. And isn’t that wonderful of them?

Given the only response I’ve seen from the Doctor Who fans I know is “wow, Capaldi, yes”, inbetween “you know, John Hurt was a wonderful War Doctor”, I’m not sure exactly who it is they might be addressing about this issue. Themselves, possibly? This is beginning to feel like scriptwriters of a certain age playing out their own hopes and fears.

But all this is a distraction from the thing that is really annoying me this time around. Shoddy narrative, shoddy structure.

I’ve been struck by how none of the episodes so far actually fitted their allotted time. Episodes 1 and 2 both seemed to be dreadfully padded while last night’s episode suffered from quite the reverse, with an abrupt change of pace two thirds of the way through, as though Mark Gatiss had suddenly remembered it wasn’t a two-parter after all and, jesus, he had better start winding up NOW. Leading to the distinctly Bulldog Drummondish moment of Robin Hood and the Doctor fortuitously finding an off-screen blacksmith’s forge in order to release themselves from their shackles (though frankly, seeing them scrapping over that might have been more amusing than some of what passed for humorous interplay last night).

Last week, it was endless Dalek-on-human shooty-shooty in a series of wobbly corridors while Clara reactivated Hal, I’m sorry, Rusty, the good dalek, while in episode 1 there was so much infill and so many comic interludes it was hard to find a plot at all. There was probably about half an hour’s worth, which meant forty-five minutes of often exquisite tedium.

I’m also less than thrilled about the bolting on of moral points, and the relentless setting up of a story arc (i.e. the appearances of Missy, and references to The Promised Land. Shades of Bad Wolf again). It’s not that I object to story arcs per se. Handled well, they can be amazing things, but they need the individual stories to be strong as well (and here my view is shaped by watching Babylon 5, in its first two or three series one of the darkest things around). With Doctor Who it seems to have turned into a process of “bugger, another weak story, so hey, let’s put in something about the Doctor’s moral and existential angst a-n-d another story arc plot coupon. Collect the complete set to figure out what’s going on. The fans – the real fans – will love it.”

Possibly they will. Already, I am seeing critical commentary on this series that basically boils down to “and we learned this, which may mean that …”, which is not so much critical commentary as being a contestant on one of those solve-a-fictional-crime game shows so beloved of Radio 4. It’s also being used to elide the fact that the individual plots are as flimsy as hell, with a pop-up revelation at the end of each show.

And then there is the humour. Now it may be that I am indeed a humourless bitch, or it may be that as I said last night online, “My problem is that I like my comedy subtle rather than being elbowed in the ribs every two minutes to admire the waggishness of it all.” I could just about tolerate Strax the comedy Silurian Sontaran [Sontarans, Silurians, Silurians, Sontarans – let’s call the whole thing off] in episode 1, a little more than the arch exchanges between Vastra and Jenny, but last night’s attempt to recreate every cliché from every Robin Hood film ever became irksome (I can’t decide whether it would have been more irksome not to know the references than to be able to spot them, and yes, I knew them all – Gatiss is not the only one with a misspent youth). And there seemed to be slight but definite pauses before each stolen setpiece, as though to telegraph that it was coming. And after that came the meta-commentary on the laughing. As an observation it was spot on, but inevitably Gatiss overdid it, because they always do. On the other hand, I gather that children enjoyed the silliness of it all.

But, but, but, couldn’t it have been silly and told a better developed story as well? Like dealing with the whole notion of what Robin Hood means, as a real or fictional artefact, in more detail? Because then the silliness would have been a part of something else, rather than being the sole “thing” in the episode. As it was, it was obvious all the way through what was going on, even down to Robin Hood not being a robot. Even if one accepts that the Doctor has reasons for not “noticing” that something is wrong, one might wonder how, in the first episode, Clara didn’t notice, say, the oddity of the diners in that peculiar restaurant, because it was the first thing every viewer noticed, surely?

And perhaps that goes back to my earlier point about collecting story arc plot coupons. It seems to me that the audience is being flattered to believe it is cleverer than the Doctor and Clara in noticing these things, and that it will find the answer ahead of them. Even that isn’t in itself a crime but it is done so blatantly, and I find that offensive. All fiction, be it written or visual, is a form of manipulation of the reader or viewer, but the art is surely to do it without the consumer noticing. Unless, of course, you want them to notice and admire your cleverness, or encourage them to admire their own, a form of fan service.

And now we seem to be into reprising past shows. We’ve had the “mad dalek”; next week is this series’ “Are you my mummy?” episode. Which will of course remind us that Moffat did once produce an episode of genuine terror. (So much so that it had me awake in the night and sleeping with the light on, several nights running; it really was just like the good old days.) Somehow, on recent showing, I don’t think next week’s episode is going to do that.

Which is not to say that there aren’t good moments. There are, but they are very few and show how bad the rest of it is. The burgeoning relationship between Danny and Clara was surprisingly tastefully done, but feels like it’s a pilot for a totally different series in which a former soldier turned schoolteacher comes to terms with his past and makes a new life for himself in the civilian world. Could be quite gritty and all that. (One should also note Tom Baker’s cameo in the anniversary episode, which was probably the best thing about it after John Hurt.) And indeed, I find myself wondering whether Moffat isn’t now actually bored, having helped reboot the Doctor. I mean, where do you go next?

My single favourite moment of the entire series so far came last night as the arrow thudded into the Tardis and Capaldi just looked at it. Nothing was said. He just looked. And it was brilliant. Infinitely funnier than all the knockabout because it came out of incredibly good acting that turned a cliché into something special.

But that’s the problem. I can’t waste forty-five minutes of my life every week waiting for moments like that. Nor do I have any interest in collecting the plot coupons. I’m caught in a place between the people who can watch each episode totally uncritically and those who are so steeped in the lore of Doctor Who that every word, every slight nuance has so much meaning it would take a lifetime to accumulate the knowledge necessary to fully apprehend what is going on. And I don’t have the time to expend the effort needed to do that. In fact, I don’t want to have to study that hard in order to enjoy my Saturday night tv viewing to the full.

I want a tv series that can exist for those who watch regularly, a little out of nostalgia it’s true, but who also want a well-constructed narrative alongside the entertainment for the littlies and the fan service for the geeks and nerds, and that seems to be the one thing that Moffat et al are unable to provide.

In which case I shall with regret take my leave.