Sun, Oct
5
2014

Doctor Who: The Season So Far

Sun, Oct 5, 2014

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If you're still reading this blog, you may have noticed that I haven't reviewed any of Peter Capaldi's Doctor Who episodes since Into the Dalek. This is not a protest or anything, it's just been crazy busy here.

That's good news for me. It means that I continue to make a living doing what I love. These past four weeks, I've written and submitted two non-fiction kids book manuscripts and outlines for two more which are due at the end of this month. I've continued my weekly column at the Kitchener Post, and I've somehow managed to do this while chauffeuring Erin around southern Alberta and Saskatchewan, picking the kids up after school, keeping them fed and keeping the house reasonably clean.

Well... reasonably. And I must also thank my parents for stepping in to take care of the kids while Erin and I were in southern Alberta for the week. A lot of work goes into being a writer, and a lot of it can't be done without the support of friends and family. I should also point out that, as hectic as my schedule has been, Erin's twice that. Still, we wouldn't have things any other way. Maybe just a little less of it. But with the same amount of money.

The downshot of all this, of course, is that I haven't had much time to spend on this blog, particularly not to review Doctor Who. Which is a shame, because interesting things are going on in Doctor Who at the moment. Yes, we have a new Doctor, and an accompanying realignment of the Doctor-companion relationship, but there's more to it than that. The connections this season has to the previous -- Clara Oswald and the Paternoster gang -- not only give us some comforting links to the past, but they also serve to highlight how the Doctor has changed under Peter Capaldi. Steven Moffat and company promised us that they'd take the show on a darker turn, and I think most of fandom only half believed them. But Capaldi's Doctor is acting in ways that Smith's Doctor wouldn't. Jenna Coleman's Clara shares our bewilderment over the sudden change. And the first six episodes of the season so far appear to have split fandom down the middle, with many on my Facebook feed calling these episodes the best season the show has had in years, and many others proclaiming the Moffpocalypse.

As you may have guessed, I'm more on the side of the former, though the upcoming episode, entitled Kill the Moon, appears to have split fandom down the middle again, and in a different way than, say, Listen or Time Heist split fandom down the middle. But regardless of whether or not I'll like or hate Kill the Moon, I think I am a fan of how the series has changed. I believe that Moffat has shaken things up, and I have confidence that he knows where he's going and how to get there. And I'm impressed because I haven't seen this series make so substantial a change within the tenure of a showrunner.

The last time Doctor Who changed so substantially was when showrunner Russell T. Davies handed the reins to Moffat himself, and that cleaved fandom something fierce. It was also to be expected. Davies had his own way of running things. He had his own dramatic touchstones that he harkened back to again and again. He loved the flash, the sense of adventure, the derring do. In his final story, The End of Time, he had his Doctor jump out of a speeding spaceship, fall hundreds of feet through a skylight, and miraculously stand up and confront the Master and the High Council of Time Lords with a pistol he wasn't sure what to do with.

With Moffat, the defining arc of his first three seasons has been a temporal twist on the relationship comedy, how the Doctor's human companions somehow ended up as the Doctor's in-laws. Moffat loves the puzzle boxes and, in The Day of the Doctor, managed to rewrite Davies' Time War as the paradox to end all paradoxes. Say what you will about Moffat, he's possibly the first showrunner the series has had that actually cares about the personal impact of time travel, which is remarkable considering the show is supposedly about time travel.

But the change we've seen since Deep Breath is even more remarkable because Moffat seems to be turning the steering wheel rather than leaving the racecar. It's more than just about the changeover from Matt Smith to Peter Capaldi. Davies switched Doctors too, from Christopher Eccleston to David Tennant, but the style of the show remained roughly the same. Indeed, in some ways this was to the show's detriment. The relationship between the ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler carried on to the tenth. And whereas the ninth Doctor's relationship was a story about how a passionate young woman coming into her own helps a man broken by war to commit to living his life, the tenth Doctor's relationship with Rose comes across as two teenagers in love (or, more accurately, "wuv"). There's none of the sense of Eccleston's pain - that was resolved nicely in The Parting of the Ways - instead, we were tempted to ask the Doctor and Rose to go find a room. It's really only when Rose Tyler leaves and then Martha and (better yet) Donna come on board the TARDIS that we see a change in the relationship, and an evolution in the style of the show.

Now compare how things have changed since Capaldi's taken over the role. The twelfth Doctor is not a cuddly Doctor. Clara, who once fancied the Doctor something fierce when he had Matt Smith's face, has backed the hell off and now approaches the Doctor as something more of a gruff father figure. Indeed, their relationship, and the fact that Clara is now a teacher at Cole Hill school, has made a number of people realize that Clara is effectively a stand-in for Barbara Wright. In The Caretaker, Danny could have stood in for Ian Chesterton, and the young "disruptive influence" the Doctor takes under his wing could have been likened to Susan, without the overt familial links.

In Deep Breath, the Doctor appears to abandon Clara to be killed by the clockwork robots, and Clara (and the audience) almost believes it. In Into the Dalek, the Doctor is shown that his own hatred of the Daleks is a mirror of the Dalek's hatred of the universe. He can't stand soldiers, now, and Danny Pink plants his finger on why when he calls the Doctor "an officer". In Listen, we see why the Doctor should not be left to his own devices for extended periods of time, as he ends up going on a wild goose chase and spooking himself (and us). In Time Heist, he successfully convinces Clara and two other partners to wipe their own memory in order to rob a bank. In The Caretaker, he rather prickly pushes everyone aside as he tries to take down a futuristic military robot that was minutes away from blowing up a school full of kids.

Capaldi's Doctor is ruthless and I wonder if that ruthlessness comes from impatience. After all, he spent hundreds of years stuck on a single planet (Trenzalore) while presumably the universe unfolded around him, with all of its wars and atrocities. He's over two-thousand years now and has spent a substantial portion of his life in one place. I wonder if he's thinking that he has to make up for lost time, and thus feels he has less time to deal with making nice with his human fellow travellers. And I wonder if the eleventh Doctor sensed this, and that's why he made a phone call to Clara to tell her not to give up on the man.

All the while, there's Missy and her version of Heaven (recently called "the Nethersphere" at the end of The Caretaker), who has been quietly following the Doctor and picking up the people he fails to save -- largely as he proceeds headlong towards his ultimate goal of saving those he can. Perhaps while the Doctor is saying to himself "save as many people as you can; don't stop to think about those you can't save", Missy is preparing to ask him "well, what do you say to the people you couldn't save?" Steven Moffat has written the final two parter of this season, and he has authored or co-authored the first six episodes of this season. That tells me that he is carefully setting things up for a reveal that will come this November, and it promises to be big.

There have been a number of comparisons between these episodes of Capaldi's Doctor and the first episodes of Colin Baker's Doctor (#6). After regenerating from Peter Davison, Colin Baker's Doctor was initially manic, sometimes deranged. In his haze of regeneration, he tries to throttle Peri. Even after he recovers, he remains prickly and argumentative, to the point that many fans wondered just why Peri would stick with him.

The ultimate plan that Colin Baker never got to fully implement was to soften the Doctor gradually, and show why he was the prickly way he was. To the show's credit, they did show a softening of the relationship between himself and Peri by the beginning of season 23, but the total implementation left a lot to be desired.

Moffat has gone down some of this road, but appears to have learned from the mistakes of the earlier series (it also helps that these recent episodes have been flawlessly directed and feature sparkling dialogue. Listen is a joy to -ahem- listen to). Make no mistake, when the Doctor told Clara in serious tones that she had to explain the reasons behind her relationship with soldier Danny Pink (especially after his outright refusal to believe Danny was anything other than a gym teacher), I was ready to cheer if Clara showed the Doctor her middle finger. However, Capaldi shows his sensitivity early; look at the way he stands at the end of Deep Breath as Clara thinks very seriously about leaving him forever. At that moment, we see the core of the man. We see the prickly and gruff exterior stripped away. We see how terrified he is of being alone.

That allows me to give Capaldi's Doctor a lot of credit in his own right. I know he's going to make some terrible mistakes and push people away from him, but I also know that there's something inside him that's going to be hurt by that. That's the seed of the character drama that I find compelling, and which will help me keep on watching.

The reason why Doctor Who has lasted fifty years as a coherent narrative is because it's got the most flexible format in fiction, but the key to making that work is the series has to evolve. Davies' model of Doctor derring-do worked well while it lasted, and Moffat arrived at the right time to take the show in a new direction. I personally liked the story arc with the Doctor and River Song, even if some people have called it Coupling With a TARDIS, but Moffat seems to have understood that the show needed to move on from that. We haven't seen Captain Jack on the program in years, even though Moffat created that character, and it's quite possible (though I'd be disappointed if so) that we may never see River Song again. But for the show to stay fresh and attract a new generation of fans, it has to evolve, and introduce new elements and new storylines that capture new viewers and draw them into the program.

Everybody is different, and everybody has different reasons for being a fan of Doctor Who, and when a show changes like Doctor Who has, some people lose those elements that made them fans in the first place. It's natural and reasonable for these people to object. But as I've said before, the show was never about pleasing just you, and you will always have those episodes which made you a fan of the series in the first place. And, if you don't like where things are now? I would suggest waiting a little while. Like the weather in Calgary, it won't be long before things change again.


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