Feature: What has happened to the magic of Doctor Who?

Brian J. Robb is left wondering what he’s just seen after this season of Doctor Who

That headline phrase is one familiar to Doctor Who fans: it was the reaction of the head of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society to The Deadly Assassin in 1976, now hailed as an all-time classic. I’m not sure what to make of the fact that it popped into my head in a totally un-ironic way at the conclusion of A Good Man Goes to War.

I’ve had a growing sense throughout this season that whatever I’ve been watching, it has not been Doctor Who (at least, as far as I see it—and none of us can really define such a wonderfully changeable series). That’s not to say I haven’t been enjoying it, which is what makes my reaction to the mid-season finale all the stranger.

Opening two-parter The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon brought a lot of criticism to show runner Steven Moffat, much of which he’d escaped during his debut season (a series of episodes that I thoroughly enjoyed and that felt different to this year’s offerings). His episodes stand up to re-watching (as did last years), and that’s not something I can say about much of Russell T Davies’ output. But is that because it takes two or more viewings to pick up everything (it is easy in Moffat’s Who to miss key lines or important moments), or is it because the stories are deeper, more complex, more rewarding? Whatever, there is still much about these two opening episodes that remains unexplained: whether we’ll get answers to every question remains to be seen…

The Curse of the Black Spot was fine, saved by Hugh Bonneville’s performance and Matt Smith’s Doctor. That the reveal turned out to be a rerun of The Girl in the Fireplace’s confused automated system run amuck was a huge disappointment, confirming a fear that Moffat’s tropes are being used and reused (even by other writers) to the point of redundancy.

The Doctor’s Wife was the big one, hyped to the skies by Moffat and writer Neil Gaiman, something the show could never live up to. It was surprising that the reveal of Idris’ identity was so up-front, but once that was out of the way, The Doctor’s Wife turned out to be the most simply enjoyable episode of the run so far, offering some simple and some complex pleasures to long-term fans.

The two-part The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People (great titles!) were decent, almost Pertwee-like throwback episodes, disrupted by some confusion about the exact nature and capabilities of the flesh and destined to be over-shadowed by that cliff-hanger ending…

And so to A Good Man Goes to War. Each subsequent Moffat-written episode seems to be less-and-less disciplined when it comes to classic storytelling structure. Seemingly a full third of this episode was set-up, lacking the presence of Matt Smith (was this a Doctor-lite episode?). Just eight episodes after the last raid on the dressing-up box, here we have a ‘monster greatest hits’ package from the store cupboard, this time in a reverse on the Pandorica: the Doctor is gathering allies. Much as these characters were interesting in their own right, was this motley crew really the best this supposedly all-powerful, legendary figure could come up with? The return to the all-powerful Doctor of ‘the oncoming storm’ and the subject of Davros’ criticism in Journey’s End is worrying, as I thought we’d seen the back of that with Tennant’s final episodes, especially The Waters of Mars. And here’s yet another Moffat trope—yet one more ‘girl who waited’ for the Doctor in the form of the tragic Laura Bucket.

The long-awaited River Song identity crisis was resolved, and was obvious to anyone who has been paying attention (as Moffat has said, that’s only playing fair with the audience—there should have been enough clues for some to fairly figure it out). What the implications may be in the ludicrously titled Let’s Kill Hitler remains to be seen.

It looked good, in grand space opera form (special effects were used here as throwaways that would have been major achievements in the old show). However, the Doctor’s character seemed out of kilter: the man who refused to destroy the Daleks casually destroys an entire Cyber fleet just to get some information? He also sets out to make a public fool of just one man in a malicious way… Who is this guy? Can we have the Doctor back please, Steven?

The increasingly complex and convoluted nature of the arcs in Doctor Who since 2005’s simple ‘bad wolf’ idea has got in the way of the storytelling. It would be great to sit down on a Saturday night to a series of brilliant stand-alone, fun adventures for the Doctor and his friends, but it seems that while the show is in Moffat’s hand we’re never going to see something as simply fun as The Idiot’s Lantern again.

Given the impact of this set of seven episodes on fandom, who knows what effect it has all had on the casual viewer. Will they have followed all the complexities and will they be prepared to wait three months and come back for answers—if they even remember the questions? Or will they conclude that Doctor Who is no longer for them, but is once more for the fans, geeks and nerds due to its inward looking nature? We’ve been here before and we all know what happened back then…

So, what has happened to the magic of Doctor Who? This series so far has been full of sound and fury, signifying very little. It is, however, not complete. So, those—like me—left in a state of confusion about what they’ve actually been watching (not by the stories, but by the fundamental nature of the show these days) have to wait until the autumn series to see if Moffat is going to pull off a wonderful magic trick and astound us all, or whether he’s going to have to slink off the stage, having screwed up his prestidigitation.


7 thoughts on “Feature: What has happened to the magic of Doctor Who?

  1. From what Moffat’s being saying before the season started, I suspect that the whole “what’s happened to the Doctor we know and love” is actually the point of the season – that it’s going to be all about getting rid of the Lonely God, the legendary figure of the spaceways who everybody now seems to have a myth about, and leave him back as just a guy who travels around in a box…

    Posted by David A McIntee | June 12, 2011, 2:46 pm
  2. That’s interesting, but why re-introduce it (as the end of Tennant already cleared that slate), only to dispense with it?

    Posted by BJR | June 12, 2011, 2:56 pm
  3. LOL!

    Posted by BJR | June 12, 2011, 5:23 pm
  4. Perhaps one should ask: what has happened to the SCIENCE of Doctor Who? The older series’ had solid foundations based in science, history, and politics, together with a touch of fantasy thrown in to make things surreal. Incidentally, Roald Dahl used this technique in his stories to great effect. Come the 2000s and that heritage has been slowly but systematically degraded into mindless fantasy. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always loved watching Dr Who, but the new ones don’t give that satisfied feeling of having watched something really worthwhile.

    Don’t believe me? Here’s an example. In the “Genesis of the Daleks” there’s a prolonged war between two races living adjacent to each other. As it turns out, a scientist with despotic tendencies, Davros, works behind the scenes to provoke destruction on both sides so that he can install a “genetically superior” race of Daleks when the dust settles. Sound familiar? The story has a bunch of metaphors that are all based on real history. The Daleks were realistic creatures and that’s what made them so scary in the first place. Fast forward a couple of decades, and not only can they fly, they’ve interbred with humans, become religious, been banished into another dimension, and have had some massive war with the Time Lords where both sides lost and the Doctor is all emo about it. Every time he meets them, his powers of bluffing and saving the universe from annihilation grow ever more ridiculous. In the end it all gets a bit unbelievable.

    The Doctor’s Wife – wonderfully cast, and easy on the eye too! It was so heartwarming. BUT did they really have to set it “in a magic bubble universe outside the universe”? Nevermind the sadistic Big Brother / Saw character that eats TARDIS voodoo power.

    If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect “TPTB” were deliberately trying to debase the rebellious underdog / activist themes from the old Doctor Who.

    In “The Almost People” the Doctor shouts “Geronimo!” just before firing at one of the acid creatures with his Sonic Screwdriver. What was that all about? I’m offended! Wasn’t Geronimo an American Chief who somehow ended up having his skull locked up in the Skull and Bones society, and whose name was later abused for an operation and catch-cry of US soldiers in Afghanistan? Together with “A Good Man Goes to War”, it almost sounds like a subliminal recruitment drive. It’s a bit worrying!

    Posted by Rupert | June 22, 2011, 8:57 am
  5. i never understood one thing after the episode “Wedding of River Song”… so who’s his wife: the TARDIS or River…. or both :/

    Posted by just asking | November 24, 2011, 9:29 pm
  6. “Given the impact of this set of seven episodes on fandom, who knows what effect it has all had on the casual viewer. Will they have followed all the complexities and will they be prepared to wait three months and come back for answers—if they even remember the questions? Or will they conclude that Doctor Who is no longer for them, but is once more for the fans, geeks and nerds due to its inward looking nature? We’ve been here before and we all know what happened back then…”

    Indeed and the fact that it’s stopped winning awards as when RTD was at the helm should be seen as a strong pointer that all is not fully well and good enough.

    Posted by The Moffat Paradox | January 2, 2013, 10:07 pm

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