Series 5 of the popular Doctor Who revival, hereafter to be referred to as New Who, ended on a slightly ambivalent note; enthusiasm for Matt Smith’s hyperkinetic embodiment of the 11th doctor, frustration with his companions (i.e. Amy Pond), and an exhilarating feeling of disappointment with Steve Moffat’s vision as showrunner. Exhilarating disappointment – an oxymoron? Hardly. Watching Series 5 –and, now, Series 6 – is like eating candy and eventually recognizing that it has no nutritional value whatsoever. The sugar rush is a thrill for a while, but eventually must yield the way to more substantive and mature appreciation. Or rejection.
Perpetuating the flaws that have marred New Who since its inception – notably grandiose plotting with delusions of narrative coherence – Series 6 adds in a few of its own, beginning with an amplification of a significant irritation from Series 5: the relationship between Amy Pond and Rory Williams. Thankfully, we have finally moved past Rory’s status, in Amy’s eyes, as side-dish to the Doctor’s main course. Yet after a season in which Amy has the hots for everyone’s favourite Time Lord only to jettison it all in a season-ending marriage to Rory, the coupling still fails to convince. We accept it only because the plot requires us to accept it, and because Arthur Darvill is the series’ unsung star performer in a role that blends the sensible and the vulnerable with hefty doses of bravery and bad-assery.
Far crueler to the Doctor’s companions than the conviction of their marital status is their relationship to the Doctor, namely, as appendages. Although the Doctor cares greatly for them, there is never the sensation of a two-way relationship in quite the same way the David Tennant’s Doctor enjoyed with Donna Noble or Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor with Rose Tyler. Perhaps the most honest acknowledgment comes when – spoilers! – the Doctor leaves Amy and Rory behind with the recognition that he was selfishly feeding off of Amy’s fangirl adoration. Much in the same way New Who feeds off the adoration of its uncritical fanbase.
All that could be dismissed as glitch rather than aggravation provided New Who’s fundamental structure, wobbly at best under Russell Davies’ guidance, had improved with Moffat in charge. Yet despite Moffat’s ability to crank out plots that take advantage of time travel’s convolutions, the plots remain stubbornly prone to magical resolutions and pandering scenarios. Telling stories from the school of plotting that demands escalated stakes, the writers long ago reached the dead end of positing the ultimate stakes – the erasure of reality itself – and repeating the same universe-destroying outcome as the challenge the Doctor must overcome.
More fundamental still is the show’s refusal to embrace its science fiction character, preferring instead to dwell in the arbitrary logic of fairy tales. Result: high concept stories are reduced to mere melodrama or yet another monster-of-the-week scenario, with the concept providing a backbone nobody cares to notice is broken. Consider “The Girl Who Waited,” an episode set on a planet quarantined from a deadly and incurable 24-hour disease. Through a medical facility capable of sustaining co-existing time streams running at different speeds, the dying can stretch their final day to last the lifespan of their loved ones. Into this fascinating idea comes a medical facility incapable of distinguishing human biology from other biologies, and an army of robots ostensibly intended to provide medical care but, in true Who fashion, display a sinister shark’s array of needles in their heads. (The xenophobia that is rampant in Doctor Who, manifested in an endless parade of cool but ultimately malicious entities is an on-going drag for a series that otherwise celebrates adventure and the search for universal wonders.) While the drama inherent in trapping Amy in a different timestream from Rory and the Doctor is compelling, the cavalier treatment of the episode’s core concept underscores how the writers are willing to jettison narrative integrity in favour of manipulating audience emotions. When magic is draped in science-fiction trappings, the cognitive dissonance that results doesn’t lend itself to credible narratives. Concepts are thrown around like wet noodles at a wall, sticking only out of sheer production will power and not because any of it actually makes any sense.
This is on par with the show’s disregard for continuity and consistent worldbuilding, in the sense that each plot idea – each new villain’s assault on Earth – seems to exist without consideration of past episodes. Hence, we have a planet Earth whose core was formed around a malevolent race of half-humanoid half-spider beings, which evolved a race of underground-dwelling reptilian humanoids, and subsequently was subject to an occupation by Silence so hidden that even past incarnations of the Doctor were unaware of it. Add in Torchwood, and we are given a race of ridiculously powerful fairies who also inhabit the Earth. Nevermind the fact that apparently all these beings have never interacted; Doctor Who’s anything-goes approach to worldbuilding, quirky in Classic Who but amplified in New Who, has reached the critical mass of absurdity.
The sad conclusion: New Who is no longer skilled fiction, if it ever was, but fan fiction – a comic book soap opera that panders to audiences rather than demonstrate artistic integrity. I’ll keep watching, if only because there remains a certain infectious entertainment value to the show, but I can’t say I have much respect for it. Not when there are other shows, like Merlin, Eureka, Sanctuary…that manage to have excellent characterization, clever show premises, and a solid grasp of narrative storytelling.