by Ricky Young
On October 29th, 1969, computers at Stanford and UCLA connected for the very first time, on a system known as Arpanet. The initial message sent across this precursor of the World Wide Web was ‘Well, the ending of The War Games was a typical Malcolm Hulke clusterfuck, wasn’t it?’
Not really. Bare-faced lies like the one above only serve to highlight the difficulty in being critical about Doctor Who on the internet. There’s no shortage of keyboard warriors rushing to their computers as the credits roll, ready to pour vats of scorn upon the latest story, often in tones so hysterical only dogs can hear them. Dedicated blogs and sites exist solely to examine every possible facet of the programme, and take it apart mercilessly.
Telly + fans + internet = madness; nothing new there, but Who fandom is deeper and richer and older than most. It survived the dark days of cancellation, kept the flame alight when no-one else cared, then had to sit and watch and seethe as the Doctor became public property once more.
No wonder current show-runner Steven Moffat gets exasperated, to the extent that he publically berates ‘net geeks’ who traduce his work (even if he does sometimes miss the point of some articles entirely). But before we continue, please note that this author loves Doctor Who unreservedly. Especially when Doctor Who is thrilling, and fun, and whimsical, and scary, and funny, and audacious, and genuine, all of which Season Five was, to the most satisfying degree since the show returned in 2005. Loving something unreservedly, of course, means not acting blind when it starts showing signs of distress.
(There are spoilers after the jump for the recently-broadcast season)
The Doctor’s only real defeat was in the 1980s, when the accumulated weight of continuity and mythology left the show unwieldy and – its following having moved slowly and inexorably from viewer to fan – self-harming, as the production became geared towards pleasing those who would speak up for it. BBC1 Controller Michael Grade gave it a much-needed slap at the time, only for it to respond by turning petulant and defensive. Then it was put out of its misery, and no real tears were shed.
So if the main impression taken from first half of Season Six is of one long exercise in deliberately teasing and indulging the massive and vocal constituency just itching to examine every detail for meaning and significance – as if that’s the primary goal, in and of itself – to lifeless and confusing and po-faced and dull results, it could be considered difficult to understand, let alone forgive.
It isn’t as if the mistakes of the 80s aren’t legend; this particular television programme’s history is perhaps the most intimately documented of all time. So what’s going on?
There’s no malice to this piece, there’s no ‘IT SHOULD BE LIKE IT IS IN MY HEAD!’; I’m not one of those fans who would rather have no Who than any Who if it can’t make them happy – if the second half of the run makes me eat my words I couldn’t be more pleased. But five episodes out of the last seven weren’t much in the way of fun at all.
Season Six rocketed out of the gate into the Utah sunshine, filled with an energy and confidence earned from Season Five’s ground-up and mostly successful reboot. The Doctor in a stetson! Amy and Rory! Wide shots filled with light and thrills! Richard Nixon! Mystery! Intrigue! Er, the death of the title character! Say what now?
“The Impossible Astronaut” set the tone for the series i.e. ‘the Doctor is up to his eyeballs in something, we’re not going to let you know what it is without you sticking with us for a unspecified length of time, and there are clues or perhaps red herrings everywhere. It’ll be worth it, but you’ll have to trust us, okay?’.
Unlike the casual viewer, fandom doesn’t have to be asked this.
It’s an approach personified by the character of Professor River Song. Less a person, more of an extended gratification-obscurer, she was introduced as someone important to the Doctor, whose interactions appear – from our point of view – to be happening in reverse. As an exercise in plotting, there’s no doubt it’s technically impressive. As a character, she arrives, makes a fuss of her own significance while pointing out she’s not going to tell you anything about it (‘Spoilers!’) then leaves, usually after some more hinting of revelations to come. Alex Kingston does her best, but even she must be tired of all the smugness.
The opening two-parter, despite being filled with nice things – a spirited Nixon, new semi-companion Canton Delaware, classy production design and fun banter between the leads – didn’t hang together as stand-alone adventure (Is that significant? Is *that* significant? Is that significant? Damn, it’s finished.) or, more worryingly, as a herald of things to come; at the end of “Day Of The Moon”, immediately after the brutal and uncharacteristic conclusion, the sudden left-turn into an inconsequential pirate story was acknowledged as being annoying in a line of dialogue. Wait, you’re fucking with us now?
“The Curse of the Black Spot” received a muted reaction due to being stuffed with ideas, not all of which paid off, and having little to do with the ongoing mystery. As this season’s histo-romp, it filled the gap without exciting or offending.
Things changed up a notch with the fourth episode, Neil Gaiman’s “The Doctor’s Wife”. A love-letter to one of the show’s core concepts, it also pondered the important question many teenage boys have wrestled with over the years – namely, what if your awesome space-ship and time-machine was also a hot girl? Cheeky and knowing, fan-service without being fan-wank and refreshingly free of forced drama, Idris’ simple, sighed “Hello” remains the most genuine, most earned moment of emotion in the series so far.
Fittingly, here we’ll stop for a bit of Matt Smith appreciation. His performance as the Doctor polarises opinion – you won’t hear many people say “oh, he’s alright,” – but he inhabits the role completely, with a panache and gusto that sells even the most wince-making dialogue. Since he took over, the Doctor’s been as slippery and mercurial as we’ve ever seen him, but Smith meshes the gears without a crunch. At the moment, he’s Doctor Who’s best asset.
His performance is routinely described as Troughton-esque, and what could be more Troughton than a Base Under Siege story? Yes, next up was the two parter “The Rebel Flesh”/”The Almost People”, ninety minutes of dark-brown angst where a handful of unlikeable people were menaced by their gooey, pissed-off avatars, to little consequence. Much has been made of the “darker” tone to this series, in practice it’s meant saving money on arc-lights on set rather than anything more tangible, and in this specific instance it led to a lot of blundering down corridors and not being able to tell who was who. That it was hard to care who was who? Yeah, that’s a bigger problem.
The end of “The Almost People” set up the mid-season finale, “A Good Man Goes To War”, with the shock that Amy Pond has been an artificial replica since, ooh, ages ago. The real Amy’s in prison, just having given birth. We join the story as the Doctor is rounding up allies to help in her rescue. Even dedicated viewers could be forgiven for wondering at this point if they’ve missed out on an episode or two, so confident is the story that everyone’s up to speed with previous events that they can fill in the chasm-like gaps themselves. (It would be churlish to list all the things that don’t really make sense at this point.) For a gangbusters finale, there’s a surprising amount of standing around talking before the uncharismatic villains run off with Amy’s baby, then River Song turns up and we’re treated to the not-hugely-surprising revelation that River Song actually is Amy’s baby.
Promoted well in advance as a game-changing cliffhanger, it’s nothing of the sort. Yes, the Doctor runs off in the TARDIS, with a-rescuin’ on his mind, but River Song’s standing right there. As things are at the moment, she’s going to be fine!
Is Doctor Who itself? Cheques are being written that currently can’t be cashed. It’s not going unnoticed; we’re staring right at it. Unfortunately for the production team, a glance to one side isn’t going to wipe it from our minds
“Ricky is @Hankinshaw on “The Tweeter”