Dear readers I have a dreadful confession to make – I am a historian! In common with my wife (not only a historian, but one who teaches history!) one of my great enthusiasms is change and continuity over time – of which Doctor Who is a wonderful example of both great change and great continuity.
So as I got to the end of the latest series of Doctor Who, it was this sense of change and continuity that I was most struck by. Really a superb starting point for our conversations is this tweet by J.R. Southall:
The fact is, change is what keeps Doctor Who alive, fresh and engaging. It pulls along the old viewers and wins the new viewers, and it always keeps us guessing because nothing is ever wholly predictable. And the above tweet is right – that precedent was set by determining that an actor as fundamentally different as Patrick Troughton could replace William Hartnell and the show could nonetheless carry on – and carry on magnificently.
With that in view, here’s my view on Death in Heaven and the series that has just gone by:
1. Capaldi was brilliant …
Peter Capaldi is deservedly the hero rejoiced in song by Doctor Who fans. Undoubtedly he was edgy – my wife wasn’t sure that she liked him at all so harsh and inhuman he seemed at times. But the cast and crew deserve credit for not continuing with a young and likeable Doctor, and daring to risk on a much more abrasive character. Capaldi demonstrated beyond all doubt that Colin Baker deserved at least three seasons to grow from a seemingly unlikeable character. If nothing else, we should rejoice in the exceptional standard Capaldi has set, and for affirming that wonderful tradition that the actor of the Doctor may change (and change dramatically) but the person of the Doctor continues.
2. … but Clara was not
And allow me to draw a distinction here! Jenna Coleman was stellar in her performances and I cannot fault her acting ability in the least. But she was handed a dreadful deal by the producers, which came to a head in her temper tantrum in Dark Water. Whether branding the show ‘Clara Who’ in parody of how much she was taking the lead, to her sometimes frankly disgraceful bouts of temper and selfishness – Clara was distinctly unlikeable. And that’s a first for a companion – the nearest comparison would be Turlough, but there were always question marks about him. The companion was always meant to be ‘us’ the viewer, brought into this great adventure (hence why the likes of Liz Shaw and Romana did not work quite as they should) – whereas Clara was almost more aloof than the good Doctor at times.
3. The story arcs were much improved …
I have to give credit where it is due – Moffat dropped the needlessly convoluted story arcs of former seasons for looking to tell reasonable self contained stories. This is a return to a format that worked really well in Series 1 to 4 so it is great that the lesson has been learned. Shame not all of the self contained stories are that good (I hated Listen) but a worthy step forward.
4. … but the tone has darkened
In the immediate aftermath of Death in Heaven, I realised that my second biggest concern was just how dark Doctor Who had become. Which is a surprise, because I remember as an eight year old, watching Morris Barry’s introduction to Tomb of the Cybermen and wondering how Mary Whitehouse could possibly have thought the story too scary! I think therefore this is an interesting example of a profound change – Doctor Who has never been afraid to address dark themes – the Daleks alone deal with issues of xenophobia, genocide, and nuclear conflict. What changed this time around? I think principally that the writers and producers decided to explore just how deep and dark they could go – and that isn’t a good place. The last two episodes were frankly horrifying and insensitive – all the more so because it was needless. I think the finest example of ‘dark’ Doctor Who done well is The Waters of Mars – humans possessed by water is a truly horrible concept, and the possession of a sobbing Steffi while looking at her children is incredibly moving. But what it shares with the classic series is that the darkness was juxtapositioned to the hope that we all cling to. Dark Water and Death In Heaven were unrelentingly grim and hopeless – and that’s not a good direction of travel. The edge in Doctor Who should never cut so deep as to draw blood.
5. The elephant in the room … did Missy pull it off?
Let me start positively – I think that Michelle Gomez was absolutely excellent as Missy. Let me now be negative – she wasn’t the Master. And that is a huge pity, because Moffat has missed the biggest open goal you could ask for. I began by highlighting the excellence of Capaldi, because really the change from Smith to Capaldi is as seismic as the change from Hartnell to Troughton – a complete and fundamental change of personality. And yet – for all the edginess and difference we could still see that Capaldi is the Doctor. “Missy” just didn’t persuade me that she is the Master. Now – perhaps the issue goes further back to John Simm being given the brief that the Master is insane and playing the role as such – but it just doesn’t ring true with the Master we remember as fans of the classic series. Yes, undoubtedly the Master has an insane drive to dominate all life, and is (theoretically) merciless in killing his enemies – but he didn’t bounce through proceedings haphazardly, or kill someone simply due to insanity – he killed for advantage. Missy just did not seem purposeful (in that regard, she reminded me of Tennant’s Doctor, who seemed to spend half his time bumbling through his adventures). But of course the biggest problem by a mile – the name! A person’s name is far too much a part of their identity to easily cast aside, and the sole reason for “Missy” seems to have been a plot twist that a vision-impaired Dalek could have seen through. And it’s a huge shame – better executed, it would have won over a lot of the naysayers for a female Doctor.
The lessons learned? I think that Doctor Who fans are unwise to attribute blame solely to Steven Moffat and his team – there is plenty in the new series to commend it, and plenty of continuity from series and seasons past. But I think there are clear warnings also – while the show is always evolving and changing and surprising, it must never sacrifice the core message of hope and goodness and fundamental justice for the sake of grittiness. And when it comes to characters, I would simply counsel that they should reinvent the wheel with care …
My last word is two requests – (1) please drop the schoolchildren. Being married to a teacher, I was groaning in despair at the ridiculous use of the pupils – it didn’t work! And most importantly (2) if you change the gender of an arch villain, don’t be so stupid as to conclude the first thing they would do post-regeneration is give their arch nemesis a snog (especially a nemesis who is theoretically their brother).