Come Hell Bent or High Water

I’m taking one of my rare forays into blogging about contemporary series of Doctor Who – always a dangerous area given the fiercely impassionate, informed, and articulate nature of Doctor Who fandom!

Let me begin by making a confession – I have had to learn to broaden my mind (never a bad thing!) during the present series. Change is always uncomfortable, and one’s instinctive reaction is to challenge it. So for stories like Heaven Sent I have had to learn to repress my natural instinct of being disappointed that it isn’t traditional Doctor Who, and instead affirm and enjoy the creativity that Moffat and the team have brought.

There are certainly a lot of positives to draw from the last series – Peter Capaldi has been absolutely astounding in the role; three of the four double-headers were superb – Under the Lake and Before the Flood deserve particular praise as stories that would not have been at all out of place in the classic era of the show; Julian Bleacher as Davros – an astonishing and magnificent tour de force.

So Hell Bent was a disappointment beyond all belief.

I am aware through the wonderful medium of Twitter that Doctor Who, perhaps more than any other TV show, has a remarkable capacity to completely polarise its fanbase. So I want to recognise from the very start that things cannot always stay the same as they were, and it is only natural that contemporary issues will have a different feel to The Web of Fear or Pyramids of Mars.

That concession made, I do think there are five major problems with Doctor Who’s overall direction, that were highlighted and expressed most clearly in Hell Bent:

  1. As I blogged previously, Steve Moffat is still not comfortable with death (click HERE for the original post). To my mind they completely botched Clara’s death – when you need to go to the Media to say “Clara’s definitely dead. Absolutely. No coming back.” there’s a slight Shakespearean air of “Methinks the Lady doth protest too much!” The resolution of the episode, with Clara and Ashildr/Me flying off in a TARDIS isn’t Clara bravely facing the Raven; it isn’t recognising the enormity and finality of death. Not only is it cowardly, it makes the viewer disinclined to trust the writers. Why believe now that anyone is dead? The way the show is currently run, the Doctor may as well have a room in the TARDIS where Elvis Presley and John Lennon are having an eternal jam session with Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix.
  2. The story was ridiculously self-indulgent. Alongside Face the Raven (a whole episode just to kill Clara? Really?) this episode was so wasteful, and it didn’t need to be. The first 20 minutes on Gallifrey were superb – the Doctor faced down Rassilon (far too easily given that last time everyone was Rassilon’s bitch …) and looked set to bring order – then he goes tearing off after Clara. By what definition of good story telling does a character spend 40 minutes ONLY agonising over the death of someone in a previous story, especially given that that’s pretty much what Heaven Sent was? I’m a fan of the show, and I found my attention was completely lost on occasion. It wasn’t a bad idea, but it didn’t deserve a whole episode, and Gallifrey deserved so much better.
    (For a decent Gallifrey story I refer you to The Deadly Assassin – a bargain at £4.99 on the BBC store)
  3. I know I am not alone in my dislike of what Clara has become as a character. This is no discredit to Jenna Coleman, who has played the role very well – indeed up until The Time of the Doctor I thoroughly enjoyed having her in the TARDIS. But the sarcastic remarks that the show had become ‘Clara Who’ exist because there is substantial basis in fact. The Doctor is meant to be the conduit to adventure, and his companion (or companions) is meant to represent us, the viewers – the means for us to enter the adventure, understand it, and experience it. In Nu Who, Donna is perhaps the best example of this role done well – strong and independent, and full to the brim of courage … but painfully aware that the Doctor is from a civilisation far in advance of her, and has lived and experienced hundreds more years than she could ever live. Donna worked wonderfully well – it was much more difficult to have empathy with Clara – I would even dare say, to like her.
  4. Most seriously, it seems like the production team have forgotten that the whole point of Doctor Who is to simply tell a good story. Character development is good. Exploring issues is good. The Classic series has a proud history of doing this, and doing it extremely well. But spending a whole episode allowing the Doctor to have a massive public angst about Clara is just bad story telling – there was no story! Evidence that the BBC have the wrong priorities is shown by this tweet:
    Feelings
    So the priority wasn’t ‘Let’s tell a thumping good story’ – it’s getting people to tweet evidence that they’ve been sobbing. Emotional reaction is good – and it’s also good that shows with that in mind exist. But writing a story for the emotional reaction is bad writing. The complete absence of a plot was an unforgivable sin for me.
  5. Finally, I am going to revisit a complaint I made at the end of Series 8 – character continuity has broken down … again. (Initial post is HERE, with a follow up post HERE). I was forcefully reminded of this with Missy’s appearance in the first two episodes. The problem is not with the character of ‘Missy’ – the problem is asserting that she is the continuation of the person known as the Master. And now it feels like you don’t even need to regenerate (or reGENDERate) for that continuity to be broken. Think back to Doomsday in Series 2 – Tennant’s Doctor burns up a dying sun to say goodbye to Rose, a woman he loved … but that’s as far as it went. Capaldi’s Doctor risked the whole fabric of space and time for Clara … so why stop there? Why not rescue Rose from the alternative universe? Why not save River (his WIFE!) from the library? The Doctor as currently scripted to speak just doesn’t scan with his previous selves – and the script editor is entirely to blame for that.

I am very sorry to say it, but I’m not looking forward to Series 10. My dad stopped watching Doctor Who when David Tennant took over (a view I sympathise with) but came back when Matt Smith took on the role. It pains me to say it, because I love Capaldi’s Doctor, and he had some absolutely fantastic stories … but I may stop watching until Steve Moffat has moved on. He’s had a good run, but he’s become so caught up in his own cleverness that he’s lost sight of just telling a good story with reasonable and believable character continuity.

And at the end of the day, it’s stopped being fun. When you reach that stage, you have to ask if it wouldn’t be better going back to the Classic catalogue until they sort themselves out. Not a sentence that I type with any particular happiness – and very much a sentence I type hoping to be proved dramatically wrong.

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