The problem with Doctor Who

Posted on: 24 December 2010 by Alexander Hay

As the nation waits for this year's Doctor Who Christmas Special, a stripping away of the wonderful performances and the show's current popularity reveals there's very little to like these days

The famous Doctor Who-themed Wrenbury Scarecrow - but can the real thing be taken any more seriously these days?

Moaning about Doctor Who, or rather the series as it is now after its 2005 relaunch, is nothing new - or 'Nu Who', as it were. Ex-Who author Lawrence Miles has been pointing out the show's many problems for years now, after all. His is a minority view of course, as is the one in this article. The show has attracted audiences of over 10 million for some episodes, with the lowest still being six times bigger than the population of, say, Glasgow. The public has spoken.

And they have a point, to a degree. The show has benefited from much improved production values and excellent performances from Whos 9 and 10 (or Christopher Ecclestone and David Tennant as Equity may know them) and an at times brilliant supporting cast. Even the current incumbent has finally eased into the role after a promising but at times rough start. 

Nor was 'Old Who' (or rather, the original series that ran from 1963 to 1989) perfect either. It could be racist, sexist, riven with industrial strife and bad acting, its scripts of - ahem - 'variable quality', its special effects at times seeming to cost all of 50p, the episodic format was at times too long-winded and it also had an unfortunate fixation on quarries. 

What it did, though, was stay more or less true to itself during its long 26 year run and stay consistent while still moving with the times. 

This leads us to the first complaint about Nu Who. It isn't a successor to the original show. It doesn't feel like it has anything in common, the tone is much more cocksure, self-satisfied, fast paced and ephemeral and the drama is loud and shallow rather than nuanced and understated. 

The show is also cursed with the bane of the age -  celebrity culture. We mustn't be rose-tinted in our views of the past, as previous Whos were celebrities too, and the odd guest appearance or two was not unheard of. But again, it's the sheer saturation of guest appearances, the relentless merchandising and promotion of the show, the focus over who's making the show rather than the show itself that is the problem. 

At the apex of this problem is the pointless focus on the 'showrunners' - the men in charge of both script and show. What becomes clear about Russell T Davies and his successor Stephen Moffat is how self-important they seem, to the extent of overshadowing the show itself, but also how silly it is to focus on them. It is never good to confuse what's important on-stage and off-stage. The current cult of celebrity, after all, is about nothing other than the morbid urge to stare - quality doesn't come into it.

This contrasts with the show's curious preoccupation - the revisionist denigration of the Doctor. In fact, he's pretty much always at bay, portrayed as either a hubristic prat, a wet prat, a nigh-on villainous prat or simply useless to the point of making the viewer wonder, as Amy Pond did in one recent episode, what the point of him is. Whereas Old Who touched on the main character's flaws, it never forgot that the point of the hero is, well, to be the hero. 

That may seem old fashioned in our post-modern age, but iconoclasm is always harmful. As the comic book writer/artist John Byrne has noted, this echoes a similar trend in superhero comics of the 1970s, where a morbid focussing on the characters' feet of clay overshadowed the whole point of them. Odd mix of Gandalf and Douglas Bader that he is (as in a larger than life good guy, albeit a prickly, eccentric one), the Doctor should at least always be sympathetic, which isn't the same as feeling sorry for him.

But then, whereas Old Who at least tried to be a sci-fi show. Nu Who is all about the soap opera, or at least the British variety, which substitutes drama for people shouting at each other and an unending panorama of despair. The rise of the soap opera parallels the decline of British optimism and self belief. There is no future so turn on the television and watch the Doctor be bloody miserable too.

The two biggest changes reflect this. First, there is 'magic wand syndrome', where everything is resolved by an absurd deus ex machina cop-out. Bad writing as this is, it pales in significance to the bane of the show - the love angle. Nu Who has relegated the Doctor to lovesick puppy or, in the Matt Smith era, as the unwilling third party in a love triangle. Sledgehammer-and-nut romance seems to be a hit with the audience, but it is - if you'll pardon the pun - 'alien' to the spirit of the show, and again the question needs to be asked. If the show 'needs' so many un-Who like ideas in it, does it even deserve to be called Doctor Who any more?

And if the show does need a proper 're-imagining' (and one can argue that it did), it has actually been done better than either Moffat or RTD have gone about it. The now almost airbrushed out of history online animated serial, "Scream of the Shalka", showed how you could pull off Nu Who with all its emotional baggage - by focusing on characters and script instead of surface glitz and scenery chewing. No wonder it's been almost forgotten - it was, for all its flaws, a drama that took itself and its audience seriously – and most importantly, it still felt like Doctor Who!

So will I be watching tomorrow's Christmas Special? Of course I will. There's no point complaining about a show if it wasn't such an important part of our national culture and our folklore, if it didn't matter. Doctor Who, even at its worst, is worth the disappointment. 

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Alexander Hay

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