Anime Reporter ushers in what will hopefully be a very very happy 2016 with a bit of a chat about Doctor Who. Yep, I’m chatting about the timelord adventurer once more and this time I’ll be focusing mainly on the direction things have taken with the latest season, including the Christmas special and how I feel about where it has arrived now.
When I last wrote about Doctor Who, it was just before the beginning of the latest season. I talked about how, since the change of showrunner from Russell T. Davies to Steven Moffatt, I became pretty disappointed with the show during the span of the Eleventh Doctor. I’ve come to realise since first watching that I actually hugely enjoyed Matt Smith as the Doctor, but the convoluted, self-congratulatory episodes and storylines of that era were just unbearable to me. I liked moments of the show, but found that it had become way, way too fond of hyping itself up with phrases like “The Darkest Day” “The Day of the Doctor” and “The Time of the Doctor”. I disliked how, for me, characters had been replaced with comebacks and substance had been eschewed for style that didn’t really mesh with the fantastic fool in the blue box. When Peter Capaldi took over the role of the Doctor, I read snippets which insisted that the phenomenal actor had put his foot down in a few regards, effectively ruling out any possibility of his Doctor becoming embroiled in the companion ‘will they-won’t they’, flirtatious relationship that Eleven had fairly strongly leaned on. Season 8, Capaldi’s first season, was a very different type of show. Stilted flirty banter was replaced with friendship. A friendship on unsteady ground as neither the Doctor nor his companion, Clara, really knew who he was anymore. Episodes became smaller in a way, focusing on how the Doctor popped in and out of Clara’s life and often putting her professional life and relationships as the foreground for episodes. Clara, for the first time since her arrival on screen, felt like a developed character and not just some one-liners attached to the label ‘The Impossible Girl’ (to recall another unnecessary instance of hype for hype’s sake). Season 8 saw the Doctor truly struggle with relearning how to engage and bond with one of his long-time companions and this uncertainty, this glaring flaw, made him a more approachable and vastly more endearing Doctor as a result. My last Doctor Who post ended with the emphasis that I was very optimistic about what Season 9 could bring to this duo. This optimism didn’t last past the second episode however.
The very first episode of Season 09 ended on a pretty whopping assembly of cliffhangers. After seeing the Doctor rock out on an electric guitar in medieval times, he, his nemesis, the Master, or Missy as the current incarnation is known, and his companion, Clara, were essentially kidnapped and brought to Skarro, to home world of the daleks to face Davros. During the episode, we saw Missy and Clara disintegrated by daleks, the TARDIS blown up, the Doctor stranded without his sonic screwdriver and a flashback to him pointing a laser weapon at a young Davros, declaring he needs to save his friend the only way he can and opening fire. That was a hell of a way to bring back the Doctor. I was pumped. I was really excited for the next episode and I was more optimistic than ever that this season could be magnificent.
Then came the second episode. In this episode, we learn pretty early on that Missy and Clara have survived, actually teleporting when they had appeared to be disintegrated. Now, this didn’t hugely trouble me. I hadn’t reasonably expected that the show would kill off two hugely significant characters without any warning, but it feel like the cheap, cliffhangery ploy that is was to have the characters apparently die at the end of one episode, only to be totally fine at the very beginning of the next. This cliffhanger style two-parter would unfortunately become par for the course in this season, something which got very old very quickly for me. We also saw very early on in the second episode that Clara mentioned that the daleks couldn’t possibly destroy the TARDIS because the Doctor had always said it was impossible, to which Missy curtly replied that you should never trust what a man says about a vehicle.
Now, here is really where I need to pause for a moment. This is really, truly frustrating for me. I don’t necessarily want to jump on the ‘Moffatt-is-terrible’ bandwagon, but this guy really can’t seem to write a female character to save his life. His idea of a strong female character is one that just constantly puts down males in general, without actually displaying any competence or ability above that of the male character they’re patronising. Don’t misunderstand me; I have no problem with a female character who talks trash about or surpasses the protagonist. I’m a little bit bothered by a female character who just openly insults or ridicules males based solely on their gender, in exactly the same way as I wouldn’t see any merit in a male character being sexist against female characters. To me, it’s just not good writing and it’s not interesting or original enough for me to see why it’s included. Again, don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not criticising the show because of this one comment. I’m criticising this show precisely because I had thought it had moved well past this kind of lazy character after Eleven’s era. Eleven’s episodes overflowed with casual catchy male-put-downs from characters River Song and Amy Pond. What’s even worse, for me, is that these characters’ egos were then so often undermined as they constantly turned to the Doctor to save them. I’m not objecting to an egomaniacal character. One of my favourite things about the Doctor is how he presents himself as the smartest being in any room in a given galaxy. My objection is that Moffat seems to be under the impression that to write a good, strong female character, she has to put down men and… and well aside from that she can pretty much just be a bland damsel or his cartoonish brand of saucy femme fatale, both of whom end up being saved just as often. It honestly bothers me that this guy clearly gives himself a lot of credit, given how often he brags about writing an unpredictable plot here and there, but he can’t seem to grasp the idea that a strong female character isn’t summed up as one who feels the need to belittle the male lead, unless of course he’s doing something at the time that directly warrants it. A strong female character is just a strong character who happens to be a female. Lending these sexist tropes doesn’t make Moffat’s female characters seem strong or in control, at least not to me, it just makes them seem so insecure as to constantly need to put down the Doctor. Missy, when she was a male character, was driven by dominating the universe and destroying the Doctor. Now that she’s a female character, all of her ambition has turned to… undermining the Doctor. Seriously. Remember the Season 08 finale? Missy presents the Doctor with an army of Cybermen, gives him this overwhelming power, because she knows it can corrupt him, she knows it can weaken who he is as a person. The character’s drive and ambition have been converted into overly complicated petty personal attacks. I think… this is really just my opinion, but I really do think that this is indicative of Steven Moffat’s attitude towards women. He can’t write a strong female character. He can only write an insecure character who feels the needs to scoff and say “That guys who’s saved the universe fifty times? What a moron, he always leaves the parking brake on!” It’s petty and, it’s really unfortunate that he seems to fall back on this lazy style of characterisation so often. Much much later in Season 9, a male Timelord is killed and regenerates as a woman. Her first line of dialogue amounts to “Phew, thanks gods I’m back to normal. How do men stand all that ego?” This leads the viewer to realise that this character had previously been a female before becoming male for a time. That’s fine. I just have a problem with this highly evolved species, living for millennia, who can routinely swap between genders and races and who still immediately jump to the “men are dumb, therefore I’m great” style of cheesy lines that really just make the character seem less insightful. If the Doctor regenerated as a female character, I’d be cool with that. I’d be really happy, just in terms of the character not having to be assigned any particular gender. In terms of the story, I wouldn’t have a huge reaction to the character’s gender, just where the story goes next. I would have a problem however, if the Doctor immediately started referring to her brand new female intuition and talking about how stupid she used to be as a male. Why? Because it’s petty and shallow oversimplification that such a character should be well above and it only represents how Moffat seems to think women act and think, rather than just treating them as complex people, like any given male character in his series. Wow, this has been a long and rambly tangent… apologies for that. Honestly, I suppose I was just deeply disappointed to see this series return to that bland trope of female character when Season 08 had done such a great job at making Clara into a well developed, nuanced character. Clara… I’ve completely forgotten to talk about Clara in this season… how did that happen?
Oh, that’s right… from the moment Clara leaves her classroom in the first episode, her character is pretty much a plastic bag being swept around by the plot. All of her courage and innovation seem to have disappeared and she’s pretty much just standing around, being told what to do and bouncing dialogue off the characters who are moving the story forward. It’s a little sad to see. Clara managed to become one of my favourite companions in Season 08 but Season 09 largely relegates her to silent sidekick or plot device, while occasionally telling us how she’s totally become just like the Doctor now.
Anyway, episode two pressed on and we learn that the TARDIS, while destroyed, can be easily repaired in a matter of seconds, that the Doctor teaches daleks the word ‘mercy’ after millennia of knowing that this concept is alien to them by going back in time and teaching it to the young Davros by killing the things about to kill him, even though this violates the massive rule of not screwing up your own timeline, and Clara, was literally a puppet in a dalek husk. Then… there are the glasses. Yep, Moffat just went ahead and gave the Doctor a mid-life crisis, replacing his sonic screwdriver with a seriously tacky pair of sunglasses “because we can”. Like Moffat’s approach to female characters being if they say men are crap, then they, as women, must be brilliant, he doesn’t seem to notice how utterly naff it is to have the Doctor start regularly playing electric guitar and sporting shades that fix every problem. Peter Capaldi did a magnificent turn as the Doctor this season, but the Doctor had some truly cringe-worthy moments. This season saw the Doctor and Clara continuing their adventures through space and time. The majority of the episodes were two parters, which meant that a lot of them dragged for me and were filled with unconvincing cliffhangers, (fool me once). I will say that the final couple of episodes of the season were great. I loved seeing the Doctor back in his hometown, I loved the episode seeing Clara finally, finally, go back to herself at the end, deciding to take the long way back to her fate, and I adored, as I know I was supposed to, seeing the Doctor get his brand new sonic screwdriver. My problem with that… My problem with Clara telling the Doctor not to ever let the universe stop him being the Doctor and him stepping into the TARDIS before getting a new blue screwdriver, is that it shouldn’t have been needed. It shouldn’t have had to be this big, epic moment that the Doctor is returning to being the Doctor again. The Doctor should have been the Doctor the entire time or, he should have fallen enough from being the Doctor that he didn’t act pretty much the same as always, except while wearing obnoxious sunglasses. To my eyes, there wasn’t a huge difference between this apparent time where the Doctor was “no longer truly the Doctor” and the character just being quite badly written. I do hope that the character can find himself again properly soon because Capaldi is far too magnificent an actor to waste.
We have the Christmas special, the Husbands of River Song. I was hesitant when I saw the title of this episode. I… don’t like River Song as a character. Well, it’s actually much more accurate to say that I’m heavily disappointed by this character. When she first appeared during the Tenth Doctor’s era, she blew my mind. This was amazing. A character who knew everything about the Doctor’s timeline who we meet at the end of her life and whose existence we have yet to see unfold. This was great. There was something amazing about seeing the Doctor not be the smartest person in the room and it was great to see all of the potential that this character held and all of the ways that she could impact the Doctor’s life, meeting at different points in their respective timelines. I was so excited to see where this character could go. Then… well, then Moffat got a bit carried away with his propensity for massive twists that enter the nonsense realm. River Song went from being the strong, assertive answer to the Doctor to being a talking doll who’d randomly spout propaganda about how the Doctor was the greatest force for good in the universe, or pat him on the head and casually tell him that he didn’t know what it was doing. She went, (much like the weeping angels in my opinion), from being exciting and powerful and clever, to being a mesh of twists, hyperbole and being more composed of flashy moments than any actual story. She became less meaningful the more she was exaggerated into plot twists and, eventually reached statue-of-liberty-angel levels when she regenerated from Amy Pond’s best friend, who was inexplicably obsessed with the Doctor from Amy’s youth and yet Amy never took to meet the Doctor beforehand (even when the Doctor lied with her for like a year), because, with River Song being conceived in a TARDIS, she apparently became part Timelord (because that’s how genetics works). When she regenerated into her current form, she set about trying to kill the Doctor, as she was programmed to by intergalactic fanatics from birth and… honestly… couldn’t she just have been this brilliant, clever, cool character, the one we were first promised? No? Why is that too much to ask? Moffat kind of seems to mistake himself for Sherlock and the Doctor from time to time (as well as seeming to mix up these two characters and their villains quite often), and seeks to prove he’s the smartest person in the room with his “unpredictable” plot twists and storylines. All too often, they’re just quite bland gibberish though, failing to stick to their own plot’s basic narrative rules and therefore being meaningless as story development. This was how I saw River Song progress as a character.
However, I really did enjoy the Christmas special. I mean, we did see the Doctor still wearing those ridiculous glasses when the screwdriver would have been better (though, at this point of the story he was still trying to see if River recognised him without such a big hint so I can forgive this), and there was the gratuitous “I’m smarter than the Doctor” moments which no male character ever seems to indulge in so blatantly, with River bragging about how she steals the TARDIS regularly without the Doctor noticing to referring to him with the codename “Damsel” because he constantly needs rescuing. It’s moments like these that really irk me because… at the heart of it, they feel like very transparent answers to accusations of sexism against Moffat. People have criticised him for his poorly developed female characters and he responds by having these characters say “I’m strong and clever and better than a man” as if this is the same thing as bothering to develop them in real, interesting ways. It’s the kind of “female-empowerment” (yes, I’m putting it in quotes, because I don’t think there’s anything actually empowering about the way these characters are presented), that was barely passable when movies like Charlie’s Angels came out because it makes a spectacle and a punchline out of the idea that a woman might be smarter or braver or stronger than a given man instead of just having it be a clear part of her character without the need for the story to pat itself on the back and say “Don’t you think I’m great for taking the time to say this?”. Sorry, I’m rambling again.
It’s just that during David Tennant’s run as the tenth character, there really didn’t seem to be any need to stop and say “Yep, that’s right, a woman is saving the day here, not a man, a woman.” whenever a female character was being heroic. Instead, female characters would be just as brave and heroic, and often moreso than other male characters and that was just a normal part of the story. It didn’t have to be pointed out like a bizarre novelty.
Okay, rant over, and I did, as I said, enjoy the Christmas special. Pretty much from exactly the moment that River Song stopped fluctuating between dismissing the Doctor and raving about how magnificent he is and actually recognised him at last. When they were interacting together as themselves and when they finally had their dinner date, it was superb. It was honest and touching and everything that the rest of the special had utterly lacked. It was a nice goodbye to River Song, which finally remembered her first appearance and paid tribute to their relationship.
How do I feel about the next season of Doctor Who? Cautious. I love this show and I love its characters. I just know that the man running the show right now has a tendency to get overexcited when one of his ideas goes down well and then overdo it in the extreme. He also loves his own tropes and thinks that “doing something cool” or leaving a cliffhanger are the same thing as good storytelling and I’m afraid that they aren’t, not in this instance. You see, Doctor Who is not simply a wacky little sci-fi series. It is that, but it’s not just that. It’s a legacy, a story that has been decades in the making. It’s not something that anyone involved in its making should feel able to just make up as they go along, when it undermines the story that has come before. While earlier Doctors agonized over changing their own past and saw the gravity of playing God, Moffat has the Doctor doing these things now without suffering any consequences. He forgets that one day he will not be making Doctor Who and someone else will continue the story which has lasted for generations. Someone will have to pick up where he leaves off and continue well past it. He is just one piece in this grand story and, while of course, it’s important to carve out new paths and not be shackled to the very letter of continuity, particularly with regard to time travel, it is no more acceptable to throw it out the window for the sake of a flashy getaway or a plot twist or just for doing something because he can. It is a silly little sci-fi show and there is such a thing as taking it too seriously, but the person behind the story should absolutely agonise over what changes are okay to make, it should be a difficult decision, not a throwaway whim and, even if in the end a person decides that the Doctor should be a female brontosaurus in the next regeneration and ride a motorbike instead of a TARDIS, it is owed to the show and its fans that such a choice happens for a reason and not just a “why not” moment, except perhaps for the female part. If an actor, or indeed a dinosaur puppet, can carry the role and do it justice, that’s all that should matter, but they still shouldn’t ride a Harley. Keep your mid-life crises to yourself, future Who showrunners! Now, I am also of the opinion that a sonic screwdriver isn’t more important than any other part of the show, and it doesn’t impact the story to change it. It does, however, impact the character to have him decide that it’s worth ditching the screwdriver for some shades. The Ninth (I think) Doctor, I believe in one of Moffat’s own scripts, once insisted that where other people picked up a weapon, something that damages, to get out of a situation, he preferred to pick up something that fixes, something that helps. For the first time, Moffat had a Doctor throw this away in favour of something that looks cool, and Moffat did so with the explanation that he did it to show that he could. This is not respecting the show or its legacy. This is putting yourself above it. This is buying into your own hype and believing yourself to be a creative genius because you write two series about geniuses. Steven Moffat has written some truly phenomenal episodes, but he shouldn’t be running Doctor Who as a series when he seems to give so little credit to direction and long-term story.
I look forward to the future of Doctor Who. I even look forward to a lot of its past as I’m not even close to fully caught up with all of classic Who or the many audio plays and books available. At heart, (yes even above being an anime fan), I am a storyteller. I love to write stories and create worlds and characters. It’s just a little bit painful to me that this series of so much wondrous possibility is currently being squandered on “cool for the sake of cool” that renders it more shallow and empty than it ever came close to under Russell T. Davies. It seems that Mr. Moffat feels that, because he is a fan of Doctor Who, he is entitled to focus on the aspects that he liked about the show; plot twists, suspense and surprises, and more or less let the rest of it go. Last season, I hoped that he may have grown past this. Now, I’m just hoping that he won’t stick around Doctor Who for too much longer.
Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!
PS. The preceding article/rant is quite lengthy so, you know, consider yourself warned. As of now.