As it Heads into a Transition Period, “Doctor Who” Needs a Drastic Re-Imagining

Posted on July 05, 2017

There. We said it.

Let’s start with some context. For many reasons, some of which we’ll get into here, our relationship with Doctor Who has been at the “Maybe we should start seeing other people” phase for some time. It’s taken us a bit longer than usual to put this review together, because we had to work particularly hard to keep remembering that context and not look at every little thing worth critiquing as some sort of huge problem. We still love the franchise and the character, but Steven Moffat’s relentless tenure (we can think of no other way to describe it) has left us worn out and exhausted. Not even the considerable charms of Pearl Mackie and the somewhat fading charms of Peter Capaldi (in the sense that he seemed pretty damn tired of the character through most of this season) were able to overcome our sense that the show had become fatally repetitive and had run out of things to say and stories to tell. Put a pin in all that.

Having established context, let’s move right into the compliments on this finale (which are really just another form of context, given the criticisms to come). We can appreciate and even enjoy how well-constructed this episode was; especially evident in several of the emotional payoffs which were set up long ago, like Nardole’s sentimental-yet-defiant exit, Missy’s final stand and final fate, and Bill’s rescue by Heather. John Simms was a pure delight as the much more gleefully malevolent version of the Master – as opposed to Michelle Gomez’s gleefully irreverent version, who kept flirting with true malevolence but kept finding to her surprise that she wasn’t capable of it. The interplay between these two versions of the same person was fascinating to watch and expertly portrayed by Simms and Gomez. Missy’s death in particular was sublimely on point. Of course she would go out laughing at the absurdity of it all; the one time in her life she makes a moral stand, she kills herself over it before it can even matter.

And of course, attention must be paid to Peter Capaldi, who delivered a stirring and surprisingly emotional speech about kindness and heroism that stands among the best things the Doctor’s ever said and more specifically, defines the journey this iteration of the Doctor took from tired old man to righteously defiant one. This was the culmination of Capaldi and Moffat’s work (good and bad) on the 12th Doctor. This was a version of the Doctor who grew and matured as he aged, coming to a point at the end of his journey that showed him quite changed from the man we met at the beginning of it. Nine went out unchanged, Ten went out regretful, and Eleven went out pretty much exactly the same way he came in. But Twelve is a man who grew and challenged himself; who examined his own beliefs and actions in a way wholly unlike his immediate predecessors. A smart writer knows that you should play to the physicality of the actor playing the Doctor in order to find out who that version is. Eccleston was vaguely threatening, Tennant was a tortured hero in the romantic tradition (as befitted his looks) and Smith was clownish and petulant. But Capaldi is the oldest man to play the Doctor and subsequently, his is a version heavy with experience and tempered by memories and past failures.

But dear God, this was dark. Bill was physically and emotionally tortured for a decade until she was eventually mutilated beyond all recognition. Then she, Missy, the Master and the Doctor all died in one form or another in order to save a small community of people on a spaceship, stuck between a black hole and an ever-growing army of killer cyborgs, their deaths/mutilations only a matter of time. Granted, none of them are truly dead save Missy (and even that is highly debatable), and literally every being’s death is a matter of time, but it was a lot of darkness, death and destruction in support of a heroic principle but without much of an emotional payoff. There was no point at which any of it felt like a victory. Lots and lots of people died, including the woman the Doctor had spent a century trying to rehabilitate and the woman who begged him to make sure she didn’t die – and all to keep a very small, very fragile community of unsketched characters and background players from their inevitable violent mutilations or deaths for a time. It’s not the principle we object to; it’s the lack of payoff or drama in the storytelling.

Let’s not forget – because we absolutely couldn’t, which affected our responses to all the rest of it – this is all the Doctor’s fault. First because his insistence on rehabilitating Missy left him deaf to the pleas of Nardole and Bill to be more careful about her, and second, because that obsession with her led him to taking the whole team on a dangerous mission just to test her. A mission Bill was deeply reluctant to go on; the parameters of which the Doctor knew going into it, judging by the dialogue in the opening scene of the previous episode. He goaded Missy, Nardole and Bill to notice things about the command center that he already knew (like the presence of the black hole, the thrusters on reverse and even the screens all pointing in one direction, indicating a singular crew member). Then he refused to use the TARDIS to rescue Bill because it was “too risky” so near a black hole – the black hole he deliberately parked the TARDIS next to in order to test Missy AGAINST the wishes of both of his companions. Bill’s fate was one of the most horrifying of any companion while also being the one the Doctor bears the most responsibility for. But let’s talk about that for a second; about companions and their fates, because this is probably the heart of our critique.

The story of modern Doctor Who (since the 2005 reboot) is the story of a series of women who sought adventure and heroism and got punished for it; in some instances, paying enormous prices, like brain damage and death, or years of imprisonment, or watching their families enslaved, or having their baby kidnapped and raised by terrorists, or having their very humanity stripped from them. All so the main hero can feel bad about their fate and then start the cycle all over again when he decides to choose a new one. This observation is not meant to strip any of these women of their agency, nor is it meant to ignore that several male companions suffered as well (Captain Jack’s entire tortured existence post-TARDIS, Rory being turned into an Auton and waiting 1000 years alone for Amy to wake up, Nardole being more or less abandoned to a violent end). It is not offered as an example of the show’s misogyny. And aside from Donna and possibly Martha, it is almost certain that all of the women who rode with the Doctor since Rose would insist that they love how their lives turned out. Nonetheless, it would be nice to see a Companion enjoy their tenure without such massive asterisks next to it. Maybe we’re just hungrier for a less tortured form of heroism right now or maybe we’re just tired of the modern Doctor being defined by this pattern of choosing women to travel with him and then agonizing over their fates before doing it all over again.

Yes, Rose got to be a grand adventurer on her own, Martha became a soldier, Amy stayed in love for the rest of her days, River got to have an utterly amazing – and long – life of adventure, Clara got her own TARDIS and a limited sort of immortality and Bill got to travel the stars as a celestial being with a girl she fancied. Their endings were not tragic from their perspective, necessarily. Additionally, all of these women chose to go with the Doctor, aware that there were risks in the choice. And any long-time fan could rightly respond that this has always largely been the case with Who, which was always fairly dark, even when it was purely a show for children. The point, we think, isn’t that the show is too dark; it’s that it’s too repetitive in its modern form. There’s no reason why almost every single companion must be ripped away from the Doctor, from her life, from her family, from her memories and even from her very body. A companion can still do what so many of them used to do in the show over its history: leave. Or even be kicked out of the TARDIS or abandoned by the Doctor. There are many dramatic options with the Doctor/Companion dynamic, but these tortured fates and pseudo-deaths for him to weep over are just too played out at this point.

As for Bill’s fate, it felt … unearned dramatically. She simply wasn’t around long enough for us to explore what she truly wanted but it was hard to get onboard with the idea that this fate was something she was really excited about. Going from the chip fryer to celestial being in ten episodes is a a hell of a journey. And we just couldn’t shake the idea that she was taking the only offer available to her rather than jumping at the idea to shed her humanity and leap into the stars. Clara’s exit, while a bit ridiculous in retrospect, was at least a culmination of a character who was clearly addicted to adventuring, past the point of caring about her own life anymore. We got the sense that Bill was still trying to figure herself out when this fate got thrust on her. And yes, the possibility remains for her to return to her human life and even go back to being the Doctor’s companion, should she decide that’s what she wants out of life. We suppose our take on Bill is, she feels extremely unfinished as a character, which means the torture she went through feels outsized and unnecessary.

But as much as we’d welcome seeing much more of Pearl Mackie, we fear the show will do what it tends to do when it tortures companions: it glosses right over their own emotional reactions. Prime example: Rory and Amy, facing the news that their daughter was kidnapped by zealots to be turned into an assassin and that there was nothing they could do about it – happily returned to adventuring with the man who was responsible for it, only briefly lingering on their own grief. Clara’s boyfriend is mutilated and turned into a Cyberman (sound familiar?), she spends a little time feeling bad, and then returns to happy adventuring with the Doctor. River is imprisoned for years for a crime she didn’t commit but happily spends her life adventuring with the man who more or less abandoned her to a jail cell. Again, each of these stories had somewhat happy endings for the characters, but there’s that sense of everything repeating again and again. Horrible thing happens to Companion, then they get over it because adventuring with the Doctor is so awesome. There are other stories to tell than this same one over and over again.

We still love the basic concept of the show; an effectively immortal, ever-changeable mad doctor/teacher/hero/sage in a box, traveling through all of time and space with trusted companions at his side. But after a decade-plus of the basic relational dynamic at the center of the show being depicted in largely the same way, over and over again, it’s time for a massive shift in thinking. Like so many (but by no means all) of the show’s fans, we would like very much to see an actress tackle the title role, if for no other reason than it would shake up the show at a time when it’s gotten very stale. We don’t propose such casting as the ultimate solution to freshening up the franchise; just that it’s an example of how the show needs to rethink its core character and how he relates to the rest of the universe. We have no idea who the next Doctor will be or what kind of approach the new show runner will take in the next season, but as much as we love this show, if it’s going to be another season of a slightly obnoxious white guy cracking jokes while his companion gets her humanity stripped from her, we’re definitely sitting it out.

 

 

 

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