The Doctor Returns… But Does Anyone Care?

May 7, 2017 - Television

I’ve recently been notified that Doctor Who has begun airing new episodes. It speaks to the troubles involved with such a hiatus that, ardent Whovian I, I only found out three episodes in and was rather taken by surprise.

How did I find out? Well, that’s the thing… it was by tripping over an article disclosing some rather rocky viewership numbers for Britain’s premier science fiction property. Now in its tenth season of relaunch, Doctor Who evolved from an often daft and (let’s be fair) cheap-looking Russell T. Davies outing starring Christopher Eccleston to the often riveting, involving and spine-tingling excursions of David Tennant, Matt Smith and current Doctor Peter Capaldi.

Speaking of Mr. Capaldi, word is he’ll be leaving the show at the end of this season, despite indications that he’d hoped to settle into the role for the foreseeable future. It’s a move that reeks of executive meddling – though, one could reasonably argue, if viewership has slipped so severely then it’s the job of executives to meddle. Perhaps it has something to do with the planned transition of showrunners – when Steven Moffat took over from Russell T. Davies, David Tennant was stepping away from the role as well, letting a new vision for the show take place with a new face for the iconic character. It would be reasonable to suggest the same opportunity is being provided for Chris Chibnall.

What about these declining ratings, though? I’ve heard arguments that the problem arises from bringing in a much older Doctor to replace two younger and sexier models. I have my own theory, however, and it involves pointing some accusing fingers. Before we do that, though, let’s dive into the three episodes that I’ve missed to see how the wind is blowing. This will be largely spoiler-free, though I will address the premise of each episode, so if you’d like to be totally unspoiled I suggest you click away now.

Episode 1: The Pilot

When a show is 10 seasons in, the last thing I want is a suggestion that there’s a need to air a “pilot” episode. People may tell me that’s not what the title involves, but considering how much “pilot” actually crops up in the episode, I call shenanigans.

The premise: we meet new companion Bill, who works at a university where the Doctor is a lecturer, and a popular one at that. She sneaks into his lectures and he’s taken notice, and offers to become her personal tutor. This requires a necessary brush with something unusual, in this case a classmate perplexed by an unusual reflective puddle.

Without going into detail, the introduction of companion and Doctor is something I find rather charming – Peter Capaldi sells the mad university lecturer role well, and it’s not at all out of character for the Doctor to filibuster each and every scheduled hour with musings on however many wild and outlandish takes on science, time, life, love he pleases. I find Bill rather likeable – she has a certain Donna Noble spark to her.

It’s a pity the rest is so slipshod. Moffat tries to tap some greatest-hits magic and comes up dry. Not only do I not really have any insights into the sci-fi hassle of the week, I’m also deeply, painfully inclined to give precisely zero figs about it. Given the amount of time the episode spends with this plot, it feels perfunctory and obligatory – never a good thing.

Episode 2: Smile

The traditional “where would you like to go first” episode sees new companion Bill wanting to pop into the future to see if it’s happy. The result is a garbagefire of a premise where emoji robots are murdering people who aren’t happy. That’s spelled out in the first minute of the episode, and yes, “emoji” is quite specifically used as the identifier.

Nothing about this episode grips at all. It feels like a weak retread of earlier episodes that had a much better thought out scary element. “Disengaged” doesn’t even begin to cover it for me.

Episode 3: Thin Ice

Best of the three thus far is a pop back to the past to contend with eerie underwater critters lurking beneath the frozen Thames. Comes complete with a new classic Capaldi Doctor speech and a Donna Noble-esque “just how dark is your past” interrogation from Bill after a harrowing sight opens her eyes to the cold realities of the Doctor’s journeys.

This episode feels like it was set up for the Doctor to do that bit and little else, which is why the players are forgettable and the emotional payoff is lackluster. A villain who is objectively a contemptible dick doesn’t even register on my satisfaction scale when inevitable comeuppance comes a-knocking.

After three episodes, here are my takeaways:

• Pearl Mackie, the newcomer companion Bill, shoulders none of the fault here. Not unlike Donna when she became a full-time companion, I find Bill to be a refreshing and distinct voice who draws out a different side of the Doctor – in this case, an impish mentor and lecturer “in service to humanity.”

• Chris Chibnall may be plotting a return to “younger and sexier” Doctors, but Capaldi is still demonstrating incredible value as an actor. He’s comfortable wearing the part and his Doctor remains an excellent character. No fault to throw on him either – I’ve enjoyed Capaldi since the second episode of his run and he’s proven delightfully game for everything that comes his way.

It’s Moffat’s fault.

Oh yes, the knives are out for outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat. This is hardly an original position – while Moffat’s efforts as a writer during the Davies era were distinguished entries into the best the show has ever had to offer, given the reins he’s tried to hitch them to everything but a horse and then tried to run the carriage backwards. Moffat’s obsessive fascination with his own cleverness has been seen time and time again – his unfortunate habit of tapping his “greatest hits” tricks rather than delving into new material is a secondary sin to his addiction to the conceit that he should out-clever the mythology of Doctor Who itself.

If there’s anyone to blame for fan disengagement, I’m not going to start by pointing fingers at one of the best actors to ever inhabit the role, nor even consider blaming a young actress who by all appearances is delivering on the challenge of playing opposite a master like Capaldi in such a high-profile series. Instead, I point to the man responsible for creating the hooks to bring in viewers, both insofar as new hooks have lacked any element of interest and old hooks have failed to pay off due to a narcissistic obsession with out-clevering the audience far too often for anyone to keep caring.

Moffat hasn’t made Doctor Who too highbrow for the average viewer – instead, it’s “why-brow.” I’m not happy that we’ll be seeing off Mr. Capaldi in the near future, but I can’t say I’ll miss the unchecked self-congratulatory retcon fiesta that Moffat has been delivering.

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