Warning in advance: this article will contain plenty of River Song’s favorite things.
I am about to make a statement which will probably surprise a lot of sci-fi devotees, maybe even shock them.
Due to the caprices of PBS pledge drive scheduling, the first story I ever saw was “The Mysterious Planet,” the first four installments of The Trial of a Time Lord, the season-long story featuring the horrendously dressed, loudmouth, and usually really damn annoying 6th Doctor of Colin Baker.
And yet, I kept watching, and falling all the more in love with, Doctor Who.
(“The Mysterious Planet” is actually a pretty good story, and Tony Selby’s Sabalon Glitz was an excellent forerunner of characters like Jack Harkness.)
Doctor Who is now in the midst of its 33rd season, about to celebrate 50 years on the air. And yes, I said 33rd. Most Americans call it season 7. Netflix and the DVD industry and fans call it season 7. But the Guardian, and at least a few people who hope they don’t sound too pretentious (present company included) think of it as season 33. Because it really is.
Russell T. Davies made a lot of brilliant decisions when he convinced the BBC to resurrect the program (and it is this resurrection which we’ll tackle in this article), and one of his best was to make it a true continuance, not that favorite practice of media creators these days, the reboot. He improved the formula while staying faithful to it: the Doctor shows up on a planet, fights monsters or evil geniuses or both, then heads off into the TARDIS for the next adventure. The difference being that now, stories were single episodes, not four or six-part drawn-out sagas that quickly made the writing staff run out of cliffhangers. Though one could say the season-long arc is the modern equivalent, and Davies introduced that format and made it essential to the program, sometimes brilliantly (Seasons 28 and 31) and sometimes not (Season 32).
More importantly, Davies put the character of the Doctor in continuity with the past eight doctors, drawing on their traits and magnifying the important ones. This was an odd choice, because “The Enemy Within”/Doctor Who: The Movie is one of the more bizarre moments in sci-fi history, a program so out-of-nowhere that I don’t even think all fans still know what to make of it, and the final decade of the show proper under John Nathan-Turner’s leadership produced a vocal, divided reaction. But Davies put together a remarkable mix which his successor Steven Moffat carried on: the Doctor in his post-2005 incarnations mixes the sagacity and a bit of the weariness of William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton, the can-do action spirit of Jon Pertwee, the youthfulness of Peter Davison, nothing whatsoever from Colin Baker, and the eccentricity bordering on insanity of the legendary Tom Baker. But the 7th and 8th Doctors, more than the others, set the tone for future incarnations.
Sci-fi historian John Muir pointed out what a stunning shift Sylvester McCoy made as the 7th Doctor. Beginning as a total goofball, though much kinder than Colin Baker, the 7th emerged in the final two seasons of his tenure, accompanied by the spirited Dorothy “Ace” Gale…
Without Ace, by the way, we wouldn’t have Rose, Martha, Donna, and Amy…she broke the mold as a take-charge companion with a gift for action and a steadfast refusal to play the damsel in distress, a spot even Romana in both incarnations found herself in.
Well, the 7th Doctor was portrayed as someone more than a Time Lord, as a man who possessed forces grander than merely bending the laws of time and space, as a man locked in a battle with forces beyond comprehension, including the forces inside himself. The 7th was a complicated, almost frightening Doctor, but still full of love and charm, and his stories were only growing more ambitious, even within the limited framework of the late 80s budgets, when the show ended.
And one of the most beautiful things of the new Doctor Who is how it finally has the budget to match the program’s ambitions. It will never be movie quality, but now the planets look more otherworldly, the aliens more distinctive, the visuals just more striking. Of course, the show was never about the look, nor the highly variable quality of the acting…it’s always been, in my opinion, among the best-written shows in television history, mixing intelligence, wit, and suspense, and, except in the cliffhanger department, never repeating itself the way the Star Trek universe was by its final incarnations.
Back to the Doctors. The 8th Doctor, in his single appearance, made himself a compelling figure, and how Paul McGann could have developed the character is a fine what-if. McGann was capable of all the running, and his understated wit was a nice return to the oldest-school Doctors, but what he introduced most was the notion that yes, the Doctor knew what sex was and was capable of caring for others as more than friends, that there was a romantic and very emotional side to him. And following from that, he could potentially be very, very hurt.
These three elements, the Doctor as an appropriately goofy genius, a singular creature of extraordinary powers, and an all too real, feeling, and lonely man, would be combined by Davies and Moffat into a hero without compare.
Russell T. Davies was the perfect man to take the reins of Doctor Who, and he himself made another of his brilliant choices in bringing Steven Moffat onto the writing squad and making Moffat his successor as showrunner. Davies and Moffat have wildly divergent pre-Who careers: Davies made his name with emotional studies of human nature which mixed drama, comedy, and pathos—Queer as Folk being the prime example, as well as a lavish adaptation of Casanova’s memoirs starring David Tennant. Moffat was a master humorist and irreverent figure, the nearly-perfect sitcom Coupling being the crown jewel of his creations. But both writers shared two traits: a taste for more ambitious fare (Davies with shows such as Bob and Rose and The Second Coming, Moffat with Jekyll), and a long and abiding love since childhood for Doctor Who.
Part of why I think Davies handed the show over to Moffat was the knowledge that Moffat would keep the program at the highest quality without slavishly imitating Davies’s approach.
For Davies and Moffat are both fascinated with the Doctor…just with different aspects of his existence.
In the first few episodes of Season 27, Davies introduced a concept which allowed the show a fresh start without the total change of a reboot: the Time Lords and the Daleks fought a massive war to the death for control of time and space, a war which only the Doctor survived and left him scarred and shattered until Rose Tyler came along. This backstory was key to Davies’s tone: he continually emphasized the Doctor’s morality and the perils of being a self-appointed guardian of the universe, a man who has been forced into terrible actions, is constantly confronted with the worst choices, and suffers from the weight of needing to be better than his adversaries, to reject violence and work for intelligence, peace, the chance for evolution, all the while bearing the weight of the triumphs he despises (the Time War) and his failures…and his nature as an all but immortal, always traveling Time Lord, the last of his kind, means he has something of a duty to keep living and to carry his burdens, to keep trying to do better: the notion of the Doctor as a “lonely god” introduced in the Tennant years is a perfect one. The Doctor has godlike powers, but he cannot, he will not let himself misuse them. The Doctor hates the Daleks with a passion but, just as he could not prevent them from coming into existence in the magnificent “Genesis of the Daleks” from the Tom Baker years, so he cannot destroy them the way they destroy other races because he will not let himself become them. Always, against the Daleks, the Cybermen, the Master, the Sontarans, he needs to give them a chance to turn back and be better, because he knows the guilt and horror that accompanies doing your worst. And with every fight, even the successful ones, the deaths of those in the crossfire only add to his burden.
Similarly, the post-resurrection Doctor has even closer relationships with his companions, and even more fraught emotions. The Doctor is aware of how much danger his companions are in, how they will mature and age and he pretty much will not, adds to his guilt, and yet he needs them; they keep him happy, give him friendship and love, and always remind him of what he is fighting for.
For this reason, Davies’s three specials following the 30th season are among my favorites. “Planet of the Dead” was an old-school adventurous romp, a throwback to the shows Davies had grown up with in its plethora of cliffhangers and delightfully breezy air surrounding the Doctor.
And it was badly needed before “The Waters of Mars,” one of my favorite episodes because Davies fully explores what happens when the Doctor is tempted to meddle too highly in the course of time, exactly as the Timelords always feared he would. Aided by David Tennant at his most terrifying, Davies pushes the Doctor into the territory of tyrannical egomaniac, a man ready to wield control over all existence, all time and space…until Adelaide’s suicide reminds him he can never have such control.
That indeed seems to be the difference between the Doctor and his nemeses. The Doctor stays connected to others, gains self-knowledge and understanding, and does not want to make the world over in his own image as they do. His attempt to do so requires atonement, and he gains that in his final sacrifices in “The End of Time,” eradicating his species to keep them from destroying the universe, then sacrificing his life to save another.
Moffat does not ignore the morality issues, but he has his own special fascination: the Doctor’s relationship to time and space. Moffat’s episodes play with the possibilities of time travel and accompanying complexities: the Doctor being able to be in two times back and forth (“The Girl in the Fireplace”), fighting those who can strand others in time (the Weeping Angels), and most of all, in Moffat’s two excellent season finales thus far, creating simultaneous and alternate universes and then dealing with the eternal sci-fi question of “If you know the future is inevitable, can you still change it?” Even, in “The Wedding of River Song,” what could happen if time just stopped working.
But Moffat’s focus on time goes beyond the supernatural into the mundane, and I use “beyond” deliberately because he addresses thing never really considered on the show before. In the current season, he brought up a fact so obvious in retrospect that it was criminal to not have been dealt with before, and more than makes up for the occasional plotholes which pop up in his flights of fancy: that the Doctor’s conception of time is far, far different from that of his companions. That they age even when the Doctor returns them to the minute they left on a journey, and that minutes for him can be years for them. The Doctor negotiating this divide with Amy and Rory was an idea whose time had come.
And incidentally, I find Moffat’s more intricate, conceptual (“not like a banana”) and mind-boggling finales, which still leave the universe at stake as much as Davies’s showboating, giant impending onslaught finales, the more fascinating. Moffat makes the universe’s destruction in “The Big Bang” and the complete breakdown of chronological laws in “The Wedding of River Song” seem more plausible than giant forces just waiting to blow up the earth, and just as terrifying.
For that, I forgive Moffat his occasional errors which result from how much he falls in love with his concepts: suddenly changing how the Weeping Angels work, and his total failure to keep his own continuity intact in Season 33, which apparently over the space of six episodes, including “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe,” occurs over a span of one year, or at least four. This is the inherent peril of writing about time travel, but while I nitpick, I also am tempted to go all William Shatner and yell “It’s just a TV show!” Only tempted, because Doctor Who really is more than a TV show. It stretches extended storytelling to its limit and does so with more verve, humor, and genuine feeling than many programs.
But even as they push the show into new and bold directions, Davies and Moffat never forget to have fun, and always have room for throwback episodes which don’t need weighty themes and way too baffling science but recall the classic years of Doctor Who, when it was all about the Doctor and a young and gorgeous woman taking on the forces of evil. Moffat wrote one of the most brilliant examples as his show debut, “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances,” and Davies could always drop his weighty ideas to give us “Aliens of London,” “Partners in Crime,” and of course, “Planet of the Dead.” And in so many brilliant episodes, with no signs of slowing down, the Doctor’s heaviest travails come at the hands of the Daleks.
I love the Daleks.
This statement brings the essay to a halt, but I don’t care. I love the Daleks. I love their design, their personality or lack thereof, and their being at the heart of so many great adventures. When I was a new fan, I would always defend the Daleks as the ultimate villains while my mother called them giant trash cans. She should have saved her scorn for other episodes, such as “Horror of Fang Rock,” in which the titular menace was, apparently, a giant plastic bag pulled by strings…and she should have watched “Genesis of the Daleks,” which is universally considered one of the greatest Doctor Who stories, period, with deep themes, terror, and the Doctor at his most philosophical. But admittedly, the Daleks became less scary as they were more familiarized. Davies wanted to bring the Daleks back, got permission from the Terry Nation estate, and every season except the 32nd (which makes sense) has a Daleks story. Robert Shearman’s “Dalek” in Season 27, pitting the 9th Doctor and Rose against a single brutal creation, was a needed reminder of how frightening the Daleks should be, Helen Raynor explored their surprisingly complex psychology in “Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks,” Davies turned them into the most apocalyptic of forces in “The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End,” AND wrote the greatest Doctor-Davros confrontation ever to boot, and once Moffat got his hands on them, he took them to their heights of brutal fear in “Asylum of the Daleks,” with the terrifying spectacle of humans physically AND mentally preyed upon by them…not to mention the Daleks aptly comparing the Doctor, who continually triumphs over his foes and causes much destruction, even if unintentionally, as a man much like themselves.
The Master in theory should be the Doctor’s greatest adversary, but the Daleks have time travel, unlimited resources, and temperamentally are the Doctor’s polar opposites: isolated, unfeeling, with nothing on their minds but hatred and death. And they have the Doctor’s number even more than the Master. They fear him as much as they hate him, hence “the Oncoming Storm,” for they know he could be as destructive as them, and in some ways is, as Davros points out in “Journey’s End,” and though he discriminates in his hatred, he is capable of hating as much as them—he may hate only those who bring death and pain, but it is still hate. And when they say this to the childlike Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor, it carries extra weight.