Last week saw the premiere of the most recent Doctor Who Christmas special, which I find I have very mixed feelings about, just as I do about the current series* and the show as a whole. I’ve written before about my undying love for Doctor Who, and while I still adore the show–and very much admire Steven Moffat’s writing in general–I’m finding some large aspects of the new show are starting to wear out their welcome for me.
The classic series had recurring characters and places and some recurring storylines, including a few long-form story arcs, but for the most part, each story was self-contained. When the new show started, the first series had the recurring phrase “bad wolf” that turned up, mostly in the background, of many of the stories, eventually being explained in the final story. The second series did something similar with the “Torchwood Institute” being mentioned one way or another in many of the stories, but only really coming to the forefront in the final story. The story arc-ing got more involved in the third series with politician Harold Saxon (which built up to the final story of that series, which I wrote about not-so-favorably). The story arcs of each season have gotten increasingly complex, particularly after Steven Moffat took over as producer, and, in my opinion, increasingly intrusive. God forbid you miss an episode now or you’ll be completely out of the loop on the overarching story. Each series, and the show overall, has gotten incredibly twisty and complicated as long, loopy, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stories have played out over multiple series. It can be fun, but it can also be a huge weight on the show, and while I generally have a good memory for weird plot points in TV shows, I often find myself losing track of the story arcs and wishing for the days when I could watch a Doctor Who story without having to figure out what every scene and line of dialogue meant to some larger story arc.
When Doctor Who first started in 1963, the main characters–besides the enigmatic and cranky Doctor–were a dashing, young science teacher, a compassionate and smart history teacher, and an unearthly but familiar teenage girl. The idea was to have characters the audience could relate to. Similarly, when the new show started, we were introduced to Rose Tyler, a regular, working class Londoner who wasn’t particularly smart or clever or strong, but she had a good heart and a lot of courage. She was someone the audience could relate to, someone you could imagine being. Unfortunately, producer and writer Russell T. Davies was so enamored of Rose, she grew into a sort of uber-everywomen, kinder and more insightful and more inspiring than any other person the Doctor had met. When she left the show, it was played as an epic tragedy, one which Davies’ Doctor never really recovered from. Since Rose, the Doctor’s companions have been increasingly portrayed as this uber-everyperson, exceptional in their unexceptionalness, but also touched by some kind of cosmic destiny that’s played out in the larger story arcs. Companions wouldn’t just choose to stop traveling with the Doctor, they had to be forced to stop–by sacrificing themselves in some epic way that further showed them to be modern day saints. While I’ve very much liked the companions (and the actors who played them), it starts to strain credulity when we’re told over and over again just how wonderful and exceptional they are. (Because it’s not enough to show them doing great deeds, the Doctor and other characters have to constantly comment on how extraordinary they are.)
And this leads me to “The Snowmen,” the latest Doctor Who Christmas special. Like much of the current stories, it’s big on high, imaginative concepts, but sadly low on depth and lasting endearment. Much of the flash is delightful and fun, like the Doctor parking his TARDIS on a cloud that can be reached by an invisible spiral staircase and the titular snowmen, with their fearsome expressions. Some of it is amusing, like the Sontaran Strax, who is a charming bit of comic relief but otherwise serves no purpose in the story. There are some nice nods to the classic show, and Jenna-Louise Coleman is absolutely wonderful as the spunky new companion, Clara. But while Coleman is great, the character of Clara isn’t just anyone, she’s a temporal mystery, the same woman who keeps showing up in the Doctor’s adventures and then dying before she can be whisked away by the Doctor. I literally sighed and rolled my eyes when it was revealed that the Clara in the Christmas special wouldn’t really be the new companion (although that’s what was promoted over and over again), she was just another incarnation of some woman who keeps being reborn in different eras, and the Doctor will apparently meet her again in modern day England. Again, we don’t get a simple story, we get a piece of a large puzzle revolving around unusual and exceptional characters and situations. The villain of “The Snowmen” was built up throughout the episode, and then quickly, handwavingly dismissed at the last minute. Add in mawkish tugs at viewers’ heartstrings (“It’s not raining, it’s crying!”), and what we’re left with is an overseasoned, overly-complicated soup that’s tasty but leaves you feeling fairly empty. And that’s too much of what the show is now: fun, flashy concepts (“Dinosaurs! On a spaceship!”) surrounded by stories that rely too much on cheap sentimentality and avoid much real meat and dirt. Doctor Who used to be about realistic people in a daft universe with stories that encouraged viewers (mostly children) to challenge the status quo and question authority. Now it’s mostly just daft. Sometimes the daft is a lot of fun, but I miss the thoughtful pro-pacifism, anti-authority, anti-status quo stories of the classic show. The modern show seems to be becoming more and more like a snowman: pretty to look at, but all too quickly gone, melted away with the morning sun, leaving nothing in its place.
I would love to see the show move away from the large story arcs, the unusual and exceptional companions, and the flash-over-substance stories. I adore Steven Moffat’s wild imagination, but I’d like to see that balanced with thoughtful, provocative stories that can stand on their own and characters who are more like Ben and Polly, Ian and Barbara, Jo, Tegan, and the ever-popular Sarah Jane Smith–ordinary people in extraordinary situations.
* I’m using “series” here in the British sense, what Americans usually call a “season.”