Sunday, August 24, 2014

I Got the Doctor Who Let Down Blues


I Got the Doctor Who Let Down Blues

by Cynthianna

The tension has been building up for months now—eight months to be precise. The new season of Doctor Who with a new actor in the title role has been touted since last Christmas with only crumbs dropped now and then to feed the fans’ rabid appetite for news and gossip. Big kudos go out to the BBC marketing department for their expert dangling of the carrot in front of the fervent fans and for preventing our attention from ever wandering too far. The Beeb promised us a mind-blowing, landmark-making, scrumpdillyupmptious sci-fi/fantasy event of unbelievable proportions. In the last couple of weeks Whovians were whipped into a frenzy further with the Doctor Who World Tour featuring the main actors and creators of the show. (Once again, kudos to the BBC marketing department.) Doctor Who fans have bemoaned the long wait but they were totally and sincerely psyched when at last the big day, August 23, finally arrived.

I guess it’s only natural after so much whipping up of excitement and expectations, a fan girl might feel a bit let down after actually viewing said long-awaited first episode of the new season. No, you can put the tomatoes away—I adore Peter Capaldi as the Doctor and have no problems with Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara the companion—but I will say I’d hoped for a stronger vehicle for their debut story together. Once again, I don’t fault the actors or the special effects or even the story idea, but I found some very avoidable faults in the scriptwriting that literally set my teeth on edge. (To quote a fan about what made the Matt Smith era seem less than stellar: “Moffat!”)

Where to begin? I don’t want to give spoilers to those who haven’t seen said episode yet, so I will be general in my comments. Also, I will compare and contrast the classics series of Doctor Who to the new series in hopes this will illustrate where I see the newer episodes have lost their luster. If I had to give a one word quote about what I feel the new series of Doctor Who is missing, that word would be “intelligence.”

“Intelligent what?” you may ask. Don’t worry, I’ll get there. Here’s some background first: My husband and I are very fortunate to be able to receive the Retro-TV channel where we live, and since August 4 we’ve been watching nightly episodes of classic Doctor Who, starting with the very first Doctor as portrayed by William Hartnell. Also, this past summer we’ve been checking out DVDs of classic Doctor Who episodes from our local library, having recently watched a number of the third Doctor’s (Jon Pertwee) stories. 

Okay, BBC marketing department this is where you guys might have made a big mistake by asking us to wait eight months for the new season to begin... Those of us who were big fans since the last century have had ample time to re-watch our favorite moments on DVD and broadcast TV. We can leisurely stop and pause our DVDs and discuss what works and what doesn’t in a particular Doctor Who story. Surprisingly, even if we agree that the special effects could have been better in an episode, we very rarely complain that the writing is weak, the characters aren’t realized well, or anything sets our teeth on edge.

Not bad for a sci-fi show whose entire yearly budget in the 1960s - 1980s was no where near what they spend creating just one episode today—even when adjusted for inflation. So, if a bigger budget and flashier special effects don’t make for a better Doctor Who experience, what does? This is where I posit my thoughts on what is currently missing from the series—intelligence. What do you take away from a Doctor Who story? What lesson(s) did you learn? Did you find out anything new about science or history or humanity or yourself?

I know some of the new series fans will argue, “Doctor Who has never been a family friendly show—it’s not about teaching kids things,” but that’s where they’re wrong. All one has to do is go back to the original 1963 proposal for Doctor Who to see that it was created to be a television show for families with school-aged children, and it was to have “teaching moments” scattered through-out its futuristic tales along with facts and insights tossed into the historical storylines. The point I’m making here is that the writing was strong enough to both entertain and enlighten both adults and children. Viewers never felt as if they were being talked down to or manipulated by catch-phrases and multitudes of explosions. (Plus, they never felt as if being a person of faith was somehow suspect, a common theme in the newer series. It's okay if you don't believe in God, Mr. Moffat, but please don't try to purposely offend those who do. It's just plain rude.)

I celebrate fans--not insult them, Steven!

No doubt, the newer series’ emphasis has drifted away from the educational premise. Alas, sometimes it doesn’t even entertain. One can walk away after viewing a new series’ episode and fifteen minutes later totally forget what the premise or point of the story was. Sure, you might remember the Doctor wore a dressing gown or rode a horse or cracked some funny one-liners (possibly of a sexual nature), but nothing stays in your mind of any importance. You don’t feel like the show helped you to think more intelligently. You may not feel that some of the content was appropriate for your six-year-old. Classic Doctor Who writers probably wouldn’t recognize it as the same show anymore.

To clarify, let’s look at the 1973 story, The Green Death. The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and his assistant, Jo Grant, along with his friends at UNIT, are fighting against an international chemical company which is bent on polluting the water supply and killing people (through the infected maggots created) so the corporation and its masters can reap mega-profits. Change “Global Chemical” to “Monsanto” or “Dow” or “Bayer” and this story of how important it is for humanity (with help from the Doctor) to rise up and stop this disaster before it’s too late would make for an episode that is both entertaining and educational and very relevant in the year 2014. Added bonus, once viewers watched such an episode they might actually be motivated to become more environmentally aware and take positive action.

The Third Doctor era can also boast of another intelligent environmental awareness storyline—1970’s Inferno. If you’re alarmed about the increasing earthquakes and ground water pollution caused by hydraulic fracturing or fracking, this is a story that bears close viewing. Even more amazing, the 1964 story Planet of Giants starring the first Doctor deals with a businessman who kills a government official in order to make a fortune off his new pesticide that destroys everything it touches... Recent headlines about “bee-killing” pesticides called neonicotinoids are both shocking and frightening. But can one imagine Doctor Who in 2014 touching upon such a burning topic that could affect life on Earth as we know it?

Intelligent television? Yes, even a fictional TV series can work for the good of humanity. At the very least it could make us all more aware of state of the planet and our impact upon it. Wouldn’t it be better to inspire a new generation of ecologists and astronauts and historians simply than create a mad marketing rush to get the kids to haul ass to Hot Topic to purchase millions of dollars in Doctor Who T-shirts, fezes and bow-ties?

I got the Doctor Who Let Down Blues. I was hoping for more intelligent writing for Peter Capaldi in his new incarnation as the Doctor, but producer Steven Moffat didn’t want to disappoint his perceived audience’s tastes—he kept things on the rather silly level. All I know is that I’m too old to care for discussions about “boyfriends” in the Tardis or learning the funny put-downs the Doctor and his companions will use with each other for the next year. Whatever happened to the Doctor and his companions treating each other with respect and kindness? Are women in the Whovian universe to be seen simply as sex objects?

Case in point: Girls kissing lizards? Who needs it? Not my bag, baby, and I don’t believe that scenes of adult sexuality add anything to a show that should be family friendly, even when it outright refuses to be “educational for school aged children” as the original 1963 show premise states. Silly sex talk—that’s what late-night TV and locker rooms in middle schools are for, isn’t it? Rise above it, please.

Perhaps both George Lucas and Steven Moffat should be banned from attempting to write/produce any of their story ideas ever again. Remember The Phantom Menace, another long-awaited event that proved to be disappointing? These two guys should stick to their strengths and recruit strong writers who can craft intelligent, respectful, and moving storylines without all the adolescent fluff. Who knows—some of these writers could even be adult females?

I think the Doctor—with his numerous intelligent and strong female sidekicks—would approve.

Addition, 9-1-14: 

I enjoyed Peter Capaldi's performance as the Doctor in the latest episode (Into the Dalek) much more than in the first story, but Clara is still not a very defined character. She slaps him hard in the face--wow! What sort of "teacher" would strike a "pupil"? I almost think that was producer Steven Moffat's idea of another "funny gimmick", but to me it turned Clara into a bully. I like the idea of the new Doctor needing a "teacher" to help him--just look at the first Doctor with teacher companions Barbara and Ian. They really helped him to learn a lot about himself and humanity. I just wish the producers could keep a consistent tone and skip the gimmicks of slapstick/adult sexuality that Moffat seems to think fits. Doctor Who is a science fiction/fantasy tale--SF lovers tend to be a bit more sophisticated than fans of The Three Stooges. I still feel that Russell T. Davies wrote and supervised much more intelligent scripts.


Sheila said...

First, let me say that I'm rather new to the Doctor Who universe. My first experience was with Matt Smith, then I went back to Eccleston and Tennant. I need to finish the final Smith season and then I will watch the new Doctor Who.
I have discovered that has all the old Doctor Who episode and I've started with the William Hartnell era and plan on watching them all.
I will skip to the 8th doctor this week, but only because I'm about to meet Paul McGann in person and want to see all his episodes before we meet.
Given all the above, it's easy to see that I have a different POV/filter for Doctor Who than someone who has been watching since the classics. So, though your point may be valid for you, and correct for those who are long-standing Whovians, it isn't correct for me.
I want my daughter (she's a teen) to watch Doctor Who because I think there are lots of lessons learned there.
Planet of the Ood comes to mind. Corporations turn the Ood into slaves because the Ood are vulnerable.
The Poison Sky could be seen as an environmental issue.
And River Song kicks butt. What a strong character! And brave. And brilliant.
The Hungry Earth looks at man's greed for resources that don't really belong to him.
I could go on.
Perhaps I'll watch the classics and I'll see that the new seasons are weak in some way. That they lack the strength of story, character and lessons the others provided.
But, with no reference point from the past, just letting these new seasons stand on their own, I promise you I learned lessons. I felt humanity questioned, realized and lost.
I wasn't sure I'd like an older Doctor Who, but while I watched the Tennant years I realized it didn't matter what the Doctor looked like. He brought more than just adventure and a Tardis. I love him and the things he stands for. I love the stories and am so curious about this newest season.
As long as the Doctor brings something to humanity, or humanity brings something to the Doctor, I'll continue to watch.

Celine said...

Very good points, Sheila! Yes, I agree with you that some of the "New Who" episodes touched on some good topics dealing with issues in the news. I just feel like they don't really delve very deeply into them and a lot of other things tend to be "stuck on" in order to generate ratings at the expense of the integrity of the script. The Tennant/Eccleston era on the whole was much better written, IMO. (The Human Nature/Family of Blood episode was particular well written and based upon a novel that was equally strong.) I think that's why so many fans find the Smith era not quite as well-crafted by comparison. We'll keep hoping for things to get better with Capaldi's Doctor, but that's perhaps unrealistic with the same show runner in charge. But we'll have to be patient and see what happens--or else we need to get a time machine and jump into the future and see what's what... ;)