by Lisa Cordaro: I hate to be the bearer of bad tidings, but ‘Doctor Who’ has finally eaten itself. With apologies to committed ‘Whovians’ – for whom the programme is less a TV event and more a way of life – the 50th anniversary show, The Day of the Doctor, ditched its skis and tumbled spectacularly off-piste.
We start with the ‘TARDIS’ airlifted into Trafalgar Square to meet the head of U.N.I.T., who has a letter bearing the seal of Queen Elizabeth I. (Yes, that Elizabeth I – stay with me, this will make sense.) She leads The Doctor into the National Gallery, where proof of Good Queen Bess’s letter is provided by a 3D portrait of Gallifrey, during the Time War. How on earth did it get here? More pertinently, what on earth is a Tudor monarch doing sending a painting of an intergalactic conflict to 21st-century London?
Cut to John Hurt in an unnamed location, trying to work out how to open a puzzle box. Enter Billie Piper – ah! It’s Rose Tyler. We’ve missed her, this is going to be good. Except she isn’t Rose Tyler, she’s John Hurt’s ‘conscience’. Then, we’re back to Matt Smith. Enter David Tennant – excellent! We’ve all missed him, things are definitely looking up. But hang on a minute – why are there two Doctors? Why is David Tennant’s Doctor having an affair with Elizabeth I? And why are there now two queens, one of whom appears to be a very angry red alien, and two identical heads of U.N.I.T. arguing with each other about detonating a very large bomb?
Meanwhile John Hurt’s Doctor is, apparently, the Doctor before he becomes The Doctor and doesn’t know he’s The Doctor yet. Does he know he’s a ‘Time Lord’? Who knows?
You know I advised you to stick with me, and it will all make sense? Well sorry, but at this point I literally lost the plot, and it would seem I wasn’t alone. On Twitter, among numerous others, the author Emma Kennedy queried: ‘If the Dr isn’t allowed to cross his own timeline, how is he doing it here? That IS what he’s doing here yes?’ – only to conclude, after other equally discombobulated tweets: ‘Well, it was lovely seeing all the Drs but the plot was a shambles. Too busy trying to out-clever itself.’
The problem with ‘Doctor Who’, in its latest incarnation, is not only that it is too clever for its own good, it needs a large dose of Ritalin. A mindbending circus of a production, it lurched from one bizarre scenario to the next, without any apparent thread of logic. I’m assuming the intention was to pull all the disparate strands together by the end. But Stephen Moffat ignored something significant: if viewers are perplexed enough, they’ll simply switch off. There comes a point past which a great ride becomes a car crash – and no one wants to be around the wreckage.
Looking back, the rot set in during the most recent series: the plotlines descended into the kind of contrivance that strains your patience. There is a delicate art to screenwriting – teasing, throwing in the odd red herring to keep people on their toes – but there is a limit. When writers get too sassy for their audience, they’re in danger of losing them altogether.
Witness the ‘Ocean’ franchise. The first, ‘Ocean’s 11’, was a popular draw, but the second, ‘Ocean’s 12’, had a cooler reception. Why? Because the whole production looked as though it was enjoying itself far too much to entertain the paying public. Taking this on board, ‘Ocean’s 13’ redeemed itself and the series regained momentum.
The same thing has happened to ‘Doctor Who’. Give the writing table a free reign, a licence-busting budget and a major anniversary and the result is a lost opportunity to produce truly memorable telly.
At times like this I look to American television – HBO and Showtime in particular – for examples of great programme making. Yes, ‘Homeland’ is an entirely different genre, but it’s a good comparison because its writers have the balance absolutely right. There are just enough reveals, twists and turns to keep us hooked, but everyone knows what is going on. It’s whip-smart in the best way: high-quality writing, that not only understands its audience, but is committed to thrilling them in the tradition of classic series such as ‘State of Play’ and ‘Edge of Darkness’.
I’m genuinely sorry to see this decline in ‘Doctor Who’. Like many of my generation, as a child I hid behind the sofa on Saturday evenings, peeking out at the TV while Tom Baker battled a legion of Daleks, Cybermen and rubber-suited space villains. Later, Michael Grade tried to get rid of the show, but the public demanded its return. Then, over time, it did become hokey and was eventually cancelled. This is why Russell T. Davies’ revival in 2005 was so important, and why it was such a roaring success. He injected fresh energy, superb acting talent and carefully crafted storylines into the remains of a tired and previously ridiculed format.
Now the show is in genuine peril of losing its way again, and it would be a shame if it were to fall prey to some misguided notion of entertainment. ‘Doctor Who’ needs a taste of its own medicine, or it’ll end up in hospital with ‘Do Not Regenerate’ on its chart.
Lisa Cordaro – November 2013