Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who regenerates

By Jonn Elledge on 24 June 2010

‘Doctor Who’ the series, like Doctor Who the character, has a tricky habit of regenerating.

Every few years, all the producers, script editors and other key creative types move on, and a new lot arrive, with their own ideas about what to do with this most flexible of TV formats.

Thus it was that a semi-educational show about travels in history and science, transformed over time into one about monsters, one about aliens invading contemporary earth, one of Hammer horror pastiche and so forth.

The current season, which ends this Saturday, marks the first time the show has made that transition since its 2005 relaunch – and even by the standards of such jumps this was a risky one.

Head writer Russell T Davies has been widely credited with turning ‘Doctor Who’, butt of crap jokes, into ‘Doctor Who’, TV phenomenon. So central was he to the identity of the relaunch that it’s not uncommon to hear hacks refer to it as Russell T Davies’ ‘Doctor Who’, to distinguish it from the apparently inferior twentieth century version, and there were rumours that with him gone the BBC didn’t want to re-commission the show at all. If ever the wheels were going to come off this thing, it was now.

They haven’t, of course. If anything, in fact, they’re looking rather new and shiny.

New showrunner Steven Moffat hasn’t diverged wildly from the model set by Davies, of course. The structure of the season is still broadly the same. So is the constant mixing of jokes, winks to the audience, scares and sobs. On the surface this is far more like RTD’s ‘Doctor Who’ than it’s like anything else ever.

And yet plenty of those who hated the old show are praising the new one to the heavens, while some of those who loved it are lining up to complain that Moffat has confused baby and bathwater. So what’s changed?

Partly, perhaps, it’s just the look of the show. RTD liked to boast that he wanted ‘Doctor Who’ to compete directly with ‘The X-Factor’. Moffat prefers to talk of “dark fairytales”, and you can see this on screen, where blues and greys have replaced reds and oranges. It looks less like an excitable reality show and more like a drama.

Or maybe it’s the change of leading man that’s done it. David Tennant has a claim to be the best actor to ever play the role but his Doctor, let’s face it, was smug.

That’s fine – character flaws are interesting, and the Doctor has rarely been short of arrogance – but the show did rather collude in this smugness by lining up minor characters to tell him how brilliant he was.

After one year that felt kooky. After four it felt like the writer talking to himself.

With Matt Smith that smugness has been pared back, and we’ve got a Doctor who’s less fulsome in his praise of humanity, but less likely, too, to demand they prove themselves to him.

Partly, too, it’s the change in authorial voice. Moffat is well known for preferring intricate puzzle box storytelling to the freewheeling emotional logic that characterised RTD’s stuff, but it’s more than the plotting that’s changed. RTD’s Who was emotionally incontinent, wearing its heart on its sleeve, and using a soaring Murray Gold score to make sure you noticed it there.

Moffat’s work is more guarded. Things go unsaid. We know the Doctor is mourning for Rory because he forgets he’s not there and accidentally uses his name. What we don’t get is a long emo speech about how sad it all is.

Here’s what I think is the biggest difference, though. Moffat’s Who is written for children.

Think about this for a second. RTD’s characters’ concerns were all adult ones. The feeling of being trapped in a dead end job. The fear of taking responsibility for your family. The terror of being 40 and unloved. It was all very kitchen-sink-with-aliens.

Amy’s inner life, I suspect, makes more sense to the average six year old. She’s frightened and isolated. She wants to escape, but she’s scared of growing up.

She may jump the Doctor, but her real love is Rory, and that relationship isn’t about sex at all. It’s about home. It’s probably significant that the first twenty minutes we spend with her she’s aged seven. Amy doesn’t run away with an exciting, handsome stranger. She runs away with her imaginary friend.

None of this is to say the series is any better or worse than it was before. There are plenty of people who’ll argue that each way, but I’m not one of them. But it is different. It feels fresh. And after five years, that kind of regeneration can only be a good thing.

Line Break

By Jonn Elledge

2 Responses

  1. I think you come close to being right, but draw all the wrong conclusions here.

    I’d say that Moffatt’s Who is just as thematically mature as RTD’s, dealing with suicidal depression and the Doctor’s inability to do anything about it (Vincent & The Doctor); a paralysing fear of failure as opposed to comfortably remaining where you are (The Lodger); the choices we all have to make about commitment (Amy’s Choice); as well as the most effective nuWho satires we’ve seen on democracy (The Beast Below) and enhanced interrogation techniques and the nativist rhetoric of the BNP (The Hungry Earth and Cold Blood). The difference, I would say, is that we don’t necessarily have a character whose sole purpose is to tell us explicitly what the theme of the episode is before dying (except perhaps Rory in AC).

    In fact, I’d say the storytelling is much more mature, it demands and rewards more than it did in the past. It shows, it doesn’t feel the need to tell.

    Overall, I think I’m enjoying this series more because, although still wonderfully enjoyable for my children, this one feels like it’s for adults, too.

  2. Jonn says:

    I don’t disagree with anything you’ve said (except for reading any deeper meaning into Cold Blood, which was rubbish, natch). You misunderstand my conclusions, which is quite possibly my own fault.

    Just because Moffat is writing for children that doesn’t mean he’s dealing with mature themes. Some children’s books deal with very mature themes, while some books aimed at adults are as puerile as anything.

    I’m not talking about the show’s maturity, I’m talking about its perspective.