I wish I had some investment in the departure of young shoeface. Back in 2010, if he’d done an Eccleston after his first season, I’d have been sad to see him go. But the nu-Who has become such an uninspired formula by this point, and his performance such a reflective whirl of OTT manic tics and mannerisms, that there’s little left to care about.
Now, if Steven Moffat was going, and Matt Smith staying, I might hold out some hope for the salvaging of the show, and the central character. But he isn’t. He remains at the reins, content in the knowledge that he has two series of identikit manic heroes often spouting identikit dialogue (“It’s Christmas!”).
His once deliriously inventive plotting has now become distressingly tiresome. His female characters, unsurprisingly given all his characters sound the same and not in an enthralling David Mamet way, amount to the same adolescent fantasy (“You clever boy!”) masquerading as progressive empowerment. His box of tricks is empty, but he still can’t let go. He keeps rearranging the parts, but to less and less impact. I’d suggest he’s like a struggling stand-up comedian, desperate to get a laugh, but I’m not sure he really cares. His ideas are now so banal (every episode is a mini-movie!) and so predicated on form over content. Mystery is the key, but he’s never satisfyingly resolved his yearlong mystery arcs; if you confuse and obfuscate enough, the viewer will hopefully forget what was set up in the first place. As long as there are enough whizzes and bangs, enough shouting and franticness and familiar faces or monsters, we should be distracted from the emptiness of it all.
Except awareness of this finally seems to be dawning on the previously infatuated print media. No one seems to have much cared for Season 8 (which turned out to be the anniversary season, one Moffat initially claimed would feature more new Who than ever before – why even lie?).
It’s the first season where I couldn’t single out a couple of standout episodes. I was never a fan of Russell T Davies vision for the show, nor his Doctors (Chris Eccleston was miscast, David Tennant bizarrely decided to play the character as a manic mugging mockney – which in turn has informed the Doctor’s manic mugging persona since), but he could be relied upon to produce something somewhere of worth each season (rarely penned by him, it must be said). I’d liked all of Moffat’s contributions during RTD’s executive producership. It seemed as if he put story first, and companions being besotted with the Doctor would come second.
The casting of the barely-out-of-diapers Smith didn’t seem like a positive omen. But within the first few minutes of The Eleventh Hour I was struck that this seemed like Doctor Who I could enjoy properly again. It wasn’t the “classic” series, but here was a Doctorish Doctor, one who - despite his youth - was closer to the eccentric demeanour of Patrick Troughton than the flaccid earnestness of Peter Davison. And the run of fifth season stories was varied and distinct. There were bum notes; the inability to write female characters that aren’t archly self-reflexive frequently undermined Karen Gillan’s work, and the “Silence will fall” arc collapsed into an entertainingly giddy but incoherent finale. But in general I was on board; Moffat seemed to care about story, it was only his tendency to show off with his characters, like a class clown who thinks he’s funnier and wittier than he acutally is, that needed work.
What followed hasn’t exactly sullied the fifth season, but it’s entirely tarnished Smith’s claim on being one of the great Doctors. (After his first year, I would have ranked him behind only Tom Baker and Troughton.)
Rather than learning from his mistakes, Moffat perversely chose to wallow in what didn’t. So he made a virtual co-star of a character only he really seemed to adore (River Song), upped the ante of postmodern gurning and quipping (rendering any notions of suspension of disbelief obsolete) and made Matt Smith an instant caricature of his more expansive quirks (the fez obsession, the physical comedy). Like a bad comedian (appropriate as Moffat’s initial success came as a comedy writer), he couldn’t resist repeating his (perceived) best gags until his audience sat stone-faced. Perhaps if he kept at it they’d come back round and find them funny again?
He resorted to basing his plot arcs on cheats, a big idea that he had no intention of following through with (the Doctor is killed, the Doctor gets married, the Doctor reveals his name, and now – John Hurt is some forgotten Doctor). But, like the boy who cried wolf, he’s failed to deliver one too many times. And then there’s the retconning. What made him revise Silence as Silents for Season Six? Was it pettiness at fans guessing his big secret (it was Omega all along?) or simply that he’d never worked it out in the first place and had such scant regard for viewers that he assumed they’d swallow any old horseshit (the latter, most likely).
Add to that the now de rigueur tropes of deus ex machina endings and the Doctor as saviour of mankind, noble lonely god, etc and you have a series without a life of its own; it’s a facsimile, made to be regarded, but lacking any inherent value.
Some of the individual episodes in the sixth year were strong (The Doctor’s Wife, The Girl Who Waited) but Moffat was generally far more interested in vomiting up the same gags over and over (the comedy Sontaran, who is admittedly sporadically amusing, the lesbian Silurian in Victorian London; are the Victorians she encounters more shocked that she’s a lesbian or a lizard, geddit?)
I’m not anti- comedy in Who; the Graham Williams era is probably my favourite of the show’s original run. But Moffat is so goddam lazy; maybe he’s so egotistical that he believes his own hype (quite possible, given the raves over Sherlock) and doesn’t realise that he’s no longer at the height of his powers. It’s astounding to learn that he actually intended for junior companions Angie and Artie to be regulars aboard the TARDIS until he was persuaded it might not be a good idea by those with a bit of basic commonsense. Where did his delusion come from? Because those Hartnell and Troughton era comic strip companions were top drawer?
With Season Seven, I struggle to come up with a stand-out episode. Moffat only provided one season over a span of two years and none of it proved especially memorable. The lure of a patchily redesigned Zygon (with pointy teeth), John Hurt and David Tennant hasn’t ignited much enthusiasm for the special. Worse, there’s zero enthusiasm for the eventual Season Eight (whenever that arrives). How can there be, with a showrunner who is running on empty?
I’m reasonably sure Moffat will pick a solid actor for the twelfth (or thirteenth?) Doctor, but it’s to no good end if the poor sod is induced to prance like a tit through his every scene. Part of the lustre of the old series was variety; changing producers, changing casts, changing styles. It’s understandable that a consistent visual tone is now sought, but the series is so bereft of ideas that its only option is to immerse itself in the kind of fanwank that spawned The Name of the Doctor. When it feeds of itself to that extent, it’s a harbinger that the days of mass audience appeal may be numbered. After all, this is exactly the path the series went down during the 1980s.