Last year, Squeezegut Alley was proud to feature Tom Steward’s reviews of Doctor Who. Since then, Tom has set up his own excellent television blog, Watching TV with Americans. I’m so pleased that he’s decided to share his thoughts on Series 6 – but be warned, he doesn’t mince his words…
Last year, producer Steven Moffat, actor Matt Smith and supporting cast, and a team of writers rescued Doctor Who from the oblivion of self-aggrandizing emo-babble it had sunk into under the influence of Russell T Davies and David Tennant, the latter episodes of their tenures having merely been offerings at the altar of its criminally overrated star. Though there were obvious shortcomings in the 2010 series, notably Moffat’s own haphazard and at times nonsensical storytelling, the overwhelming power of Smith’s innovative, committed and faithful performance, some engrossing one-off stories (not least Toby Whithouse’s pitch-perfect Vampires of Venice) and the restoration of a compelling three-way dynamic in the TARDIS did enough to suggest that the show could reverse the polarity of its demise.
A year later and it seems the show is in crisis again, with Moffat now an enormous liability to its future credibility. An out-of-control story arc threatens to overshadow the alchemy of the finest cast of regulars the programme has had in decades. Moreover, the decision taken by the BBC (publicised as Moffat’s choice but possibly catalysed by budget cuts) to broadcast the 2011 series in two parts starting respectively in April and November, has ended up an albatross around Moffat’s neck.
This re-structuring of the season narrative was welcomed in many quarters, especially by those hungry to see Doctor Who episodes dispersed across the year as it was in its heyday in the 1960s and 70s. It tantalised viewers about the possibility of a mouth-watering cliffhanger between the first and second halves to rival Second Doctor Patrick Troughton tumbling through the time vortex with his future hanging in the balance at the end of The War Games.
But Moffat’s failure to deliver this cliffhanger and offer only a fairly underwhelming resolution to an increasingly tedious narrative mystery (the identity of overused shady sidekick River Song) has left even the most diehard fans of Moffat’s delay tactics cold. The majority of this initial seven episode run have been write-offs, none more so than Steve Thompson’s unmitigated dud The Curse of the Black Spot. It could just be that viewers are feeling frustration and boredom rather than the intended anticipation, with the four-month mid-season break looking more and more like the perfect excuse to abandon the show permanently.
It must be a real kick in the teeth for Smith and co-stars Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill, who have nailed the relationship between their characters so acutely, to be fobbed off with a litany of laughably portentous speeches and self-consciously wacky vignettes. I feel particularly sorry for Darvill who, having brought back a homosocial dimension to the interaction between the Doctor and his companions not seen this successfully seen the Second Doctor’s gentle sparring with highlander Jamie McCrimmon, is made to die onscreen every week, in a bizarre script editing oversight. Smith’s extraordinarily accomplished, restrained and mature realisation of the TV Timelord is continually sabotaged by writers’ insistence on making the Doctor either zany or shouty and forcing uncomfortable vaudeville and melodrama out of one of the most subtle and multi-faceted performances on television in recent years.
However, this indomitable cast regularly shined through the treacherously weak material. Smith continued his notable evolution into the most mysterious and manipulative Doctor since the horribly underrated Sylvester McCoy, adding refinement to his physical comedy (in a manner becoming of Troughton himself) and remarkable sagacity to his portrayal of a 900 year-old man (even more so when playing his 200 year-old senior). Gillan now seems utterly assured in the role of Amy Pond and adds real grit to the show’s various peril and pursuit sequences, salvaging some episodes with her breathless authenticity as a woman in unthinkable danger. Darvill’s lovable cowardly custard Rory, the Scoobyless ‘Shaggy’ in the Doctor’s Mystery Machine, has developed effortlessly into the moral and emotional centre of the programme, still a vulnerable man but one who tirelessly fights injustice with compassion.
But clearly the lessons of the last series have not been heeded. The one-off stories, unfairly regarded as ‘fillers’, were the undoubted strengths of the 2010 batch of episodes, challenging both writers and actors, whereas the ongoing storyline (or ‘arc’) episodes were far more inconsistent. Now the arc episodes fill in the gaps between the only proper stories left in the programme.