My avatar across the web: a photo of my feet in grey-white socks and brown sandals.

Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

This season of Doctor Who has disappointed

I just watched “The Name of the Doctor”, the finale to this season of Doctor Who. My roommate and her daughter were in London yesterday to see Phantom of the Opera, so I waited until this morning to view the finale with them—we had a bacon breakfast party. Steven Moffat and the BBC have been promoting this episode for quite a while now, as part of their larger promotion for Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary and the accompanying special. We were promised some big reveals that “change everything.” At the very least, we were promised the secret behind Clara, the impossible girl. In my opinion, Moffat didn’t deliver on the former, but at least he explained the latter, in his usual self-fulfilling timey-wimey way.

No spoilers about the finale, beyond what you might have seen in previews or trailers broadcast on TV.

I feel bad for my roommate. I suppose I sound a bit like an Eeyore to her, with my constant, academic critiques of the new Star Trek franchise (we’re going to see Into Darkness in less than hour, but that’s another blog post) and now this season of Doctor Who. We all express our love of our favourite series in different ways, though, and my way is consistent with every fibre of my being: I analyze, overanalyze, and analyze again. I need things to make sense, to be coherent and unified, because that, to me, is storytelling beauty. (And when I say “make sense”, I’m not referring solely to logic, as that would be silly in the Doctor Who universe! There is such a thing as emotional or dramatic sense as well.)

(I read the last paragraph to my roommate and then deleted an adjective. Also, she says I’m young enough that I haven’t experienced enough ups and downs in life to develop an expectation that everything will be mediocre so I can be pleasantly surprised when it isn’t. She insists I should view the upcoming anniversary special as crap so that I will be happy when it is slightly better than that—and then everything she says just gets me more excited for it. So, that’s not working.)

This latest half-season of Doctor Who has been disappointing, which is a shame, because I like Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara. She just hasn’t been given much to do, and both she and Matt Smith have been burdened by this underwhelming mystery that is the “impossible girl”. This is also a shame—it’s a fantastic mystery. Rather than tease it up, however, Moffat just refers to it obliquely each episode and then goes on with the other stories. This has been par for the course with much of Moffat’s run, I suppose, so I’m not sure why it is so annoying now. Maybe it’s just the fact that it’s yet another iteration of such a mystery, the iteration that broke my proverbial camel’s spinal column.

I read io9’s “The Central Problem with Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who” prior to the finale. It’s a good article; go read it. Charlie Jane Anders says that the finale will not change one’s opinion on this season—and she was right. She also makes a larger argument with regards to Moffat’s entire time as showrunner, which is that his focus on making the Doctor the centre of Doctor Who, on making him “big”, actually makes him rather small.

When I read the article, I found myself agreeing. Then, as I watched the finale, I started to doubt this interpretation of the Eleventh Doctor’s mythos. The first part of the finale is actually very well done, setting up suspense as we wonder what the Doctor will find at Trenzalore. There is one scene where Matt Smith gets very choked up when Clara mentions that word … it’s a rare moment of genuine dread from the Doctor, and it might be one of the best moments of this episode.

Having watched the entire episode, though, I’m back to agreeing with the io9 article, for the most part. There are two reasons.

Firstly, “The Name of the Doctor” revisits the premise, seen before in slightly different ways in the previous two season finales, that a universe without the Doctor is a universe of strife and emptiness. This is supposed to be uplifting, a reminder of all the good the Doctor does despite his capacity for engendering violence in his name. Nevertheless, it also has the side effect of making the universe’s existence dependent upon the Doctor; in essence, he becomes the most important person in existence. And that’s a little much, no?

Secondly, the villain in this episode, returning from the Christmas special, is typical of many of Moffat’s villains. As Anders points out, this is a villain obsessed with the Doctor and the Doctor’s overall effect on the space–time continuum. Yawn. Whatever happened to villains doing villainous stuff for villainous reasons? Or at least villains who aren’t so Doctor-centric? Some of the best episodes of Doctor Who are those when the Doctor ends up somewhere seemingly random and gets involved in a conflict that isn’t initially his own, but he makes it his own because he is a force for good.

I could deal with that. Compared to other season finales of the new series, however, “The Name of the Doctor” is practically anemic. It brings back four established characters (River, Jenny, Vastra, and Strax). I love most of those characters (not River), but I rather expected the finale to be bigger. (On the villain note, I’m still waiting for the Silents to come back and explain why the TARDIS exploded, by the way.)

The explanation of Clara’s mystery makes a lot of sense, perhaps more sense than any other retroactive explanation of Moffat’s finale. And I hope that, with Clara’s mystery now resolved, she can continue as the Doctor’s companion with a clean slate and grow—much as Amy did after the end of “The Pandorica Opens”. Again, though, this season finale depends on Moffat’s fascination with the referential, self-fulfilling paradox form of time travel. For someone who represents the confusing and twisted nature of time travel so well, I wish that Moffat could be more creative and less one-note in the types of snares and snags he portrays.

That being said, I’m more inclined to be charitable towards what Moffat is doing with Doctor Who than some. It makes sense to turn towards the past, and to examine the Doctor’s mythos more closely, as we approach the 50th anniversary. This might be somewhat indulgent, but I think it’s an important journey that allows us to look at how the Doctor has changed over his various incarnations. I just wish we had some better writing along the way.

The reveal at the end of the episode, regarding John Hurt’s role in the 50th anniversary special, was less shocking considering the rumours about him that have been circulating. And yes, despite my roommate’s plea for cynicism, I remain optimistic about the anniversary. David Tennant and Billie Piper are back! We will confront once again the Doctor’s discomfort with what he has done, the promise he broke to himself. Hopefully we might even learn more about the Time War—why did it twist the Time Lords so? My only reservation about the finale is that, at only 60 minutes, how can it possibly do all these themes and characters justice? Only a select few know.

In the end, Doctor Who will outlive the actors who portray the Doctor or the showrunners. It will continue to change and grow with each regeneration. And as much as this past season has not been my favourite, I have enjoyed Matt Smith’s performance of the Doctor. I’m sure this season appeals to people with slightly different sensibilities about or expectations of the series, and that’s fine. But that won’t stop me from complaining, analyzing, or over-analyzing. It’s just what I do.