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Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Lamentable Death of Doctor Who

As I went to watch the first episode of the new series of Doctor Who, a large portion of what I was feeling was dread. I realised that this feeling had been with me for a while, and that it was there as a result of my subconsciously drawing a line in the sand - just a couple more disappointments, and that would be it: the sad end of one of my favourite interactions with television of any kind.

I'm pleased to say that the episode started very well indeed. The opening scenes were quiet, muted and awkward, in a good way, and I found myself daring to hope that this might signal some kind of refresh - a separation from the mindless formulaism of recent efforts, in order to re-engage with the core of what makes the show truly great. This hope was bolstered by Capaldi's excellent turn as a kind of grumpy version of a Dickensian deus ex machina, his excellent performance well served, no doubt, by some very deft and enjoyable scripting.

And then it all came crashing down. The first hint of disquiet came when I noticed just how late in the episode the setup of the central antagonist occurred. So late, in fact, that there was little reason to hope that the writers might have checked their growing disregard for the niceties of coherent story telling. And then doubt turned to certainty as it became apparent that the opening villain of their 'fresh start' season was a recycled composite of imagery and concepts from 'The Black Spot', 'The Waters of Mars', and 'The Lodger'. 

While it's possible that this depressingly unoriginal mash-up has been created in the service of some epic surprise in an overarching plot line, I find this difficult to believe, especially given the scant, borderline contemptuous attitude to plot which is emerging in even single episode story lines. A part of me really wants to believe the jury's still out on this one, but my critical sense tells me that what we are witnessing is the fatal commercialisation of The Doctor.

Now don't get me wrong - I'm not foolish enough to mistake Doctor Who for high art, so I'm certainly not a victim of unrealistic expectations here. I expect significant levels of kitsch and fan service in The Doctor's adventures. In fact, I revel in all that stuff. But I don't think that's what's happening here. What I think is happening is that the show's phenomenal success has created a set of conditions conducive to ripping the heart and soul out of the series, in the interest of serving up a consistent 'product'.

As a long time and loyal fan of the show, I think you can trust me not to say this lightly. The thing is, though, that it's no longer possible to ignore the shift in focus. What has always elevated the show into greatness has been its invincible moral core. Minor things like lore and continuity would be joyfully warped to breaking point in service of the premise that non violence, curiosity and wonder are more important than all of humanity's arsenals combined. This, more than anything, was the central thematic burden - the show's soul. Doctor Who, at heart, is a joyous paean to the adventure which can be made of a life informed by genuine intellectual curiosity. Or at least, that's what it was.

I would struggle, now, to identify any coherent sense of mission behind the creation of the last four episodes. On a purely superficial level, all the 'best' (read 'popular') aspects of the show have been turned up to eleven - thrills and spills, classic lines, iconic villains and sassy alien culture clash humour is practically bursting from the groaning seams of each overpacked, underplotted episode. The thing is, none of that stuff has anything to do with what makes Doctor Who worth watching. 

For a start, tolerating frankly ludicrous story construction is a very different matter when dealing with a purely commercial endeavour. Without that sense of higher purpose, the show ceases to be joyfully uninhibited - it sinks to being nothing more than a lazy, half-chewed mess. For reasons which beggar understanding, the creators seem to be ditching a conceptual core which has remained steadily appealing for more than half a century, in favour of elements which have never been more than clever window dressing. And now, it seems, they've even stopped bothering being imaginative about the shallow flim-flam on which they have inexplicably chosen to hang the entire enterprise.

I gather that there has been much soul searching and seeking of feedback with regard to the steadily plunging ratings with which they have been afflicted. I would suggest that this is largely due to their insistence on producing crowd-pleasers, whilst ignoring or failing to understand the essential substance upon which The Doctor depends. Put simply, the soul of The Doctor has been steadily crowded out by mindless bling. And without that soul, Doctor Who is nothing more than watchable fluff, and fluff which will never be quite as well executed as those shows which were specifically conceived to deliver cheap, mindless thrills.

One more episode, I think, and then it may very well be a sad vale to my Doctor Who fandom.

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