Is there a Doctor in the house? (Attempt #6,924 to get into Doctor Who)
(Note: this post will contain spoilers(!) for the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary episode “The Day of the Doctor”.)
So over the years I’ve had quite a love/hate relationship with Doctor Who. I’ve tried to get into the show several times, but every time I try it’s never quite grabbed me like it seems to have grabbed about 80% of nerds (especially female nerds) I talk to nowadays. I’ve tried exploring exactly what about the show that drives me crazy, but I’ve never been able to correctly pinpoint it (and whenever I’ve tried, somebody on Facebook has always pointed out why my opinion is wrong and why I should feel bad for having it). I really, really, have wanted to like the show (for one thing, it would make my dating life easier), but sometimes you just don’t like something despite all indications that you should (coincidentally, something that’s also applicable to my dating life). But every so often, I watch another episode or special or what-have-you to see if this one is the one that makes me say, “Yeah, OK, I can overlook its flaws; it’s a good show.” It is in this spirit that I watched the much-anticipated 50th anniversary episode “The Day of the Doctor”. Has it changed my mind about the show?
Well, no. But I think it’s helped me figure out why.
Let me be fair: I absolutely loved about 60% of the special. All of the Doctors were great (John Hurt included) as well as, surprisingly, Billie Piper (which is no mean feat because I hated Rose. It’s clear now that that was more due to the character herself than the actress, as she did a fantastic job here as “the conscience”). The other characters ranged from adequate to embarrassing (but I’ll get to that in a minute). The special effects showing the actual Time War and the devastation being caused all across Gallifrey were (mostly) amazing as well. As for the writing, most everything concerning the main plot of the special (that being the fate of Gallifrey and what exactly he did to end the Time War) was great. The no-win scenario has been examined many times before in fiction in general and sci-fi in particular, and it’s even more compelling when 1)it’s on such a huge scale, and 2)technically we’ve already been dealing with the aftermath of what happened for eight years already. This has been such a central part of the Doctor’s character throughout the entire post-reboot story that the dilemma has a lot of weight to it and it has shaped who the Doctor has been, even if it’s been ever so subtle. Probably one of my favorite moments in the entire special is when Ten and Eleven are being their goofy selves and the War Doctor asks why they act like children when they should be acting grown-up. And they both just give him a somber look. No words are needed, because the answer is both obvious and heartbreaking. I’m glad they got a completely different actor to be that Doctor instead of just making it Paul McGann or something (though I like Paul McGann, don’t get me wrong) because of the symbolism. The War Doctor is really the protagonist of the story, and Ten, Eleven, and all of the other players are really just acting in a morality tale for him (up until the ending at least). Even a fair bit of the lighter stuff worked pretty well, like the bit where the three Doctors are trying to figure out how to open the door via the most ludicrously complicated method ever, only for the door not to be locked. And the ending was fan-freaking-tastic.
It’s when we get away from that central story and the themes surrounding it that the special starts to fall apart (for me at least). There were two major flaws here that perfectly illustrate why I haven’t been able to get into the franchise as a whole.
First of all, the monsters. I’ve never seen an episode where the monsters have been truly terrifying or, indeed, have been able to take them seriously (though “Blink” came the closest). Take the Zygons in this story. First of all, they look stupid. Second, their motivations aren’t all that clear other than “let’s take over Earth for some reason!” Third, their particular dilemma is resolved in a typical Doctor Who way that I hate: the Doctor(s) point their screwdriver(s) at something, causing the plot to be instantly resolved! And in this case, the resolution (causing everyone in the room to forget whether they’re Zygon or human) doesn’t even make sense, both in logistics (oh no! I can’t remember if I’m human or not! Oh wait; can I turn into a red tentacle monster? I can? I guess I’m a Zygon then!), and as a means to resolve the plot (well, since I can’t remember if I’m Zygon or human, I guess I’ve lost all my ambition to take over the world, plot over). I know that in this particular case the whole Zygon thing was meant mostly to set up some MacGuffins as well as draw some parallels to the main plot (which actually worried me: I was afraid that somehow the Doctor(s) would get the idea to mindwipe all the Daleks in the same way or something equally stupid).
The problem is that so often the focus of Doctor Who episodes is on the silly monster of the week and the weird dilemmas that they cause for our heroes (and very few of them are much better than the Zygon story here) that I can’t take them seriously, even if there’s good character stuff in between the lines. The Daleks especially suffer in this regard, and the only moments I was pulled out of the story happening on Gallifrey were when the Daleks themselves were onscreen, slowly milling about yelling “EXTERMINATE!” You know, you can give a squirrel a machine gun, have him go on a murder spree, and give him the dialogue of the Joker, but at the end of the day he’s still just a squirrel with a machine gun and on a certain level he’s going to be impossible to take seriously.
Let’s take a parallel example from Star Trek. In the first season of The Next Generation the creators of the show had built up the Ferengi to be the Big Bad Guys that our heroes had to contend with, much like the Klingons had been in the original series. But when the episode that first featured them aired, it became clear that these villains were not threatening at all, what with their resemblance to little goblins, and their flapping arms like the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, and their silly laser whips, and just their overall goofiness. So the creators, seeing that they weren’t working as villains, slowly morphed them into comic relief (for better and for worse), and instead introduced the Borg in the next season to be the real threat. I feel that Doctor Who‘s approach would have been to feature the Ferengi in thirty more stories and have everyone talk about how horrible they are (and maybe even show them killing some guys and whipping some children and drowning poodles or something), even though they still look like silly monkey goblins.
When Doctor Who gets away from the Monsters of the Week I think it usually does much better. For example, a recently-recovered second Doctor episode titled “The Enemy of the World” (which I haven’t actually seen, but I did watch a fairly thorough review/recap of it) features the TARDIS crew landing in the year 2018, where a dictator named Salamander (yeah, I know) who resembles the Doctor is in charge, and the main focus of the plot is whether they should support the rebels opposing Salamander or not. I thought the plot was engaging, and the clips that I saw looked pretty good (mostly thanks to Patrick Troughton’s fun take on both the Doctor and Salamander), to the point where I’d like to watch the episode itself if I can find it. There are no Daleks, cybermen, or any other alien threat; just people.
Speaking of people, this brings me to the other major flaw that keeps me from really getting into the show, and I freely admit that this one’s a little more subjective, but the way the show often handles historical figures irks me quite a bit. In this particular special the whole plot with Elizabeth I was one that I found insufferable (and not only because it tied into the dumb Zygon plot). Often it feels like the historical plots in Doctor Who play out like somebody’s weird fan fiction. “Hey, let’s have the Doctor go meet Queen Elizabeth I because he’s a time traveler and all that! Of course she falls in love with him because he’s just awesome! Also, there are aliens! Oh, and the Doctor also helps Vincent Van Gogh overcome some personal demons (and aliens!) and when he battles some ghosts (or, more accurately, ghost aliens) in Victorian England of course we have to have Charles Dickens help him because it’ll be cool!” I know this type of plot doesn’t happen all the time but it does pop up quite a bit (especially since one of the core tenets for the show at its inception was to teach kids about history) and it’s just silly. Quantum Leap had a rule that Sam Beckett would never leap into or interact with anyone famous (except for maybe a quick cameo), to avoid this kind of silliness (a rule which the network made the writing staff break in the last season to try to buoy up sagging ratings, which resulted in some pretty stupid episodes like Sam leaping into Elvis). Even Star Trek, with its myriad of time-travel stories, usually avoided the “cast meets historical figure and hilarity ensues” plots unless they were their own made-up historical figures like Zefram Cochrane (the sole exception I can think of is when they met Samuel Clemens, and that wasn’t a very good episode anyway). It also doesn’t help that usually these historical figures in Doctor Who are written with the same sensibilities as late 20th-century or early 21st-century British people.
There are a few other minor niggling things about the show that irk me (such as the “ooh, the Doctor’s in town; excuse me while I swoon and ask him to take me to the moon for lunch” opening we had here, which most recent companions have a variation on. Which is a shame because, aside from that scene, Clara seemed to be a solid character, even though I haven’t seen any other episodes with her), but those two are the big ones, I think, especially the first one. And it’s clearly a subjective thing: obviously most Whovians are able to take the Daleks and other, sillier aliens (such as the Slitheen, which probably turned me off to the show faster than any other single thing) more seriously than I can, or at the very least overlook these problems; but as much as I’ve tried, I can’t. It’s like the problems I have with anime: as much as I try to enjoy the great story and/or characters of many animes, I can’t get past the problems I have with the art style and limited animation.
It’s a good show. I just can’t get into it. Sorry, guys. Now please tell me why I’m wrong.