Doctor Who is a funny old show. Its principle joy, for casual viewer or long-term fan alike, often seems to be in its inconsistency – of tone, of setting, of character. The TARDIS, that space- and time-hopping king of all McGuffins, enables the show’s protagonists, whomever they may be, to travel not just from place to place but genre to genre; from one week to the next this modal fluidity allows the writers to fluctuate from high tragedy to low farce; and the Doctor, of course can, literally and figuratively, be whomever he wants. This, of course, is what makes the show so long-lived – and it is also the key to its appeal. Doctor Who is a deliverer of modern myth, as confused and confusing as that role demands.
The problem, of course, is that it is also a television series, and these are judged on certain criteria which simply cannot apply to a show so constituted. This is a point Abigail concedes in her recent overview of the latest season, recently concluded and the first for which Steven Moffat has been showrunner, taking over from its saviour, Russell T Davies: “I kept on with Davies’s Doctor Who despite the fact that it wasn’t, and had no interest in being, any good because even very close to its end there were moments of enormous fun in it.” She then proceeds, however, nevertheless to hold Moffat’s version of the show to set standards. In his response to Abigail at Torque Control, Niall chooses to take the show on its own terms (something he found harder to do for Davies): its focus on time travel, on the Doctor himself, gives Niall the show he wants to watch. Abigail would perhaps be happier with a version of Davies’s incarnation of the show which maybe – just maybe – allowed itself some room to breathe.
Fans of Doctor Who provide themselves with hours of entertainment by attempting to impose continuity on their show. The fact, however, is that there is none to be had – and that, though it’s possible to pretend Ten and Eleven, or Two and Seven, are the same man, they are for all intents and purposes different characters filling in a vaguely similar role: that of intergalactic magic man. So broad is that particular job description, however, that even the Doctor can be in one incarnation a martial arts-loving dandy with a penchant for working with the military, or in another a northern freelancer who dresses like Jeremy Clarkson and is struggling for atonement and interstellar peace. The question – the difference – that lies between Niall and Abigail is not ‘is Doctor Who any good?’ but ‘is this Doctor?’
Russell T Davies found his true metier with the Tenth. In his Ninth incarnation, the Doctor was too fond of poor puns, manic angst and fetishising young women from council estates. The Tenth Doctor, however – irreverent, promiscuous, self-centred – played precisely to Davies’s strengths. Like unearned melodrama, over-played angst, and strained romance? Ten is your man. Prefer professorial hi-jinx, tangential detail and a sort of tweedy nobility? Eleven will be a closer fit. Moffat’s first season puts its Doctor front and centre, and he defines the terms of the game: his first 13 episodes are darker than those which have gone before, but they are also in a strange way more innocent and transparent. Niall’s right to link to Selenak’s piece on the series in the comments to his post, because that exploration of the fairy tale elements of the season are spot on: the Eleventh Doctor feels more old-fashioned, and morally more fixed, than the Tenth. The show, too, feels consequently more disciplined.
Undoubtedly the season had clunkers – barring serving tea, the Daleks of ‘Victory of the Daleks’ were dull things indeed, and nor could I understand the widespread praise for Richard Curtis’s syrupy, tensionless ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ (Cathode Ray can speak for me here). But never did it reach the nadir of an ‘Aliens of London’ or ‘Daleks in New York’, and, like Matt Smith’s performance, the show begins by referencing and echoing David Tennant’s era by slowly becoming its own beast. This alone was fascinating to watch, and by the season finale – in which there is no big villain and nobody dies in a swirl of overwrung orchestra – Doctor Who has very much repositioned itself. Whether or not you like it – whether or not you forgive Moffat his own brand of illogic, his own blind spots or particular sacrifices to the altar of action which are made by all Doctor Who writers – will depend very much on what you think of his regeneration. Because this show is no longer Doctor Who. It’s a new show, entitled Doctor Who.
I rather liked it. And not just because Eleven wears tweed, too.