Was this the best season ever? Or the reverse? Well, we could crouch down and take a good look, but first let’s consider terms.
It’s a long way to Series Twelve, so I’m going to give you a big bacon sandwich (that does love you back), one full of easily digested bite-sized chunks.
Ever see an exchange like this go by?
That was really great.
Yeah, my favorite.
Or, of course, the opposite?
I really hated that.
Yeah, the worst.
It’s clear that with most people, “great” equals “I liked it.” That’s understandable: if something is great, then we ought to appreciate it, right? And if we don’t like it, then how can we call it great?
So, as with almost all constructive discussions, we have to define our terms. Instead of throwing words like “great” around, we need to look at factors that enhance or detract from the quality of a season. It’s understandable, of course, that not everyone does so. This kind of objective analysis can take up to several minutes if you do it as superficially as I will. (You’re welcome.)
So, let’s look at a number of aspects of quality, starting with:
I can make a pretty good case for AG Series Five being “great” because of how original it was. For a time-travel show, it makes sense for the Doctor to spend time with a companion at widely varying points in their life, but the first episode to take this original approach was The Eleventh Hour, with Amelia/Amy Pond.
On top of that, this is the season that starts to explore the notion of time travelers who meet but not in parallel, i.e., River Song. And it has the original idea of the Dream Lord in Amy’s Choice. A brilliant exploration of what time travel and Time Lords can’t help, in Vincent and the Doctor. A different view of the Doctor in The Lodger. And certainly the finale, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, wasn’t like anything that had gone before.
And yet. If originality is the only criterion, or the overwhelmingly important one, I would say hands down the best season was the very first, starting all the way back on 23 November 1963. The Doctor was new, the TARDIS ditto, plus the Daleks. I don’t see how any season can beat that.
Of course, originality isn’t the only possible criterion. There’s also:
Sense of Wonder
This isn’t the easiest term to define, but to keep from spending all the comments arguing about what this means (like I can stop you all, hahahaha), I’m going to describe this as when you’re left wondering if the episode’s “truth” could be reality.
Doctor Who does this a lot with monsters. Could those statues really be quantum-locked creatures that can send me back in time? Could there really be sentients from geologic eras ago, waiting to take their Earth back?
Could my sweetie in her real form be covered in suckers, with poison sacs under her tongue? Could be, she’s a great kisser…
But it doesn’t have to be monsters. Could the moon be an egg? Could the idea behind Satan predate the universe? Could the word “doctor” come from the Doctor?
Asking big questions is the best way to evoke sense of wonder. But to do so requires a degree of:
Daring something really different is what it takes to get a Blink or a Heaven Sent. Also Love & Monsters or Sleep No More. You have to take serious risks to create a classic…or the reverse.
Since truly great episodes, and the opposite, tend to derail discussions by their sheer power, let’s just illustrate the point with something that dares nothing. Not a real episode, just an example to show what would happen if an episode tried to do nothing original, break no new ground, just shamelessly trade on what has gone before.
In two admittedly overlong sentences, in the tradition of—that is, trading with no shame at all upon The Day of the Doctor, The Night of the Doctor, and The Time of the Doctor, I give you…(drumroll)…The Lunch of the Doctor.
The Doctor attempts to dine while locking gazes with a Weeping Angel (an involuntary glance for the butter sends a perfectly good steak and kidney pie back to 1967). Meanwhile the Doctor keeps up a monologue with Clara’s back (leading her to write on a chalkboard “I blew in on a leaf for this?”).
Ta da! A triumph of repackaging.
So it’s likely that a great season has to show a little audacity. Perhaps as the writers are pushing themselves to do so they also need to provide episodes which are:
I remember visiting a friend long ago, when I was between jobs and he wasn’t, and him getting home from work and plunking himself down in front of the TV and putting old sitcoms on. After a challenging day at work, he wanted to turn his brain off.
As you can tell from the way I blather on, I like to think about things, and to take some time to do it. So I like episodes that provoke thought, and I’m disappointed when they don’t.
But that’s me, and my personal taste. As my old friend illustrates, not everyone wants that all the time. Too much challenge seems to drive casual fans away; too little—well, let’s hope that’s never an issue.
So this is a divisive factor, I think, one that is a must for some and a mustn’t for others. One that is, however, more generally wanted is probably:
Pete Tyler shaking off his shiftless shiftiness, and showing what a real Dad does in Father’s Day. Any of Twelve’s impassioned speeches. Rose melting down in Doomsday. Rosa Parks being arrested, and the looks on the TARDIS team’s faces. Donna’s journey ending. Vincent’s picture “for Amy.” Astrid Peth being sent to the stars. Grace’s death. “It’s bigger on the inside.” “I’m the Doctor.”
Most of us can’t call any story great if we can’t bring ourselves to care about it. Conversely, the more we care, the greater the story in at least that respect. I think every great season has moments of great emotion, and cannot be the best without them. Not for most of us.
Something that generally goes with that is:
Martha’s season isn’t generally considered a great one, and I’d say part of that is that, while her character arc isn’t terrible, it isn’t terribly satisfying either. After all she goes through, to walk away, romantically rejected by the Doctor, leaves me at least with a certain frustration.
Conversely, Donna’s is almost universally acclaimed, as the shouty temp from Chiswick goes on to be sung of as a planet-savior…and then we get to that ending. Even the heavens weep.
I don’t know if character arcs alone can make a great season. But clearly a strong character arc can help a season be considered great, right?
Well, maybe not. Consider Series Eight and Nine, where Twelve has quite an arc, going from self-questioning to the playful “I’m an idiot!” in Death in Heaven, to showing his passionate “duty of care” in particular in Hell Bent.
By contrast, Clara is the fixed point of moral certainty; whereas Nine would threaten to throw “stupid apes” out of the TARDIS, Clara is the one at the end of Kill the Moon to tell the Doctor, “You go away now.”
I’m fine with the role-reversal, but it’s certainly not to everyone’s taste. So a strong character arc helps with greatness, but it at least partly depends on what arc and whose.
Speaking of whose (Who’s), there’s always the Doctor’s character itself:
Do you like your Doctor tormented to the point of Byronic heroism? Or with hidden depths like maybe Loch Ness? Something dark beneath a bright exterior? A Doctor whose character, whose inner conflict, facilitates stories with a darker tinge?
If you do, some Doctors (Nine and Twelve in particular) and their seasons will appeal more than others, and will affect your perceptions of “great” and “best.”
If instead you’ve had enough of stories with an undertone of desolation, and want to emerge into the light already, then Thirteen might instead be your “greatest” Doctor.
Prefer a less alien Doctor, one you can relate to easily? One whose lack of quirks and “otherness” means less story time spent on mistrust and side-eye looks? Or at least less supporting characters being taken aback?
Or would you rather be reminded regularly that the Doctor isn’t human, isn’t native to any Earthly culture or tech?
Or maybe a mix? A Doctor like Thirteen who tastes dirt or licks things while otherwise seeming pretty “normal”? Or maybe that’s not the mix you want, and you want a nice young man like Eleven, except for all the times when you can’t miss that he’s centuries old?
Your preference here will absolutely affect your thoughts on what’s “best.”
Do you like your Doctors to be like Ten and Eleven in particular, turning an entire confrontation around with a single speech? Would you rather they were more like Twelve, leaving a level of leadership to Clara? Or perhaps Thirteen, who appears less interested in asserting herself over others?
Is it possible that the opposition to Thirteen is because she is insufficiently internet-y, that she should be like everyone else on the net, asserting her views of what is “great” and “best” over everyone else? Or perhaps I should reverse course now, before you all start giving me the side-eye. (That would be a great—I mean “great”—idea.)
“Doctor Who Looks Like Me”
I personally can definitely relate to this, since as you can see from my picture here that I look exactly like Peter Capaldi does when seen by a sentient puddle. So wanting a Doctor who (Who) looks like you is completely understandable to me.
I know, I know, there’s a definite downside to identifying too closely with the Doctor. Not only can it lead to unfortunate lifestyle choices—metacrisis quasi-clones, resisting regeneration, etc.—but can end up with questionable behaviors such as obsessive polarity-reversing and spouting technobabble.
Nevertheless, viewers are perfectly reasonable to want a Doctor to look like them, and to consider such a Doctor “best.” I would just personally urge that they not give up when the Doctor regenerates into a less recognizable form, since that would be a case of hetero-facio-physiognomic phobic response.
And then there’s all the ones I didn’t even mention, like Cinematography, CGI Quality, Plotting, Pacing, Variety, Humor and Wit (among many others). And don’t let’s forget, ideas are great, but implementation is crucial. The same audacity can yield you a Heaven Sent, or a Love & Monsters. There’s many a slip ‘twixt the “Cut!” and the pitch.
So even if all the factors you look for are in place doesn’t mean a good episode follows. And that will certainly affect what is or is not “great.”
If you’re expecting me to declare a greatest season, well, I’m not going to. Maybe in a comment later. I’d rather leave that up to all of you.
Of course, when you do so, there’s no guarantee that any of the people behind the show will ever be aware of anything said here or anywhere else. Nevertheless, if you’re hoping your words will influence Doctor Who’s direction, if you are unable to articulate what aspects of the show are the “best” or “worst,” then you can’t expect anything to change in the way that you want.
But that’s okay. It probably won’t change anyway. The most we can hope for is to influence the discussion’s direction, especially when evaluating a season.
So let’s hope we can find something to enjoy, whatever era of the show we’re in…and if we can’t, at least we can make our complaints sound like they come from intelligent people. (Especially in the comments here. Hint.)
Wouldn’t that be “great”?
Okay, we’re just over halfway there. Six episodes down, four to go, and the shape of the new era is starting to be visible, shimmering like the TARDIS in The Ghost Monument.
Well, I think so. 🙂
This has been a blog I’ve been intending to post all summer but with one thing or another, have never quite managed it. But as we’re on the verge of Chris Chibnall taking the reins of the show, it’s now become very much a now-or-never moment. My intention here is not to take the attention from Chibnall’s big moment and we have, let’s face it, spent rather a lot of time already dissecting Moffat’s work. Rather my thinking is that this is the first time this forum has seen a ‘regime change’ on the show and it might be interesting to mark that, as well as provide a baseline for us to work from as we watch the Chibnall era unfold. Read more…
The beginnings of a bonkerish theory…
… the Christmas Special is partly set up to explain why the Doctor, after a solid run of thirteen male bodies, regenerates into a female body. And it’s connected with the First Doctor.
Moffat likes his Who metaphors: I’ve argued before that the episodes immediately leading up to the 50th Anniversary could all have been read as metaphors: each representing the various ages of the Before Gap programme. During the Capaldi era, he’s played quite heavily on the metaphor of ‘Doctor Who as legend’, as ‘story’. The Capaldi incarnation of the Doctor is often struggling to retrieve the real person who lives behind the legend of ‘The Doctor’. Robin Hood thought it was better that the legend be remembered; the Capaldi Doctor is not so sure.
Moffat also likes explaining things. The ‘explanation’ is very often a ‘blink and you miss it’, ‘available if you think about it’ kind of explanation, but Steven Moffat is still, at heart, the completist fanboy. The Doctor Falls, for example, sneaked in an explanation for why the Master became Missy after staying resolutely (and misogynistically) male for body after body. Quite simply, having met himself as a woman, the Master now knows (at some level) that he will have to make a gender switch. Missy didn’t ‘just happen’; Missy is part of a Moffat loop.
So I’d suggest that, rather than leave the Doctor’s regeneration into a female body as an ‘Oh, look, I’m a woman now, funny it took so long’ there will be an explanation – just as Moffat didn’t ignore Peter Capaldi’s previous appearance as Caecilius, but briefly explained why the Doctor had unconsciously chosen that face.
Why might that explanation be connected with the First Doctor? Because in a way, William Hartnell’s regeneration into Patrick Troughton was the real beginning of the transformation from ‘programme’ to ‘legend’. Up to that point, Doctor Who was like Journey into Space or Space Patrol. Massively popular, but didn’t outlive its time. It was regeneration that gave Doctor Who the potential to become one of the immortal stories.
But if it was the regeneration of William Hartnell into Patrick Troughton that began ‘legendary Who’, then did the regeneration of the First Doctor into the Second Doctor begin the long process of becoming ‘legendary Doctor’? Might the Capaldi Doctor see it as the beginning of the process of losing his ‘real’ self behind a legend? Given that Steven Moffat does like connecting events in-story to the history of the programme, I’d suggest that such a connection will be made.
Are the First Doctor and the Capaldi Doctor still the same person? Is that original 1960’s Doctor Who still the same programme as the bigger budgeted, CGI’d juggernaut that is the 21st Century Who? Or is that moment of doubt in Deep Breath, where the Doctor clearly wonders if there’s anything of his original self left, prophetic on both levels? In all that change, is the core self (the ‘soul’) – of the Doctor, of the programme – still the same?
What do you hold on to, when you’re a shape-shifter? What do you hold on to, when your leading actor and your production team go through periodic, complete, changes? When you can be ‘whatever you feel like when you get up in the morning?’
And, in-story, Gallifreyans aren’t just shape-shifters – unlike Zygons, their periodic regenerations shift both body and persona. They must have cultural methods of coping with this – but the Doctor has fled from his own culture. The one and only constant in the Doctor’s life is that his TARDIS likes to appear as a police box. Oh, and that he always regenerates as a white male.
Hold on to that last thought. After Moffat’s finished with the Christmas Special, it’s possible that we’ll be able to see that in a different way.
The production team have one advantage that the Doctor doesn’t have; despite the ‘missing episodes’, there’s an awful lot of Doctor Who history available for instant reference. The production team know what they’re changing from. Even though the latest actor to play the Doctor wasn’t alive when William Hartnell was the one and only Doctor, she can haul the episodes out of the archives, put the DVDs on expenses and effectively ‘remember’ the previous characterisations. If she wants to.
The Doctor doesn’t have that luxury. He’s over two thousand years old; his childhood was so long ago that he tells Bill that he can barely remember whether he was a boy or a girl. He has a photo of Susan and River on his desk – as if he’s now frightened of forgetting his own family. If the Smith Doctor was ‘the Man Who Forgets’, the Capaldi Doctor has become ‘the Man frightened of forgetting too much’. In episode after episode the Capaldi Doctor struggles to remember stories that much of the audience know perfectly well. The Second Doctor told Victoria that his family slept in his memory – which implies that he didn’t need photos; he remembered them without any props. The Capaldi Doctor keeps their pictures on his desk.
What do you hold on to, when you’re a shape-shifter who’s over two thousand years old? What do you hold on to, when your memory of your childhood is slowly fading and you need a photo to remind you of the granddaughter who was once so precious?
What do you hold onto when you’ve always hated regenerating?
We first saw the Doctor as an old man with a granddaughter. At that point, regeneration wasn’t even a twinkle in Sidney Newman’s eye; he wanted some actor with a bit of gravitas, and in the 1960’s that meant age.
But once regeneration becomes part of the lore of the programme, you start to wonder why the First Doctor would keep that first body so long that he was literally starting to wear out. Then you look at the Second Doctor (forcibly regenerated by the Time Lords) and all the following Doctors. None of them chose regeneration – except in the sense of ‘regenerate or die’.
Romana, on the other hand, seemingly regenerated because she fancied a new body. She also appeared to have considerably more control over the process than the Doctor does; the only time the Doctor managed to control the process was when the Tennant Doctor regenerated into the Tennant Doctor, by diverting some of his regeneration energy.
Let’s look at this again; it seems that the Doctor has never willingly regenerated – and in fact, once chose to keep the same body. The Tennant Doctor compared regeneration to dying – a ‘new bloke’ walks away. The Capaldi Doctor had to insist that he was still ‘me’, the same person as the Smith Doctor.
But then, unlike those Gallifreyans who regenerate among Gallifreyans, the Doctor generally regenerates surrounded by people who struggle to accept the new body, the new persona. Regeneration, for the Doctor, has become traumatic. Through the eyes of his companions, he sees just how much each regeneration changes him; no wonder that he has to insist that he is, indeed, still ‘me’. And unlike the Master, or Romana, he doesn’t generally start his regeneration process exclaiming ‘great, a new body to look forward to’.
Metaphors again: the Companion is the audience surrogate; their difficulty in accepting the ‘new Doctor’ represents the audience struggle to accept the ‘new bloke’. Until Smith, new Doctors generally had an old Companion or a continuing character (like the Brigadier) to make the cross-over with them and be the lightning rod for any audience confusion. But how far can the Doctor change until they stop being ‘The Doctor’? How far can the programme change the Doctor until the character stops being that Doctor created by William Hartnell, Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman?
Moffat likes paradoxes. At what point in the Doctor’s life will the paradox of Theseus’ Boat come into play? Can the Doctor replace everything about himself over a dozen times, and still be the original? Is he still that little boy who’s afraid of the monsters in the dark?
He tells Bill that he’s not sure whether he was a boy or a girl any more – yet Rule One is: the Doctor lies. Because when he returns to Gallifrey he (twice) goes straight back to the barn where that little boy hid.
He’s changed everything about himself a dozen times. Except for one thing. He’s still that little boy.
If gender selection at regeneration is a true 50/50 chance, then the probability of the Doctor managing all male regenerations this number of times is about 1 in 4000. Moffat’s been hinting that it isn’t truly random; the General loudly insists that she’s never trying that again, the Master has met Missy. The suggestion is that Gallifreyans can, at some level, select which gender they will become. The General prefers being female, the Master prefers being male; so that’s what they usually choose.
And the Doctor doesn’t like regenerating. He’s scared that he’s going to lose himself; that the ‘new bloke’ might be the one who finally makes the break from that original self, that the humans who generally surround him at regeneration might one day be right – regeneration makes him a different person, not just a different persona. So if there’s one thing he can control, one thing he can choose not to change – is he going to dare to change it? Or is he going to always keep that connection with the original self, the little boy in the barn, by always being the white male of his childhood? The little boy and the 2000+ year old man are still, literally, the same man.
If that’s the case, would the Doctor ever dare to regenerate as a woman? Or would that represent, to him, the last, final break with his childhood, his first body, his self?
And then we go back to meeting the First Doctor. Because it’s not just a question of whether the Capaldi Doctor remembers that long ago self. It’s a question of whether that long-ago self can recognise his incredibly older, much regenerated self – as still himself. The Doctor’s met himself before, of course. But those other meetings were much closer in time.
If the First Doctor recognises the Capaldi Doctor as himself, as ‘Doctor Who’, even after thousands of years and over a dozen regenerations, then those ever-changing personas were just … personas. The core self, the soul, has always remained. The Doctor has always been the Doctor. The Doctor Who of 1966 is still recognisably the Doctor Who of 2017.
But there’s more. Because the Doctor (and Doctor Who) has changed. You can see it in the role of the Companion, you can see it in the way the man who would kill a primitive human now counts humans as friends, you can see it in many, many ways. It is not just a matter of that original self being able to recognise his future self as himself. It’s a matter of the Capaldi Doctor being able to recognise that the changes that have happened weren’t all bad. He is, after all, still scarred from nearly committing genocide. He’s still haunted by the thought that he might not be a good man. He’s scared that his changes might have been for the worse.
So meeting his original self also becomes a matter of recognising that it might not necessarily have been a bad thing to change some aspects of that original self. Some childish things we keep. Others we put away. Sometimes, what we need is to look in the mirror of our old self – and realise that we like the way we’ve changed.
Did the Doctor ‘lose himself’ by becoming the legendary ‘Doctor Who’? Or was the ‘change’ he’s so worried about really ‘growth’? Did becoming the legend make him more truly ‘The Doctor’ – and is ‘The Doctor’ who he truly wants to be? Is the legend something to live up to, rather than to deny?
If his first self recognises his current last self, then the Theseus Boat Paradox has an answer. However many times the body changes, the person within the body is the same person. However many different personas there are, the self remains. His ‘self’ (or soul) is the constant thread that runs through the Doctor’s lives. Regenerations are not a way of losing oneself; they’re the Gallifreyan way of changing and growing. Humans struggle to understand that – but the Doctor isn’t human.
And with that understanding, he can not only choose to regenerate. He can choose to step outside the self imposed limits of the previous regenerations. He no longer has to cling to that little boy by always being a boy; he can recognise that, man or woman, he will always be the same person as that boy.
And recognising that, secure in that core self – he might choose to no longer be a good man – but try to be a good woman, instead. After all, he’s just seen how it appeared to change Missy for the better. Maybe it’s time to try a major change
But she might keep the hoodie. 😉
It’s over eight years since Russell T Davies bought back the show. In doing so he consigned the Time Lords to a Time Lock, and then started to tell the viewer how noble and great they were. Then he bought them back just to demonstrate how mad they’d become.
As we approach the 50th, I’m always intrigued when I see the very genuine desire from some on our forum (amongst others) for the Time Lords to return to the show. Also, the 12 regeneration rule seems to be raising its head with SM answering a question or two about it.
This is a working cover for a book I plan to publish this month.
Clara: I just hope I can keep them alive.
Doctor: Ah, welcome to my world.
And welcome, one and all, to a debate which drifted across several episodes and at least two episode forums. For the ease and edification of those who were trying to follow it, and with the agreement of the main participants, I’ve now compiled it in one blog.
Have fun. And remember: always consult The Doctor before ingesting hemlock. 😉
Just like to say that I’m happy that this episode (and this series) has dealt with the whole sometimes-you-have-to-do-bad-things-for-the-greater-good issue, which I think is ignored in earlier eras of the show. The kind of life the Doctor leads would require him to sometimes make these sorts of choices a lot more often than, say, the Russell T Davies era ever made him do (I don’t think there are any examples at all in Nine or Ten’s adventures, although admittedly the destroying-all-the-Time-Lords-thing is a good example of that sort of decision-making, albeit off-screen). Read more…
Craig here. It gives me great pleasure to post another blog by guest blogger – @cathannabel !
Sometimes everything you read or watch seems to have a connection, a theme that’s so clear it feels as though it cannot be mere coincidence, even though it is impossible for it to be otherwise. It’s been that way lately with death. Obviously once one heads into middle age and beyond, intimations of mortality come thick and fast. But it really isn’t just that.
Apologies for the lack of illustration with this piece. I did keep holding off in the hope that I’d have a piece of art to go along with it finished, but there’s only so many hours in the day (I sooo need a TARDIS). Hopefully it’ll be the jumping off point for a few general reactions on Series 8 in in its entirety. And also thanks in advance if you manage to make it to the end of this. It’s appreciated.