Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Who’s the Doctor?

The first 2:15 of this episode are by far my favorite part of season 8
by E. Amato

We are ten – TEN – episodes in to Series 8 of Doctor Who. How did this happen?

The twelfth Doctor, Peter Capaldi, has a wardrobe, a new bigger on the inside, and and and

yeah, not much else.

I was elated when Capaldi’s casting was announced. It felt inspired and exciting. He had completely embodied the horrificent (yeah, I just made that word up, but I’m pretty sure you get it) Malcolm Tucker and the possibilities for his Doctor seemed endless.

I figured by episode four, five latest, he’d have his Tardis legs. But it’s ten hours in and mostly what we have this season is Clara. While Clara is beautiful, charming, smart, and I didn’t want to see her go, the show is not called Clara. Maybe they feel bad because they so blatantly refused the idea of a female Doctor (Helen Mirren, please) and so they’re trying to balance things out. There are moments when I feel like they’re focusing on her because they’ve chosen an older actor for the Doctor and they’re scared the younger viewers they gained with Matt Smith will wander away, so, Clara. They started to set up Danny Pink as someone interesting, but as love interests will do, that whole thing became tiresome rather quickly. Clara’s no longer the impossible girl, but then, who is she? And who is Missy, because tbh, so far I don’t care about her, either.

The issues I’m having are not, of course, related to actors who are handed scripts and generally make them better than writers could ever hope. The issues lie elsewhere.

First, I need the Doctor. Don’t you? In a world of Ebola scares that ignores fracking, the sneaky privatization of water, climate change, a glaring imbalance in distribution of wealth, I need there to be an hour a week where someone seems to care about humanity and all beings and finds ways to create more and not less harmony, and oh, the characters don’t do stupid – that’s important. It’s true – the thirteen Doctors have done some awful things and have their share of self-loathing, but it’s that little bit of self-loathing that makes them want to set things right – as opposed to a self-loathing overload that makes you want to take everyone down with you.

Second, where has the greatest thing about Doctor Who disappeared to this season? Where is the Doctor’s sense of wonder? The Doctor’s sense of wonder is the greatest thing in the known universe. The enlightened “ah…,” the sudden eye twinkle of understanding, the caught off guard by beauty moment, the solving of an elegant puzzle with an even more elegant solution tingle? Where have these gone? Why are they gone? If the showrunners and writers are making a point, I think they’re taking the mighty long way around. If not, I think they’ve been running and writing the show too long. Wonder is the hallmark of Doctor Who. It’s what makes it a kids’ show even when it deals with death and destruction; it’s why adults love it even when it is about dinosaurs and moon babies and it’s what sets it apart from almost every other piece of popular culture we create. Awe and wonder are regular ingredients in Doctor Who and they have gone missing, much to the detriment of the experience.

The latest episode, [SPOILERS} which featured an overnight blanket of forestation protecting the earth  [End spoilers}, was rife with possibilities for wonder and awe, most of them missed. Admittedly, it was the most visually compelling episode so far this season, and it also had a level of good-naturedness to it that has been absent. But the sheer scope and delight that you’d expect the Doctor to exhibit and impart in the situation was just not there.

Enthusiasm goes a long way, but no one in the world of Doctor Who seems to have it anymore. To say the writing has been uninspired is an unfair assessment, and a cop out. Yet, the writing has either lost its way or is misdirected. There is a Doctor Who episode structure, style, and format and it’s worked for seven seasons as far as I can tell, and yet, it’s been discarded. Changing things up is good; removing things without bringing in new things is not as good. It feels as though the writers are still figuring out what the show is. But they know the show; they are the show.

They’ve yet to define Capaldi’s Doctor or make him mysteriously and compellingly undefined. It is almost as though they are intimidated by their casting choice. Matt Smith was a blank slate to the audience, David Tennant largely so, as well. Eccleston brought all his Ecclestonness with him and that worked perfectly. Capaldi is a known actor, has had a career-defining role, and he can do anything at all you give him to do, if you give him something to do. Please give him something to do. People are commenting that the Doctor is darker, but to me, he’s just hidden or even absent. Complexity is welcome; I’m just not sensing that in the episodes. I suppose it could be daunting to write for someone who is all strengths, but then, just build a better Doctor! Bring on a bigger challenge!

And then there’s this: racism. I’ve never before watched a Doctor Who and thought, um, why’d they kill that dark-skinned guy? Why’d they make that person the criminal? But in episode after episode this season, I had that weird little twinge you get that says, “um, really?” I’m not alone in that, either. Doctor Who has always been an inclusive universe. But you can’t include people of color just to kill them off in the first ten minutes, make them the bad guys, or derisively call them P.E. teachers when they actually teach math.

It’s as if the values of this universe we’ve been enjoying for decades have suddenly shifted without warning or cause. And in the end, it’s the values that keep me watching. The Doctor listens. People’s stories and experience are valued. The Doctor is caring and compassionate – even when all external factors appear otherwise. Even when he has to do terrifying awful things.

Lately I have been feeling a bit like I’ve wandered into a parallel timeline. Maybe I have, and maybe I'm watching some parallel season 8 of Doctor Who. Perhaps I will be filled with awe and wonder at the end of the season. I hope so. I hope I’m so wrong about all this and the final episodes bring everything around and together and are fantastic. I just don’t get the sense that’s what’s going to happen. After the incredible 50th Anniversary special and the impeccable Christmas special, it’s quite clear that the creators of this show have mad skills, vision and heart.

I do feel our world has gotten uglier of late, and maybe the writers and showrunners feel this, too. Maybe they are responding to this. But if so, then go all the way. Let Capaldi off his leash and write him some The Doctor could eat Malcolm Tucker for breakfast dialogue. Find your fearless and, well, RUN!


Someone Said said...

What's struck me most about this season is how dull most of the episodes have been. There's been little pop, and the new characters brought in, looking at you Pink and Heaven, have brought minimal to no added value to the series. Capaldi has been given little to do so he runs around like Doc Brown with the Tardis as DeLorean. I'm welcoming the finale, maybe the writers can regroup in the off season.

E. Amato said...

Thanks for commenting! I think your'e right, they have been flat. I'm ascribing that to the lack of wonder, which has been a guiding force in the series. I feel like they've got the potentially most intelligent Doctor ever, and they are not letting him show it or hide. Your Doc Brown analogy is apt.