Nine Out Of Ten

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Time And Relative Dimension In Cake

And now for something completely different: a Whovian from the very first episode, the stirrer steps out for the first time as TV critic! 

The current season of Doctor Who is almost over, with only the finale and the NY special to come. Has the wholesale change – new showrunner, new Doctor, new companions – worked, or not?

On the plus side, the change has rescued the show from decline. Regardless of his superb acting, Peter Capaldi was not a success. The new Doctor has been pulling much bigger audiences. So far so good. But…

There’s something missing. For me, this series has mostly missed the mark. There have been times when it has been quite breathtaking. Several times it has brought me to tears, most notably in ‘Rosa’. Or to the edge of my seat, in ‘Kerblam’.

And in the next breath it has blown it completely.

I have yet to watch an episode that has not come crashing down in a clumsy gabble of exposition, telling me what it ought to have been showing me. Or derailed itself with an ill-timed scene, as companions clumsily fill in their backstories. The show runner is repeating one of the cardinal errors of the later Moffatt era: he’s forgotten that this is the Doctor’s story, not the companions.

It’s OK for the Doc to take a back seat occasionally. ‘Blink’, in which the Doctor barely featured, was one of the finest episodes ever. But ‘companions’, ‘assistants’, or whatever we call them, are essentially secondary characters. Useful foils, sounding boards, fools rushing in so they have to be rescued. Not the main dish.

Doctor Who is the Doctor’s story, not theirs.

It was bad enough when there was just one clogging the storylines: now there are three. The show veers dangerously close to becoming Coronation Street in space: soap with an alien top-dressing. An impression strengthened by the soap-level acting in some episodes, notably ‘Demons Of The Punjab’.

There have been complaints that the female companion is underused: what no-one seems to have noticed is a far worse problem: the first female Doctor is being underused, too. That’s what you get, I guess, with a male showrunner.

She, and not the companions, has become the handy plot device, a dispenser of pseudo-scientific gobbledegook, rescuing the situation with a wave of her magic screwdriver, or magic paper, or a convenient memory that just bubbles up without trigger or justification.

None of this is down to Jodie Whittaker: like Capaldi before her, she manufactures gold out of the leaden material she’s handed. But Chibnall appears to have no feel for the show or the character. As a result his scripts are sloppy, full of holes and loose ends, which he seems to assume people won’t notice or care about. ‘Guest’ writers have so far done much better.

This week episode nine provided a measure of redemption. Yes it had some supremely stupid missteps, most notably the frog that wandered in from Shrek’s swamp, and the unfunny sheep joke; yes, it lurched from Scandi-noir to Hellboy to Mirrorworld; and again wasted time on the companions; yes it squandered a lot of opportunities.

But for the first time this series, I saw the Doctor. I hope Chibnall did too, and in future plays to his strengths, and sticks to running the show instead of writing it.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)