Doctor Doctor Who Guide

After watching Boom Town! I've come to the following conclusion: The New Doctor Who is the most wildly uneven and inconsistent show I’ve ever seen. In any given episode there are classic scenes – some of the best in the history of the show – paired with some of the worst acting and worst dialogue I’ve seen since watching the last episode of Seventh Heaven. After each story ends I’m not sure what I think of the series. I try to like it, and be as forgiving as a casual viewer would be, but as both a fan of the show, and a fan of quality television, I am often left feeling disappointed. There is a lot about the show that is great. But the series has a lot of BIG flaws that are getting harder and harder to ignore with each passing episode. So I’d like to explore the series as a whole – the good and the bad – to work out my own feelings towards it, and to see if any of my opinions might generate some interesting discussion and constructive criticism of the show. (My goal is not just to tear down, but to build up.)

As a sign of good faith, and to demonstrate that I am not just a cranky jerk, I want to begin with what I like about the new show:

The new Doctor Who: The Good

1) Guest actors
Far and away the greatest joy of the current series of Doctor Who has been the guest stars. The Unquiet Dead had the best ensemble work, with Eccleston and Piper putting in some of their finest work, and with Simon Callow and the actress playing Gwyneth offering truly nuanced and beautiful performances. Florence Hoath stole the The Empty Child (and would make an excellent choice as a companion to replace Rose, should Rachel Wiesz’s public request to replace Piper fall on deaf ears). Other bright spots include Penelope Wilton, Simon Pegg, Noel Clarke, Jasmine Bannerman (sp?), and the fellow who played Dr. Constantine.

2) The Big Finish Adaptations
Davies was wise to choose to do a fairly direct adaptation of Jubilee, although the short format meant that some of the meat of the conversation between Dalek and Companion never made it to the screen. While I like Jubilee better, the superb visuals (and Eccleston’s solid performance) made Dalek great in its own right. Importing the villain of The Holy Terror into the story for The Empty Child was another smart move. To this end, I hope that the rumors are true and that next season will see Spare Parts brought to the screen. I can think of several other audios I’d like to see make the jump, but Davies was on the right track starting with Shearman (and maybe Platt).

3) The visuals
Aside from some cheapness in The Long Game, the show looks great. Highlights: The design of the Dalek casing and the creature inside was great, and its rampage was a sight to see. The scene of Rose hanging by a rope during the blitz was visually stunning. And I adored the effects in The End of the World.

4) Horror elements
There are some very scary very effective moments, especially in The Unquiet Dead, Dalek, and The Empty Child.

5) Dialogue between regulars and guest characters
Usually quite good, especially if it is between a member of the TARDIS crew and a working-class woman, or if it involves Dickens.

6) The Dalek in Dalek.
Everything I could have hoped for and more. He RULED!!!!! And he wasn’t a spider…

The Bad and the Ugly

Unfortunately, when an element in the new series doesn’t work – like, say, the humor – it UTTERLY fails. Not just by a little, mind you. UTTERLY. That’s bad. Here are some flaws that need addressing:

1) Not enough science
Everything Christopher H. Bidmead said about this new show is spot on. While Bidmead’s episodes could be a little dry, we need more of his sensibilities on this show. (Also, while I never used to hate the sonic screwdriver like Bidmead does, this new show is teaching me to hate it. The Doctor is ALWAYS using it.)

2) Not enough blood and gore.
The show doesn’t have to be as rough as The Two Doctors, Attack of the Cybermen, or Brain of Morbius, but it should be more violent than it is.

3) The snarkiness.
There’s a snottyness, a snootiness, a bitchery, a world-weariness, and an adolescence to the tone that has to go. The body function humor, the pseudo-deep and one-sided political commentary, and the grotesqueness of villains like the Slitheen and the skin-woman from End of the World are all wearing on the nerves. The original series seemed to be aimed at a broad target audience. The new show seems to be for bar-hopping hipsters in their twenties and thirties who hate Americans and who love to deconstruct the plot holes in Star Wars. Blah. The Doctor’s dialogue seems to be 85% formulated in this vein, and so he doesn’t feel much like the Doctor to me. (Sorry if this point is conceived in anger. It is angry in reaction to the anger I perceive lurking behind much of the dialogue in the show itself.)

4) The humor
Almost none of the jokes are funny, unless delivered by Penelope Wilton.

5) No women writers. No female Doctor.
Where’s Jacqueline Raynor, Vanessa Bishop, Sarah Waters, or any other female writer? Women were responsible for some of the best Doctor Who. Women wrote Survival and Enlightenment, a woman directed Pyramids of Mars, and a woman was the best producer the show ever had. Can we have more estrogen in the show, please? And I suppose my pipe dream of Emma Thompson becoming a Doctor is just that, but can we please have a woman Doctor down the road?

6) The sexuality
I like it when the Doctor gets romantic. His romances in The Aztecs, The End of the World, and the TV Movie all work for me. I would have been curious to see some sexual tension with the Rani or even a romance with some of the companions – maybe Romana, Liz Shaw, Peri, etc. The romance could be sweet, it could be highly erotic, or it could be ambiguous. I could also see the Doctor involved in a gay relationship, provided the relationship was handled realistically and emotionally and dramatically. What I do not like is the treatment of sex in this show, which seems to boil down to a series of adolescent jokes and empty flirtations. Words mean things, but the members of the TARDIS crew say one outrageous thing after another to each other with seemingly no resonance or consequences. I don’t know about you, but if the person I’m living with makes a joke about us going to bed with one another … I react.

7) Dialogue between the TARDIS crew members.
The problems enumerated in points 3,4, and 5 are most evident in the dialogue. Except for “Rose” and “The End of the World,” which included a number of excellent conversations between Rose and the Doctor, the exchanges between members of the TARDIS crew have been almost uniformly awful. The dreadful conversations recur in almost every episode, and tend to assume one of the following forms:
a. a syrupy sweetness that rings false (“I’m so glad I met you.”) blah. When the Doctor calls Sarah Jane his best friend in The Seeds of Doom I believe it because they’ve known one another for ages and clearly are best friends. This over-the-top stuff is even harder to take than the 8th Doctor and Charley in those god-awful audios. And, like much of the dialogue in the show, the Doctor speaks too soon and is too hyperbolic. Sometimes less is more. Don’t spell everything out.
b. sex jokes:
i. juvenile orgy jokes along the lines of “Let’s have a threesome in the TARDIS” that pack no punch whatsoever – they are not sexy, not affectionate, not funny, and are not credible. My high school friends don’t even talk like that after six pints, let alone when sober or when waiting for aliens to break down the door.
ii. “The Doctor is an easy lay. (Or not.) But who’d want him with that nose and those ears?” Insulting to Chris, irritating to me.
iii. Rose is promiscuous and likes cute but evil men who share traits in common with the Doctor. She’d do the Doctor instead if only he’d have her. (Potentially an interesting storyline--reminiscent of Jo Grant’s marrying a Doctor substitute in The Green Death--that is not explored in an interesting manner in this series.)
c. “Didn’t you know? This is just a tv show!” Constant self-mocking of the absurdity of the sonic screwdriver, the dated nature of the Police Box exterior of the TARDIS, the things the Doctor “always does,” and the generally constant breaking of the fourth wall, which was done well in the first two seasons of Buffy and then wound up ruining the whole series. It has yet to be done well here at all. Also, who would talk about bananas while running from gas-masked zombies? Realism now, please.
d. “It’s all my fault.” The Doctor’s guilt complex was interesting for a time in the sixth Doctor Big Finish Audios. Now it is an utter bore. While it is nice, in this age of George W. Bush, seeing a “moralist” hero capable of self-doubt and self-reflection, the Doctor shouldn’t be so neurotic and self-flagellating.
e. The Doctor’s racist and anti-human remarks. A few side-snipes at humans in Remembrance of the Daleks went a long way. It distanced McCoy from humans, but he didn’t harp on it by doing it in every episode. The Doctor decries humanity once or twice, he’s alien. He does it all the time, he’s racist.

8) The companions
Rose showed some promise at first, but she can’t touch Evelyn Smythe, Ace, Leela, Barbara, Ian, the Brigadier, Sarah Jane, Peri, Liz, or Jo. Aside from making friends with the proles (which has resulted in some very touching moments) and romancing morons, Rose has little to do with the actual story. Liz and Romana could push the plot forward with their knowledge, the Brigadier and Leela could be of physical help to the Doctor. Turlough was an interesting anti-hero. Like Victoria and Tegan, Rose is neither brilliant nor strong, so she has a choice between being sweet or mouthing off. Not very interesting. And her mother is in way too many episodes. BUT – she was really great in the first four episodes, so maybe she’ll go back to being cool before she leaves the show. I have very little hope for Captain Jack, however. He and Adam are the pits – two consecutive riffs on Turlough and Adric that are not evil or smart enough to be interesting, played by pretty boy actors with limited acting range who seem to be the male equivalent of a Roger Moore Bond-girl – nice scenery for those who find pretty boys attractive.

9) Same villain, same setting.
Regarding the Villains - we’ve had three CGI mouths (Rose, EOTW, TLG), lots of zombies (sitting around in The Long Game and on the march in the Empty Child – and the Autons have a zombie quality to them in Rose), and two Rupert Murdock types (Dalek and The Long Game) and several jabs at George W. Bush (Dalek, the Slitheen trilogy, etc.). All of these are good villains in their own right, but there should be less repetition. Especially of CGI mouths. And the settings seem to boil down to modern-day London, Cardiff, and a space station in orbit around earth. Dull. We need more planets, even if they do just look like quarries. (After all, alien planets really do look like quarries, and quarries are more interesting than studio-bound space-station sets week after week.)

10) The Time War
Who cares, really? I can’t believe that Gallifrey was destroyed between television shows. A story that big should have been shown. In the hiatus between the old series and the new one we were teased with interesting glimpses into the Doctor’s culture and his past. We had Lungbarrow from the old regime of Cartmell and Platt, and we had some hints about the Doctor’s parents in the McGann film. While many fans objected to one or both of these storylines, both would have been more interesting than just blowing up Gallifrey. One can always make the Doctor more tragic, and more like Superman, by blowing up his home. One cannot always do a Lungbarrow-type story. I understand why this was done. It frees the creative team from years of Robert Holmes continuity and restores mystery and tragedy to the Doctor. Still, I would have preferred to find out more about the Doctor before seeing that whole segment of the show shut down. And the implication that the Rani, the Master, Susan, the Meddling Monk, and Romana are all dead is really depressing. Was it really necessary to wipe out all those characters? Most of these old characters are more interesting than the new ones we’ve been seeing week to week here.

11) Bad Wolf
The show’s format is too frantic and too short to develop an interesting mystery. When the official website of the show does a better job offering clues than the show itself, then something is wrong. Unless a really awesome villain pops up at the last second – the Master or a God like Sutekh, Fenric, or Toymaker – it will probably fall flat.

12) The endless social commentary.
As a New Yorker who voted for Kerry, who hates American imperialism, and who always sympathized with the displaced Palestinians, I was inclined to agree with the kind of thoughtful “war on terror” commentary found in Big Finish Audios such as The Twilight Kingdom. I liked the evil American President in Love Actually, who combined the worst traits of Bush and Bill Clinton. I even liked the villain in Dalek, who seems to be based on Rupert Murdock and Bill Gates. So I am open to social commentary and anti-American sentiments if it results in good drama, solid humor, or helps inspire real-world political activism by addressing serious issues in science fiction. Unfortunately, the Slitheen stuff is not as funny as the Sunmakers, or as intelligent and even-handed as the first X-Men film, and is not as outrageous and cutting-edge as Soylent Green. It is, in fact, nothing but annoying. And, while Bush is guilty of a great many evils, the fact that it suggests that he planned September 11 is a bit beyond the pale even for someone like me, who agrees that he’s an utter nightmare of a world leader. An episode like that will change no one’s mind and just preaches to the converted. And I resent the implication, advanced in numerous episodes, that all I ever do is watch tv. Eccleston has said repeatedly that we’re sitting on our couches watching Doctor Who when there’s a “war on terror” going on. He’s right. I’ll get right on it. I’ll change the world. First thing I’ll do is follow his advice and stop watching Doctor Who…

13) The Doctor
Because of all of the above, I do not believe that Chistopher Eccleston is the Doctor. He does not dress like the Doctor, he does not talk like the Doctor (his dialogue, that is – I don’t mind the accent one bit), he’s not as smart as the Doctor, and he’s not as heroic as the Doctor. He’s not the Doctor. Sorry.

From what I’ve heard, Season Two sounds like it will be a lot better. I like the sound of Cybermen in a few episodes, I’m ready for a new Doctor and a new companion, I’m glad RTD is writing fewer episodes, and I’m excited for the possible return of Sarah Jane (assuming her dialogue isn’t snarky and it doesn’t break the fourth wall).

As one of the few fans of Doctor Who that actually liked the Paul McGann film (largely because his performance was pitch-perfect, but also because of Grace, the visual look and set design, and the harrowing emergency room segment) I empathize with Ian Levine’s anger at fans who have written bad online reviews of the new series. I have held out for this long because I wanted to give the new show time, and I was just delighted to see it again. Nevertheless, I am leaning more and more towards the camp of those who dislike the show, and I am writing this open letter in the hopes that my opinions might reach the creators of the new show and be taken into consideration for future seasons. I realize that fans are divided, and I think it is possible that more fans like it than dislike it. I also realize that fans are not the sole concern of the producers, who are trying to reach a broader audience. Still, I do not think that my opinions suddenly don’t count because they are from a die-hard fan, or from a minority voice. My hope is that my opinions are expressed well, are thoughtful, and are not too, too rude. I am sorry if they are.

I’m very sorry that I, on balance, am beginning to dislike this new series. I never expected this series to be the exact same as the last one. I never expected it to be as good as the first season or Season 14. But I never expected that, by the end of the first season, I’d be saying “Well, its better than Trial of a Time Lord and that season with Horns of Nimon in it.” Still, I want to keep watching the show, I want to like it more than I do, and I want it to continue to be a ratings success. I just want it to be kinder to the fans. I’m glad that Dalek gave me back the Daleks exactly the way I wanted them to be. Now all I want is the Doctor back. Is that too much to ask?

And to all of you who like the new show … I’m jealous. Have a ball with it. Be grateful that it is back and that you love it. And please, if you’re not too angry with me … hold a place for me. I hope to be joining you soon…

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