Thu
Jun 23 2011 11:16am

The Doctor Who Half Season (a.k.a. TARDIS Blues)

The first big reveals are out of the way, the dust has temporarily settled, and Doctor Who fans are now forced to wait until fall for the rest of Series 6. We’ve been spoon-fed at least a half a dozen reasons why this split was needed, from budget cuts to scripting needs, but it seems like a fair time to ask—did it work?

And what if the answer is no?

Disregarding the viewing numbers (which, according to various sources have been everything from stupendous to downright embarrassing), I would say that Doctor Who has been a bit disappointing this half-season. The awkward part about it is that the quality of the episodes has nothing to do with it. At the end of the day, it all comes down to our favorite word: adventure.

Steven Moffat is a master of plotting. Every good fan knows this, has been impressed with it from the “Empty Child” two-parter onward. Moffat has an uncanny ability to weave a story so tight that ripping the stitches barely makes a dent in it. When I asked fans waiting in line for the Series 6 premiere in NYC what their favorite episodes were, most of them listed “Blink” instantly, and who can blame them? Nevermind science fiction, that episode may be one of the best pieces of television ever produced. It is virtually flawless, electrically frightening, and so engaging that it hurts to look away.

But here’s the thing: the Doctor plays a very minor role in it. Particularly in regard to doing what he does best; he spends the whole episode hanging out in 1969 with Martha while she works and he… bakes cookies? Runs chemistry experiments in the living room for fun?

It works in “Blink” and is capable of working elsewhere in the show. There is nothing wrong with these “Doctor lite” episodes, as we’ve come to call them. They can be a wonderfully fun way of exploring the universe that the Doctor operates in, to learn how he affects people by really drawing back and examining what exists outside the TARDIS. Other episodes penned by Moffat include the Doctor enough to show him in top form, but are still truly focused on the people he meets along the way. “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances” are very much about Nancy, “The Girl in the Fireplace” is about Madame de Pompadour, “Silence in the Library” and “Forests of the Dead” are about River Song.

In some ways, the past two seasons are shaping up to be a long game version of Moffat’s M.O. so far in Doctor Who: the story being revealed to us, little by little, is really a story about River, about Amy and Rory. Like your typical Moffat episode, these seasons are being subjected to incredibly crafted plots with twists and reveals peeking around every corner in a cruel tease. But Steven Moffat’s love for intricate plotting could be hurting the show in ways that we’re just beginning to realize.

The moment struck when I was watching “A Good Man Goes to War” and the Doctor’s Silurian friend was attempting to ask him, as gently as she could, whether or not his married companions had ever done anything naughty on the TARDIS. The Doctor is blustery as usual, and proceeds to babble about his lack of knowing where human shenanigans are concerned. He talks about how they have adventures and there’s running around and the rest is sort of incidental, and “they don’t put up a balloon!”

And while I laughed, my brain suddenly stalled out on a very simple question: what adventures?

With the exception of “The Curse of the Black Spot” (which has been widely reviled by a large portion of the fandom), there have been no adventures this season. None whatsoever. Everything has been a means to an end, something that plays into the overall series plot arc in a decidely unsubtle way. The Doctor hasn’t been shepherding Rory and Amy around with new horizons on his mind, he’s been piecing together a puzzle. Even the recent two-parter, which initially displayed the hallmarks of a traditional science fiction morality play, eventually revealed itself to be nothing more than a setup for the revelation of ganger Amy.

It’s not that the plot of Series 6 isn’t enjoyable; in fact, the series has been highly entertaining so far. But an unfortunate side effect has occurred as a result—the Doctor has been taken out of his element. The first half of Series 6 has removed the reason that many of us started watching the show in the first place; the story of the Doctor, a wise and kind alien who sweeps you off to distant planets and times where he solves the problems that other beings just aren’t clever (or mad) enough to figure out on their own.

How many of us are in it for those adventures, and how are we bearing up under the lack of them? And what about the new viewers, the ones BBC America lured in this year with promises of simultaneous air dates; how do these viewers see the show and its main protagonist? How would they describe it to a friend? Would it be anything like the Doctor Who that we treasure?

I’m still eager to know what happens next, but there’s part of me that’s yenning for a the-Doctor-saves-your-world/species/family/bakery-because-that’s-what-he-does plot. I’d like to get back to some real adventures. Maybe once he’s fixed River’s childhood we can get a season of the two of them charging up mountains, discovering plants with opposable thumbs, and watching armies turn and flee at the sight of them.

It’s time to start running again.


Emily Asher-Perrin wants to make friends with that Silurian chick and tromp through Victorian England cutting up bad guys with a katana. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.

26 comments
Karin L Kross
1. KarinKross
Thanks for crystallizing a lot of thoughts that the husband and I have been kicking around about this half-season, which for us boiled down to "what the heck happened to the Monster Of the Week?" We haven't really had a good one of those in a while; "Black Spot" had the idea but not quite the execution, and "The Doctor's Wife" sorta came close, but it's still not quite there.

I have this theory that Doctor Who has fallen victim to the current vogue for "television is for long-form stories", as opposed to "television is for episodic storytelling". I like my long form stories just fine, but I think I like Doctor Who better when it tends toward the episodic rather than the serial.

Not that I totally disliked this half-season. But it's not quite the same show it used to be, definitely.
Taylor_S
2. Taylor_S
This is an excellent detail on why the current season feels so different - solving a puzzle versus adventuring. The Flesh episodes started off as perhaps an adventure, maybe, but it ended up being the Doctor working further on that puzzle. I absolutely love this season, but I love previous ones, too. The Tennant episodes seemed all about adventuring, whereas Matt Smith's are more purposed.

I'm flexible. As long as the quality is still there, so will be I. But this certainly doesn't apply to everyone, and for folks who tune into a new episode as their first Doctor Who episode, may find themselves confused, lost in 'big reveals' that have no meaning to them, and altogether an episode that does little more than cast/develop characters.

It will be interesting to see where it goes. I love Doctor Who, and I dearly hope it stays strong - and gets stronger. I will say I miss some adventures as well. I've had a background urge to watch some other shows to fill that gap, and this half-season wait may be the perfect time.
Taylor_S
3. M. Stubble
I disagree. I disavowed the "Monster of the Week" formula right after Love and Monsters. I would much rather have a well-woven story where the creature is like a fine wine - bringing out the high notes and subtle undertones of a unique and wonderful tale.

Why does Blink stand out so well among most fans? Sure, the creature had something to do with it, but it was more that it introduced a new level of peril that is more genuine than some chase-based story driven by a comic-book baddie.

Furthermore, "adventure" episodes are typically weak. And this was well before Moffat. It seemed that RTD was only able to do a fair adventure episode if it had some cliched use of the Daleks or Cybermen - which always led to dreadfully stilted dialogue.

Ultimately, the greatest reason why the Doctor is not the central focus in most of Moffat's episodes is because of one simple reason - you can't genuinely put the Doctor in real danger. You expect a loophole or a last minute daring-do. He is the Superman of science fantasy. Just substitue the blue tights for a blue box.
Charles Dunkley
4. cedunkley
I actually quite love that this season is one big storyline...a working backwards almost from the future Doctor's death.

And just as a side note, how cool would it be for the Doctor to have to go back to 1969 again during this season? Since the Tennant Doctor was there in that same year as well that would be a fun thing to see them bump into each other.

But back to this season's plot. River Song has fascinated me from the moment she took off her space suit helmet and uttered those now-trademark words: : "Hello, Sweetie!"

I watch Doctor Who on Sundays on Amazon. So this Sunday I went and did a rewatch of all of the River Song episodes. There's an extra emotional level to them knowing who she is now. Especially the end of "Forests of the Dead". Watching that was a powerful experience.

I love the adventure episodes of Doctor Who. They are a blast. For some reason this incarnation of the Doctor is bound to Amy and Rory and River. It will be interesting to see him in action if Amy and Rory leave the series before he does.

Its actually kind of hard to imagine him with companions other than the Ponds. I expect when that day inevitably comes we may see a return to more running...
Colleen Palmer
5. arianrose
This was probably contrary to your intended effect, but this article has made me want to watch Doctor Who. I never have, for one reason or another (principle among them being that I don't watch TV really at all). But I'm a sucker for the long draw plotlines, and "monster of the week" doesn't actually do it for me. This is, perhaps, because I also read 1000 page books.

And, well, it's daunting to figure out where to "jump in." But that's another matter entirely. If Moffat is a tight plotter that likes puzzle-solving ... it might really be enough to get me. (I often cite B5 as my favorite SFF TV show...)
Taylor_S
6. wandering-dreamer
@arianrose: If you're thinking about jumping into DW because of the tighter plotting then I'd suggest you start with season five since that's when the new Doctor and companion start (although season five does still have some episodic episodes, it's still a bit tighter than previous seasons).
Stephanie Padilla
7. DN10
@5 - Starting with season five is a good idea - but you might want to watch The Silence in the Library / The Forest of the Dead from season four somewhere along the way, since it introduces the mystery of River Song.
Taylor_S
8. Aerudaer
Personally, this is why I don't care for the newer episodes. I loved the 9th and 10th doctors a lot, but just can't get into the 11th. I hope they return to the previous style.
Taylor_S
9. Nightsky
I agree that reliance on intricate plotting and timey-wimeyness seems to be one of Moffat's weaknesses as a storyteller. At the same time, I wonder if what we're seeing here isn't a consequence of the way modern TV is plotted--where each episode gradually advances arcs that build over a season (or more)--and whether that model may not be very well suited to Doctor Who. Classic Who had serials: long enough to set up a fairly sizable story, short enough to prevent continuity lockout and X-Files Frustration Syndrome. Sometimes I wonder if they mightn't try to go back to that model.
Charles Dunkley
10. cedunkley
Another point I'd like to add is that the Eleventh Doctor seems to be paying for all of the actions of all previous 10 Doctors. Last season and this one - while very much about his Companions - seems to center around plots directed towards his downfall rather than him happening upon people in danger and in need of saving.

The Doctor is the one who needs saving in this long storyline. Or at least that's how it seems to me,
Taylor_S
11. cappio
I wouldn't mind seeing a Doctor-saves-your-library episode; pretty much all libraries are in peril, and really, who better?
Jeremy Goff
12. JeremyM
As a brand new Whovian(?) it made it really easy to get into the show because the older seasons were more episodic. I jumped in just before this series started and was able to watch quite a few older episodes so I was able to get a good enough feel for what was going on. I really enjoy this current series and the arc that's been going on, but if I had jumped in right in the middle of this series and it's continuous story line. I would have to admit that it may have kept me from continuing to watch the show. It's just confusing and not fun to jump into the middle of a storyline.
Taylor_S
13. Holliambria
ABSOLUTELY!

This is exactly the reason that I don't like the new seasons of Doctor Who, and why I've stopped watching. It's not that I don't like complicated plots and puzzles -- It's just that if I'm going to watch Doctor Who, I would like for the show to actually be ABOUT the DOCTOR. Season 5 should really have been titled Amy Pond and the little I watched of Season 6 seems to be entirely about River. And I'm tired of it.

Moffat writes great stand alone and two-part episodes that show the Doctor from a different place and that's great... but you can't have an entire season of very special episodes! I want Doctor Who to be about this crazy, mad wonderful alien who shows up and saves the day because that's what he does and it's fun! In short, I want to watch a show about THE DOCTOR, not about Amy and River.
James Goetsch
14. Jedikalos
You have crystallized for me what I like about Dr.Who and why I am not really interested in watching the long drawn-out plot arc full of darkness. Like the others, I am not really interested in River or the others as the focus. Of course, others have different tastes, and that is fine: I simply don't watch anymore.
Makarra
15. Makarra
I could not disagree with you more. I can't stand watching some of the 9th and 10th Doctor 'Monster/Adventure of the Week' stuff. Feels schlocky and weak to me. I am VERY tired of the Raptor-Jesus-style Davis episodes with the 10th Doctor (it was almost embarrassing to watch, sometimes) so the whole angle that this show has taken--the Companions -matter- and the Doctor is NOT infallable--has been refreshing.

I do agree with cedunkley--the 11th Doctor IS paying for previous incarnations behavior, especially the 10th Doctor. And that is NOT a bad thing. Frankly, if it means we get more things like Series 5 and 6 and much less of the things like "Fear Her", "Gridlock", and "The Unicorn and the Wasp", I'm all for it.
Shaka Jamal
16. FaceofYo!
Emily Asher-Perrin wants to make friends with that Silurian chick and tromp through Victorian England cutting up bad guys with a katana.





Me too :)
marian moore
17. mariesdaughter
I found the essay interesting. It explains the complaints that I hear on various podcasts about the Doctor. I can't say that I agree exactly because I enjoy long puzzles. It would be difficult for me to go back and watch old "Doctor Who" episodes now; these are so intricately plotted that the old ones would feel childish.

Of course, you could drop a few adventure stories into the current mix. Then we would complain that the storyline was veering off the primary plot. Or we would reading meanings into things that have no meaning at all.
Taylor_S
18. John Seven
If a show that is almost 40 years old wants to veer from its formula a little, I consider it refreshing. TV is too often about doing the same thing forever, so I've appreciated the long form of the past two series - especially since Davies' version was to have people say "Torchwood" every episode and call it a story arc. I also think the internet has given rise to a bad trend - critiquing episodes of long form TV show in real time. It's just useless.
Taylor_S
19. Foxed
Why can't the Flesh story count as an adventure and the plotty puzzle both?

And why is "Doctor's Wife" dismissed out of hand?

Basically, we have the two parter premiere, the Flesh two-parter, and "Good Man..." for the plot.

And "Black Spot," "Doctor's Wife," and the Flesh two-parter as adventures.

Five plot episodes, four adventures. Two of the episodes are both, which means, three plotty things, two adventures, and two plotty adventure episodes.

I'm not really seeing this as S6's problem...
Taylor_S
20. B. Durbin
Doctor Who is the equivalent of a long-running band. Not a "pop culture" band, but one that has been around long enough that people who don't even listen to it have at least heard of it. Maybe like Pink Floyd.

And like any band, as it goes along, it changes. The effects change; the focus changes, sometimes even the members change. And when each album comes out, there will be some who love it because it's new and exciting and different, and some who decry it because it changed what they loved, and some who feel betrayed by it. And there will be some who just accept whatever is given, some of it good, some of it bad. (I've been around a lot of music lovers in my day, and quite honestly it's amusing to see the reactions when a favorite band DARES to veer from the formula they've established.)

Anyway. I've watched enough ClassicWho to see why NuWho could be annoying as heck. But my fanship only goes back to last year, with a view-through of all of the new stuff, so I have a love of this. FWIW, the producers have said that all prior questions will be resolved by the end of this season, though they also stated there will probably be new questions to resolve next season.

arianrose: Start with "Silence in the Library" and its sequel. Then you can jump to Season 5. River Song is a long plotline and is best experienced in broadcast order.
Ian Rapley
21. Alfonso Baronso
Overall I enjoyed the series so far. I have a few quibbles, but they are I think the result of very high expectations.

The macro-plot was impressive, if a little too tight for my liking. Nothing 'just happened', everything meant something: in retrospect, it's a little exhausting to think about. I also like that there's clearly been thought about what doctor's hijinks mean for the universe as a whole, what he represents to other people throughout time, but this, too, has a downside. I find that there is a bit of a knowing self-awareness surrounding the doctor's ability to escape certain death at the end of seemingly every episode which is a bit bubble-bursting as far as the illusion goes.

I think that these both represent strengths (which I assume are Moffat's own) that are being taken a little too far.
Bike Baykara
22. Amarie
I agree with this post it was what I was thinking when I was trying to figure out what was bugging me about this season. I truly miss that moments when the Doctor saves the day. I admit the "advanture" episodes were not always good but the overall feeling behind it was always there and I enjoyed that theme. I'm not saying this season is bad in anyway I enjoy it mostly and I adored the Doctor's Wife but everything seems to serve the overall plot and not at all Doctor's advantures now. And it didn't help that of the few advanture ones The Curse of the Black Spot was for me a very bad episode. Apparently though Steven Moffat made a comment about how the 5th season was when he continued kind of Russel T. Davies style and 6th is all his own. So I'm a bit scared of what is to come.
Ursula L
23. Ursula
I've been enjoying the more leisurely storytelling these past two seasons.

We know that the TARDIS team (Doctor plus companion(s) of his choice) can solve a lot of problems. Someone is out to destroy the planet, and the Doctor can take care of them in the few hours or days that a single episode can cover.

What we're seeing now is a big problem - one difficult enough that the Doctor can't have it fixed before bedtime. So what does he do? The Doctor hasn't really had his attention-span challenged in this way before, and it is a challenge for him. Look at how he wanted to drop the mystery of the little girl and just go have "adventures" at the end of "The Day of the Moon."

Way back when, the Doctor promised a scared, brave little girl that he'd protect her from the frightening crack in her bedroom wall.

And the promise turned out to commit him to solving a problem which he couldn't simply fix quickly and walk away from. Which has presented the Doctor with all sorts of challenges. He's had to keep Amy around, even when it made him deeply uncomfortable, such as when she assaulted him at the end of the Angels two-parter. He's had to take on Rory, someone he might not ordinarily have chosen as a companion, because Amy needed Rory. He's had to make the TARDIS into a far more domestic space than it's ever been before.

And in doing this, the Doctor has grown a lot, and learned some things about himself. He's found that he can have genuine friendships with people, on a very different level than the unequal one of Doctor-Companion. He's found that he rather likes "domestic", the comfortable pattern of people who love each other living together and supporting each other. He's found that he doesn't have to leave companions behind, just because they age - he can like the same person at different maturity levels, and cherish those changes rather than fear them. He's found that he doesn't need constant new challenges and increasing adrenaline rushes to be happy, he can have as much fun solving slower problems and doing things that are safe, but nonetheless fun, because the joy of companionship makes them fun.

We've known all along that we don't see all of the Doctor's adventures, just the interesting ones. And, much to his surprise, the Doctor has found that the slower issues that happen between the high-risk adventures are as interesting for him as the high-risk adventures have always been.
Taylor_S
24. Hallie
Thank you for saying what I've been thinking! I was trying to figure out why I wasn't enjoying season 6 as much as previous seasons, and had gotten to the long story arc and a lack of fun adventure stories (although The Doctor's Wife worked for me). But for some reason I'm not buying the Doctor as the tortured anti-hero. Sure, he has plenty of reason to be, but he works best for me as the brilliant kid who doesn't quite grow up & who just wants to go somewhere or when he's never been before, open the door, and see what happens. The companion storylines are not a bad thing; I really liked S5 and the last two episodes particularly (but also The Lodger and Vincent & the Doctor--somewhat more of the "monster of the week" shows that also play into a longer story arc). It may have helped that I've watched all the seasons a little bit out of order until S6. So having it fed to me piece by piece just feels a little off. And, it bothers me that BBC America cuts a bit here and there (discovered after getting DVDs) which would actually flesh out the story better... so possibly something I'll discover with S6 if I get the DVDs?
Taylor_S
25. Insolence
I'm with you. As a Canadian who was also born in the '70's, I grew up with the program too. I have not cared much for the new incarnation of the show but still must admit it has produced all-time classics such as Blink, The Family of Blood/Human Nature and very good episodes such as Dalek (where the Daleks' storyline should have ended), Vincent and the Doctor and Ghosts of Mars. Unfortunately, the majority of the stories are either mediocre or just plain bad.
I thought that the enhanced budget would have made the new version of DW that much better but it clearly has not. It just seems like they are stuck in this Pirates of the Caribbean self-indulgent mode that is, well, nauseating. The Depp original was clever and funny; the rest of that movie series has either been so-so or awful. I often hate the humor that is thrown in your face; it rarely enhances the story and usually leaves me rolling my eyes.

Doctor Who was at its best in the Hinchcliffe era and that's where it needs to go in a modern way. It needs to be more frightening and unpredictable; perhaps the Doctor could even lose one in awhile. I'd like to be able to connect to the characters and not just see them as whatevers.

There's being an immersed fan and just a casual fan; unfortunately, I'm in the latter category right now.

Steve
Toronto
Taylor_S
26. Samantha L.
Season five made the difference. The events were just promising and thrilling to watch.
http://www.myelectricianbrisbane.com.au

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