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.