What The Hell Has Happened to Doctor Who? | University of Birmingham

What The Hell Has Happened to Doctor Who?

Ahead of the Series 9 finale, TV Critic George Griffiths laments on what Doctor Who has now become.


If you were going to draw up a list of the greatest television series ever, there’s no doubt Doctor Who would be at the top, or failing that, pretty near it. Next to Buffy. And that’s just not because of its incredible longevity - 50 years, remember - but the fact that it probably has the smartest, most ingenious premise ever; it’s a show that has to regenerate itself and innovate along with its titular character.  Not to mention the remarkable creative renaissance that show entered under its return with the help of Russell T Davies in 2005, turning it into one of the country’s most beloved (and watched shows), as well as changing the face of Saturday night TV forever.

And that’s all well and good, no doubt about it. But something’s wrong with Doctor Who. Something’s been wrong with Doctor Who for a long time but only now its becoming apparent that this isn’t just a bump in the road; it’s a great big, massive black hole that the show is caught in the orbit of and cannot escape.

'Steven Moffat has collapsed into this great big, massive black hole that’s staring Doctor Who in the face today.'
This massive black hole has a name. It’s Steven Moffat. You may recognise him as the current ‘showrunner’ of Doctor Who and the creator of Sherlock, along with Mark Gatiss. Steven Moffat is - or, rather, was - pretty great. He’s been responsible for some of Doctor Who’s greatest ever episodes; from the tragic ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ to everyone’s favourite family-prime-time horror movie, ‘Blink.’ These episodes were written when Steven Moffat wasn’t show runner of Doctor Who, so you can see why he would make a pretty good successor to T Davies. But over the past half a decade, Steven Moffat has collapsed into this great big, massive black hole that’s staring Doctor Who in the face today.

steven moffat

Science tells us stars collapse and become black holes when a dying star falls in on itself and collapses. Much the same thing has happened with Moffat, only he’s obviously not dying. But he is ageing. And as we get older, we inevitably start to lose grasp on contemporary society and the connection to its lifeblood; the youth. Right now, that lifeblood is us. We’re the prime targets for television and pretty much any other creative outlet because of the connection we share with social media and the power we seem to hold as a generation when we use it. This social media connection has helped everyone from One Direction to Ed Sheeran, and it’s even part of the reason why Doctor Who is still today popular over the world.

Steven Moffat is not part of our generation, but he wants to connect to it. The current Doctor, Peter Capaldi, is also not part of our generation. But he’s being used by Moffat as the shows way of remaining ‘current’ and ‘young.’ Peter Capaldi is a 57 year old man playing a 1,500 year old alien. He is not ‘current’ or ‘young,’ but he is a pretty great Doctor, bringing a ferocity and wrath to the role, perhaps missing in the very oddball, romanticised versions played by David Tennant and Matt Smith.

'They’re relatable to us because they're supposed to be a reflection of us... of humanity and its eternal curiosity and optimism.'
But back to the black hole. Like we’ve established, it’s been created by Steven Moffat’s effort to keep Doctor Who current. But he’s been trying to do it in the worst possible way - by putting more and core focus on the Doctor. The Doctor is the titular character of Doctor Who but he should never, ever be its main character. Do you know why? He’s an enigma. He’s an ageless, regenerating alien whose had 13 faces. We can never understand him or emphasise with him and we should never try to. We can only know the Doctor through his most relatable feature; his human companion. The human companion of Doctor Who (think Billie Piper’s majestic Rose Tyler or Catherine Tate’s ballsy Donna Noble) is our ‘audience surrogate,’ they’re relatable to us because they're supposed to be a reflection of us. Of humanity and its eternal curiosity and optimism. That’s why we watch Doctor Who; to see people like us (young, working class, hard done by) travel through time and space with this infinitely complex and fearful alien who we want to understand and yet never can.

Right now, Steven Moffat has forgotten this. He’s too caught up in trying to make Doctor Who current (making Capaldi play the guitar and don a pair of ‘sonic sunglasses’ and talk like Sherlock) that he’s forgotten what made the show so popular when it re-launched in 2005; Billie Piper and her relatable, empathetic companion. Never mind that David Tennant was the best Doctor, or that Matt Smith was the most beautiful; we had honest and relatable companions who were taken on a journey with us. Now we have no-one. Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald is dead. She certainly had the natural charisma to draw us in, but Moffat spent so much time making her a puzzle for the Doctor to solve (the notion of a female companion being ‘the most important woman int he universe’ is now such well worn territory its a cliche) that we could never connect to her. And now the Doctor’s on his own, and as 'Heaven Sent' (a ‘one-hander’ episode just starring Capaldi) showed us, it’s that the Doctor is just too much of an Unknowable Creature to connect to; he should never be the centre of his own show, but the gravity in which all the other components are drawn towards.

doctor sunglasses

So, here we are. We have a British Institution - if you haven’t been keeping up, that’s Doctor Who - falling into a Black Hole of its own making. But the situation isn’t hopeless; there is a way out. But with the recent revelation that the Doctor is ‘the Hybrid’ (whatever the hell that is) it seems clear that Steven Moffat is trying in spades to make Capaldi and his Doctor more relatable to a younger audience. And it’s aged the show dramatically; from the cringe-inducing sight of Capaldi playing a guitar to a stadium full of Vikings, to a collection of two-parters this year that just haven’t popped or succeeded. And that’s because, 5 years ago, they would not have been aired. They would have been re-written. ‘Too slapstick,’ or ‘too childish’ for a show of Doctor Who’s calibre. It’s no coincidence this comes at a time where the ratings for the show have steadily fallen (not even the revelation of Coleman’s on-screen death was enough to tempt in viewers who have switched off after Strictly).

But we’ve got to remember there is a way out. And it’s an easy one for the show to pull off now Coleman has departed and we’re looking for a new companion. Make them the centre of the show - the audience’s way into the fantastical world of the Doctor and the TARDIS. Don’t make them a walking, talking exposition whose only role in the narrative is to shout ‘but what does this plot point MEAN Doctor?!’ Make them someone we can root for, someone we can care for and someone we can see ourselves in.

Because Doctor Who has never just been a story about a time travelling alien. It’s the story of humans, and our curiosity, our intelligence. Don’t make us look stupid, Steven. Please.

Cross-Media editor for Redbrick Film, English with Creative Writing second year. Also likes Style by Taylor Swift. (@georgegriffiths)


5th December 2015 at 8:05 pm

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