We Need To Talk About Doctor Who

Magicians Apprentice

I mean, let’s be clear, we always need to talk about Doctor Who- when we’re not talking about Harry Potter or Cabin Pressure, that is- but it seems especially appropriate to bring it up now, in the light of Saturday night.

(Spoilers for this week’s episode- S09E01, The Magician’s Apprentice- follow, obviously.)

Let me declare my motivations: I love Doctor Who. Like most things I love, I maintained a reactionary disinterest in it for several years, until I was forced not to by my dad- in this case by his dragging me into the living room on the third of April, 2010, going, ‘Good, you’re back! Just in time! Doctor Who’s on!’

I attempted to point out that I didn’t like Doctor Who, because I was ten years old and it was scary, but he was having none of it- partly because he had up till that point spent nearly forty-seven years refusing to hear ill of the series, having watched it since the very first episode in 1963 (aged four), but mostly because he was trying to shush me so he could hear the new theme tune.

So I sat down on the carpet and watched apprehensively as The Eleventh Hour came on- a man hanging from a box flying through the sky, and a little girl watching from a window as it crashed into her garden. Of course, I fell in love immediately. What chance did I have? I was dealing with magic far beyond my ken.

So I love Doctor Who, and even though my love for it started on the very first day of what we may call Steven Moffat’s premiership, I have always been a Davies fan (my dad immediately and delightedly bought the box sets as soon as he realised we had been converted). My loyalty lies with the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, and before that, with the Fourth. I have been- like many other fans, I think- increasingly alienated by Moffat’s apparent attempts to whitewash the Davies era from DW canon over the last few series, starting with the crack in time in Series 5, and seeming to culminate with the episode last series where the entirety of humanity was apparently taken aback by the sudden worldwide appearance of trees (‘Seriously? You know full well there are aliens by now! You were invaded by Cybermen in 2006! What is wrong with you? Do you not remember anything? The Statue of Liberty turned into a Weeping Angel! You used Daleks in World War Two! Prisoner Zero has escaped!’)

You can imagine, then, my pure delight at this week’s episode.

I mean, not pure. It was diluted a bit. But mostly it was pure. Suddenly, after four solid years of seemingly trying to pretend nothing before The Eleventh Hour ever existed, Moffat was welcoming almost the entire pre-Eleven canon back into the fold. Davros! Skaro! Sixth-Doctor-era Dalek models! (My spellcheck seems to have given up and died at this point.) The Shadow Proclamation! The Judoon! I don’t think we’ve seen a Judoon for seven years! Ah, I was happy. Everything was there, from the Fourth Doctor appearing on videotape to elaborate on the crucial philosophical dilemma of the episode with mad staring eyes, to the Daleks telling Clara (Jenna Coleman), essentially, ‘The Tardis is a weapon. And it will be destroyed.’

I was even more impressed by Steven Moffat’s treatment of his female characters (which usually makes me slam my head against a wall in despair). Clara and Missy (Michelle Gomez) seemed in easy, knowledgeable control of almost every situation they found themselves in, and I think- and I’m reluctant to say this with any certainty until someone on the Internet is kind enough to write up the script- they might actually have managed to pass the Bechdel Test in the invisible-planet scene. Fine, we only had two non-white characters, one of whom existed to ‘change the algorithm’ (the 21st century’s version of Classic Who’s ‘reverse the polarity’, now that most people have some kind of inkling of what polarity is) and the other of whom was unnamed and died before the opening credits, but that’s still pretty good by Doctor Who’s standards.

We had the normal Moffat-esque, predictable quirks- carefully engineered comic moments based on anachronistic references to popular culture (Exhibit A: Pretty Woman), the murders of characters we know full well won’t actually be dead, characters being able to solve impossible problems because of some deep inner knowledge of the Doctor (step 1: ‘The Doctor could be anywhere in space and time.’ Step 2: ‘I know he’d want to throw a party if he was dying.’ Step 3: ‘He’s in Essex, 1138 AD!’), bluffing the Doctor’s death again- but we also had the best bits of Moffat’s writing. Hands that crept through the earth to drag you to your grave. Time-travellers shedding their everyday lives like snakeskins. (‘Clara, there’s a phone call for you.’ ‘Yep, that’ll be UNIT.’) Snakes. I mean, a man made of snakes. And the acting: Peter Capaldi’s face creased with anguish, eyes bright as stars; Michelle Gomez’s evil grin, the lazy, unconcerned brilliance in her delivery (‘No, of course I haven’t turned good.’)

I loved this episode; but all the same I’m worried, deeply worried, for the ten-year-olds who were dragged in front of the television by their parents (‘Doctor Who’s on!’) on Saturday night, five years after I was, and who, after the credits rolled, will have turned back to their families and said, ‘What the hell was that?’

I am worried for those who joined the Whovian cult after Davies’ time: who will not recognise the name of Davros, or Skaro, or the Shadow Proclamation. I am worried for those who did not have the working knowledge of DW required to understand this episode, or the fairly in-depth understanding needed to actually enjoy it. I am worried, in short, that this series will be dogged by the complacency that has of late started to creep into Steven Moffat’s writing- the complacency that would, in fairness, naturally encroach upon you, were you the showrunner of two of the best-loved shows on the planet. I fear that this does not mark the start of a return to DW’s past, but a reliance on it: that DW’s writers will henceforth operate on the principle that they won’t try to make the show easily comprehensible and enjoyable to new viewers, because they have enough diehard fans that they don’t need to expand their audience. And speaking as a diehard fan, I very much hope that this is not the route they choose to take. In-jokes are one thing: basing a whole series on the idea that viewers are familiar with plotlines and characters last seen years ago is quite another. I started watching DW at a time when it was finding its identity again, and welcoming new fans with open arms, and lucky I did, because it changed my life. I worry that this generation of ten-year-olds, bewildered by the increasing insularity of DW’s storylines, will not fall in love with it the way I did: that thousands of kids won’t associate the roar of the Tardis with the same joy I do; that they won’t wish for a blue box to crashland in their garden as fervently as I still do.

Doctor Who should make use of its past more than most shows, for obvious reasons; but it also needs to consider its future. And if it doesn’t try to capture this generation of viewers- if it doesn’t try to create as many starstruck devotees as it can, while it is still at full strength, at the height of its magic- then by the time the next generation rolls around, it might not have any at all.

About helenacoggan

Author and semi-professional teenager. Obsessions include Doctor Who, Harry Potter, feminism and writing down the voices in my head. Oh yeah, and technically I'm supposed to be at school, as well. London.
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