Doctor Who Recap: A Lesson In How To Upset The Fanbase
Steven Moffat is under fire for screwing with the show’s history again - but isn’t that what Doctor Who has always been about?
This is the latest in our series of Doctor Who recaps. Spoiler alert.
When did Doctor Who go off the rails? It probably happened when you turned seventeen or so. Suddenly the world was about dating and drinking and independence, and this magically coincided with the show you loved as a kid descending into nonsense.
Maybe it wasn’t precisely seventeen, but for most Doctor Who fans, there generally comes a point at which the show they love simply stops being the show they love. “Back in my day, it never did that!” we exclaim.
What’s strange is that absolutely every era has provoked this reaction. For some, it happened when Steven Moffat took over, and for others the new series was a write-off from the get-go. For some, the 1996 telemovie ruined the whole thing, and for others it was the Seventh Doctor’s era. One person I know says they fell out of love with it when Patrick Troughton took over. Troughton. The Second Doctor. 1966. The show’s just never recovered since then, apparently.
Consequently, I am firmly of the belief that there is someone out there who thinks Doctor Who is fundamentally a show about two teachers hanging out in a junk yard, and that it all fell apart when they introduced that time travel guff.
Forget the ever-changing tone and the subjective perceptions of undulating quality: for a lot of fans, Doctor Who fails when it messes with what’s been established. Steven Moffat has been accused of doing this a lot — of screwing around with the show’s history — but isn’t that what Doctor Who has always done?
The mistake fans so often make is in viewing the Classic Series as a uniform whole. Remember, his is a show that ran for 26 years from 1963 to 1989, had dozens of producers, numerous script writers, and absolutely no series bible. Seriously. There was no document ever produced for writers to refer to. That’s why they featured the origins of the Loch Ness Monster on two separate occasions, and why they explained the destruction of Atlantis no fewer than three times. They simply made it up as they went along, often contradicting much of the stuff that came beforehand.
When we, with the benefit of hindsight and familiarity, homogenise all of that into the “Classic Series”, it implies a consistent overview that the show simply never had.
So if you’re freaking out about Listen, the most recent episode by showrunner Steven Moffat, and think that Moffat has taken an outrageous liberty with the show’s text, take a moment to think about how it must have felt when they suddenly introduced the idea that the Doctor could change his appearance. (It took them two more goes before they called it “regeneration”, and made it a proper thing in 1974.) Or how about when the Second Doctor revealed he was a Time Lord, and was put on trial for stealing the TARDIS? That nugget was revealed at the end of the show’s sixth season. We think of it as something that’s always been — but imagine if Buffy had suddenly revealed at the end of season six that she was from the planet Slayos, or if Lost’s final season had suddenly introduced time travel elements that had nothing to do with what had come befo— oh.
Barely a season of Doctor Who has gone by without the show’s head writer drastically reinventing some major piece of canon. Once you tally up all the liberties the show has taken, the idea of Clara meeting the Doctor as a child on a pre-exploded Gallifrey really isn’t much at all.
And this is the fundamental truth of the show: it is only ever Doctor Who when it evolves. The times in its history when it’s consciously tried to be “classic” are the times when it’s stagnated and failed. Only when it stops trying to be Doctor Who does it truly become Doctor Who. That’s some zen-like shit right there — much like that brief period in the early 1970s, in which many of the plots suddenly had a Buddhist undercurrent. See?
It’s odd that Listen should inspire such discussion about canon (he says, as if someone is forcing him to write about it under threat of a mind probe), because it’s Steven Moffat’s first real standalone work since he took over. As showrunner, he writes the season openers, the season finales, the Christmas specials, the anniversary extravaganzas. It’s like writing for an orchestra all the time, he says, and doing this episode was a chance to flex his writing muscles and write a chamber piece. Something smaller, more self-contained.
It’s a good instinct given his most notorious insta-classic Blink was the very definition of a standalone chamber piece. Or maybe it’s that both episodes focused on something deeper and more relatable: Blink introduced monsters that can only be defeated when you look at them, and Listen has creatures that are always hiding, listening to you when you think you’re talking only to yourself.
Reducing the threat down to a key sense makes these stories so much more empathetic and terrifying. He’s clearly on to a winning formula, which logically leads me to the following viewing suggestions: Touch, in which the asexual Doctor must overcome his fears and defeat the fearsome Buxomians by repeatedly groping their hindquarters; Taste, in which the Doctor is challenged to tongue-to-tongue combat with the slime monsters of the planet Halitosis 8; and Smelly, in which the Doctor battles farting aliens in… oh, hang on, that was 2005’s World War Three. Okay, forget that last one. Cheque please, Mr Moffat.
Questions to ponder:
- Has any episode had such an odd structure as this? It’s basically two or three vignettes with a connecting theme. A brave choice, and it pays off.
- Isn’t retconning great? A seemingly-random aesthetic choice in Day of the Doctor is suddenly given extra weight with a new revelation.
- Anyone notice the massive conceptual flip this episode had? The Doctor usually swoops in when someone else has a problem and solves it. This time, it’s him with the problem, and Clara who swoops in and solves it. Never seen the show achieve that so well.
- How many Doctor Who romances have been the result of a childhood imprinting? The Doctor meets Reinette as a child in The Girl in the Fireplace; Amelia as a child in The Eleventh Hour; and Melody Pond as a baby in A Good Man Goes To War — and all three fall for him as adults. Similarly, Rose met young Mickey Smith in Father’s Day, and now Clara’s done the same with Danny in Listen.
- Doesn’t the starfield in the young Doctor’s eyes looks very similar to the starfield on the Capaldi Doctor’s shirt? Interesting sartorial choice.
- Why did the Doctor awaken with the cry “Sontarans perverting the course of human history!”? A callback to the first words of the newly-regenerated fourth Doctor in 1975’s Robot.
- “Fear makes companions of us all,” says the First Doctor in the very first story, 1963’s An Unearthly Child — word-for-word what Clara says to the young Doctor in this episode. Maybe Moffat’s being truer to the show’s roots than he’s getting credit for.
If you like stories that redefine the Doctor’s history and feature his always-complicated relationship with soldiers, then you cannot go past 1969’s The War Games. It’s the final story of Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor, and also his best. And yes, it’s ten episodes long, but it feels shorter than many four-parters.
Forget that you know anything about the Doctor’s origins, and marvel at the utterly brilliant way in which they reveal them.
Lee Zachariah is a writer and journalist. He co-hosted the ABC2 film comedy series The Bazura Project, and is a co-presenter of film podcast Hell Is For Hyphenates. He tweets at @leezachariah.