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.

 “This junk yard sure is great, Barbara.” “Call me a purist, but I preferred the classroom from scene 1.”

“This junk yard sure is great, Barbara.” “Call me a purist, but I preferred the classroom from scene one.”

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.

TARDIS surfing is very dangerous, and should not be emulated.

TARDIS surfing is very dangerous, and should not be emulated.

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.

Teaching children and adults alike about the importance of buying action figures.

Teaching children and adults alike about the importance of buying action figures.

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.

Throwback Thalday

ThrowbackIf 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.



  1. The Hand Of Fear says:

    Nice one Lee. Agree completely on the show’s re-writing – or perhaps ‘reframing’ or ‘editing’ are better words – of it’s own past. It’s something the show has always done. (Another example: The Doctor telling Victoria of his family in 1967’s Tomb of the Cybermen. A surprising, even shocking moment.)

    The stars in Capaldi’s eye was a lovely directorial moment. It reminded me of the old Hartnell Target book covers that showed his black coat as space, with stars and blazing planets.

  2. Arcrawfo says:

    Now I realise what happened to Doctor Who! It was around the birth of my first child…

  3. oz_ronnie says:

    The old series were pretty much sci-fi’s version of boy’s own adventures now everybody has feelings an it’s way too self reverential.

  4. Bold Captain Rover says:

    Ah, the old Canon discussion again! I always think that everything is canon, whether it contradicts itself or not, after all we live in a quantum universe and time can be re-written (apparently).

    If you read the Arthurian legends, they go from the real-life sounding stories to the bizarre and has no actual foundation or rules. That’s what makes it a legend though, and that’s what I think we should do with Doctor Who.

    It’s alright, because it’s all right!

  5. Transmit Him says:

    I can see why people are annoyed with the Clara on Gallifrey bit – once again she’s been made to be instrumental in the Doctor’s life and development and it’s all getting a bit much. The companion should always be an important character and affect the Doctor’s life, but his life going forward rather than everything in the past. I’m half-expecting her to be revealed as getting him through his degree next.

    The constant quoting of old episodes is surprisingly irksome. I tolerated it in abundance in Day of the Doctor (the 50th anniversary being a good excuse for some well-worn lines) but it seems every episode Moffat has written since then has liberally reused old lines (some more than once!) to generally little effect.

  6. Sean Crossey says:

    I do sometimes get a little irate with rehashing the history of the Doctor, Daleks, Cybermen etc. but not for any real Canon disputes. I’d just rather they continue to explore new races and create new Canon.

    It’s a good show but I’m finding it hard to get excited by a lot of it now.

  7. KD says:

    I must have missed something. I didn’t see anything that rewrote history as we know it (bearing in mind most canon falls in the category of “what we think we know”, not “what we know”). The only thing I’ve seen anyone grizzle about was the idea of a Time Lord not being a race but that was revealed in one of the Key to Time stories.

  8. Kieran McMullen says:

    You can’t claim “changing history” all falls under one banner, the world of doctor who is based around certain rules: the Time War cannot be revisited or averted, and hence it cannot be possible for the doctor to travel back to his own childhood, this was broken in this story. Then there’s the idea that time cannot be rewritten after it has been read, from the moment Clara met Orson, she had to fall in love with Danny. These are the story’s rules, and they should never be broken, because if they are, we stop taking all the rules seriously, and that can never be undone. When moffat leaves as head writer, his successor will have to abolish all the rules Moffat ignored, he can’t reintroduce them at the story’s convenience, that makes the program as a whole less credible. What has been written cannot be unwritten, and if they keep making this “meta-time travel” the norm, where anything and everything can be changed, where’s the threat? Where are the problems? Where are the stories if everything can be fixed by time travel?
    And that’s just the tip of the iceburg, not only does Stephen Moffat refuse to take this world seriously and therefore give us something we can take seriously (it was possible once, it wasn’t always a silly, lawless kid’s show), but he’s also messed with the tone a lot. In 2005, Doctor who was something you would hesitate to let kids watch, in 2013, it was a show ONLY kids would be expected to watch. How do you reverse that? You can’t, because the world now takes Doctor Who as a kid’s show, and it would cause outrage to suddenly darken it and mature it (“Won’t somebody think of the children!”)
    it’s not that Doctor who has changed since we were younger, it’s that this time, those changes cannot be undone, and if they are then the show proves that it is cheap, flexible, and adheres to no fixed rules or expectations, in other words, a poorer show than before, with no going back.

  9. ToSeek says:

    “the world of doctor who is based around certain rules”

    The only rule about Doctor Who is that it’s about someone who travels through time and space in a ship that looks like a police box. Everything else is negotiable. Heck, even that is negotiable. If you’d tried to write “The Rules of Doctor Who” back in 1964, how many would have been broken along the way?

  10. Grand Poobah says:

    Twelfth Doctor’s comment about Sontarans perverting human history wasn’t about “Robot,” it was actually about “The Time Warrior.” The Fourth Doctor DID do an unconscious throwback mumble that was probably about “The Time Warrior” in the serial you reference (“Robot”). I’m going to guess that this was a bit of “research via Wikipedia.”

  11. the1gwiz says:

    “A callback to the first words of the newly-regenerated fourth Doctor in 1975’s Robot.”

    I’m going to guess that was reply by not actually reading ;]

  12. the1gwiz says:

    A show that writes itself into a box and refuses to get out of it stagnates and dies. It’s happened before with this very show.

    Maybe we should evaluate how “seriously” we should take a show about an alien who can travel through time and space in a blue box.

    “In 2005, Doctor who was something you would hesitate to let kids watch”

    ^ Why is this necessarily a good thing?

  13. Latauro says:

    Yes, the Doctor met the Sontarans in The Time Warrior. But the line as quoted came from Robot, as stated above. I’m not sure where you think the error was?

  14. Souris says:

    ” In 2005, Doctor who was something you would hesitate to let kids watch, in 2013, it was a show ONLY kids would be expected to watch. How do you reverse that?”

    Well, since the series was originally considered a kids show, I guess they figured out a way! *lol*

  15. Music for Kids says:

    It seems like the things people are complaining about the episode is where it contradicts their assumptions (rather than these complaints having much basis as contradicting `canon’).

  16. Music for Kids says:

    The time war can not be revisited or averted, fine, but why does that mean that Clara can’t visit Gallifrey years earlier? 10 said Gallifrey was Time Locked, but he’s been proven wrong (Sound of the Drums, Day of the Doctor etc). Most importantly how did the Doctor first leave Gallifrey or travel back there on all those other times in his early incarnations if it’s some sort of complete no go zone?

  17. A. Smith says:

    Preferring legends over fact? Wasn’t that the moral of the previous episode?

  18. Jennifer Schillig says:

    I recommend googling “45 Deaths of Doctor Who” to get a summary of how some elements of fandom have reacted to any kind of change in the series. :-)

  19. Bec says:

    Yep. All of this. So very tired of fans arguing about canon and Who. A time traveller who with any or every act can change the course of history, including his own personal time line, has no canon.

  20. Lee says:

    But in the end it was just such a poor story. My 14 year old daughter, a Who fan since birth and a very smart cookie, asked me the same question she posed on too many occasions last season, “Dad, did you understand what that episode was about?”. I tried my best, but well…you all saw it. If it is only appealing to those who think they are great intellectuals after reading The Picture of Dorian Gray for the first time, then it has missed it’s mainstream audience and the show will inevitably be consigned to eighties-like obscurity. Let’s hope it gets rescued before it is too late. Yes, the show did go into cardiac arrest when McCoy led the show, it took a great storyteller to bring it back to life and now sadly I for one can hear the cloister bells in the distance. Let us travel back in time and see what we can learn – Doctor Who has never died, but on occasions, it has stopped telling good stories that appeal to a broad audience; and each time this has happened it moved from mainstream to geeksville, from popularity to obscurity and from prime-time to the modern equivalent of after Strictly, from being made to…….

  21. pippyfleur says:

    I think it was a nice idea, fear as a constant companion etc., and im glad we’re finally moving away from matt smith era writing of ‘omg a thing omg im the doctor fear me omg im so comical omg plot twist omg’. dont get me wrong, matt rocked it, but the writing was all over the place. 9-10 simply had the most wonderful balance of humour, daily human life, no taking itself too seriously but still posing moral questions and having an exciting, deep and commanding air…. I guess everyone’s taste is different but i think we should move back to the 2-part episodes, they allowed a level of character development for the random one-off characters so that you actually care when they all die. i also think they’re somewhat wasting the comic genius that is capaldi, there is a lot more room for humour.
    man, remember The Impossible Planet and the episode with the ood planet in s4? they really made you think about important things (the nature of evil, slavery etc.), making your skin crawl, making you tear up, but also making you giggle at times. perfection.
    at the moment i think they really need to get out of the formula of like ‘alien with superior sensing abilities, must suppress normal bodily function in order not to be sensed by it and eaten’

  22. James Russell says:

    “hence it cannot be possible for the doctor to travel back to his own childhood”

    “The Three Doctors” is pretty explicit about the laws of time not permitting the Doctor to meet himself in his past or future. This has never actually stopped him from doing so.

  23. Heidi Estrin says:

    Thank you so much for this article, Lee, it really helps me feel better. After Listen, I was in a state at the hubris of Moffat daring to address the Doctor’s childhood. You really put it into perspective for me. When I saw your name on the article, I was so pleased because I enjoyed hearing you on Splendid Chaps. What a great show, I wish it was still going on!

  24. Kieran McMullen says:

    the time lock came into play way after the doctor left gallifrey, it should have stopped the doctor going back there, not preventing him from leaving it. it was a way of saying “we know the doctor travels in time, but this is one place where the rules say he can never, ever, ever go.” He only ever crossed his own timeline under exceptional circumstances, but this had none of that, and he went back to a point where he could have stopped the war from happening. This is like if he went back to the day amy got zapped to the past and was messing around with stuff.

  25. Kieran McMullen says:

    and the doctor was travelling to before the time war when HE had yet to be in the time war. Gallifrey, it’s entire history and anything leading up to the time war should all be off limits.

  26. Kieran McMullen says:

    there was no time lock back then, the time lock should be sacred, or none of the ninth or tenth doctor’s tears had any meaning at all. I will forgive the Day of the Doctor, because the moment, which created the lock, allowed it.

  27. Kieran McMullen says:

    yes they did, it took a 20 year gap in production, during which any child who would watch the program either grew up, or wasn’t born. There were no prior expectations for 2005, no parents with some idea of what it would be like, no children with attatchment to the last series who wouldn’t be able to watch. Unless they plan on doing that again, they haven’t found a way.

  28. Kieran McMullen says:

    it’s not an inherently good thing, it’s just what the show was. That show is now worse than cancelled to me. You see, cancellations can be undone, but if that show still exists in a new form that can’t be changed back, then the series as it was known before can never return, ever.
    If an adult show suddenly became lighter, the worst that can happen is they lose interest, but if what’s considered a children’s show get’s dark overnight, there’d be complaints, outcries, and children would be disappointed because they wouldn’t be allowed to watch any more. It would be too painful a process to change it back now.
    You can’t describe the show that simply. The doctor travels in time in a space-time ship which happens to disguise itself as a blue box. You make it sound like magic when it’s actually science fiction.
    I agree with you, a show in a corner will eventually die. And breaking all these rules puts the show in a corner, don’t you think so? They used to be able to say “fixed points can’t be changed” now they’ve broken it once they can’t use it ever again. They used to say “You can’t go back to gallifrey” now they have, so that’s not an excuse anymore. More freedom in the story makes it harder to write for.

  29. the1gwiz says:

    “More freedom in the story makes it harder to write for.”

    Not if you’re any good at writing creative fiction.

  30. Kieran McMullen says:

    Really? Alright, let’s imagine a series where everything is possible, there are no rules, no limits, how do you create peril? How do you create challenges? If its possible to go back in time and change a mans childhood so he’s a good person, where do your villains come from? If fixed points can be rewritten by faking the event, why not go back and save everyone who died during the latest adventure? If the doctor can make a really hard decision, then have the rest of his life to work out how to go back and avert either bad choice, why should we care when there’s a dilemma like that?

  31. Novecento says:

    You are just wrong. It’s only been said that the Last Great Time War is time-locked by the Moment (cf. TARDIS Wiki if you don’t believe me), and there is no proof that the whole history of Gallifrey is (that would be terribly stupid: how did the Valeyard get back to Gallifrey if it was forcibly created some time after the War?).

    Why can’t the Doctor go back and prevent the War? For the same reason for which he (sort of) had to die in Series 6: it’s fixed, and if just River not killing him generated a whole Bizarro World, imagine what would happen if the Time War was prevented. The Doctor is not stupid, he knows that. He doesn’t visit old Gallifrey because he is running and doesn’t want to, because it would be terrible to see again people you know are doomed.

    There are, of course, safeguards in the TARDIS that don’t allow the Doctor to cross his own timeline, but they were all removed by him in order to let Clara track back her dream. The episode makes complete sense, as long as you put a bit of effort in understanding it.