The Captain Kirk Problem: How Doctor Who Betrayed Matt Smith

No, he doesn’t, and they do start off two of the next three episodes by going to museums. And then they find Rory again for no good reason, other than that Arthur Darvill is incredible (watch Broadchurch ASAP) and every show on TV needs more Arthur Darvill in it.

The entirety of Season Six is when Moffat’s fascination for plot twists and open-ended mysteries (in our house, we describe this unfortunate tendency as “plotty-wotty”) took over the show, and the whole product suffered. As for the Doctor himself, in Season Six he: didn’t tell Amy or Rory about the anomalous readings he was getting about her pregnancy (and why was he pregnancy-testing her, anyway?); hypnotized humanity into becoming a race of killers (but the Silence are creepy, so screw them, right?); and invited all of his “loved ones” to stand unwitting and unwilling witness to his own faked death.

Smith and his fellow cast members, along with the stirring score, were doing their damnedest to convince us that this was all very moving. But even their best performances couldn’t paper over the hollowness of the characters and their relationships.

The first half of Season Seven was worse, with Smith whipsawing back and forth between his most manic, slapsticky tics—especially in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” and “The Power of Three”—and Tennant-esque brooding, and it all felt somewhat desperate. The second half of the season, with new companion Clara Oswald, was similarly soulless, with the Doctor up to his old tricks of withholding key information from his fellow traveler, and with the pretty, plucky sidekick turning out to be a walking, talking plot device who sacrifices herself to save the Doctor because … the Doctor is Awesome. As The Atlantic’s Christopher Orr said of Peter Jackson’s indulgent, boring Hobbit movies, it’s like watching big-budget, poorly written fanfic.

The 50th Anniversary Special, “The Day of the Doctor,” offered a welcome respite from this dreary slog; it was easily the best Who episode Moffat had written since “The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang.” Despite the generally positive notices the special got, some critics hated Moffat’s retconning the defining act of the revived series: It turns out that the Doctor didn’t actually kill all of the Time Lords, as it had been written by previous showrunner Russell T. Davies, he just hid them away in a pocket universe. While I find Moffat’s compulsion to insert his own characters into existing Who continuity annoying (c.f. the laughable Forrest Gumping of Clara into footage of Classic Doctors in “The Name of the Doctor”), I actually don’t think his rewriting of this act of genocide totally obviates the Davies era’s emotional content. So it turns out that the Time Lords are lost, instead of annihilated? Hell, the Doctor thought he’d destroyed the Daleks, too, and they just keep coming back. Why shouldn’t the Time Lords get an out?

But while, within the context of the episode, this turning-already-established-defeat-into-victory didn’t bother me, it does fit into a pattern of storytelling cowardice on Moffat’s part. There are just never any consequences for any main characters in Moffat’s Doctor Who. Every apparent sacrifice, tragic loss, or moral compromise is invalidated by some kind of reset button, with no physical or psychological cost. The “loss” of the Ponds was so nonsensical that it doesn’t even count. They got to live full lives together in the past, but the Doctor could never go back and see them again? It’s insulting. Why not have the two of them make a meaningful sacrifice and actually, you know, die? Whose feelings is Moffat trying to spare here?

As Capt. James T. Kirk witheringly observes of himself—in a neat bit of character development that also doubles as commentary on how static Kirk’s persona was during the original Star Trek series—he’d always been able to find the out, the cheat code, the reset button. He’d never had to face the no-win scenario. He thought he’d gotten away with it again—and then he found out that sometimes victory does have a cost, in this case, the life of his best friend. Now, in story terms, it sucks that the Star Trek franchise promptly undid this by bringing Spock back in the next movie, but it’s because of Kirk’s change and growth that Khan is rightly regarded as the best of the Trek films.

The 11th Doctor is TV-show Kirk, not Wrath of Khan Kirk. He neither changed nor grew. Moffat even dubbed him “The Man Who Forgets” in the 50th Anniversary special—and in that episode, his journey is away from a defining, horrific moral choice he made, and towards a cheat code.

As an actor, how are you supposed to play that? Smith tried pretty much everything. Playful, petulant, shouty, giddy, mopey, nasty, lachrymose … he put it all out there, but with nothing really at stake, it was like watching a workshop at the Actor’s Studio or something. And even his considerable charms couldn’t smooth over his character’s jaw-dropping sexist comments, leering at women, and non-consensual kissing—culminating in the groaningly poor regeneration episode “The Time of the Doctor,” in which he essentially planted one on the Pope. Now, he apparently had had a relationship with her, but that’s also a problem: Yet another powerful woman turns to putty in the Doctor’s hands? Again, bad fanfic.

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Ted B. Kissell is a writer and editor based in Southern California. He is the former editor of OC Weekly and has written for The Los Angeles TimesOutside Traveler, and American Way.

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