By any tangible measure, Doctor Who has never risen higher. The ongoing saga of the Time Lord who uses his magic box, the TARDIS, to travel anywhen in time (though mostly to the years 1963-2013) and anywhere in space (though mostly to London) turns 50 years old this year. And the Doctor himself? Well, when 1200 years old you reach, look as good, you will not.
The pop-culture penetration of the show since its 2005 revival (the original run ended in 1989, and a 1996 TV-movie pilot flopped) is undeniable. The 2012 Christmas special "The Snowmen" was just short of being the highest-rated program in BBC America's history (behind only the 2012 premiere). The hype for Saturday's mid-season premiere episode, "The Bells of Saint John," has been fevered, both on the Internet and in print.
So, why are some fans a bit apprehensive about where Doctor Who is headed? Like the show itself, it's all about the relationship between the Doctor and his companion.
The conceit of Doctor Who is one of incredible flexibility and power. With his ability to "regenerate" into different actors while remaining the same character—there have been 11 versions since the series started in 1963—the Doctor can be any kind of fantastical figure you want. Sometimes he's Peter Pan, sometimes he's James Bond, sometimes he's, as the Eleventh Doctor describes himself, "Space Gandalf."
But the true genius of the show is the constant presence of a viewer surrogate: the companion. The Doctor almost always has at least one inexperienced time-traveler (usually human, usually a woman) aboard to ask him what planet they're on, what that button is for, why is that stuntman wrapped in green spray-painted bubble wrap, and how in the world am I supposed to pretend to be scared of him?
The Doctor also is Torn Between Two Worlds. He's an alien who's always hanging around humans and deeply cares about them, but will always be distant because of his Otherness. "I suppose, in the end, they break my heart," David Tennant's Tenth Doctor says. And yet he always comes back to them. Desperately groping for a connection—for family.
It's this heart-wrenching blend of intimacy and distance, of possibility and inevitability that make the show so uniquely engaging. The constantly changing actors playing the same character, along with a rotating cast of companions, is also unique in pop culture, and engenders an unrivaled level of fan passion and investment in the characters. Everybody has a favorite Doctor and a favorite companion, and everybody has suggestions for who the next Doctor should be and what kinds of adventures he—or she (it's really about time)—should have.
With former showrunner Russell T. Davies's relaunch of the series, he put an even finer point on the Doctor's loneliness: The Doctor is now the only Time Lord left, having destroyed both his own people and their mortal enemies the Daleks in the Last Great Time War. So, now he's Superman, too, only with more guilt and PTSD.
Davies's run has its critics, featuring as it did more than a handful of clunker episodes and melodramatic finales that leaned too heavily on people gaining godlike powers in the third act. But he managed to give both the Doctor and his companions satisfying character arcs, and the inevitable lachrymose farewells nearly always felt earned.
When Steven Moffat took over in 2010, introducing a new regeneration of the Doctor, played by Matt Smith, a lot of fans were thrilled. Moffat's episodes during Davies's tenure are consensus top-10 picks for the best episodes of the Davies years, if not ever.
Now, though, in the third full season with Moffat at the helm, what some viewers saw as troubling tendencies from those early episodes have multiplied. Television Without Pity recapper Jacob Clifton went so far as to say that Davies's Who is "a different TV show that shares basically a title and a prop" with the Moffat incarnation. Indeed, Moffat-vs.-RTD is the biggest Whovians-yelling-at-one-another-on-the-Internet fault line. (New Who vs. Classic Who debates tend to be courtly by comparison.)
Like any writer, Moffat has his pet themes and plot devices. His favorites mostly have to do with perception, memory, and the power of story. The Weeping Angels can only move when you're not looking at them. You can only remember the Silence while you're looking at them. Companion Amy Pond rebooted the entire universe simply by remembering it. His tendency to recycle ideas has prompted more than a few parodies; Moffat Bingo is my favorite.
These tropes can be extremely effective within the episodes themselves. And Moffat's first season finale exceeded any of the season-enders from the Davies era in terms of plot and pacing, while also generating some real lump-in-the-throat emotional moments. Yet, as the epic sweep, witty dialogue, slick production values, and strong performances by the leads have driven the show to new heights of popularity under Moffat, the recurrence of one particular sequence of events has become particularly glaring—and, for a good chunk of fandom, especially feminist sites like the awesomely named STFU-Moffat, problematic.
It goes like this:
- Girl meets doctor as a child.
- Girl grows up to be a gorgeous woman.
- Now-gorgeous woman throws herself at the Doctor and snogs him—usually with lots of Muppety arm-flailing on the Doctor's part.
(The girls-who'll-be-a-woman-soon are Reinette, Amy Pond, River Song and, thanks to last week's webisode, the newest companion, Clara Oswin Oswald.)
Now, I don't watch a ton of romantic comedies, but I do know that the initial "meet-cute" between the male and female leads is, you know, a thing. But is it still cute when the boy is at least 900 years old and the girl could be selling cookies out of a little red wagon in front of the Ralphs?
The indirect sexualizing of little girls is a problem, especially in light of other messed-up views on gender that have surfaced in the Moffatverse. (Amy's lack of agency, especially in the last two seasons, the Doctor growling out on two occasions that his problems were caused by "a woman," among others.) But in addition, we now have three Moffat companions whose lives are in some way inextricably linked, since childhood, to the Doctor. Amy Pond is the Girl Who Waited. River Song is the Girl Who Killed the Doctor Only Not Really. And now, Clara Oswin Oswald is The Girl Who Died Twice.
The repetition of the girl-to-woman sequence, though, doesn't strike some people as creepy: "If you had a time machine, isn't that the kind of thing that might happen fairly often? Meeting someone at the wrong age would just be like calling a wrong number."
None of these companions is just... a human being. A regular person who meets the Doctor and learns not only that infinite worlds and possibilities exist, but that they can be a part of those worlds. A person who can bring the Doctor closer to the sense of family he keeps returning to Earth to find.
In addition to calling out the whole little-girl thing, STFU-Moffat notes, "All of the women are in passive roles in this, and their identities are based solely on the Doctor and how he works in their lives. Their independence is stripped from them and it's really problematic."
Now, is there also a site called STFU Moffat Haters? Why, yes! The repetition of the girl-to-woman sequence doesn't strike them as creepy: "If you had a time machine, isn't that the kind of thing that might happen fairly often? Meeting someone at the wrong age would just be like calling a wrong number." And on some fans' complaints about Clara's "specialness," the writer declares, "Doctor Who has a history of strange companions... I don't think its fair or reasonable to demand that Moffat use RTD's format of companions... [A]t the end of the day, having companions who aren't ordinary isn't what will 'ruin Doctor Who.'"
I'm still a rabid Doctor Who fan, and will watch the hell out of the rest of this season. I know the Doctor and Clara will have entertaining, banter-ific adventures, battling Ice Warriors, evil wi-fi, and Neil Gaiman-written Cybermen. But even though the Clara question has Whovians floating theory after theory trying to guess her true identity, that whole thing kinda leaves me cold. The companion once again being some sort of cosmic mystery to be solved rather than an Everyman/Everywoman, to me seems to obviate the very thing that has made the show so welcoming. It's distancing, not intimate.
In an early BBC promo teaser for the rebooted show, Ninth Doctor Christopher Eccleston stands in the doorway of the TARDIS, leans toward the camera, and intones in his fantastic, lots-of-planets-have-a-North accent, "D'you wanna coom wi' me?" Endless possibilities, all access. No timey-wimeyness required.
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