Doctor Who's Latest Big Mystery Wasn't Much of a Mystery at All

By Ted B. Kissell
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BBC

When last we left our hero—The Doctor of House Gallifrey, Eleventh of His Name, Predator of the Daleks, Scourge of the Cybermen, Lord of Time—he had just emerged from a nice, long mope. His previous traveling companions, Amy Pond and Rory Williams, had been zapped back in time to live out their lives without him. So he parked his time machine on top of a cloud in 1890s London so he could wear a crumpled hat and have a sad.

Then he met Clara Oswald, a woman (or as the show repeatedly insists, though the actress who plays her is now 27 years old, a "girl") leading a double life as a barmaid and a governess. She was brave, beautiful, smart, fast-talking, plus she snogged him, so naturally he invited her to travel with him—and then she got killed by an ice monster. Galvanized into action, the Doctor defeated the alien threat to London—and then discovered that he'd actually met the same woman once before, in the future, where she'd also died.

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The Doctor's quest to unravel the mystery of who Clara really is and how the same person keeps popping up at different points in his life is the ostensible plot arc for the second half of the seventh season of the revived Doctor Who. Only it isn't an arc; that term implies movement, and showrunner Steven Moffat's structuring of the half-season gives viewers precious little of that, outside of camera movement and, you know, running.

The Doctor mostly just muses to himself about the mystery as he meets, saves, befriends and begins traveling with a 2013 version of Clara. The one time he actually asks her about it, it's in the most aggressive way possible, scaring the crap out of Clara towards the end of "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS"—but then there's a reset button, so she forgets. The explanation has to wait until the finale, which aired Saturday night, and it's not particularly satisfying.

The mystery ultimately wasn't really a mystery: It lacked any sense of tension or progress. Unfortunately, the same can be said of the lead characters. Both the Doctor and Clara remained completely static throughout their adventures, each holding the other at arm's length. Matt Smith as the Doctor and Jenna-Louise Coleman turned in consistently strong performances, but the two characters' reluctance to engage fully with each other also kept viewers at an emotional remove from both of them.

Both the Doctor and Clara remained static throughout their adventures, each holding the other at arm's length. The characters' reluctance to engage with each other also kept viewers at an emotional remove.

That's not to say that Series 7B didn't have its moments. Smith's monologue in "The Rings of Akhaten" to a hungry, star-sized alien was as powerfully delivered, and with far more emotional weight, than his other famous speech to a sky full of badness in "The Pandorica Opens." The herky-jerky glimpses of the Crooked Man in "Hide" made that rubber monster far scarier than it had any business being. And, as is usual with Who these days, great performances abounded, including from such distinguished guest stars as David Warner, Warwick Davis, Liam Cunningham, and Dame Diana Rigg.

But none of this added up to even one standout, all-time-classic episode. Unfortunately, Moffat's tendency to tell rather than show continued, as did his penchant for repurposing his own good ideas. ("I don't know where I am" is the new "Hey, who turned out the lights?") He and his writing team also evinced an increasing tendency to borrow from other iconic sci-fi/fantasy tropes. The format of Who has always allowed it to dabble in pretty much any genre, but this season, several moments stood out as cut-rate knock-offs.

Smith's back-and-forth dialogue with himself in "Nightmare in Silver"? Andy Serkis did it better in The Two Towers. The death of Victorian crime-fighter Jenny Flint in "The Name of the Doctor" while she was on the psychic conference call? Beautifully shot, wonderful acting job by Catrin Stewart—but not as effective as the unplugging sequence from The Matrix. The Whispermen? Cool looking, but derivative of the much scarier Gentlemen from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Hush." (The Whispermen kill you by stopping your heart. The Gentlemen steal your voice—and then cut out your heart. And both were heralded by a creepy nursery rhyme.)

In the finale, as per usual, Moffat struggles to confine himself to exploring a single Big Idea: He just keeps throwing them in there, one after the other, to see what sticks. The conference call/séance was a thoughtful nod to Victorian-era spiritualism. The idea that the one place a time traveler must never go is his or her own grave is solid. The true corpse of a Time Lord being not a physical cadaver, but a great ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff, is also neat.

But... the fact that anyone can walk into this glowing timeline and mess around with it, after that Time Lord is already dead? Seems like a bug, not a feature. By jumping into the dead Doctor's timeline, the villainous Great Intelligence tried to kill all of the Doctor's selves at once, while Clara, who jumped in after him, worked against him to save the Doctor. Which is how we got the montage of Clara in different costumes stalking footage of earlier Doctors. It looks like Clara's time-fragmentation will be the conceit that will allow her to interact with David Tennant and Billie Piper—the Tenth Doctor and his longest-serving companion, Rose Tyler—both of whom have been cast in the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special, set to air in November. We also met another announced cast member of that special: John Hurt as the Doctor's lost regeneration (OMG Gertrude Stein was a Time Lord!), most likely one who came between the Eighth and Ninth and, it is implied, committed the double genocide that ended the Last Great Time War.

So, the solution to Clara's mystery is the same as the solution to River Song's: This woman's life, from birth to death, is inextricably bound to the Doctor's. And as with River, since we'd already seen the end of her story, there was no tension when she had an opportunity to make a sacrifice for her man. Ah, there's a natural segue into a rundown of some of this half-season's nuggets of sexist nonsense, the kind that Moffat and his crew—which has included exactly zero women writers—seem to think is so droll...

  • In "Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS," the Doctor only lets Clara fly the TARDIS in "basic mode." When she asks if this is because she's a girl, he says no, and then makes a face.

  • At the end of "Nightmare in Silver," the Doctor refers to Clara as "a mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that's just a little too... tight." And then he starts to smile—leer, really—and makes an "uhh" noise in the back of his throat before he checks himself and looks appalled. Too late, dude.

  • In "The Crimson Horror," Jenny rescues the Doctor from partial paralysis. In his elation, he grabs her, dips her, and forcibly kisses her on the lips. A woman he knows to be both queer and married. (This is the same guy who twice asked Rory for "permission" to hug Amy.)

Many reviewers didn't seem to think the last one was a big deal, reading Jenny's immediate slap of the Doctor as enough of a rebuke. Others were uncomfortable with it, and at least some were mad enough to call this nonconsensual kiss what it would be in the real world: sexual assault. As far as I'm concerned, both the kiss and the slap were played for laughs, letting the Doctor off the hook far too easily.

As a wise man once said in a very complex song-and-dance number involving puppets, Doctor Who is about the triumph of intellect and romance over brute force and cynicism. Kissing people when they don't want to be kissed is nothing if not the triumph of brute force, and it sure ain't romantic.

This Doctor is always telling us what's cool. You know what's cooler than all the bowties, fezzes, and Stetsons in the universe? Consent.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/05/-i-doctor-who-i-s-latest-big-mystery-wasnt-much-of-a-mystery-at-all/275986/