Forewarning: The following is a rambling overview of one fledgling Whovian’s reaction to the Eleventh Doctor and his televised adventures. If such a thing does not interest you, I offer this TL/DR five-words-and-a-pregnant-pause synopsis: “Yeah, that was…pretty good.” If such a thing does interest you, bear in mind: if you have not seen the entirety of Matt Smith’s run, then you face spoilers.
I did not, like many of my compatriots on this site, grow up with Doctor Who. My first exposure to it was actually one issue of the Marvel/Tom Baker series which made no damn sense to me whatsoever (looking for the image just now, I see it was actually issue #1–I really should find a copy and re-read it…see if I understand it now). And as time went on, I continued to look at Who from the outside like something impenetrable–you would have to already be on board the train to understand what the hell was going on. Unlike, say, X-Men comics, about which even people who have been on board for decades have no idea what the hell is going on.
The prospect of a new head burrito (Steven Moffat) and a new Doctor plus a new approach sucked me in, though. And so when Matt Smith took over for the new Series 5, I finally watched my first episode. And I was hooked pretty much from jump.
Even if I hadn’t known the basic premise going in, that first episode would have delivered it pretty quickly: mad adventurer in a vehicle that can travel through all of space and time, vehicle happens to be shaped like a police box, adventurer likes to bring people along for the ride. The ride is bumpy. The adventurer has multiple lives in an ingenious built-in way to switch actors. Oh, and there are Daleks, which are what happens when Roombas evolve into world-conquering bastards. I think those are all the basics it turns out you need.
It was a perfect place to get on board. It turns out The Doctor is one of those characters I really like: goofballs who seem goofy until the shoe drops and it turns out they’re badasses hiding behind a goofball facade. Another example would be Dumbledore, who seemed to be Bumbling Kindly Old Wizard Guy for 3.75 books until he plowed through a fucking door towards the end of Book Four. The Doctor has been around long enough to give enemies pause just by being on the scene and smiling. I appreciate that. And I thought Smith did a good job of working youth in with moments of the utter weariness that would come from such a long life.
Karen Gillan was more than a hot redhead; although she was that. She had an excellent attitude and potential to be developed–something that Moffat did. It also set up the “crack in reality” mystery that would endure as a throughline for (it turns out) three seasons.
And here’s something else: it was fun. I had fun. It’s very rare to watch anything, movies or TV, that is just plain fun. Things have other agendas: they want to make you think; they want to blow things up in order to thrill you; they want to scare you; they want to Say Something about (insert issue here). It’s so rare to just have something say: “Hi, do you have your popcorn? Excellent. Let’s do this.”
The rest of Series 5 was fantastic. Sure, the “Hungry Earth” two-parter was the weakest of the bunch, but not terrible. But this is the series that gave us star whales, Daleks in World War II, a fairly badass Weeping Angel two-parter, and the bloody fantastic “Vincent and the Doctor.” I just checked and Tony Curran apparently didn’t win anything for that role–more proof that there is no God.
But then Series 5 ended with about the only thing I like better than a good alternate-universe-in-continuity story (think Age of Apocalypse) or a good Earth-3 story (think Mirror Universe): namely, a pull-all-the-threads-together holy-shit sort of story. For another example, think Grant Morrison’s pre-insanity “Rock of Ages” story arc from JLA. Or to put it another way, it’s a story where everything comes together and in the chapter before it finishes, you have no freaking clue how in the hell it can resolve itself in the space remaining. That was me at the end of “The Pandorica Opens.” It was a brilliant two-parter and the perfect capper to my first Who series.
As an aside, since I think I only mentioned it on a podcast–proof positive that Moffat made it safe for a non-Whovian to get on board? All those alien races that showed up in “Pandorica”? I didn’t need an appendix to explain who they were besides the Daleks and Cybermen (who I had also learned about through the magic of geek osmosis). They’re just, obviously, The Bad Guys. And that’s all I needed to know. Well played.
Also, as a postlude, the “Christmas Carol” episode is perhaps the best integration of one mythos into an existing story I’ve ever seen. Plus: flying sharks.
As a sidebar, since I didn’t mention it elsewhere: I did truly enjoy Arthur Darvill as a second companion, as his Rory was a sensible counterpoint to the mad Doctor and the headstrong Amy.
Then, things started to slide. Series 6 started with the strong “Impossible Astronaut” and the Silence, yet another alien race whose premise is so simple (like the Weeping Angels), you kick yourself for not coming up with it first. There were some highpoints, yes: space pirates are always fun. And “The Doctor’s Wife” was another favorite type of story of mine–turning things on their head to see what happens (the idea that the TARDIS is the one who stole The Doctor). But then we had the Flesh episodes, which would have been fine, but we had already played the Oh Those Wacky Humans, Can’t We Ever Just Get Along With Weird Creatures–Dammit, This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things card the series previous with the Silurians.
Then things really slid, thanks to a mid-season break that was apparently forced on Moffat, as well as his time and attention being taken by both Sherlock and Tintin. The break deflated any built up tension at the end of “A Good Man Goes to War,” and the series never recovered, despite giving Gillan some excellent moments in “The Girl Who Waited.” The entire River Song as assassin subplot seemed dead on arrival, and the Series 6 closer with The Doctor getting married to her was also just hobbling along. (“That’s it? A wedding in an alternate reality that in our reality never actually happened?”) The deus ex machina of the Teselecta was truly disappointing–the fact you could see it coming from a mile off had you convinced that surely it was a red herring–as was the revelation about the ultimate question. Yes, it makes sense in retrospect now, but it seemed cheesy as hell at the time and a sour note to end the series on. Plus, a sure sign of somebody knowing in their gut they’ve done a scripting version of an underhand pitch? Repeat the line. Ad nauseum. Because that’ll make it have weight.
The Christmas episode felt like a “Well, we did Dickens, so I dunno, I guess let’s do a Narnia pastiche” that was merely meh. And honestly, to be fair, its greatest crime was that it wasn’t the previous Christmas special.
Then you had Series 7, which pretty much went off the rails from my perspective. Certainly, I thought you opened strong with “Asylum of the Daleks” and the impossible not to enjoy “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship.” “The Power of Three” and the concept of the slow invasion was genius. But then the mishandling of Amy and Rory’s leaving brought everything to a screeching halt for me. After the are-they-or-aren’t-they back and forth of being Companions (which was annoying), to have them be taken out of the picture the very next episode after they finally say, screw it, let’s go adventuring…was ridiculous. As was their departure, since the reason for them being gone forever was so flimsy as to be non-existent. And, honestly, Amy deserved a better send-off than “Well, there goes my bumbling husband, so I guess I better go with him.” For that matter, Rory “Mr. Badass Centurion from ‘Man Goes to War'” deserved better as well. But c’est salade.
The best part of “The Snowmen” was Madame Vastra, Jenny and Strax. Why they don’t have their own series, I have no idea. But it began the whole Clara as Companion business–which I viewed with some trepidation. But rather than having her as the hyper-intelligent character we had with Oswin, they played up the flirtatious My Girl Friday-esque angle, with positively cringe-worthy dialogue. And again, we had just played the Is the Companion a Girlfriend? card with Amy. And played it a lot better. I was hoping for a Companion who could be the equal of The Doctor, instead she seemed to be just another female there to enthrall/be enthralled by The Doctor. Oh, and trade horrible dialogue with him.
The less said about the rest of the series the better, although special mention must be made of “The Crimson Horror,” which was, again, simply a fun episode. It also, to endear itself to me, had the Vastra crew as well as Diana Rigg.
Thus we get to “The Name” and “The Day of the Doctor.” Yes, “The Name” was a sort of weird and somewhat lame explanation for who Clara was. Admittedly, I may be biased because I just like my Clara Theory better than the reality. But part of it was the fact that the whole reveal for her–and the seeming end of the Great Intelligence–was quickly done with. It felt like a rushed resolution for something we’d been trying to puzzle out for the whole damn series.
However, “Day” was a somewhat return to form for what I want to see from the series: playing around truly with the idea of time travel (the realization about how to use the multiple sonic screwdrivers to process something across centuries instantly), excellent dialogue (the three Doctors bantering was fantastic), and a decent scope. And considering it probably had the biggest task of any Who special in a long time (trying to please long-haul fans as well as new Whovians like myself), I thought it did a decent job. It also, to my mind anyway, brought the multiple Doctors on the scene in a more organic manner than Clara’s time-jumping.
Then we have Matt Smith’s final appearance: “Time of the Doctor.” The major problem I had with this episode is that, due to Smith’s revelation that he was leaving and there needed to be a regeneration episode, the whole Christmas angle seemed stapled on. The Christmas dinner subplot was tiresome and the staples were showing when the town just happened to be named Christmas. But beyond that, I enjoyed the episode–but it was rushed. It should have been a two-parter. You don’t just say “The Doctor and The Silence joined forces” and show us a five second slo-mo clip of that somewhat happening…you can’t do that, not after showing what apparently evil badasses the Silence were for two seasons. You don’t wrap up all the plots that the episode did in such a hurried manner. If you weren’t careful, you would have missed the fact that Tuffley’s theory that Series 6’s events actually caused Series 5 was more on the mark than we knew. There was a lot of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stuff going on, which is a shame, considering it took us three seasons to get here.
The thing grounding the episode amidst all this was Smith’s performance. On one hand, it seems weird to have an extended eulogy for a character when the same character’s going to be around afterwards…but on the other hand, I wouldn’t have begrudged any of Smith’s finale. It makes sense to give the actor a way to bow out with style. Things that would have been cheesy on any other show worked: the bowtie coming off in slo-mo was earned. And, possibly my favorite moment: Amy Pond showed up even just for a second, meaning that my last memory of her won’t be the terminally silly “Angels Take Manhattan.”
So my first Doctor is gone. Where does that leave me? Well, I’m less committed to the show than I was when it started–it’s no longer a show where I’m dying to see the next episode. It’s more a show that I really need to watch if I’m going to discuss it on the next podcast. I’ve even told Rob I don’t care about spoilers–something he was very good to avoid while I was still 100% on board.
I would love to see Capaldi’s Doctor kick some ass and the show get revitalized with a new direction. There’s enough dangling plot bits from Smith’s tenure to give them ammunition for a while with this new iteration. I would love to see Clara turn into a Companion who, because this is a different incarnation of the Doctor, drops the whole flirty angle. Hell, it might be fun to see Capaldi disappointed at the change in their relationship. I would love to see the payoff to the Gallifrey Still Exists plotline and have it be a good one. And, quite frankly, I’d love to have fun with the show again.
I know much has been made of the single episodes vs. one long mega-story, but I don’t care one way or the other. Series 5 was a bunch of stories tied to the mega-story by, in some episodes, just panning over and showing the crack in reality. So you can, in that way, have your cake and Edith too. The main thing you need is A) an overall vision being driven from the top down by Moffat, who when he’s on his game is so good he’s annoying and 2) well-written and clever stories. Give me some more of “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” and “Power of Three”-type stories and I’m set. If you want to tie it all together with some big mega-plot–as long as it’s a good one, then knock yourself out. I show up looking for a good ride…and that’s pretty much it.
Anyway, Matt Smith was my Doctor and deservedly so. I’m glad I came on board when I did and I don’t plan to get off the train at this point. Though I reserve the right to hop off at any moment. Or at least request a transfer.