OpinionTelevision & Film

Looking at DOCTOR WHO Series 9: Breaking Up is Hard to Do



I first fell in love when I was 9 years old and it was love at first sight.

When I wrote my “Love Letter to Doctor Who” for the 50th anniversary, I wrote how I first got into the show thanks to Tom Baker’s “The Key to Time” series. When I wrote that, I had no idea when that episode was broadcast in my small town, so I guessed it was around when I was 12 or 13. All I remember was being hooked by the storytelling, and the inevitable cliffhanger as he still needed to find the remaining pieces. Thanks to the website BroaDWCast, I now know that it was July 3, 1983, where I first met the enigmatic ‘mad man with a box’.

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I also wrote in that tribute how things have changed for the program since those days. How blown away I was (and still am) at the global notice this show is now getting. I still remember when NuWho was launched in 2005, how I managed to get a hold of … shall we say ‘unofficial’ copies of that first series, nervous that it was going to be similar to the 1996 telemovie starring Paul McGann, which – while not terrible, was not exactly brimming with awesomeness. And I remember being blown away by “Rose”. Starting out with the companion, the episode was fresh enough to be exciting, yet it still had the ‘feeling’ of Doctor Who. As the season progressed, I was not disappointed: yeah, some of the special effects were special in the wrong way, but the characters were compelling, the chemistry between Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper was electric, the storylines fun, and there was a mystery of what had happened to the man only known as The Doctor.

As the series continued, my love only grew. As with all regenerations, I was heartbroken and nervous when Eccleston left and we got David Tennant. While not all episodes were winners (what television show doesn’t have a couple of bad episodes?), overall, it was a quality show, and I slowly fell in love with Tennant’s Doctor, with Catherine Tate’s Donna – a character I loathed in “The Runaway Bride” – becoming my favorite companion as well.

DOCTOR WHO XMAS 2013Alas, the concept of regeneration loomed once more with the rumors of Tennant’s leaving, and speculation as to the casting for the new one. The first interviews with Matt Smith didn’t do much for me: he looked like an emo goth Justin Bieber look-alike, and I felt the first twinge of age as he became the first Doctor cast that was younger than me. While not outright hating his portrayal, it took awhile for me to warm up to him or the new companion Amy. It wasn’t really until “A Christmas Carol” that made me go from “Eh, he’s okay” to “Okay, I like this guy”. As with Amy, I had a hard time relating to her, and her character arc felt too much like a rehash of the plot of Time Traveler’s Wife, which Moffat had already revisited with in “The Girl in the Fireplace” and in the character of River Song. (However, I pretty much was instantly captivated with Rory, mainly because he partly reminded me of my husband.)

As Smith’s tenure continued, I was still enjoying the show, but a sense of unease began to grow. I felt that Moffat was starting to overuse both River Song and the Weeping Angels, relying on them far too much. While I was okay with Amy, I never really connected with her (although “The Girl Who Waited” was the episode that finally made me care about her). While I celebrated when Davies (and Eccleston) broke the unwritten rule of “No Hugging, No Kissing” on screen with Rose (and Jack, for that matter), after Martha, Astrid, and even the kiss with Donna (among others), I was eagerly awaiting a partnership where the two WEREN’T romantically linked. Amy’s coming on to the Doctor in “Flesh and Stone” made me sigh in exasperation (I really appreciated that she didn’t seem at all interested in him in ‘that way’). I also felt the overall story arcs were not as powerful as they had been under Davies, too much reliance on deus ex machina plot devices and skipping over important things like WHY someone would do something. But, as mentioned, every show has it’s ‘not-so-good’ moments, so I continued watching.

When series 5 ended, the rumors of both Karen Gillian and Arthur Darvill leaving, as well as the announcement of their inevitable replacement in Jenna Coleman, were confirmed. When the series 6 opener, “Asylum of the Daleks”, started, I fell instantly for Oswin Oswald, her snarkiness and smarts being something I could relate to. However, Rory and Amy were … distant. Their relationship was now completely focused on how they connected to River, and it was like a slow breakup to their eventual leaving. Their final episode finally crushed any remaining fear I ever had for the Weeping Angels, and their departure left me with a sense of, “That’s it?”

DOCTOR WHO XMAS 2013With Clara’s entrance in “The Snowmen”, I once again was intrigued. It was the same character as in “Asylum”, but not. She was snarky, smart, and was one of the few people who could stand up to the Doctor and not seem like a villain. The ending left me a little confused – Clara’s dying and yet somehow still being the same character we had met before.

When we met ‘modern’ Clara, I kept waiting for that same personality I saw in Coleman’s first two episodes. While I liked that she didn’t actually travel with him, I sighed at the fact that we seemed to be back to yet another companion hopelessly in love with the Doctor. I also kept waiting for the plotlines to acknowledge the prior Oswald characters – even in vague ways, ala the “Bad Wolf” of series 1 – without luck, for it to only be shoehorned in just a couple of episodes. While I still enjoyed many of the episodes, that unease with how little I related to the main characters continued to grow. I kept waiting to connect with this Clara, to see in her the same personality I saw before – and I felt her character … lacking.

By this time, I also started seeing more critiques in my social media feeds regarding Moffat’s handling of the show. Believe me when I say I don’t consider myself a hater of Moffat – in fact, he wrote some of my favorite episodes (including the Children in Need “The Curse of the Fatal Death”), and his involvement in Who was part of why I gave Sherlock a chance. However, as I read the various critiques, I could see where they were coming from. His female characters all did kind of ‘look’ the same in terms of characterization, falling into the generalization of the ‘strong female character’ trope that still doesn’t give us much to go on. His plots tend to not consider the consequences, and his season-long story arcs tend to fall short with quite a few plot holes. He really needs to do better with LGBT representation on screen. Finally, he tends to re-use character types and plot points: I kept seeing things I had seen in Jekyll, Sherlock, and his prior episodes of the same show.

I blame a lot of this on his background as a sitcom writer (sitcoms, typically, reboot every episode, with no need to worry about consequences or character growth), and the fact that he’s a white man in his 50s living in a upper middle class city. The fact that he’s pretty much a troll in any of his interviews hasn’t exactly warmed him to me, either. (Not that I can’t understand why he doesn’t like the press, but the attitude he takes there crosses over into his interactions with the fans as well.) The breaks between series (as well as the mid-series break between “The Angels Take Manhattan” and “The Snowmen”) didn’t help – the continued insistence that we should be grateful for whatever we got rubbing me the wrong way.

So, by the time “The Time of the Doctor” rolled around, my unease was something I couldn’t ignore. I started getting the feeling that I should be obligated by my love of the show. By this point, Smith had announced he was leaving and the search for a new Doctor was on. I met the announcement of Peter Capaldi with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I agreed with many people who were disappointed that we got yet another white guy (and an older white guy, to boot) in this role; on the other, it was good to see yet another person who so obviously loved the show be cast in it.

Doctor Who (series 8) Ep8Capaldi’s interviews all had a passion about them that showed that he would (hopefully) be the breath of fresh air I felt the show needed at this point, and maybe get back to what I liked about it. Casting Capaldi, to go with the stereotype, meant that we hopefully get away from the ‘companion is madly in love with the Doctor’ trope that had been overused by this point. In addition, there was the potential to delve into a new dynamic that the new show never quite got, but we had seen a couple of times in the old show (most noticeably with our last companion of the old series, Ace): mentor/student. The hints of Clara at Coal Hill School right on the tail of the 50th anniversary implied that we would possibly see some references to Hartnell’s Doctor, and maybe even see first companions Barbara and Ian. (Hell, they even had lookalike actors, as used in An Adventure in Space and Time.)

Instead, Series 8 started out with the (admittedly likeable) trio of Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Strax, who are leaning on the edge of being overused. Meanwhile, Capaldi’s Doctor is basically written the same way as series 1 Sherlock in the show of the same name. In the next episode, which based on the title of “Into the Dalek” led me to believe we’d see more of Oswin!Dalek, we instead got Danny Pink, who seemed shoehorned in as Clara’s love interest now that she couldn’t fawn over The Doctor without it being uncomfortable for everyone involved. I felt Danny had very little on-screen chemistry with Clara, and considering his appearance as NOT Danny Pink in “Listen” was expecting far more mystery to his character. (I was absolutely convinced for about 20 minutes that HE was the Time Lord in the bed, or that he was similar to Clara in the whole ‘split across time’ way).

As the series progressed, and Capaldi acting more like Sherlock (with Clara slowly turning into how John Watson was written in series 1 of Sherlock), my unease became dissatisfaction. (Especially as series 3 of Sherlock also left me in a weird limbo about that show, not quite sure what to make of it.) I was slowly falling out of love with Doctor Who. I no longer looked forward to the next episode with eagerness, and I wasn’t tempted to read articles about the show (and avoided like the plague any article that involved Moffat talking about the show). I was so uninvolved with the show that the ‘reveal’ of Missy’s ‘true’ identity left me feeling like it was a twist for the sake of a twist, with more than one dig from Moffat towards those of us that felt we had a legitimate complaint about not yet having a female Doctor.

As series 9 starts to ramp up, I find myself at a crossroads. Doctor Who has been such a vital part of my life: as I wrote in that “Love Letter to Doctor Who”, I grew up when it was still a cult phenomenon, and I remember how desperate I was to find others to share my love for this show. It is as much a part of what makes me me as any other part of my personality. But the last two series have left me apathetic.

I don’t want to turn into one of those geeks that sit and talk about how much better a show was ‘back in the golden age’. After all, I’ve seen those episodes more times than I care to admit, and I will be the first to admit that they aren’t perfect. I remember the dark time when it was a long-distance relationship, relegated to trying to find the New Adventure novels and getting what I could on DVD. And I have to acknowledge that the show is still getting good ratings, with a fanbase that is as divided on the Amy/Clara love/hate debate as Star Trek fans are on who the best captain is. To continue the ‘relationship’ metaphor, it might be me, not you.

Doctor Who (series 8) ep 11Either way, I can’t get away from the feeling that I’m now in estrangement with the program: it’s not working out, but I continue to cling to it because I don’t want to end. I also feel like that if I just stick it out, the show may get over this hurdle.

Breaking up is hard to do, and I’m not sure I’m ready for that step. As I said before, every television show has a time or two when it’s not living up to what it could be. And, well, I can’t help but wonder if it’s just a case of Moffat overextending himself. He did, after all, write five – co-writing an additional three – of the twelve episodes. This does seem to be standard, but add in him juggling Sherlock series 3 during this time, and I have to wonder. So, maybe I just need to stick around for the next showrunner.

In the end, I approach series 9 with trepidation and low expectations. The trailer shows the return of Missy, as well as the Daleks … yet again. However, Clara finally started getting interesting to me in series 8, although I do wonder how much of that was because the similarity to Watson I mentioned above. (I do, after all, have a thing for sidekicks.) I will undoubtedly watch, but with a healthy sense of skepticism. A broken heart is, after all, hard to mend.

You can see more of Angie’s work over at her website.


Angie Fiedler Sutton

Angie Fiedler Sutton is a writer, photographer, and all-round fangirl geek. She currently lives in Los Angeles, and primarily covers geek culture, entertainment, and the performing arts. She's been published in Den of Geek, Stage Directions, LA Weekly, The Mary Sue, and others. You can see more of her work (and her social media connections) over at her website angiefsutton.com.

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