The difficulty with Doctor Who, and why I love it anyway

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It’s gone from beloved cult show to global phenomenon, but it can be awkward to be a Doctor Who fan at times.

Let me preface all this by saying I dearly love Doctor Who. When I was a kid, I used to get up early on Saturday mornings to watch the classic series on UK Gold, and I watch the new series with something not far off religious fervour. But that doesn’t change the fact that it can be hard to be a fan sometimes.

Even at its best, Doctor Who is still a wildly inconsistent show. It regularly see-saws between pretty lousy and absolutely brilliant

Admittedly, Doctor Who fans have it easier than Star Trek fans in terms of the ratio of good to bad. But even at its best, Doctor Who is still a wildly inconsistent show. The Christopher Eccleston season was one of the most consistently good of the new series, and even that didn’t have a really good episode until almost halfway through. For every good story, there’s usually at least one bad story, and Doctor Who regularly see-saws between being pretty lousy and absolutely brilliant.

To illustrate my point: Blink is a strong contender for new Who’s best episode, despite featuring the Doctor himself very little. It’s a great, tightly-paced story with the show’s best new monster in years, and it’s genuinely terrifying. The previous experimental, Doctor-lite episode, Love And Monsters, on the other hand, ended with the implication that Danny from Hustle was having a sexual relationship with a paving slab. It’s one of the worst things that has ever been on TV.

Weeping Angel

Even the best Doctor Who episodes tend to have bits to them that don’t work: The Last of the Time Lords was going really well until the power of belief turned the Doctor into cosmic space Jesus. Genesis of the Daleks – rightly regarded as one of the show’s all-time classics – which saw Tom Baker go back in time to try and prevent their creation, features inexplicable giant land clams at one point. And while there have been some great ‘event’ episodes of new Who, like The Parting of the Ways and The Big Bang, they’re really starting to suffer from ridiculous threat escalation. The End of Time, one of the very worst stories of the new series, saw the Time Lords try to unmake the entire universe. And once you’ve done that, it’s hard to raise the stakes any higher.

The last couple of years have seen Doctor Who flail about a bit, partly in an attempt to return somewhat to the multi-part serial format

The problem’s made worse by the fact that the show basically has to learn how to be good again every three years or so. The fact that the Doctor can regenerate was a brilliant idea which ensured the show’s longevity, but it does run the risk of having a particular incarnation rub the audience the wrong way, as was the case with Colin Baker. Every Doctor’s first few stories tend to be a bit problematic – as already mentioned, it took Eccleston’s season a while to get good, and it wasn’t until Sylvester McCoy’s second season in the role that his Doctor really found his niche.

The last couple of years in particular, since A Good Man Goes to War, have seen Doctor Who flail about a bit, partly in an attempt to return somewhat to the multi-part serial format of old. It doesn’t have the problem of filler episodes as much as the classic series did, but the new focus on drawn-out story arcs in the Matt Smith era has resulted in the River Song storyline becoming confusing to the point that it’s tiresome and off-putting, especially to new viewers. And it’s definitely not helped by the writers’ insistence on having someone ask “Doctor Who?” every five minutes – it was funny the first time, but now that the Ultimate Question is actually a plot point it’s just stupid.

River Song

But then, just when it looks like the show’s wearing a bit thin, another fantastic story will come along, breathe fresh life into Doctor Who and transform it into unmissable television again – not unlike the regeneration process, really. The Eleventh Hour did it after David Tennant’s lacklustre last couple of years, and The Day of the Doctor did it for Matt Smith’s tenure, finally giving Tennant the bow-out he deserved after the disaster that was his grand finale. It was a terrific story in its own right and a near-perfect celebration of 50 years of Doctor Who, and definitely one of the highlights since its return to TV in 2005.

The Day of the Doctor was a near-perfect celebration of 50 years of Doctor Who, and definitely one of the highlights since its return

It’s actually ingenious, in a strange way. The real difficulty with Doctor Who is that you can never stop watching. While the last episode you saw may have been a bit naff, you never know when another instant classic is going to turn up and make you fall in love with it all over again, as the 50th Anniversary special did for me. It’s inconsistent, unpredictable and constantly in flux, just like the Doctor himself, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. If nothing else, it’s never dull. Here’s to the next 50 years.

 

All images: BBC

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