Kierkegaard told us that life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards. Some Doctor Who fans have become familiar with that feeling this year. Because Steven Moffat’s translation of that Kierkegaard axiom would probably be that Series Six has to be watched forwards but can only be understood when the DVD box-set comes out.
I’m a big fan of Moffat’s work in DW but something curious has crept into the DW experience since THE CHRISTMAS CAROL. From what I hear, I’m not the only one finding it hard to enjoy the episodes of Series Six (2011) on first viewing. “Enjoy” is a relative term for a DW fan. What’s not to enjoy when we’re watching new DW stories? When we talk of enjoying DW, we’re not asking if we had a good time watching it but rather how much did we enjoy it compared with the other stories/episodes we’ve seen. We wouldn’t be fans if we weren’t itching to draw up lists of things at every opportunity. However much we grouch about this week’s episode, we’ll still be there next week watching the opening scenes with excitement. It takes a truly catastrophic lack of enjoyment like FEAR HER to make us actually consider never tuning in again. Or one like TIMEFLIGHT to make us consider not carrying on with life. I never took wholeheartedly to David Tennant’s Doctor. The general breeziness of his portrayal lacked something for me. The less said about my views on Donna, the better. But I was still there every Saturday evening, excited that there was more DW to be watched. It was still miles better than anything else on TV, it just wasn’t another BLINK or GENESIS.
The Silurian story apart, I adored everything about Series Five (2010) and Matt Smith so I was a bit shocked on Christmas Day 2010 to find myself completely unenthused by THE CHRISTMAS CAROL. It seemed all over the place to me and extremely ropey. Until I watched it again on New Year’s Day and loved every moment of it. Now I regard it as one of the high points of New Who. At the time, I put it down to the effect of too many mince pies settling on top of the simmering resentment that adults only get a handful of presents at Christmas. I just have to keep reminding myself during the festive season that giving is more enjoyable than receiving. It’s also considerably less painful in the absence of a water-based lubricant.
Therefore, I was pretty shocked to find that I wasn’t “enjoying” Series Six (2011) anything like as much as Series Five (2010). Even after repeated rewatching, it seemed that something nebulous was missing. As the mid-season cliffhanger approached, I began to understand what was wrong. For the first time in New Who, Moffat was writing a story arc.
It seems to be accepted wisdom that every series of New Who since 2005 has had a story arc but Series Six (2011) is really the first. The series arc in Series One (2005) consisted only of The Long Game and the finale. The series arc in Series Two (2006) consisted only of Tooth & Claw and the finale. A series arc is surely a series where, at the end of each episode, you’re left wondering what will happen next in the series arc plot. It’s not one where you spend the week between episodes on tenterhooks, wondering how the next throwaway mention of “Bad Wolf” (S1), “Torchwood” (S2), “Saxon” (S3) or “Oops, where’s my planet gone?” (S4) will get crowbarred into the script.
Even when the arc motif became physical (the cracks in space and time), it drove individual story plots at best (the escape of Prisoner Zero, the despatch of the Angels, the loss of Rory), it didn’t drive the whole series other than the finale.
Series Six is the first real attempt by New Who at a proper series-long arc and that may be why it’s so disorienting. But I suspect that the problem also lies in Moffat giving us something of a halfway house. He gives us individual episodes which are fundamentally tied into a series arc and whose issues by definition cannot be wholly resolved within those individual episodes. I’ve no problem with that. Where then is the halfway house?
I said that these issues are tied into a series arc but it’d be more accurate to say that they’re tied into (presumably) the series finale and the mid-season cliffhanger. We don’t learn more and more from each new episode. At the end of DAY OF THE MOON, we’re left with questions which are then completely ignored the following week for a rollicking pirate story and then THE DOCTOR’S WIFE wherein the sole concessions to the series arc are the brief appearances of the Eyepatch Lady and the TARDIS scanner doing its pregnant/not pregnant routine which are as crowbarred in as all the Bad Wolf references.
Even when we get back onto the lost trail of the series arc with the Flesh two-parter, the sole connection to the series arc is the admittedly gobsmacking last minute where the Amy ganger is dissolved. In retrospect, we learn that the progression of the series arc has been happening off-screen. All along, the Doctor has been observing and planning and visiting acid monasteries in pursuit of the series arc mystery. But what’s the point of all that if it’s kept entirely from us? Yes, we see in retrospect that a lot of what the Doctor has been doing in the series has been geared towards solving the Amy/ganger question but we only get a sense of this in retrospect and it’s only in retrospect that we discover that there even was an Amy/ganger question.
There’s the halfway house, or the two stools between which Moffat has fallen in the first half of Series Six. The individual episodes have been so laced with suggestions that something more important is happening that those episodes in themselves feel strangely incomplete and a little unsatisfying. You could argue that that’s no different to the Bad Wolf arc except that those throwaway lines in no way overshadowed the individual episodes. When you’re watching one of the best dalek stories ever (and possibly one of the best Doctor Who stories ever) in DALEK, the line “Bad Wolf descending” is a nice teaser but pales into thingummy compared with the surrounding story. Whereas in THE CURSE OF THE BLACK SPOT, the final brief glimpse of the pregnant/not pregnant scanner is far more interesting and exciting that the whole other 40-odd minutes of the story. Also the appearances of the Eyepatch Lady are so bizarre that they too overshadow what’s happening around them.
The result is that, with the exception of THE DOCTOR’S WIFE, individual episodes lack a sense of internal cohesiveness and are diminished as stories in their own right by the nods to the series arc. That would be OK if that sense of something lacking was counterbalanced by a concrete and cohesive series arc driving our interest in the series from week to week but there isn’t one. Unless multiple online forum discussions as to who the Eyepatch Lady is and whether Amy is or is not pregnant count as a driving series arc for you. In the rare cases where the individual episodes progress the story arc, it’s either done off-screen (the Doctor plotting away without telling us) or it’s done as a last minute reveal.
To what extent are we prepared to sacrifice a satisfying story each week in exchange for it all making sense when we eventually buy the DVD box-set? I don’t think that the series arc should be used as a get out of jail free card for the ropiness of the first half of Series Six. When you’re ploughing through the series week by week and looking forward to every Saturday only to be left unfulfilled, the promise that it’ll all work out in the end isn’t much consolation.
Remember how in Series Five (2010) people were excusing Amy being an incredibly irritating character by hypothesising that she was being written that way because her annoyingness was going to be revealed as important to the plot. Even if that had been true, it still meant that in the meantime we had to put up with her being annoying week after week. No plot resolution could make up for that. It may be philosophically interesting to see the 10th Doctor brought low by his arrogance, but to achieve that, we first have to put up with him behaving like a swaggering prick boasting of all the famous women he’s shagged. I’d rather miss out on the latest riff on how are the mighty fallen, thank you, if it means turning the Doctor into a dislikeable character.
I never thought I’d find a Russell T Davies story more fulfilling than a Steven Moffat one. Christopher H Bidmead said in a recentish interview that RTD was a brilliant first draft writer which I think, in TV writer-speak, was intended as a crushing put-down. Presumably he would call Moffat a third or even fourth draft writer. The joy of “getting” a new DW story at first encounter will always outweigh for me any knowing satisfaction at “getting” it only on the third or fourth attempt.
If Moffat’s series arcs are going to follow this pattern, perhaps we could persuade the BBC in future to release the DVD box-set of every new DW series before the series is actually broadcast rather than after. That way I can fully enjoy my Saturdays again.