This August, the “new,” revamped Doctor Who returns for its eighth series (or 34th series, if you count the entire show as a whole). Peter Capaldi took over the lead role from Matt Smith in the final moments of the last Christmas Special, and Whovians are excited to see what the man who played Lucius Caecilius Iucundus and John Frobisher will do with the role, apart from gesticulate wildly and talk about his kidneys.
Unfortunately, Doctor Who has run a bit off the rails since show runner Steven Moffat took over from Russell T. Davies in 2010. Moffat wrote all the best episodes of the RTD era; but under his tenure, let’s just say the overall storylines and plotlines have been less than satisfactory. Not terrible, mind you; but it hasn’t been the greatest era in Doctor Who history. There have been problems.
Sure, they’ve pretty much wrapped up shooting the 12 episodes that the BBC magnanimously permitted to be produced for the eighth series. But that doesn’t mean I can’t lay down some new ground rules for the show, which Moffat will be required to follow under the International Treaty for Bloggers to Have Absolute Control of the Things They Love signed in Berne, Switzerland in 1979.
Spoiler alert, by the way. Sweetie.
Rule #1: The Doctor Does Not Wear a Costume
Yes, the Doctor has always worn a series of recognizable outfits, ever since he first tottered out of the TARDIS in 1963. But there is a clear, thick, glowing blue line between “recognizable outfit” and “costume.”
The first three Doctors wore mostly fashionable but anachronistic menswear, to visually underline the whole “time traveler” thing. The Fourth Doctor dressed like a hippie; he walked right up to the “costume” line, but did not cross it.
The Fifth Doctor was the first to wear a costume, and the next two doctors followed suit. And they looked ridiculous. These outfits were costumes primarily because they bore embroidered “question mark” symbols. They were not clothes the Doctor could have pulled off a rack; he had to have them specially tailored, and the last thing the Doctor would ever care about is having his clothing tailored. The Fifth Doctor was an ice cream truck driver with a celery fetish; the Seventh was that weird semi-homeless guy who sells Bible tracts for cash on Venice beach. (Or, he was just Sylvester McCoy — that seems to be how McCoy really dresses.)
And the Sixth Doctor, well, that outfit was just a complete shitshow. Please allow me to quote what I wrote on a thread on Reddit, where someone who clearly hates Doctor Who was defending that outfit:
Unfortunately, it is canon that the Sixth Doctor chose that outfit, as it appeared onscreen. It is also canon that the Eighth Doctor is half-human. It is also canon that the Second Doctor never regenerated. It is also canon that the Daleks were “created” by Davros, even though they were really merely humanoid Kaleds mutated in a nuclear war. It is canon that the Doctor’s full name is “Doctor Who.” These may be canon, but they were mistakes. Mistakes made by people who did not understand the show they were working on. Mistakes by people who did not care about continuity. Mistakes made on a show that has been going on for five decades.
Now, you can argue that a shitty costume is not a continuity error. But it is. Because, while the Doctor’s personality varies a bit across regenerations, he is still fundamentally the same person. A person who would not dress like a circus clown. A dandy, yes. But not a clown. The Doctor relies on the force of his personality and his appearance to get things done. He can’t get anything done if he is an object of derision. Even the Fourth Doctor, the most eccentric of all Doctors, would not dress in that outfit.
But there is one Doctor who especially would not dress that way. (Actually, two — could you imagine Nine in such an outfit, for any reason?) And this is the most important point of all: THE SIXTH DOCTOR WOULD NOT WEAR THAT OUTFIT.
As written, the Sixth Doctor would not be caught dead in such a getup. Yet it’s the first thing he does. This is just bad writing. Inconsistent. A decision made by a man who hated the show, and wanted it to fail.
I feel compelled to point out that Colin Baker hated that outfit, too. Lots of things were wrong with the Sixth Doctor era, but none of them appear to be the actor’s fault.
Which brings us to Eight. The Eighth Doctor’s original outfit was based on Doctors One through Three, and it was fine. By the time he finally returned for the 50th Anniversary, he was wearing an Eleventh Doctor style of outfit, anachronistic but with modern lines.
The War Doctor dressed like the bastard love child of Eight and Nine, with some Four-ish flourishes —which made sense. And while we’re on the “extra” Doctors, David Morrissey’s “Next Doctor” dressed like one of the first three, so as to play on audience expectations.
Nine was completely different from every other Doctor, likely because Christopher Eccleston was so ambivalent about the role. While he had one specific outfit he always wore, he looked like any guy on the street. Logically, the Doctor would wear ordinary clothes, so he wouldn’t be noticed (at least in modern Britain, where he spends most of his time for some unclear reason). But it’s well established that he dresses eccentrically because he’s eccentric, and this was a jarring change.
Ten was a sex symbol, so he dressed like one — modern, fashionable clothing, but with enough of a traditional or anachronistic feel to match the character. Eleven started out in the same kind of outfit, but over time he reverted to a First Three Doctors kind of retro thing, albeit cut in a modern style.
Which brings us to Twelve. So far, the only pic we’ve seen of P-Cap in costume makes him look like a stage magician. It doesn’t feature any obvious question marks, thank no god, but it seems to cross the line from clothes to costume. Please, Moffat, don’t do this. Let Capaldi own the role; don’t make him subordinate to a frock coat.
Rule #2: Clara Oswald Is a Fully Realized Human Being
Someone created a meme of the various nu-Who companions. I added the titles.
There is a problem with Clara Oswald. It is not a problem we’ve seen before with primary companions on the new show (primary as opposed to side characters who are also companions, like Jack, River, Mickey, and the Paternoster Gang). Rose was great; Martha was underwritten, but Freema Agyeman nailed it; and Donna was the Single Greatest Companion of All Time (sorry, Sarah Jane). Amy was fine, although hardly epic; her side companion Rory was actually the more compelling character.
But Clara. Apart from her very first, totally memorable appearance as “Oswin” in “Asylum of the Daleks,” poor Clara just hasn’t had anything good to do. Yes, she’s the “Impossible Girl” who saves every incarnation of the Doctor from the Great Intelligence, which I guess was supposed to be the whole point. We’ve had the Bad Wolf, the Girl Who Walked the Earth, the Bride, the Girl Who Waited — Clara is The Girl Who Saved Every Incarnation of the Doctor Even Though She Doesn’t Actually Appear Until 2012. Whatever.
The problem is, we barely saw her do this. The composite scenes where she interacts with the other Doctors, particularly the one where she directs the First Doctor to the “right” TARDIS, are super-cool. But we don’t get enough of this to justify the whole character.
None of this is Jenna Coleman’s fault. She’s fine. She needs more to do, more character development. In particular, she needs more development that doesn’t have anything to do with her relationship to the Doctor. River Song was ruined by this, by the way — a great, compelling, independent character every bit a match for the Doctor, until we learn that her whole life, her very existence, are dependent entirely on the Doctor. This diminished her. Don’t do the same thing to Clara. Don’t make the Doctor the meaning of her existence. Please, however:
Rule #3: We Don’t Care About the Companions’ Families and Home Lives
In the beginning, this was brilliant. Rose Tyler didn’t just disappear one day, have adventures in time and space, and then pop home to spend the rest of her life pining for the Doctor (sorry, Sarah Jane). Her disappearances had consequences, for her, her family, and her erstwhile boyfriend Mickey. Everyone, including Mickey and Rose’s Mom, and even her dead father, ended up having their lives irreparably altered because of the Doctor.
But then we met Martha’s family. And Donna’s. (Wilfred Mott was a great character played by a great actor, but still.) And Amy’s (her fiancé and best friend, specifically).
Enough families. It’s done. We don’t care. And speaking of companions:
Rule #4: No More 21st Century London Companions for a While
They’re all companions, and they are either not human beings, or they are human beings from a time or place that is not modern Earth. The Doctor’s very first companion, Susan Foreman, was not really named “Susan Foreman,” and was not a human and not from Earth.
We need more of these. Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, and the current incarnation of Clara were all from modern London. Yaaaawwwwn. Please, please tell me Danny Pink is a half-cyborg alien symbiote from the 5000th Century.
Rule #5: More Companion Sass
But the best companions — Donna, River, Jack, Romana, Ian & Barbara — don’t accept the Doctor as some all-knowing, godlike figure. They talk back, call him on his bullshit, and demand better of him. They are, as people if not intellectually or educationally, his equals.
We need more of this. So far, Clara has been Martha Part 2. Change this.
Rule #6: The Sonic Screwdriver Does Not Have Magical Powers
It is not a tricorder, a medical device, a weapon, a psionic energy device, a universal translator, a portable computer (although it has an onboard computer, obviously), or a sex toy. It is not there to get the Doctor out of situations when the writer can’t think of any other way.
Moffat has written lots of jokes about the sonic, and how it’s not a weapon. Yet Eleven abused the sonic as often as Ten did. Listen to the War Doctor, Steven — you put the words in his mouth. “They’re scientific instruments, not water pistols!”
Also, let’s briefly discuss “regeneration energy.” This is what Time Lords use to regenerate. NOT to reproduce asexually like tapeworms. NOT to destroy Dalek base ships. Jesus.
Rule #7: Every Villainous Species in the Universe Does Not All Show Up at Once
This is very much an Eleventh Doctor problem, and therefore a Steven Moffat problem. In “The Pandorica Opens,” every alien species that ever hated the Doctor — Daleks, Sontarans, Slitheen, Cybermen, everybody — shows up at Roman Era Earth to unite against the Doctor. It was a bit much to think these groups would cooperate (Battle of Canary Wharf, anyone?), but okay, sure, whatever.
And then… in The “Time of the Doctor,” the exact same thing happens again, except this time the Silence are on the Doctor’s side. Really, Steven? Enough. It was cool once, dull twice. Three times, and you’re gonna lose us.
Also, stop saying “The Doctor definitely, historically dies at this time and place, and it’s unavoidable.” You’ve done this twice. You lied both times. When the Doctor lies, it’s charming. When Moffat lies, it’s infuriating.
Rule #8: Scarier Daleks
Russell T. Davies spent several series introducing us to a number of lame, human-hybrid quasi-Daleks, because he wanted to have his cake and eat it too. He introduced the great plot line concerning the Time War; and in “Dalek,” the best episode of the Ninth Doctor Era, the last Time Lord faces off against the Last Dalek. Excellent.
But it ain’t Doctor Who sans Daleks, so we were subjected to a variety of fake Daleks. It was Moffat who had the sense to just bring the real Daleks back. Yes, in a perfect world, from a storytelling perspective, the Daleks should have stayed dead. But I get that Daleks are as central to Doctor Who as the TARDIS, the sonic, and the Doctor himself.
But they’re not scary.
The only time since 2005 I have felt the Daleks were the least bit menacing, apart from “Dalek,” was when the companions teamed up in “The Stolen Earth.” When they learn that the aliens that stole the Earth were the Daleks, Sarah Jane is terrified for her son’s life, and Captain Jack tearfully apologizes to the Torchwood team that this time, he can’t save them. The actors really sell their terror, and as a result, the audience feels it too.
Then, for the million billionth time, the Doctor faces the Daleks, and they inexplicably don’t just shoot him dead.
There have been some great Dalek moments in nu-Who (“We would destroy the Cybermen with one Dalek!”), but they’re rarely frightening. They’re mostly just hapless. I mean, c’mon, Eleven held off the Daleks with a Jammie Dodger. With a fucking cookie. Please fix this.
Rule #9: Don’t Erase Major Plot Points
Steven Moffat, you are genuinely, honestly, completely non-sarcastically, a genius at writing television. Coupling and Jekyll were brilliant; you wrote all the best RTD episodes of Doctor Who; and Sherlock is one of the ten best TV shows ever produced.
So you shouldn’t need basic writing tips from me. But it seems you do.
Writing good fiction is all about making the reader/viewer genuinely care about what happens to the characters. Because of this, what happens to the characters, and the choices they make, are important. Actions have to have consequences, whether they lead to success for the characters, or disaster.
When The Uncanny X-Men concluded the Dark Phoenix Saga by having Jean Grey kill herself, it was shocking, upsetting, and perfect — since any other, happier conclusion would have been cheating. It was the greatest storyline in any superhero comic not written by Alan Moore, ever. And, a few years later, when they brought Jean Grey back from the dead, I stopped reading Marvel comics forever. It was an unbelievable betrayal. If anything that has happened in the story can be undone, if actions don’t matter and consequences can be erased, then who cares about the story? Who cares about the characters? The writers don’t, so why should the audience?
And now, Doctor Who has had its Dark Phoenix moment. The Time War was one of the most important bits of back story in nu-Who. It defined the Ninth Doctor, and directly impacted the story arc of the Tenth. It was compelling, and memorable. The various references to the war (the Nightmare Child, the Skaro Degradations, the Army of Meanwhiles and Neverweres, the Could’ve Been King, the Horde of Travesties) all had a Tolkienesque kind of mystery and coolness.
And now, after the 50th Anniversary Special, it’s all undone. Gallifrey falls no more. Which is okay, taken out of context. But it’s disastrous from a story perspective. If the Doctor can go back and undo every tragedy, then nothing matters. There are no tragedies, no consequences. The Doctor is a god. And gods are boring.
Yes, in time travel stories, you can go back and change history, sure. Doctor Who always goes on about “fixed points in time” to try to get around this loophole; but the only time the Doctor can change a fixed in time is never ever, unless he really feels like it. Ask Lucius. Or Pete Tyler.
But this isn’t about the capabilities of time travel, it’s about good storytelling. This is not good storytelling.
Rule #10: Less Timey Wimey, More Logically Wogically
“People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually, from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.”
A Mr. S. Moffat wrote that line, and it’s great. Also, he’s been using it to excuse poor writing for three series.
Logic and internal consistency are more important in science fiction, fantasy, and horror, than they are in non-genre drama, not less. In order to suspend disbelief and care about what happens in a fantastical world, events must be comprehensible, the rules of the advanced tech or magic reliable. When you establish a rule, you have to stick with it.
But when the Doctor alters a fixed point in time or crosses his own timeline, and there are no demon creatures or other consequences? Timey wimey. Can’t rescue Rory and Amy from Manhattan? Timey Wimey. Clara shows up in the Eleventh Doctor’s timeline, but none of the others? Timey Wimey. Mels could have gone to Amy and Rory’s wedding to kill the Doctor, but doesn’t? Timey Wimey. Somebody’s building a TARDIS, but the storyline gets dropped? Timey wimey. The Doctor MUST die at Lake Silencio, I mean he MUST die at Trenzalore, I mean never mind? Timey Wimey.
Yeah, I get it, it’s impossible to consistently juggle every plotline and established fact presented in every episode since 1963. Fine. But could you be consistent within nu-Who, Steven? Consistent within your own set of series? Please?
Rule #11: No More Love Stories Involving the Doctor
Between 1963 and 2005, the Doctor was pretty aggressively asexual. We know he once had a family, which implied he once had a wife — but this was an avenue the writers never explored. And companions might have been attracted to the Doctor, but the Doctor was never attracted to them (that I’m aware of).
Russell T. Davies changed all that. The Doctor fell head-over-heels for his teenaged companion, Rose Tyler. This could have been icky, but it was handled very well, both by the writers, by Billie Piper, and by Eccleston and Tennant. It was a bizarrely (but appropriately for a family show) chaste love affair, but it was a love affair. And if Rose and the Doctor ever did “do” it, late one night in the Medusa Cascade while the TARDIS was recharging, well, there are plenty of rooms in there to do it in. (Of course there’s sex in the TARDIS, River Song was conceived there.)
And then there’s River, the Doctor’s fait accompli second (?) wife. We never see anything there, but come on. You know River’s a freak, right? And she’s from the 50th Century, where Jack Harkness is considered a prude.
Okay, fine. That’s enough. We get it. Time to move on. Let’s have an asexual Doctor for a while.
Also, let’s quit it with the puppy love from companions. Martha pined for the Doctor, and Amy tried to jump his bones. Let’s just put the Doctor’s “other” sonic screwdriver away for a series. Or ten.
Rule #12: No More “Doctor Who???”
Yeah, Moffat, we get it. You broke the fourth wall, and turned the series title into a plot point. “The First Question, the oldest question in the universe, that must never be answered, hidden in plain sight.” Blah blah blah.
Enough. Retire this.
Those are my new rules. Here are some suggestions, that personally think would improve the show.
Suggestion #1: Bring Captain Jack Harkness Back — as a Villain
Captain Jack is without a doubt the most popular character from nu-Who who isn’t the Doctor himself. He even got his own spin-off series. We, Whovians, love him, and we want him back.
At the end of Children of Earth, Jack Harkness murdered his own grandson to save every other child on Earth. He was, to put it mildly, upset about this. When he returned in Miracle Day, he appeared to be over it. This was disappointing.
Put the Captain back in the Doctor’s life, post-Children, as a villain. He started out as a charming rogue, breaking time law, and only the Doctor was able to make an honest man out of him. He was a part of the quasi-villainous Torchwood for a hundred years before Gwen Cooper compelled him to reform the organization. Villainy’s in his blood, when he doesn’t have friends around to keep him honest.
Have him doing something to save a bunch of people, but something terrible, a la Children of Earth. Make the Twelfth Doctor choose between stopping Jack, or letting disaster happen. Then have the Doctor refuse to do either, and save the day for everyone.
Or, you know who could arrive from the future to stop Jack? Far Future Jack, who is half-transformed into the Face of Boe. Okay, no, that’s a terrible idea. Seriously, Steven, DO NOT DO THAT.
Suggestion #2: Bring Back the Eighth Doctor
The only actor from Classic Who that could still portray the Doctor, because he’s not too old or fat, is Paul McGann. His eight minutes as the Doctor for the 50th Anniversary were brilliant, and should have been included in the actual episode (they could have cut all the flying TARDIS nonsense from the beginning).
The 1996 TV movie was disappointing, just as that other British-US coproduction, Miracle Day, was disappointing. (Seriously, BBC, keep it in the UK, okay? We Americans can’t be trusted with Doctor Who.) But McGann was great. Between 1996 and 2005, McGann kept Doctor Who an ongoing concern, doing tons of non-canonical audio stuff.
McGann is a great actor, and he’s committed to the role. (Ahem. I’m looking at you, Eccleston.) So use him.
This has worked before, obviously. Peter Davison was adorable in his brief, jokey appearance. Tennant and Smith were cute together in the 50th, although the story really needed Eccleston to work. And of course, Doctor Who has a long tradition, going back to 1972, of multi-Doctor episodes.
Bring back Paul McGann again.
Suggestion #3: Mention Miracle Day
With the possible exception of the events of “The Stolen Earth” and “Journey’s End,” Torchwood: Miracle Day presents the most history-changing global event in the Whoniverse. There is no way those events would not have consequences that would present themselves as story points on Doctor Who.
Miracle Day mentioned the Doctor; the Doctor needs to mention Miracle Day. And the 456 invasion from Children of Earth. “Hey Doctor,” Clara asks, “where were you when Earth’s children were being kidnapped to use as human bongs?” “Um, with River, in 13th Century Angkor Wat, attending an orgy.”
We know you love fan service, Moffat, and that’s great. This fan service would serve a purpose, by tying together the various Who-related shows. It’s also a cool story opportunity (bringing back the 456, or doing something with that silly immortality ribbon running through the Earth’s core). Use it.
Last Suggestion: Keep River Song Dead
Look, unlike some so-called Whovians, and despite my criticisms above of how you wrote her, Steven, I love River Song. She’s a great character, and Alex Kingston was perfect. And I hated to see River Song go.
But that farewell scene between Eleven and the holographic River from the Library, on Trenzalore with the Paternosters looking on and wondering what the hell’s happening, was great. Obviously, what the fans really wanted was for the Doctor and River’s last meeting to be a mirror of their first — the Doctor recognizes River, but River has never met him before. You took that away from us, Steven.
But the goodbye you wrote was fine. So let’s leave it there. We have closure. We’re good.
However, you know who we don’t have closure with? Donna Noble. Please, please, OH NO GOD PLEASE, fix her. Donna Noble CAN NOT spend the rest of her life a flighty, trivial former temp who won the lottery. She needs and deserves a better fate. You know what I said about actions having consequences? FUCK THAT. FIX DONNA NOBLE.