Thursday 14 November 2013

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary - Reflections on the Eleventh Doctor

Doctor Who is undoubtedly hugely popular at the moment, perhaps more than it’s ever been. The 50th anniversary special, which is less than two weeks away, will be simulcast in over 75 countries worldwide—and not just on television, but in movie theatres as well—in 3D, too. When I was growing up, such a thing would have been beyond belief. Even now, as the 50th approaches, it doesn’t quite seem possible. Until I’m sitting in the theatre watching the special on the 25th of November (alas, due to a computer mess-up, tickets for the 23rd were sold out before I could get some for that day), there’ll be a part of me that doesn’t quite believe it, perhaps not even then. But Doctor Who is big now.

Of course, that doesn’t stop the British tabloids from occasionally running stories about slipping ratings. They’ll carefully select the overnight ratings from episodes a few years ago, compare them to the overnights of a recent episode, and declare the show in trouble. They’ll completely neglect to mention that overnights don’t really matter to the BBC. The final ratings, which include everyone who watched the episode within seven days, are just as strong as ever. The only thing that’s really changed is that more people are watching the episodes at the times of their choosing rather than the air-times. A.I. (appreciation index) scores have also remained more-or-less stable, indicating people still like what they’re watching.

These tabloid stories also don’t take into account the massive increase in popularity Doctor Who has received in the rest of the world, outside of the U.K., particularly in the United States, since Matt Smith took over as the Doctor and Steven Moffat became showrunner. This is due in large part to the amount of publicity BBC America has given the show in the U.S. When the Sci Fi network carried the programme during the David Tennant years, they did little to publicize it (similar to how CBC handled publicity here in Canada). BBC America’s publicity campaign has brought in hordes of viewers. However, while publicity has brought the viewers in, the show has kept them watching. People obviously like it.

As with any period in Doctor Who’s history, there are, of course, people who are dissatisfied. There were fans who complained loudly about Russell T Davies. Before him, it was John Nathan Turner. Nothing can satisfy everyone. So it’s not surprising that there are very vocal fans who are disappointed with the most recent period of the programme. But from my perspective, there’s one major difference this time round: I’m one of the dissatisfied.

Don’t get me wrong. I still like the show. I still watch every episode. I am eagerly awaiting “The Day of the Doctor” and am very disappointed that I couldn’t get tickets for the 23rd and have to wait two extra days to see it on the big screen. But as excited as I am about the show, I cannot ignore the problems I feel it’s had in the last three years, problems that seem to be getting worse with each passing year.

Some people have accused me of deciding in advance that there are problems and then searching for them, twisting anything I can to fit my preconceived views. These accusations usually come in response to my pointing out examples of sexism in the series (most notably in response to my big and rather popular essay on the subject from last year). But honestly, that’s not the way it works. I believe very strongly in altering my views to fit the facts, not the other way around, and that’s precisely what has happened in this case. Because four years ago, I certainly did not expect to be writing an essay like the one linked above. Yet as the evidence built up, there was really no way to deny.

I started out very excited about Steven Moffat taking over the show after Russell T Davies left. As much as I loved the show under Davies’s direction, one of the things that gives the show its great longevity is the frequent injection of new blood and new ideas. Davies oversaw four seasons plus a year of specials. He did a great job, but he couldn’t have gone on forever. His decision to move on was the right decision, and I still believe that. During Davies’s time, Steven Moffat wrote some of the best episodes, particularly “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances” and “Blink”. When it was announced that Moffat would be taking over from Davies, I felt they couldn’t have made a better choice. He would be perfect for taking the show forward into another era.

And it started out pretty well. I loved “The Eleventh Hour”, Matt Smith’s first story as the eleventh Doctor and the first story with Moffat as the executive producer. I still love that story and consider it one of Moffat’s best. I even like Amy in it, even though she goes on to be one of my least favourite companions. She seems like a real person in it. But unfortunately, many of the seeds planted in the story (like her psychological issues) never bear fruit. They’re never mentioned again, and we never again see many of the characters in her life that we’re introduced to.

When “The Beast Below” aired the following week, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all, but it didn’t worry me. Doctor Who has had bad episodes over the years. Indeed, I could name stories much worse than “The Beast Below”. Sure, it was written by Moffat, who had such a great record up till then, but not everything can be a masterpiece. Even Robert Holmes, one of the most acclaimed writers of the original series, wrote a few duds over the years.

Then came “Victory of the Daleks”. The main problem I’d had with “The Beast Below” was the shallowness of the characters. This problem was repeated in “Victory” to an even greater extent, complete with a Santa Claus version of Winston Churchill. It concerned me that the episode presented only the good aspects of Churchill while ignoring his less savoury aspects (such as his horrendous attitude towards women). I remember reading an interview with writer Mark Gatiss where he was asked about this very thing and his response was that those kinds of issues were not appropriate material for Doctor Who. I was rather stunned by the response. Obviously, I disagreed completely. While it is impossible to give a one hundred percent accurate portrayal and some liberties may need to be taken for dramatic purposes, it’s also important to present something approaching historical accuracy as we know it. There are a lot of viewers who will absorb the information as if it’s true (never mind that they know it’s science fiction). I can forgive historical inaccuracy if the character is at least interesting, yet the version of Winston Churchill in “Victory of the Daleks” was a caricature with no depth whatsoever. He did and said things because the plot required him to, not because he had any actual motivation.

Nevertheless, two bad episodes in a row was hardly the end of the world, and I was still not put off. “The Time of Angels” was an improvement, seemingly a great return for the weeping angels—only to be let down by the second episode, “Flesh and Stone”. And on the Series Five went. I liked Matt Smith as the Doctor, and many of the stories, particularly “Vincent and the Doctor” and “The Lodger” were very good. Yet throughout it all, something felt as though it was missing. Somehow, this series just wasn’t doing it for me. Amy was a large part of the problem. I just didn’t find her a consistent character, and we never really learned anything more about her than what we learnt in “The Eleventh Hour”. Characterisation, in general, was poor, from Winston Churchill as I mentioned above to numerous other characters. I just didn’t feel that we ever got to know these characters—certainly nowhere near as well as we got to know the characters in previous years. There were other problematic elements creeping in, too, like a complete lack of any LGBTQ characters and what seemed like fewer roles played by people of colour (although on that latter one, I’ve never done an accurate count to confirm it). Moffat’s treatment of female characters was also starting to become apparent.

It was during the airing of Series Five that I first started contemplating writing a blog, and much of that came from thinking about how I would review the stories I was watching. There were a number of things holding me back though. First off, my wife was opposed to it, although that would turn out to be because she was concerned about how I’d feel if I started one and no one ever came to read it. Luckily, I’ve picked up a pretty decent readership. Another was my general shyness. But the biggest thing holding me back was that I had other concerns in my life that needed attending to.

As I mentioned last week, just a few days after “The Eleventh Hour” aired, I received notice from work that I was being laid off. I now had to find myself new work, and that would take up a lot of my time over the next while—especially as new work proved elusive. On top of that, I had to deal with problems from my former employers that affected my claim on employment insurance. The place where I worked had been bought by new owners at the end of 2009. I had worked for them for three months, but during that time, they had not been properly deducting taxes from employees’ pay cheques. In order to avoid being found out, they decided to refuse to give me a record of employment and instead claim that I had not been an employee, just a contract worker. The Canadian Revenue Agency had to get involved and perform an investigation. They were actually very quick about it, and ruled in my favour, so I was able to collect employment insurance. Nevertheless, the short delay of the investigation meant even longer delays on actually seeing any money. The stress of both that and searching for a new job meant I put aside any ideas of starting a blog for the time being. It would be around a year before I started thinking about it again.

It was a bit of a shame that Doctor Who, which I expected to be a comfort to me during a trying time, was just not satisfying me. It was a weird situation that I just wasn’t used to. I considered the possibility that one of the reasons I was not enjoying this series as much as previous series wasn’t because it wasn’t as good, but simply because I was depressed over losing my job. Unfortunately, that explanation didn’t quite work as I could still slip in a DVD of an earlier episode and find it just as I remembered it.

Nevertheless, by the end of Series Five, I was willing to consider the year a fluke. Clearly it was just the new production crew finding its feet (there had been more than just a changeover from David Tennant to Matt Smith and Russell T Davies to Steven Moffat—most of the people working behind the scenes had changed). Next year would be better now that they’d figured out what they were doing. And there had been good things in Series Five. I was very interested in the overall storyline (the cracks in time), and I liked the idea of a mystery that continued past the end of the series (“Silence will fall”) since Doctor Who hadn’t done that before.

By the time Series Six rolled around, my employment insurance was starting to run out and I still hadn’t found a new full-time job. Money was getting tight and my wife and I had to move to a smaller apartment to help save funds. With few other options open to me, I went into business for myself, offering my services as a professional tutor in direct competition with my previous employers and other similar services. I’m still doing that today. It has its ups and downs, and money continues to be tight (my wife is currently in school so can only work part-time), but we’re surviving—just.

As the first half of Series Six aired, I began contemplating a blog again, and for pretty much the same reasons as before. I was dissatisfied with what I was watching and that made me want to write about it. It’s kind of odd the way that works. Being really happy about the show during the Russell T Davies years never drove me to proclaim that happiness, yet later unhappiness was causing just that. And that was in part what ultimately held me back from starting the blog right away. I didn’t want to write a blog that was focused on negativity. Besides, there were enough Doctor Who blogs out there anyway. Mine would likely just vanish in a sea of them.

Over the next few months and during the gap between the two halves of Series Six, I began thinking about other options for a blog. I wanted one with a focus, not just one where I wrote about random things that happened to me. If I wasn’t going to do a Doctor Who blog, the next most obvious choice was something to do with roleplaying, the other major hobby in my life. I could write reviews of roleplaying products, primarily Pathfinder since that’s the game I play most frequently these days.

And so Of Dice and Pen was born in August 2011. My first post came right around the time the second half of Series Six was starting, and since I now had a blog anyway, I couldn’t resist writing Doctor Who reviews as well. Indeed, I knew from the start I was unlikely to stay away from Doctor Who. It wasn’t long before I expanded to writing about any science fiction or fantasy I happened to feel like writing about. The focus certainly remained on Pathfinder and Doctor Who, but a few other things started making their way in there, too.

Then, just a few months after starting, Of Dice and Pen went on an unplanned hiatus. There were just too many other things going on (particularly my wife dealing with health issues) that I just couldn’t maintain a regular schedule of posts. I kept intending to get back to it, but something else always got in the way. Eventually, I did get back to it again in the latter part of 2012, as is evident by the fact that you’re reading this now. I’ve been going strong for over a year now and have picked up considerably more readers than I initially expected to. I have reviewed every episode of Doctor Who from “Let’s Kill Hitler” up to “The Name of the Doctor” Those reviews pretty much encapsulate my views, so I won’t repeat them here. In addition to those, I have reviewed episodes of The Sarah Jane Adventures and Torchwood: Miracle Day, plus episodes of other shows like Red Dwarf and Wizards Vs Aliens. And, of course, a ton of Pathfinder. Along the way, I’ve thrown in a few other things as well.

I’m liking where the blog is at the moment and how it’s doing, and oddly I owe a lot of that to the recent period of Doctor Who. When I started writing this series of reflections, I commented that Doctor Who has had a large influence on my life. It has helped shape who I am. One might expect that my earliest experiences would be the most formative, but in many ways, the last three years have had more effect on me than any previous period of the show. This is the period that I’ve really become involved. Oh, I’ve been involved in things before, such as Science Fiction Western in my university days, but on the whole, I’ve tended to watch from the outside as other people do things.

But more than just being involved, I’ve started to speak out when things bother me. In my Reflections on the Sixth Doctor, I told the story of how, at a convention in the 90’s, I broke through my usual shyness to speak up against the way a presenter was speaking about Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant. It was a rare moment for me, as I’ve usually stayed silent when I’ve seen things that bothered or concerned me. But as I saw the problematic elements in current Who build up, much like at that convention, I couldn’t stay silent any longer. And not just about Doctor Who. I’ve begun to speak up about other things too. The eleventh Doctor’s period of Doctor Who has just helped to push me to that point.

It’s not that I never saw problematic elements in the show before. They were certainly there. But in general, the show was always progressing forward. Throughout Russell T Davies’s time, there seemed to be a definite drive to be inclusive and progressive. There were stumbles along the way, but when those mistakes happened, Davies was much more willing to accept that there had been problems and to strive to fix them. One criticism levelled against Torchwood: Miracle Day (and yes, I know people had many criticisms of that series, but I’m not looking at dramatic or narrative criticisms at the moment) was that new viewers could come away from it thinking that Jack was gay rather than omnisexual as he was generally described. It reduced visibility for bisexuals, who are even less well represented on television than homosexuals. Davies’s response at the time was to agree that yes, they had goofed there, that they should have made it clearer, and that they would strive to do better in the future (unfortunately, there has not yet been any further Torchwood for him to make good on that promise). In Steven Moffat’s time, there have been considerably more problematic moments, but his response to criticism is to turn defensive and insist that there is no problem to begin with. And that, in itself, is a problem.

But I should reiterate, just because I have problems with Moffat’s Who, that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped liking the show. It’s possible to criticize something and still enjoy it. Indeed, if I had been writing reviews on this blog during the ninth and tenth Doctors’ times, I wouldn’t have held back from criticism then either, and they’re amongst my favourite periods of this wonderful, long-lived show. I also don’t expect people to agree with everything I say. I think “Victory of the Daleks” is a terrible episode and “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe” is one of the worst episodes in fifty years, but I know there are people out there who like one or both of them, and more power to them. But I do hope people are willing to listen and discuss. Nothing is ever perfect, but it can always get better.

And Doctor Who will get better. I firmly believe that. Not everyone will agree on exactly when it gets better and some people will always consider now to be its peak. But for me, I look forward to whenever I personally think it’s better. Perhaps it will get better with “The Day of the Doctor”. Perhaps it will get better with Peter Capaldi as the twelfth Doctor. Perhaps, most likely, it will be after Steven Moffat eventually leaves and a new showrunner comes on board.

November 23rd will be a surreal day for me. I intend that when I see “The Day of the Doctor” in the theatre on the 25th, it will be my first viewing of the episode. That means, starting at 2:50 p.m. my time on the 23rd, I’ll be turning away from the internet for a couple of days to avoid spoilers. I’ll probably slip in some DVDs that day and watch those as a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary. I’m not sure which episodes yet. I’ll decide that on the day itself. I hope “The Day of the Doctor” will be good. I hope it will wow me. Matt Smith and David Tennant side by side ought to be explosive! Maybe Clara will even get a personality (I initially had very high hopes for her, but she’s ended up even more inconsistent and undefined than Amy).

Doctor Who has been a part of my life for virtually as long as I can remember. From my earliest memories of the Daleks exterminating the Controller in “Day of the Daleks” up to “The Name of the Doctor”, the show has always been there in some form or another. Fifty years is an incredible milestone for any television programme to reach. It’s impossible to know what the next fifty years will bring. Will there still be new episodes being made in 2063? Maybe, maybe not. But I’m certain Doctor Who will be around in some form, be it in books, audio, or even just fan fiction. Fandom will see that it survives. And I intend to be there too—a 90-year-old man still revelling in his childhood joy. And who knows? Maybe by then, I’ll have contributed a little to the show too—in the form of a book or maybe even an episode. I can dream.

Here’s to the 100th!

1 comment:

  1. The first question
    The question that must never be answered
    Hidden in plain sight
    You have been running from all your life