New Series Series Seven
"High dive into frozen waves where the past comes back to life" by Thomas Cookson 25/3/18
I think to truly reckon with my issues with Capaldi's era, I must reconsider how things were with the show beforehand, to maybe understand better my feelings of betrayal. Possibly from my making the wrong assumptions or missing the signs that all wasn't quite right or what it seemed.
There was at heart something beautiful about Series 7. Contrary to E. John Winner's conclusions, I feel the season was about the inherent beauty of the Doctor. However Moffat's long-accumulated baggage slightly sabotaged things. As the 50th anniversary season, it played as a checklist of Daleks, Silurians, UNIT, Weeping Angels, the Great Intelligence, Ice Warriors and Cybermen.
Alongside this was Clara's story. The girl who lost her mother unfairly, far too soon, but who's shown the universe's wonders and how to apply her pain and tragedy into helping others, loving life's preciousness, and eventually sacrifices herself to save the Doctor, and ensure his every victory isn't rewritten.
Series 7 could've started with the Ponds having decided offscreen to leave the Doctor. But Clara's arc needed the Doctor struck by tragedy first, before needing the help of an angel. It begins with Amy and Rory's divorce, and the Doctor acting to convince them they still need each other. There's some frustrating colliding interests here. Series 6 ended with the Doctor faking his death. However Moffat wanted to launch Series 7 with a Dalek story, which necessitated the Daleks realizing the Doctor's still alive.
The solution had the Daleks collectively reprogrammed into forgetting the Doctor, thus preserving Series 6's ending. But that solution now seems rash and poorly considered. In each Dalek story since, Moffat had to contrive having them somehow quickly relearn who the Doctor is, in order to make it personal again. Thus, giving them amnesia became pointless. We're given our first glimpse of Clara, trapped alone in a shell, striving to keep re-enacting her humanity, and for me that made her quirky flirtations all the more poignant, as desperate attempts to reach out.
But my issues with Series 7 are how its emotional thrust mostly happens in fits and starts. Indeed, the season is much more satisfying when skipping the weaker filler.
I wanted to savour the Ponds' final run, but instead found myself wondering where it was going or why it was even being drawn out so. Was it the Ponds' trepidation to commit to the adventure, flitting back and forth between modern Earth and life with the Doctor, meaning this final run kept stopping and starting? Was it the missed chance for an ongoing arc about Amy and Rory's emotional reconciliation instead of continuing like the divorce never happened? If that wasn't worth caring about, then what was?
Moffat perhaps tried too hard to make Amy and Rory's fate sadder. Two of the five episodes had to spuriously focus on Brian, to suddenly contrive a domestic life to the companions and someone who Rory's death would affect. The Power of Three saw the Ponds still unable to choose between their two separate lives. Maybe the choice they make at the end, with Brian's blessing, is a precursor to their eventual choice to jump together. But instead it leaves us wondering what took them so long to choose the Doctor? Something about it just rings false and feels excessively contrived. And it's in moments like that where the season's heart loses the viewer.
I went from dreading Amy and Rory's departure and its heartache, and wanting to savour the time they were still with us, to gradually wishing they'd sod off so we could start again on a new slate. I was left very disquieted by their eventual disappearance, but the Doctor's subsequent bereavement became an excuse for more fannying around. His giving up all hope and no longer saving the universe, because "the universe doesn't care" worked because Matt Smith made this grim transformation work by sheer force of will. And the idea of Clara as his angel, sent to give him hope anew, was beautiful. The Bells of Saint John, where the Doctor again retreats into solitude, this time as an ancient mad monk, was where my patience got tested too far, and I felt Moffat was just plain taking the piss.
But it's an especially beautiful experience watching The Rings of Akhaten and The Name of the Doctor together. Both are about the transference of the soul. We see Clara bearing her painful past and then stepping forward and taking a giant leap into the future. Sacrificing herself to preserve and immortalise the Doctor's legacy and her mother's. In a sense, Simeon personifies pain and grief, as his existence saps on the weakness and misery he causes. Clara becomes the hope that fights against it, remembering why the good moments matter.
Eccleston's season placed great emphasis on personifying the conflict between life and death. The Daleks themselves harvested from humanity's corpses, and the Doctor defined as the force of life and capable of regenerating and replenishing his various lives to boot. Clara in this instance becomes one better as an entity of many lives and backgrounds, saving the Doctor thousands of times over.
This was always the difference between RTD and Moffat. RTD homaged trashy reality shows in Bad Wolf for utterly crass reasons of touting for viewers who wouldn't ordinarily watch Doctor Who. Whereas what Moffat envisioned here was undeniably a story Doctor Who was designed to tell and thus a perfect match with the show.
We can see roots of Clara's story in The Double Life of Veronique or Somewhere in Time. But an amalgam of those can be told in Doctor Who, and told well. Yet there's no denying that, for much of Series 7b, the Doctor and Clara arc was so frustrating it just made the wait for her ultimate revelation all the more gruelling. Yes, the season was supposed to keep me waiting and toy with my anticipation, but I feel Moffat went around crafting the mystery wrong.
The Name of the Doctor's story elements I think could've been more threaded throughout the season in order to give a consistent sense that the mystery was going somewhere all along rather than being perpetually stalled until the finale crammed it all in. The whole egging of mystery seemed to involve the Doctor obsessed with Clara as a guinea pig. Every time he's told she's an ordinary girl with no knowledge of her future selves, he ignores this answer and still muses over who she is.
We want to know who she is, and he's supposed to speak for us when stating "She's not possible!" or "What are you?", but he does this so often, so petulantly, that it reminds us a bit too much of what Moffat wants us to be intrigued by again, it becomes alienating and we start to think he's being a neurotic dick.
I think this is behind the problem people have with Series 7 Clara. She and the Doctor just don't seem to really connect. He's hiding a personal agenda of interest he has for her, whilst she's usually just sassy and snarky with him. We rarely hear the sense of a developing relationship forming between them, so we don't really learn enough about Clara outside of the Neil Cross episodes.
I feel the problem is the Doctor's interest in her is written as far too clinical and suspicious. As though his insecure, adolescent, masculine ego has to make it all scientific and acknowledge no emotional need for Clara. Which again feels like Moffat constraining the character for his own insecure ego and really keeps their dynamic stubbornly from moving past first gear.
We could've seen much more of how the Doctor's past experiences with Clara's doppelgangers make him more fond and protective of her current real self. Or maybe Moffat could take a plunge and have the Doctor confess it to her and maybe have stronger drama come from a period of separation where she's frightened by what he tells her and she contemplates never travelling with him again, before deciding she'll face her fears after all. That would really give us an insight into Clara's character. But prior to the finale there's no such catharsis or change of state, and the teases from the Doctor that there should be answers soon will be become irritating.
Watching The Rings of Akhaten, it struck me that why the episode works so well as a performance piece is that Neil Cross is very much an actor's writer and is very generous in the empathy he invests in his characters and in what he gives his cast to work with, and from that we get a great team effort.
By comparison, I think Moffat is a quite selfish writer, keeping us at a distant disconnect whilst he has all the fun, hiding all his aces and always postponing the things he's teasing about, and usually writing his characters as caddish, aloof, sociopathic game-players. The frustration I felt was at being denied what could've been if the overstory was in other hands.
And maybe The Name of the Doctor gave us stronger moments of heart because the pressing anniversary forced Moffat to be generous in his gifts to fandom, and actually thinking what his younger fan self would want from his favourite show.
It was a story that drew from Moffat's love of Doctor Who and Sherlock's canon and of Victoriana's darker alleys. About history's worst monsters and pariahs and the need for heroes and angels and a beautiful emphasis on female solidarity and yonic environments of comforting protection.
Maybe Moffat's Doctor hasn't in truth been much of a hero. He sells Prisoner Zero out to the Atraxi where other Doctors might've helped him. When he saves companions or the universe, it's usually from threats he exposed them to in the first place. He's more likely to hide away than fight for justice or a better tomorrow (even instructing the Silurians to do likewise). He even starts Series 7 callously telling an escaped Dalek slave that he doesn't care to save the Daleks' victims anymore, just as his Eighth self told the Sisterhood. Maybe E. John Winner's suspicion Moffat secretly despises the Doctor stems from that or from The Name of the Doctor's premise reflecting Moffat forced to open his personal fan tomb of shame.
But in the Logopolis-inspired climax, we glimpse the horror of the Doctor's erasure. What a terrible universe it would be without him. There was a sense of healing past wounds there, of the show's rich history overpowering Moffat. Not the other way round. But it didn't last.
I think the tragedy of the Ponds' departure allowed Series 7 alone to withstand the retroactive erasure of the Time War and still retain emotional impact, even making Gallifrey's resurrection seem a deserved reward for the Doctor after all he's suffered.
Maybe had Matt Smith stayed for Series 8, we'd have seen the fruits of his healing from that, rather than Capaldi inexplicably becoming more of a brooding arsehole and even less of a hero, as though cheapening the effort to save Gallifrey and any purpose or consequence to it.
Clara and the Moment encapsulated the idea of the Doctor's female power animal, like how Skins' second series had Tony often turning to his shrewder little sister for advice. In Series 8, the Master seems to unleash his personal female animus for no reason or gain except ridiculous cheap shock value. Clara turns from the Doctor's angel to his abusive carer and has to suffer Danny's death to make her this time betray the Doctor's trust instead, because Moffat still liked the idea of Clara turning out to be a trap and contrived it so.
Maybe The Name of the Doctor saw Moffat, like George Lucas, become drunk with the power to obsessively fix the past (including his own seasons) until the original was erased. Consequently, by Series 8's end, everything beautiful about Series 7 had been overwritten. Its heart now twisted beyond recognition.