It should go without saying, but there is a spoiler warning up through the latest Christmas Special and the trailers for Series 8.
Doctor Who Series 8 approaches, and the preview material in the form of trailers, stills, and interviews has started to fly. I plan on blogging series 8 as I did series 7.2, so I thought I would give my thoughts on some of the things which have recently materialized on the interwebs.
First, let me expound on a few choice quotes from Steven Moffat on what we can expect in Series 8:
“It’s not a fairytale”
One of the strange paradoxes of fandom is that while fans are obviously great at telling you what they do or don’t like they usually haven’t the faintest idea of why. In recent interviews for the upcoming eighth series of Doctor Who, Steven Moffat seems at pains to reassure disgruntled fans (who love to complain about what they don’t like about a given season) that he will be giving them what they, ostensibly, want. One hopes that in this regard Moffat tells his own story and isn’t simply bowing to fan pressure. Moffat’s era has occasionally chased fan approval a bit more than is healthy. “You all loved the arc-driven Pandorica storyline of series 5? Great! Series 6 will be entirely arc-driven! Wait, you say series 6 was a bit overwrought and too serialized? Well, then series 7 will be a sequence of standalone ‘features’.” This year, the “watchwords” (Moffat’s word, not mine, and a worryingly defensive one) of the upcoming series are things like “darkness,” “consequences,” and “not a fairytale.” It seems that the latest criticism that the show finds itself addressing (or redressing) is that under Moffat’s watch Doctor Who has become, in Amy Pond’s words, a “bit fairytale.”
The problem with this criticism is that most people have no idea what they’re talking about. What they think they mean by fairytale and what a fairytale is are two different (if not totally unrelated) things. In general, I think most of the confusion is caused by Moffat himself for consistently branding his vision of Doctor Who as a “dark fairytale.” This is certainly not untrue. The Amy Pond frame narrative especially makes this explicit: The little orphan girl who is whisked away in her nightgown by a mysterious and youthful sprite to a life of adventure in which she is constantly torn between her desire to never grow up and the basic inevitability of her own maturity and mortality. Strangely, the one season which plays with these themes most directly is the one which seems to be the most universally adored: Series 5. So much for fans knowing what they want.
The thing is, Moffat didn’t turn Doctor Who into a dark fairytale. Doctor Who has always been a dark fairytale. Even the word “dark” is a bit superfluous (as Moffat himself points out): Darkness, fear, and even violence are often central aspects of the traditional fairytale. Moffat was simply clever enough to realize this and explicitly engage with it. Blogger Philip Sandifer has called attention to Doctor Who‘s use of the Victorian fairy and fantasy tradition. Last year I delivered a paper on the use of fairytale tropes in New Who, but here’s the thing: I used as many examples from the Davies era as the Moffat. Davies may not have set out to write a fairytale, but he did because the fairytale tradition is baked into Doctor Who. The TARDIS has always been bigger on the inside. The companions have always been torn between the magical and the mundane. Eucatastrophe (Tolkien’s word for the sudden “good turn,” the joy of the happy ending) has always been the logical foundation of the Doctor’s world and narrative.
I’m not arguing that these themes should stay hidden in the background. I think Moffat did excellent work in bringing them to the forefront. I don’t think fans actually want Moffat to abandon the fairytale premises of the show, as to do that would be to abandon the very premises of the show itself. And I trust that Moffat knows that. When he says “series 8 will not be a fairytale,” he is translating into common terms what he knows people are really asking for: A change of tone. Not because the tone didn’t work but because, as the Doctor says, “Times change and so must I.” It’s simply time for a change. For argument’s sake, let’s replace the annoyingly inaccurate term fairytale with another word: How about whimsy? I think what fans are asking for, and what Moffat is agreeing to implicitly, is that Series 8 be less whimsical. Hence the so-called “watchwords” which are all similarly difficult: It will be “more serious”; there will be “consequences” and “effects” on the characters; it will sometimes even be painful; the Doctor himself will be less “reassuring” and “approachable,” even uncontrollable.
Even though I don’t want to endorse a line of thought which says that “serious” is good and “fun/whimsy/silliness, etc.” is bad (a worldview to which Doctor Who is diametrically and vehemently opposed), it’s hard to argue that this new tone isn’t a good idea. Certainly the stories over the last season or two have sometimes been lacking in long-term consequence. The repeated not-deaths of the Doctor, Rory, and Clara have created a sense of impenetrable safety around the main characters. “The Name of the Doctor” and “The Time of the Doctor,” while both excellent episodes, present (within the space of three episodes) diametrically opposed fates for the Doctor. While that’s not necessarily a problem, it’s difficult to see how Clara can save the Doctor in “Name” when she basically rewrote that story out of existence a short time later in “Time.” I cheerfully relish “timey-wimey” paradoxes in Doctor Who, but when the characters so freely and easily rewrite their own histories (and consequently identities) it does make you wonder whether there are any tangible consequences for them. The “big friendly button” which resets time in “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” has become reliably standard. It’s time to bring back that sense of the weird and the uncanny and the fact that while maybe time can be rewritten, maybe it shouldn’t always be.
“There are consequences for choosing to live like this”
Philip Sandifer has argued, mostly convincingly, that Moffat’s tenure has not been as chauvinistic and characterless as is sometimes argued by fans and critics. However, it is hard to deny the vocal part of fandom who have occasionally felt underwhelmed by certain issues of characterization and ongoing story arcs. To put it perhaps most generously, while Moffat has without doubt pushed Doctor Who to ever increasing heights of experimentalism, a certain amount of character has been sacrificed on the altar of this goal. To be clear, I am not arguing that the Eleventh Doctor, Amy, Rory, River, Clara, the Paternoster Gang, et al. are featureless, one-dimensional, boring, sexist, or some other similarly derisive adjective. I like, and to some extent even love, all of these characters. Mostly they work and are consistent and well-developed.
Occasionally, however, in the achievement of gonzo plots, the ball has been dropped. For example, it would have been good to have more of the aftermath of Amy’s trauma dealt with directly onscreen rather than being (largely) limited to metaphor (one reading of “The Girl Who Waited” is about Amy’s feelings of abandonment and numbness) or extradiagesis (the prequel to “Let’s Kill Hitler” and the web series “Pond Life” which show her, respectively, worry about the whereabouts of her baby and break up with Rory). I’m all for dealing with trauma in an oblique and non-fetishizing way, but that’s not the same as dealing with it so abstractly that your audience feels as thought it wasn’t confronted at all. Surely there can be a middle ground.
To that end, Moffat promises “consequences” for our characters:
“If you have people back home, if you run away it’s going to have an effect on them. And it’s not necessarily always going to be lovely. And does the Doctor make you better? We want to make it feel that these adventures can hurt…”
It is tempting, I will admit, to have a sarcastic field day with this statement. One could, for example, point out that Russell T. Davies had figured this out back in 2005. That depicting consequences was, in fact, what he excelled at. Only four episodes into series 1 (“Aliens of London”), Davies had Rose deal with the effect of her disappearance on her family. With Martha, the doctor-turned-soldier, he questioned the positivity of the Doctor’s influence. And don’t even get me started on Donna’s realization that traveling in the TARDIS is “not always lovely” and “can hurt.” But I won’t mention all that, because this isn’t a competition.
In fact, what Moffat seems to be teasing is a return (or perhaps a resurgence, as “return” sounds too reactionary) to more character-based storytelling. If he manages to combine the interior emotionality with his own penchant for thoughtful and thought-provoking plot arcs over the course of the whole series, the result could be electric. This is, after all, what the best episodes of the Davies and Moffat eras have both achieved: Stories that engage both the head and the heart. To be fair, he has started to effect this change already. Clara’s first two episodes started strong, but after a slightly lackluster early run as the new companion the latest “of the Doctor” trilogy finally allowed the character to really shine. She was finally emotionally invested in the Doctor’s story, and so we are at last invested in her’s. None of this “see you next Wednesday” nonsense: Give me the Clara who can’t bear to be separated from her Doctor, no matter how old and fragile and hopeless he seems.
All of this sounds like I’m complaining and Moffat-bashing. I’m really not – I love his work. He has achieved such a high standard that it makes his occasional slip-ups and oversights all the more obvious and frustrating. These have largely been gradual and progressive errors, and Moffat has already begun the slow work of course-correction. More optimistically, let’s take a look at some of the series 8 promotional material in light of all this conceptual stuff.
Teaser 1: “Am I a good man?”
The Twelfh Doctor in silhouette against a sparking TARDIS console. In an eerily calm voice-over, he asks, “Clara, be my pal. Tell me – am I a good man?” Imprinted on his eye (the window to the soul), Clara worriedly admits: “I don’t think I know who the Doctor is anymore.” Speaking of souls…
Teaser 2: “I see into your soul, Doctor…”
In the sparking TARDIS console room again, only this time the Doctor (still mostly shadowed and out of focus) the Doctor stands at the console holding a phone. He appears to be electrocuted: Surges illuminate his skeleton and his double hearts. A Dalek (or possibly Davrosish) voice declares: “I see into your soul, Doctor. I see beauty, divinity…hatred!”
To make a long story short, we get a very punk electronic soundtrack; Snatches of Clara looking distinctly unsettled; A very intense-looking Twelfth Doctor. As well as the obligatory glimpses of upcoming action sequences and monsters, we get some intriguing dialogue: “I’m the Doctor. I’ve lived for over 2000 years. I’ve made many mistakes. It’s about time that I did something about that.” When Clara asks where they’re going, the Doctor replies: “Into darkness.” This time, when asked if he is good, Clara simply admits that she doesn’t know.
Putting it all together would seem to support visually what Moffat has said. The quick-witted banter between Clara and the Eleventh Doctor have been replaced by a palpable sense of apprehension. Though all new Doctors wonder what kind of man they are, this Doctor wonders whether he is even good, and Clara seems unable to straightforwardly answer him. He is driven by some sort of mission, and one gets the sense that, righteous or not, it is definitely dangerous. Clara looks at times as though she’d rather be somewhere else.
All of this has to be taken in the light of what it is: Promotional material. As discussed, Moffat and the BBC know what the fans want (as opposed to what they think they want) and are trying to entice them to watch. I hope and expect for the same old Doctor Who that swings wildly between fantasy and science fiction, comedy and melodrama, satire and pastiche, action and philosophy. Series 8 won’t be all serious-minded psychological horror any more than series 5 was all lighthearted fable. What these trailers are here to do, as well as attract viewers, is establish tone.
The tone is certainly in line with Moffat’s “watchwords.” Definitely “serious”: Neither the Doctor nor Clara so much as crack a smile during any of these trailers. The Doctor seems to be meditating on the consequences of his “mistakes,” and planning some sort of recompense. We get the briefest glimpse of new male companion, Danny Pink, jumping away from an explosion in the school where he and Clara teach, perhaps pointing towards some “the ones left behind” narrative a la Jackie Tyler or Mickey Smith. As for Moffat’s stated intent to make the Doctor less affable, Twelve certainly seems to be that. When he tells you that they (and thus the show and thus we, the viewers) are going “into darkness,” you really believe him. Furthermore, you believe that he’s taking you with him whether you want to go or not.
The hope is that this new, radical shift in tone is not merely superficial but truly a fresh, distinct style. Moffat recently claimed this series changes the “rhythm” more than any other series since the advent of New Who, which is a pretty bold claim given how distinctly Moffat changed the rhythm of the show from the Davies era (compare the Davies Christmas specials to something like “A Christmas Carol”). Moffat’s interviews and this new footage are intriguing and exciting, and I hope those darned leaked scripts and episodes don’t dilute what should be a fantastic voyage of discovery across the new series.
Looking for “something to pass the timey-wimey” and whet your appetite until the premier? Why not catch up with my Doctor Who / Buffy podcast, Kat and Curt’s TV Review? We’re up to 59 episodes, approaching the end of the Russell T. Davies era (sob), and going strong.