Over the holiday break, I let my kids start watching Doctor Who. We started with what I’d argue is one of the best written episodes of the rebooted series, Blink, in which we meet the most interesting villains of the franchise, The Weeping Angels. (Incidentally, the episode is directed by a woman, and the scarcity of female directors has been a huge criticism of the series.)
One of the reasons this episode works so well is because The Doctor and his companion, Martha, are relegated to guest star status and Carey Mulligan more than capably pulls the dramatic weight of the story. The Weeping Angels only can move when they are not observed; when seen, they transform to stone. They cover their eyes to give the appearance that they’re crying. They feed off the energy that occurs when they touch someone and send the victim hurtling through time. (They’re after The Doctor’s TARDIS, which as a time machine has a nearly endless supply of that kind of the energy.) It’s a sharply written episode that embraces the “timey-whimey” theme of the show in a way that’s subtle and fresh.
Moffat went on to become the main writer and showrunner of Doctor Who, for better and for worse. Since then, he’s smashed through nearly every convention the show had: the Doctor’s limited number of regenerations; crossing time streams; the dumpster fire that’s become Gallifrey (once destroyed, it now exists in perpetuity in a painting); endless paradoxes; sonic sunglasses instead of a screwdriver; River Song.
“My Doctor” is David Tennant, the 10th incarnate. My husband prefers the 11th, Matt Smith. The 12th version is Peter Capaldi, who just announced a few weeks ago that he’s leaving at the end of the year. Capaldi’s last season was uneven at best. I thought his companion, Clara (a holdout from the Matt Smith era), who we learn is addicted to time travel, overstayed her welcome. I wasn’t that thrilled with guest star
Arya Stark Maisie Williams, who was able to live forever but not really remember anything. I only liked two episodes over the past two years: Sleep No More, which explores the consequences of sacrificing sanity for productivity; and the super-hero-themed Christmas special, The Return of Doctor Mysterio. In Sleep No More, The Doctor is there to help solve a problem without his Doctor-ness getting in the way. Clara helps, instead of becoming a distraction and/or a sideshow. (In other words, they get shit done.) The Christmas special is an uncomplicated, thoroughly enjoyable homage to Clark Kent/Superman.
There is nearly a year-long gap between Capaldi’s seasons as Moffat turned his attention to the massively successful modern reboot of the Sherlock Holmes series.
Eventually, both series suffered from Moffat pulling double duty. The first three episodes of Sherlock are sheer fun, updated versions of classic cases. The second series started out all right but ended up … killing Moriarty. Online Offal’s First Law of Entertainment is that a show is only as good as its villain. Doctor Who has the Daleks, the Cyber Men and the aforementioned Weeping Angels. Sherlock’s nemesis was Moriarty, the consulting criminal. The third series explored who the new villain might be: Watson’s wife, Mary, a former spy? Sherlock’s own drug addiction? And, again, Moffat broke the rules and along with co-created Mark Gattis created another Holmes sibling, Eurus, completely shattering the Doyle canon.
If you think about it, The Doctor is a lot like Sherlock. Besides the established canon and legendary fan base, the characters themselves have a lot of similarities. Both are brilliant eccentrics with faithful companions who sometimes have to clean up their messes. As mentioned above, they have some pretty potent enemies. Moffat indulgently left both characters to nearly become parodies of themselves, and in the process sacrificed his demonstrated ability for storytelling. (He also wrote the fabulous romantic comedy Coupling which I recommend you spend an afternoon binge-watching; it is well worth your time.) The Sherlock series drifted from Sherlock and Watson actually solving cases (and you know, helping the citizens of London) to Sherlock literally showing off his mental prowess for no other reason than self-reflection and navel-gazing.
Peter Capaldi’s Doctor has almost literally become a time-traveling Mick Jagger, an aging rock star refusing to see the limits of his age and his abilities. The Doctor took 4.5 billion years to hack through a diamond wall only to have his memories of Clara erased and my eyes nearly rolled out of my head. I was almost like a Weeping Angel myself, watching those episodes.
Capaldi’s announced he’s going to leave the show at the end of the year, and speculation has begun to mount about the new Doctor, with many, myself included, hoping it will be a woman or at least a person of color. (I’d settle for the Rock or Olivia Colman.) But I wish Moffat takes this time to either regroup or pass the baton onto someone who can breathe fresh life into one or both series.