Occasionally I am asked why I don't review Doctor Who
on the blog. The answer is pretty simple: I do not regard Doctor Who
as a serious SF drama. I enjoy watching the show, especially with my girlfriend's son, but usually as a way of switching my brain off and just having fun without having to worry about analysis. If I did try to analyse the new show and review it with its myriad plot holes (which at this point are so numerous as to make the show resemble Swiss cheese) and often very ropey writing, I would probably go mad.
"Splendid fellows, all of you."
It was not always so. I grew up with Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, although I didn't count myself a fan until Remembrance of the Daleks
and the final two seasons of the original show. I spent most of the first half of the 1990s collecting large numbers of Doctor Who
stories on VHS. A few years back I revisited some of the more classic stories, like The Caves of Androzani
and The Ark in Space
, and found (dodgy effects and being filmed on video aside) that they still stood up quite well. The new series has had some very good moments, such as The Doctor's Wife
, The Girl in the Fireplace
and, most recently, Cold War
, but generally speaking it has been mostly incoherent and confused.
There has been much discussion in fan circles of why this is so, with some going as far as saying they are going to 'break up
' with the show. Some have cited the decision to move the show to mostly self-contained 45-minute episodes (rather than the 25-minute, three-to-seven part serials of the old series), which severely curtails the time available for plot setup, resolution and characterisation. There may be something to this, as Doctor Who
does not have a regular cast outside of the two or three central figures and each story needs to establish its own cast, location and threats, which is a tall order in just a few minutes. This is the inverse of most shows, where the cast and location are fixed and a small number of guest cast come in every week who can be set up quite quickly. However, I don't think it's the whole story, especially as most of the two-parters (which are roughly the length of the old four-parters) suffer from the same issues.
More convincing is the argument that the show has become way too dependent on season-spanning story arcs: Bad Wolf, Torchwood, Mr. Saxon, the disappearing planets, the crack in time/exploding TARDIS, the 'death' of the Doctor and now the mystery of Clara Oswald. In contrast, the old show had exactly two season-spanning story arcs in twenty-six years (three, if you count the much looser 'E-space' trilogy in Tom Baker's final season). Doing a season-spanning epic story arc is great if you have a really compelling storyline for it. At the moment it feels like the story arcs are there simply because it's 2013, and almost every series has a big story arc of some kind, so Doctor Who
needs to do one as well. Doctor Who
has never been a trend-follower, so it's not entirely clear why it has to be one now.
However, I have also been pondering if one of the problems with the new series has been that it puts way too much work on the shoulders of a single person: the showrunner/head writer. Since 2005, Doctor Who
has been run by just two people: Russell T. Davies (2005-10) and Steven Moffat (2010-present). Davies and Moffat have both been in charge of the show and have also been the head writers, each penning several episodes per season in addition to handling rewrites on other writers' scripts as well. There have been other producers (a veritable revolving door of them, in fact) but their roles on the show seem to have been more like facilitators and enablers rather than having a strong say in the creative process.
Going back to the original series, there is a stark difference in how the creative workload was handled. Going right back to 1963, the first showrunner, Verity Lambert, was not a writer. She made business decisions and had a strong say in the creative process, but the creative direction was handled by her script editor, David Whitaker, and the individual writers. An associate producer, Mervyn Pinfield, was also present to help with production issues, although in reality Pinfield was actually only present due to BBC concerns that Lambert, who was only 28, might be too inexperienced to handle the whole show; this criticism was withdrawn after Lambert overruled the BBC executives who didn't want to include the Daleks in the series and was shown to be right, with a massive boom to the show's profile and popularity following their introduction.
Throughout most of the show's history this pattern was repeated: a strong producer focusing on the big picture but rarely actually writing episodes, with a script editor who handled the creative direction of the show. The show's most creative and interesting periods were usually the result of an excellent producer and a good script editor working in concert: Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks during most of the Jon Pertwee era and Philip Hinchliffe and Robert Holmes during the early Tom Barker period are the most notable examples of this. Later partnerships were more troubled but also successful on occasions: the pairing of Graham Williams as producer and Douglas Adams (yes, that
Douglas Adams) as script editor resulted in one of the very best Doctor Who
stories of all time (City of Death
) but also several of the very worst. John Nathan-Turner's controversial, long period in charge of the show in the 1980s was marked by bursts of creativity led by strong script editors, most notably Eric Saward in the late Davison and Colin Baker years, and Andrew Cartmel at the end of the original run.
Did these guys blow up the TARDIS? Maybe. Yes. No? Who cares?
This set-up may also be more familiar from American television, which is often handled by two or more executive producers with a number of other writers working for them. Game of Thrones
is handled by two showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Lost
was handled by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. Battlestar Galactica
was handled by Ronald D. Moore, who focused on the show's writing, and David 'not that one' Eick, who focused more on production. Babylon 5
divided its executive producer credits between head (and often the only) writer J. Michael Straczynski, business facilitator Doug Netter and on-set producer John Copeland. The Star Trek
shows of the 1980s and 1990s may have been overseen by Rick Berman, but he devolved a lot of authority to individual showrunners, such as Michael Pillar, Ira Steven Behr, Brannon Braga, Jeri Taylor and Manny Coto, each of whom in turn was supported by other writers and producers. And so on. Running a TV show is a big job, and arguably requires more than one person in charge.
Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat are interesting in that both are quite capable writers (the latter rather moreso than the former, to be frank) but in both cases their writing seems to have suffered when they had to handle production duties as well. Moffat wrote several of the very best episodes of the new run when he was working as just a jobbing writer under Davies, but since he became showrunner the quality of his scripts has nosedived. Even great concepts he created under Davies, such as River Song and the Weeping Angels, seem to have gone off the boil under his stewardship of the whole series. Arguably the role of the showrunner-producer should be more focused in one direction or the other. If Moffat wants to keep writing, he needs a strong production partner who can keep an eye on the show as a whole (and who perhaps can advise Moffat when, for example, he has incomprehensible and overly-confusing story arcs for two seasons in a row). If he wants to run the show in an oversight capacity, he needs a strong writing partner who can focus on the show's creative direction.
As it stands, the constant comings and goings of the sub-producers and the seeming lack of anyone equal in rank to Moffat as producer means that the show is way too dependent on just one person, which is definitely a recipe for disaster.