Doctor Um?

TV Here we are then at the close of another year of Doctor Who. If you've been following my reviews over the past few months, you'll know that having enjoyed this past series, I've sometimes sounded a bit forced. Partly its because after having been writing these amateur texts for the past thirteen years it's becoming increasingly difficult to find a new way of expressing myself and sometimes having to force myself to have an opinion even if it's a shrug emoji.

But there's also been something niggling at the back of my nod about why this hasn't quite gelled sometimes in a way that was obvious even in the odd episode of the otherwise horrendous series eight.  During series eight, I grokked pretty quickly what I didn't like about its portrayal of the Doctor, but with series eleven, because I've been genuinely positive overall about the thing, it isn't until now I've been able to articulate what isn't quite working.

Some caveats.  The following is not a blame game or anger for the sake of it directed at anyone in the cast or indeed the writers.  There's obviously a particular approach which has been taken with the series, so some of this probably due to personal taste.  Everything which follows comes from a place of love.  It's a bit like those moments when The Daily Show with Jon Stewart would do a piece about Obama when they thought something had gone amiss.

The nub of the problem is this.  Much of what we understand about the Thirteenth Doctor is from Jodie's portrayal.  If you try to dispassionately listen the text she's been given and the character she's playing it's largely in the realm of the so-called generic Doctor who often turns up in spin-off fiction when a writer, usually someone who isn't a fan, tells the story of a kind of quirky magician who really doesn't have a relationship to the incarnation which is supposed to striding across the pages.

The most obvious examples of this can be found in Eighth Doctor material either from the period in the novels when his character was only just in the process of formation amongst writers who only had the TV Movie as their source material, or in later years when those who don't seem to be steeped his deep multi-media history have been commissioned to write a story for him.  Alex Scarrow's Spore is a decent example of this.

Now I appreciate that to some extent as Terrance Dicks has said, the Doctor doesn't change and its about what the actors bring to it, and Jodie brings a tremendous amount.  But every version of the Doctor, even in the writing, has a specific interior life or set of behaviors which the audience can relish or not and this shifts over time depending on the writers (the Tom of season twelve is a very different figure to Tom in season eighteen).

But there are numerous choices which are working against her, which stop her burning as brightly as she should, which take the edge off her individuality, which stop us from becoming entirely involved with her story.  Essentially this boils down to the companions and lack of returning elements outside of the core premise related stuff which can't not be part of the adventures.  There's a reason why the Third Doctor was given his TARDIS back so soon.

Initially I enjoyed having multiple companions in the TARDIS, the fam, because it allows for multiple points of view on a story from varying experiences.  They're all compelling characters well played, even taking into account how underwritten Yaz so often is.  Even in the two episodes which are notionally supposed to be about her and her family, the story material shifts pretty sharply to other concerns.

On the one hand can you can compare this to the original TARDIS team and gang who accompanied the Fifth Doctor.  Except stories were told across a far longer duration which meant that there was plenty of time to service all the characters for the most part (poor Nyssa) and give the Doctor a fair shake of the action.  Plus having more companions increased the storyline's direct connection to the Doctor and increased the stakes.

The problem with having this many characters in a much smaller episode duration is that its rare that every character has something meaningful to do and also that the number of supporting characters decreases which potentially lessens the sense of place.  Again this isn't true of all stories - the historical pieces in particular are very well drawn.  But watch how many subplots are between companions rather than a companion and a day player.

The knock on effect of this is to give the Doctor less to do.  Notice how often the story elements which are usually the Doctor's responsibility are handed off to the other characters reducing her "moments of charm".  Graham is utilised as the voice of experience even though she's at least a couple of millennia older than him.  On numerous occasions Yaz or Ryan are off investigating whilst the Doctor is stuck in a room somewhere doing science or investigation.

It's only when Jodie is alone and interacting with a stranger, usually an antagonist, that she really glows because she's finally allowed to be the focus of the scene, its not about the other characters reacting to her behaviour.  The Dalek in Resolution.  The Frog in It Takes You Away.  Finding and entering the TARDIS for the first time in The Ghost Monument.  Finally she's granted a close up of more than a couple of seconds that isn't about her pulling a face.

Quite often the direction of the scenes leads to plenty of reverse of shots of the companion's reacting to whatever the Doctor is doing which is seen in glimpses rather than staying on her work.  On one hand this means that when the camera does stop and really looks at her she's captivating, but it also leads to becoming almost an afterthought within the blocking of some scenes when she should be the star attraction.

Unlike Star Trek, Doctor Who is not an ensemble show.  For the most part.  Although at times the companion has offered the audience's viewpoint into the adventure, the Doctor should always be the centre of attention and the stories should always be within his orbit, because otherwise what's the point?  The least successful stories are always those in which a ton of action occurs across multiple scenes and then the Doctor arrives and fixes things.  The Time Lord should be in the thick of it.

If I had a preference, it would be for the series to continue with Yaz as the main companion - Graham and Ryan feel like their story's been told.  Their story arc is ultimately disconnected from the Doctor and often feels like Chibbers returning to a place of safety because he's otherwise overwhelmed by the business of writing Doctor Who.  It should be the Doctor who steps up and offers the healing wisdom, be the fixed voice of calm not just tossing out insults.

The grand gesture in series eleven was that none of the episodes would feature a returning monster in order to give a new audience a jumping in point and they don't feel like they have to have a Doctor Who fan site on hand to understand any of it.  For the most part, giving Thirteenth her own adversaries works well even if, again because of the sheer amount of regular cast members, these antagonists only really exist in relation to the TARDIS team's reaction to them.

Except its usually returning elements which help to define a new incarnation and one of the more exciting results of having a different actor in the role is in seeing how they embrace these kisses to the past.  This also includes how a new production team absorbs them into the new way of doing this things and how they'll bring their own version of what has already been established.  The Cybermen are in a constant state of flux.

Sometimes a companion is carried over.  Third and Fourth both had very different relationships with Sarah Jane, just as Eleventh and Twelfth both approach Clara in a completely different manner.  As well as reformatting the series, having UNIT in the Third Doctor's first story offered a glimpse into the dandy's opinion of the military in comparison to the clown.  Chibbers apparently doesn't want us to see how Thirteenth, Kate and the Osgoods would react to one another.

But monsters are equally important.  Again with the Cybermen, but notice how it allows Second in Tomb to enunciate just how different his approach to intervention is to his predecessor.  When RTD reintroduced the Daleks in 2005, he did it half way through the series because it offered the chance for another wave of publicity and arguably the Ninth Doctor didn't really come into his own until he was staring down the lens of his mortal enemy.

Imagine if Resolution had been broadcast mid-series with a heavy publicity campaign telling us the Daleks were back but not quite as we remember them.  People would tune in out of curiosity to see if the relaunch was better than the iDaleks and also to see how Jodie's Doctor dealt with their return.  Much as happened back then, they would have seen her in a stand off against her foe in some of her strongest moments so far.

Like I said, all of this comes from a position of love and it has to be said I do love the Thirteenth Doctor.  I just wish she was given more to do, narratively treated better.  She should be the centre of attention but as I also said Chibbers seems more comfortable writing other things almost as though he's so afraid of cocking up this awesome responsibility.  So he's presenting story arcs which could be an element of any series which just happen to be playing across the TARDIS's travels.

Making the show now seems like its become a real ordeal between having to deal with potentially international buyers, licensees and tons of scrutiny from all sides, fans to media.  Plus, in cutting the duration of the series down by two more episodes, there's even less chance to catch lightening in a bottle or articulating what it is that you're trying to achieve.  Let's see if lessons have been learnt when series twelve is broadcast.  Whenever that might be.

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