What happened to the genius who gave us the hilarious Coupling, and wrote Who stories like The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead? If you look back through this blog you'll see that I've sung his praises. By writing Who and Sherlock simultaneously, it seems he just bit off more than he could chew. Good storytelling is the bedrock of a programme like this and, for me, that has just not been there.
This season (and, sadly, most stories since Mr Moffat took over) have fallen into two types:
"edited highlights" (the plot escaped the writers, and the episode came over as a series of extracts - more like a trailer than a coherent story. Examples: Before the Flood, The Woman Who Lived) and Laboured centre pieces (instead of a plot. Examples: The Witch's Familiar, Face the Raven).
My capsule reviews of the 2015 season:
The Magician's Apprentice Witty but chaotic. Superficially entertaining but highly forgettable.
The Witch's Familiar A let-down. Glib, with implausible story ideas coming out of nowhere. No progression, no sense of drama, just "What silly idea will he come up with next?". In this case, it was Clara in a Dalek.
Under the Lake A spaceship within a spaceship; crew dying and being replaced by ghosts. Tedious.
Before the Flood More of the "edited highlights" syndrome.
The Girl Who Died Brought back to life "because I can...although I'm not supposed to". A retread of an idea that didn't work the first time (Russell T Davies' The Waters of Mars).
The Woman Who Lived. Maisie Williams couldn't bring it to life. Her immortal character should have been fascinating and empathetic but, for me at least, simply wasn't.
The Zygon Invasion Again, little story progression, just a plunge into something already in progress and a lot of rather clumsy parallels drawn between aliens and immigrants. The wisecracking character of the Doctor was annoying despite Peter Capaldi's still-excellent performance.
The Zygon Inversion Too much emphasis on what Hitchcock called a McGuffin (the Osgood Box) which in no way justified the time spent on it. Sadly, the script again did Peter Capaldi's Doctor no favours, and it's hard to believe that the "big centrepiece" where he imitates an American game show host was the actor's idea.
Sleep No More Very much an "edited highlights" type episode. Where was the plot? Neither Capaldi nor (also excellent) Reece Shearsmith was able to revive this one.
Face the Raven A whole episode centred on Clara "dying", trailed ad nauseam in advance and maddeningly laboured, complete with "sad" music to hammer it home to us how tragic it all was. The idea was supported by a threadbare "story" full of holes - obviously there were numerous different ways to save Clara. The only way that killing off the character would have worked would be to have her die suddenly and unexpectedly and perhaps be lost in time simultaneously, so that there was no prospect of a return. Awful.
Heaven Sent An ordeal of an episode, a long way from my idea of entertainment. Yes, Capaldi was great but it must have been almost as much of an effort for him to struggle with such a bleak and empty script as it was for the Doctor to "break through".
Hell Bent An improvement on the thoroughly depressing Heaven Sent because it wasn't so extreme, but was still more annoying than entertaining for trying to outsmart the audience right through. Once again, Steven Moffat undermined his own history by reviving a character who supposedly could not be saved.
The showrunner certainly seems to go for arbitrary titles - shouldn't the last two episode titles have been swapped?)
So, a lot of moaning from me. In an effort to be constructive, I think the show still has potential to improve a lot. What I would like to see is
- A return to 25 minute episodes with 4 or 5 episodes per story. It was demonstrated very well back in the 1980s that the programme didn't really work in 50 minute chunks, so why not return to the tried and trusted structure? Plenty of successful and long-running programmes have episodes of 30 minutes - 25 when you subtract the ads on commercial channels.
- 10-15 minutes of coherent exposition in each episode, and a cliffhanger at the end of each
- Consistency with the pseudo-science outlined in the programme. For example, the Tardis should not fly! William Hartnell said in the pilot episode "This doesn't roll along on wheels, you know" and it makes no sense for it to fly. The "science" in the programme tells us that the atoms of the ship are disassembled and then reassembled in the new time and location, so the flying makes about as much sense as telling us that an Airbus 380 can be speeded up by dematerialisation. Similarly, the inside is in a different dimension from the outside, so "turbulence" should have absolutely no effect on the interior.
- A less self-obsessed (and, by extension, less self-important) Doctor and companions. The show at its best was about overcoming monsters and evil genuises, not endless introspection. Jon Pertwee's version was one of the more arrogant Doctors but this never (in my opinion) made him unlikeable. Only when the production team chose to deliberately emphasise this aspect (in the Colin Baker era) did audiences start switching off in disgust.
- A new composer or two. The old series had a little variety and that is seriously needed here. No-one would have called Dudley Simpson's scores subtle at the time, but that's how they seem put alongside Murray Gold's plodding, obvious (and apparently non-stop) compositions.
- No deus ex machinae! The story resolution should come out of something we've already been shown, not thin air.
I know things are unlikely to change radically while Steven Moffat is at the reins, but maybe when he moves on (in 2017?) we might get some of this.