We’re already over a quarter of the way through the long awaited season fnarg of Doctor Who. It’s like buses. You wait ages for an episode, and then four come along in one month.
To begin to compare the new era of the 11th Doctor and new show runner Steven Moffatt (the Moff) with that of 10th Doctor David Tennant and former supremo Russell T. Davies (RTD): One surprise is how much is not different (perhaps it’s a surprise because of all the hype about some of the superficial changes , e.g. to the music and logo, along with the expectations such a radical influx of new cast and crew must bring). The format has stayed the same, and the season pattern established by Russell T. Davies (which I will perhaps elaborate on later) has so far been strictly adhered to. Explicit references have been made to RTD continuity.
In terms of the differences, though: A defining characteristic of the RTD era who was the “big moment”. He made Doctor Who powerful, gripping drama; bringing an almost cinematic sensibility and a charged emotional dynamic. Often the “big emotional moment” (as characterised by Doomsday, for example) but also the spectacular (Voyage of the Damned), or even apocalyptic (Turn Left).
So far, in the new series, the magic has been in the small moments (custard fish fingers, the Doctor never interfering then seeing a crying child). Signalling the big moments (and there have been a couple) takes a back seat to richer, more complex story telling, varied moods which intermingle humour, drama and terror deftly and sure-footedly. For example, the Doctor’s mistake in bringing Rose back 12 months late in Aliens of London and the devastating impact on her mother was a huge statement about the human consequences of the Time Lord’s adventuring. RTD saw the drama and nailed the grief and sorrow in a beutifuuly acted and scored sequence. Amy’s intermittent encounters with the Doctor are in effect a play on the same device, but I think we are going to see a more complex, slow burning response in the development of her character and her relationship with the Doctor. The problem with going all out for the big moments is how badly they misfire when they miss their mark (for example in the rest of Aliens of London). We know how wary RTD is of re-writing killing the immediacy of a narrative, but when you are also the chief writer that’s a big risk. I have no idea how the Moff likes to work but his complex scripts have the feeling of having been very carefully crafted.
The Moff has written near-perfect episodes in the past, matching his complex (often timey-wimey) story telling, some clever and skillfully twisted, some with an emotional wallop to rival RTD’s (The Girl in the Fireplace, Forest of the Dead). They’re always surprising. It might be too much to hope with an increased output that they would all be as good, but they’re still fabulous (I was behind the sofa within 30 seconds of the start of The Beast Below) and we’re in the middle of what promises to be an exceptional two-parter.
Matt Smith I thought would be wonderful; he really hasn’t disappointed. While the inspiration of the 2nd and 5th Doctors (Patrick Troughton and Peter Davison respectively) have been noted, the incarnation he reminds me of most (besides Tennant) is the 8th (Paul McGann) in an entirely good way: There’s a little bit of that wild, reckless joi de vivre that McGann brought, coupled with a real sense of danger and unpredictability. Karen Gillan I had no idea would be this good. The Moff’s written her a great part, but the way she conveys the hope and disillusionment she experienced as that lonely child we saw at the start of the Eleventh Hour is spectacular.
When the Doctor came back in 2005 it was hard to believe it was real, and that it could actually be good. I’ve been gushing, and I don’t want to jinx things, but five years on the show is shaping up for its best season ever.