For the last couple of weeks I've been trying to put into words just why I've found the most recent and just-concluded season of Doctor Who so underwhelming. What's standing in my way is the fact that somewhere around the second season I lost the ability to think or write critically about the show. Oh, I've produced the occasional piece, but what they've all had in common was an emphasis on a single character or plot arc that I could get a handle on, while the show as a whole seemed to elude my grasp. From the moment it exploded onto our screens in 2005, New Who's defining characteristic seemed to be its cheerful and relentless determination to ignore all the rules of good writing in favor of spectacle and, as Jackson Lake so accurately put it in "The Next Doctor," wonderful nonsense. Russell T. Davies came out and said that he wasn't interested in coherent plots or nuanced characterization or subtle moments, that what he wanted was to elicit wonder by any means necessary, and that is exactly what he did in his five years at the show's helm, constantly cramming more gunpowder into his cannons in order to achieve ever-greater explosions (and compensate for the audience's growing desensitization). To criticize Who in its third or fourth season for not making any sense and for substituting bombast for coherent writing seemed not only pointless but hypocritical, because that's what the show had been doing from day one, and whether you thought this was brilliant or horrible depended entirely on where your personal threshold between wonderful nonsense and just plain nonsense lay, and whether Davies had already crossed it.
So, when I come to assess my disappointment with Steven Moffat's first season at the series's helm, the first question that must be asked is, has the show actually gotten worse (worse, that is, from a series that wasn't trying to achieve, and was in fact actively avoiding, many of commonly accepted definitions of good TV) or have I simply had enough? Has the switch to a new Doctor and a new companion simply been the shock I needed to lose all investment with a series that had long ago relinquished any claim on my interest, or has something actually gone wrong? The answer, I think, is yes, in that Moffat has kept many of the series's most exasperating attributes, and jettisoned much of what allowed me to enjoy it regardless. At some point, I stopped caring about Davies's stories except as delivery methods for the characters and some agreeably zany moments, and though Moffat and his writing room have delivered better writing, it's not so much better, or so different in its essence, from the kind of stories Davies delivered to make me care again. Meanwhile the characters, main, recurring, and one-offs, which were often the show's saving grace under Davies's reign, have been allowed to fester.
These are both contentious points, so let's go through them one by one. During most of Davies's run, Moffat was known as The One Who Could Plot. Which I was on board with, because he'd written three of New Who's best stories, and even the Library two-parter had its moments. Then I watched Jekyll, a miniseries that seems not to have been written so much as spewed onto the page, which changes the tenor, direction, and even genre of its story with each of its six episodes, and gestures at a dozen endings, none of which materialize. It ought to be taught in screenwriting classes as an example of what not to do, and it made me take a closer look at Moffat's contributions to Who. What I discovered was that Moffat actually wasn't very good at plotting, possibly because he didn't tend to do it very often. "The Girl in the Fireplace" and "Blink" have only the barest hint of a plot, and it's the same one for both of them--the non-linear relationship between a human and the Doctor. What makes them special is their structure (which was also one of strong points of Moffat's previous series, Coupling), and the fact that they use time travel as more than a means of delivering the Doctor into the story and taking him out again at its end. "Silence in the Library"/"Forests of the Dead" is, plot-wise, a mess, piling nonsensical last-minute saves on fast-talking gobbledygook on utterly arbitrary rules and limitations ("Don't think you'll regenerate!" is, I still believe, one of the series's most risible lines) in the best Davies tradition, but with a bit of Moffat-ish flare. The only really well-plotted story Moffat produced under Davies's reign was "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances," which is an un-Moffat-like story in many other respects as well--it gives the companion something to do instead of sidelining her, the prominent guest star is a man and not fixated on the Doctor, there's no timey-wimey stuff--and is an achievement that he has yet to recreate.
So no, Moffat isn't a good writer. He's a clever writer, and that cleverness is on display at certain points in the season--"The Eleventh Hour," River Song making sure that the Doctor will be where she needs him, when she needs him by leaving him messages on galactic landmarks he's sure to visit at one point or another, the time-traveling jumble that is the first half of "The Big Bang" (though personally I could have done without the explanatory recap halfway through the first act--honestly, if viewers haven't figured out the concept of time travel by this point, there's probably no hope for them). But for the most part what we've been getting is the Russell T. Davies special--very loud, very bombastic nonsense. I've seen a lot of references to this season as having taken Who into the realm of fairy tale and relying on fairy tale logic, and I just don't see it. Fairy tale logic is still logic. Martha using the Master's mind-controlling satellite network to beam a wave of rejuvenating faith into the Doctor is fairy tale logic (and I still maintain that that ending could have worked if its execution were not so sentimental and over-literal). The resolution of season 5--the Doctor's enemies band together in an elaborate, galaxy- and time-spanning plan to imprison him all based on the false belief that he's the only person who knows how to fly the TARDIS, and to do so they create a trap from Amy's memories including Rory whom Amy doesn't remember because he was sucked into the crack and erased from existence, except that Amy has remembered other people who were sucked into the crack and erased from existence, and despite having been erased from existence and her memory Rory is able to make Amy remember him just in time to become an Auton and kill her, only then he's fine again and helping the Doctor, and it turns out the only way to save the universe is for the Doctor never to have existed, so he winds back his entire life but still manages to leave Amy with a memory of himself even though it never happened, which is enough of a germ for River Song, who shouldn't remember the Doctor either or have a TARDIS notebook because unlike Amy, she didn't grow up with a crack in her wall pouring the universe into her head, to prod so that Amy can bring the Doctor back into existence by the sheer force of her main-character-ness, which somehow causes Rory to not only remember the Doctor as well but also remember his life as an Auton, including the two thousand years he spent guarding a prison that shouldn't have needed any guarding because it was absolutely impervious to harm and also impregnable unless you happen to be the person who is already inside, which seems like quite a design flaw in a prison made for a time traveler--is not. That's just throwing stuff at the wall and hoping that the speed and sheer tonnage of your throwing will obscure the fact that you have no idea what you're talking about.
None of this, of course, was unexpected. It's one thing to write a single mind-bending, brilliantly structured episode to break the routine of a season of traditional Who-ish running-and-shouting stories, and quite another to be in charge of the whole season, and given that Davies served up this kind of overcooked mess on a regular basis for five years and only truly lost me in the last of them, there's no reason why Moffat taking the same approach should have been so alienating. Except, of course, that there is. The other thing that Moffat's Davies-era episodes were known for was their memorable and instantly beloved guest characters--Captain Jack made a great companion (if a significantly less great series lead) and Sally Sparrow's name was bandied about as a possible fifth season companion within seconds of the announcement that Moffat was taking over the show. When I considered what kind of Who Moffat would create, I didn't seriously expect him to deliver a season of "Blink"s or "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances"s, but I trusted that he would write his Doctor, companion, and guest characters with the same wit and verve he had applied to the characters in these episodes, and that hasn't happened. Or, to be more precise, the wit and verve are still there. Moffat is still the best at writing characters that are instantly funny and appealing. What he can't, or won't, do is develop them beyond that point.
You see this in the near-total lack of character continuity over the course of the season. In "The Vampires of Venice" the Doctor happily sentences an alien race to extinction in order to preserve a single human city, while in the Silurian two-parter he's so invested in the notion of human-Silurian coexistence that he brushes aside the latter's genocidal tendencies and even the Dr. Mengele-like proclivities of one of their scientists, whom he embraces as a brother. River Song was an Indiana Jones-like character in "Silence in the Library"/"Forests of the Dead," brash and secure in her own abilities, effortlessly in charge of her team. In "The Time of Angels"/"Flesh and Stone" she's more of a femme fatale, whose arrogance conceals insecurity and a deep fear that the Doctor will find out the truth about her past, but in "The Pandorica Opens"/"The Big Bang" that fear and insecurity are gone, even though this episode is the earliest of the three in her personal chronology, and the event she doesn't want the Doctor to find out about has already occurred. In "The Beast Below," which is only her first outing with the Doctor, Amy displays a deep and unearned insight into his character, just as Rory does in "Vampires of Venice" when, only hours after meeting the Doctor, he identifies the dangerous effect he has on his companions.
It's even more blatant in the series's lack of interest in developing any of these characters--you could spin River's personality changes as character growth, but only if the series seemed to be interested in her as something other than a means of kickstarting the plot and moving it along. Even worse is Amy, who actually grows flatter and less interesting as the season draws on. There's a lot of potential in her introduction in "The Eleventh Hour"--both the courage and attention to detail that bring her to the Doctor's attention in the first place, and the horrible way in which he screws up her life over the course of the episode--but it's never explored. Amy doesn't grow or change over the course of the season. Like River, she's used to move the plot, and at the end of the season she's actually the McGuffin, not because of anything she chose or did, like Rose in "The Parting of the Ways," but simply by virtue of having slept in a particular bedroom. The closest the season comes to developing Amy is strengthening her romance with Rory, which would be aggravating even if Rory were not such a non-entity in himself, who needs to be transformed into a millennia-old killer plastic robot to become even the least bit interesting, and actually ends up backfiring on Amy, because there's no groundwork laid to make me believe her when she tells me that she loves Rory in "Amy's Choice," and what actually shows up on screen is a woman who is dismissive to the point of cruelty to the man she's promised to spend the rest of her life with.
All of this, of course, comes down to the Doctor. It was obvious even from his Davies-era episodes that Moffat envisions the Doctor not as a close personal friend who forms deep bonds with his companions, but as a distant trickster figure who upends their lives but doesn't really engage with them because he's too alien. So far, so good, and if the season had focused on those upended lives I probably would have enjoyed it, but instead what happens is that the Doctor isn't distant. He's in the center of the frame, constantly, relentlessly, and he simply will. Not. Shut. Up. Moffat's Doctor is a truckload of mannerisms piled on top of funny gags and witty catchphrases, and some of this is very enjoyable ("I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool." or the obvious-but-impeccably-done slow burn realization when Rory turns up in "The Pandorica Opens"), but it also sucks the oxygen from everyone else in the room. One of the Davies's Doctors' most enduring traits was how easily they fell in love, not only with their companions but with guest characters, whom they would rush to praise and make much of. They noticed people. Moffat's Doctor has his hands full just processing the never-ending, deafening churn of his own thoughts, and his writers have their hands full trying to depict that churn. That leaves very little space for other characters and is probably the reason why, though there have been some wonderful single-serving characters this season, there's been so little character development--because the moment another character becomes prominent enough to gain the Doctor's attention, Amy, and later Rory and River, get starved out. The better episodes of the season have focused on the Doctor's intense, one-on-one relationship with a single character. In "The Eleventh Hour" that character was Amy, which is why it's the most nuanced glimpse we get of her as a person rather than a plot device, but "The Lodger" needs to lock her away in the TARDIS in order to give Craig room to breathe, and "Vincent and the Doctor" tries to give both Amy and Vincent the room they need but doesn't have it to give, and ends up short-changing them both.
The problem is that the Doctor is not a person. He's a mass of mannerisms. Matt Smith is quite good at portraying them, and the sense that the Doctor is a very old creature in a very young body, but that's still not a character. We have no idea what this Doctor wants or fears and the season seems entirely uninterested in telling us about these things--the closest it comes is "Amy's Choice," but if you really need to dredge up a psychic echo of the main character's darkest impulses to stand on the set and explain the character to the audience then something has clearly gone wrong. This Doctor is, quite literally, the oncoming storm--a strange, uncontrollable, unpredictable event that changes everything--but that's not exactly an audience identification character. Which leaves the season bereft. There's no one to care about, and the most memorable moments are not the ones when Moffat and his writers brilliantly pull off a story or tug at our heartstrings, but the moments in which they are especially clever. That's not enough for me.
I feel a little guilty coming off so negative about Moffat's first season because, again, there's not much that he's done wrong that's worse than anything Davies did, and in some technical respects he has written a better season than any of Davies's. A lot of my complaints come down to taste and personal preference, and I can certainly understand fans (and especially Old Who fans, which I gather the season has come into closer alignment with than the Davies years did) who prefer the Doctor as someone distant rather than a potential boyfriend, and who have no need for weepy moments between the companion and her family. It seems obvious that Moffat has successfully written the Who that he is interested in. It's just not the Who I want to watch. I kept on with Davies's Doctor Who despite the fact that it wasn't, and had no interest in being, any good because even very close to its end there were moments of enormous fun in it. The last season of Doctor Who has not been a lot of fun for me, and I'm not sure whether I'll be back for more.