It seems inconceivable that there would be, but just in case there’s any doubt: the series of Doctor Who that ended at the weekend was wonderful and a huge improvement on everything Russell T. Davies did with the show. We can remain distantly grateful that Russell brought the series back but everyone ought to breathe a long sigh of relief that he has been replaced by the far more talented Steven Moffat.
Most people can stop reading there, but if you’re still in any doubt as to what has improved, here’s what:
1. Matt Smith
After all of David Tennant’s gurning and shouting (the greatest achievement of which was to give me a fresh appreciation of the subtlety of Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor), I was willing to be pretty forgiving of any casting decision, but I was more than a little doubtful when they cast somebody who is actually younger than me. A 26-year-old actor playing the Doctor? Really? Isn’t that just pandering to the children and/or the housewives? Isn’t it time for another older Doctor with the gravitas of Hartnell or Baker (Tom)?
I needn’t have worried. Matt Smith is a revelation – he can go from funny to serious in the blink of an eye, he has an energy that is infectious but not irritating, and unlike either of his two predecessors he can do charmingly bonkers without overacting. As for his age, Smith is playing a Doctor far older than he looks, and is actually far more convincingly 900 years old than many of the older actors who came before him.
2. The writing
It has been said by some people that no single episode in the series stood out as a masterpiece in the way that previous Moffat-scripted outings did – that there was no Blink or The Empty Child. I prefer to see it the other way round: unlike previous series, there wasn’t a single episode that made me hurl things at the television. The quality of the writing has rocketed, purely because the focus is much more on storytelling and far less about lengthy goodbyes or saying how amazing space is the whole time. At last, after five seasons of bad plotting, nearly all of the stories had a middle to go with their beginning and end, with plenty of sparkling dialogue, clever twists and compelling concepts along the way. There were a couple of weak episodes, true, but no monstrosities to rival David Tennant’s last dismal outings as the Doctor, or the-one-where-they-tried-to-do-The-Exorcist-meets-the-Olympic-games, or the-one-where-they-were-in-Cardiff-and-nothing-happened.
3. The other regulars
The subtlety with which the character of Amy Pond was crafted to compliment the Doctor, the series arc and the style of the show highlights just how two-dimensional Russell T. Davies’ companions were. Those could be summed up in one or two words (chav, ethnic minority, shouty comedienne); Amy Pond is far more fully-rounded than that, and instead of relying on any working-class-girl clichés the production team have made her a genuine individual. She’s witty, resourceful, vulnerable, flawed, different. And she has a really sexy accent that doesn’t require her to drop her Ts.
She also has none of the baggage that Russell T. Davies was convinced companions needed for us to empathise with them – gone are the frequent visits to mothers, fathers, peripheral boyfriend characters and kitchen. And when a boyfriend character eventually became involved, he was much more than an appendage, being himself a fully rounded person who is both comic and pathetic but also tragic and brave. And both as beautifully acted as they could have been.
On top of which, we’ve revisited the character of River Song, who is absolutely wonderful and, crucially, genuinely mysterious. This is a character whose encounters with the Doctor are happening in reverse order to his with hers (itself a stroke of genius because of the changes of dynamic each time they bump into each other). Moreover, she’s clearly dangerous, has unpleasant secrets and may or may not be married to the Doctor. The whole character gets more mindblowing every time she turns up, in exactly the way that Captain Jack didn’t. Russell T. Davies gave us a bisexual man from the future played by John Barrowman; Steven Moffat gave us an enigmatic time traveller from the Doctor’s future played by Alex Kingston – draw your own conclusions.
4. It’s not a children’s programme any more
…and at its best, Doctor Who never was. At last, we’ve moved away from patronising cultural references and fart jokes and Doctor Who is properly smart, witty and frightening. In other words, adult. The kids will of course continue to love it, because it’s smart, witty and frightening, but nothing about this series said ‘children’s television’ – the stories were complex, the themes were challenging and there was a darkness that makes the series genuinely unsettling in exactly the way it needs to be if it’s to have pre-teens scuttling behind the sofa. The ruthlessness with which Rory was erased from history, then reappeared but turned out not to be Rory at all! shows that we really don’t know what to expect from this production team and they will horrify us and break our hearts as any good drama series ought to.
5. The Doctor is genuinely alien
Russell T. Davies’ Doctor was invariably one of the gang – the popular kid in school, quite often rubbing other people’s faces in it and (at his worst) bragging about who he’d been shagging. To make him simultaneously an ‘outsider’ (because he’s an alien, after all) scripts were forced to shoehorn in a whole load of boring angst (he’s bouncy and fun but so lonely underneath!).
All that has changed. The new Doctor is genuinely ‘different’ – his behaviour, his actions, his attitudes all showing him to be from a different world. He’s still successful and sometimes popular, but it’s not what drives him – in fact, the childlike glee with which he discovers people like him or that he’s good at football is much more that of the quirky kid in school who doesn’t quite fit in but gains respect for being an individual. Exactly the sort of role model he ought to be (especially as this Doctor speaks the Queen’s English properly for once).
6. The Doctor isn’t fetishised
Russell T. Davies clearly felt the Doctor ought to be a sex symbol, with each of his companions (and sometimes their mothers) having a tedious crush on him even though the implications of teenage girls being in love with a 900-year-old man are actually a bit unpleasant. This policy reached its nadir when Russell T. Davies had the Doctor cloned so that Billy Piper could have him as a fuck-buddy.
So thank goodness that for all of his youthful floppy-haired appeal, we now have a Doctor who stands apart from all of that; when Amy Pond did try it on with him it was clear how much had changed – rather than going all Peter Stringfellow, he set out to repair her relationship with her fiancé. It’s not that he’s asexual, it’s that something more interesting than adolescent infatuation is the thing holding the TARDIS crew together.
7. The special effects
It’s not that they’re better. But when the old production team spent money on a shot it was like they wanted you to study it until you knew exactly how many thousands of pounds it was worth. The correct approach to special effects is to hide them, pretend they’re the same as all the other shots, so that they tell the story and don’t draw attention to the inevitable shortcomings of a BBC budget. As such, the series has achieved a far more expensive look, which is ironic because money has certainly been slashed from the budget in line with the spending plans of the rest of the country.
8. The season finale
Yes, everything was solved by magic in the end and it didn’t really make sense, but who cares when it was done so stylishly? For the first time since it was brought back, a Doctor Who finale actually exceeded expectations and absolutely made an asset of the series arc. From its opening, which elegantly revisited locations from previous stories and beautifully wove an even more complex picture than that which had already been built up, to the conclusion, which trod back through the series and started where everything began, revealing precisely how cleverly the whole story had been laid out from the start, this was as satisfying a resolution as we could have hoped for.
9. The future
Russell T. Davies’ best series, overall, was his first. That had the feel of a series where everyone was trying hard to make it the best it could possibly be, to explore the range of the concept in every single episode. The subsequent drop in quality (pretty much consistent from one series to the next) was absolutely the result of complacency. Lazy writing and self-indulgence became habitual.
Why do I think this won’t be the case under Moffat? Primarily because of Moffat’s own writing. Even though it can be argued that some of his later scripts are not his finest work, it’s very clear that he’s not standing still. Where they fail it’s because he’s doing something different. Where they succeed they show a writer who wants to do something better each time he puts pen to paper. Even Doctor Who Confidential has lost its smug, self-congratulatory air. So what we’re going to get next year will, I predict, be even better than what we’ve had so far.
Lest you’re worried that I’m being so uncharacteristically positive about everything from the coalition government to Doctor Who that I must have been replaced by an Auton replica: of course there have been things that pissed me off. There’s still a tendency for the Doctor to run around stroking his sonic screwdriver like BBC marketing are breathing down his neck (it’s just a screwdriver…) and there was that daft Richard Curtis episode in which nothing happened. But it’s churlish to complain when so much has improved and when it looks set to get even better. As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one thing in need of urgent attention, which has been a constant problem episode after episode:
1. The music
It’s awful. Not just the new theme arrangement (though that is the sonic equivalent of a motorway pile-up) but every single time the incidental music pipes up it’s wrong. It’s often that sub-Stravinsky relentless thump that blares away even when people are trying to talk and which for Pavlovian reasons now conjures up a mental image of a little cartoon Graham Norton swinging his hips. But it’s just as likely to be a sickly sweet melody telling us quite how emotional we ought to be getting when something – erm – emotional is happening. Murray Gold is about as heavy handed as a composer can get, wallpapering the show with the most literal music interpretation of what is on screen (ooh, it’s a country scene, I’ll writing something cheerful and pastoral! …or how about you just shut up for once?) and now that the series has achieved a new level of subtlety it feels even more inappropriate than it did before.
A programme as music-heavy as Doctor Who is clearly not being served by a single man having to score the whole lot, so why Murray Gold has ended up doing it all is a mystery (unless he’s giving them a special discount – buy music for one episode and I’ll recycle it for a further two episodes free?). It’s absurd to rely on the efforts of a single hack when there are loads of composers highly capable of delivering superb television scores.
And yes, the fact that I’m one of them makes it rankle even more.