If ever you really want to get under the skin of a Doctor Who fan all you need to do is whisper the following phrase: "The ratings are falling." Ever since the long and painful wait through the wilderness years between 1989 and 2005, when the program was on an extended hiatus, any suggestion that its popularity is waning and cancellation might again be looming has been enough to fill a Doctor Who devotee with a deep sense of unease. By 2008, four wildly successful series into the program's relaunch, these fears had begun to recede and fandom had finally started to feel a little more comfortable about the program's long-term future. It was perhaps the BBC's cruelest joke since Ghostwatch that it chose just this moment to announce that Doctor Who was again to vanish from our screens. 2009 was to be a gap year of sorts during which only a handful of seasonal specials would be produced. To make matters worse, showrunner Russell T Davies, who had been instrumental to the success of the series since 2005, was to leave, precipitating a general retooling of the show before its next full series. A new production team, a new Doctor, and a new companion character awaited us in April 2010 and, as a good friend of mine put it just before the first new episode aired, many fans were "100% anxious." What was curious, however, was that while half the fans were anxious that under its new team the series would be too different from the program that they had come to love, the other half feared that it would be too similar.
A divisive figure among the program's loyal audience, Davies’s years in charge of Doctor Who saw him criticized as much as he was lauded for his approach to the series. I have always dismissed most of the accusations that were leveled at him as junk (his pushing of a "gay agenda," his turning the series into a soap opera, his audacity in having companions fall in love with David Tennant's frankly lovable Doctor). Even the more reasonable criticisms, during his first two series at least, seemed to me to be missing the point. Perhaps I was employing a perception filter all of my own, but I found myself willing to let slip his mistakes if they helped him to achieve grander successes. Sadly, my capacity for self-deception, vast though it may be, is limited and with each passing series complaints about Davies’s plotting, particularly his use of grand climaxes that were unsupported by the preceding narrative or which simply reset and rendered inconsequential the events of the story, seemed increasingly incisive. When it was announced that Steven Moffat, who had written some of the most intricately and intelligently plotted episodes in all the long history of Who, was to replace Davies, some viewers hoped these problems would finally be banished. Others, however, took fright at the relative youth and general wackiness of Matt Smith, the new Doctor, and feared that the series would be infantilized. So it was that early April 2010, when the new series began broadcasting, became a tense time in fandom, with more at stake for the series than there had been since 2005 and significant anxiety amongst its audience about what exactly a Moffat Doctor Who would look like.
What emerged was a series which, I am happy to report, retained the most successful elements of its forerunners, notably their interest in generic instability. From a compelling amalgamation of gothic horror and science fiction ("The Time of Angels"/"Flesh and Stone") to an unexpectedly heartbreaking meditation on depression and its consequences ("Vincent and the Doctor"), the stylistic variety of series five was impressive. Notably, the thrilling "The Pandorica Opens" was a hybrid of space opera, historical adventure, fantasy, mystery, and horror, and even paid homage to the Indiana Jones franchise. These tonal shifts, both within and between episodes, rapidly became a defining feature of Moffat's series, as they had been for Davies’s before. This sense of continuity with the previous series, ironically produced through generic discontinuity, was a welcome sign that this Doctor Who saw itself as a refreshing rather than a reimagining of the program.
Central to the series's success was Matt Smith's mercurial and bewitching new Doctor. Indeed, it was in his performance's unpredictability that Smith's greatest achievement was to be found. As Graham Sleight has pointed out on these very pages, "the essence of the Doctor's character has always been that he can turn on a dime, that you never know what register his next response will be in." Though this was true of David Tennant, towards the end of his run there was a sense in which the unpredictability of his Doctor became itself predictable. His mood swings tended to follow patterns that had long since become familiar. By contrast, Smith's delivery of lines has not yet settled, his gesticulatory quirks always seeming fresh. Perhaps this is simply his novelty, but for now the series has found a Doctor who feels welcomely protean and thankfully alien.
Those hoping for a brand new broom to sweep the program clean will, however, be disappointed, for Moffat builds his series on Davies’s blueprint. There were some notable updates, however, particularly in the way the series was structured. Davies wove a word or phrase through each of his series, only revealing its significance in the finale. This type of loose narrative arc which binds a series together remained, but Moffat approached it in a more sophisticated manner. The cracks in the skin of the universe that underlie Moffat's series-long story play a much more active role in the plots of individual episodes than has been the case with previous motifs. This increased coherence between the episodes is welcome, but makes any discussion of the series difficult without first providing an outline of the story that weaves through it. For those who do not wish to know how it all pans out, now might be a good time to avert your gaze.
In the series premiere, "The Eleventh Hour," we meet seven-year-old orphan Amy Pond who is troubled by a crack in her bedroom wall. At night she hears it whispering, but the new Doctor, fresh from crash landing in her garden, offers to help close it and catch the monster that escaped through it. When the Doctor needs to reboot his TARDIS, the machine he uses to travel in space and time, he promises to be back in five minutes. Mistakenly re-materializing years later, he finds Amy a young woman, a kissogram, and a suitable traveling companion. Leaving her big, old house on the night before her wedding, Amy does not realize that wherever she travels, her adventures with the Doctor are haunted by the crack in her bedroom wall which appears on various surfaces in each location she visits. When this does become clear to her, in the two part story "The Time of Angels"/"Flesh and Stone" (episodes four and five), the crack proves itself capable of consuming living beings, not merely killing them but erasing them from history altogether. Amy is eventually reunited with her fiancé Rory who joins her in the TARDIS, but during "The Hungry Earth"/"Cold Blood" (episodes eight and nine) Rory is consumed by the crack and forgotten by everyone except the Doctor. During the finale, "The Pandorica Opens"/"The Big Bang" (episodes twelve and thirteen), the Doctor seals the crack the only way he knows how, by stepping through it, erasing himself from time. A second timeline is born where Rory and Amy never met the Doctor, but on their wedding day Amy remembers their adventures and by remembering brings him back.
This serpentine story relies on several contradictions and inconsistencies, so it was rather satisfying to see the Doctor turn to Amy towards the end of "The Pandorica Opens" and ask her, "does it ever bother you that your life doesn't make any sense?" The specific fact that puzzles the Doctor is that Amy lives alone in a large, old house which she could neither afford nor require, but there are several other facets of the series which he could also have challenged. "The Lodger" (episode eleven) told of the trouble caused by another TARDIS-like craft sitting atop a London house, but the existence of a second TARDIS in a universe where the Doctor is the last of his kind is never questioned. Rory's ID badge for his job as a nurse, shown clearly in "The Eleventh Hour," was issued in 1990, though this meant that he would have qualified as a teenager. We are told that remembering people brings them back from beyond the cracks, but the Doctor's memories of Rory failed to retrieve him. The Doctor's question to Amy in "The Pandorica Opens" raised the possibility that all of these problems were actually pieces in a carefully orchestrated jigsaw that Moffat had been putting together under our very noses throughout the series. It seemed as if Moffat was inviting his audience to reassess all that they had seen and reconsider the imperfections as clues. Speculation across the internet was rife and bloggers soon began to point out an impossible array of impossibilities. When it was revealed in "The Big Bang" that only one or two of these inconsistencies were intentional Moffat's gamble backfired, leaving a long list of unanswered questions and a sense that, despite his reputation for intricate storytelling, Moffat had provided a fascinating story with an unsatisfying conclusion.
Indeed, the series-long stories that Moffat told this year were routinely outshone by the high quality of the individual episodes. Amy's story in particular fell short of the mark. Initially, Amy's decision to join the Doctor seemed to be at least partly down to a case of pre-wedding jitters. However, no matter how anxious she was, it was jarring to see her proposition the Doctor in no uncertain terms (Doctor: "You get older, I don't, and this can't ever work!" Amy: "Oh, you are sweet, Doctor, but I wasn't really suggesting anything quite so long-term"). It is not the suggestive content of this scene that bothered me, but rather that it seemed to come out of nowhere. Aside from a brief moment in the first episode, four weeks previously, Amy had shown no previous attraction to the Doctor. The episode in which this sequence occurred, "Flesh and Stone," had not altered their relationship significantly and the following episodes would demonstrate her love for her fiancé. The attempted seduction could almost have been a relic of an abandoned story arc that had been mistakenly retrieved from the cutting room floor were it not for the fact that Amy ended the series by once again propositioning the Doctor, this time at her wedding reception (Amy to the Doctor: "You may definitely kiss the bride"). Amy's romantic feelings for the Doctor never really seemed to materialize outside of these two nonsensical sequences, leaving them feeling disjointed and confusing.
Though in saying so I will no doubt make myself unpopular with other viewers who have been, it must be said, largely more enamored of Amy Pond than I, Karen Gillan has further hampered the character with a performance that too often misunderstands the difference between feistiness and shouting. Her delivery of lines, in stark contrast to Smith's, soon settled into defined patterns, thereby making the character feel predictable and the characterization unadventurous. For all her supposed independence and the pre-broadcast promises of a companion who could and would stand up to the Doctor as his equal, and despite a fascinating introduction as the girl who waited for the Doctor, Amy was ultimately a disappointment. Her distinct identity as the girl who waited was only made use of in the series premiere and finale and soon began to feel irrelevant, casting her as a more familiar, perhaps even staid, companion figure than she had at first appeared. Amy became something of a nonevent at the very heart of the series, which made it sometimes difficult to care about episodes which revolved primarily around her.
A case in point is "Amy's Choice" (episode seven), one of the weaker episodes of the series, in which Amy was forced to decide between a life of adventure with the Doctor and a life of domesticity with Rory. By this point, however, my patience with Amy had worn thin. I could not understand why Amy should be afforded the luxury of choosing a life with Rory when she seemed to have made her mind up a few weeks earlier by trying to tempt a man other than her fiancé into her bed. She made no attempt to confess her actions and ultimately I found myself wishing that I could tell Rory what she had intended to do with the Doctor at the end of "Flesh and Stone" so that he could simply relieve Amy of the burden of her decision by walking out on her. This episode tried to ignore Amy's attempt at adultery altogether, but for me it haunted her initial indecision and drained the character of any sympathy.
Sadly, there were other problems with this episode, too. For a story that played with layers of fantasy and reality, it did so much less successfully than has been done elsewhere. The characters crossed back and forth between two worlds, one of which they were told was real and one a dream. Unfair though the comparison may be, especially given the relative budget sizes, setting the episode in a half-imagined space where fantasies and reality intertwine left me in mind of films such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and the beautiful The Science of Sleep (2006), both by acclaimed director Michel Gondry. Whereas these films used imaginary worlds to allow their audiences tantalizing glimpses into the minds of their characters, "Amy's Choice" was a little fuzzy in its construction of the unreal, never pinning down exactly whose dreams and fantasies these were or giving a clear idea of what was being expressed through them. The decision to ultimately make both of the realities false was not only a betrayal of the initial premise of the episode, but also diminished the most interesting facet of the story, the insight into the characters and their relationships afforded by the contrast between the two worlds.
Elsewhere, "Victory of the Daleks" (episode three) and "The Vampires of Venice" (episode six) both felt a little lackluster. The former fell into the trap of unnecessary sentimentality (persuading an android that he is human by reminding him of imaginary lost loves was just a bit too much for me) while the latter was a perfectly serviceable runaround, but one which had little to offer besides the spectacle of Venice in 1580 and an appeal to the current vogue for bloodsuckers. Towards the end of the series, "The Lodger" was enjoyable but, in addition to the logic-hole mentioned earlier, seemed to have been constructed around a single joke—the Doctor pretending to be an average Joe—which quickly wore thin.
Such missteps were rendered particularly noticeable due to the generally high quality of the stories that surrounded them. These episodes might have been looked on more fondly had they been placed in another series where the overall quality was lower (I am thinking of series three in particular, though this might be a trick of perspective). In this run, their flaws were exaggerated by comparison.
In a series that focuses principally on two main characters, it is perhaps surprising that the strength of many of the more successful episodes lay in their secondary characters. Exceptional performances by Tony Curran as Vincent van Gogh ("Vincent and the Doctor") and Iain Glen as Father Octavian ("The Time of Angels"), for example, allowed these characters to be much more than a mere background for the Doctor and Amy to perform against. Both of these episodes used their minor characters to deliver an emotional experience, relying on careful characterization and skillful acting to draw the viewer into the unfamiliar worlds that the characters inhabited. Moffat's Who felt very much like an ensemble piece, with main characters (Amy and the Doctor), recurring characters (Rory and Alex Kingston's glorious River Song) and one-off characters (van Gogh, Father Octavian and many more) each being allowed enough time and space to develop and involve the viewer in their journeys. These episodes were all the richer for prioritizing character over story, marking another step away from Davies’s Who, which has been criticized for ignoring characterization at the expense of blockbusting narratives.
The finales of Davies’s series drew annual ire from fans frustrated at the ease with which stories were simply reset and their consequences obliterated. This is the concern of the anti-Davies camp that I most readily concede since the mere press of a button ("Journey's End"), push of a lever ("Doomsday") or pull of a trigger ("The End of Time, Part 2") was too often enough to wipe out alien hordes and restore order to the universe. The Davies-detractors were to be partially disappointed here too since Moffat provided a mixed bag of a finale ("The Pandorica Opens"/"The Big Bang"). The laws of causality were stretched to breaking point by a reliance on time travel as a means to defuse any plot hole that reared its head. That the story's resolution involved a healing light shining on the universe and putting everything right was a disappointment indeed and harked back to the worst excesses of the previous series.
However, it feels a little ungrateful to complain too much. Perhaps I am once again guilty of forgiving too many of Doctor Who's mistakes, but I found myself turning a blind eye to the flaws in Moffat's finale so that I could better revel in its glories. I know that I ought to be above this type of excuse-making and that I should probably soberly complain about the future Doctor rescuing his past self from confinement ("paradox," I hear you cry!), but these episodes are simply a joy to watch (the Doctor runs around time saving the universe with a fez and a mop, for goodness sake!) and I am willing to forgive their extravagances, and there are many, because on first viewing I was too busy laughing, clapping, and gesticulating wildly to care. To ask too many questions of this story, to dwell too long on its incoherences, would be to strip it of its essential joie de vivre and to rob oneself of a glorious, gobsmacking televisual experience. This was, of course, the excuse given for Davies’s indulgences too, and perhaps it will anger some fans that the same argument has to be employed to defend Moffat. I, however, was simply glad to have a series that was as enjoyable as this back on my television screen, and the price paid in plot contrivances was not too heavy to spoil it.
This is a motif that runs throughout my response to this series and which makes me feel duplicitous for lingering on some of its faults above. There is much that is unsatisfying about series five of new Doctor Who, not just when it is viewed through the rational perspective afforded by hindsight, but also in many cases on initial viewing too. These flaws are, however, often swept away by the sheer exuberance that emanates from these stories. Moffat, himself a fan of the series since childhood, spent a long time waiting to get his hands on the program and, now that he has, his excitement is tangible and imbues his debut series with a fresh exhilaration. He may not have tackled all the problems that some fans had hoped he would, and perhaps he introduced a few more besides, but there is something so recklessly enjoyable about this collection of stories that their imperfections seem trivial by comparison. By the time the credits rolled at the end of the final episode I had learned to stop worrying and love the Doctor anew.
Now if only I weren't 100% anxious about series six . . .
Matthew Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PhD candidate in The University of Manchester's Centre for Screen Studies. His thesis focuses on 1950s science fiction cinema and he has published work on Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica.