My benchmark here is the first season, which had at least two unarguable slam-dunk triumphs: Robert Shearman's "Dalek" and Steven Moffat's two-parter "The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances." There were another three one might argue for: Mark Gatiss's "The Unquiet Dead," if you don't mind the author's take on Victoriana; show-runner Russell T Davies's two-part season finale, if you don't mind sloppy SF plotting; and Paul Cornell's "Father's Day," if you don't mind borderline sentimentality about families. (I don't, I do, and I don't, respectively.) Season two, by contrast, had no episodes I'd put in the first category, and maybe three I'd put in the second: "School Reunion," Toby Whithouse's touching story with bog-standard aliens; Davies's spectacular but manipulative season finale; and Steven Moffat's "The Girl in the Fireplace."
Of all the new show's writers, Moffat is the most adventurous with its tone and the most innovative in the structures he creates. (You could argue that Davies's "Love and Monsters" outdoes him on these two scores, but it seems to me that it doesn't escape its external constraint of being an episode of Doctor Who where Doctor Who was only available for a fraction of the filming.) Postmodern knowingness is a dangerous tool for a TV writer to use, but Moffat sees when to stop. The story starts with a shot of a stunning starscape and dramatic music: one expects a spaceship to soar overhead. Instead, the camera pans down to show an eighteenth-century French chateau. This beautifully cues up the double plot Moffat had created: the Doctor, his assistant Rose, and probationer-assistant Mickey exploring a deserted 51st-century spaceship; and the life of the beautiful French aristocrat Reinette, Madame de Pompadour (Sophia Myles). The twin stories run at different speeds, so that a few hours of narrative on the spaceship maps onto the whole of Reinette's life. The link is the "time windows" that our heroes find on the spaceship, which act as portals between the two. For once in this series, the jeopardy isn't planet- or universe-sized: the ship's clockwork androids are seeking Reinette, wanting to use her brain as the core of her ship. This leads to a splendid Barry-Lyndon-in-hell setpiece as masked droids in period costumes wander into the chateau's ballroom, precision saws buzzing as they seek Reinette. But moreover, Moffat resumes pushing at the same envelope he did in "The Empty Child": does the Doctor love, in a sexual sense? What would he be like when he was in love? The asexual Doctor was a hallmark of the show's first (1963—89) incarnation, and Davies and co have only begun moving from there very slowly. But in a breathtakingly intimate scene—certainly, to my mind, the finest of this second series—the Doctor mind-melds with Reinette to try to find what the robots are after. But this means that she can see into his mind as well as he into hers: she sees that he was, "Such a lonely little boy. Lonely then and lonelier now." And then, she offers an invitation: "There comes a time, Time Lord, when every lonely little boy must learn how to dance." What exactly happens that night is left carefully ambiguous: the Doctor returns to the spaceship seemingly drunk and joyous, having just invented the banana daiquiri a couple of centuries too early. But the door has been pushed open a little more.
Above and beyond that, there’s the perfect sparkle of Moffat's endlessly quotable dialogue. (The Doctor, arriving on the ship: "Must be a spatio-temporal hyperlink." "What?" "No idea. Just made it up. Didn't want to say 'magic door.'") There's also some gloriously surreal imagery, as when the Doctor finds a perfect white horse in a spaceship corridor, and then uses it to burst through one of the time windows and save Reinette. The episode only falters after this point. The Doctor says, repeatedly, that by breaking through the window, he has severed the link between France and the ship; he has abandoned Rose and Mickey, and will presumably have to take the "slow path" of three thousand years to get back to them. It's an enormous shame that the show wimped out on playing that through to its logical conclusion: even though he doesn't age, it would have been an extraordinary moment to see a three-thousand-year-older Doctor arriving back on the ship to collect Rose and Mickey, the passing years showing how much being with Reinette had cost him. Instead, there was some plot-botching of the first order. Reinette has had the fireplace in her bedroom, the first time window through which she had seen the Doctor, moved stone by stone to another location. The time window mechanism is intact and fixable by the Doctor, and with one bound he is free. And so Moffat's exquisitely wrought baroque filigree was crowned with a traffic-cone.
Far more typical of Season Two was Tom MacRae's "The Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel," by a long chalk the most sloppily scripted and the best directed of the revived series so far. It's not merely that the script's central ideas were unoriginal both for SF and Doctor Who. There was an acknowledged debt to Marc Platt's audio drama "Spare Parts" for its creation myth of the Cybermen, and their creator, a wheelchair-bound genius, would be a cliché even if we'd just heard of Davros and not Dr Strangelove. But even in other areas, where MacRae had original material to work with, he didn't achieve anything like the emotional punch he could have. The story's premise is that the TARDIS drops into a parallel world where the population wear news-imparting "earpods," and that these are used by the aforementioned disabled genius as the first step to offering the "ultimate upgrade." That involves being transformed into the emotionless Cybermen, sterile and perfect. Moreover, the parallel world includes Rose's father, dead in our world as we know from the first series. The rebooting of the Cyberman concept almost completely fails to have any impact, though the director, Graeme Harper, presents it with a visual scale I've never seen in the show before. (It might also be observed that at about the same time as the show was broadcast, the Pet Shop Boys song "Integral" was released, using almost the same points to produce a truly terrifying vision of the-future-as-information while administering a few sharp political kicks to Tony Blair's ID Card scheme; and they took approximately 85 minutes less than MacRae did. I’m not the only person to have thought this.) As for the family drama, watching this story back to back with Paul Cornell's "Father's Day" makes it plain how little emotional engagement MacRae is able to give his characters, and how much the story is just an exercise in ticking the boxes of the plot. The climactic scene of the Cybermen episodes, a confrontation between the Doctor and the "Cyber-Controller," is completely lacking in tension: the Doctor gets to deliver a series of monologues about why emotion is valuable, without any of the dozen or so monsters around him lifting a finger to shut him up or, at the end of the scene, to stop him destroying them. Doctor Who isn't naturalistic, sure, but when it lacks this much reality-testing it starts ringing alarm bells.
Similarly, Matt Jones's two-part "The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit," while not as facile as the MacRae, had some cherishably duff moments, notably when various crew-members are scrambling through a duct system to escape the pursuing monsters. The ducts can be sealed off section-by-section and air drained selectively; the only problem is that the sealing off gets done by metal grilles with lots of holes in them. That said, Jones's scripts have an oldie-but-goodie premise, ancient evil buried on a planet which humans are exploring. It extracts some fine chills for the first two-thirds of its length, as the exact nature of the evil is gradually revealed. The problem comes at the end, with the Doctor's abseiling descent into the pit where the evil is bound, and his decision to unclip himself from the cable and drop an unknown distance down to the bottom of the pit. Quite apart from him having a flashlight on his helmet which would show him if the floor was within a safe distance below—which he doesn't use—this decision is justified in such irrational terms that it goes against everything established about the Doctor's character. The Doctor is first and foremost a rational-figurer-out: for him to take a risk like that without having first done all the figuring out he can is to significantly alter what he's about. Later, in his confrontation with "The Beast," he takes a more explicable gamble, destroying the creature's physical form and relying on Rose—with whom, he realises, the creature's spirit is—to finish the job. The decision is couched solely in terms of what the Doctor feels about Rose and how much he trusts her. It's pure Hollywood epistemology: things are real only to the extent that they affect the protagonists. Indeed, at the end of the story, the Doctor says that it doesn't matter what The Beast was, only that they beat it. Again, a profoundly out-of-character moment, as the Doctor abdicates his ferocious curiosity about the universe. The Beast was that which existed for the Doctor to take a few more steps on his Personal Growth Path. It's an approach that diminishes the series.
In retrospect, Joss Whedon's great achievement with (the good bits of) Buffy et al was to create story structures that had three things going for them: a rich and diverse fantastic mythos, ongoing characters whom one could care about, and opposition for them which was more than just plot-functions. In "The Satan Pit," as I've suggested, The Beast doesn't have any reason to exist except to reveal to the Doctor certain things about his character, to provide an engine for the plot. (In a literal sense, of course, this is true of almost anything in a story; but the trick of writing is to make it seem otherwise.) More generally, the stories of Season Two almost all read most readily as pre-planned steps along the Doctor's and Rose's character arc, building up ruthlessly to the season finale and their parting. The science-fictional elements of the shows—and the plots and supporting characters as a whole—are those which are required to effect the arc. From that, I think, stems the central weakness of Season Two, the sense that nothing matters as much as the Doctor and Rose. This is clearly expressed in the climactic scene of their parting on the beach at the end of "Doomsday." The Doctor and Rose are in the foreground; her extended family are out of focus in the background; and the rest of the world is nowhere. Philip Pullman did something very similar at the end of His Dark Materials, but pulled it off far better because of his repeated insistence on how much the world as a whole matters, how important it is to have reverence for the given.
There's a counter-argument, of course, that thirty-something SF fans like myself aren't Davies's core audience for Doctor Who, and that indeed they shouldn't be. As Paul Cornell says in his superb blog post on "Love and Monsters," this show is radically different from Buffy, Star Trek, and almost any other SF show you can mention because it has to maintain a position in prime-time Saturday scheduling. There's a long and extremely interesting interview with Davies in Doctor Who Magazine #359-360, which may be some help in explaining his approach to this problem. Describing his style as a writer, Davies says: "Fast. Cheeky. Colourful. Good laughs. Proper drama, proper emotion in it. And specifically—this is the thing that enticed me to Doctor Who—big pictures. Television doesn't do that enough: most television is people sitting there talking. I always try to write big pictures and it drives people mad, because the budget goes to hell." He goes on: "Honestly, it drives me mad, because there's so much potential in science fiction, but you read the listings magazines and under Star Trek: Enterprise it'll say, 'The Crystals of Poffnar have been hidden in a cave, and so-and-so argues with the Federation that they have to be retrieved.' What is there to watch in that?! But one of Buffy's billings might be, 'Buffy falls in love and discovers he's a monster.' Brilliant! It speaks to your heart.... A bunch of space travellers out to retrieve the Crystals of Poffnar is not going to work, but Rose meets her father, and Rose sees the end of the world, and the Doctor fights a fleet of half-a-million Daleks is actually going to work." So the two pillars of Davies's approach are big pictures to draw you in, and character arcs to keep you there.
It has to be said, though, that he's constructed a straw-man version of SF to get there, and that as my comments above indicate, it's increasingly laming the show. Paul Cornell provides an eloquent defence: "Indeed, it could be said that if at the heart of science fiction is 'cognitive estrangement', that is: we're way far from home and boggling at the huge new ideas we've been thrown into the middle of, then Doctor Who, particularly but not entirely in its new incarnation, isn't actually SF. Because this is a cosy, familiar universe where Big Brother exists billions of years hence, where the cosmos was ruled by a bunch of British civil servants who use phrases like "face lift" and where, by the look of the fashions, in the far future Top Shop is still in business. [...] Not that the rather craven phrase "it's not SF" has ever escaped Russell's lips. Unlike those of virtually every other SF TV producer who craves such a mainstream audience, but runs a show about things the mainstream audience think they need a degree to understand." Because the point is this: SF is not just about the props, and I'd probably be as tough on "Crystals of Poffnar" SF as Davies. SF requires, in a sense, just an intensified version of what any other fiction requires. It requires an authorial voice starting off with a premise (either a "character" or an "idea" one) and rigorously working through its implications. Davies’s show, I’m suggesting, is a tripod with a missing leg: without some degree of thought about the stories beyond "How does it affect the TARDIS’s inhabitants," it will wind up aspiring to the condition of bad Hollywood summer blockbusters: all big emotional scenes and CGI set-pieces, with no connective tissue. In the end, that's somewhere that a BBC-funded show will just never be able to compete. That Doctor Who remains as good as it does (I think the second season has been intermittently brilliant) is a testimony to other virtues. The scripts often have a distinctive and very British humanism to them which no other series has quite captured, the cinematography is beautiful, and they have been well-directed—and often, as with Graeme Harper's four episodes, spectacularly directed. Moreover, most of the performances have managed to be larger-than-life without heading off into bathos. (Roger Lloyd-Pack's turn as the Cybermen's crippled creator was rightly mocked because it was such an exception to this rule.)
Which gets to a thorny issue: David Tennant's performance as the Doctor. I don't want to suggest that he was miscast as the Doctor but rather that he was excessively well-cast. 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. That was especially the case with Tom Baker's and Sylvester McCoy's performances; you can see, also, that Davies wanted to do the same with Tennant’s predecessor Christopher Eccleston. But Eccelston always had an underlying melancholy, partly coming from the actor's own persona, partly from the story arc he was carrying about the aftermath of the Time War. With Tennant, I don't have the sense of any kind of stable essence to the character. Technically, he's a quite brilliant actor, and can switch from flippancy to seriousness in the blink of an eye. The problem is, the scripts know this and so require him to do it rather too often. Moreover, the extraordinarily aggressive editing will often impose a cut between one line and the next. You get no sense of continuity, no sense of what's truly fixed about how the Doctor responds to the world.
On the other hand, maybe I'm being a bit harsh about all this. Davies and his team have created an oasis where there was a desert two years ago: an intelligent, good-hearted, well-made prime-time drama show that has (it's conventional wisdom but no less true) resurrected the idea of family viewing in the UK. If the second series has created, for at least one thirtysomething SF fan, a worry about the shortcuts their writers are taking to do so, that's inevitable: "You can't please all the people all the time" was a phrase clearly coined for use about Doctor Who fans. Maybe I'm wrong, and maybe "Love and Monsters" is the central episode of Season Two, an episode of meta-Who that tells you what to do with your fandom. There used to be a British children's show called Why Don't You?, subtitled ... switch off the television set and go out and do something less boring instead?. (The young Russell T. Davies worked on it, as it happens.) Even as a kid, it always seemed to me subversive that you could have television about doing stuff other than watching television. Doctor Who, sometimes clunkily, is trying to get that same message across: that if you find an episode about Dickens or Madame de Pompadour interesting, perhaps you should go and find out about them for yourself. In what’s gone before, I’m not saying that Doctor Who’s second series has jumped the shark, but it’s certainly hovering in that vicinity; the toughest test for creative people is the Fawlty Towers test, knowing when to call time on your creations. I hope that Russell T. Davies and his crew will know when the show has to heed the lesson they’ve embedded right through it: there is nothing more important than living your life first-hand. Television can only take you so far. Stop watching Doctor Who. Stop reading this now. There is a world elsewhere.