4 ways to fix Doctor Who before it’s too late

Matt Smith's trademark red bowtie from Doctor Who.

Steven Moffat needs to step it up before his fandom gives up altogether.

Doctor Who, once arguably the best show on television, has been facing mounting criticism. Much of this has been directed at showrunner Steven Moffat, whose leadership has steered us into inconsistent plots and aggressively misogynistic dynamics. This was a huge disappointment considering the fabulous writing he had delivered during Russell T. Davies’ stewardship. Now fandom is increasingly asking to stop the showrunner, we want to switch off.

With a new season and Peter Capaldi’s new Doctor to play with, the question now is if there’s a chance for this sexist storytelling mess to be redeemed. Here are four ways to make it happen.

1) Going dark

All signs point to a darker, more intriguing direction this season. If this is a chance to explore character by moving beyond the lighthearted and looking to what lies beneath, that can only be a good thing. It will definitely be a good thing for the Doctor, especially with Peter Capaldi’s fine, weighty performance, as the writing for his character settles into a fuller flavor. The movement into darkness can be a great thing for Doctor Who as a whole should it come to suffuse other elements of the show.

In order for that to work, it has to be strategic kind of dark that fits the show’s brief: A family-friendly probing of what is good, scary, and possible in a universe of bottomless possibility. The grotesque skin balloon thing of “Deep Breath,” for instance, was suitably horrifying but seemed to belong to some other show.

Then there was the shallow morality of “Into the Dalek,” which equated wanting to kill Daleks with a proper moral standpoint. This bleakness was a marked comedown from the honest emotion and ethical grappling we saw in series one’s “Dalek,” in which Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor was terrified, uncertain, and believable in confronting a vulnerable Dalek.

That said, the Twelfth Doctor has yet to come to conclusions about who he is. It’s not too late to steer the show back to considered, intelligent ethics and scares alongside that journey.

2) Messing with mythology

The most painfully silly thing about the Eleventh Doctor’s regeneration was the line about the Tenth Doctor’s vanity being such that he regenerated twice with that same face. It undercut Ten’s struggle with his end as well as the uncertainty and stakes of what we had previously been told was limited regenerative potential.

The thing about Doctor Who is that it has an extraordinarily broad and complex mythology. The desires of the latest writer or the convenience of the upcoming plot should never undersell the established terms of the story, as it cheapens both the narrative’s past and present.

However, there is an extent to which moving on from established conventions is not only inevitable but smart writing. For example, the new search for Gallifrey and the discovery of living Time Lords gives us the chance to thoughtfully reset the “last of the Time Lords” element that plagued the last few Doctors.

But messing with mythology just because you can is just going to annoy fans and lead to storytelling inconsistencies. Careful manipulation of the rules is the only way to go from here on in.

3) Enough with the great plot trade-off

The Weeping Angels were terrifying in “Blink” because they had established rules, but they got less scary with every appearance as those rules and their power were mitigated. One of the major Who problems of the last few years is that reused story elements become watered down. With every new iteration of plots built on memory, or the capacity to not blink/breathe/whatever, the rules are weakened and so is the narrative force.

This is why it’s great that we’re breaking off the romance streak with companions, but it’s entirely unnecessary to do that by having the Doctor insult Clara’s looks, as in the recent “Listen.” It lacks depth and reeks of misogyny. The Doctor and Clara have to quickly find a set of rules in order for this season to hold together.

We can only hope that “Listen,” which otherwise tried so hard to be original, will herald things to come. It was certainly a distinct improvement on the attempt to build tension in “Deep Breath” by making Clara unsure whether a new Doctor could be her real Doctor, which relied on us forgetting that the previous episode involved her visiting all of the Doctor’s past lives. We can walk and chew gum at the same time—and pull together storylines that don’t compromise character and previous stories.

4) Writing women

Speaking of inconsistent female characters, Moffat’s run has received much criticism for turning Amy and River Song in particular into plucky, capable women who nevertheless existed to gaze longingly at the Doctor and be sacrificed for his emotional arc. This woman-as-cardboard ridiculousness came to the fore long before then: The only bad part of “Blink” was Sally’s flat characterisation, and don’t even get me started on the highly ahistorical Madame de Pompadour in “The Girl in the Fireplace.” Critics have become frustrated with Moffat and dismissed him as entirely incapable of handling complex female characters.

I think we can give him more credit than that, while still holding him to a higher standard. Back in season one, Moffat wrote his first and best female character for Doctor Who, Nancy, the resourceful and scared single mother looking after homeless kids in wartime London (“The Empty Child”/“The Doctor Dances”). I am reluctant to watch Coupling but am told Moffat wrote developed female characters in that, too. Doctor Who needs some female writers, but its present writers also need to step up their game. The cardboard quality is laziness rather than inability playing out.

Doctor Who isn’t going to be viable with many fans for much longer if sexism and resting on the laurels of previously successful storytelling continue to substitute for wonderment and creativity. It’s a good thing that we know that Moffat and company are not only competent, but capable of stellar, beautiful writing. With Capaldi’s gravitas, Moffat’s chops, and the darker setup, there’s a lot of opportunity for greatness. Now is the tipping point during which it will or won’t be seized.

Photo via Paul Hudson/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)