When the Doctor Disappoints

The recent Doctor Who episode, “The Doctor’s Daughter” is arguably the worst episode produced since the show’s return in 2005. So disappointing that I had to blog about it, even with the attendant risk that I might confirm the suspicions of people who don’t like the show. I mean, it’s one thing to complain about episodes with other fans. There is a safety there, an “all in the family” feeling that makes it ok to admit to the show’s failings, but I hate to give fodder to those who might judge the show without ever giving it a chance.

This episode was really, really bad. More than that, however, it was actually insulting to fans of the show as well as the show’s own mythology in a way that felt calculated and cynical.

Let me stop you here if you are watching the show on Sci-Fi in America. The British air dates are about four weeks ahead of you, so you should probably stop reading right now and come back to this entry after you have seen this episode. For those of you in Britain or who are getting the show through, ahem, other channels . . . click through to read the rest of this rant.

Let me back up for a moment and talk briefly about my overall reaction to the new series. Several years ago, I posted here about the first series and I still stand by my assessment of those first 13 episodes and the grace with which the series was brought back to television after a hiatus of almost 20 years. My admiration for Russell T. Davies in pulling off what many had thought impossible is quite high and I will always be grateful that he had the passion, the dedication and the talent to give us a new generation of Doctor Who. That first series was the most consistent, in terms of quality, of the four series to date and I think it had a lot to do with the fact that Davies and his production team were laboring under no expectations, or, rather, they were laboring under their own high expectations for storytelling and for the characters involved. Not having much money and not having themselves to compete against, they crafted quality stories that were consistently character driven. Davies had a tremendous ability to make use care about even minor or secondary characters to the extent that if they were killed for plot purposes, we actually cared. I’m thinking here of the blue skinned maintenance worker in “End of the World,” as well as Gwyneth from “The Unquiet Dead.”

Stories such as “Father’s Day,” “Dalek,” and Stephen Moffat’s excellent two-parter “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances” had plenty of action and tension and fear, but were primarily driven by the characters involved. These were stories you could watch over and over again, stories you would want to watch over and over again. Unfortunately, with each succeeding series, the level of storytelling seems to have declined and too often we are seeing episodes that depend on specious plot points or random “magical” solutions that have no impact on the characters in any moral way. Almost immediately, in the subsequent series, we have a story like “Tooth & Claw” – which focuses on trying to be clever and action-packed instead of letting us in on the real pathos and complexity of Queen Victoria or some of the other secondary characters. Instead of working for our sympathy, the writers begin to simply expect our sympathy. Certainly this is not true of every episode and in each of the series there have been wonderfully written characters and stories.

Let me also say that I grew very weary, by the middle of the second series, of the whole “companion in love with the Doctor” and was very disappointed when they revisited that idea when Martha came on board. So this year’s addition of Donna–an older woman with attitude and a maturity than neither Rose nor Martha possessed, makes me very happy (except we can cut the “we’re not a couple” bit that seems to creep into every single episode), and I really do like the way that the Doctor and Donna are relating to each other and the difference that she brings to the show after the past two years. To be quite honest, their relationship is the best thing so far in series 4, where the stories have ranged from the mediocre (“Partners in Crime”) to the decent-despite-a-cheesy-first-half (“Fires of Pompeii”) to the good-despite-a-cheesy-ending (“The Planet of the Ood”), to the mediocre Sontaran two-parter and finally, the atrociously bad “The Doctor’s Daughter.”

The last of which being, ostensibly, the point of this whole rant, I best get on with it . . .

Let’s start with the fact that at no point do the writers of this episode earn any emotional response from the audience, they simply conjure up a “daughter” and expect us to care. Think about what it meant for Rose to spend time with her father and compare that to the off-hand, almost casual way that they make up a new relation for the Doctor. Not only that, but we are expected to believe that cloning Time Lords is as simple as that? For @%*#’s sake, if it were that easy why haven’t the Sontarans, the Cybermen, the Daleks, etc, just scraped some cells from the Doctor and put it into a nice little cloning machine and run off some copies. The laziness of this seems to indicate that the whole episode was geared around the concept of the Doctor having a daughter and not telling a compelling story or the examination of a compelling character. Nothing about this episode felt honest. Just as the daughter was manufactured with a mechanical “poof,” the emotions expressed by all of the characters were equally manufactured and expected to elicit response from the audience because of the concept rather than the actual dialogue and characters. In the end, I cared more about that blue-skinned worker who had a scene of maybe 90 seconds in “End of the World” than I did about Jenny, the ostensible “daughter” of the Doctor. Why? Because the writers invested nothing in making her a three-dimensional person, because they invested nothing in making an honest examination of how the Doctor might react to another possible Time Lord, because they didn’t care.

I smell spin-off in the air. I smell cynical, money-grubbing, “let’s make a Doctor Who lite version with an annoying, perky young girl in order to capitalize on the success of this show,” in the air.

Some more specific problems:

  1. What the hell was Martha doing in this story? She contributed nothing to the plot expect to take away air time that might have been devoted to a more honest examination of relationships between the Doctor and Jenny.

  2. The “war” had only been going on for 7 days but countless generations? Um, why? How does this help the story? I mean, forget that there is nothing in the story or character’s to support it (how can the leader of the humans be an older man? How can you run a military command without the ability to measure time? for this to work there couldn’t be any overlap between generations which makes no sense), forget that it’s a dumb idea, how does it help the story? How does it help us care about or understand the people in the story. It doesn’t.

  3. The Doctor’s “I would never” speech. Umm, have we forgotten everything from the first series? When the Doctor stands by and lets Cassandra die, that is a powerful and important moment. When the Doctor is willing to do almost anything to kill the last (but of course not the last) Dalek, you are shaken by the violence and desperation and fallibility of the Doctor even while, quite possibly, agreeing with him. If there was one thing that I felt Davies brought with him to the new Doctor Who, it was a moral complexity. In point of fact, the Doctor is lying when he say’s “I would never” because he has.

  4. Let’s not even talk about the stupidity of having terraforming work in a matter of hours – again, a matter of writers being damn lazy.

  5. When Jenny revives after her “death” why isn’t the Doctor able to feel that? If we trust that he can indeed sense his family and other Time Lords, why can’t he sense that she is not dead?

If the episode were simply a bad episode, I wouldn’t be so disappointed. The problem is that, by introducing a “daughter” into the story-line, this episode has consequences for the larger mythos of the Doctor. Having her blast off and go explore the universe (how does she know how to fly the shuttle? seems like extraneous knowledge to the purpose for which she was created) has consequences for future episodes and story-lines. The worst episode of the new Doctor Who has some of the most profound consequences for the show and the characters.

This is the episode where Russell T. Davies and his production crew have jumped the proverbial shark. Despite my true appreciation of what he has done, and despite my true enjoyment in the relationship between the Doctor and Donna, I am now waiting for two things: any episodes written by Stephen Moffat and the day when Davies and his team leave the show and let someone else (hopefully Moffat), run the show.

I will still watch. I will still be a fan (because that’s what fans do). But I no longer trust the show to invest the care and attention to story and characters that differentiates mediocrity from quality.

And that makes me sad.

On this day..

3 thoughts on “When the Doctor Disappoints

  1. i don’t share the severity of opinion that you do about the episode, but i did have this to say about it on an lj community:

    tonight’s dw episode felt kind of like a chef who pulls out all of his regular ingredients to be used to enhance the main dish, such as the kosher salt and the basil and the oregano and the idea of pan-searing, the accompanying vegetable with a good red wine, but without the main dish.

    and then the chef proudly serves you all of the stuff on the plate and you’re thinking, “but where’s the actual dish?” and he says, “ah, the main dish isn’t important, it’s how you prepare the main dish,” and you say, “yeah, but you still need the main dish to make sense out of the preparations,” and then he puffs off after saying, “you will never understand my art!” and you’re left with these sophisticated enhancements to a dish that doesn’t exist, and boy, are you starving.

    most people’s impressions of jenny were that she was going to come back as part of the series finale, and i’ll have to say i’m glad. It’s true that the introduction of her character tried to stick a 3-d personality into a 2-d characterisation, but even so i found the character charming and thought the actress did pretty well with what she was given.

    but yes, the emotional connection between the two of them was something that should have been explored over a lot of episodes, not packed all into one. she’s born, he rejects, they connectr, she dies, he cries. all in 45 minutes.

    As far as the plot point of the war taking only 7 days instead of many years, i actually liked that well enough because it felt like the least “reset button” realization that we’ve had for a long time in the series when compared to, say, the shocking (?) discovery that the toclafane were the utopian futurekind. i think that the implications behind the war only being seven days and the effect it had on the warring factions were a little stretched, but whaddya gonna do.

    and yeah, martha was pretty useless in that episode, and frankly was fairly useless in the sontaran story too, which is a shame. if i was freema, i’d be pretty pissed off about it. her character deserved better.

  2. I may have been a bit harsh with the whole “jumping the shark” bit, and I do like your analogy, but I don’t think the chefs of this episode put much thought into the ingredients. What bugs me the most is that that whole thing just felt lazy – as if we are going to eat what ever is put in front of us, so the chef just threw some random stuff that was lying about onto a plate, didn’t even do much of a presentation, and put it in front of us, expecting gratitude.

  3. But hey guess what! it’s been officially announced that Moffat is taking over as chief writer and producer of the series in 2010.

    whee!

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