The Problem with Doctor Who (7b, Spring 2013)

There is a somewhat famous adage in the film trade, attributed to Hitchcock, and I'll paraphrase it here: If you show two men at a table and then a bomb unexpectedly goes off, you will have thrilled the audience for a moment. But if you show two men at a table, then show a bomb underneath the table, you will have thrilled the audience for several minutes [as they anticipate the bomb].

Doctor Who thus far this spring gives me this feeling of watching two people at a table. Talking. A lot. And at this point I'm just waiting for the bomb. Even wishing for it in the hopes that something will actually happen.

I'm not alone in this. Any number of people I've talked to, e-mails I've received, have said similar things. The sum total: We're bored!

What have we got? Let's review: The Doctor has tracked down Clara and taken her on as a companion because he's curious about how this person keeps dying and reappearing in different timelines. Okay, this is good, this is something we can work with. Except: (a) The Doctor's curiosity is not nearly heightened enough. I want to see him get obsessed, I want to watch him go mad with trying to figure it all out; and (b) Clara isn't interesting. She's just an average person, somewhat irritating, and so the viewers aren't drawn in. Some are actively repelled, but most are merely indifferent. And it's never good to have your main character fixated on something the audience doesn't find worth being fixated on. It's one big yawn.

Well, all right, maybe she'll get more interesting as we go? Maybe The Doctor will get increasingly worked up? Maybe they've just been slow out of the gate with building the drama?

And then we had this Great Intelligence bit that seems to have been mostly dropped. It gives one the feeling that the distraction is intentional, rather like a smokescreen used by Oz's Wizard. If that's true—if, for instance, Clara were the bomb under the table, meant to go off at a certain time—it would be helpful if the audience were given some reason to believe that. Let's take Hitchcock's metaphor a step further. Two men are at a table and we see a shoe under the table. We might think, Hmm. Shoe? But shoes aren't all that interesting. But if the shoe were really a bomb . . . It's only interesting, it only counts, if the audience knows the shoe is a bomb. Or at least has an inkling it might be.

So if Clara is a shoe bomb . . . You see? It only counts if there's something about her that's not quite right (and I mean more than the fact that she's lived a couple times before; reincarnation, so what, Captain Jack did it better and was a hell of a lot more entertaining).

In total, what we're lacking is a threat. That sense of the ominous. It doesn't have to happen all at once, but it does need to happen for audiences to stay engaged with the story. It should be building from week to week. But it isn't.

And we need to care about the characters as well. Because a threat to someone you don't care about doesn't mean much to you. I mean, I suppose if someone pulled a gun on a stranger, you'd be horrified, but somewhere deep inside you'd also be glad it wasn't you, or your brother, or someone you really knew and loved. (And if you don't love your brother, maybe you'd be sorry it wasn't him who had the gun on him, but that's something else again.)

Clara, for the audience, is still more or less a stranger. Pull a gun on her. We don't care. Kill her again, go ahead, see if she comes back . . . That would actually be way more interesting than everything else we've seen thus far. In fact, that would make a marvelous tipping point for The Doctor, would it not? If he was finally driven to try to kill her just to see if she stayed dead? Sort of the antithesis of his moral core, but it would show how far beyond rational this "puzzle" had pushed him. In that case, The Doctor could be the bomb . . . If only they'd throw the viewers a bone.

ETA: Someone has approached me with the idea Clara is a TARDIS or some kind of time machine. (No, I don't listen to podcasts, so . . .) Um, okay, could be the reason the TARDIS as we know her has behaved oddly around Clara. Lacks originality in that it just grabs Gaiman's script from last year and stretches it out a bit, though. (In fact, that would probably have been the total of that creative meeting conversation: "That was fun, let's do more of that.") And doesn't speak to the utter lack of tension this spring (except to say it's difficult to really make a TARDIS, even in human form, all that interesting). Even if Clara is some kind of time machine, my basic point is: She's boring. The whole story, which has the opportunity to be interesting, has failed to be very interesting at all. If she's a TARDIS, great, let's go with that, but please DO SOMETHING.

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