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June 24, 2015

New Who versus Old Who (@RossMKitson)

by Ross M. Kitson

The new season of the long running sci-fi series Dr Who is on the near horizon and the stars of the show have embarked on a world tour to promote this, much in the manner of nerd-ish rock stars. The concept of a ‘Dr Who world tour’ still fascinates me, as having watched the show as a child in the 1970s I can’t conceive it has a following beyond niche in anywhere beyond the shores of the tiny isle of Britain.

Yet it has all changed for Dr Who--the geek credence that comes with multiple references in the Big Bang Theory is a sure indicator of this. Yet all is not well in the Bigger on the Inside than the Outside Blue Box world of New Who. Having just celebrated its 50th anniversary, the show took a bold step of bucking the modern trend for diminishing age of Doctor (presumably to avoid a teen-Who, with EMO-hair and Skater-Boy hoodie) and re-install a mature actor in the role.

(Peter Capaldi. Image: BBC)
Peter Capaldi is a wonderful actor, but even a diehard ‘Whovian’ (still not sure about that term) like myself is struggling with him. And my own reservations are amplified a thousand fold in the Judge, Jury and Exterminator realm of social media. It’s started to become a bit of a new-Who (Whovian, I suppose) and old-Who battle, with crusty forty-somethings sneering at the fan-girl/fan-boy love of good looking young Doctors, and reminiscing of the good old days when stories stretched over two months and monsters were 100% latex and 0% CGI.

Capaldi has been ham-strung by a few factors. He follows a particularly good run of the show, with Matt Smith’s doctor being rightly popular. Smith’s Doctor was handsome in a lumpy sort of way, clownish, witty, charming and eccentric. He had his rubbish stories, sure, but generally the scope and ambition of the stories and series arcs were excellent, if a little bogged down in ‘timey-wimey’ trickery. Capaldi’s stories have been weaker—the last season had a few stand out moments (Mummy on the Oreint Express; Flatline; Listen; and the two part season finale, for me)—but generally the quality of script is worse. The persona of the Doctor is trickier. I’m not averse to the grittier Doctor, after all it’s the fashion in everything from fantasy to super-hero series, but that seems to equate with a callousness that is totally out of keeping with the ethos of the character. The companion, Clara, is very watchable, but has tended to dominate the storylines even moreso than the Pond roadshow in the early Matt Smith stories. In short, the show is struggling to engage old fans and new.

(Alex Kingston and Matt Smith. Image: BBC)
Despite those points the key focus in social media is more over the age and appearance of the Doctor, and it is this which has divided New from Old. To a certain age group I’m certain Capaldi is pleasing to the eye—and any lack of this is compensated for by Jenna Coleman’s stunning looks—but he is no Smith or Tennant. The arrival of David Tennant signalled a definite change in the vibe of the show. Not only was he a versatile actor, and brought a mesmerising interpretation of the Doctor to our screens, he’s also a gangly love-god. Even my wife and her anaphylactic reactions to Sci-Fi looked up at the TV when Who was on over those years.  And with the charm and smile came the inevitable companion-crush story arcs. We started with the pouty Billie Piper, then the trendy feistiness of Freeman Agyeman. We started having obligatory sexy Doctor references through stories and a snog or two at some points in the series. And the same with Matt Smith and Amy Pond—with a love triangle thrown in for good measure!

What? I mean, what in Gallifrey’s moons happened? Dr Who was no stranger to younger Doctors—after all Peter Davison, the Fifth Doctor, was thirty when he took the role. Nor are the good looking companions a rarity—from Victoria Waterfield (Debora Watling) in Troughton’s day, through Jo Grant and Leela, all the way through to Peri (Nicola Bryant) and the sixth doctor. Yet in those halcyon days of ‘classic’ Dr Who there was a line of innocence that was never crossed. The Doctor was a character beyond such mushiness, an eccentric and cranky father figure who conveyed security and safety in the confines of his TARDIS. If, as a teenage fan of the show, you suggested to me that Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant would have a good snog in one of the TARDIS’s infinite rooms, then I’d have snorted and advised you to go watch Star Trek. The Doctor was vitreous, and moral, like a rebellious celestial vicar, and such nonsense was never even implied.

(Leela (Louise Jameson). Image: BBC)
To my mind the change came from two directions. Firstly what we expect out of modern shows has changed. Maybe the audience now expects a bit of romance, superimposing their own fantasies onto the characters in the show. Maybe we now feel it has to be addressed for a sense of ‘realism’, as oxymoronic as that sounds for a Sci-fi TV show. Indeed, it was such an elephant in the room in Capaldi’s debut episode that there was a whole line of dialogue about not being Clara’s boyfriend!

Secondly, it’s one of the things that happens when you let fans write the show. Now I’m not grumbling—after all, it was a fan-boy in the form of Russel T Davies that got the show back on the TV, and Stephen Moffatt that helped define the Tennant-Smith years so memorably. But fans don’t approach scripts without ideas and agendas that were undoubtedly formulated during their years of watching classic Dr Who ( I suspect from Troughton onwards). Moffatt’s love of complex story arcs is welcome in many ways—it adds a layer of intelligence to the scripts and narrative—but his desire to develop the Doctor as a more complex character with a certain sex appeal falls down in places for me. It’s a shame, as the evolving back story of the Time War and the allegory to real conflicts and war crimes is a brave and interesting direction.

(Tom Baker and Lala Ward. Image: BBC)
So I’m crossing my fingers that the patchy scripts of the Twelth Doctor’s first season will be a thing of the past, and that this new season will flourish without need for smooching in the TARDIS on the basis of better stories. Capaldi needs that chance to properly flourish, and show that a New Who doesn’t have to be a young Who.

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  1. I think Capaldi could be a great doctor (then again MY doctor is Tom Baker) but I agree that the majority of his episodes suffered from weak scripts. I'd actually hoped Coleman would leave the show. While she's a beautiful woman and may be a good actress, I didn't think she had much chemistry with Smith and even less with Capaldi. Maybe the doctor needs to take another trip to Pompeii ;-)

    1. Thanks for commenting! Oddly, Tom was MY Doctor also. I like Jenna Coleman, although the slot of feisty pretty female assistant is starting to feel worn (I did like Catherine Tate, as she sent this stereotype up very well). I hope she bows out this series, as I'd agree the chemistry is rather lacking and we don't seem to be going anywhere with her. I thought perhaps an alien companion /companion from another time would be welcome - as I enjoyed those from Classic Who (well , maybe not Adric...).