Five Years Apart | 'Doctor Who' and Darkness
As you may or may not know, I'm quite a big fan of Doctor Who. Whether it's the notebooks of fan fiction (a whole season) I have tucked away in boxes, actions figures or various blogs I've had in the past (many of which are still out there) I've loved the show since stumbling upon the revival in 2005.
Five years ago I penned a tentative piece during a strange time of my life and sent it to 'Doctor Who TV' - an old ally to the show that featured and advertised fans work from art pieces to editorials. My piece was entitled 'Doctor who and 'Darkness') though my original suggestion was 'Doctor Who Into Darkness' in reference to the then-recent Star Trek Into Darkness, a title I'm still amused by in how it makes no sense. It explored the notion of what it was to be considered a 'dark' show after Peter Capaldi's first season of the show attracted numerous complaints to the BBC after featuring a more morbid tone than ever before. Still, the piece was published and I got so many lovely comments (surprising considering this is the internet) about it. You can still check out an archived version of the piece here.
But it's been just over five years now, and both Doctor Who and I are in very different places. So I thought I'd revisit the subject briefly and engage in a conversation through time with myself...
Please let it be known that this is by far the most downbeat I've ever been on this blog, and whilst I never ever want to glorify/promote disliking something, without context it can be seen as mean-spirited but this is not my intention at all.
‘General consensus’ can be a dangerous phrase. For example, if I were to say that general consensus of ‘dark’ episodes of Doctor Who seemed to be more positive, there would appear to be enough argument (especially on the internet) to suggest otherwise. However, for a show that’s stuck with a common mentality of ‘hide behind your sofa’ monsters, what’s enough to constitute ‘darkness’?
Doctor Who is a family show of course, so it can never cross the line to ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘American Horror Story’ darkness because the territory requires more risqué material…yet it seems that we as fans tend to work ourselves up into frenzy whenever Moffat promises meaner plots, or a more ‘Alien’ Doctor. Personally I’m guilty of this frame of mind myself; Series 8’s ‘Dark Water’ remains one of my recent favourites, particularly for its handling of death as a subject matter and its ability to run with it as far as the story needed. It was praised almost unanimously for its exciting and bleak venture into the topic of death yet despite the existence of ‘Love & Monsters’ the episode garnered the largest amount of complaints of any Nu-Who episode since 2005. I can’t be the only one that sees this as in fact a good thing, the ‘don’t cremate me’ sequence was a masterful reveal which had me turning my head slowly to my father, mouth wide-open, only to see him doing the exact same thing. In fact, this seems to be the most recent argument for the idea that Doctor Who and darkness go hand in hand. Yes it’s a primetime show about a time-travelling alien in a blue box, but name an intense and even sometimes disturbing subject and I can bet you there’s an episode that’s tackled such a thing.
Richard Curtis’ ‘Vincent and The Doctor’ for example elegantly tackles the subject of depression in a way that rewards after repeat viewings thanks to articulate writing and a touching performance of a broken man (Vincent Van Gogh) by Tony Curran. This dark and often taboo subject (especially for tea-time on a Saturday) was handled in such a way that even including a hidden monster such as The Krafayis didn’t damage the emotional maturity of its themes. Bottle episodes such as Russell T Davies’ ‘Midnight’ have proven that atmosphere alone can terrify you without the use of gore or language mostly associated with a more horror-centric storyline; the same can be said for every one of the show’s ‘scary’ episodes from ‘Blink’ to ‘Night Terrors’.
2009’s ‘Waters of Mars’ is one of the few episodes to include suicide as a key plot device, with all the emotional outcomes of its happening in full force as Tennant’s Tenth Doctor recoils into the guilt of his actions leading to his final journey. Think about that for a moment, the show thousands of children have posters/action figures/lunchboxes etc. of and grow up with regularly includes these themes. I mean come on; the Daleks were initially conceived as representations of Nazi soldiers during a time where the Second World War was still fresh in the minds of many. Doctor Who has the emotional maturity to tackle these weighty subjects whilst maintaining its core ideology of being family entertainment – except with perhaps a warning or two from the BBC beforehand…
However, ‘dark’ doesn’t necessarily mean mature themes and motifs; perhaps the word should be taken more at face value instead of over-analysing?
In that case then, let’s take a look at the other potential directions a ‘darker’ series could take us. The first thing that comes to mind is the subject of fear. Monsters and aliens are a key part of the Doctor Who mantra and this has maintained a high standard throughout the entire run of the show but for the sake of time I’ll keep this Nu-Who centric.
For many viewers that started the show with its 2005 revival Stephen Moffat’s ‘The Empty Child’ two-parter would have most likely been their first association with fear to do with the show. ‘Are you my mummy?’ and the gas mask child (in particular the transformation sequence of Dr Constantine for me) have most likely forever been engrained in the minds of many. Of course fear is subjective, so many of you wouldn’t have been awake night after night keeping their parents up saying that the gas mask boy will find them…ahem…but the fact is there’s likely to have been a particular moment within the show’s history that sprung to mind when talking about scares. ‘Blink’ in particular collected such a positive response in creating suspense out of day-to-day actions that it has become a recurring device in episodes by Moffat such as ‘Deep breath’ and ‘Listen’ to various levels of success. The show has also proven it can create large-scale monsters, even down to The Tenth Doctor encountering ‘The Beast’ in Series 2’s ‘The Satan Pit’ an episode that already included the first appearance of rabid Ood, yet another creature that has me clutching my sofa as I let my spaghetti hoops drip down myself. Though it’s never outwardly said, this is another risk the show took in 2006 where it pretty much depicted a serious idea of The Devil itself at 7pm on a Saturday.
Many praised Series 8’s darker episodes ushered in by Capaldi’s Doctor, who up until Deep Breath’s airing had been hyped as a ‘grumpier, meaner’ incarnation of the character compared to what people had seen before. Whilst this is true to some respect, episodes such as ‘Robot of Sherwood’ and ‘The Caretaker’ packed in many light-hearted laughs, and episodes have never been completely without humour. It’s an advantage to the show is that’s it’s never able to become too down on itself due to the target audience. Season 7’s Blockbuster-of-the-week mentality, whilst still popular, was hindered slightly by the shortcomings of the task it was undertaking. Smaller episodes such as ‘Midnight’ and ‘Listen’ work well with a darker tone due to the restraints of the story, for every ‘Dinosaurs on a Spaceship’ there should be a ‘Father’s Day’ to provide variety in a show where the possibilities are endless. It’s finding the balance that’s been important, Series 7 proved that more than anything else allowing the writers to rectify it starting with Capaldi’s tenure.
I’ve seen people online accuse the show of becoming darker to fit in with the crowd of ‘edgier’ television shows ruling the schedules and the ratings at the moment. But we need to remember that Doctor Who has been edgy since 1963 when it first came onto our screens. It has pushed the boundaries not only in subject matter (with The Daleks as previously stated) but in storytelling too. A tone shouldn’t dictate what story is being told, the story should decide the tone and if we’re entertained then that’s all that matters. ‘Darkness’ isn’t something to strive for, Doctor Who can handle ideas as well as any other show that’s currently being made and the general consensus (darn I’ve used that phrase again) was that Series 8 was in improvement in quality so if it can keep it up then we’re in for a pleasant surprise this Autumn…
Unless of course by ‘darker’ Moffat simply meant scarier monsters and I’ve looked into the whole thing too much…hmm…
Five Years Later… June 2020
So that ‘general consensus’ thing came back and bit us on the ass aye? It’s interesting looking back at such an innocuous piece of writing with a layer of shallow admiration and naivety. You weren’t young five years ago George but your altruistic nature has slowly been chipped away by the powers that be…
First of all you weren’t wrong about Steven Moffat’s forthcoming series. Series 9 consisted wholly of two-partners that allowed the writing style to slow down and add emotional heft to proceedings, whilst Peter Capaldi truly came into his own as The Doctor (The Zygon Inversion speech is one of Moffat’s best pieces of writing ever). The dark tone argument arguably stemmed from your insistence that Doctor Who provide you with something it wasn’t supposed to give. Luckily the past five years have further shown us to be living in ‘the golden age of television’ and we’re now more awash with quality than ever before. Series 10 built upon the foundation Moffat had constructed and acted as a bittersweet swansong and even made Matt Lucas surprisingly endearing as a full-time companion (and Pearl Mackie’s Bill Potts is remarkable).
But of course it couldn’t last forever. We’re now in Chris Chibnall’s world (you know, the Dinosaurs on a Spaceship guy) and it’s…interesting. Jodie Whittaker’s the first female Doctor, and we even have a black female unknown regeneration for The Doctor played by Jo Martin which could be utilised rather well. Oh, and we’ve actually had John Barrowman back on our screens for an (all too brief) moment in Fugitive of the Judoon…but that’s about it.
It's silly to be scared of change and yet we’ve always suffered from it. It’s even sillier to be a Doctor Who fan who’s scared of change. But there’s a genuine disconnect now that feels different from anything that’s come before. Despite some great casting choices and two seasons to explore them there’s still no emotional connection to any of the characters. Of course, it’s easy to sink into the trope of bashing a show that millions around the world still enjoy, but there is something sorely missing in terms of Doctor Who’s storytelling now. But that’s beside the point.
In terms of ‘darkness’ after Moffat’s tenure, the show has since dabbled in both literal and theoretical meanings of the word. Series 12 for example takes some small strides in attempting to recreate Moffat’s success with his ‘World Enough and Time/The Doctor Falls’ two-parter by inserting a darker, rogue cyberman into Mary Shelley’s life and using it as the inspiration for Frankenstein. It’s a really nice idea and one of my favourites across Chibnall’s tenure but aside from playing with ‘haunted house’ tropes and literally being shrouded in shadow it does little to push many boundaries. That being said, the series 12 ‘twist’ of having The Master (remember Missy’s character development? That’s all gone) commit genocide against the Time Lords and essentially destroy Gallifrey (so much for The Day of the Doctor) after discovering that The Doctor isn’t actually a Time Lord but in fact a member of an ancient species which the Gallifreyans stole the concept of regeneration from. It’s exactly how it sounds.
Not long after your last piece, Class was released as the latest more adult-oriented spinoff of Doctor Who and was promptly cancelled after one season. It’s a shame in a way because whilst Patrick Ness’ (yes, that Patrick Ness) was never able to mesh its tones together in order to form a coherent whole it still scratched that ‘dark’ itch you so longed for. Episodes like Nightvisiting and Detained were solid offshoots of old-school teenage high-concept dramas like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, effortlessly able to mix in hard-hitting emotional beats alongside alien threats. If only it was given more time to grow…
Whilst series 11’s self-contained stories (on Sundays now too, that’s weird innit?) managed to craft an entire season without resorting to enemies from the show’s roster, that also meant that the show failed to leave a lasting mark. Series 12 took a step in the right direction but unfortunately was bookmarked by such a massive shakeup to the mythos that’s it’s difficult to talk about without becoming enraged. Five years ago, I championed The Waters of Mars for featuring suicide as an integral plot point and now I’m dismissing a character committing mass genocide as if it’s nothing. That’s because the impact and emotional resonance of Adelaide Brooke’s actions were clearly defined and felt by The Doctor. It was his fault, due to his selfishness, that this companion had taken her own life. Now we’re told of the genocide after the fact, and it feels like we as an audience have been robbed of the impact (or ‘darkness’) associated with it so that The Doctor can go off fighting forceful alien analogies for climate change. Sorry, I’m getting childish again.
Can You Hear Me? Takes some bold decisions in its representation of Graham (Bradley Walsh – a fantastic addition) and his depression/loneliness after the death of his wife. Yaz (Mandip Gill) is also given a turbulent backstory worthy of more exploration but both are seemingly brushed off most likely due to a lack of time and an adherence to a stereotypical Doctor Who format.
When a show’s boundaries are limitless it hurts to see aspirations so low at times. But a lot of it could even be summed up to personal opinion or the passage of time. I’m older now, and that’s not to say I ‘know better’ in fact far from it, but Doctor Who picks up and loses fans with each new incarnation. I just never thought I’d ever consider being one of those who drops off. I still have such a passion for the stories being told (and Big Finish are always a good place to lean on) but it’s just getting harder. I want Jodie to have that defining moment as The Doctor because she deserves it, and that spark of hope still hasn’t burnt out quite yet. But let’s see where we stand in another five years, shall we?
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