Since I’m no longer writing these for publication to a general audience, the torch having been passed to a new runner, we can let our hair down a little and just talk.
I’ve been listening to the Trial of a Time Lord Podcast a lot lately, and one of the questions raised by it recently was “what one quality makes for bad Doctor Who?” I know the chances I’ll ever be asked to appear on the podcast are slim (and the chances I’d be half as entertaining as the usual guests even slimmer), but I always think about my answers just in case.
The first that came to mind was “boring”: the one thing Doctor Who should not ever be is boring. But that’s a shit answer, isn’t it? I mean, you could say that of any show. And the truth is, a lot of “good” Doctor Who is often crashingly dull. At least 80% of the Hartnell era, for starters, and a good chunk of the Troughton era (have you ever tried to sit through all of “The Ice Warriors” at a go?). “Planet of Evil” is brilliant but those flight deck sequences are murder. “The Ribos Operation” has a sterling reputation but huge stretches of it are just talking heads. People love “Androids of Tara” for some reason but it sure can plod. I love “The Horns of Nimon,” but it’s a frequent exemplar of awfulness in the ToaTL Podcast and some of those labyrinth scenes illustrate why. So “boring” isn’t quite it.
And really, when I thought about all the Doctor Who I wasn’t personally a huge fan of, I found that a lot of the reasons why not varied widely. As I’m sure Tolstoy would have said if he wasted his time writing drivel like this, all bad Doctor Who stories are bad in their own way.
But if I try to define what makes good Doctor Who — what every Doctor Who story must be to be worthy of the name — I circle around some quality I don’t have a name for. The closest thing I can find is maybe “incongruous.” It’s an adjective the Target writers often used to describe the TARDIS: “an incongruous police box,” or something like that. The Doctor and their friends intrude on an existing place and time, always by their nature strangers, introducing strangeness to a story that might not have been strange before. Some part of the scene fits oddly with the rest of the scene, and if it’s not an air hostess in King John’s court, maybe it’s an ancient devil in a country village, and sometimes it’s everything: a journalist from South Croydon in a medieval castle with a potato-faced alien kidnapping scientists. Even if it seems like a more standard science fiction premise, there’ll be something just a little crazy, like a monster made of drugs that comes out of a zoo inside a big-screen TV. The best stories tend to have a bunch of these incongruities. The worst, like “The Twin Dilemma” and “Attack of the Cybermen,” don’t. But the mere presence of incongruity doesn’t guarantee a good story either: see “Timelash” and “A Town Called Mercy.”
So maybe it needs to be a certain kind of Whoish incongruity. Maybe if the kind of incongruity at work is already firmly in the territory of another SF property, it’s a sign that the story isn’t weird enough to be Doctor Who. For example, though “Mercy” is awful in all sorts of ways, it’s pretty easy to imagine it being a season 2 episode of Firefly, or maybe even of Star Trek, which has had its share of planets that felt like the Old West.
Which brings us to “The Ghost Monument,” a dry-and-dusty-looking story about two mavericks racing for the same treasure, one an amoral outlaw, the other a rough-and-ready hero just looking to save the folks back home. With a dash more comedy, this would feel even more like Firefly than “Mercy” does. Even the bit about scientists inventing new deadlier biological weapons is a familiar Firefly concern. There are worse shows for Doctor Who to rip off, but since it was Torchwood last week and it looks like Quantum Leap next week, I’m eager for Doctor Who to rip off Doctor Who again.
- I’ve complained in the past about how rarely new Who lands on honest-to-goodness alien planets as opposed to space stations and orbiting ships. This was an encouraging change. Next up hopefully we’ll get one that’s actually inhabited.
- I never realized how much I missed Venusian aikido till now. Good to have it back!
- Has the Doctor always sounded this preachy about guns? Not that I disagree with the sentiment, and it’s good to restate these themes for the fresh start, but a lighter touch would still have gotten the message across.
- Speaking of weapons, last week the Doctor opined “only idiots carry knives,” but Angstrom’s knife succeeded in saving Enzo where the sonic failed. Knives have their uses!
- I love the new credit sequence and theme. Sure, they’re the most traditional we’ve had in the new series to date — the kaleidoscopic effect clearly reaches back to the general approach from 1963 to 1979, and the theme is founded on a Derbyshire/Howell blend — but why not build on the best? And you can’t go wrong with purple and gold.
- Wish I loved the new TARDIS interior. It’ll probably grow on me, but my first impressions were dry-and-dusty, like the episode, and too orange again by half. The arches surrounding the console dais make the space feel cramped, the new whimsical touches are cute but trying a bit too hard, and the central column is weirdly huge. It’s my least favorite interior in the history of the show so far; I miss the brightly-lit clean lines and level floor of the classic TARDIS. I get it, it’s more dramatic this way, but it should feel like a place of safety, and it rarely does anymore.
- And here’s our first bit of mystery babble, about the “Timeless Child,” and please let this one be less stupid than the “Hybrid.” Obviously the first guess is “Susan,” because we always have to guess Susan, and a case could be made that the Doctor made her an “outcast, abandoned and alone” (apart from a dopey human husband). But even after a summer of Twitch-streamed classic Who it seems a stretch to imagine Chibnall bringing the Doctor’s granddaughter back (just in time to regenerate her?) and trying to recap that backstory in a satisfying way. Still, I never thought I’d imagine the Doctor meeting Rosa Parks, so anything could happen.