Doctor Who is not the best show on television. I like it a lot, and I guess if you saw my shelves devoted to it — two or three rows of DVDs and Blu-Rays, a small shelf of toys including tiny Titan figurines of each Doctor and then some, a large shelf containing three rows of novels — you’d readily and probably correctly conclude that I love it.
But I love a lot of things I discovered when I was eight. Doctor Who found me in that critical period, what we apparently now call the tween years, after you start developing your own tastes independent of what your parents hand you, and before puberty really grabs you by the short hairs and takes over your brain. I also love “Last Christmas,” the Wham! song, which came out when I was ten, so go figure.
I don’t really love “Last Christmas,” the Doctor Who episode. But we’ll get to that.
There are a lot of other really good shows I grew up with that formed my tastes and shaped my sensibilities. My sense of humor wouldn’t be what it is without Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Young Ones, Absolutely Fabulous, and Mystery Science Theater 3000. There was a time I was as into Blake’s 7, The Prisoner, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as I was into Doctor Who, perhaps more so. I was riveted by Battlestar Galactica and Game of Thrones, though they’re far grimmer than Doctor Who and harder to love; I adored Dead Like Me, which despite its subject matter is less grim and easier to love. Lately I’m a big fan of Orphan Black, and I’m forced to admit that The Wire is every bit as good as everyone says it is.
Are these “better” shows than Doctor Who? Are they deeper, more consistent, better acted, funnier, more meaningful, more adult, more relevant, more entertaining?
Look, I have to admit, a lot of them often are. Not all of those things in the same show, but many of them. The awkward truth about Doctor Who is that no matter how much it’s been updated in the 21st century, no matter how much more sophisticated it is now, how conscious of its adult audience, it’s still, at its heart, a show that never forgets its mission is to capture the imagination of 8- to 13-year-olds. I know a lot of people who let their 5- and 6-year-olds watch the show. Of the other shows I listed, maybe MST3K and Hitchhiker’s would even be remotely interesting to a first grader. I think that says something.
As creepy and disturbing as “Last Christmas” (the episode) is for Doctor Who, you can’t watch it with any expectation that it’s going to be anywhere near as creepy as Alien or Inception. It’s not even going to be creepy and disturbing in a different way. It’s not even going to be as creepy and disturbing as “The Ark In Space,” the 1975 Doctor Who story that’s even more like Alien and in which people actually die, or “Horror of Fang Rock,” the 1977 Doctor Who story which is structured like Alien in that everyone trapped in a lighthouse with a murderous alien dies except the Doctor and his companion, and which is considered one of the highlights of the classic series, and which I put on this past weekend and found myself too bored to pay attention to it.
I mean, I’m not bloodthirsty, but very quickly it became obvious that no one was going to die and that basically this episode was going to consist of variants on the theme of “tell yourself it’s not real, it’s only a dream” until Clara had had a chance to give herself the most banal, easier-said-than-done advice on grieving and the Doctor had had a chance to discover that she still wanted to travel with him. And so we sail into the ninth season, dragging Clara along with us despite a perfectly good if poignant exit for her in “Death in Heaven,” after an episode in which not much else actually happened.
Since when, by the way, was Santa a protector figure? The dude is a spy. He tracks all your behavior throughout the year — he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake — and then he judges the morality of your behavior, and if it’s good enough for him you might get a present. If you remember to leave out milk and cookies. I mean, I was pretty relieved when he burst through the wall like some yuletide Kool-Aid Man, but the idea that Santa is a fantasy guardian figure for us all is a bit off the mark, isn’t it?
I mean, technically this is fine. It’s a Moffat script, so it’s never going to be less than entertaining, sharply written, genuinely funny, good-natured, and exciting. It’s got its moments. But after it was over, I just felt depressed. Unsatisfied. Thinking “is that all?”
And Moffat knows that feeling. He put his finger on what’s so great about this show way back in 1995:
I think Doctor Who is a corkingly brilliant idea. When they were faced with problems like the fact they were going to have to fire their lead they came up with some wonderful ideas; the recasting idea is brilliant. I think the actual structure, the actual format is as good as anything that’s ever been done. His character, his TARDIS, all that stuff is so good it can even stand being done not terribly well – as one has to concede it was done….As a television format: Doctor Who equals anything.
The show is infinite and immortal. It can go anywhere, do anything, and live forever. There is practically no limit to the kind of story it can tell, and as of “Time of the Doctor” there is practically no limit to the number of times the Doctor can regenerate. If people wanted to tell Doctor Who stories in 2115, there’s no inherent reason why they couldn’t. Most of the other shows on my list concern specific characters who inhabit a particular time and place and have a narrative arc to their lives that, however long you might make it, has an end somewhere. It pains me to think of it, but Patsy and Edina will someday OD and pass out while shopping, respectively. The Young Ones may not be the Young Ones very long. Even MST3K depended on a steady stream of bad movies (will we still have movies a century from now?) and a raft of shared cultural references for the more sophisticated jokes. But Doctor Who as a premise is endlessly renewable.
So I want it to renew. I’ve admired this season a fair bit, but only rarely loved it. I’m bummed that the intact Moffat/Capaldi/Coleman team means things probably won’t change much next year. But if every Christmas can possibly be the last Christmas, every Doctor Who season can possibly be the first. And even though I’m feeling a bit desperate these days to keep reminding myself there are other shows on, and that I may spend more time on this one than it really deserves, I’ve come too far with this one to give up now. Whether I keep writing about it is up in the air, but whether I keep watching? Not even a question.