There was no new episode of time-traveling action-comedy Doctor Who on BBC America this weekend, but that's okay. In lieu of another recap, we've got something to get off our chests. With vague spoilers for the end of season five.
Doctor Who's new season has been a lot of fun to watch, in general — Matt Smith is the most Doctor-ish of the recent Doctors, and his performance just bursts with acting tics and neat ideas. Karen Gillan is a totally thrilling companion. The season-long arc was pretty thrilling, and kept us guessing. The whole thing has been cute, sparky, moving and extraordinarily watchable.
There's just one thing that's been bugging me quite a bit — and that's the extent to which Steven Moffat's Who is already feeling like a one-trick pony. Or maybe, more accurately, a three- or four-trick pony.
It may seem like a pusillanimous complaint — every era of Doctor Who has had its repeated motifs and go-to ideas, after all. And surely, what matters is how you use these repeated ideas, right? And most of all, when you complain about reusing plot devices you risk elevating plot about characters, or story, or the little moments that make Moffat's Who such a joy to watch.
But still, to me, a big part of the thrill of Doctor Who is wondering what happens next. And when I heard Moffat was taking over as the show's new head writer, the first thing that jumped to mind was, "I can't wait to see what clever stuff he comes up with this time."
And to a large extent, this year, it's felt like Moffat's clever ideas are the same ones he's had in years past. There are a couple ideas that he's reused over and over, and some that he's reused once or twice. In either case, I wouldn't mind seeing these plot devices take a vacation for 2011:
The Doctor tells scary aliens to go away. Especially if he tells them to look him up in a directory, or read up on him somewhere. Or if he encourages them to think about all the times he's defeated them before. I loved the "It is defended" speech in "The Christmas Invasion," and I quite liked the "look me up" speech in "Forest Of The Dead." But enough, already. The Doctor is getting blustery and self-promoting here. He's starting to remind us of those Internet hipsters who've somehow managed to convince angel investors that their totally impractical business plan will rock the cybersphere, and can't stop talking about it loudly in cafes.
Remember when the Eccleston Doctor gave Mickey a disk that would erase all references to him from the internet, because he wanted to remain a secret? We want that Doctor back.
Someone stops a deadly machine by admitting to their true feelings. This one first cropped up in "The Doctor Dances," to some extent — Nancy saves everybody from being turned into gasmask zombies by admitting that she's Jamie's mother. And it's turned up a few times since then — in the Dalek story, the android Professor Bracewell is able to keep himself from self-destructing by thinking about a girl he's had a crush on. In "The Lodger," an explosion is similarly averted by having two characters confess their love for each other. And in "Amy's Choice," Amy can only escape from the dream world after admitting, at last, that she really loves Rory.
And then there's a bit of this in the finale as well. It's easy to see why this trope persists — after all, it allows you to have character resolution and plot resolution neatly in one go. But if it rears its head too often, it starts to feel a bit too neat and tidy. In the real world, coping with our feelings often gets in the way of coping with the big explodey machines, and vice versa — part of how we prove our worth as people is the way we balance those two challenges.
Deadly and unknowable aliens use a dead humans's lingering remains to communicate. This has really only popped up twice — the Vashta Nerada use the last recorded thoughts of the humans in "Silence In The Library" to communicate with the Doctor. And then the Weeping Angels use the corpse of Sacred Bob to fashion themselves a ready-made sock-puppet with which they can speak into Sacred Bob's walkie-talkie, to taunt the Doctor. But if we see this one again next year, it'll start to seem distinctly tropey.
A little girl is trapped in an unreal world where she's the only one who can touch reality. This was the setup for "Silence In The Library" — the little girl is stuck in a virtual paradise, but Doctor Moon tells her it's not real, and only the Library, where the Doctor and his friends are trapped, is real. This motif crops up very strongly once again in "The Big Bang," where there's another little girl who's stuck in a world that's "wrong" in a very basic way, but she remembers the "real" world.
A little girl meets the Doctor, and then she sees him again as an adult, but it's only been a few minutes for him. This is the plot of Moffat's acclaimed season-two story "The Girl In The Fireplace," and he cannibalizes it pretty heavily for the season five opener, "The Eleventh Hour." The overall effect of this trope is to make the Doctor a central figure in the female character's life, while to him she's just someone he's bumped into during his travels.
Timey-wimey cheating that actually affects the plot. We all know that Moffat loves to play with the sheer perverseness of time travel — he wrote a whole Doctor Who spoof, "The Curse Of The Fatal Death," in which the Doctor and the Master keep traveling back in time to outsmart each other, in sillier and sillier ways. And when it works, it's really brilliant — I'm completely enthralled with the Doctor's relationship with River Song, in which they "keep meeting in the wrong order."
But it's a different matter when the Doctor faces an insoluble dilemma — until his future self steps in and helps him out, by tossing him the solution. If you follow that logic to its ultimate conclusion, the Doctor can never face a no-win situation, because he can always travel back in time from a future in which he's already solved the problem, and give himself the solution. At that point, the tension and drama go right out of the series, forever.
This has been turned up in a lot of Moffat's scripts — in the otherwise perfect "Blink," the Doctor knows what Sally Sparrow is going to say to his DVD easter egg, years in the future, because her future self gave his past self a transcript. In "Forest Of The Dead," the future Doctor remembers that River Song is going to die in the library, so he gives his past self a way to save her. And then — spoiler alert — this device appears again in the season five finale, "The Big Bang."
This one is the one I'm grumpiest about — partly because it gives the Doctor an easy "out" in any sticky situation, but also because it makes time travel into the Doctor's superpower, rather than just the way he arrives at his latest adventure.
Moffat is still one of the most clever writers ever to have handled Doctor Who. And with the creation of Amy Pond, he's finessed the biggest problem of them all: How to create a version of the companion-centric story arc that doesn't feel like a repeat of Rose, Ace, Martha or Donna. So maybe it's excessively nit-picky to point out that he seems to reuse motifs and plot ideas an awful lot. Mostly, we know that his enormous brain still has some new twists and surprises stuffed into its root cellar, though, and we're dying for him to trot them out for Matt Smith's second season. Here's hoping it happens!