What I Hate About Doctor Who

Probably, if push came to shove, I’d call Doctor Who – both of them – my favorite TV show.  I’ve got an almost irrational commitment to it – watching it through thick and thin.  Kind of like my devotion to the Legion of Super-Heroes.

But that doesn’t mean I’m blind to the show’s weaknesses – at least, not all of them.  I feel well aware, and yet still continue on with the show anyway.  But, in light of all the buzz around the program at present, some of those weaknesses have been on my mind.  Here are some that drive me crazy…

(all images from bbc.co.uk/doctorwho)

1. Those John-Nathan Turner-era costumes

For 17 seasons, the Doctor always looked like he had thrown his clothes together in a fit of eccentricity, and that made sense for the character.  But then, all of a sudden in the 18th season, Tom Baker’s costume changed into an obviously tailored and organized burgundy number.  That was still okay, but in succeeding years, it just got worse.  Peter Davison wore that wacky cricket outfit, and then Colin Baker starting sporting that outrageous and absurd jacket.  Sylvester McCoy pulled it in a little but still had those self-aware question marks all over the place.

The companions of this era were not much better, with Adric constantly wearing those strange space pajamas, and Turlough refusing to change out of his schoolboy uniform, etc.  Fortunately, things got much better in both the TV movie in the 1990’s, and in the revival series, with Christopher Eccleston’s minimalist leather jacket.   So really, it was just a John-Nathan Turner-era thing, but he was the producer of the show longer than anyone else, so it does make a difference.

2. Unnecessary, expedient, and predictable deaths

I don’t really have a problem with the concept of violence on Doctor Who (although there are plenty of episodes and scenes I would not show my children), but lots of times it seemed like characters were killed off just out of laziness, convenience, or cheap thrills, rather than any real attempt to tell a good story.  Worse, in the revived Doctor Who, there are lots of times where we are positioned to actually dislike or mock characters before they die, which I truly dislike.  Or characters whose deaths are needlessly unpleasant.  Or characters who are killed off just because the story is doesn’t know what else to do with them – when the cast just needs to be thinned out to make more space for the action.  There are also loads of instances where characters are created for no reason but to die, in order to show how horrible the monster of the week is.  This may be a staple of horror fiction but is annoying for its predictability – and not just predictable, but in Doctor Who, cliched.

Examples?  Naturally, your mileage may vary, but I’d include Stevenson from The Seeds of Doom, Phipps from The Seeds of Death, the little girl at the start of School Reunion, the hospital administrator from Smith and Jones, the soldier who gets crushed by the Dalek sucker in Dalek, the investigative journalist who gets too close to the truth at the start of The Sontaran Strategem, the investigative journalist who gets too close to the truth at the start of The Sound of the Drums, Oscar in The Two Doctors, half the cast of any “survival” or “base under seige” story, Alexie Sayle’s DJ in Revelation of the Daleks, and indeed many of the characters who have the misfortune to inhabit a story written by Eric Saward.

3. Timey Wimey Nonsense

Now, make no mistake, I like Steven Moffat.  I like the temporal madness that we often see in his writing.  I like Blink, I like the revelation of Clara, and I like the idea of the River Song story, which is certainly the most extended such narrative in Doctor Who.  But I get annoyed and tired of the number of times that Moffat has basically explained things to be a result of a “stable time loop” – it has to happen simply because it’s already happened.

As an example, perhaps the worst offender, we have the secret of River Song.  There is a lot of build up to the fact that when the Doctor finds out River’s secret, than everything will change.  And the fact that this revelation would take place at the battle of Demon’s Run.  And though many of us had guessed or at least considered River’s secret before it was spoken, it had all the makings of an amazing reveal.  How does it happen?  Do independent circumstances take place that reveal the truth?  Does the Doctor actually discover it in some way that relates to the plot?  No!  River actually just turns up…and tells him.  Why?  Really, for no apparent reason, other than that it’s time that the Doctor–and the audience–find out.

The little baby-name medallion is a bit of a distraction to all this, but actually, her little medallion doesn’t have anything to do with it.  River never goes to live on that lake-less world, or get named by those people, or use that medallion.  Instead, she takes her name because earlier in her life, the Doctor tells her about someone called “River Song”, and she eventually decides to be that person.  Arg!  Makes all of that  build up sort of meaningless.  [/Rant]

4. Too much to-do about the companion’s families

When Rose returned to earth a few episodes into her run in Aliens of London, it was a bit of a breakthrough moment for the series.  For the first time, we really saw a bit of what life was like for those who were left behind when a companion took off in the Tardis, and we saw the confusion that those companions experienced when they landed again.  But over the next few years of the series, this developed moved from innovation to standard to tired cliche.  Every companion needed to have a stressed out mother, and 2 out of 3 of the next main companions had a sympathetic but weak-willed father figure, and we had to visit all of them ad nauseum.  The Steven Moffat era shook this up a bit, but we still had endless scenes of Amy’s domestic life, and even Clara’s annoying babysitting charges played a major role in Nightmare in Silver.  I don’t mind the companion’s life being fleshed out, but really, it’s time to learn some new tricks.

5. Bad character departures

So many of the best moments of the series have been around characters leaving the show…Susan, Jamie, Zoe, Jo Grant, Sarah Jane, Rose Tyler, Donna Noble, Amy Pond.  But for each of those, there is a Leela, a great character who abruptly decides to get married to the only marriageable young guy around.  Or a Romana I, who decides to arbitrarily regenerate in a played-for-laughs continuity snarl.  Or a Dodo Chaplet, who actually leaves the show without even being in the episode.  Or Liz Shaw, who disappears between seasons.  Or Harry Sullivan who just fizzles out of the series.  Or Melanie Bush, who goes off with the most unlikely guy in the room.

So many storytelling opportunities lost.

6. Blah blah blah blah Padding

Over the years, there’s been a lot of padding in a lot of episodes of Doctor Who, especially in the old days when the average story was like a feature film.  The serialized nature of the program meant there was lots of stuff from previous stories that was recapped “softly” – dialog that would re-explain concepts or situations; or generally stories would just be longer (sometimes by whole episodes) than the plots would justify.  Specific examples escape me, but I do recall a lot unnecessary snarking between Tegan and Adric in Kinda, some fluffing around with a some random soldier in The War Games, and that long chase scene in Planet of the Spiders that I already mentioned.  Thankfully, you don’t see this as much on the show anymore.

7. The Tenth Doctor’s double-standard self-righteous arrogance

What you do see on the revival series, especially during the David Tennant years, is a lot of double-standard arrogance from the Doctor.  It starts right there in his opening story when he abruptly decides to tear Harriet Jones down from power, and continues as he in one moment rants on about how stupid people are to use guns, and in the next moment wipes out whole species with non-gun weapons.

People occasionally called him out for this, but rarely strongly enough to make it mean anything.  And annoyingly, he was treated as nearly universally powerful and nearly everyone was  sort of in love with him as well (romantically or not).  I like David Tennant and his Doctor, but out of all the incarnations of the character, he was the one who most badly needed to be taken down a peg or two.

8. Action sequences that don’t serve the story

I’d say that fundamentally, Doctor Who is a science fiction drama, not a science fiction action series.  It’s built around concepts and conflicts and characters, more than it’s about combat and chases.  Now, some of this may have been because of the limits of the show’s technology and budget, but nonetheless, that’s the show that we got.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for action, but from time to time the temptation has been to go for the spectacle at the expense of the story.  The biggest offender here is in the revival series Christmas specials – with things like the attack of the evil alien Santas or killer Christmas trees from The Christmas Invasion, the chase down the highway in The Runaway Bride, or the little sledding adventure with the Cyber-Gorilla (or whatever that thing was) in The Next Doctor.  But if you go back to the classic series, you even have things like that absurdly long multi-vehicle chase in Planet of the Spiders, which literally leads to nothing.

Each of these episodes is only so many minutes long – it’d be nice to have each minute mean something.

9. Over reliance on familiar monsters and enemies

Doctor Who has created a lot of memorable antagonists over the years, so it’s no surprise that many of them have turned up more than once.  Chief of amongst these are the Daleks, who were responsible for much of the show’s initial longevity, and have shown up significantly in about half of the original series seasons and in every season of the revival.  They are an effective concept if used well, but to paraphrase Steven Moffat, they also threaten to be the most defeated alien monsters ever.  The Cybermen are not too far behind them.  It starts being predictable and pedestrian when they show show up over and over again.

The same thing happened with the Master during the latter part of the original series, in the 1996 TV Movie, and with John Simm’s over-the-top performance during the 10th Doctor era.  And with Davros, too.

On the other hand, some of the most exciting moments in the show have arisen with the creation of brand new menaces.  Weng-Chiang, Sutekh, the Midnight entity, the Headless Monks, the Robots of Death, and more have all only appeared once, and have been all the more memorable for it.

In the history of the show, all but six seasons have made use of monsters or villains from previous years (and one of those is Season 1).  That’s not a problem necessarily, but it’s vital for the show’s health and strength to keep pushing things in new directions.

And, last and certainly not least…

10. Nearly every episode has got something kind of stupid in it

Talons of Weng-Chiang…a classic!  Except for that unconvincing giant rat puppet.

Caves of Androzani…amazing!  Er, except for that dopey and largely irrelevant magma beast.

Blink…awesome!  Aside from that niggling business of the fact that the ending doesn’t make any sense (Angels defeated by being forced to look at each other, but only under the light of a dingy bulb that they had already been shown to be able to extinguish at will)

Silence in the Library…super cool!  Except for why do the Vashta Nerada use those cheesy looking skeletons to chase people?

The Ark in Space…creepy and ahead of it’s time!  Oh wait, is that special effect made out of spray-painted bubble wrap?

Genesis of the Daleks – hokey looking giant clam.  The Empty Child – Rose dumbly ends up floating around on that balloon?  Remembrance of the Daleks – Davros shoehorned in.  Tomb of the Cybermen – Toborman is hoisted up with the help of wires.  The Daemons – Azal self destructs because Jo Grant is nice.  Half the stories have endings don’t make any sense, and most of the others have bad special effects.  It so often makes the show sort of embarrassing when you try to introduce it or explain it to someone who doesn’t get it.

So there you go, ten things that I about Doctor Who that drive me bonkers.  And yet, for all that, I still watch the show.  I guess there are even more reasons why I love it.  The 50th anniversary is only days away so it’s a safe bet I’ll be sharing some of those reasons soon…


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