Okay, so I’m a lifelong Doctor Who fan. I’ll repeat that, I’m a lifelong Doctor Who fan. Lifelong. That means I don’t just love the new series; I love the old series as well. To give you an example of what I mean, for Christmas my girlfriend bought me a Doctor Who scarf, the incredibly long one that the fourth incarnation of the Doctor wore when played by Tom baker in the 70s, and it was, possibly, one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me.
To reiterate, I’m a Doctor Who fan, a lifelong Doctor Who fan, which means generally speaking I don’t like to criticize it and almost always refrain from doing so. November 23, 2013, saw the 50th anniversary of the BBC show, the longest-running sci-fi show in TV history. So last year was a big year for me and all the other Whovians – that’s what we call ourselves – out there. We had the 50th anniversary special featuring multiple incarnations of the Doctor (which should never happen, but often does whenever an annivers… I mean supreme danger to the universe looms), which was silly, a lot of fun and managed to hold up plot-wise.
And then on Christmas Day we had the final adventure of the Doctor as played by Matt Smith, the 11th, no 12th, NO… apparently 13th incarnation of the Doctor. Let me explain something first, during the 70s, the show got saddled with some pretty hefty lore. This was one of the reasons that the 1996 attempt to reboot the show in the US failed and the 2005 attempt by the BBC in the UK succeeded.
The 1996 attempt put so much of that lore and back reference in to the pilot (and the show went no further than the pilot), it alienated almost everyone who wasn’t already a die-hard fan in the first place. The 2005 reboot, on the other hand, basically said the past is the past (which they did pretty succinctly by making the Doctor’s people, the Time Lords, extinct and the Doctor the last of his kind). This was a great move, as it reduced the show to its most basic and fundamental elements, namely, a strange alien man travels around time and space in a 1950s Police Box that’s infinitely bigger on the inside than out and fights evil. What else do you need?
However, that said, the past cannot be entirely ignored because the Doctor’s history IS the Doctor’s history and, thanks to DVD releases and the Internet, that history can be uncovered by new fans just as easily as it can be recounted at length by the old fans such as myself.
Now, by now, most of you should know that one of the key elements of the show’s success, and indeed longevity, is that the Doctor, when his body is old or irrevocably damaged, can regenerate. He can literally become someone else; the same person… but different. Thus it is that one of the biggest, most crucial items of Who lore that the show was saddled with during the 70s was that Time Lords can only regenerate 12 times; meaning they, including the Doctor, have 13 lives.
This is a heavy load to carry, especially as the new series took off so amazingly well and actually looks set to last another 50 years. Except, well, we were almost out of Doctors now. It was obvious that the show’s producers would want to find a way out of this…
This is where my criticism comes in… because instead of doing something interesting and keeping us waiting a while longer to find out about this whole 13 business, the current producer, Steven Moffat, decided it was up to him to ‘solve’ the problem of 13 and thus, one can’t help thinking, cement his place in Who history as ‘The Man What Did It’.
So what did The Man do? He saddled the reboot with exactly the same stupid piece of lore, giving the Doctor another cycle of regenerations courtesy of the Time Lords (not dead anymore but moved to live out their lives safely in another universe) and a crack in the fabric of existence. In order to do that, Smith had to become the 13th Doctor. Now, I was happy with him turning out to be the 12th incarnation and the whole Doctor-I’d-like-to-forget-incarnation that was at the heart of the 50th anniversary special. The story was done well and worked in terms of narrative structure.
However, in order to justify Matt Smith as actually being the 13th incarnation, Moffat shoveled in some guff about some regeneration jiggery-pokery involving the David Tennant incarnation of the Doctor and – hey presto – it’s all neatly tied up. Moffat is a bugger for this tying up of loose ends business and I imagine the fan boy in him couldn’t resist the chance to be the one that got us out of the 13 loop.
Well, okay, he did; Moffat got us out of the 13 loop by putting us straight into another and therefore robbing us all of a very interesting series of Doctor Who where the new Doctor, played by Peter Capaldi, would be a Doctor all too aware, for once, well and truly, of his own mortality; a Doctor who knew that, this time, should he die, he would really die. No new bodies. No new lives.
What would that have done with the character… and what a delight it would have been to see an actor of Capaldi’s caliber play that Doctor. And at the end of his tenure, well, they could still have had him regenerate – another part of the program’s success was that the people behind it just sort of made it all up as they went along. Only this time, the Doctor wouldn’t understand why. We wouldn’t know. It would be a mystery. From that moment on, the Doctor – and the audience – would simply never know if he was the last or not. How much more satisfying that would have been than Moffat’s sticky plaster approach?
Ah well, when all’s said and done, Matt Smith’s Time Lord swan song, The Time of the Doctor, was still an enjoyable romp and still a pivotal episode in that it was still a regeneration episode. And of course Matt Smith was as brilliant as ever. Of the new series so far, Smith has by far been my favorite. But I’m looking forward to the new series, which comes out in the fall; I’m looking forward to seeing what Peter Capaldi does with the role. And, of course, I’m looking forward to another 50 years’ worth of time-travelling adventure, at the end of which, I hope, they will have found a better way out of the problem of 13. I mean, they’ll have had the time to think about it.