(The Daleks – wondering whether it’s time to call the whole thing off. Image ©BBC)
Those of a certain age, will remember the first time that Dr Who came around, running from the 1960s through to the end of the 1980s. For those who don’t recall, our friendly, neighbourhood Time Lord spent twenty six years (or thereabouts) working his way through his first seven regenerations, starting with William Hartnell and running through Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davidson and Colin Baker before winding up with Sylvester McCoy.
Those of you who have a particular interest and who enjoyed this fine bit of science-fiction hokum may also remember that there was a definite law of diminishing returns as the years went by. The first few Doctors worked rather well and often elicit fond memories in nerdy, Whovian types. Particularly Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and – often listed as the best of the bunch – Tom Baker. However, while Peter Davidson, Colin Baker and even Sylvester McCoy occasionally fought a gallant rearguard action, the writing on the wall must have been clear for even the most ardent Dr Who aficionado. With increasingly shaky sets, increasingly ludicrous alien costumes and increasingly shaky plots, it shouldn’t have come as any surprise to anyone when the BBC pulled the plug in 1989.
Leaving aside the one-off appearance of Paul McGann in a failed attempt to reboot the series in the mid 90s, it was to be 2005 before the twin-hearted, Tardis-driving good guy from Gallifrey reappeared on our TV screens. Blessed with modern special effects, modern production values and some decent new scripts, all under the stewardship of people like Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, Christopher Eccleston and then David Tennant helped to regenerate the Time Lord’s fortunes. However, the curse of Dr Who was waiting in the wings to strike yet again…
When Matt Smith took over the role, I fear the cracks were beginning to show. While he mostly had good scripts and interesting stories to work with – and, along with the other cast members, handled them with some degree of aplomb – it seemed to me that a little of the old, twee, slightly shaky, late 1980s Dr Who feeling was beginning to return. This time around, though, it wasn’t shaky sets and alien costumes made of bubble wrap that were causing the problems, it was the story lines and plots. As time went on, they became a little too cliched, a little too juvenile, a little too soft in the middle. OK, so you can make allowances – this is largely a show for kids after all – but the later Matt Smith story lines really seemed to lose their edge.
When Peter Capaldi took on the role, I was hoping that things might improve, but they didn’t. I ended up feeling a little sorry for Peter Capaldi, to be honest. A fine and accomplished actor, he ended up being handed perhaps one of the most ridiculous incarnations of the Doctor that we have seen this time around, with story lines and plots that rapidly became more ludicrous and which lost pretty much all of the sharpness and polish that Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant had been able to rely on. This was not looking good.
And so we come round to the latest regeneration – the thirteenth, or even the fourteenth if you include John Hurt’s brief tenure as “The War Doctor”. (We will all quietly ignore the old bit of Dr Who lore that said Time Lords only get twelve regenerations, since that’s a separate problem.) Of course, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth when it was announced that – shock! horror! – the new Doctor was going to be…oh, it’s too horrible to say it!…a…woman! But, unlike a surprisingly vocal number of sad sci-fi geeks, I thoroughly welcomed the announcement. I was hoping that it would not only give the whole thing a welcome kick up the backside but also give the show runner and scriptwriters a chance to come up with something really new and fresh.
Unfortunately, it seems that my hopes may have been in vain. Jodie Whittaker is a fantastic actress and is doing her level best, more than ably abetted by the rest of the cast (including a surprisingly good performance from Bradley Walsh), but they’re still fighting with plastic plots, shaky story lines and – in the latest series – a growing tendency for the whole thing to become a bit preachy. This new series (which began on New Year’s Day) did, at least, see the return of the Doctor’s old adversary the Master, but where the character was previously played with deliciously dark and deranged menace by John Simm (opposite David Tennant) and with a degree of flair by Michelle Gomez (opposite Peter Capaldi), poor Sacha Dhawan was left playing the part of a shallow, cardboard cut-out looney-tune with no depth to the character and no chance of eliciting even the slightest drop of sympathy for him. Add to that the obvious and heavy-handed references to the problems of modern technology and social media (yes, Google and Facebook, we plainly mean you) and a new fondness for trying to shoe-horn in as many historical character references as possible (we’ve already had Ada Lovelace, Charles Babbage, Noor Inayat-Khan, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison and we’ve only got as far as episode 4), it’s clear that the Curse of Dr Who has struck again. Just like the first time around, we’ve seen a few good Doctors, followed by some good actors trying to make the best of it as the stories and plots start to fall apart around them.
Still, I suppose at least the sets and special effects are holding up this time around. Maybe they should shelve it for another 15 years or so and come back when they’re all feeling suitably refreshed.