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Question Time

September 24th, 2011

The sixth series of modern Doctor Who has been a bit of a bumpy ride. The first half-season left me unsatisfied. With only seven episodes to air prior to a nearly three-month hiatus, there was too much riding on each installment. I had little patience with the inconsequential “Curse of the Black Spot” and the overstretched “Rebel Flesh” two-parter. I was frustrated by the impenetrable, timey-wimey arc plotting; and by showrunner Steven Moffat’s overindulgence in the Amazing Adventures of River Song.

Happily, the second half has been more hit than miss. Even though “Let’s Kill Hitler” was more timey-wimey River Songiness, it was at least breezy and fun. The next three episodes were all pretty satisfying, and to my mind marked a return to the weird, anything-goes nature of early Doctor Who. (Certainly the stark white rooms and sterile “handbots” of “The Girl Who Waited” evoked the opening chapter of Patrick Troughton’s surreal story “The Mind Robber.”)

The most recent episode, “The God Complex,” was in my view the best story of the season and perhaps even of the entire Moffat/Smith era. It’s not the first (or second, or even third) time that Doctor Who has tackled the Minotaur myth, but its sinister, Shining-inspired hotel setting and hallucinogenic nightmare imagery made it the most effective by far.

However, what prompted me to write was the conclusion of the story, which saw the Doctor “saving” Amy and Rory by dropping them off in modern-day England to live a normal life free of Flesh duplicates, TARDIS babies and scary future selves.

I’m not sure that I’m comfortable with the conclusion the show has reached: that travelling with the Doctor invites more than garden-variety adventure-serial danger, but truly existential peril. The Doctor admits to taking Amy into his life out of hubris and the need to have someone to impress. It’s explicitly stated that the traditional Doctor/companion relationship is a childish venture in need of a grown-up to say “no.”

New Who has flirted with this before. The Doctor’s lonely travels in the 2009 specials were predicated by the terrible fate of his former friend Donna Noble. But even there one knew that it was something that he’d eventually get over. (The regeneration into a new personality surely helped.)

In a vacuum, it’s a story that’s worth telling, but I’m less convinced that it’s wise for a continuing series to make such a good case against the very core of its premise. Make no mistake, there will be more pretty girls travelling in the TARDIS; that’s hard-wired into the show. But after the events of the past couple of weeks, it’s going to be hard not to think that the Doctor is being tremendously irresponsible and hypocritical the next time he invites one of them across the threshold.

Plus, a big part of the appeal of Doctor Who is wish-fulfillment, that desire on the part of the viewer for a big, blue box to materialize outside and whisk him or her off on the adventure of a lifetime. I really don’t want to be told not to want it.

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