I tried to watch the Doctor Who Christmas Special, “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe” over the weekend. And somewhere between Matt Smith’s prat-falls and an exposition snorefest through the middle, I just turned off. Now, one bad episode does not justify a break-up. We forgive a lot when it comes to love, but at some point you also realize that not all relationships are worth saving. Sure, we can try to stay friends. Casual acquaintances who check in once in a while. But for now, I'm breaking up with Doctor Who.
Here's the thing about breaking up when things used to be so good: You're sad but you're angry too. Sad that things have fizzled, that something magical has been lost. And damn angry that things have gone so far downhill. That the show that made you laugh and cry and think now makes you feel mostly frustrated.
I know that lots of people love the Steven Moffat era Eleventh Doctor and his "bow ties are cool" incarnation in Matt Smith. And I know that there are people out there who have been life-long Doctor Who fans, who can chart the merits of different show runners and different doctors far better than I can. And maybe they have legitimate arguments that the Eleventh Doctor is really a more "true" version of Doctor Who, embracing the Doctor's alienness and the show's monsters-under-the-bed aesthetic.
But for me it comes down to this: I think good sci-fi/fantasy is about using technology and imagination to explore basic human emotions within a heightened reality. If it's all toys and no truth, it's not a good story.
What puzzles me the most, is how Moffat -- who has written some of the greatest Who episodes ever (The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead) -- is managing to make the new seasons so uninteresting for me. My theory is that he really is much like the doctor himself, a madman with a box (or a laptop) who needs someone to stop him. Under the right guidance, he makes magic. Given free rein, he gets overly showy with wibbly wobbly timey wimey stuff.
Now, as a die-hard Lost fan, I have nothing against narrative complexity. The point of telling a dense and demanding story is to add richness. It's to enable the pleasure of watching a show again and discovering all new things. It's to mirror the complexity of characters and their motivations. If the only goal is to lead viewers on a wild goose chase so that the writer can have his "ta-da!" ending, that's serving the writer, not the audience or the story.
Take River Song’s story: In “Silence of the Library/Forest of the Dead” we get the set-up for a tragic time-crossed love story that made me cry over River’s “death” even though I’d only known her for all of 80 minutes. I mean, how gut-wrenchingly beautiful is the idea of a love story unfolding along opposite timelines? We get glimpses of that here and there as River reappears in the Doctor’s life, but then suddenly River is Amy’s daughter. And part Timelord. And a brainwashed assassin orphan. Oh, and the Doctor’s killer. But then, oh wait, it was all a ruse! And let’s top that off with the most awkward wedding ever. What used to be an amazingly romantic story became kind of a farce.
There are still episodes from Moffat’s era that I love, and it's because those episodes exist that I can't ever really be a stranger to Doctor Who. It's stories like “The Doctor’s Wife” or "The Girl Who Waited" that make me the saddest/angriest of all because it's just a glimpse of how amazing this show can be. On the surface, they’re proper sci-fi stories about technology and aliens and time travel. But it’s the characters and their interactions that turn these plots into powerful stories of love, loyalty, friendship, loneliness, sacrifice, and humanity.
Yes, Doctor Who is about adventure and escapism, but escapism is hollow and useless if it doesn’t teach us something or make us think about what kind of adventures we’d like to have in reality. I think that’s ultimately why this era of Doctor Who falls so flat for me: It’s too caught up in telling flashy stories and not nearly concerned enough with telling stories that make us think and feel and wonder.
Edited to add: After engaging in many a Doctor Who related conversation at San Diego Comic-Con 2012, I'm going to give the Eleventh Doctor another chance. I want to clarify that I have nothing against Steven Moffat or Matt Smith and that I obviously believe there are moments of brilliance in the writing and the acting over the past few years. It's just that the overall tone and storytelling approach hasn't really worked for me. But I'm hoping that re-watching the 5th and 6th series will change my mind. Because break-up or not, I'll never stop loving the Doctor.