Six months ago I broke up with Doctor Who. But when I found myself buying way too much TARDIS-related merchandise at Comic-Con this month, I knew it wasn't really over. When I got home, I plopped myself down on the couch and cued up the Moffat/Smith years for a re-watch.
Ah, the re-watch. That most glorious of fan traditions. While rewatching might seem like a waste of time to the casual viewer, it's a sacred ritual for the committed fan. It's an affirmation that the show really is as good (or maybe better) as you believe it to be. It's a rediscovery of moments you've forgotten about. It's the realization that great stories can be enjoyed on many different levels.
The first viewing really only scratches the surface. It's enjoyment on the most basic level: what happens? I'm reminded here of a recent Tuned In column by Time TV critic James Poniewozik about spoilers (Dead Tree Alert: Don’t Fear the Spoiler) and whether or not being spoiled can really "ruin" a story. He writes that, while hearing a spoiler may take away "the one-time-only discovery of a twist or an ending" it doesn't completely negate the pleasure of watching the story unfold.
"An unwanted spoiler does take something away, but not, I think, the pleasure of actually reading or watching a story. Rather, it takes away from the anticipation before watching it–wondering who dies, whether they’ll get off the Island. It takes away the tantalizing sensation of realizing that, in just a few weeks or days or hours, you’ll know this thing that you do not now know. But it doesn’t take away the myriad surprises on the way to getting there, the thrills and pleasures of watching a story play out. If a spoiler could spoil what’s truly good about a story, why would you ever re-watch a movie?"
Re-watching parallels the process of being spoiled in the sense that there's no looming question of how the story turns out. You already know what the twists and turns are. But, similar to being spoiled, knowing what happens can be liberating. Once you remove the anticipation, a good story can be appreciated on other levels.
A re-watch can let quality storytelling really shine. The first viewing can certainly be more exciting, but it can also be frustrating, especially if things don't turn out the way you'd hoped. And ultimately, whether a story wows or disappoints on the first viewing, a re-watch allows for a degree of detachment that can make deeper forms of appreciation and enjoyment possible.
This is what happened when I made my way through the 26 episodes of the Eleventh Doctor. My first impression of series 5 and 6 was lukewarm, at best. I thought that Moffat was too in love with the timey wimey potential of the Doctor's life to stay connected to its emotional core. I didn't like how certain characters and story lines seemed to get all their importance from a big ta-da reveal at the end. I felt that Moffat's stories were too heavy on plot, and too light on heart.
Maybe my skepticism was due to the fact that I was still wearing David Tennant/Russell T. Davies colored glasses. The Davies years (series 1-4 of the rebooted Doctor Who) certainly never let a coherent story get in the way of a melodramatic finish. But Tennant will always be my Doctor and that's a loyalty that can make it difficult to embrace the extreme makeover Doctor Who underwent due to both Tennant and Davies's departure.
Re-watching the latest series now with a bit more distance made me realize there's actually a lot to love about the Eleventh Doctor. I was worried the show had lost its emotional core, but that didn't seem to be the case as I was sobbing over the fate of the last star whale two episodes in ("The Beast Below"). I initially thought that Matt Smith was too silly and immature to portray the Doctor's depth, but realized that his combination of outward lightness and inner darkness was equally as fascinating a portrayal as Tennant's. If the Tenth Doctor was a lonely man with a dash of arrogance, the Eleventh Doctor adds a surprising but entirely necessary helping of guilt to the recipe. It was Davros who told the Tenth Doctor,
"The man who abhors violence, never carrying a gun, but this is the truth, Doctor: you take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons... behold your Children of Time, transformed into murderers. I made the Daleks, Doctor, you made this."
But it isn't until the Moffat years that we start to really delve into the dark side of the Doctor's relationship with his "companions." The dream lord in "Vincent and the Doctor" rightly points out that he can hardly call them friends: "Friends? Is that the right word for the people you acquire?" In "Let's Kill Hitler," the only person the Doctor can think of who doesn't wrack him with guilt is young Amelia Pond, when she was still an innocent girl, giddy with the promise of traveling with the Doctor but unencumbered by the reality.
It's those kind of subtleties that come to the forefront for me when I re-watch a show. It's the character moments that seem few and far between at first, but become key moments of insight and depth when you see them again. It's the relationships that seem shallow and hurried at first glance that take on a beauty and poetry when you see them unfold with more discerning eyes.
Take the Doctor and River Song, for example. Last year, I called her story a farce and lamented the lost potential. I still think it would have been nice to see her story paced a bit more gently, but watching it again helped me see that it not only made sense, but it kept plenty of its tragic romanticism. If River's upbringing as the Doctor's intended murderer meant that she could only ever fall in love with the Doctor, the fact that River is, quite literally, a "child of the TARDIS" also makes it obvious that the Doctor could only ever take her as his wife.
The Doctor and River's interactions were a constant reflection of the confusing nature of their relationship. Flirty one minute, nagging the next, and eventually, eerily unfamiliar. Their relationship is always a bit like the collapsed timeline from "The Wedding of River Song": all happening at once, crazy and exciting, but also sadly fragile.
I think what originally bothered me about River's story was that it seemed like retroactive continuity, to make what we already know about the character and her future/past work. But in the right frame of mind, this knowledge provides incredible dramatic tension. Like when River tells Amy and Rory,
"The Doctor’s death doesn’t frighten me, nor does my own. There’s a far worse day coming for me. ... When I first met The Doctor a long, long time ago, he knew all about me. ... The trouble is: it’s all back to front. My past is his future. We’re traveling in opposite directions. Every time we meet, I know him more, he knows me less. I live for the days I see him. But I know that every time I do, he is one step further away. The day is coming when I’ll look into that man’s eyes, my Doctor, and he won’t have the faintest idea who I am. And I think it’s going to kill me."
There's sadness in that moment, of course. But there's also the larger realization that River is right: that day will kill her. And maybe that's the way it should be.
It's times like that when re-watching really pays off. When you realize something new, something that makes everything you already know about the story better and sadder and happier at the same time. And that's time well spent.