There’s something a little wibbly-wobbly with Doctor Who‘s timeline, right now.
When the show was revived back in 2005, showrunner Russell T. Davies injected the program with a lot of energy and a good sense of fun, soon curating a nice stable of writers who could churn out some good, and sometimes even great, episodes. Steven Moffat, a renowned showrunner in his own right, seemed to be the ace in the hole, however, creating memorable characters, definitive monsters, and writing teleplays that were whiplash-smart and wildly inventive. When Davies decided it was time to step down, Moffat, naturally, was the only name to come up as a replacement for Davies. The fan community rejoiced, and for good reason.
Moffat’s time at the helm, however, has proved troublesome. While the man can churn out a lighthearted script and a good monster almost at a whim (and bless him for using the Silence to create a story arc that stretches across two whole seasons, not just one), there was always something a bit off about the course he was taking the show. Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and her husband Rory (the wonderful Arthur Darvill) managed to be excellent companions to the Doctor (played with increasing confidence by Matt Smith), and even with great episodes like “The Girl Who Waited” and “A Good Man Goes to War” doting the landscape, the emotional connection the audience feels with the protagonists just never reached the same level as Davies was able to achieve during his run, even with Davies frequent flair for the overly melodramatic.
Thus, after one of the least compelling Christmas episodes in recent memory (the warm but flat “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe”), the show’s big season opener, “Asylum of the Daleks”, feels a bit off, starting with the idea that after all their adventures together, Amy & Rory are filing for divorce, unable to stand each other and growing bitter, which is a pose that just doesn’t feel right. Even the big reveal as to why they feel that way comes off as a bit forced, and thus, our rest of the time with the Ponds feels like a forced pairing, the duo not really confronting their real issues until the very end of their stay on the TARDIS.
Overall, some episodes feel absolutely slapdash (ahem, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship”, failing despite a nice assist from Rupert Graves), while others feel like classic Who (“The Power of Three”, which is outstanding until its forced conclusion). At least “The Angels Take Manhattan” holds the spark of classic Moffat episodes, the best moment of all being how the episode seems to resolve itself nicely before things, abruptly, take a turn for the tragic, and a genuine emotional sucker punch is achieved. It’s nice plotting, and a very suiting sendoff for some beloved characters.
Sadly, the Ponds’ replacement is a bit of problem spot for the Seventh Series. Clara Oswald (Jenna-Louise Coleman) is a mysterious creature that starts out in the most intriguing of ways: she’s the girl who keeps dying, whom the Doctor keeps running into, and who simply has no recollection of any of her previous incarnations, having already played a very prominent role in “Asylum of the Daleks”.
Yet while Clara is smart, attentive, and undeniably witty, what’s missing from the character — and believe it or not, it’s hard to tell whether it’s the writing or Coleman herself that’s at fault for this — is the warmth. The audience never has a chance to get to that emotional entry point with her, and although she’s scared and caring for the children she looks after back at home, we never feel any true warmth from her, largely because she’s never given a chance to show any real vulnerability. She’s almost too smart for the situations she’s presented with, keeping calm and reserved even when facing an endless army of Cybermen in the Neil Gaiman-penned “Nightmare in Silver” (which is still worth seeing for Smith’s chewy All of Me-styled battle against his own self).
The only time we get to feel any sort of closeness to Clara is, interestingly, anytime she’s with the best characters in all of Series Seven: the Paternoster Gang. Taking on a trio of characters from the Sixth Series’ “A Good Man Goes to War” — the wise Madame Vastra (Neve McIntosh), her lover & assistant Jenny Flint (Cartin Stewart), and the Sontaran comic relief of Strax (Dan Starkey) — this unlikely trio serve as Victorian-era crime fighters that keep close contact with the Doctor even when he’s in his post-Pond funk. When they make Clara have to summarize her plight in a single word in order to get the Doctor’s attention, the ensuing moments give genuine goosebumps, and this is achieved through a masterful group chemistry and direction, something which the character of Clara wouldn’t be able to pull off herself.
So while the much-talked-about season finale, “The Name of the Doctor”, features a too-convenient but still-pleasant explanation for Clara’s multiple guises, the hyped new villain that Moffat conceived of, The Whispermen, feel fairly anonymous and generic in the lineage of Who villains; a far cry from the Weeping Angels or The Silence. Much more effective is the ghost-hunting episode “Hide”, which features a villain that’s not only hidieous, but also genuinely-frightening, director Jamie Payne using some subtle and surprising “look-and-you’ll-miss-it” shots of a looming, rumbling creature that serves as one of the season’s best episodes, hands down.
Of course, as is the case with almost every Who DVD set, there is an embarrassment of bonus features here, although only a few of them could truly be defined as out-and-out riches. The behind-the-scenes featurettes are all par for the course, the various mini-prequels to episode fairly hit-or-miss, the various Chris Hardwick interviews as entertaining as you want to be given your own feelings towards Chris Hardwick. Best of all are some of the more in-depth documentaries, ranging from the very emotional “Last Days of the Ponds” to the remarkably in-depth “Doctor Who in the US”, which covers a great deal of aspects about the show’s relation to the States dating all the way back to the series relaunch. It’s great to see so much craft and effort go into some of these “historical” featurettes, rivaling the classic-Who DVD releases in terms of sheer breadth and scope.
Overall, there is a lot to enjoy in the Doctors’ Seventh Series since his modern-day regeneration, and the prospect of Peter Capaldi’s forthcoming time running the TARDIS makes for much joyous speculation, but with some very uneven episodes and an emotionally inert new companion, Matt Smith’s last go-round feels more like a victory lap than it does a step in any notable new direction. Oh, the clever boy is running, but only out of ideas.