Recently, several articles appeared accusing Series 6, Season 32 of Doctor Who of being “too complex”. Articles here, here, here, here and here, several “questions” on yahoo answers (here and here are just two), several forum posts on various TV forums (such as here) and an entire podcast here, all make the point that under the direction of Steven Moffat, Doctor Who has become absurdly complex, and that is not a good thing when it comes to ratings and popularity.
Now, I will address these complaints, but before I do, let me reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, and take you on a minor history lesson. In a time before american anglophiles, ferocious fan girls, shipping slash fiction writers and the internet itself, Doctor who existed. It existed, and was broadcast from 1963 to 1989. During this time, however, it was not a ratings juggernaut. It was not immensely popular. It was not something for everyone to watch, and it was not known to be constantly imminently accessible. That is not to say it did poorly, or that people didn’t care - Specials (a rarer commodity in those days) such as the Three Doctors and The Five Doctors did incredibly well. As did certain tenures - John Pertwee as the Third Doctor was an all time high, with the Doctor stuck on earth with a car named Bessie rather than a TARDIS, and the whole show re-imagined as more of an action series. Yet, it was not something for everyone. It was something for geeky never-go-outs, back bedroom causalities who knitted themselves Tom Baker scarves and never spoke to women. The series took a serial approach, meaning some episodes stretched for seven weeks (and in one extreme example The War Games, ten episodes), and made no attempt to recap the previous weeks episode. Terry Nation’s first Dalek serial is 7 episodes long, and doesn’t show Daleks until the second episode, for example. The show was made for the patient science fiction fan who could overlook the shoddy effects for the quality of the stories. It was not exactly intended for adults and children alike. Indeed before 2005, a great debate in The Doctor Who community was whether or not it was a children’s show (now it is clearly a family show, a different beast).
So, with this in mind - why does it matter that Steven Moffat favors complex plots? It isn’t like this is without precedent within the Whoniverse - Tom Baker’s The Key Of Time series, is just as complex and tightly woven and perhaps more frustrating in some respects (I will not spoil it for you, but the ending didn’t satisfy my mind). Trial of a Time Lord, the Sixth Doctors only season, is again on long linked season, framed and interwoven. So why not let Moffat does his thing? The complexity of The current River Song/Amy/Doctor dichotomy on the show, is not even the most complex the show has ever been. That honor belongs to Ghost-light, one of the last original series stories, that I have seen numerous times, and have yet to fully understand. The cast and crew were baffled by the 4 Episode serial, and made repeated calls to the writer for explanations, many of which were not answered. The DVD contains a featurette hoping to explain the episode, but it does no such thing, and actually further complicates matters. I’d advise anyone labelling the current episodes as complicated to watch this episode, several times.
Part of the problem here is a mix of two things: One is that RTD appears to have been less of a fan (I can name a myriad of Canon problems he created) or perhaps he was just less loyal to the original serials. He had no trouble retconning things, or dragging them away from their roots in order to create a more accessible whoniverse. Moffat however, is obviously a superfan, an ubergeek, someone who would score a 100% on a “how Doctor Who are you?” quiz on someones myspace profile. He is loyal to the original series, and the spirit of the original series - fast paced, complex and not on earth. The stories zip around, the TARDIS misbehaves and ends up in the wrong place (something I felt key to series, that RTD nixed). The Doctor, is far from the happy fun loving “I’ll fall in love with anything human” that RTD created. He’s dark. Manipulative. He will lie to everyone in order to get what he wants. He stole his TARDIS and was regarded as a “criminal” in the original serials. This is something that Moffat has brought back - and the jarring jump from Tenant and RTDs ALLONS-Y! ROSE TYLER I LOVE YOU, WHAT’S THAT A GIANT CYBERMAN? to Moffat and Matt Smith’s lying, childlike, angry Doctor with a God Complex, is part of whats bred these complaints. The contrast is so intense, that comparing and contrasting is inevitable. The second thing is the markedly different approach - the 10th Doctor, spends most his time on earth. A large slice of the show was devoted to the families of companions, their friends, their boyfriends. The show built up a family base from which to create its drama - a good idea. I didn’t always agree with RTD’s choices, but he knew his strengths, and interplay between family members, was one of them. Moffat takes a different approach. Amy and Rory’s extended family are almost a mystery. All the drama is centered on The Doctor, and how the Doctor does things - his darkness shining through. Rory doesn’t appear to like The Doctor very much, even aside from Amy’s crush on him, and Amy doesn’t seem to trust him as much as she would like to - most the episodes are set in the past, or rattling around the universe, not on earth - something that has never gone down well with ratings (I’m not too sure why people dislike things set on other planets, but they don’t. I imagine it’s a uncanny valley sort of thing). Moffat is a clever writer, witty with his dialogue, complex with his plots, and he sews up potholes nicely (even when left by his predecessor) and before they have chance to become gaping holes. The trouble is, he is thwarted by this. He can’t be as clever as I imagine he would like - it’s a family show - but I don’t think he has it in him to “do” RTD’s way of simple action plots.
Do I believe we’re in a Golden age of Doctor Who? Yes. Do I believe it’s too complex? No Do I understand why it’s ratings aren’t as high as they once were? Hell to the yes.
I leave you, with the words of author, and former headwriter, Douglas Adams:
“the trick with Doctor who, is to make it complex enough for children and simple enough for adults”