Yes, that’s right. I just suggested that Who supremo Steven Moffat is repositioning the show to repeat its 1970s heyday. But what if he’s already recreated the 1980s with the Eleventh Doctor!? Actually, what if he’s simply recreated one specific story from 1983?
MATT SMITH’S PREMATURE EXIT LAST CHRISTMAS BROUGHT THE BIGGEST SHAKE-UP OF STEVEN MOFFAT’S TENURE AS NEW WHO SHOW RUNNER. While he’d changed companions, TARDIS interior (twice) and theme tune (twice) the incoming Twelfth Doctor (yeah, we CAN call him that) is the real deal – the chance to break or ensure his legacy as show runner after some incredible peaks and some unfortunate troughs.
A prestigious warm-up for this year’s Rebel Time Lord
On the definite plus side, some of the greatest stories of New Who have fallen under his stewardship! Even after Deep Breath, The Eleventh Hour remains the greatest regeneration story ever told. For me, Matt Smith is the greatest actor to grace the role in the modern era and whisper it, can easily throw his fez up with the classics. In 2013, the 50th anniversary year was a sparse but triumphant year. The customary special not only fused modern and classic Who, but creating the perfect warm-up for a different kind of Doctor in the process. The War Doctor, in the regal form of John Hurt, was a rather prestigious warm-up for the Rebel Time Lord hitting our screens this autumn.
Partisanship is a Time Vortex sent right
On the flipside, the Moff tenure has had its fair share of criticism and after that triumphant, if rather sparse anniversary, the imminent change of personnel hasn’t eased it. After three seasons of complicated and often not convincingly resolved plotlines, we find ourselves approaching the first two-parter, and conventional cliff-hanger, since May 2011’s The Rebel Flesh. And before that, a fair few stories jumped their cliff-hanger (Light up Day of the Moon). Perhaps the main croppers are the monsters introduced during the Third Doctor’s era. An Auton as a companion, the Silurians reintroduced with an effective remake and Sontarans reduced to, admittedly sometimes amusing, comic relief.
A recent Emmy award winner, Steven Moffat’s prowess at the keyboard and intentions for a show he intrinsically knows aren’t in doubt. But that kind of criticism hovers behind the scenes of the recently debuted Series Eight like artron particles around a time rotor. We’re dealing with Who fans after all, where script editing and production era partisanship is a Time Vortex sent right.
But what if some reasons for those perceived criticisms of the Moffat era so far, the entire Matt Smith era, were there all the time, hidden in plain sight?
Back to the Future
The original ‘Sports Doctor’
Moffat’s a big fan of the Fifth Doctor, as the affectionate hilarity of 2007’s Time Crash showed. While Peter Davison’s early ’80s Doctor may I reason not have been Moffat’s first, it’s easy to see the appeal of the Doctor he’s called “lovable”.
The Fifth Doctor is well regarded, coming the right side of the mid-1980s slump and holding his wicket admirably against his immensely successful predecessor. Despite sitting in between two slices of Baker, Davison managed to shape a fresh persona for the Doctor and earned considerable and ongoing respect for his portrayal. Even now he pops up in Who in between his still thriving career, whether it’s the Proms, commenting New Doctor announcements or even helming the brilliant Five(ish) Doctors tribute. He’s very much the patriarch of the Who Dynasty these days (and having a Doctor as a son in law doesn’t hurt).
But really, were his three series in the TARDIS much cop? Proportionally, the Sixth and Seventh Doctors’ runs have arguably just a good hit rate if not higher. You need more than a sprig of celery to get through some of the Fifth Doctor’s scrapes, from Kamelion to Myrka. Even so, caught up with the breathless enthusiasm of the Fifth Doctor, clearly older and grumpier than he looked, prone to self-sacrifice, and the original ‘Sports Doctor’, fans remember and newly encounter it pretty fondly.
And 30 years on, if Moffat’s plan wasn’t to recreate that era, he’s done a good job of doing so. It’s not just the easily drawn comparison between the youthful Eleventh and Fifth Doctors either. The parallels run far deeper.
Perhaps it’s even more specific
In three series, Moffat’s inarguably doctored one of the greatest incarnations of the Time Lord through a run of episodes with more than their share of sub-par. While there are some classics, on the whole each season has generally finished as slightly more than the sum of its parts. He’s packed the TARDIS with companions, the longest serving of the particularly stroppy variety and even brought a false companion into the ranks (no, that’s not Kamelion’s return). He’s brought back the Silurians for the first time since 1984 and in Series Seven even commissioned a TARDIS-stomping semi-sequel to Castrovalva.
And then, after just three series in, the Eleventh Doctor left before his time and just after a multi-doctor story to boot! Davison famously took the advice of Patrick Troughton to leave after three years, something Matt Smith must have noted. A well regarded Doctor, leaving to soon after a set of stories than were weaker than they should be, replaced by that rarest of things, an older model? Perhaps Moffat’s love of the Fifth Doctor is deeper than it seems. Or perhaps it’s even more specific. There’s one story from the Fifth Doctor’s tenure – one that Moffat has occasionally named as his favourite – that seems to be more influential than any other.
Game on. It’s the Eleventh Doctor vs Mawdryn Undead
Round 1 – An Impossible, inexplicable, in-and-out villain
Pure and monocular intensity
The White and Black Guardians were a fresh and excellent catalyst for The Key to Time saga some four years prior to Davison’s return match during the 20th anniversary season. But after losing the TARDIS limiting randomiser (probably under immense pressure from his wife…), he became out and out bait for that old rogue the Black Guardian. The kind of feathery entity that swore it could never be seen to become directly involved in events… while threatening everyone with complete and utter destruction at a whim. It was a fresh and bold take, seemingly inspired by the Claw on Inspector Gadget. In the midst of that trilogy, The Black Guardian works the shadows, with TARDIS stowaway Turlough his spy assassin. Popping up, threatening erratically then disappearing, he never really goes away.
In Series Six, the Eleventh Doctor may well have been unwittingly battled the Black Guardian. Here he suffered the tricky, eye-patched Madame Kovarian smuggling a duplicate spy aboard the time ship as she stoked the initial riddle of the series. During the build up, Kovarian’s otherworldly and surreal entrances hardly spurred the plot along, simply promoting her evil brand of a pure and monocular intensity.
Round 2 – Timey Wimey Nonsense
Timey-wimey nonsense is very much the spaghetti on the head of Mawdryn
Timey-wimey nonsense is very much the spaghetti on the head of Mawdryn for the Fifth Doctor. The Blinovitch Limitation effect may be so-called as its onscreen explanation has been completely limited. In Mawdryn Undead much was made of the two time periods and their matching Brigadiers – by this time, most inexplicably of all, a maths teacher. When two Brigadiers are brought into the same time period, unwittingly circling each other like Time Mantises aboard Mawdryn’s ship (go on, that’s a little bit The God Complex…), the Effect is used as a tension ratcheting tool. The threat of the universe instantly exploding should they come into contact with each other is only mildly ruined by the past Brigadier suffering a fuzzy memory. It may not quite have the same logic, but only the Third Doctor’s Day of the Daleks can compare to Mawdryn Undead for timey-wimeyness during the classic run.
Time and paradox have found themselves far more in demand in the post-Time Lord universe of the new Who era. The same person coming into contact with themselves from a different time-stream may be common ground since 2005, with Rose’s transgression in Father’s Day demonstrating that Blinovitch theory was over. Come 2010 however, and individuals from different time periods were aping Mawdryn Undead all over the place, especially in Series Six’s The Girl Who Waited (also featuring the companion-aging-trope) and The Impossible Astronaut. While Russell T Davies worked the idea of immovable points of time to a rather excellent and surprising climax in Waters of Mars, Moffat has played faster and looser in a show he constantly reminds us is about a time traveller, although with a similar disregard for internal logic as Mawdryn Undead. The paradox baiting of The Angels take Manhattan stands in stark compared to Cold War later in Series Seven. Remember: Paradoxes usually resolve themselves. And the Doctor usually lies.
Round 3 – A Waste of a Good Regeneration
We’ve never had it so regenerative
True, episode two of Mawdryn Undead sadly denies us an onscreen regeneration for the strange, critically injured alien in favour of a cloaked reveal! But really that’s what the story all comes down to: Another of Who’s ongoing flirtations with immortality and pure vampirism of a Time Lord’s existence – surely the reason why, until the Daleks, vampires were their greatest enemies. In doing so, Mawdryn Undead reconfirms what had previously only been a one story idea: That Time Lords are limited to 13 incarnations, but also that this number could be changed. Sure it didn’t work out so well for the undying scientists, but fortunately there are eight of them and the Doctor has eight remaining lives, one to end one scientist’s suffering. I wonder what would have happened had he been one life out. 1-up?
RTD may have established the consistent regeneration and even cheated a cliff-hanger with it, but Moffat has used it the most, for both cliff-hangers and misdirection. More than that, with Time Lord hybrid River unravelling her secrets throughout the Eleventh’s time span there was even more to play with. During Series Six and Seven it was even it was reduced to soppy regeneration swapping between the two. It’s all been reduced to the shorthand of whirling regenergy… In one of the key storylines the Doctor is forcibly stopped from regenerating mid-cycle and then later found to have oddly faked the process using a Tesselecta. In the Sarah Jane Adventure Death of the Doctor he jokes that he’s got 507 lives and by the time he does face death on Trenzalore he may as well have done; the (er, time-locked) Time Lords gift him presumably another regenerative cycle. We’ve never had it so regenerative, just as Mawdryn Undead used regeneration as a plot point like very few other stories.
The idea that regeneration defines a Time Lord is mildly confounding. In the classic series, it wasn’t as definitive as it’s recently become – simply a biological fact of Time Lord physiology like the duo-cardiac system. In the new post-Time Lord universe, perhaps the increased emphasis on regeneration just what exactly does define a Time Lord?
Round 4 – The Doctor’s Massive Personal Sacrifice
Personal sacrifice back to the fore
Moffat once poetically described the Fifth Doctor as the show’s frowning martyr. “This Doctor takes the emphasis off the eccentricities and turns it into a pained heroism of a man who is so much better than the universe he is trying to save but cannot bear to let it stand.”
True, much of that comes from his storming end-game, but pained sums up his tenure. What a great personality trait to drag into his anniversary year… In Mawdryn, it seems that the Fifth has no option but to sacrifice himself to save his companions – suffering a they were from that rarest of disorders – a time sensitive mutation that simply disappears when its host does.
The Eleventh Doctor may have shunned the ‘hands free’ approach of the Fifth Doctor, but he brought personal sacrifice back to the fore. The Eleventh Doctor was constantly walking into scrapes with a fair run of his (onscreen) tenure spent with death on Trenzalore hanging over him. He spent a good 900 years surrendering his freedom, and his final natural years saving the universe from Time War II.
Round 5 – Frantic finales riddled with companions
Every season-closer has packed out the finale with companions
More a fault of the classic series structure, Mawdryn Undead really does pack a lot of nonsense into its last quarter. There’s the multiple ending, the way Turlough magically appears – and all after the younger Brigadier spends most of the episode wandering round and round the same corridors. They all converge at the end of course. It’s all rather packed.
On the show’s return in 2005, the 45 minute format was arguably the masterstroke, though under Moffat it’s highlighted some plot issues. Until the ‘blockbuster every week’ approach of Series Seven, too many single episodes with only 10 minutes worth of plot (Victory off the Daleks the prime example) or packed out two-parters with far more plot than could be adequately explored (Time of the Angels). True, Journey’s End may steal the jammy dodger for companion overload, but almost every season-closer has packed out the finale with companions. Hell, Amy Pond managed the first and last of the Eleventh Doctor’s adventures; River Song managed all his series finales, and even one half series finale.
Should have stayed that little bit longer…
The writing may well have been pinned to the wall with the anniversary, 30 years after Mawdryn Undead first screened. Another one Moffat’s cited favourites is The Three Doctors, and it’s undeniable that no serving doctor has lasted long after teaming up with his predecessors…
The Eleventh Doctor has joined the Fifth in that small club of Doctors who were replaced by older models. But there is hope considering that the 50th Anniversary didn’t turn out to be Planet of Fire, even if Time of the Doctor didn’t hit the highs of Caves of Androzani. It’s unlikely that the Twelfth Doctor will repeat the path of the Sixth Doctor and in any event he’s already drawn him on the number of full stories.
As we leap to the new Doctor it’s looking likely that the main comparison between the Fifth and Eleventh Doctors will be a painful one: remembered among the greatest Doctors, but two who really should have stayed that little bit longer.