Confession time: before this summer I’d dabbled in Doctor Who, but only very occasionally. A couple of Chris Eccleston episodes here, the occasional David Tennant or Matt Smith one there – and most of the time I came away from it thinking that it’s like Marmite in that you have to have grown up with it to have a chance. It always felt too much like an in-crowd thing, like a more British and less sex-obsessed Rocky Horror Picture Show, with Daleks instead of Tim Curry in suspenders. (It gets even worse, and this may just get me ostracised by any Whovian friends: while Doctor Who didn’t click for me, I really enjoyed the “Children of Earth” arc on Torchwood, the much-reviled spinoff series.)
Then again, give me a Scottish accent and I’m anyone’s – so the news that flappy-handed Smith would be regenerated as Mr Scary Eyebrows himself, Peter Capaldi, led to me checking out Capaldi’s first outing and staying for the rest of the season. Am I a convert to the Church of Who, though? Not entirely.
There’s still an element there that for me (and, I’d imagine, for most newcomers to the series) is difficult to get into, and that’s the weight of worldbuilding the series carries around with itself. It’s one thing not to know who the Daleks or Cybermen are, but if you see your first Dalek episode less than a year before you turn 40, it’s not easy to get around the fact that, well, they’re more than a little naff. One man’s revered iconography is another person’s incredulous “And we’re supposed to find these scary?” – Which leads to a related issues I had, on and off, over the course of the season, and that’s the issue of tone and intended audience. “Is Doctor Who a children’s series?” seems to be one of the big questions in human existence, alongside “Who are we?”, “Where do we come from?” and “Where shall we have lunch?” From my newbie perspective, the series seems to want to have its child-friendly cake and eat it in a decidedly more adult way. I’m okay with children’s stories being sad and frightening, but at times the tone of the season’s episodes veered so much between make-believe fun for the kids, with a randomness and lack of coherence that can be liberating in storytelling but that can equally make it difficult to suspend your disbelief, that it was difficult to believe in the emotional reality of the stories and characters. Added to which, Doctor Ex Machina doesn’t necessarily make for better storytelling than its more theological cousin.
In spite of this, though, and in spite of some uneven writing, I was surprised to find how much the season’s core relationship, between the Doctor and his companion Clara, pulled me in. In the couple of episodes I’d seen starring Eccleston, Tennant and Smith, I felt there was often something too self-aware to the respective actors’ performance, a knowing wink to the audience. Capaldi’s Doctor isn’t a muted, realistic character, and he does enjoy his broader moments, but I bought the character, and I bought the not always entirely healthy but always interesting interplay between him and Clara.
There would be more to say about the individual episodes and about the season-spanning antagonist, Missy, who in theory I would’ve liked if she hadn’t felt so exceedingly like a regeneration of another Moffat baddie, namely James Moriarty as played by Andrew Scott, and like Sherlock‘s Moriarty I felt she overstayed her welcome. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed an outing featuring a mummy, that most hoary and least frightening of monsters, and on the whole I’d say that while I’m not a full convert I’m definitely seeing the potential in the series, its setup and its set of characters. Admittedly, though, half of that may be due to the accent, the eyebrows and the memories of one Malcolm Tucker – at this stage Capaldi seems to be turning the air blue even when he’s delivering perfectly PG-rated lines. So perhaps that’s the solution to my issues with those laughable Daleks and Cybermen: make them Scottish.