The search for the Key to Time is near its end. The Doctor and Romana have traced the final piece to Atrios, a planet in perpetual war with the nearby planet Zeos. Their ruler, Princess Astra, has been abducted, and their Marshal seems to be taking secret orders from an unknown source. And hidden in the darkness between the two planets is a third planet, a shadowy planet.
I’ve Stopped the Universe
At least, that is how this story feels. It is six parts, and it is slow. This is a shame because on the whole, season 16 has been a lot of fun. “The Ribos Operation,” “The Stones of Blood,” and “The Androids of Tara” were great stories. “The Pirate Planet” was full of witty dialogue and was conceptually amazing, but it was a bit too ambitious to realize. It has only been these last two stories, “The Power of Kroll” and “The Armageddon Factor” that have let the season down. Bob Baker and Dave Martin are usually great at concepts, even if they don’t always realize them. And while the idea of the final segment being a living, breathing, sentient being is a great idea that has the potential to create a moral dilemma, in the end even that is squandered, and we have the equivalent of a megalomaniac trying to assemble a super-weapon. The tension between the White and Black Guardians, the restoration of balance to the universe, is gone. The scope is nothing more than a Cold War space opera, which doesn’t even have the courtesy to work on a meta-textual level. Indeed, what could be more fascinating than the Guardians being a metaphor for the East and the West, and true balance being the unification of the two. There is no shadow without light; there is no yin without yang. The anima and the animus. This is not pursued, and neither does “The Armageddon Factor” attempt to subvert them. And all the potential of the Key to Time falls apart.
In truth, at the end of this second Graham Williams season, I feel sorry for the show. I genuinely believe Williams wanted the show to succeed. The entire concept had potential, and the season started well. But beyond the MacGuffin, there seemed to be no real unity to the concept. There themes didn’t play out as well as they should have. This was one of the most ambitious stories Doctor Who had ever told, and it failed. And it is incredibly sad knowing that Graham Williams’ troubles are far from over.
I’m halfway through “The Armageddon Factor.” I had hoped to finish it sooner, but I’m in that end-of-semester rush to get everything done. Two projects are due next week, then I have finals the following week. In the face of such things, Doctor Who just has to take a back seat. I’ve even fallen behind on watching the new series, which I’ve actually been enjoying this time around. While I have occasionally been irritated with what Steven Moffat has been doing with the show, I applaud his efforts to bring in new writers. A show cannot celebrate and embrace its potential to do anything and go anywhere if the same writers are brought back again and again. I genuinely appreciate the classic series’ diversity of writers—which sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed—and I have wanted to see more of that in the new series.
But moving on to the main topic: I am somewhat perplexed that in what should be a celebratory time for all fans of Doctor Who, I feel slightly indifferent. Fifty years is a big deal, especially for a show that appeared dead when the 90s arrived. But over the last couple of months as details were confirmed about the 50th anniversary special, I struggled to find excitement. A huge question popped into my head: what could Doctor Who do to celebrate the 50th anniversary that hasn’t already been done—or that would even be possible? It was practically a given that David Tennant would return; he was vocally a massive fan and a multiple-Doctor story is an anniversary tradition. But Christopher Eccleston returning was extremely unlikely (and confirmed to be not happening). Many classic series fans would love to see a classic-era Doctors, but that seems unlikely as well since many are either dead or no longer look the part. And let’s face it: we want this 50th anniversary special to connect in some way to the history of what has come before. We want a special that celebrates its roots while looking toward the future. Regardless of how one feels about the James Bond film Skyfall, it understood this on some level; it set the final action piece at the Bond family home. The movie tried to connect in some way to the past, to connect in some way that was more than just a few clever lines used to reference previous films.
And so, what I would truly like to see in the 50th anniversary special is the First Doctor. Yes, this is partly because I have become a huge fan of William Hartnell over the course of this blog, but it is also because the Hartnell era planted everything this franchise grew from. This may well happen; I know there are rumors to the effect, but as we all know in Moffat-era Who, rumors are often just rumors.
I actually feel sorry for Steven Moffat and the BBC. How can they possibly live up to the anticipation? How can they fulfill the expectations of all fans? As mentioned earlier, a multi-Doctor story is the main tradition. Bringing back an old companion? It’s been done (“The Five Doctors”, “The Two Doctors”, “School Reunion”). Release novels featuring previous Doctors? It’s been done (Virgin’s Missing Adventures, BBC’s Past Doctor Adventures, The Wheel of Ice). Release a comic that features one incarnation of the Doctor per issue? It’s been done (IDW’s The Forgotten). Audio dramas featuring classic Doctors? Also done (The Companion Chronicles). Everything that is being done is a variation on these themes, and while there’s nothing wrong with that per se, I sometimes feel that we are getting some of the same old material with a 50th Anniversary label slapped on it. Everything falls to the quality of the stories (as so much often does), and the stories are actually a mixed bag. And so, I come away from this celebration feeling that all we are getting is more of the same.
I’m not saying all this to be depressing (that’s just an added bonus). I’m saying this because in a news forum I saw a group of fans criticizing Moffat and the BBC because they weren’t really trying to celebrate the anniversary; they were only milking it for more money. The fans complained that Moffat and the BBC only wanted ratings and didn’t want to pay tribute to the classic series, only the current series. And I guess my response is: what do you want? What do you want from the 50th anniversary? What could Moffat and the BBC possibly do that hasn’t already been done? I’m can be as critical of new Who as anyone, but I’m willing to cut Moffat some slack here. Is it possible that the 50th will be a letdown? Absolutely! And I think it is our fault because we have expected so much from Doctor Who over the course of these 50 years. It is done virtually everything it could possibly do—it even came back from the dead! How could Doctor Who possibly top that?
When it comes to my personal celebration of the 50th anniversary, I’m just going to be excited for everyone who ever worked on the show. It is insane that a science fiction television series survived for 50 years. Congratulations to everyone who has ever contributed to that. And hooray to Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert, Waris Hussein, David Whitaker, Donald Wilson, C.E. Webber, Anthony Coburn, William Hartnell, William Russell, Jacqueline Hill, Carole Ann Ford, and all the crew and cast that delivered an amazing show which has done the impossible.