Doctor Who attempts to take on the same themes as other Peak TV shows, with mixed results at best.
The Doctor Who reboot has a problem. It’s called Peak TV.
Not every show on television is a “Peak TV” show, nor should it be. Not everyone turns in for the same reason. For instance, as much as I dislike a show as mindlessly dumb as The Big Bang Theory, it’s one of the most popular shows on television. There’s a market for it. Nor should all shows aspire to be “Peak TV” like, as Agents of SHIELD learned at their peril. (Though the balance they struck this between the “network fodder” they are and the “Peak TV” they wish to be was quite impressive last season.)
Doctor Who came back to TV two years ahead of the beginning of Peak TV boom, and though it has impressive history, nerd cred for decades, and a 12 episode Peak TV-esque schedule on its side, it’s not a show that has attempted to rise above its regular sci-fi serial roots.
Bill: What noise do spaceship doors make?
Nardole: Shuk shuk, obviously.
But there’s a problem here, and it lies within those scifi serial roots. One of the reasons that good scifi serials have always had a loyal nerd following is that they tackle current political issues in parable format. During, say, the 1970s and 1980s, this was not something that most of TV was doing. The airwaves were filled with Big Bang Theory like mindless shows. Even shows that were trying to be topical (like All in the Family) couched themselves in mindless sitcom like clothing. Shows like Doctor Who, Star Trek and other “cult nerd” fare has the lane to bring us stories featuring staged fascist regimes that our heroes have to fight against and take down in the space of 44 minutes to themselves.
And that’s just what Doctor Who did this week, in our third part of “The Monk Trilogy”. I noted back before said trilogy began that it felt like the show was deliberately telling stereotypical Whovian tropes in search of a “perfect” season. The first installment of the trilogy fell flat, and the second was merely a good middle chunk. This week was the conventional “fighting the fascist regime” scifi trope. One gets the feeling that the first two installments were almost backtracked to fill in the story so that we could get to this part, as it never would have worked as a stand alone piece without the build up.
The Doctor: Human society is stagnating. In fact you’re regressing.
But herein lies the problem. It is one thing for a show like Doctor Who, or Star Trek, to do a Dystopian Future episode–build up or stand alone–when there’s no one else doing them on TV. Then it doesn’t matter how good or bad the episode is, or how rushed parts of it feel in order to squash it down into the time frame. For an audience hungry for that type of thing, we’ll take it anyway we can.
But when someone else is already doing this story, elsewhere on the dial, several someones in fact? From The Colony over on USA to The Leftovers on HBO, to The Man in the High Castle on Amazon to The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu, there is already plenty. We as an audience are not starved for fascist regime parables in this time of Brexit and Trump. And at least two of those are doing it on a scale Doctor Who couldn’t begin to afford.
Now does that mean Doctor Who should have left off doing such an episode? After all, it’s a classic trope they’ve used over and over, from Inferno back in the Third Doctor’s time to the penultimate Donna episode Turn Left. Here we are in the golden era of fascist regime parables, one would think the granddaddy of scifi would want to be in the thick of it. And I’m not saying they shouldn’t. But it was really hard not to compare this episode to Amazon and Hulu, and find it badly wanting.
The Doctor: Fake news central!
Part of it was the squishing down into the time frame. I wanted just about every part to be longer. I wanted to see more setup of Bill trying to acclimate while fighting the Monk’s brainwashing, and looking for Nardole and the Doctor over the six months. I wanted more convos with her Mum *before* Nardole showed up. (Especially since “Imaginary Mum” was so central to the sticking the landing.) The scene with the Doctor where he’s testing her was jarring in the extreme, because it came so early in the hour and because it seemed like he really was on the Monk’s side, until he wasn’t. I’m with Bill on the wanting to punch something after that, especially with the regeneration fake out. Nardole will do, since Moffat isn’t on camera.
At least the scene with Missy worked, but like the opener episode of this three parter, it was a bit of a red herring. She’s still in the Vault. And despite the promise of maybe having her save the day, nope, nevermind, not doing that, sorry, we’ll just be on our way now. There she stays, despite the Doctor and Bill being at their wit’s end, because the Doctor won’t agree to sacrifice Bill. So now we’re in seat-of-our-pants Doctor Plan mode… that was cut short so we could get to the conclusion… where Bill attempts to sacrifice herself. All that, only to have love once again save the day (completely undermining last week’s “love fucked everything up” moral) as we basked in the Eternal Sunshine of Bill’s Spotless Mind.
The Doctor: Bill’s mum, you just went viral.
And then like that it’s over, and everybody forgets it ever happened. No lessons learned, everything resets, like a Simpsons episode. Back to the median, Bill’s got a 300 word essay that’s six months overdue, and lord only knows if she’ll ever get another date with Penny. Only one person seems to have learned anything–and that’s Missy, who has now figured out if she ever wants out of this box, she’s going to have to go on a full on remorse for everything campaign. Well that wasn’t the lesson we were hoping people would learn, is it?
We never did learn why the Monks were here in the first place, what they wanted from Earth, or why they were going to such lengths to get it. In a lesser TV era, these faults would not stand out quite so large against the background. But we’re a more sophisticated audience now, especially us nerds who grew up loving Doctor Who for being the only one to stage fascist regimes on TV at a time when no one else was. But the rest of TV has caught up now–including, from the looks of it, Star Trek, which will bring its first “Peak TV” version of the series to streaming next fall. It’s time Doctor Who recognized that if it wants to still do these sorts of one offs, it’s going to have to work a little harder for them to count.
Next week, we go back to monster of the week episodes with the Ice Warriors, the classic “rubber suited alien” monster that once defined the genre.