WARNING: Spoilers Ahoy!.Lately I feel like I've been in a minority when it comes to the last couple episodes of Doctor Who: "The Bells of Saint John" and "The Rings of Akhaten". They have vastly underwhelmed and disappointed me.
The worst part: I expected disappointment for "Bells." Jenna-Louise Coleman shined as different iterations of Clara Oswin Oswald in "Asylum of the Daleks" and "The Snowmen". She did so as one-time characters in different historical and futuristic periods.
How could Clara Oswin Oswald top herself extended over the minimum of a half season? We also have a track record of companions disappointing me during the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who. They shine in the beginning then fizzle into just a companion. They have their occasional bursting into light again, then they go back to bleh for the sake of plot.
Clara Oswin Oswald has mostly shined. The character and Jenna-Louise Coleman have done a great job with the material they're given. They have great chemistry with Matt Smith and The Eleventh Doctor. He has done great work with his material, too.
I heard or read an interest interpretation that I unfortunately forget the source. Somewhere on the Internets, someone said this pair work so well because Jenna Louise-Coleman talks as fast as Matt Smith. Clara is something of a companion version of the Doctor. She acts as a female mirror of him rather than a foil or even the everyperson to act as the audience stand in. I really wish I remember where I read that.
My disappointment doesn't lie with Clara, even if she acts as a vehicle for the things I'm disappointed in.
The blame doesn't fall on where I thought it would: the characters or actors.
Well, maybe I'm disappointed in the Doctor lately. Really? Having him stalk Clara as a child and as she grows up? Those flashbacks would have worked just fine without The Doctor in them. As a way to insert some tension at the end and for Clara to stand up for herself as an individual? No. That could've been done more organically as the two get to know each other. Is Clara a Ganger being used to spy on the Doctor? Sorry, that was just badly executed.
Ever since "The Angels Take Manahattan", we've been seeing an immature off balance in a dangerous type of way Doctor.
The Tenth Doctor claiming himself "Timelord Victorious" seemed wrong and terrible. Nonetheless, as audience members, we rooted for him at the same time. He had witnessed horrible injustices throughout his 800 or so year life throughout the universe. Who wouldn't want to fix the universe after all that? It was wrong but understandable and coming from a sympathetic character.
But, anyway, I think the characters and actors do the best that they can with the script they're given. I have no problem with the character development, either. I don't know where the season/series arc is going. I can only criticize the pacing of the development of both the characters and arc.
What does this character arc/development have to do with the larger arc Moffat has created with The Silence, River Song, the War against the Doctor, and the Great Intelligence. Series 5 had great progress. Series 6 slowed down but there was progress halfway through. First half of Series 7 was about the departure of the Ponds. Now we want to get back to the series arc and find out who the real Big Bad is, what is their motivation and how the hell have they been able to pull off everything they've done!
The funny part, though, which is my major issue: I could probably handle all these deficiencies if we had better world building and Good secondary episode-length characters. We had the child-queen in "The Rings of Akhaten." She really didn't do much other than motivate main characters and bounce themes off them. That's not what makes a great secondary character fit for world building.
I compared this episode a lot to "The Beast Below" a lot last night. I won't get too deep into my comparison because the parallels should be pretty obvious. In "The Beast Below," though, we had great Secondary characters: Liz 10, the voting booths, Smilers, Winders, Hawthorne and even the Star Whale. If it weren't for the novelty and interesting aspects of all these characters, that episode wouldn't have held my interest for very long. It also helped how interrelated they ended up.
I've finally come to accept the hypothesis that "The Angels Take Manahattan" is mostly an episode about stories (thank you, Laura Koroski and io9 for highlighting this hypothesis). I appreciate the decisions that Amy and Rory make in the episode.
Nonetheless, we hardly had a world around the Doctor, Amy, Rory and River Song. The two secondary characters in the beginning really just establish the story or play out as plot device. Modern day New York City hardly felt like anywhere special. No one other than the main characters showed their faces. Did we even have extras in the background? NYC of the past was empty except for cherub Weeping Angels, adult Weeping Angels and Statue of Liberty Weeping Angel. . .did the episode get set in NYC just so we can have a Statue of Liberty Weeping Angel?
If "The Angels Took Manahatten" was a one up on a show like Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, it would have been a strong episode. The episode had interesting enough ideas and plotting to carry an anthology show. We wouldn't need to care TOO much about the characters.
Doctor Who has those episodes, too. "Blink" does great there. It's a one-up Doctor-lite episode. Most every fan loves that episode, and the Doctor really ends up playing a secondary role. His character has the weight of his history behind him.
Nonetheless, since "Blink" is just a one-up Doctor-lite episode, we don't need to have a ton of character development. We just need quick characterization and an interesting, novel situation. But if the Doctor has anything more than his secondary character status, the characters in this story would need more development for it to resonate with the audience. Looking back, I could see myself feeling disappointed if the Doctor came to the fore front of the episode as a primary character. We'd either get all the answers right away or get annoyed that the Doctor hides vital information from us.
"Blink" stands on its own because it is a standalone episode and doesn't need the depths of world building character development that many Doctor Who episodes need. The plot and ideas prove strong enough for one episode that we don't have to get pulled into the quality of characters developed.
Of the four episodes from "The Angels Take Manhattan" to the episode last night, "The Rings of Akhaten," only "The Snowmen" felt like it had strong secondary characters. We had: Vastra, Jenny, Strax, the previous governess/Ice Governess, the family of Captain Latimer and, off-screen, the memory of the Amy and Rory going away.
Albeit, this episode needed strong secondary characters. The Doctor became reclusive and didn't want to get involved with people. Clara needed some way to learn about the Doctor and get closer to him. The secondary characters gave her that opportunity.
My hypothesis makes the great secondary characters in "The Snowmen" kind of sad. They only rose to their height because the plot needed them. Writing stories DO require an economy of elements, especially TV and movie writing. Those media only afford a certain amount of time to tell a story. Everything needs cramming into that small space.
Even a novel has to balance these elements. A novel allows for more freedom. The audience, however, can take away that freedom. Fail to properly balance all the elements in the story, you run the risk of alienating your editor and audience. The novel doesn't get published or doesn't meet enough success for an author to have easy time publishing again, if at all once.
Doctor Who has fallen out of balance. Over the last couple weeks, I've caught myself asking why I continue to watch. I did that even with the first half of the seventh series. The sixth series disappointed me, but the plot had enough compelling elements to it and River Song still had her charm. Nothing like an origin story to make a character more pedestrian and less exciting.
I think my continued watching has to do with hope for the future. Maybe the plot arc will pick up again, and we'll have the answers we've been looking for. Maybe the mystery of Clara Oswin Oswald will become more compelling again. The loss of balance tipping away from world building has come to disappoint me, though. We need more strong secondary characters and settings.
Last night's "The Rings of Akhaten" was pretty with the special effects and the variety of alien creatures. It didn't do much for me, though, because I didn't connect with the setting and the aliens. There's something to be said about literature and art getting us to experience what characters experience (alienation for the Doctor, feeling lost - that theme seems to be a big one for Clara and trying to get a hold back onto optimism and wonder at the world).
We've lost the feeling that generally pulls us into Doctor Who, though, the sense of wonder and excitement that the Doctor and the TARDIS bring to us on our TV all too infrequently. The wonder at seeing new worlds being built and injustice in them getting righted. Even when the Third Doctor was stranded on Earth, we could get a sense of world building and wonder (just look at the technological gadgets he got fascinated in!).
It's the feeling that most of the Star Trek franchise, Star Wars and a lot of science fiction has brought to us. On the one hand, if Doctor Who wants to go down the hole of existential alienation, let's go all the way and really feel it in an innovative way.
I rather dislike skirting this middle ground, though. It focuses all on story and primary characters at the neglect of world building. Let's go somewhere new, meet someone new and encounter new problems that we don't face here on Earth. But let's really feel it and really get absorbed into these new worlds and societies. Let's wonder how that 45 minutes or 60 minutes went by so fast and how come it can't last longer. Let's wonder how we got so absorbed into this fictional world or these crazy, unrealistic problems. Let's build a world and experience it together.
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