Doctor Who returns: New Doctor, new direction... right?

As the BBC Time Lord regenerates into Peter Capaldi, Stephen Kelly hopes the show will regenerate too

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The Independent Culture

The Time Lord is a’ changin’ – and, hopefully, Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who is as well. In a couple of Saturdays’ time, a new era will dawn for the sci-fi favourite as Peter Capaldi takes over the Tardis proper from Matt Smith. And many fans are welcoming the shake-up: for although Smith, with his youthful charisma and ancient eyes, will go down as one of the greats, his final series was an underwhelming farewell; disjointed, hollow and, as sci-fi magazine SFX put it, “the creakiest run of episodes since 1988”.

With the casting of the older, grizzled Capaldi, though, comes the chance for the show to regenerate stronger, wiser and less weird about women. Here, from the perspective of a grown man saving for a Dalek (RRP £3,495), is what Moffat needs to do.

Allow the Doctor to act his age

At 56, Capaldi is one year older than the first Doctor William Hartnell, making him the most mature actor to play the role so far. As such, it’s an opportunity to mature the show with him and make the drama more serious, introducing events that have genuine consequences and dialogue that is true-to-life rather than a collection of empty speeches and quotable quips, as it has been of late. Capaldi, too, should be given licence to unleash that snarl he made famous in The Thick of It; it’s time for fans who only know the Who reboot to see the enigmatic, alien side to the Doctor that has been restrained under the more down-to-earth likes of Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Smith.

Saying that, Doctor Who is not Battlestar Galactica: it thrives off its Pixar-like ability to simultaneously work on one level for adults and another for children. To gear it too strongly to either of those groups would be disastrous. Nor should the Doctor confuse other- worldly with nastiness. That, along with the fact that he looked like Mr Tumble, is what doomed Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor, whose attempt at dark edginess instead merely made him abrasively dislikeable.

Flesh out Clara’s character

At the beginning of Series 7, Jenna Coleman’s Clara was established as a mystery to be solved: the so-called “impossible girl”, different versions of whom the Doctor had bumped into throughout time. Therefore, the show got wrapped up in what Clara was, rather than who – rendering her more a plot device than character.

The mystery now, though, is solved – with the revelation that Clara had scattered herself throughout history after jumping into the Doctor’s time stream. That means, in Series 8, there is now scope to expand on her character; to let her show – not tell – us that she is a “bubbly personality masking [a] bossy control freak”, to let us see her life beyond the Doctor and give the talented Coleman the tools to really make us care about her character.

Write women better

When on form, Steven Moffat is the best writer working in television today – a fierce imaginative force with the power to make dialogue sizzle and plots stun. Yet one criticism continues to dog Moffat’s work on both Doctor Who and Sherlock: his portrayal of women.

Objectively, such critique is supported by a recent study showing that 89 per cent of the episodes written by show-running predecessor Russell T Davies passed the Bechdel test (on the portrayal of women characters), compared to only 57 per cent by Moffat. Subjectively, I’ve despaired as I’ve seen the Doctor’s companions diminish from Donna Noble’s “most important woman in all of creation” to Clara’s “impossible girl”, or Amy Pond’s “girl who waited”; those whom, as feminist website Jezebel put it, “outwardly appear feisty, sarcastic and clever, [but] tend towards being shallow, unambitious and dependent at their cores”.

There are defences: Moffat has written a great, non-companion female character, Alex Kingston’s River Song, and why wouldn’t his companions’ lives be overshadowed by a man who, you know, can travel through time and space? Though neither argument can explain away the eleventh Doctor’s dubious attitude to women – more on that to come – or storylines where, to quote leading feminist blogger Zoe Stavri, “the plot was resolved by motherhood being the source of women’s strength and womb-magic saving everybody. [Another episode] was about a woman in a box who was occasionally taken out for men’s amusement.”

Whatever your opinion, it’s safe to say such issues could be tempered if there were more women writers on the show. Since Doctor Who’s revival in 2005, however, there has only been one – Helen Raynor – out of 22 men.

… and stop making the Doctor a lecher

At the end of “Nightmare in Silver”, the penultimate episode of the last series, Matt Smith’s Doctor watched Clara walk out of the Tardis before saying, “impossible girl: a mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt just a little bit too… tight.”

Sexual tension in the Tardis is hardly new, and yet given that the eleventh Doctor started out as having an awkward, almost asexual aversion to sex, it was a jarring line – and one that felt like the lustful end-point of Smith’s shift into a blokey bloke bloke. Take the 2012 Christmas Special “The Snowmen”, in which he protested: “Do you think I’m going to start investigating just because some bird smiles at me?”; or “The Crimson Horror”, where he forced a kiss on a gay married woman; or “Journey To The Centre of the Tardis”, where he implied that he had put the machine in “basic mode” because Clara was “a girl”. Women, eh, lads?

Fortunately, Capaldi has already said that there will be “no flirting” between him and Clara in Series 8. It’s a step in the right direction, as while Doctor Who still has work to do when it comes to women, the Doctor is still one of the most important role models children, and especially boys, have: a hero who teaches them the values of intellect and empathy over macho violence and prejudice. He doesn’t need to teach them sexism as well.

Keep it simpler

Matt Smith’s three series were defined by a long-term story arc, involving cracks in time, aliens called the Silence, the identity of River Song, the Doctor’s name and the fabled planet of Trenzalore.

For a show traditionally rooted in stand-alone stories, it was an ambitious move, and one that – at first, at least – paid off marvellously, with an engrossing array of big questions and shocking reveals. But then, somewhere towards the end of Series 6, Moffat’s hydra-like plotting became convoluted and erratically paced; so enthusiastic was he to introduce the next big villain, mystery or idea, nothing had time to breathe.

Just look at the Silence, for example: foreshadowed as a big deal throughout Series 5 and then finally revealed (although not entirely explained) in Series 6, they were then ignored for a half-series of stand-alone episodes. Their mystery, which it turns out is part of another mystery, was then explained in one single line in Matt Smith’s final episode “The Time of the Doctor”: 60 minutes in which unresolved questions such as “who blew up the Tardis?” piled up on top of each other and suffocated to death.

If anything, of course, the fact that Moffat has too many ideas should be admired. But if even hardcore Doctor Who fans, who gleefully twist their minds into timey-wimey knots week in, week out, are getting confused, it might be time to rein it in a bit.

‘Doctor Who’ returns with Series 8 opener ‘Deep Breath’ on Saturday 23 Aug