Let me begin by saying that I’m loath to criticize any writer who has obviously achieved so much more than I have, and I’m certainly not presumptuous enough to think that I know more about what’s good for Doctor Who than you do. That said, know that what follows is not a critique of your tenure as show runner. This is neither a rant about the casting of Peter Capaldi nor a lamentation over Matt Smith’s departure. This is the nature of the show, and I salute you for a bold choice in leading men. I’m excited to see what he does with the part.
Consider this a brainstorming session with a devoted fan, one who still tunes in every week with the same rapt anticipation and child-like giddiness he did eight years ago when he first found out one of his favorite boyhood memories was coming back to life. I’m sure you of all people can understand and respect that sentiment. So, please, take my suggestions for what they’re worth (which may not be much) and read on with full confidence that there will be no attacks, no indictments, and no ultimatums here.
Approach Peter Capaldi’s Age With Great Care and Aplomb
As a fan who grew up on the classic series, I see this as a non-issue. However, the rabid devotion of 21st century fanboys/girls is a large part of what’s made Doctor Who a worldwide cultural phenomenon. Will fans who have jumped onboard over the past eight years – especially fans who have never watched any classic episodes – accept their favorite Time Lord suddenly doubling in age? I’m sure you thought of this yourself long before the final casting decision was made, and you probably came to the same realization that I did: You can skirt the issue with some snappy dialogue and even milk it for some much needed comic relief. Besides, situations like this are exactly why the Doctor always has a companion. He/she/it is our surrogate, meant to see, experience, and react to things the way we would. And through the companion(s), we are able to keep up with and understand the Doctor in a way we never could on our own.
Regardless, this will present a make-or-break moment for the show as it goes forward. If the audience doesn’t buy into the transition from a 31-year-old actor to one who’s 24 years his senior, low ratings await.
Make Sure Peter Capaldi Gets to Make the Role His Own
In other words, Peter Capaldi needs the freedom to play the Doctor as Peter Capaldi, not as an amalgamation of his 21st-century predecessors. Matt Smith’s version of the Doctor was often prone to alternating between Tennant-esque bouts of mania and very Eccleston-like moments of smoldering wrath and sullen brooding. This was especially true in his first season, although the problem never fully went away. And as much as I’ve enjoyed the show the past few years, this is an element of it that’s never sat right with me. The solution is simple. Let Peter Capaldi breath new life into the role. He seems perfectly suited for it.
Don’t Overthink It
By “It” I mean Peter Capaldi’s previous appearance on Doctor Who and his rather prominent role in Torchwood: Children of Earth. Russell T. Davies, for all his brilliance, had a serious weakness for this kind of silliness. He wrote dialogue suggesting that Gwen from Torchwood is a descendant of Gwyneth from The Unquiet Dead. He also joked in The Writer’s Tale that Lucius Caecilius Iucundus from The Fires of Pompeii could be a distant ancestor of John Frobisher from Children of Earth. Davies was a fanboy’s fanboy and seemed to thrive on such geekery. And while I do appreciate his frequent nods to us nerds of the world, I generally find them unnecessary. I’m sure that few people noticed (or even fewer cared) that Freema Agyeman appeared in Army of Ghosts before being cast as Martha Jones. So don’t get caught up in tenuous, asinine connections to Lucius and Frobisher. Capaldi’s been on the show before. So what?
And that last goes for you fanboys, too. Get over it and just go with it.
Not Every Season Needs a New Old Monster
I used to get giddy with anticipation waiting to see which classic monster would reappear next on the revived series. Since we’ve gotten past the Sontarans and the Silurians, though…the magic has started to fade. I regard revelations of a Nimon, The Great Intelligence, an Ice Warrior, the Zygons, etc with more academic curiosity than any real excitement. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the nods to the classic series and its fans, and I often have a laugh at the old-school in-jokes. But I think its time to rein them in a little bit. If you dip into the well too often, the water coming out of it stops being special. Please keep it special.
Make the Big-Timers Big Time Again
In other words, let appearances by the Doctor’s most famous enemies be momentous again. This is another case where you’re probably already well ahead of me, given the buzz surrounding the Daleks’ inclusion in the Anniversary Special. And, really, who better to face the Doctor in his biggest episode yet?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have tremendous appreciation for the efforts you’ve made over the past few seasons to specifically AVOID turning every appearance of the Daleks, the Cybermen, etc into some kind of earth-shattering event. It was a trap that the classic series fell into all too often and one that Russell T. Davies was all too eager to fall into as well. I also have immense respect for your efforts to make villains like the Daleks and the Cybermen frightening again. Let’s face it, they can only be defeated by the Doctor so many times before they stop being intimidating and start becoming laughable. Despite that Nightmare in Silver was a bit of a clunker overall, I loved Neil Gaiman’s reinvention of the Cybermen. It is truly nightmarish to think that the only way to stop an enemy is to preemptively eradicate an entire planet. Now, what if you took such a frighteningly reimagined nemesis and gave it a two-part story of epic scope? The possibilities abound!
Give Us Another Awesome NEW Monster to be Afraid Of
Ok….this might be asking a lot. You’ve already scared the bejeezus out of us with creatures as diverse as “Gas-Mask Zombies”, Vashta Nerada, Weeping Angels, and The Silence. They’re all simple ideas made creepy by equally simple psychological conceits. And they’re probably the most memorable villains of the revived series. What I’m saying is that I’ve seen what you can do when you let those big, scary wheels of yours turn, and I’d love to see you do more of it. At the same time, I understand that everyone has their limits.
Don’t Be Afraid to Focus on Awesome Individual Episodes Instead of Heady, Far-Reaching Story-Arcs
Such seeded and serialized storytelling is great when it works – and I’ll be the first to admit that you’ve made it work – but I also have to tell you that it leaves the audience feeling cheated when it flops. And such flops are especially galling when we look back over the first six years of the new show and see that most of the best episodes came to us with your name on them. We’re left to wonder what you might have sacrificed in your series 7 episodes by getting so wrapped up in delivering a broad concept that was really just a high-stakes lead-in to the Anniversary Special.
Speaking of which…
Get the 50th Anniversary Monkey Off Your Back
I know this is coming too late, given that the Anniversary Special finished filming in May. So think of this as a sincere wish on my part as well as some advice I hope you’ve already been given (and followed).
Here it is: Tell the story you want to tell, and have a blast doing it.
With five decades of anticipation compounded by all the buzz generated over the past year, expectations for the Anniversary Special are going to be astronomical. And with such high expectations, virtually everyone who watches the show is going to find a way to be disappointed with it. If you don’t believe me, ask George Lucas.
Don’t get caught up in it. Just get back to telling those totally bonkers stories (to paraphrase your own words) that made you smile so much when you were interviewed about series 5. We’ll all be happier for it.
Remember that Great Characters are the Foundation of Great Television
And you get to write the greatest character on TV. Even better, you’ve generally surrounded him with an equally memorable supporting cast. Fans were truly saddened by the departure of Amy and Rory because they were such rich and engaging and very REAL individuals. We smile at the promise of more Vastra, Jenny, and Strax (the latter of whom makes me laugh out loud every time he’s on-screen). And we adore River Song. Over the years, we’ve loved what might have been unlovable episodes because of our affections for the characters at their center. And we’ve remembered what were probably just good stories as truly great viewing for the same reason. Character trumps all.
Which brings me to my last and most difficult piece of advice…
You’ve GOT to Do Something about Clara
I’m sorry, but she’s not getting it done. You begged us to stay with her, you promised us a big pay off by the end of series 7, and you haven’t delivered. To be perfectly blunt, Clara’s a high-minded concept built on the foundation of a weak character. The consequence is that she’s just not particularly entertaining. And because I was not invested in HER, I found myself largely uninterested in HER STORY. The end result was that the over-arcing storyline in series 7 went thud in the finale. Worse yet, the echo of that thud is what’s supposed to carry us into the 50th Anniversary Special. Fortunately, John Hurt was there to take up some of the slack and to generate some extra buzz. But here, too, is a high concept that could be poised on the brink of disaster if his mysterious version of the Doctor doesn’t deliver as A CHARACTER.
With all of that said, I’ll be tuning in to both the 50th Anniversary Special and the Christmas Episode no matter what. And even if both bomb, I’ll still be counting down the days until season 8’s (rumored) August premier. I’m a true fan, for better or for worse, and I’m an eternal optimist. I have absolute faith that you’ll get it right in series 8, with or without my help.
Thanks for reading.