Matt Smith Leaving Is Not Doctor Who's Biggest Problem; Three Things the Show Can Do to Get Back On Track

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Matt Smith is my Doctor. I've seen all the important Chris Eccleston and David Tennant episodes of Doctor Who, but I didn't start watching the show on a weekly basis until Matt Smith took over in 2010. Like many of you, I'm pretty broken up about his upcoming departure from the show that made him a star. Yet, while it's difficult for me to fathom a version of the show without Smith in the titular role (despite the number of interesting suggestions for who could replace him), I also think that the current incarnation of Doctor Who has much bigger problems than its upcoming casting change.

Because if you ask me, this last season of Doctor Who was a mess. And while I generally feel that most of the Steven Moffat era has been a mess thanks to his insistence on writing himself into narrative corners and then trying to punch his way out, Season 7 was the most egregious of them all, in that it bungled both the departure of two beloved Companions and the debut of another, all while displaying all the regular Moffat problems. Consequently, I'm concerned that so much attention is being paid to Matt Smith leaving when the fact of the matter is this: If the show doesn't change, it won't really matter who steps into one of television's most famous roles.

At this point, it's a broken-record complaint to discuss how Moffat plans out season- or multi-season-long arcs. He basically prefers to create overly complicated and convoluted storylines with vague questions and designations. He throws as many balls into the air as possible and only barely catches them by the time a finale rolls around. I think of myself as a smart television viewer, but with Moffat's Doctor Who, I often end up consulting Wikipedia or texting more diehard friends to figure out why certain elements matter, and why others don't. After three seasons at the helm of the show, Moffat has yet to deliver a totally satisfying and coherent conclusion to the grand narratives he's started. The end of Season 5 was probably the best of the three, but "The Big Bang" was still a little messy. Moffat's twisty style works for Sherlock because the scope of that series is smaller; there are fewer narrative concerns, characters, and episodes to consider. And while half the fun of Doctor Who is that it gives writers the opportunity to try wild things and then write them off with somewhat silly explanations like Time Travel Did It, Moffat-era Who takes that kind of storytelling to the extreme.

Of course, the nonsensical storytelling wouldn't be as problematic if the show hadn't lost its ability to develop its Companions and their various relationships with the Doctor. Although Moffat has always enjoyed attaching big mysteries to his characters (this goes back to the introduction of River, when Russell T. Davies was still running the show), somewhere along the way, the mysteries and the plot mechanics took over the characters themselves. Over the last two years, River has become a device to raise the stakes in "important" episodes, and the show lost control of Amy and Rory's threads (particularly Amy's) as it grew closer to their departure. "The Angels of Manhattan" is one of my favorite episodes of the series, if only because Amy and Rory were my first Companions. However, the actors' great work in that episode masked a half-season's worth of perfunctory stories that limited the impact of the arc's conclusion. I didn't necessarily need an expansive, three-part story to send the Ponds off, but the show seemed more interested in standalone concepts ("Dinosaurs on a Spaceship," "A Town Called Mercy") than building to a powerful goodbye.

Furthermore, while I love Jenna-Louise Coleman as Clara and got a little choked up at the end of "The Name of the Doctor," it doesn't negate the fact that Clara isn't really a character. She's a narrative device, a problem for the Doctor to solve. That's the only reason he went after her, and that's the only real reason he kept her around. Why should we care that Clara sacrificed herself to save the Doctor? The chemistry between Smith and Coleman could only carry that pairing so far, as the writing certainly didn't help it much. And it's not even that the mystery surrounding Clara's multiple versions was boring; on the contrary, it was intriguing. But the mystery can't be everything. We should know more about Clara than we do; okay, she's a nanny and she wanted to travel the world one day, big deal. Even when Moffat was putting Amy in one dangerous situation after another to be saved by the Doctor, I cared about the various circumstances because Amy was a fleshed-out character. When the characters are treated with the kind of respect they deserve, it's much easier to forgive narrative hijinks as part of the show's rhythms. But when they become just another device, a piece of a puzzle where only Moffat has a vague idea of a complete picture in his head, Doctor Who is a much less compelling show.

The way the show is running right now, I can imagine an overly convoluted 50th Anniversary episode where Eleven says goodbye and the show just keep traveling its messy path until Moffat finally decides to step down. But while it would be easy to write all these problems away by saying that Moffat should leave too, riding off into the sunset with the man who played his version of the Doctor, it doesn't seem like that's going to happen. So we need other solutions to get Doctor Who back on track; I have a few.

1. Use Eleven's departure as a way to reset everything, get back to basics, etc.

If there's one thing Moffat's good at, it's beginnings. "The Eleventh Hour" gave us a wonderful origin story for Matt Smith's Doctor and his relationship with Amy, and the two-parter that kicked off Season 6 was one of the more compelling offerings in this era of the show. But most of all, "The Eleventh Hour" showed us that Moffat knows how (or at least used to know how) to reboot a story with a large amount history, as well as how to develop characters from the ground up. There's no reason why he can't use the introduction of the new Doctor to do just that, to scrape away all the timey-wimey stuff and give Twelve a compelling connection to Clara, who is apparently sticking around. The show has done this in the past, when it switched from Tennant to Smith, but in that case, the showrunners also changed. If Moffat sticks around, the 50th Anniversary will be the perfect time to pay homage to the past but also move forward in an interesting way.

2. Get back to two-parters...

One of the biggest problems with the second half of the sixth season and all of the seventh is that the show eschewed the two-part episodes that defined the Davies era and moved toward more standalone stories. Although some of the standalone episodes were quite wonderful (I'm a big fan of "The God Complex"), the two-part structure always gave the show more time to develop its complicated stories and helped make the one-off characters more fascinating. It seems like there was some directive from the BBC to do more standalone, movie-like episodes and it was a fun, sometimes-good, sometimes-bad experiment. But wouldn't something like "The Power of Three" been better with more time? Again, the show has the opportunity to clean the slate, and this is the one thing Moffat should consider bringing back.

3. ...but cut out the grand narratives

I like complex, serialized stories as much as the next guy, but as I alluded to above, they haven't totally worked for Doctor Who. They've been simultaneously too complicated and underdeveloped, to the point that when a season finale rolls around, Moffat and company are stuck shoving 90 minutes of story into a 45-minute package and the payoff simply isn't there. Too often, these conclusions trade on some variation on the Doctor dying, or being erased from time, or both. I understand the desire to want to take full advantage of the show's intergalactic time-travel framework, but sometimes, less is more. And dedicating less time to narrative gymnastics means more time to focus on establishing characters and their relationships. If Doctor Who returned to a more regular two-part structure, it would be able to tell really interesting stories across multiple episodes, but not across all of them.

Of course, these are just a few ideas that could propel Doctor Who back to a higher level of quality. Even if Moffat and company do some of what I've suggested here, I think the show could get back on track. In the meantime, I'd love to hear what YOU think about the current quality of the show.

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