By my understanding, season 7 of Doctor Who started last September, aired five episodes, then a Christmas special, then restarted at the end of March for a run of eight episodes. So fourteen episodes spread over eight months. What I should have done is review those first five episodes in isolation, because they really did feel markedly different. Primarily because those episodes felt like an ending, they finished the story of Amy and Rory. The Doctor’s companions define the series, and with a change half way through a season it really felt like two separate seasons. Also, if I were to review the first half of the season it would be largely positive and unfortunately the same cannot be said of the latter half.
So this review is focussed around Clara, the Impossible Girl. She’s introduced (actually in the first episode of the season), she saves the Doctor and then she dies. Then she’s introduced again (at Christmas), she saves the Doctor again and she dies again. The third time she’s introduced she actually manages to stay alive and stick around to have some adventures, while the doctor freaks out a bit and tries to find out how she keeps popping up.
I liked Clara a lot. She was smart, quick, original (“it’s smaller on the outside”) and almost painfully adorable. She asked challenging questions and not only did she keep up with the Doctor, but managed to be out in front of him on occasion. The problem isn’t with the character at all, it’s with the speed at which her mysterious was introduced and solved, and to deliver that speed an awful lot of steps are skipped over, and the impact is greatly diminished.
It’s eventually revealed that she keeps popping up in the Doctor’s life because she jumps into his timestream (via his tomb) and is scattered through it, to save him from The Great Intelligence, who is trying to destroy the Doctor. The idea has some elegance to it, but sadly it didn’t work for me, it just didn’t feel solid. Clara has been there for the doctor, through all his incarnations past and future (although she says she’s seen 11 incarnations, so I guess this is his last body). But she hasn’t. We’ve seen those adventures and we’ve never seen her. You can’t just have a montage of her cgi’ed into scenes from old episodes and tell us that there’s been a mysterious invisible helper for all these years. It’s CGI. It’s not real. Also if Clara was the one to persuade him to take his Tardis, wouldn’t the Doctor with his impeccable memory remember her?
In addition to the logical problems I found myself having a strangely guttural reaction to the revelation – Clara hasn’t earned the right to be that important to the Doctor. She’s only known him a few episodes, barely has the slightest clue about who he really is and what he’s done, and now she’s his saviour? If we are to believe that all this time she’s been watching over the Doctor it also completely undermines every single previous story, he’s basically had a fairy godmother all this time nudging him along and saving him.
However there’s an even bigger problem with the run of eight episodes this year, which was that the episodes just weren’t very well written. Every episode left me simultaneously overwhelmed with content and underwhelmed with quality and overall frustrated. It felt like they had designed a full length season with two parters and recurring ideas, then edited it down to 8 episodes and refused to cut anything. They just talked a bit faster, skipped out on explanations and replaced them with mcguffins and coincidences. Problems weren’t solved, they were just sonic screwdrivered into submission (Bob the Angry Flower nails it); over and over tension would be created by saying “it can’t be done, we’ll all die” but then they do it anyway and it’s all fine – the Tardis can fly into the collapsing universe, the doctor can step into his own time thingy – the dire consequences just don’t materialise.
It’s not just that the series didn’t hit the highs of the previous season, there were episodes that were just plain rubbish. That 80s submarine? Teenagers on the Tardis. Then there were episodes that jut left me bewildered – that one with the Tardis dying my housemates thought it was great and proceeded to explain that all the things I thought of as plot holes could be explained. But you had to want to explain them, to believe that although the explanations weren’t given, you could extrapolate them if you wanted. But the moment you stopped wanting to see the explanations, all you can see are the holes. I started questioning whether the writers were skipping exposition because it was boring and instead wondered if it was because they just didn’t know, or even worse, couldn’t be bothered to come up with explanations. It’s okay leaving some things unsaid, but if you leave everything unsaid, it’s pretty easy to think that you’ve just got nothing to say. And if you have a big marketing campaign implying you’re going to reveal the Doctor’s name and then you just plain don’t, it rather starts to feel like you’re taking the audience for a ride.
I’ve adored the reboot and praised the high quality of the writing over and over again, but now I feel like I’ve been betrayed. I still like Matt Smith as The Doctor, he plays the humour, anger and sadness of the doctor beautifully well and can fluidly shift between them in the blink of an eye. I like the Victorian trio of Lady Vastra, Jenny and Strax who have turned up repeatedly this season and Alex Kingston as River Song never disappoints. I do like Clara as well, although I worry having resolved her mystery she’s left being a bit vanilla. I desperately want to have liked the season, but I just felt it was sloppy. Doctor Who is a series which requires you to have faith in the writers, and now that I’ve lost that, I’m not sure it can come back. That makes me very sad.