It wasn’t always this way. The original Doctor Who series that ran from 1963 to 1989 was low on production values but high on thought. Sure, almost every episode featured a man in bubble-wrap colluding with a hosepipe in a misguided attempt to take over the world. And some of the dialogue was sub-porn (In Revenge of the Cybermen, the Doctor informs his companion, “We’re headed for the biggest bang in history.” Oh, yeah baby.)
But what it lacked in money it made up for in intellect. There was an entire season devoted to the problem of entropy; another tackled social Darwinism. Historical period was used not just as a backdrop but to teach the viewer something about the past, including obscure epochs like the French Wars of Religion. Stories could last up to 13 episodes, testing the pre-internet attention span to the max. As a character, the Doctor was more MacGyver than Merlin, using brainpower and tea spoons to save the world rather than vague alien powers. The series respected its audience’s intelligence. It presumed that they were watching a sci-fi show because they wanted to see sci-fi, not young people canoodling beyond the stars. Not that Classic Who featured much canoodling. Being technically a kid’s show, its lead was usually an old asexual man whose velvet smoking jacket said, “Look but don’t touch.” One or two of the assistants were what the ugly men of yesteryear used to call “strumpets.” But the strumpet is purely autoerotic. She would never have presumed to flirt with our hero, who was too busy reversing the polarity of his neutron flow.
By contrast, New Who belongs very much in the Princess Di era. Thoughts have been replaced by feelings, ideas by issues. Producer Russell T Davies (whose work has been downhill ever since Dark Season) spoke openly about creating a soap atmosphere, filling the show with characters that ordinary people could identify with. Nothing wrong with that, except that in sci-fi ordinariness should never be the focus of attention. Yet Doctor Who is so obsessed with bringing everything back “down to Earth” (or, more specifically, to Cardiff) that it often makes its epic events feel mundane. Every serious idea that is explored is quickly eclipsed by an engagement, a wedding or – as in Saturday’s episode – a divorce.
That might not be a problem if the doctor was removed from the emotional action, but he isn’t. The postmodern doctor is hinted to be sexually active (I write of the clumsy metaphor of dancing). He frequently falls in love with his companions and spends what feels like hours talking about how he doesn’t want to hurt them by getting too close. He’s forever getting angry, excited or mournful, throwing himself about like a hormonal teenager. And then there’s that grin, that insufferable, awful grin. It’s supposed to communicate wondrous possibilities. It looks like the poor fellow is sitting in casualty waiting to have a light bulb removed from his posterior and is trying desperately to hide the pain.
Compounding the problem is the show’s politics. Doctor Who is a recruiting sergeant for young liberals. Episodes have critiqued the war in Iraq, patriotism, capitalism and car ownership. It almost goes without saying that God doesn’t exist, although the Doctor might just be Jesus. The series’ current producer, Stephen Moffat, has denounced the Conservative Party publicly. Can you imagine a Doctor Who writer announcing that he’s joining UKIP because he’s opposed to green taxes? Polly Toynbee would be calling for his extermination.
It should be noted that the old series often had a Left-ward bent, too (although it sprinkled attacks on Margaret Thatcher with parodies of Labour chancellors and trades-unions). But it didn’t matter because intelligence and charm came first. What the old show understood that the new one doesn’t is that in good sci-fi, ideas and wit trump identity politics and tawdry emotion. By contrast, the current series has created a product that is higher in production values but far reduced in imagination. Populated by smug twenty-somethings falling in and out of love - with themselves and each other - poor old Doctor Who has regenerated into Friends in space.