A good year after the facts, what remains of series 10?
Well, the fact it went down pretty alright is noticeable. There was still the fair share of moaning one must expect when Doctor Who and Steven Moffat are concerned, but it was a pleasantly uncontroversial run of television. Which is also why it’s criticized – for being, quite simply put, a bit pedestrian. A bunch of competent, solidly put-together stories that don’t really push any boundaries or make the show more interesting – yes, there is “Extremis”, there’s the finale, and there’s Bill, who is a ray of sunshine (even though her characterization is purposefully a lot less layered than Amy or Clara before her), but as a whole, the series is, if not a failure, at least a dispensable appendix stuck to a Moffat era which was pretty much completed in 2015. Which, let’s not yield to the sirens of historical revisionism, it really rather was. You can’t look at the double whammy of “Hell Bent” and “The Husbands of River Song” without sensing the end. “Hell Bent” completes the deconstruction and analysis of the show Moffat carried through his entire run, and “Husbands” is a final moment of reconstruction and catharsis that literally concludes with a big-ass “and they lived happily ever after”. It’s as direct as you can get.
So, well, when you hear someone tell you that series 10 is their favourite Capaldi series, or their favourite Moffat one, it does sometimes feel a bit like someone saying “well, the concert was shit, but that one unfinished track that played during the encore was pretty sweet I guess”. And the idea that it’s basically entirely disposable has been gaining traction in the Discourse-generating circles – some of my own coreligionists on here share it, and maybe most importantly, it’s been enforced by El Sandifer, which basically, in the world of the Who analyst, corresponds to a giant “THIS IS THE ENLIGHTENED INTELLECTUAL CONSENSUS”.
So. Let’s be a pointless contrarian and examine why I think all of this isn’t true, shall we?
First off, it’s important to acknowledge that series 10, is, indeed, for the most part, fluffy entertainment. What is interesting is that it’s very much intended to be fluffy entertainment – it is designed that way. It’s not the first series of Who that’s mostly light and fun stories; but it does feel like the first one where the brief, from the start, was to write some of those. And that changes a lot already – it’s a thing to resort to less ambitious forms of writing as a facile and lazy way to get your yearly output done, it’s another to have a project that happens to involve less ambitious stories. And here we run into the first major thing the series has going for it: it doesn’t just follow the conventions of Who filler, it redefines them.
Of course, there are clear influences. “The Pilot” is a clear heir to the Davies-era openers; “Smile” is very much a successor to “The Beast Below”; “Oxygen” is your good ol’ trad horror story in space. But all of those are unique, to an extent – for all that “The Pilot” borrows from Davies, its temporality, stretched on several months, is very different; “Oxygen” takes a tried and tested formula but replaces the figure of the outsider came to snatch your human existence with political and economic systems crushing living beings. “Thin Ice” is as good an example as it gets, pretty much openly defying the rather reactionary view of historical storytelling Gareth Roberts had implanted in New Who’s genetic make-up and positioning themes of social progress and agency at the core of its plot.
It’s all very political. Even Gatiss, doing an nth genre homage, goes with the Peladon stories and some discrete but real Brexit feels. Of course you’ve got “Knock Knock” lost in the middle, because every run needs a dud, but even then … There’s something sleeping underneath the rather mediocre storytelling: toxic masculinity keeping a woman as an object of worship to the point she literally becomes a wooden idol; young students being targeted by a criminal taking advantage of their desperate situation in a debt-based economy. The aesthetics of the run are strong enough that they permeate even the weakest stories. And there’s something unambiguously good in making a series of uncontroversial, but deeply political stories: if you don’t challenge your viewers aesthetically, but use your platform to communicate political ideas, there’s a lot more chance that they will “get it”. Yes, the commentary on agency, feminism and the show’s politics that series 8 and 9 delivered was a lot more subtle – but it was also, quite simply, not picked upon by crowds that felt driven away by Moffat’s mode of storytelling. What he does here is not so much admitting that he fucked up (because he didn’t), but using the extra time he’s been given to reach out to his detractors and educate them on important issues. And also, well, shifting the goalpost. When you’re at that level of political energy, and get a woman cast in the role for the first time on top of it all, it’s going to be very difficult to turn things down a notch. It’s a noticeable shift to the left within the Whoniverse – when you pretty much enshrine the TARDIS as a safe space in the opener, and spend the entire year weaving around that idea, reneging on that deal is going to be tricky: and LGBT and BAME fans will be all the better for it.
But of course, all of this is very much part of an extradiegetic reading of the text. If we look at what actually happens within the thematic landscape of the series, what then? Surely it’s not doing anything new. Well, it kind of does? True, there’s nothing fundamentally original being added to the basic thesis of the Moffat era, basically summed up and established definitely by “Hell Bent”. The core principles stay the same – what changes is the framing. Same text, different lenses. You “could”, in theory, stop the Capaldi era with series 9 – but would the meaning of it be the same? “The Doctor Falls” might give Bill an ending deeply reminiscent of Clara’s, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t mark an important change of perspective.
The fundamental Moffat theses – that “the Doctor” is not a qualifier but a performative role, an ideal that the character strives towards and which needs to be used to empower women and neurodivergent folks – are important, and, honestly, pretty groundbreaking. But there’s no way to get around two facts: one, that they are somehow lacking. Moffat has problematized feminism in his era, in a rather exemplary way, and Amy’s arc provides some stellar, if misunderstood, mental illness representation – but his record is far less impressive when it comes to LGBT representation, and especially race. Series 10 does a lot of work to correct these: while of course Clara, and to a lesser extent Amy, were queer-coded, having a full-on, explicitly gay lead is a very different matter; even though the series ends up rather more concerned with class and sexuality than race, it does very much still offer ideas and paths that will hopefully set up further shifts in Chibnall’s era (a more diverse writer pool and an episode about the Civil Rights movement this year are pretty encouraging signs, and really, one is to hope that our good friend Chris will put his effort into an intellectual deconstruction of Who’s history with race – that’s what Moffat did, and the end result was that casting a woman after Capaldi was the only way to not create a gaping thematic dissonance with a good few years of fiction).
The second issue, if it even can be called that, with Moffat’s approach, is that it is inwards-looking. It’s obviously not reactionary, or even stuck in that weird zone of intellectual metacommentary practiced by a number of Expanded Universe writers – Moffat looks to the history of the show, and the patterns within, to shift them in more progressive directions and make them part of empowering narratives aimed at underrepresented groups. Even what’s arguably the most Doctor-centric stretch of his run, series 6, very much ends up undercutting its big dramatic narrative to affirm River and Amy’s agency and the refusal of the show to exploit female pain. But, although the result is always a net positive, he does have to throw himself into that metatextual pool and engage with the show itself – the criticism that Moffat is too concerned with the Doctor’s character is really mostly bullshit, but there is still a shift compared to the Davies era, which, at least initially, constantly built itself around echoes of the complicated world of the 2000s. The revival finishing to enforce the shift of the Doctor from explorer to hero can be directly traced, for instance, at least in this reviewer’s humble opinion, to the tricky brief of bringing back Who in a post-9/11, post-Irak War world.
So what Moffat does, before leaving, essentially amounts to a demonstration. He takes the ideas, the moral principles he has developed and studied during five series, and turns his eye towards our world. Now that we have a philosophy, how can it be applied? Series 10 is a case study. It’s an example. And of course, it might be less intellectually thrilling than the wild weaving of concepts that precedes it – but it’s still a crucial part of a complex, political whole. “Hell Bent” had the Doctor defined by inaction – his final test was not to act: to accept fatality, to accept female agency, to accept a positive, life-affirming, angst-free vision of the show. “The Doctor Falls” has the Doctor actively standing against an enemy, making one last stand in defense of the ideas and people he loves. It’s not a matter of comparing them or arguing which is better – but the evolution is, nevertheless, important.
What the series manages is turning an aesthetic theory into a political praxis. From “never be cruel and never be cowardly” to “who am I is where I stand, where I stand is where I fall.”
Starting from there, almost all the choices the series make are easily rationalized. It can feel like a series of rather obvious vignettes, yes – but in each of them, we see the Moffat aesthetics slithering inside the traditional edge of Who, corrupting it and changing its very nature. Bill’s fate – being turned into “a different kind of living”, her atoms rearranged, really isn’t so different from what happens to Doctor Who during these few months. Interestingly, Bill can also be argued to be the one character that gets a bit shafted in all this – Moffat turning the show back to the real world is done less with her perspective, and more through leftist genre pastiche: her stepmother and friends are underdevelopped, and her mother ends up being a rather disposable plot point in a very disposable episode. Still, if the execution falters, the intention is still praiseworthy.
Of course, we have shifted yet again to discussing Moffat’s influence, so let’s center again on the intradiegetic narrative – the Scotsman’s hand might not be floating above the series, but nevertheless, this run is still very much a story of ghosts, of absent forces that nevertheless make their presence known by reshaping reality. It very much adopts a hauntological perspective that way.
Just look at the opener. Susan. River. Clara. Like some kind of feminine triple goddess hanging around in the margin of Who (the ages match well enough with the classic maiden/mother/crone disposition, too, although I’m fairly certain Clara and River would kick my ass if I tried to narrow them down into these boxes). And really, one should add Missy, an unseen presence locked in a chthonic Vault, whose arc ends up mirroring the situation of the series itself: from a postmodern, feminism, trans-positive reimagining of a classic concept; to an anti-heroine sacrificing herself to guarantee her own becoming and the downfall of toxic masculinity.
The idea of the feminine Who character ascending to a superior godlike status through the power of storytelling is of course a staple of the Moffat era, there’s no denying it – but here, we get to see how, once these women have ascended, they still impact the narrative. As I pointed out before, River is quite directly compared to a goddess in “Extremis”: Nardole is like a priest of her religion, coming to find the Doctor bearing her diary, her Holy Book, and reciting the gospel – “without hope, without witness, without reward”, like a psalm. The ascension is still the dramatic crux – but sometimes we just deserve a moment to see how the world changes afterwards, be it only to believe in a better place in some dark, dark year.
There’s another spectre being exorcised, mind you – Class. Flawed as it is, it still carried with it a blisteringly accurate critique of the Doctor, prompt to give you moral principles that are very much useless when you’re living with the complex and messy trauma of a chaotic, horrifying reality. Hence the necessity of building a praxis – and Class very much is quoted in the text: you go from the Doctor declaring that one should aim to “not to die well” in that show’s opener, to him proclaiming that “a good death is all that anyone can hope for” in “Oxygen”. And indeed, he does just that, in the end. He’s the man who runs – “he never stops, he never stays”. But in the end, under the look of his personal goddesses, he stops running. He stays. He stands. And he dies.
And thanks to that, Who will never be the same.