And so, after 13 weeks, the first season of Doctor Who starring Matt Smith and Karen Gillan and produced by Steven Moffat drew to a close on Saturday, and despite it being a series in transition, for me it’s hit the spot. Smith is perfect – I’ll admit I had reservations when he was first announced, but I was wrong. And also an idiot. He became the Doctor for me when he sat down and ate fish fingers and custard, like…
Well, like a character from a children’s book, and that’s probably my favourite aspect of this new era. The Russell T. Davies/Christopher Eccleston/David Tennant years were big and brash and emotional, using the monsters and the spaceships to tell stories about doomed love, shattered friendships and survivor’s guilt, and it worked. It was an approach that Doctor Who had never really taken before, but it was exactly what the series needed to re-establish itself as a mainstream hit, something that could go toe-to-toe with Ant and Dec and win. But Doctor Who has always been about reinventing itself, and so this year we got something different. This year we got a dark fairytale.
It was about a crack in a little girl’s bedroom wall, into which things disappeared, and out of which came voices from another world. And because a crack such as this is scary on a fundamental level, the little girl prays… To Santa… At Easter… for help. Send, a policeman, she asks, or a…
This sort of thing is part of the season’s fun – you’re already adding "…or a doctor" when he makes his entrance into the plot, all mad arms and mad hair, and the tattered remains of David Tennant’s costume making him enter little Amy’s mental landscape as her new ‘imaginary’ friend, the Raggedy Doctor. Later we see her, all growed up, and as with all good fairytales, no-one believes that the Raggedy Doctor is a real person. We saw some of this in the Davies years, where the plots traded on the fact that people were noticing that someone was always saving Earth from alien invasions, and the Doctor’s presence became epic and mythological. Here it’s more folkloric – the Raggedy Doctor is just an imaginary friend, the crack is just scary because it looks a bit like a smile (it’s safe to step on cracks in the pavement too, of course).
In fact, when the Doctor tries to use his (admittedly impressive) monster-vanquishing rep to help him out of a situation, it doesn’t work – it backfires mightily, and he’s imprisoned in an inescapable cell, the monsters finally getting revenge on the bogeyman from their nightmares. “There was a goblin," explains the Doctor at one point, "Or a trickster, or a warrior. A nameless, terrible thing, soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies. The most feared being in all the cosmos. Nothing could stop it, or hold it, or reason with it – one day it would just drop out of the sky and tear down your world.” We’re playing with fairytale images, so you’d be forgiven for thinking this is referring to the Big Bad, but it’s not – it’s the Doctor himself, the hero as seen from the perspective of the bad guys. And for a second they wn, because in trading on his reputation, the Doctor succumbs to some of his old hubris, the hubris that plagued Tennant’s Doctor at times.
He escapes, of course, but it’s thanks to other people. Amy’s lapdog boyfriend Rory (who becomes a fairytale figure himself after looking after his love for 2000 years – don’t ask, it’s complicated) becomes a shadowy, legendary figure, partly to become worthy of getting the girl. No, wait, that’s not fair – he was always worthy of getting the girl, but here’s where we see it. He becomes the loyal and noble prince, not just the doormat he seemed in his earlier appearences. The characters can’t rely on who they were, buying their way out of trouble with their own histories. They have to become the people they really are.
(Incidentally, this reminds me of one of the contrasts between the 10th and 11th Doctors – David Tennant was a dashing, romantic hero, a shipper’s dream. In comparison, Matt Smith is the clumsy, bumbling professor, but he’s also the good wizard, even being referred to as such in the story. When the monsters are under the bed or the bogeyman’s behind the wardrobe, the Doctor appears to sort them out – look at how many times throughout the season the Doctor is motivated by a child being in trouble. Even in the most ‘grown-up’ episode, dealing with Vincent van Gogh and his depression, the Doctor’s there to help beat a monster, even if it’s symbolic, even if it’s only a temporary victory.)
So the Doctor’s reputation doesn’t save him, but his story does. He weaves a bedtime story for a little girl before disappearing from history, becoming the imaginary friend again. But wait – it’s a fairy story, it deserves a happy ending, and it gets one – of course it gets one. It’s a wedding, appropriately enough, but there’s someone missing, and suddenly there’s another one of those moments when you make the connection just before a character voices it. Because the Doctor’s bedtime story is recalled by another bit of folklore – someone old, something new, something borrowed, something blue may refer to wedding paraphenalia, but it’s also talking about a certain time machine, and Amy’s reawakened memories summon the Doctor back to the party.
(He’s a hit at the party, by the way, even though he’s just an imaginary friend – he dances like your dad but the kids love him.)
In the end, everything’s put right, but there’s still a monster out there, an unknown threat that, presumably, will cause havoc next year. Hopefully, the dark fairytale theme will continue – heck, Neil Gaiman’s writing for the next season, they’d be insane not to use his specialty. There’ll still be monsters and love and carnage.
And a Raggedy Doctor to sort it all out.