The Problem with Doctor Who Season 10
Doctor Who is great — let me set that out from the start. I think it’s great and love it. It’s often my go-to if I’m just looking for something to watch and haven’t got anything particular in mind.
Basically, I’m a fan.
And I think that this season, season 10, has been one of the best ever (post-2005). It’s had some genuinely scary episodes, like Knock Knock and The Pilot, and not since David Tennant’s era have I found the show that suspenseful. Plus some great character development through Bill Potts — I found her described as ‘not an enigma, or a mystery to be solved, but a human being’. And I even found myself becoming a fan of Matt Lucas’ Nardole.
It’s almost a shame that, in his last year as showrunner, Steven Moffat is finally getting it right. No throwaway, filler, episodes; some good meta-jokes; and even getting over his three-act-syndrome (great concept, poor rushed ending). But it’s not quite there.
Let’s start with Smile, the second episode in the series. As AngelusCowl on Reddit points out,
[My girlfriend’s] experience was much better for not having seen the first scene. She thought the first scene seemed silly after watching the whole episode without it
The opening pre-titles scene of Smile features the inhabitants of the colony being intimidated by the antagonistic robots who kill those who aren’t demonstrating happiness. Later, The Doctor and Bill discover this, which we the audience already know, entirely spoiling the dramatic reveal.
Dramatic reveals have been the downfall of what could have been a perfect series. And it’s not just Smile that has this affliction.
Throughout the series, we have been teased that John Simm was returning to Doctor Who after a seven year absence. We were teased he was coming in the series trailer, then in the episode ‘next time’ trailers. So, when he finally shows up and the cheeky Razor removes his mask my reaction was surprise mixed with ‘eh’. I’d noticed that the episode was nearing its end so was anticipating he’d turn up at some point.
I knew it was coming, so the dramatic reveal was more of a ‘oh finally’ than a ‘holy crap what’.
Finally, let’s look at World Enough and Time, the same episode where John Simm’s Master returns.
‘World Enough and Time’
This trailer tells us two things: there will be cybermen in this episode and The Master will turn up. Two dramatic reveals spoiled.
And yet the plot involves Bill being transformed into a cyberman, and we see the patients in the hospital also queuing up for their upgrade. We don’t know they’re waiting to be cybermen. Except, we do, because the trailer told us.
World Enough and Time was a great episode. Perhaps the best in the series, for me. The science element (black holes and time dilation) was new for Who, and really engaged me. The sinister humour from Razor was spectacular, and Missy finally got her moments to stand out.
Without the trailer, when the first cyberman walks out the door, everyone freaks out and gets even more worried for Bill. With it, we saw it coming. It’s like the magician who tells you he’s going to pull a rabbit out of his hat and then does. It’s still cool and impressive, just not surprising. But when he pulls three rabbits, a chicken, and a ladder taller than the theatre — that’s surprising.
The Importance of the Dramatic Reveal
In The Doctor Falls the team got it right, with a number of reveals that we had no idea were coming. To see Bill at the beginning in the barn, as the Bill we’ve come to love over the series, was confusing but hopeful, because we last saw her in a cyberman shell. The Doctor broke our hearts when he forced her to realise she was still in that shell. I guessed, but wasn’t told that was coming.
Later, after being teased for the entire series that Doctor Twelve was on his way out, he fights his regeneration back, bringing echoes of Doctor Ten as he does. I was expecting a regeneration, or a cliffhanger of who Doctor Thirteen would be. And we got Doctor One wondering who the heck his old bloke crawling around in the snow is. That got me talking with everyone I could — “How cool is that?”
That’s what the dramatic, unexpected reveal can do. It’s a shame the rest of the series didn’t quite manage it. I hope Doctor Who series eleven has a three rabbits, a chicken, and excessively tall ladder moment, before it tells us it’s coming.