A couple of evenings ago I was watching The Face of Evil, and the introduction of Leela made me realise that we were approaching the stage of it going downhill, with the (better) first half of the Tom Baker era coming to an end. Yes, I know there were calls for more humour, but to be honest, humour and horror can co-exist, and there is no need to go down the path of becoming a poor man's Galloping Galaxies.
And I have to say that Season 33 was another nadir. I felt like turning off during The Rings of Akhaten and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS (which promised so much), and delivered so little) - and Nightmare in Silver was big let down. Don't get me started on The Power of Three.
I have been watching the earlier (20th century) episodes, and the 25 minute format is too short, so I can see the logic of 45 minutes. But Steven Moffat's other work, Sherlock, manages to show a complete adventure in a 90 minute episode - ample time to have a story with action and develop the characters.
Rumour has it that Season 34 will be 12 episodes of 45 minutes. Hmm, why not 6 episodes of 90 minutes to give more time for depth and story-telling? And fewer stories means less chance of a turkey making it to production in order to make up numbers.
When Doctor Who returned in 2005, one reason I saw for the format of mainly single-episode adventures (and the return to the practice of individual episode titles for multi-episode ones) was that seeing "Episode Two" on-screen is a turn-off. But we see other dramas that carry a story over a week of evenings, or over several weeks. Take the spin-off, Torchwood which managed to do its third season as a set of 5 episodes over one week (Children of Earth) and its fourth as a 10-week story (Miracle Day).
People therefore can pay attention over a lengthy period - and indeed, in Doctor Who we have seen story arcs.
So, why not have Season 34 as a strong story arc, or even a continuous adventure? I watched Merlin when that was on, and one of its features was by having the episodes set in the same time and place, it enabled minor characters, such as the Knights, to become familiar to viewers. A Season 34 like this would create some modern day Sara Kingdoms - people who are heavily involved without being bona fide companions.
And that brings me to death. In the intro to Arny of Ghosts/Doomsday, Rose Tyler states:
This is the story of how I died.
And so you expect, in that battle between the Daleks and Cybermen (which I'll come to later), Rose would get deaded somehow. But she is sent off to a parallel universe - for ever.
For ever n. A period of time ending when the scriptwriter feels like it.
Her return in Partners in Crime is understandable, with the growing mystery of what is actually happening - and note that the Doctor isn't aware of her being there then (it's Donna Noble whom she meets), and nor does he see her in The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky and Midnight. That was well handled, but we learn Rose makes another return in the anniversary special.
Astrid Peth in Voyage of the Damned? Nope, converted into stardust.
And Dalek Caan's prophesy that death will come to the most faithful companion in The Stolen Earth/Journey's End? OK, Donna is reduced to a shadow of herself and that is a tragic end. But hey, let's give her a happy-ever-after story towards the end of The End of Time.
Although in The God Complex the Doctor leaves Amy Pond and Rory Williams, telling Amy that the alternative would be him standing over her grave, in The Angels Take Manhattan he is doing just that. But this is an old Amy, and at that level is no different to the Doctor going to Edinburgh for George IV's visit, wander round Greyfriars Kirkyard and seeing a grave with "James Robert McCrimmon" on it. As Clara Oswald noted in Hide, ultimately we are all ghosts for this time traveller.
The companions need to return to being normalish companions - the eyes we see the Doctor and the adventures through - rather than becoming special in their own right. I am sure if The Aztecs were made today, the big twist would be that Barbara Wright really is the reincarnation of Yetaxa, and that she followed Susan Foreman into the TARDIS in the hope the Doctor would take her to that time and place.
One criticism of Season 27 was that the Doctor didn't do much to conclude things. Whether it was Gwymeth in The Unquiet Dead, Cathica in The Long Game, Pete Tyler in Father's Day or Nancy in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, it was the ordinary person who is inspired by being with the Doctor to be more than they thought they could be. As Rose said to Jackie Tyler and Mickey Smith in Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways, it was a better way of life, showing that you stood up for what was right and you did things.
But the emergence of super-companions negates all this. This new breed of companion does great things because they are special, not because they are ordinary.
I also want to consider the "epics". Now, there are two sorts of epics. The first is where there is a great adventure that really stands out - Genesis of the Daleks or Pyramids of Mars - where everything comes together. Then there is the "epic" which tries to be epic - The End of Time springs to mind - and just tries to tick the bozes. Like the old Star Trek: The Next Generation "big novels" which tried to please the fans (hey look - that starship the USS Enterprise is meeting has Katherine Pulaski as its Chief Medical Officer, Give us a minute and we'll have a Wesley Crusher cameo and a Tasha Yar flashback), it is about pleasing fans. Yes, a Dalek v. Cybermen battle is every fan's fantasy, and the idea of the Doctor's enemies ganging up in The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang is an intriguing one, try not to go overboard.
So, if I were planning a season, what would be my stories and big arcs and conclusions?
River Song has unearthed something interesting - archaeological evidence across several planets which show a wipe-out of the dominant intelligent species close together, and a mystery of why this happened on several planets in the space of a few years, about a million or so years ago. Using her vortex manipulator to visit a couple of these planets around that era, she sees them dying of the same plague. And she also sees the same aliens there - who would become the season's main enemy.
Something along these lines could become a Doctor-lite episode, or be worked into a parallel story within one adventure.
Meanwhile, one of the Doctor's companions has become a Typhoid Mary, and is infecting people (and aliens) wherever they go. Subtly at first - the occasional minor character drops dead from the same symptoms River observed. But occasionally a major figure at a pivotal point (e.g. Henry VIII dies in the summer of 1533 with Anne Boleyn heavily pregnant and this sees a 17-year-old Mary Tudor take the throne with Catherine of Aragon as the powerful Regent of England....). Among these trips is one to ancient South America.
Towards the end of the season, a visit to the Draconians in one of their skirmishes with Earth. Why not? It would be good to see them back. While taking a break from scandalising Draconian society, River encounters the TARDIS crew (who have just left Victorian London with Vastra in the TARDIS as it dematerialised, Strax and Jenny having died as the plague hits London town and thus showing that this has become a species-crossing illness - when fans see the name Neve McIntosh appear in the opening credits for a Victorian London adventure, but not Catlin Stewart or Dan Starkey, then this could be a clue that something is going to happen here) and they meet the President of Earth - visiting Draconia to seek peace - who is Incan or Mayan. And we learn from the President that when Hernán Cortés and his men arrived, they had no immunity against the disease in question and most of them died - the survivots took it back to Europe, leading to something which caused death on a larger scale than the Black Death and totally changed history. By accident. one of the Doctor's companions has achieved what Barbara couldn't do by design - saved the Aztec civilisation. While this is happening, the companion in question is starting to show the first symptoms, and realises that they are the cause of all this and that their disease is incurable, with there being loads of deaths on Draconia as a result - including the human President and the Draconian Emperor.
Vastra's presence would lead to interesting issues of how the Draconians relate to an intelligent Terran reptile, and it could give her the chance to deal with who would she, as a Silurian, deep down wish to win a battle between humans and Draconians. I have never seen anything on the show to indicate that the Draconians were aware of "homo reptilia", and what would happen if they learned of the events of Doctor Who and the Silurians, The Sea Devils and Warriors of the Deep? Would they continue to see humans as Earth's rulers, or attack to "liberate" the Silurians and Sea Devils? In The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood the Doctor said the planet had to be shared - I doubt he meant that Earth had to be shared down the barrel of a Draconian blaster.
In the final adventure, an Earth expedition team (who curiously recognise the Doctor, River, Vastra and companions) is exploring a planet in the future, to find something that exists in the myths and legends of several planets. Whatever it is, it cannot fall into anyone's hands due to devastation it will cause, and the Doctor realises that if it is found and known about, every time-travelling species will aim to arrive there before the humans.
However, it is a trap set by the aliens mentioned above. Any race capable of cracking the activation codes is going to be advanced. The aliens assume any race that wants to do this is going to be hostile. Cracking the activation codes sends a message back in time - to the era of the interplanetary plague that River found out about. And the alien approach is to wipe out any potential rival before it has the chance to become a threat - so all the planets that River investigated were ones which had done this. Cue the moral issues about punishing the ancestors for the "crimes" the descendants have not yet committed.
The humans' cracking the code means that the Earth will join the list of planets attacked in the path with the aliens' biological warfare and humanity will never have developed. Hence the chance for the Doctor to do a speech to these aliens about their values and defending humanity's right to exist. Hopefully a speech that fans will remember for years for the right reasons.
No season of Doctor Who is complete without the Daleks, and the human discovery of whatever that thing is leads to the Daleks arriving earlier, and the Doctor et. al. travelling back to this. The thing is then that if the Daleks crack the activation code, Skaro will be attacked in its past - the Kaleds will be wiped out (which is one stage beyond the Doctor's dilemma in Genesis of the Daleks concerning the Dalek creatures in the incubation room - "Do I have the right?") and the Thals develop on a Skaro they don't share with the Kaleds.
And this becomes the Doctor's dilemma:
- Stop the Daleks - which means that it's humanity that gets wiped out in the distant past and Vastra's kin can have a planet which they don't have to share with "the apes". What would she advise?
- Let the Daleks achieve their goal and ensure that generations grow up in a universe where they never have to hear the word "Dalek"
That would be the choice - humanity or Daleks. No deus ex machina. No Bad Wolf appearing.
Add into the mix another problem - the reason why the Earth expedition team recognised the Doctor and his friends was because the team met the TARDIS crew in the team's past and the TARDIS crew's future. And in that encounter, the ill companion was delirious and while rambling let them know what was on the planet in question. Hence, if the companion dies before that encounter, then the Earth expedition team never come to the planet, and nor do the Daleks, and the Doctor's moral dilemma is resolved - but the companion would need to die before the disease takes them.
What is needed are tough moral issues with no easy solution appearing, but where the Doctor has to question whether he took the right actions. Someone has to die - not a "death" which isn't really a death, but the Doctor has to stand over a companion's grave (and let's up the ante a little by the Doctor having to return the companion's body to their parents for a funeral) and question whether his actions caused it. One companion's life against humanity's existence.
Something along these lines gives the return to classic-era aliens like tbe Daleks and Draconians and gives a few moral dilemmas - and enables us to have Vastra really develop as a character as she takes an equal and opposite view to the Doctor's. Vastra isn't going to be running down corridors saying "What do we do now, Doctor?". She doesn't strike me as the sort of reptile who thinks "Oh, it's time for a cliffhanger. I know, I'll fall over and twist my ankle". It enables us to see how River relates to a Doctor who physically appears older. And gives us a companion whom we shall end up mourning.