Was the Fifth Season of Doctor Who a Piece of TV History?

It’s scarcely believable that ten years have passed since the fifth season of Doctor Who came to a close, likely because the series seemed like such a defining shift for the show. It isn’t really quite the fifth season, as fans will know, but the fifth of the show’s continuity-keeping soft reboot that reignited a passion for its time traveling antics and classic villains. It introduced, too, a contemporary zest, terrifying new creations and, perhaps most importantly of all, carried people through with the charismatic and unique Doctor at the centre – played first by Christopher Eccleston and then almost definitively by David Tennant. 2010 brought a new show-runner, a new Doctor in the youthful form of Matt Smith, and the sense of moving into uncharted waters. These changes were met with praise at the time of release but television has moved on dramatically in the years since; so might this just be a tired relic of a bygone era?

Steven Moffat was a name that commanded respect and faith in the show, a writer almost undoubtedly regarded as the best of its first four seasons despite few contributions. His early two episodes, ‘The Doctor Dances’ and ‘The Empty Child’, were loved for their unique villains and genuine chills – a feat he accomplished again with ‘Blink’ that, remarkably, didn’t even have The Doctor as the main character. Russell T. Davies, in contrast, seemed to have let the show slip into whimsy and childishness, and Moffat seemed just the person to rectify that. It was obvious Moffat couldn’t match the brilliance of those episodes when having to run a whole show, but making it a cohesive, immersive series seemed to be of a greater importance.

There are definite improvements beyond just the dropping of wild inconsistency, with some enjoyable dialogue, fun characters, and delightful silliness. Moffat’s approach even manages, at points, to handle the absurd without descending into Davies’ soap opera stylings and sometimes wild abandon, and even the child-friendly take on 1984 in ‘The Beast Below’ feels full of precisely tuned fizz and possibility. Moffat’s approach to storytelling, however, remains very much in the mold of Davies’ monster-of-the-week format that he lifted from late ’90s/early ’00s Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s a major constraint on the writing, and the potential which marks the first couple of episodes promptly starts to dwindle within its confines.

Some of the writing aims to reach the level of high drama, but everything’s so rushed that there’s no opportunity to really care about the characters. ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ is a prime example, seen often as one of the season’s highlights, even one of the best bits of the show at large, for its sensitive take on depression. However, considering the novelistic heights that much television reaches today it seems akin to the “A Very Special Episode” format in being a standalone, theme-driven story that is trapped by the series’ structure. There’s heart but not enough room for subtlety. It seems to suggest that not only were Davies’ stories tired, but so was the way in which the series adheres to episodic storytelling, an approach that seems a world away from the respected, rich serialised dramas of today.

Amy and Vincent walk across wet autumnal grass with painting equipment in hand and The Doctor in between
Image courtesy of BBC

There are a few threads that do run through this particular season, and perhaps the most interesting — or, at least, the one with the most potential – is that of Amy and Rory’s relationship. It’s a reasonably sweet arc, with the former realising the extent of her love for the latter and the latter proving himself to be far more adventurous and risk-taking than his soft-spoken and sensitive nature suggests. It is a tad too generous to Rory though, and its all-male writing team explains why she can’t have a partner as boisterous as herself. You could view their story as a way to flatter self-styled nice guys but address modernity with his leeway for Amy’s antics. No matter how much nuance there is to be found within this particular love story, there’s always the question as to what a different one would look like, let alone as part of a more widely ambitious show.

Perhaps most important here is that the show doesn’t quite know what to do with The Doctor either, trapping him into a space between kind-hearted buffoon and unintentional, angry manipulator. This is a trend that was started by Tennant, but exploring his darker side loses most of its power here with the angry outbursts seeming misplaced and attempts at criticisms of his character simply empty words. Adjacent to that it tries to show, most of all, the impact he has on his companions, but it’s hard to really care about the bond when The Doctor doesn’t have an honest humanity and complexity to match theirs. The intrinsic flaw of Doctor Who is revealed by this season: that with each new show-runner we’re essentially rebooting the storyline and that its anchor, The Doctor himself, has no narrative purpose or endgame beyond his pliability.

Inside a cavern in episode 'The Time of Angels' Amy, military-garbed Father Octavian, River Song, and a cleric watch nervously as The Doctor points a flashlight on something surprising in the distance
Image courtesy of BBC

Ironically, the show is at its best when it puts characterisation to one side and leans into pure entertainment, ‘The Time of Angels’/’Flesh and Stone’ being a two-parter that presents a glimmer of what the season could have been. It’s an Aliens-inspired adventure that reintroduces the insta-classic Weeping Angels of ‘Blink’ and commits itself to the concept, dropping techno-babble and Doctor-isms to create a journey that really showcases and reminds you how tightly written Doctor Who can be. But it’s merely a respite from the plodding nature of the episodic structure that gives everything the feeling of filler and can’t hold up against the more thrilling character-driven drama of a prestige drama.

The series can work if you’re watching it for the first time, especially if you’re a child, but unfortunately the most effective time to watch would’ve been in 2010. It’s all about the long-gestating hype: the excitement generated by waiting for the appearance of a favourite villain, long unseen ally, or some dramatic shakeup in the series’ lore. Expecting decent plotting, characterisation, and genuine fun was a by-product of being caught up in the sometimes thrilling but often infuriating waiting game that was the first five years of the rebooted Doctor Who. Moffat only proved that the show had trapped itself in a structural prison of its own making, one that would leave this approach looking archaic in an age of more sophisticated television.

Watching this season was a challenge at the time and even worse a decade later, forcing this writer to even skip the opening titles and the show’s iconic theme. It’s clear that the series has promise, the potential to explore grand themes through the lens of various eras and genres. However, convention holds it back, and where it might once have seemed tightly constructed it now seems unimaginative and tedious. Moffat’s not-so-bold beginning is a reminder that the neat concept of this nearly sixty-year classic is not enough to sustain it. Any new show-runner needs the vision to match the possibility implied within. Hopefully history will prove this to be a small diversion in the series’ upwards trajectory, and a precursor to numerous eras of medium-shaking entertainment and innovation in the indomitable Doctor Who.