My opinion on Moffat Vs. Cartmel.
One of my big criticisms of Moffat’s treatment of Doctor Who is the poor execution of his “themes” - mostly ‘stories’, ‘dreams’, ‘memories’ and general childhood hero type stuff (which is the other three mixed together, though extends to things like parenthood and family in general). I think he does it very clunkily and often forces it into stories in such a way as to make it unnatural and cringe worthy. It works sometimes and there have been some good stories. The God Complex and The Doctor’s Wife, for example.
It’s not that Doctor Who has never had themes before, but I think it’s been done BETTER before. Or, at least, I’ve enjoyed it before. Take a look back at the 70’s Tom Baker era - especially the Letts-Hinchcliffe stuff. They stuck to horror motifs and such (Brain of Morbius, Horror of Fang Rock, Planet of Evil, Pyramids of Mars, and so on). It works and most of those are considered ‘classics’.
But in my opinion, where it works best is in Sylvester McCoy’s second and third series. Now, I may be biased as McCoy is my all time favourite Doctor, but I think I can make a good case.
There is a really well drawn out story line for Ace and there is a theme of ‘growing up’, as well as - in Cartmel’s words to me when I actually got to speak to him once - people being outcasts from their families / homes and finding new families / homes. The Doctor is the archetype of this, really. With Ace, he has a teacher-student relationship, but there’s also a hint of the grandfather-granddaughter nature; I always like to think of Ace as being the granddaughter the Doctor always wanted.
Look at Remembrance of the Daleks. Arguably one of the all-time best Dalek stories - certainly of the original series, in my view. There are subtle references in almost every scene, and yet they don’t smack you across the face; it can be watched dry with little knowledge of previous Who mythology, but there are massive rewards for those who do know their DW history. Look at pretty much all of the characters, here. Even the super minor ones, like the café owner. There is, with all that mention it, a theme of ‘I was once with my family, but then I left and did x’. Everyone from Sgt. Mike Smith to the little girl has some small sense of this motif. The Renegade Daleks have abandoned their ‘family’ (read: Davros) and made their own group. Davros is there as the Doctor’s parallel; a maniac that wants to elevate his home while the Doctor wants to flee his. Davros is almost as intelligent as the Doctor, too, and also has a massive ego, like the Doctor.
And how does the story end? With the Doctor telling the black Dalek that its home is gone, its creator is dead, and it no longer has anyone to turn to. Then the Doctor and Ace leave before a funeral can start.
Then there’s The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. First off; it’s fucking terrifying. The gods of Rrrraganrok are presented as a ‘family’. They have taken the Psychic Circus from their ‘home’ and put them in a new place. The members of the circus lament how things used to be, that they’ve lost that sense of them all being a family together. The main clown villain is accused of abandoning them. It’s got a very Alice in Wonderland feel with caricature-characters, surreal imagery, and so on. Here, like in other stories of the McCoy era, there is a villain whose motivation is kill-or-be-killed. Captain Cook is willing to abandon his closest friends and feed others to the lions, so to speak, in order to survive. He may not be ‘evil’ per-say, but, like the Doctor, he is manipulative and slightly sinister - this is partly why he’s referred to almost exclusively as ‘the Captain’, to draw on the parallels between him and the 7th Doctor. The story ends with Kingpin and the remaining circus staff heading off to build a new circus - a new home.
The Curse of motherfucking Fenric. It’s very much my favourite Who story. There is just SO MUCH in there. Again, the themes of families, of finding a new home, of escaping, and a villain who acts as the Doctor’s parallel. Fenric is intelligent and manipulative, he changes his face, he is very, very old and from a ‘race’ far beyond the earth. The Doctor’s best adversaries are, really, those that are most like him - like The Master. CoF has Ace doing a lot of growing up, too. “I’m not a little girl any more, professor.” (the look on the Doctor’s face at this line is priceless, by the way).
If Moffat wanted to do stuff about belief being powerful, he should watch this story. It has one of DW’s best scenes; a man defeating the monsters because he believed in the Communist Revolution. ;p
Ghostlight - in its original form - follows a lot of the same ideas again, but with more of a focus on Ace in particular. Compare Ace in Ghostlight to Ace in Dragonfire. You can see what the Doctor is doing to her; making her face her fears. Perhaps the Doctor recalls what happened in Planet of the Spiders where he had to face his fears.
Ace: It’s true isn’t it. This is the house I told you about.
Doctor: You were thirteen. You climbed over the wall for a dare.
Ace: That’s your surprise isn’t it? Bringing me back here.
Doctor: Remind me what it was that you sensed when you entered this deserted house. An aura of intense evil?
Ace: Don’t you have things you hate?
Doctor: I can’t stand burnt toast. I loath bus stations. Terrible places. Full of lost luggage and lost souls.
Ace: I told you I never wanted to come back here again.
Doctor: And then there’s unrequited love. And tyranny. And cruelty.
Ace: Too right!
Doctor: We all have a universe of our own terrors to face.
Ace: I face mine on my own terms.
I’ve often felt that the Doctor kind of lives vicariously through his companions. Moffat does allude to this, too, in one of the extra scenes from series five; “When you see it I see it!”. So as the Doctor tries to help Ace face her fears, he is also trying to get himself to face his own; this was setting up stuff for the so-called ‘Cartmel Master Plan’ in which the Seventh Doctor would face up to his history on Gallifrey and take some responsibility - something he has been terrified of his whole life.
Then there’s Survival. The culmination of Ace’s story arc (so far). It’s Ace returning to her ‘home’. It’s an enemy as the mirror of the Doctor (Ainley Master’s most toned down performance - not saying much, I know :P - being a manipulator, a plotter and a sinister schemer, just like Seven). There’s the idea that Ace has grown up a lot since she left Perivale. She meets one of her old mates and realises how different she is to before. It’s her last struggles with growing up - the Cheetah people want her to run away with them; to throw off all fears and run forever.
There is also a REALLY powerful scene if you know your Who history. The Doctor lifts a skull, ready to kill the Master with it. Very, VERY much like a scene in An Unearthly Child. In AUC, Ian has to come and stop the Doctor. But now, even though he is being pushed by the power of the planet to kill, the Doctor stops himself. The Seventh Doctor does what the First couldn’t. ;)
Then, adding to the whole ‘home’ theme, the original final line (before they added the cool ‘there are worlds out there’ line)…
The Doctor: Where to now, Ace?
The Doctor: Home?
Ace: The TARDIS!
The Doctor: Yes, the TARDIS.
In some ways, the Doctor is still as childish as he was before. The Second Doctor described the TARDIS as his home. This would all have been more poignant if the Cartmel plan had come together, but meh. We’ll never know if it would have been any good now.
Again, I could be biased, and probably am. But I think that the Seven era wins hands down on the theme execution against the Moffat era. (Interestingly, I refuse to think of it as the Eleven or Smith era…). Maybe when all’s said and done and SM gets to round off his little experiment, a new show runner will come along and fix it. Part of me hopes that Matt Smith sticks around after Moffat leaves - I want him to have a shot and being done PROPERLY. Alas, I fear he’ll go with him, though. Maybe Big Finish can save him…