If you’re going to watch Doctor Who, one thing that you definitely have to do is suspend your disbelief. This is especially important when watching the classic series, because you will need to convince yourself that the actor swathed in a sheath of green-colored bubblewrap writhing on the floor is actually a scary slimy alien insectoid pupa (in “The Ark in Space,” which, despite the terrible bubblewrap pupa, is one of the best classic episodes). However, you also have to do this for the modern show, too.
There have been a few unbelievable special effects in the show. I remember watching “Aliens of London” for the first time and cringing at the Raxacoricofallapatorians. The alien costumes have gotten a lot better since then. However, there are other things you have to take with a grain of salt. Doctor Who exists in its own little world and as such, doesn’t have much affinity with the realities of our world. Other sci-fi shows stay as much within the realities of real-life physics as they can, but Doctor Who doesn’t. It doesn’t even try. It sacrifices “reality” for its story, and asks you to suspend your disbelief to enjoy that story. And, in most cases, for us fans, that’s ok. We’re willing to immerse ourselves in this completely alien universe. But sometimes it’s a bit difficult.
Here’s an example that had me ranting after the episode was over. In “The Poison Sky,” the entire Earth’s atmosphere is contaminated with Sontaran clone feed gas, and the Doctor has to get rid of it somehow before it kills everyone. He fires a ball of flame up into the atmosphere that ignites the gas, and the fire wave travels over the globe, purifying the air. Even though the Sontaran gas is down at ground level, the flame wave that starts and travels horizontally around 2000 feet up cleanses the air at ground level. There’s no problems with low oxygen levels after the fire is gone, and the sky is shown to have clouds in it, though you’d expect that a wave of flame would evaporate them off. Then, of course, you could point out that the Earth is a not a smooth sphere and the wave must have hit hills and mountains, but there’s no reports of any fires started by it. There are a lot more I could point out, but I think the point is clear: to enjoy the show, you just have to go with it. (Don’t get me started on the location of the moon after the Earth brought back from the Medusa Cascade in “Journey’s End.”)
The thing that Doctor Who must do, then, is stay faithful internally. It has a huge, varied history and there are a lot of things that can’t be reconciled (the UNIT dating controversy, referenced in “The Day of the Doctor,” is a good example), but when especially the modern show can’t stay faithful to itself, the viewer starts to question what he’s seeing and it can very much ruin the experience. A minor example of this comes from “The Beast Below.” Near the beginning of the episode, the Doctor tells Amy, “An important thing. In fact, Thing One. We are observers only. That’s the one rule I’ve always stuck to in all my travels. I never get involved in the affairs of other peoples or planets.” Now, this line turns out to be important to the narrative, because later Amy must have the idea of non-interference in mind for her to figure out that the Doctor, like the star whale, will choose to interfere for the sake of children, but it is completely out of character for the Doctor: he always interferes when he believes it’s the right thing to do, and it’s the reason he doesn’t get along with the rest of the Time Lords, throughout the fifty years of the show. There was no reason at that point for him to lie to Amy about it, other than the narrative reason. It never comes up again, and she never questions his interference. My reaction to the line when I first saw the episode was, “What?” and I missed the next part of the scene because my husband and I had stopped to discuss it. (Ok, we looked at each other and said, “Why the hell would he say that?”)
I’m able to approach the show with the ability to overlook / ignore some contradictions (like the one above) and enjoy the episodes as they are meant to be, but there’s one that completely ruins episodes for me: the Weeping Angels. We watched “Time of the Angels” / “Flesh and Stone” last night. I know this story is considered one of the best of the modern show and I tried so hard to enjoy it, but, like the first time I watched it, by the end I was angry and frustrated. I could tell that the story was good, but the Angels were so ruined in the episode that I simply could not suspend my disbelief.
The Weeping Angels were introduced in “Blink” and were very well-defined. Here are the rules they operated by, as stated by the Tenth Doctor.
- “They are quantum-locked. They don’t exist when they’re being observed. The moment they are seen by any other living creature, they freeze into rock.”
- “They can’t risk looking at each other. Their greatest asset is their greatest curse. They can never be seen. The loneliest creatures in the universe.”
- “They are fast, faster than you can believe.”
- “In the present they consume the energy of all the days you might have had. All your stolen moments. They’re creatures of the abstract. They live off potential energy.”
- “There is a world of time energy in there they could feast on forever, but the damage they could do could switch off the sun.”
When I first watched “Blink,” I found the concept of the Weeping Angels hard to believe (how does a creature who gets frozen when anything looks at it get created in the first place?), but the magnitude of the disbelief was not large and the quality of the episode far overweighed any problems I had with them. Then they were re-used for “Time of the Angels” / “Flesh and Stone”. The brilliance of “Blink” came from the mixture of Sally Sparrow trying to pull together all of the pieces of the time puzzle and the stop-motion threat of the Angels, but Mr. Moffat couldn’t do that with these new episodes. You can’t just do the same thing and expect it to work again. This time, it had to be more of a traditional monster converging on the Doctor and his companions, so he gave the Angels more powers, and succeeded in retconning everything that was stated about them in “Blink.”
- The Angels now kill by snapping your neck.
- They fed off the energy of the Byzantium engines, not potential energy or time energy.
- Eleventh Doctor to the Angels: “That’s pure time energy. You can’t feed on that.” – Contradicts the reason why they were trying to get into the TARDIS originally.
- Anything that takes the image of an Angel becomes an Angel.
- An army of Angels surrounding a victim somehow do not see and quantum lock each other.
- Angels are stuck as rock if they think someone is looking at them, and don’t know that a human with her eyes closed can’t see them.
- Angels that are not quantum locked (and therefore are not rock) move slowly and make stone-scraping noises when they turn their heads.
- Angels are willing to grab characters, rather than killing them/sending them back into the past, so that they have enough time to discuss their imminent deaths with the Doctor.
After a certain amount of “that’s not how they work!” and “they’re really stuck because they think Amy can see them?” you lose track of the story. Are you able to suspend your disbelief? I couldn’t. The Angels felt so contrived, just to try to make exciting scenes. And once you start doubting what’s going on, you start doubting everything. Why did they leave Amy in the forest when Octavian could have simply carried her with them? Of course, it was a narrative thing – in addition to having someone observe the opening the big crack, they needed a moment when the Doctor and Amy weren’t together so that the future Doctor could come and talk to her – but the point is that once you’re no longer immersed in the story, you start to see other problems with the story that you wouldn’t notice otherwise.
While I’m particularly vocal about the Weeping Angels (and it only gets worse: you’re telling me that the Statue of Liberty can walk across Manhattan without a single New Yorker seeing it?), they aren’t the only things that are getting hard to stomach, but I won’t start on the Daleks today. I’m not saying that they can’t add to existing concepts, just that there’s a limit to what they can change about them without sacrificing believability.