A band will come out with a kick-ass debut album. Acclaimed, inventive, groundbreaking. Then they come out with a second album, and it’s… well, it’s disappointing. Some of it feels like a retread of what worked before. Some of it is unique, but it’s not as well thought out as the original album was. (Mumford & Sons is a prime example. Unless you loved Babel, in which case it’s not. )
There’s a reason for the “difficult second album.” A band has usually had years to perfect the material on the first album before it’s released. They’ve worked on the songs as an unsigned band. They’ve played the songs in gigs as they’re trying to make it. The music gets honed and refined so that when it comes out in the studio it works right from the start. The second album doesn’t have the benefit of years. All the good material was taken for the first album. The second album either starts with ideas that were discarded for the first album because they weren’t good enough, or there are new ideas that haven’t had the time to be honed and refined. The difficult second album isn’t the kiss of death — bands do recover from it, if they understand why the second album was difficult and learn from the experience (Elbow is a great example there, though I love Cast of Thousands to pieces) — but it can be difficult to recover from.
To me, Doctor Who series 6 is Steven Moffat’s difficult second album.
Moffat had his pre-Who career to develop the ideas that he would use if he ever got to produce Doctor Who. And he used them — timey-wimey, cracks in time, exploding TARDISes, the Girl who Waited — in series 5.
When it came time to develop series 6, he’d already used up all of his good ideas. So he either took his old ideas and gave them a new spin (instead of a mystery about Amy, we had a mystery about River) or he came up with new ideas that fell flat and didn’t go anywhere (like the Silents). And he ended his story in series 6 the same way he ended his story in series 5, with a timey-wimey didn’t happen reset button story.
Series 7.2 is the difficult third album. (7.1 is a strange beast, and I don’t know how to consider it. It is a season that functions on its own? Is it a series of specials? The episodes aren’t even chronological.) Instead of the mystery of Amy and the cracks, we have the mystery of Clara. (Clara is both Amy and the cracks. It’s weird, but bear with me.) With one of the web-only shorts, we even have the Doctor meeting Clara as a child, just as the Doctor met Amelia Pond as a child. And the stories (series 5, series 7.2) end with the fractures throughout time closing because someone jumped inside time and closed them. (“The Name of the Doctor” owes a whole lot to “The Big Bang.”)
This is why Moffat’s quote about Peter Capaldi’s characters (Caecilius, Frobisher, and the Doctor) in the Whoniverse and their connections is especially irksome. Because it sounds like he’s embracing again the same kind of character mystery that has been at the root of his previous three meta-stories, only this time it’s the Doctor at the heart of it. I was hopeful that with a new Doctor, Moffat would use this as an opportunity to go new places narratively, but it seems like he wants to tread the old familiar ground.
And we’ll get a difficult fourth album out of it.
Or maybe we’ll reevaulate Moffat and discover that his first album wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Maybe Moffat was never Coldplay. Maybe he was only ever Keane.