If, like me, you’ve seen the internet, you’ve probably noticed by now that the new series of Doctor Who is pretty divisive. I’ve seen a lot of strong opinions expressed on why this episode was awful or that one was great, and even the hardcore Whovian opinions seem hugely varied.
This weekend’s episode, ‘Listen’, helped me pin down what I think’s going on. So in case you haven’t seen it already, spoilers ahead. Also, you should go watch it. Whether it fills you with hatred, admiration or a bewildering sense of ambivalence (like me) it’s still worth watching because it says something significant about where genre TV, and Doctor Who in particular, is at right now.
Steven Moffat’s a smart writer
Let’s start with the basics. Steven Moffat is a smart writer. ‘Listen’, with its exploration of fear and motivation, its closed time loop and its charming romantic scenes, was proof that the man can rub two narrative sticks together and make an admirable fire. I love smart writing, and this sort of thing is why I was so excited when he took over the show.
But as ‘Listen’ also reminded us, Moffat feels a constant need to show how smart he is. It’s as if some high school maths teacher tattooed the words ‘show your workings’ across the inside of his brain, and he’s been trying to live up to that ever since. Seriously, if we got in the Tardis and hopped back along his timeline we’d find some adult who gave Steven the need to prove his smarts over and over and over again. And I would have very stern words with that adult, because they’ve become the subconscious voice that’s ruining one of my favourite TV writers.
Moffat has other ticks whose charm/annoyance depends on your personal taste. Charlie Jane Anders has dissected a bunch of them over on io9. But the one that really troubles me is his attitudes towards sex and gender. Steve’s dinner party porn speech from Coupling, while a sharp and hilarious piece of writing, also reflects an assumption that men are one way and women are another. It’s essentialist and heteronormative and a bunch of other troubling and long-titled concepts, and I laugh every time but I shudder too.
(I tried to find a clip of it to include here but apparently YouTube doesn’t like it. If you have the chance, go watch ‘Inferno’, season 1 episode 4 of British sitcom Coupling to see what I mean. Content warning – the bit I’m directing you towards is a two minute diatribe about why pornography is good, and that reflects the tone of the show.)
Smarts in service to the story
If I like smart writing, why does a smartly written episode like ‘Listen’ not excite me?
In short, because I like a compelling story too.
I like smart writing to exist in service to the story, but ‘Listen’ seemed like a story in service to smart ideas. There was no compelling narrative to draw me along, no forward moving tension to engage with, no sense that the characters really had something at stake in the main arc of the plot.
And before anyone says ‘the art of storytelling can be about character, dude’, or something along those lines, I also watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford this weekend, and that film proves that you can focus on art and character while still having a compelling narrative.
In fact Joss Whedon does this all the time. He’s another incredibly clever writing, working in similar genres and industries to Moffat, yet he uses his smarts to craft exciting stories every time. Because those stories aren’t about Whedon being smart – Whedon is being smart about the stories.
Show runner as auteur
What I this reflects is that some TV show runners are now seen as auteurs, the creative geniuses behind their shows who should be left to express their distinctive voice.
I’m OK with that. It over-simplifies our understanding of creativity, but it also gives creators like Moffat and Whedon a lot of freedom. It creates television that is distinctive and individual and fascinating, rich with new ideas and of course flaws.
This means that I’m not getting the Doctor Who I want, or the Steven Moffat TV that I want, both of which would need a restraining hand pulling Moffat back in line. But I’ll pay that price for a genre TV landscape that’s richer and more interesting.
Because ‘Listen’ might be self-indulgent, but it’s also fascinating. And a TV industry that can create this will leave room for some other smart, story driven shows.