Doctor Who: Is Moffat Being Too Smart?

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.

Enjoying the new Doctor Who

What do you all think of the new Doctor Who?

Personally I’m really enjoying it so far. Capaldi has that intensity we’ve come to expect from the Doctor. The first couple of episodes have been wildly imaginative, and I’ll forgive them a lot for that. The new credits are a nice mix of steampunk stuff and references back to the classic credits. And Strax was in the first episode – I want him to be the next companion.

All in all I’m enjoying it.

But I find myself completely incapable of critically evaluating what the show’s currently doing. I fear that Moffat might get self-indulgent in following his favourite bits, like with the weeping angels and River Song, both of which lost their appeal the more he leaned on them to keep us interested. He’s a really clever writer but sometimes his plots get so tangled they lose their coherence. I’m not sure yet whether he’s got that stuff out of his system or whether there are danger signs showing.

So, what do you think? What’s been good so far? What’s been not so great? What are you looking forward to? What have I missed?

Regeneration as a plot device

As a British sci-fi fan, I can hardly let this week’s Dr Who hullaballoo go by without some sort of comment. So today I’m going to write about regeneration, and some of its implications as a story-telling trick in Dr Who.

I grew up watching Dr Who. My earliest television memory is the fifth Doctor, horribly injured in The Caves of Androzani, regenerating into the sixth Doctor. Looking back, the combination of horror and hope that comes from that scene did a lot to shape my taste in stories. For me, as a six-year-old, it was a unique and compelling moment, far more powerful than any death they could show in a Saturday evening family adventure.

Six more goes and I get to be Malcolm Tucker
Six more goes and I get to be Malcolm Tucker

In one sense, the Doctor’s regeneration is just a way around a limitation of television production. Actors get bored or dissatisfied or ambitious. They want to move on. So if you want to keep a show about one character going then you need a way to overcome that. The BBC couldn’t use million pound pay deals, and they care enough about their audience not to fob them off with a lookalike. So instead they came up with regeneration. They looked at the limitations they had and worked within them to create something new – it’s that boundaries business all over again.

But like the best responses to limitations, regeneration has helped them to achieve something more.

First there’s the most obvious thing. By introducing the new actor at a climax for the previous one, just as the audience’s emotions are up, they ensure that you’ll care about the new guy. You’re excited about whatever great thing the last Doctor ‘died’ doing. You’re relieved that this beloved character has survived. You see the new doctor and you are filled with positive emotions. Roll credits before he has time to mess it up. Now you’re all excited for the next series.

Excited, terrified, it's all the same thing, right?
Excited, terrified, it’s all the same thing, right?

It’s also a way to change the highest stakes for the character. Death isn’t always the worst thing you can do to a character. It certainly isn’t the most interesting, as if the character dies then you stop seeing their journey. But if there’s something they fear more than death – loss of control, a loved one suffering, being dishonoured – then the writer can put them through the wringer and still keep going. Regeneration has a similar effect. It actually reduces the risk of death, but introduces another risk instead – the risk of losing one’s self, of becoming an entirely different person.

Think about that for a minute. What if you took a knock to the head and woke up dark and traumatised (Dr Ecclestone) or flippant and erratic (Dr Smith)? Sure, you might still be alive, but the person you were is gone. Worse yet, you probably don’t care. How harsh is that on the person you were? Or on the people around you? By taking death out of the equation, regeneration doesn’t soften what’s at stake – we never believe that our Saturday TV heroes are going to die – it actually makes things more emotionally hazardous.

Wait, are you saying I'm immortal?
Wait, are you saying I’m immortal?

All that’s what you get with any decent writer using this plot tool. Throw in someone as tricksy as Moffat and he’ll take the consequences one step further. He’ll look at that structure and see the implications others haven’t explored. Like a magician watching another’s trick, he notices the difference between what the audience think they’ve seen and what’s actually visible. And like some kind of crazy script-writing David Blaine, he’ll stick a trick into the gap. At the end of the last series, it was a new Doctor in a space between regenerations (or at least that’s what we’re meant to believe for now). Who knows what he’ll come up with next?

They say necessity is the mother of invention. That’s never been more true than in the case of the Doctor’s regenerations. And I can’t wait to see this next one.

Here’s hoping for a real Tucker-style Capaldi performance.



Meanwhile, what do you think? Do you enjoy the regenerations? Do you have fond memories of a particular one? Are you as sick of this weekend’s hype as I am, and as excited about the new Doctor as I am (seriously, Capaldi, that’s awesome!)? Let me know.