Wednesday, 21 July 2010

CRACKS, LEVELS AND MARMITE - SOME LAST THOUGHTS ON STEVEN MOFFAT’S DOCTOR WHO (2)


I and he and you and she and we are all together in proclaiming Steven Moffat’s approach to ’Doctor Who’ as fresh and new. Remote Amazonian tribes made their first contact with Western Civilisation to say they found the ‘fairy tale’ approach more fitting for the show. Japanese soliders have been found on remote Pacific islands, insisting the War was still ongoing and that the irascible, fallible detective was more Doctorish than the lonely God with the magic wand.

And yet there’s a paradox. Everyone has simultaneously written about the Marmite reaction to the season. Andrew Rilstone felt he couldn’t write any further about it without an American equivalent to this term. (Which incidentally means “love/hate reaction.”)) How can this be squared?

It might sound banal to say “it depends on the way you look at it.” But what counts is the level at which you look at it. This series looks at its best as a series, viewed overall, or from moment to moment, in micro-close up. Moffat’s overview and sense of direction was in many ways exemplary. The Doctor should be alien and fallible, super-smart yet socially awkward, not noble and tragic. He should bump into the furniture then work things out, not point magic wands at them. Individual lines were often richly quotable yet simultaneously sounding fresh and spontaneous, never composed or devised. Take when the Doctor cries “I escaped! I love it when I do that!” It’s something which you could perfectly imagine him saying, not just a snappy line for his actor to read out.

But the series was at its’ weakest in medium view, at episode-by-episode level. And this remains true even if you factor in Moffat’s own episodes. He wowed us all with his original trilogy way back when he started – ‘The Empty Child’, ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ and ‘Blink’. But it was his last Davies-era script, ’Silence in the Library’ which set the tone for what was to follow. Abigail Nussbaum has commented that Moffat does structures in the place of plots. Yet this hit trilogy was all perfectly coherent, and of an even tone. It was his later storylines, while often great on a moment-by-moment basis, which broke into bits as soon as you tried to frame them as episodes. They had a tendency to lurch between incident, from one tone to another, a mere sum of parts except for that “sum” part. It was like Moffat was too clever to be coherent, his brain too active to merely follow any through-line, forever thinking up tangents and enticing side-alleys to explore.

The Vortex Manipulator and predestination paradoxes seem to rather sum this up. ’Blink’ contained a predestination paradox too, but only one which was saved for the very end - when Sally Sparrow hands the Doctor the transcript. The final episode here, ’The Big Bang,’ contained very little other than predestination paradoxes. It was like the whole thing was made of several different cloths and needed such a zapping thread to stitch it all together. One thing doesn’t follow logically or seamlessly to the other, but just lurch into it? There’s your answer, sitting on the Doctor’s wrist. (Perhaps for that reason the final episode was the least coherent. ’Beast Below’ was probably the most.)

So it’s perhaps not surprising that it was in episode view that the Marmite reaction was most pronounced. Mike Taylor commented “Gavin Burrows’ reviews seem to like all the episodes I don’t and vice versa.” On Beyond the Sofa, despairing of ’The Lodger’, Neil Perryman merely posted a picture of kittens rather than reviewing it. Andrew Rilstone took two posts to expend his enthusiasm. My review would have been one word – “filler”. (Or, if more copy was required, “ever-more-desperate filler.”)

Of course there’s nothing new or unusual about fans disagreeing about episodes. (Some people even affect to like ’Earthshock’, from what I hear.) In fact, it’s all part of the fun. But what’s odd is that, after everyone agreeing on how Moffat brought a new vision to the show, how familiar the episode line-up actually was. How recognisable is this?

- A Daleks-are-back story
- A historical guest-star (thinking here of Churchill in the Dalek story, not Van Gogh, for reasons I gave at the time)
- A lightweight romp inserted half-way through (Or at least that’s what I think ’Vampires in Venice’ was supposed to be)
- A pastiche of ’Old Who’ (which feels like a tradition but actually only dates to ’The Sontaran Stratagem’.)
- A comedy of manners story where a couple get together despite the impediment of excessive nerdiness
- A heavily foreshadowed closing two-parter, where the fabric of the universe is in peril, unless the Doctor does some life-risking stuff very, very quickly which very nearly does for him
...in addition, the Celebrity Guest Writer now seems an extra tradition. After Richard Curtis, next season brings Neil Gaiman.

(Even ’Amy’s Choice’, one of the biggest audience-dividers, wasn’t a million miles from the previous companion-focused ‘Turn Left’.)

...a line-up which often induced in me no more than weary resignation. It seems a shame the opportunity wasn’t taken to break the mould, and toss some of those clich├ęs down some handy Crack in Time. In all honesty, the only non-Moffat story I could claim to enjoy was ’Amy’s Choice.’

This slightly generic feel was reinforced by a lack of decent villains. In fact there were very few new villains at all. (Space Vampires hardly count as “new” here, nor giant chickens as “decent”.) Unless you count the Smilers (which we don’t), all we really had was the Dream Lord - a great adversary but only ever a one-off.

I am also less than keen on the way monsters have been psychologised, and with it individualised. It’s significant that the one new villain worth speaking of turned out to be but the projection of a character’s mind. The Daleks once represented the totalitarian drive, enmity for the unlike, the Cybermen conformity. But the best new enemy here, the Dream Lord, was pure personal antithesis. If we no longer have monsters which reflect us, instead of merely me and you, does that not suggest we have become more like monsters?

During his spirited defence of ’The Lodger’, Andrew Rilstone patiently explains that the Doctor’s “real mission, the real subject of the story, is to appear normal while living with Craig... That is why anyone who focuses unduly on the nature of the top-of-the-stairs thing has probably misunderstood the episode.” This almost uncannily duplicates something I wrote in response to Iamus after the first episode. Guys, I get what’s going on. I just think we’re swapping something grand for something petty.

As the documentary-maker Adam Curtis said in an interview with ‘The Register’; “What people suffer from is being trapped within themselves - in a world of individualism everyone is trapped within their own feelings, trapped within their own imaginations. Our job as public service broadcasters is to take people beyond the limits of their own self... What is sitting there potentially is a vast world that will take people out of themselves.” Alas that potential remains unrealised.

Possibly what has changed most is the stylistic variety. Davies made a point of saying Moffat was the one writer he wouldn’t script-edit, rather suggesting that he did edit all the others. And certainly under him everything seemed to bear his imprint, to belong under one vision. The results may have varied in quality, but we agreed on what the measure was. People preferred ’Family Of Blood’ to ’Fear Her,’ ‘Dalek’ to ’Boom Town.”

But comparing ’Amy’s Choice’ to ’Vampires in Venice’ is like comparing chalk to cheese. Or for that matter, two episodes from ’Old Who’, which often didn’t feel like episodes from the same series at all, merely neighbours on a schedule. Wildly differing reactions therefore ensue. (Quite possibly including posted pictures of kittens.)

But then what of the celebrated Moffat vision? Of course it did not exist at that point, on that level, on that scale. It informs what the Doctor is doing right now, what he is saying and how he is saying it. And it is riddled right across what you must nowadays call the ‘story arc’ - the Crack, Amy’s marriage and so on. (Though even here Moffat’s rewritten rulebook was unevenly applied – think of the sonic screwdriver reverting to a magic wand in’The Hungry Earth’.)

Between those, writers were free to do as they felt. And with rare exceptions, what they felt like doing was more of the same. If only those differing reactions had led to a clutch of unique experiments, each boldly going where no episode had gone before. Had each episode dazzled with it’s own unique glow, our attention would hardly have been upon the through-line. ’Vincent and the Doctor’ was perhaps the sole exception. Despite it’s deep-rooted and numerous faults, all of which I spelt out at the time, it was at least trying to do something else.

The Crack, the predestination paradoxes, ultimately all these were not the icing upon the season but symptoms of it’s inner fault-lines. Viewed through the right magnification, so much was done so well it seems like carping to point all this out. But the problem is a deeper one than there just being some sub-par episodes. Look into those episodes and it simply does not cohere, it was like being handed a bag of ideas, a collection of scenes instead of a script. Moffat’s own scenes were at least interesting in their own right. Less so for most of the other authors...

Coming Soon! Stuff that’s not about ’Doctor Who’

Coming Shortly After That! More stuff about ’Doctor Who’

8 comments:


  1. (Though even here Moffat’s rewritten rulebook was unevenly applied – think of the sonic screwdriver reverting to a magic wand in’The Stolen Earth’.)


    I guess you mean The Hungry Earth here?

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  2. Fixed through the magic of the interweb!

    (Thanks for pointing out!)

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  3. This is possibly the most insightful thing I've read yet on NuNuWho...

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  4. Interesting thoughts. Once more -- and this really is getting to be a habit -- I agree with your analysis but disagree with your conclusion. Specifically, I think you're right that Moffat imposed less of a uniform style that RTD used to, but I think that gave rise to a pleasingly broad and sometimes wild selection of episodes, and I enjoyed the heterogenaeity.

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  5. Each to their own, of course. But how would you relate my schema of the episode descriptions with "heterogenerality"?

    And also, if a series is going to have a through-line, isn't that asking you to see it as a series, not a collection of short stories? Doesn't it need at least some consistency?

    I feel the crack was stuck up in place of that consistency. So instead of a through-line we got a crack.

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  6. Interesting thoughts Gav. They got me thinking about this season’s originality (or lack of it)...

    What’s odd is that, after everyone agreeing on how Moffat brought a new vision to the show, how familiar the episode line-up actually was.

    I wonder if everyone and his dog is confusing Moffat’s fresh approach with his ability not to be Russell T. Davies. After all, it was this ability that got everyone excited in the first place. Perhaps Moffat’s approach is indeed new in this way, but at the same time very old in terms of reprising Old Who.

    This would make some sense. If the people who make the show pay any attention to the fans (and I suspect that they do) then the commercial and ratings success of New Who may be tempered by the rumblings of those who’ll be needed when the show is no longer flavour of the month. And by and large what we’ve said is that RTD did well in successfully resurrecting the show, but please could it be a bit more like Old Who. So that’s pretty much what Moffat has given us. And that’s probably why Andrew Rilstone is enjoying it so much.

    If only those differing reactions had led to a clutch of unique experiments...’Vincent and the Doctor’ ...was at least trying to do something else.

    Of course, it’s a corollary of trying to make New Who resemble Old Who that it’s not going to be very original. I’m not familiar with fan reaction since the sixties the way that Andrew is, but I get the impression from his blog that innovation was greeted in those days with the cry “But this isn’t Doctor Who!”. This sort of tension is inevitable in any show that’s long-lived (or any show that’s trying to fit into a genre). Originality annoys the fans.

    Perhaps Moffat thinks that he has now adequately linked his show with the past. Perhaps the next series will take off in an entirely new direction. If it does (and does it well) then Moffat will please half of us and disappoint the rest. Anyone for Marmite?

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  7. Martin, I don't think people were necessarily saying "please make it more like the old show" as much as "please make it *better*". Often this would overlap - the old series, for example, didn't have the Doctor mooning around moping about his One True Lost Love for two years straight, so getting rid of that would be both 'better' *and* 'more like the old series'.

    On the other hand, no-one was clamouring for scripts by Pip & Jane Baker, music by Keff McCullouch and direction by Pennant Roberts. Had we had those things, we'd have been saying "let's have it *less* like the old series, please!"

    In my own case, the biggest fault I can find with both the RTD and Moffat eras is their ultra-conservatism - I'd be far more enthusiastic about both if they did something genuinely *different* (Love & Monsters is in my top three NuWho episodes despite being awful, as it's at least *interestingly* awful).

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  8. I was thinking something similar to Andrew. A New Who trying to be just like Old Who would be ’Sontaran Stratagem’ or ’Hollow Earth’ ever week. Which, correct me if I’m wrong, I didn’t think had generally got that high a fan reaction.

    Genre fiction is always going to be about twists on a theme. And any successful remake must be a reinvention, it’s got to go back to the old show but focus on a different aspect of it and/or bring something new to it. (Or go the ’Battlestar Galactica’ route and make the point howunlike the old show it is – but let’s not complicate things!)

    The sheer longevity of the old show makes that both easy and hard. Which era of the old show do you focus on? Plenty to choose from, but plenty of people ready to tell you that you got the wrong one.

    Of course originality will annoy some fans, per se. They don’t want the twists, just the theme. But annoying those people is fun. (If a little easy!)

    Perhaps Moffat thinks that he has now adequately linked his show with the past. Perhaps the next series will take off in an entirely new direction. If it does (and does it well) then Moffat will please half of us and disappoint the rest.

    The number of plot threads left dangling suggest to me he was more thinking of one long series split into two seasons. But you may be right.

    (Love & Monsters is in my top three NuWho episodes despite being awful, as it's at least *interestingly* awful).

    There was the germ of a good idea in that episode, yes. But in execution it was 99% awful to 1% interesting.

    Anyone for Marmite?

    I like Marmite but have found Vegemite to be a bit cheaper these days. It’s probably got terrible food miles on it, though!

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