Sunday, 11 July 2010

ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS A FAIRY TALE WHICH KNEW ITSELF - LAST THOUGHTS ON STEVEN MOFFAT’S DOCTOR WHO (1)


“I’ll be a story in your head. That’s okay – we’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one. Cause it was, you know. It was the best.”

When decriers of ’Old Who’ jeer about “wobbly sets”, what are they really saying?  Perhaps they consider it a fool’s errand to make a science fiction show on such a limited budget. The alien planets would always look like sand quarries, the spaceships like hairdryers and the result an inevitable shambles. But... surprise, surprise... they didn’t understand what they mocked. Its makers were abundantly aware you couldn’t build a convincing alien civilisation on thruppence ha’penny and some sticky back plastic – and so they didn’t try.

It’s significant that stories would often occur in the Land of Fiction or similar. The series wasn’t metafictional, exactly, but it was aware that it was in a sense always set in a land of fiction. Its storylines were like little fables which weren’t really attempting to sell Skaro as a believable setting, any more than they were police boxes as a feasible form of time travel. Instead it was allusive, a way of bringing up issues and concerns from an oblique angle. Refererntial names abound, Skaro itself is surely a riff on “scar” – emphasising the deadness of the Dead Planet. The show’s style was more similar to theatre than the ‘realism’ of TV; by it’s nature theatre does not try to convince you that you are looking at the actual Royal Court of Denmark or Roman Senate. Rather, the stage is a magic transporting space which is unconstrained by geography and free to allude elsewhere.

Frank Collins quotes Bakhtin in the context of ’Doctor Who’, “the use of the fantastic... to create extraordinary situations, for the testing of philosophical ideas.” Fables are not neat analogies, equations where one side always equals another, but throw themselves open to interpretation, like spurs to thought. (Okay, at other times it merely served up endless Nazi analogies. We’re really talking about the old show at it’s best here.)

This may be part of what lends ’Who’ to be written about. There’s plenty of other stuff that I enjoy as much, if not more, than the good Doctor. But it always seems to be ’Who’ which clocks up the column inches. (And, it would seem, the readership stats.) The sense that is always about something outside of itself, without ever quite specifying what, makes it a cup which will never run dry,

Davies’ ’Who’ took a slightly different tack – it was more of a cosmic soap opera. The Doctor’s line in ’Army of Ghosts’, “I’m burning up a sun just to say goodbye”, perhaps sums this up the best. Unlike the old show Davies seized science fiction’s scale, it’s opportunity to blow up events to a cosmic level, but then marshalled that imagery to bring something down to earth. We don’t know what it’s like to watch a sun die, but we do know what it’s like to say goodbye for the last time and how gargantuan that can feel. The burning sun is but a metaphor to show how much the Doctor wanted to see Rose again. It’s like watching a summer storm, which appears to be just a show in the sky, then being struck by lightning.

Of course the histrionic, convoluted world of soaps is unlikely to resemble our lives, and if it did those lives would be so frenetic that there’d be no time for watching the soaps in the first place. Yet, in the reverse of ’Star Trek’ soaps ask us to buy into the notion that they are in some way about life as we know it. Social themes (such as death or divorce) or issues of the day (such as gay adoption) are reflected, albeit through a monstrously distorting glass.

The peculiarity of Davis’ era was that he simultaneously leapfrogged the fable element and went for fully-fledged metafiction. He’d draw attention to something like the rules of coincidence which power a genre season, such as the Doctor and Donna meeting again. Yet, as the genre most coded as close to ‘real life’ soaps embrace metafiction least of all. (As in the famous dictum that no-one ever watches Eastenders on ’Eastenders’.)

It could be argued Moffat tried to square these. As just about everybody noted, he saw and sought to play up the fairy story aspects of the show. (Let’s not concern ourselves here with the distinction between fables and fairy stories.) He started his run with a little girl talking to her imaginary friend, a pretty hefty indication of the sort of thing that lay ahead. His stories are stories, and don’t feel the need to disguise themselves as anything else.

His characters don’t try to approximate psychological depth, they go more for breadth. Rose worked in a shop, Donna was an office temp. Yet Amy is a kissogram, in defiance of the fact that they don’t even make kissograms any more. (Even her other half gets a stripper for his stag do.) She dresses up and plays for a living. She’s the one who fixes things on her very first adventure. She takes to the Tardis like she was meant to.

But Moffat also incorporated a great deal of metafiction, albeit dressed up as time travel. Few modern dramas pay attention to the old Aristotelian unities of time and space, they flash-forward and back again, they intercut, they compress time. But the characters within them are usually innocent of this. The ’Doctor Who’ scripter may think how to get his hero out of the inescapable trap he’s just shoved him into, and hit on the idea of him passing his sonic screwdriver to an aide beforehand. He may then scroll back on his script, and insert that scene earlier. Or, to keep it a surprise he may instead use a flashback. Or he may have his hero use time travel to do it. Through this time travel motif, Moffat emphasises that his stories are doing things only stories can do – to both us his audience and to his characters.

This metafiction is most clear in the Davies-era ’Silence in the Library’, which I’m starting to think of as the start of Moffat’s second phase. There, a character becomes aware her apparent life is a fiction through the elliptical way that it passes. (The same story even features two guys named Dave, deliberately flouting the famous rule of drama that two guys named Dave can’t appear in the same story.)

But is there a downside to all this? In the old days, time travel was just a means to get the characters places and the show started. It had the same role as shaking a six in a board game. But then fans came to write the show. And fans have the same attitude to subtext or plot mechanisms that schoolboys have to farts – better out than in. If there is, for example, unresolved sexual tension between two characters in a show, fans will immediately want it played out – not stopping to think that the tension might have been more compelling than the resolution, that in is sometimes better than out.

The Doctor’s comment “you know fairy stories” becomes double-edged. It’s not just that we’re familiar with them any more, these days we are knowing about them. We tend to associate the two things because things happen in fairy stories which could only happen in fiction, and serve to remind us we are reading fiction. Yet within fairy stories, everyone accepts these rules without comment. When Sleeping Beauty succumbs to the Wicked Witch’s curse, no-one asks “how can such a thing be possible? As much as this story takes place in any genuine time or place, it is clearly centuries before cryogenics.” Instead they wail “who will break this terrible curse? Some way within the conventions of this sort of thing, that would be good.” We’re not the first people to notice those rules. We’re just the first people to think they need to be commented on.

Okay, the new show must do things the old show did, or else it isn’t the new show. And it must also do those things better, or at least more sophisticatedly, or else it isn’t new. And I like the way it's doing that, honest I do! But even so, haven’t we become rather hung up on sophisticated? Wouldn’t it be better to just make it like a fairy story? Do we really gain very much by perpetually being told that this story is actually a story? Didn’t it work better the way it was? Would ’Planet of the Spiders’ be a better story if the giant arachnid at the end started saying “by the way, Doctor, I’m a manifestation of your ego. It’s all quite clever really...” As Tyler Durden so memorably said: “Being clever, how’s that working our for you?”

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