16 July, 2010

By request

So here's the thing.

I first became familiar with the work of Steven Moffat late one night back in 2004. It would have been about 11:30pm; I was flipping through the channels during an ad break to see what else was on, and stopped on some British comedy programme. Less than a minute after I paused there, I found myself watching a beautiful blonde woman walk up to the counter of a science-fiction memorabilia store, smile at the guy behind it, and observed "isn't it exciting that they've found episode 2 of The Daleks' Master Plan?" (Ten seconds later, the guy behind the counter woke up from his dream.) But that scene made me take notice of the show. At the time the discovery of the previously-missing episode was still recent news, it had only taken place a couple of months earlier (we still hadn't actually seen it, since it wasn't released on DVD until the end of the year), so it was a surprise to me to see it referenced so soon. Whoever wrote this is clearly a Doctor Who fan.

So I stayed watching the show, which was called Coupling. It was certainly funny, and later in the week when I noticed a rerun of an older episode on UKTV, I turned it on. And it was that episode that turned me into a fan of the show. Literally half the episode revolved around a single scene where two characters try to have a conversation even though they speak different languages. The show presents the scene twice, once from each character's point of view. It was so perfectly written, the intricacies of the communication break-down and misunderstandings so carefully worked out, that I was genuinely impressed. As I watched the rest of the show's run, I discovered that it regularly broke free of the basic sitcom formats. Entire episodes were presented in split-screen, or chronologically took place before the previous episode, or contrasted drunken flashbacks against the reality, or replayed the same short period of time telling the stories of different characters in the bar. It's not so much that these are especially original ideas, but they're certainly not commonplace in the typical sitcom. Steven Moffat was clearly a talented writer who wasn't just content to write jokes, but was instead testing the boundaries of the sitcom format, trying to find something new to do with the form. And I liked that. It also helped that Moffat is a very very funny writer.

Meanwhile the revival of Doctor Who, under the control of lead writer Russell T Davies, was in production, and Moffat was announced as one of the show's writers.

Much spoiler-filled discussion of the last 5 1/2 years of Doctor Who (including detailed comments on the finale to the most recent series - Matt Smith's first) follows after the jump.

Moffat's story in that first series of Doctor Who was relatively straight-forward, but really quite brilliant. Few would disagree that The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances story is the highlight of the series. The sight of all those people, walking like gas-masked zombies, was chilling, and even a simple moment like a scared child asking "Are you my mummy?" became terrifying.

The next series Moffat gave us The Girl In The Fireplace, a story that was also reasonably straight-forward (the Doctor falls in love with Madame de Pompadour), but with a few twists and turns that did raise the complexity of the story somewhat. (The titular fireplace, after all, did lead to a spaceship 500 years in the future, and time flowed differently between the two time-periods.) But mostly it was just a lush, romantic, beautiful story, albeit with scary robots powered by clockwork mechanisms. And it was brilliant.

Series Three brought us Blink, a story which last year was voted by Doctor Who Magazine readers as the second-best Doctor Who story in the 47-year history of the TV series. This is especially impressive when the story deliberately omits the Doctor for much of its running time. In addition to introducing the Weeping Angels, some of the scariest monsters in new Who, it showed an inventiveness in playing with the possibilities of time travel. The Doctor finds himself trapped in the past, but by relying on information given to an earlier version of him after the episode's events by the episode's true main character, Sally Sparrow, he is able to set up a situation to rescue both himself and Sally. (The time travel mechanics are based on an amusing short story, called "What I Did On My Christmas Holidays by Sally Sparrow" that Moffat wrote several years earlier for the Doctor Who Annual.) At one point in the episode, the Doctor describes time as a "big ball of wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff", and it's really a rather brilliant way of handling time. Any time you start to delve into time travel, you start to create weird paradoxes, and with that one line, Moffat rather easily handwaves away any problems with the story. After all, we don't really care about the mechanics of how the time travel works or how it is possible for someone to have a conversation with a 40-year-old prerecorded video, and any pseudo-scientific explanation he offered would in reality be technobabble nonsense, so why not just acknowledge that it's nonsense and move on from there to more exciting stuff with monsters.

(It's also vaguely reminiscent of The Curse of Fatal Death, a comedy sketch Moffat wrote for Red Nose Day, in which past and future versions of the Doctor and the Master repeatedly travel back in time to have traps built into the castle where the two now confront each other.)

And then, in the fourth series, Moffat give us Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, a story that is relatively straight-forward plot-wise, but that is complicated by the introduction of River Song, someone who apparently already has a very close relationship with future versions of the Doctor, but who the Doctor in his timeline has never met before. By this point, I think we'd all accepted Steven Moffat as the best writer working on new Who. His stories were inventive, playful, scary, intelligent, and most of all showed him to be someone wanting to explore the full potential of time travel as a storytelling device. He'd also won three Hugo Awards (the Oscars of the science-fiction/fantasy genre) for his work on Who.

At the same time, I think dissatisfaction with lead writer RTD had reached pretty high levels. Now, to be fair to him, we wouldn't have new Who if not for RTD, and the way he reinvented the show while being true to its core works really well. And, while I haven't seen any of his non-Who-related works, I believe he does have a great reputation when it comes to more grounded real-world shows. But as a writer of Doctor Who, he's usually average at best, and frequently awful, fond of pulling plot twists out of nowhere, constantly determined to up the stakes with each year's finales (to the point where it just became absurd), and relying (sometimes literally) on a deus ex machina to resolve his stories. Oh, sure, after a few years he had developed as a Who writer to sometimes give us some really rather great individual episodes (Gridlock, Midnight, Turn Left, or The Waters of Mars, for instance, were great shows from later in his run), but more often he could be terribly bad. This is a man who, when writing the very first episode of new Who, had someone eaten by a rubbish bin, or who, when writing the show's first big spectacular two-parter, thought farting aliens made good ominous villains. He gave us the Master dancing to the Scissor Sisters on board a flying aircraft carrier, or people watching the destruction of the Earth to the sound of Britney Spears. He heavily foreshadowed Rose's death, but then just put her in an alternate-Earth and had her Missing Presumed Dead in our world, in a massive cheat. He gave us an Earth 200,000 years in the future where everyone watches clunky robotic recreations of year-2005 British reality shows, he had two different finales that were resolved by giving companions magical powers too great for them to contain, he had an episode where President Obama was going to give a Christmas Day speech that would single-handedly fix the financial crisis and reinvent capitalism as we know it, he gave us Cybermen wearing shag carpets (called "Cybershades") with no explanation for their existence, and he had the Doctor using the TARDIS to tow the Earth. As a writer he may be great, but as a science-fiction writer he was just a mess.

Watching an RTD episode sadly could often feel like reading a story written by an eight-year-old. You know, the type of story where "this happened, then this other thing happened, then all of a sudden this happened, but then magically things changed and everything was okay again." Witness, for instance, the final story of series 3, which I suffered through again the other night. The Master sets up a giant network that sends signals through cellphones to control people. That's fine; the Master has always used hypnosis and mind control to manipulate people, right back to his very first episode back in 1971. But then, in the final episode of the series, we discover that it's actually a "psychic network." Umm, okay, fine. The word "psychic" usually refers to things like telepathy and clairvoyance, but I guess I can accept it as a vehicle for mind control. Now, meanwhile, the Master uses the "aging" function on his laser screwdriver to age the Doctor, eventually by a thousand years or so, so that he's a shrunken shrivelled CGI creation so small he can be locked inside a birdcage. Ah, but Martha Jones spends a year travelling the world spreading rumours that she's collecting pieces for a special gun to kill the Master, but actually telling everyone she meets about the Doctor, so that at a particular time everyone (except for the one single person in the world that they don't want to know about all this, who still believes the rumours about the gun that everyone else knows is false) will just stand around saying the Doctor's name, and because their cellphones (which they're not using) have this link to the psychic satellite system, everyone saying the Doctor's name will magically cause the birdcage to disappear and cause the Doctor to magically be restored and magically have temporary telekinetic powers and magically defeat the Master and have you noticed the number of times I've referred to things happening "magically" because that is literally the only explanation we are given. RTD clearly thinks that just using the word "psychic" is enough to justify the use of any magical powers in the story.

Now, the frustrating thing is that this is deliberate. He's writing in this style deliberately. There's a quote from RTD's book The Writer's Tale where, discussing that story, he says:

"I can see how annoying that looks. I can see how maddening it must be, for some people. Especially if you're imposing really classical script structures and templates on that episode, even unconsciously. I must look like a vandal, a kid or an amateur… The simple fact is, all those things were planned. All of them were my choice. They're not lazy, clumsy or desperate. They're chosen. I can see more traditional ways of telling those stories, but I'm not interested. I think the stuff that you gain from writing in this way – the shock, the whirlwind, the freedom, the exhilaration – is worth the world. I've got this sort of tumbling, freewheeling style that somersaults along, with everything happening now - not later, not before, but now, now, now. I've made a Doctor Who that exists in the present tense. It's happening now, right in front of your eyes! If you don't like it, if you don't join in with it then… blimey, these episodes must be nonsensical. But those classical structures can be seen in Primeval, in Demons, in Merlin, in all of them – and yet we stand with millions more viewers. And I think that's partly why." (Source)

The problem is that he's fundamentally wrong, and it actually exposes RTD's failings as a writer. It's easy to write a story and then pull a solution out of nowhere. It's not exhilarating or exciting, it's frustrating. The challenge is to write a story in which all the pieces are on-screen, and yet you can't see how they all fit together. That's why a well-written murder mystery is so fun to read or watch - because we have access to all the clues and key information, and when the detective gathers everyone in the room and explains what this clue and that clue meant, that Aha! or Oh My Gosh! moment as the pieces all come together, that is exciting. You've heard of Chekhov's Gun, the idea that if you introduce a gun in the first act, it must be fired in the third. The point being made is that you should avoid introducing unnecessary elements that don't play a part in the story, but there's another rule that's implied by the concept: if a gun is to be fired in the third act, it needs to be introduced in the first. We need to be able to see all the pieces in play before they become important. That's how drama works. You should be spending the time watching the drama thinking "I wonder how this will resolve itself," and once it's finished, think "well, that's the only way it could have resolved itself." The principles of dramatic writing have been in place for several thousand years, and for good reason: because they work. You should always be careful before abandoning those principles, and RTD has clearly not been. As a result, his stories really are a mess.

What makes it worse, of course, is RTD's general self-satisfaction with how good he is. You can see it in the above quote, where he says that his writing style is responsible for the show being more successful than Primeval, Demons, or Merlin. The thing is, I've not seen the other two, but I have seen Primeval, and while it's an interesting enough diversion, it's not that good. Doctor Who can be, and often is, really good, but that's in spite of RTD's style of writing, not because of it. I watch the companion Doctor Who Confidential documentary series, and one of the hallmarks of RTD's appearances on that show was that any time he discussed any story idea, he always defends it with a "how can you not do that?" Daleks fighting Cybermen - "how can you not do that?" Bringing every single recurring character from the last four series for one big story - "how can you not do that?" Giant Cyberman roaming the streets of Victorian London over Christmas - "how can you not do that?" The thing is, he always uses that phrase when describing a scene that sounds like it could be awesome, but proved to be awful. That's the stuff that you write as a fanboy imagining "that would be cool to see." But as a mature writer, you need to move past the fanboy influence and consider whether some exciting concept is actually a good idea, or just something that would be cool to see but ultimately nonsensical. RTD never seemed to learn to make that judgement.

Sadly, the problems with RTD's writing style were on full display in The End of Time. RTD's final story, the final story for David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, displayed all of RTD's strengths as a writer, but sadly was overpowered by his weaknesses. RTD really is strong in the small emotional moments, and indeed, pretty much any scene where the Doctor and companion Wilf just sat and talked was magical - the scene in the cafe where the Doctor described regeneration as a death, the scene on the spaceship where Wilf talked about being in a blizzard of bullets in Palestine, or the scene where the Doctor rails against Wilf after hearing the four knocks, all these moments would be some of the best in new Who. But they're paired with an absurd story that frankly feels like RTD is throwing into the episode every unused story idea he never had a chance to use. So we get a moment of the Doctor puzzling over the Ood's rapid development, but that's not relevant to the plot. We get a moment of mystery with the TARDIS's appearance in a stained glass window, but that has nothing to do with anything. We get everyone in the universe dreaming about the Master, but that's quickly forgotten about once Wilf meets the Doctor. We get the Master recreated by a mysterious cult of Saxon-worshippers whose existence was never before referred to (although RTD claims that he always intended, right back while making Last of the Time Lords, that they would be the means for the Master's rebirth) and which is never referred to again after they bring the Master back. We get the Master as an insane homeless animal, at this point completely devoid of any connection to the suave manipulative character portrayed by Delgado and Ainley. We get the Naismiths, a couple of characters whose sole purpose in the story is to bring the Master where he needs to be for the story to take place, but then get forgotten about because they seem to have no plans of their own to pursue. We get an absurd cliffhanger where the Master remakes the entire population of Earth in his own image, but that gets resolved very quickly because it's not relevant to the main story, which is the return of the Time Lords. We get Donna remembering the Doctor, something we previously learned would kill her if it happened, but actually it just gives her a headache, but when she gets pursued by a number of duplicate-Masters, her brain emits a shockwave to incapacitate the Masters attacking her, and as an explanation the Doctor says "Did you think I would leave her defenceless" and that is literally the only explanation we get of that, but now she absolutely can't ever remember the Doctor or else she will die for real this time. I remember reading a review (which I sadly cannot find now) which broke down the story to identify ten or fifteen different points where the episode is going in one direction, then abandons it because "we're telling a different story now," moves in that direction, then abandons that story for another new story. The End of Time was phenomenally sloppy writing, and hugely disappointing that David Tennant, who really was an excellent Doctor, would get saddled with that terrible script for his final story.

Still, we had the new series, with Steven Moffat as head writer and a new Doctor in Matt Smith, to look forward to. Matt Smith proved to be phenomenal, and by the end of his first story I think he had won over most of the naysayers. But personally it was really Steven Moffat that I was worried about. Sure, he'd been great when he was writing a single story each series, but how would he cope when he had to write six episodes and oversee the rest of the series? And the end result was, I thought, pretty impressive. After all, there were a lot of excellent episodes - I would point to The Eleventh Hour, The Time of Angels/Flesh and Blood, Amy's Choice, Vincent and the Doctor, and The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, as being genuinely excellent episode, with the Vincent van Gogh episode in particular as being one of the most extraordinary and unique episodes I've ever seen the show do. Even The Lodger, one of the mid-level episodes of the series story-wise, was the vehicle for some of the best comedy ever presented by new Who (much funnier than the awful comedy of Love and Monsters, for instance). And even when the show wasn't great - say, in Victory of the Daleks, or The Vampires of Venice, which were the low points of the series for me - there was no point where I felt embarrassed to be watching them. They were just average episodes that were perhaps let down by an unfortunate plot development or average scripting.

But what became clear was that Moffat was working at a different level than RTD when it came to the series' arc. Now, the idea of a series-long story arc was a good idea introduced by RTD, and as I remember it was unexpected at the time. But RTD just did not know how to execute big story arcs. If you look at Buffy (which RTD has cited as an influence in his approach to the show), the key to that show's story arcs were that each episode would actively develop the story arc to some degree, but would also stand alone. Some episodes were more arc-oriented, while others were more stand-alone, but they all played their part in feeding into the big story. When RTD tried to have an arc, it mainly consisted of a repeated word or phrase (Bad Wolf, Torchwood, Mister Saxon) or an occasional two-second appearance by an unexpected character, thrown in as clumsy intrusive foreshadowing with no further information provided until the finale. And often the eventual explanations were rubbish ("Bad Wolf" is a phrase sent by future God-like Rose through time to tell current-Rose ... umm, something that has no connection to the actual words being used). Mostly, with an RTD series you could pretty much remove most of the series-arc references from each story without needing to change either the individual episodes or the finales themselves, which is not the sign of a well-developed ongoing story. They typically didn't actually serve any narrative significance, they just served as teasers. (The only exception I can think of was in series 2 - the events of Tooth and Claw and the Doctor's behaviour led to the establishment of Torchwood. But even there, it's a marginal reference, and could easily be omitted without anyone noticing.)

But with Moffat, his story arc was absolutely ingrained into the design of the series. The first story was sparked by the mysterious crack-in-the-wall that would prove to be central to the series, by the end of the fifth episode we knew what the cracks were, by the end of the ninth we had an indication of what was probably the central cause of the cracks, and by the end of the series the problem was resolved. Indeed, the cracks played an active part in the resolution of several major stories in the series. This was not a minor easily-forgotten mystery, but the problem that the entire series was working towards resolving. And that is dramatically satisfying.

But it's interesting because, looking at it objectively, Moffat's finale bore a lot of similarities to RTD finales, similarities in areas that I have criticised RTD for. It indulged in returning villains, had an absurdly huge threat (seriously, the universe nearly ended), and ultimately resorted to a reset button to undo the story. Plus, at one point someone brought a person who had ceased to exist back into existence simply by declaring that they remember the person - which doesn't seem that different to the way RTD restored the Doctor through people chanting his name. So why am I okay with Moffat's story but not RTD's stories? And it's here that the advantages of Moffat's writing skill becomes evident, because Moffat's finale works a lot better than any of RTD's, even though it contains all these superficial similarities.

The returning villains worked partly because, while they were central to the story, they weren't the actual threat in the story, so they were used very differently to normal. They had an important role to play, certainly, gathering for the opening of the Pandorica, but for most they were just cameo appearances. Indeed, in the actual finale episode the returning villains were reduced to a single random Dalek, who was severely weakened (at one point he shoots the Doctor in the chest, yet the Doctor survives), who is dispensed after only 15 minutes, and who wasn't even the most important part of that opening 15 minutes. Instead, for a story in which the Doctor is jumping through time to prevent the end of the universe, it's a surprisingly small story, focused pretty much on the relationships between the Doctor, Amy, Rory, and River.

Similarly Amy remembering the Doctor into existence works a lot better than the magical de-aging of the Doctor in Last of the Time Lords, mostly because Moffat was sufficiently vague about what was going on - or rather, the explanation we were given was demonstrably not quite accurate - which gave him enough room to work. The Doctor may have described what the cracks were doing as "erasing people from existence," but it's clear that that is another "wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey" explanation, and what is actually happening is something more complicated. After all, people who are erased by the cracks still existed to some degree - or at least, the consequences of their past actions are still present. The Byzantium still crashed even though the angel that crashed it never existed, Amy's engagement ring was still around even though her fiancé supposedly never existed, and indeed Amy was somehow still around although her parents had been erased. So the Doctor's "erased from existence" explanation may be the quick and easy explanation, but the show itself seems to say that it's not the full answer. It's probably almost more accurate to say that the cracks simply erased all memory of people that have been captured by the crack, so that it were like they never existed, not that they actually did never exist. Therefore, there is sufficient vagueness around what the cracks really did that it's easy for Moffat to find the necessary space to allow people to be remembered. Plus, it's clear that this solution was not just Moffat pulling a solution out of nowhere in the way that RTD would do. This was absolutely ingrained into the fabric of the story. The concept of "remembering" someone into existence may only have been specifically stated in the previous episode (in a different context, that of explaining Rory's mysterious reappearance after being absorbed by the cracks), but with that knowledge, it's easy to see that that's what the Doctor was trying to do with Amy at the end of episode 9. And the Doctor's efforts to ensure that Amy remembered him were clearly established by that somewhat incongruous scene back in Flesh and Stone that was explained in the finale. The simple fact is, we don't quite know what the rules are for people who are erased by cracks in time and therefore, as the writer, Moffat can make up whatever rules he likes for how the cracks work. All we need as a viewer is for the necessary rules to be established before they're needed to resolve the problems. Moffat clearly knew how to do that, and did it well. RTD didn't.

Looking at the episode, I mostly just loved it because there is a joy to Moffat's writing that was never there in RTD's episodes. It was fun to watch. I was giddy with excitement for the first 15 minutes of the finale episode, watching the Doctor leap forward and backward through time, rescuing his past self. I wasn't sitting there wondering why I ever liked this show, as I so often would do with an RTD story (especially an RTD finale). Instead, I was just excited to watch someone who was using the show's format with intelligence and wit. Just look at the last episode. The episode starts with mysteries, both big - how did Amy get inside the Pandorica instead of the Doctor? - and small - why did someone steal Amelia's drink? After the credits come, we start getting answers to those questions, along with more mysteries - Why does the Doctor keep leaving and then coming back to give more information? And why is he wearing a fez and carrying a mop?* So now the simple act of the Doctor putting on a fez or picking up a mop become exciting, because they serve as signposts pointing towards the solution to questions we had. That's what happens when you take the time to set things up, rather than adopting RTD's "tumbling, free-wheeling style" - it becomes exciting because you can see the pieces coming together.

* (EDIT - 5 November 2010: I was watching Silver Nemesis last night (which is really not good) and had rather a shock. In one early scene, the Seventh Doctor and Ace are walking through a room filled with ancient relics, rather like a museum, when the Doctor suddenly picks up and puts on a fez, immediately followed by picking up a mop. It's far too close to what happened in The Big Bang to be coincidental, but why would Moffat make such an obscure reference to a story as bad as Silver Nemesis? I found that interesting.)

Now, I freely recognise that the time travel shenanigans could become a bit of a problem in the future. After all, in Blink, the Doctor at least had external information from Sally Sparrow to help rescue himself, while in The Big Bang future-Doctor rescues past-Doctor in order for past-Doctor to become future-Doctor to rescue past-Doctor, and the circularity of that logic with no intervention by an outside party could become an issue - the Doctor could easily use that wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey approach to escape from any inescapable situation. Moffat may have written himself into a position here where he risks of dissolving any dramatic tension in future. So we'll keep an eye on how things develop in this area in the future, but for the moment, it's still fun to watch.

It comes down to this: I love Doctor Who, and have done for 21 years, ever since I sat down to watch The Twin Dilemma (shudder) out of curiosity after reading a newspaper article about how Colin Baker flopped as the Doctor. It's not quite my favourite show, but it's pretty close. I'm excited that it's still around, thrilled that it is so popular, and recognise RTD's essential role in bringing that about. But mostly I'm glad that now we've got someone behind the show approaching it with maturity and intelligence, someone who is straining to test the boundaries and limits of a show that seemingly has none, and someone who knows that it's not a good idea to do stuff just because "how can you not?" The most surprising thing about the finale was the fact that the mystery underpinning the line, "Silence will fall," remained unresolved, leaving that question to be explored next series. And I for one am excited to see where Steven Moffat will take us. Judging by this series, it will be somewhere thrilling.

(Incidentally, Moffat's playing with time travel reminds me of another very good Doctor Who novel, "The Sands of Time" by Justin Richards (available on the BBC Doctor Who website along with some other very good Who novels) that also played with time travel. The story opens with the Doctor and his companions arriving in 1896 London, one of the companions is kidnapped, and as they hunt for her they encounter someone who recognises them and invites them to a mummy unwrapping. When they attend the unwrapping, they're shocked to find the 4000-year-old mummy is their missing companion. As the story progresses from there, they jump between 2000BC, 1896, 1926, and 1996, visiting some time-periods multiple times. It's a very enjoyable story, and worth reading.)

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