Monday, October 08, 2012

This is not the Tardis you're looking for

Historically Dr. Who was always defined by the interaction of two competing factors: the first factor was the strict budgetary limitations of producing a weekly sci-fi show on the BBC during the sixties, seventies and eighties; and the second was the great wealth of good actors available in the BBC's talent pool. The latter factor often succeeded in elevating the show far beyond the impediments imposed by the former. The fact that Doctor Who was produced so cheaply for the length of its first run can only be seen, in hindsight, as a positive factor in the show's success. Unable to fall back on superfluous special effects, the show's creators built a franchise that was buoyed for 26 years on the strength of a small army of (mostly) superb character actors.

For the most part, the new Who - which, seven years into its run, is only "new" in relation to the previous forty years of Who continuity - has followed in this tradition. Although the special effects are unquestionably better, they're still not "great" by Hollywood standards. But if you're complaining about the special effects you don't have any business watching Who, anymore than the original series Star Trek. It is now more or less as it has always been - Who floats on the strength of its actors. The three actors who have played the Doctor since 2005 have all been very good, and most of the companions as well - although every viewer obviously has their most and least favorites. It's a cycle as old as time - every time an old companion cycles out in favor of a new, the fans scream bloody murder, until a year or two passes and they become so attached to that companion that the new companion is an utter betrayal. And so on. And, of course, whenever there's a new Doctor the entire world threatens to crumble into multiple little pieces because the old Doctor was so well beloved that the show simply won't be able to continue afterwards - until the new one starts up and quickly becomes acclaimed as the "best Doctor ever." (Good rule of thumb: fan polls usually place whomever the most recent Doctor - not the current, but the next-to-current as the #1 Doctor ever, with Tom Baker as a perennial #2. So, in two or three years when Hugh Laurie or whomever is the next Doctor, Matt Smith will be [briefly] universally acclaimed as Best of All Time, with Baker as always in poll position.)

This is a good formula and it works well for the BBC. Most shows fall apart after a certain number of years because the cast costs too much money and no one wants to continue being the same character for decades, regardless of success. Who manages to avoid ever becoming too big for its budget by simply rotating its cast - its a neat trick, replacing actors while retaining the same protagonist for almost fifty years.

The problem with Doctor Who as it exists now has nothing to do with the actors, and even less to do with the effects or any other factor (although every iteration of the post-2005 theme song still sucks). The problem is that the writing is terrible. And the funny thing is that this isn't just the opinion of a small coterie of long-term die-hards with memories stretching all the way back to William Hartnell. In the aftermath of this last mini-season, the assertion of modern Who's dodgy writing has surpassed the domain of mere opinion to become a widely-accepted fact. Although the series has struggled with poor writing since the beginning of its revival, this last set of five episodes - the first third or so of the seventh series - seems to represent something of a nadir. Every episode was poor, a series of interesting ideas and images strung together with gigantic plot holes, leaps in logic, baldfaced dodges, and a more or less total willingness to ignore storytelling sense at a moment's notice. Every episode was saved from being completely terrible by the presence of likeable and talented actors. But it's getting harder and harder with every passing episode to remain enthusiastic for a show that remains doggedly resistant to producing an episode that actually makes sense.

The climax of this latest mini-season, the appropriately-titled "The Angels Take Manhattan," offers a handy encapsulation of everything wrong with the current incarnation of Who. We begin with the return of a familiar monster in an unfamiliar context, doing something that only vaguely makes sense if you don't stop to think about it for more than two seconds. You have multiple very important plot points passed over with assertions that something critical is happening / has happened without taking any time whatsoever to linger on how or why such things may be happening / have happened. Add in very good actors doing their best with the material they've been given even though the episode requires them to change plots multiple times and run off in arbitrary directions at the behest of the writer. Then top it all off with emotional arcs that seem blatantly unearned simply because the story itself is so ridden full of holes that the only reason we have to believe that the important things we are seeing are actually important is simply because the main characters tell us they are. The difference between "important" episode of Who and "normal" episodes is that, in the "important" episodes, things which would in other circumstances have been momentary obstacles for a clever character to overcome are suddenly insurmountable challenges that result in a massive change in the status quo. And - let us not forget - any and all previously established characterization and foreshadowing can be abandoned at the drop of a hat if the opportunity for a fake-out "sacrifice" presents itself.

All well and good, you say, and certainly, you can't accuse Who of playing more fast-and-loose with these things than, say, Batman comics. Sure, Batman and Robin can escape the Joker's death-traps dozens of times . . . until the one time they don't, and then the sidekick dies, and suddenly the entire tone of the story changes. But usually when heroes suffer and fail the writers have to do a good job of presenting reasons why the obstacles in their path are more severe than any they have previously faced. This is problematic for any character who has been around for longer than a few years, because after a while you are forced to write stories about heroes who are sufficiently competent that the only legitimate threat they can face are existential threats to the existence of the universe, or other similarly cosmic notions. When was the last time Batman foiled a series of bank robberies? We all know Batman can do that, so (according to logic) the only interesting Batman stories will be stories that up the stakes accordingly.

The difference between Batman and the Doctor in this instance is that while Batman's powers and abilities are now and have always been fairly well-defined - at least to the degree that any situation that requires him to surpass his physical or mental limitations has to be carefully explained - the Doctor basically only has whichever limitations the writers feel like acknowledging in any given story. Traditionally (and by that I mean for the series' first run), the biggest restriction on the Doctor's abilities was less a restriction on his power than a restriction on the type of stories Doctor Who could tell. To be more precise, Doctor Who was a story about a time-traveler that was never really about time-travel. Time-travel was what the Doctor did in order to hop from here to there, a different setting for a different adventure every week. But he didn't often time-travel in the context of each adventure. It was accepted as canon that he simply couldn't double back on his own timeline except in the most unusual of circumstances - once he was on the ground in a certain time and experiencing his adventures, he couldn't double back and undo anything. (This also provides a handy explanation for why he so rarely meets himself.) So, if he is in a room and sees a man get shot, he can't hop in the Tardis and undo the man getting shot, because he already experienced that shot occurring. Of course, he (and the writers) can get around this in any number of clever ways - I know a number of fans thought that the resolution of "The Wedding of River Song," for instance, was a cheat. It certainly was, but it was most importantly a clever cheat that, I think, ultimately played fair with the audience by ensuring that nothing we had "seen" was undone, merely that what we saw wasn't exactly what we thought we had seen.

A major problem with NuWho is that they actually do quite a few stories about time-travel, not just a few. And one of the problems with that is that time-travel stories are very hard to write, especially within the confines of the Doctor's previously-discussed limitations. The reason they are hard to write is that, as I said, the way you get out of things like paradoxes and "set timelines" is by utilizing clever cheats. And once you start utilizing clever cheats to get around every obstacle - which, let's be frank, is basically the Doctor's whole m├ętier - it becomes harder and harder to establish scenarios that the audience can't themselves imagine a cheat for. You can see why, either through explicit or implicit agreement, the writers of the original series decided to steer clear of any overt reliance on time-travel as a plot device - the potential story complications are simply too much work for nowhere near enough payoff. It's not that it can't be done, but that it is very hard to do.

So when Amy & Rory are trapped in 1938 New York and the Doctor says he can't go back to 1938 New York to retrieve them, the audience immediately thinks, well, why not go back to 1938 Hartford or 1938 Beijing or wherever is sufficiently far away, take a bus and retrieve them the hard way? Or why not wait until 1940 and retrieve them after they've had a good couple years' vacation? Or any number of other work-arounds of the kind that appeared across the internet moments after the episode was finished. The answer was, of course, that there wasn't going to be any kind of work-around because we all know this was the duo's final appearance (for now), and they were being written out permanently.The Doctor couldn't do those things because we have to take his word for the fact that he can't or, barring that, he is a petulant dick and simply doesn't want to be bothered exerting any more than the minimal amount of time in the care and upkeep of his pets (this last interpretation, while not particularly charitable to the Doctor, is actually not that far off from what the actual text of the episode and season-to-date would have us believe).

This was, of course, a gigantic wet fart of an anticlimax for Amy & Rory considering that this entire run of episodes was pointing to the inevitable conclusion that their departure from the Doctor would come after they realize they had grown up and couldn't keep dropping their lives every time the Doctor came calling. I imagined it would coincide with them either overcoming Amy's infertility or adopting a child, something that would require them to settle down for good. It was going to be sad and weepy and it would reinforce the Doctor's status as an eternally lonely Peter Pan-type figure who ultimately can't keep his friends from growing up and moving on, ending with the bittersweet but still happy image of the Ponds walking off arm-in-arm into the proverbial sunset. But what we got instead was a last-minute MacGuffin in the form of the Weeping Angels.

People seem to like the Weeping Angels, at least to judge by the fact that the monsters have already proven themselves to be the most enduring original foe of the NuWho era. Personally, I find my patience growing thinner every time they show up. Although it cannot be argued that their debut, "Blink," was one of the best episodes of the current series and probably one of the best Who stories ever (a fact also due to the presence of the seconds-away-from-superstardom Carey Mulligan), the things that made "Blink" such a good episode did not actually make a good argument for the Angels as recurring foes. For one thing, the Angels' gimmick is that they're statues. They don't move. They can't talk, they can't communicate in any way whatsoever. Although they are very intelligent, they are also unavoidably static. So while they are undeniably great monsters, they make for piss-poor villains. "Manhattan" is a great example of why they just don't work very well in this role: they can't talk, so they can't exposit. Because they can't exposit, they just do things in an arbitrary fashion and we are left to depend on the Doctor to explain just what it is we're seeing. And when they do things like, oh, setting up an apartment building on Manhattan's skid row and supposedly keeping it furnished and all the guests fed and occupied for decades at a time - or something? - I'm not really sure what that was about, to be honest. The premise of the episode doesn't make a damn bit of sense if you think about it too hard, or at all. Were the people allowed to leave the apartments? Did they have normal lives, or were they under house arrest? And just why would the Angels care what happened to these people once they sucked out their time energy? Since the folks who put this fiendish plot together - the Angels themselves - can't explain just what the hell they think they're doing, it all seems rather random.

"Blink" worked despite the fact that it was a time-travel story because it was extremely well-plotted and smoothly executed. Subsequent Angels stories have not been so lucky. Because the Angels' gimmick relies on time travel, it can sometimes (often, er, almost always) be difficult to keep track of just what they're doing and when they're doing it. The Angels' previous two-parter, "The Time of Angels" / "Flesh and Stone," had some serious legibility issues, not to mention the fact that the events of the episode were supposedly undone by a time paradox, even though the events weren't really undone because everyone remembered them. "Manhattan" ended in a similar paradox, only this time the tangled timelines got even more complicated, looping around into a Primer-level state of confusion. I like to think I'm not a stupid person, but these episodes are naturally confusing. The increasingly baroque illegibility of these Weeping Angel adventures tells me that perhaps the monsters aren't nearly as effective as the producers would like to believe. Doctor Who is at its core a kids' program, after all, and if someone with decades' experience watching and reading sci-fi stories has a hard time following these episodes, maybe that should tell them something.

All of which points to the single greatest problem at the heart of NuWho, bigger even than the writing (perhaps even a symptom of the poor writing), I'd argue: the shortage of villains. Name a top-shelf villain created for the new series since 2005. OK, name one who recurred. Lots of little villains and monsters-of-the-week, but the Doctor's two greatest single villains remain the Master and Davros, both of whom were created in the 1970s. The Daleks and the Cybermen and the Weeping Angels are races who possess little or no individuation. There have been a few very promising candidates in the new series, but none have stuck. The Family of Blood were credible foes who were dispatched in their first appearance but who by rights should have returned by now. For whatever reason they have not. I remain shocked that the Beast from the two-parter "The Impossible Planet" / "The Satan Pit" has not returned - I would have bet money they were setting up that demon as a serious recurring villain. Additionally, there are still a few very good villains from the original series who have never appeared in the current series. I am amazed by the fact that we haven't yet seen the return of the Black Guardian, who would seem to be perfectly suited to the kinds of long-game story arcs the current series favors. And while it's become something of a humorous cliche that old-school Who fans spend a disproportionate amount of time pining for the Rani, it's worth mentioning that the reason why long-term Who fans might be anxious to see the return of old favorites from the first series is that that the new series has done such a piss-poor job of creating and maintaining interesting villains of its own.

At this point, I regard the Angels in much the same way that I do the Daleks: once beloved fan-favorites who have become maddeningly obligatory, defined by increasingly vague motivations and convoluted backstory. I hope we don't see them again for a very long time, because this story was unabashedly terrible. (Also, I should mention in passing a pet peeve of mine concerning the Angels: since their very first appearance, it has been established that when they are seen they are transformed into literal stone. My question question has always been, why don't they just shatter the statues when the Angels are frozen? The Doctor is never above killing when the monsters in question are unrepentant predators. Grab a sledgehammer and go to town.)

By coincidence I also happened to catch up with the second series of Sherlock on Netflix the other week. Sherlock is also produced and primarily written by current Who show-runner Steven Moffat. And, perhaps not coincidentally, it shares many of the same problems as Who. The primary actors for Sherlock are incredibly talented and possess a natural rapport. The show is shot well (if a tad bit overblown) with excellent effects. The problem I noticed as I watched series 2 was that the stories were, how do I say this nicely? terrible. Series 1 was excellent, but the plots in Series 2 started off ropey and proceeded downwards to dire. "The Hounds of Baskerville" was not terrible, but both "A Scandal in Belgravia" and "The Reichenbach Fall" were awful. Perhaps the movie-length format just doesn't flatter Moffat's writing, but all three of these stories seemed patchy, episodic, veered from scene to scene with a distinct lack of focus, oftentimes almost insultingly arbitrary. A number of times during the second season I could be heard to ask, "do you know what's even happening anymore?" after the the story continued to plow on in six directions at once, blithely indifferent to whether or not any of these six directions made a lick of sense. The 90-minute format means stories that simply, for lack of a better phrase, refuse to die.

And yet, I still found myself somewhat entertained, if only by the quality of the performances. The stories themselves - cruel distortions of Doyle's tightly-plotted tales - simply refused to make sense when seen from a distance. Usually somewhere around the 50-60 minute mark the episodes devolve into people running around town in cabs doing things that aren't well explained for reasons only Sherlock knows, and which will still remain somewhat foggy by the end of the episode.

And yet people love it. Just completely eat it up. Just like with NuWho - despite the fact that the writing is less credible than your average episode of NCIS. Don't take my word for it, I'm hardly the only one saying these things - Dorian and Andrew beat me to it. The writing is just terrible. It's sapping the juice out of what could otherwise be one of the all-time great sci-fi television runs. In some ways it's a blessing that the show remains so popular - as I said Doctor Who is designed to run for decades, and a bleak patch can always be covered over when a new showrunner takes over and changes the status quo. The show's success means it gets the luxury of weathering its rough patches. Part of being a "fan" means taking the bad with the good - you like the show, you like the show's world for better or for worse, and you learn to take enjoyment out of it when it's bad almost as much as when it's good. If you don't like Who now, come back next week and you might find it more to your liking. If you don't think the writing is very strong, watch for the actors. I just wish we didn't have to make that choice.


Dave Clarke said...

Perhaps Im thick but I liked the 'Time of Angels' two parter (though now the more I think about it the more that feeling is fading).
But even I can't stand NuWho.
They the entirety of season 5 laying out clues with the crack in the wall and then they get to the finale, but a whole bunch of nonsense (even if I did think it was sort of funny) out of their ass, and then don't even tie off all the mysteries. That's where my spirit was broken.
I told myself "maybe there'll be more episodes like 'Vincent & the Doctor' or 'The Lodger' (im probably thick for liking them too, but whatever) in the next season" and then it immediately opens up with an episode of the Doctor getting killed, for REALZ this time you guys!
God damn it.
"Maybe if I just jump ahead to the next Moffat episode...."
And then it turns out that River is Amy's daughter and the father is the time energy in the TARDIS, and River is actually and enemy now, and oh jesus christ!

They were doing ok entertaining thick people like me then they had to crawl up their own ass and try to tell a mega-epic.
But like you said, he can basically do anything, so whats the point?

Maybe it'll only a matter of time before I stop liking Sherlock.... :\

In any event, a very lovely written piece Mr. O'Neil that has made me actually aware that Im dumber than I thought.
Keep up the good work :)

PotomacRipper said...

1) Whew. I thought I was the only one who felt that way about Sherlock Season 2. I wasn't able to stay awake through a single episode
2) Can you pinpoint the time when Who writing was actually "good"? I've got alot of nostalgia for the old eps too, but they don't exactly captivate anyone I've shown them to.

Matt Young said...

Thanks for the great article. I liked "Blink" and I also enjoyed the Angels second appearance two-parter just because it seemed that Steven Moffat had been dared to use them again and did a good job of it (the performances are also especially awesome on all counts: still-green Matt Smith, excellent Karen Gillen, a very fine River Song before she started referring to herself as psychotic) even with the cheat of "they're too weak to send people back in time so they're just killing." But this third one was just a slam-bang mixture of stuff that didn't work, made no sense, and (as you pointed out) the resolution counteracted the build-up of every other episode.

It's funny that you question if the movie-length format doesn't work, since every episode of series 7 so far has made me pray upon a time lord that there will be director's cut re-releases of each episodes with clearly-missing plot point re-added to the episodes.

The ideas of stand-alone mini-epics for series 7 sounded great coming off the hangover of series 6's unfortunate "take everything about series 5 and crank it to 11" approach (heh, "11") which resulted in twice the noise and half the answers (was Amy's flesh avatar supposed to be sabotaging the TARDIS at the end of series 5?), except it wasn't great. "The Power of Three" (or as it should've been called "Cubed") was the best example - twenty or thirty minutes of great weird buildup that suddenly realizes it has to get to a conclusion. So instead of a really incredible two-parter or something, we get a slam-bang rush of quick "Here's a baddie we've never heard of but looks awesome we should really look at him again-no time-lets run-episode's over-and by the way don't ask what was up with the cube-mouth dudes who serve no purpose and aren't you glad cardiac events aren't serious to humans?"

There's a quote I remember from Moffat at the end of series 4 when he said he'd like to see, say, 10% more time-travel in Doctor Who. I hope that Moffat comes back; we were all so excited for that show-runner who was going to take the melodramatic deus-ex-machina excesses of Davies' era and smarten up the plotting with his cleverness. Instead, "timey-wimey" is becoming a pejorative. *sigh*

Keep up the great work!

moose n squirrel said...

Doctor Who hasn't really had a coherent take on time travel since at least "Genesis of the Daleks" - or maybe even "The Time Meddler." But as you say, the way the old series got away with it was by not actually being about time travel at all - the time machine was just the narrative device that transported the protagonist from one setting/genre to another, and dwelling on it for too long has never yielded positive results for this show (as much misplaced affection as I have for "Mawdryn Undead"). To try to build season-long arcs around time paradoxes - much less ones that manage to be both coherent and narratively satisfying, while making room for the kind of genre-hopping and mild storytelling experimentation that have been the lifeblood of the series in the past - would require a deftness and intricacy in plotting that no one associated with this series has ever managed to display in the past. As it is, Moffat's sloppy reliance on timey-wimey paradox plots has lead to even sloppier plot resolutions - hand-waving away dangling plot threads with phrases like "fixed points in time" that, seven years into New Who's run, still don't *mean* anything - and leaving even more simply dangling in the breeze (what made the Tardis blow up back in season 5, anyway? Am I even supposed to remember that at this point?)

When Moffat was coming on as showrunner, I think we all assumed the show was going to get a little smarter and a little less gimmicky - instead, he's simply swapped out some of Davies gimmicks for his own (while carrying forward some of Davies's worst excesses - the Poochification of the Doctor, the fan service, villains so one-note and over-the-top they become boring, etc.). I wish I had your optimism that the show might fix itself with a new showrunner, but I think a couple things indicate that Moffat's successor, however less time-travel obsessed s/he might be, would still carry on the show's fundamental flaws: first, the new show isn't nearly as pliable as the old series was, and in fairness I don't think any modern show could be - the original Who was made at a time before the internet, before massive, rapid fan response was possible in the way it is now, and was made in an era of relatively self-contained, episodic television - it was easier to "relaunch" the show between Troughton and Pertwee, or smack in the middle of the Baker run, because the notion of a television series created as a single cohesive narrative was fairly foreign at the time. Second, however dreadful their product has been, Davies and Moffat have been successful, and whoever comes after them will likely imitate them (just as Moffat has imitated Davies). Short of the show crashing in the ratings, I don't see a major turnaround coming.

Daniel Coyle said...

IOKIYRS, though.

Ike1 said...

Very well-written essay, though I don't fully agree that the most recent batch of episodes is a nadir of writing. I'd say most episodes had serious plotting problems, but they were still better than almost anything from Davies' final season simply because the overall tone was more even-handed (if too manic) and not so operatically over-the-top. That's not a high bar to clear, though.

As for your (thoughtful and well-elucidated) opinion being a "widely-accepted fact," I can't find much to back that up. At the GEOS survey site, season 7 so far has an average quality rating of 8.492 out of 10 from its users. S6 got an 8.331, S5 was 8.298, and bafflingly, the crushingly awful, ultra-hammy S4 averaged at 8.305. So, on par.

The Family of Blood has probably not come back because Paul Cornell doesn't seem to be writing for the show anymore. He's working for DC Comics now. Too bad. He wrote some truly outstanding Doctor Who books in the 90s, and in fact, "Human Nature"/"Family of Blood" is adapted from one of them. The show needs more Cornell and maybe also a bit of Kate Orman, that is, were she to know how to write screenplays.

timoneil5000 said...

"widely-accepted fact" meaning those other Dr. Who fans whose writing I regularly read. Who else matters?

Andrew Hickey said...

Re: 2 -- Any time the programme was written (or extensively rewritten) by David Whitaker, Denis Spooner, Robert Holmes, Douglas Adams or Philip Martin (and a couple of others). Or in book or audio form, when it's been written by Lawrence Miles, Jacqueline Rayner, Lance Parkin, Rob Shearman or Nev Fountain, among others.