Doctor Who’s Storytelling Fail
Wait! Before you groan that I’m ranting about TV rather than talking about writing… this post is ultimately about storytelling, so stick with me!
TV takes a distant second to books, for me—but I’m a complete Whovian. Or at least, I was. Well, no, I am—it’s complicated. I’m the sort of person who would wear these with a straight face.
… but, I have to say, I’m completely unmoved by the impending death of the eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith.
Why? Well, it took me a while to sort it out. I’m not a fan of post-Tennant Who. At first I thought it was because I didn’t care for Smith (though I eventually warmed to him). The problem is a bit more serious than that, because while the actors who play the Doctor will come and go, the show runners generally stick around a bit longer.
That’s right. I don’t care for Moffat. Or rather, I don’t care for his storytelling—I’m sure he’s a lovely fellow himself. My issue with the last few seasons of Doctor Who can all be traced back to weak storytelling. This really surprised me, because some of my favorite episodes of the series have been written by him. His brilliantly clever brain gave me The Girl in the Fireplace, Blink (which is probably the best episode of television I have ever seen, ever), and Silence in the Library.
But once he was handed the reins to the show in total, it all went off the rails (for me). Why? Ultimately I think it boils down to the fact that Moffat tends to rely on some storytelling devices that have damaged my trust in him. Here they are, in impressive bullet-list form:
- The Reboot
I feel very much as though Moffat didn’t so much take over the current run of Who as he did reboot it. His first actions were to change pretty much everything, from the Tardis to the Daleks to the color of the sonic screwdriver. Not to mention the tone. Well, Who is about change. It’s an essential part of the show. I get that, and can roll with it. However, it almost seems as though the first four seasons never actually happened. The Doctor seems completely unaffected by that past, almost never refers to it in any way, and the lovely arcs Eccleston and Tennant went through are suddenly gone. Those experiences are undone, those lessons unlearned, and those loved ones forgotten.It almost seems as though Moffat would like to pretend that Season Five was actually Season One.
- The Reset Button
Moffat enjoys presenting us with these really, really big, significant events… and then undoing it all. Time is rewritten, and all is as it was before—none of it actually happened. You do this once, sure, okay—that can be kind of cool. By the second and third go at it, I’m no longer amused. What you’re doing is removing the impact of those significant events. If I’m not convinced that what happens in the story has any lasting consequence, I have no reason to care. If what the characters do may or may not (probably not) have any permanent effect, where is the tension?
- The Cat At The Door
This is a gimmick I really despise. Novel writers are occasionally guilty of this as well. They’ll present us with a tense situation or shocking event, only to reveal that it was nothing after all. It’s a trick, and while it might work once or twice, eventually I get tired of being tricked.
These following are not so much devices as they are storytelling flaws, but they also serve to damage my trust in Moffat as a storyteller:
- Internal Inconsistency
When we go into a story, particularly a speculative one like Who, we have to learn the rules of this new universe. They don’t need to be realistic, or believable in the context of our universe, but they need to be consistent in order for me to suspend my disbelief. This is how I’m able to read fantasy and get on board with elves and dragons and magic.I trust the storyteller not to lie to me when establishing the rules—if he shows me that the universe works one way, only to contradict himself later on (generally to tell a story that would not occur or would make no sense under the previous rules—ie, lazy storytelling), he has broken that trust, and I have less reason to believe anything else he has told me. My suspension of disbelief is broken.When I can see your plot holes, it’s hard for me to swallow the story.
- Static Characters
For me, the most important part about the show is the characters. The concept is compelling, but it’s the characters that bring me back. I’m very interested in watching their arcs, seeing how they respond to their experiences and change because of them. The eleventh Doctor, to me, feels very flat compared to his predecessors, as did Amelia. River was pure Moffat—brilliant in concept, static in execution. I lost interest before I could get to know Clara. My favorite character was actually Rory. He had some depth and conflict, and underwent a great deal of change. His kickass moments were even more so because of how far he had come since the beginning.
- Lack of Subtlety
Moffat repeatedly overplays his hand. In the same way a joke is no longer funny when it must be explained, a story loses its depth when its themes must be laid out plainly in bright letters, lest you miss it. There is no emotional authenticity when a poignant scene is surrounded by flashing lights, a sign that says “Poignant Stuff Happening” and a cue card for the audience to cry.I doubt Moffat feels the need for any subtlety, because he believes the show is ultimately for children. And children need everything to be explained to them in painful detail. Except they don’t, really. When a kid doesn’t grasp the whole of an underlying subtextual theme in Doctor Who, they don’t come away saying “That would have been fantastic if there had been more theme.” Kids enjoy the aliens and the space and the wonder, and gradually pick up on those things that are present but left unsaid—though not quite as gradually as I think we tend to believe.
Moffat is, at his core, an idea guy. His strength lies in his ability to come up with new and fascinating ideas (and they truly are). However, he has sacrificed the integrity of the story, and of my viewer relationship with him, in favor of those ideas.
I no longer invest in the characters, because they don’t grow and change and progress the way I know real people do. I no longer trust anything I’m told or shown, because I know it will most likely be explained away as a trick, or simply erased at some time in the future. I no longer feel any tension, because I know that the events are unlikely to have significant consequences.
A story doesn’t need to be simple to be entertaining, even to children. Nor does it need to be ‘adult’ to be entertaining for grown ups. The kids will enjoy the spectacle of the show. Meanwhile, those of us who have been working at understanding this human subtext thing for a bit longer can enjoy the richness of a story that contains (but doesn’t shout) themes like redemption; our ultimate helplessness in the face of time’s relentless march; how happiness is fleeting and precious for the having of it, if not the keeping; the unavoidable way our pasts shape our futures; and the way humanity—in both the dark and beautiful senses of the word—is ultimately a choice.
I’d like that Who back, please. But I’m not holding my breath.