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.

~ RM

3 thoughts on “Doctor Who’s Storytelling Fail

  1. I have to admit, I haven’t watched much Dr. Who since Colin Baker (my favourite Doctor, yes I’m *that* old :D), although I did see a couple of David Tennant episodes while visiting back home a while back and thought he made an interesting Doctor. Might have to look for his seasons.

    Totally agree with your points on storytelling. When the writer lets you down like that, it’s difficult to trust them again.

  2. You’ve certainly captured my time and attention with this post, Rebekah. I spent a good few hours trying to respond intelligently to this last night and here I am back again having another go at it.

    I have been a fan of Doctor Who for 35 years. My first Doctor was Jon Pertwee in The Green Death. I had a serious emotional falling out with Doctor Who when Peter Davison took the role from Tom Baker. I remained devoted to the show though – mostly for purely speculative reasons – and became suitably excited when the Doctor and the Master returned to the tv movie screen in the bodies of Paul McGann and Eric Roberts respectively. It wasn’t until Christopher Eccleston raced onto the screen shouting “Nice to meet you Rose. Run for your life” with the promise of a brand new lifetime of adventures in front of him that the Doctor stole my only heart back.

    I’ve admittedly been disappointed by some of the conflict resolutions, but I honestly can’t recall the details now. I’m just hanging out ’til 23rd November for the next episode and hoping:

    a) the story goes some way toward explaining why Clara, given that she’s been in the Doctor’s time stream from the beginning, doesn’t turn out to be the next Doctor.

    b) that the ABC doesn’t tack up to 6 months on top of the BBC screening date by virtue of our not-being-British by time zone.

    Regarding your points about Steven Moffat’s writing devices, I would say that I’d love to see each of your points fleshed out with episodic and scenic examples with reasons for why the devices in each case were inappropriate i.e.,

    1. The Reboot – Can it be shown to an outsider that Matt Smith refers to the past significantly less-so than each of his predecessors did to their respective past(s)? If it can be shown that he does refer less to his predecessors, can it be shown that he refers more to the future instead? Why do the doors on the Tardis tend to open outward when it’s on its side (or being photographed with its doors blasting open for a promo shot with its regular occupants in front of it), and inward when it’s upright? There used to be 2 sets of doors: one set on the inside. How do they push or pull open either way without anyone noticing that the real door is a sliding door, and the blue police box is a silver-grey cylinder? If a machine can appear to do weird things like that, what’s wrong with it having a console that spits out a replacement sonic screwdriver in a different colour from the last one?

    2.The Lack of Change – as it relates to the character growth in a storyline in which Moffat has been credited with changing “pretty much everything, from the Tardis to the Daleks to the color of the sonic screwdriver.” My main gripe is that the Doctor’s female companions are falling in love with him way too fast. Then again, I suspect that’s why Rory and Mickey grew into such kickass characters – something about the competition. I didn’t take too well to Sarah Jane Smith being rewritten as yet another love interest, but maybe I wasn’t old enough to recognise the original hints of love between her and Pertwee and Baker.

    3.The Reset Button – used in a way that the past was allowed to not happen without having lasting consequences. Episodic and/or scenic examples please?

    4. The Cat At The Door – I must be about to sound like a broken record begging to be let in. Episodic and/or scenic examples please?

    5. Internal Inconsistency – The rules of ‘our’ universe are inconsistent. The story of my life is full of plot holes, and sometimes it is hard to swallow; not so far removed from any speculative one.

    6. Lack of subtlety – Well… that’s it from me.

    1. Brad, thank you for your thoughtful reply! I’ll try to respond in kind.

      First, there’s nothing so wacky and impossible that you can’t “sell” it to me in the context of a story. After all, we ARE talking about Doctor Who, a 900+ year old alien time-traveling in a police box that’s bigger on the inside than on the outside. It’s not so much a matter of whether or not it’s possible/realistic, as it is a matter of whether the writer can incorporate it into a story in a way that can make me believe it. This is the difference between verisimilitude and realism.

      Doctor Who cannot have realism, but it CAN have verisimilitude.

      1. Of COURSE the Tardis can completely redecorate itself and spit out a new, different-colored sonic screwdriver. Had this happened during Tennant’s run as the Tenth doctor during Davies’ tenure, I would have thought “Huh. Ok. Cool.”

      The fact that it happened just as the Tenth Doctor became the Eleventh (with the accompanying change of actor), just before the Daleks were re-imagined, and along with my meta-knowledge of the Davies/Moffat handoff… the events took on more meaning than their purely in-story context. However, Who is about change, so I’m okay with that. It was only the continuing and somewhat glaring (to me) omission of seasons 1-4 that made me feel as though the creator was attempting to undo that part of history.

      Eleven refers to his distant past fairly often, but rarely to his immediate past, which is freshest in my mind as a viewer. This could be explained in any number of ways–it’s too painful; he’s a more optimistic, forward-looking Doctor than a sentimental one (except that he DOES refer to Retro Who fairly often, just not his past two incarnations, so perhaps this one is out); plenty of other things might do, and serve to characterise the Doctor further, but no explanation is given either explicitly or implicitly. As I must remind myself often while rewriting my novel, if it isn’t in the text, it doesn’t exist.

      2. Lack of Change – This is purely as it relates to character change, which I think is essential.

      3. The Reset Button – “The Big Bang”, the finale of Season Five, undoes everything that occurs in that season. EVERYTHING. Amy, Rory, and the Doctor fortunately are left with at least the memory of those occurrences, which gives them an advantage over many of the Star Trek characters that are repeatedly faced with The Reset device. This isn’t the only time Moffat uses it, but it’s the most egregious example.

      4. The Cat At The Door – Season Six uses this quite a bit, especially in the storyline involving the Silence. Moffat is especially fond of having characters shot, only to reveal that the shot missed or was a trick to fake a death (Ep. 2), or the weapon used looked and sounded like a gun but was actually a stun-weapon (Can’t find the episode right now, but at one point Amy shoots the Doctor point-blank in the head while wearing one of those eye patches, and it turns out that it was a stun weapon). Again, not the only occurrences, as it is one of Moffat’s most treasured devices, but those are the examples that spring most readily to mind.

      5. Internal Inconsistency – The Tenth Doctor often ran into things that didn’t make sense, according to his understanding of the universe. Fairly often, he would say “This shouldn’t be possible”. That, I can buy. We’re often discovering things (personally, and as a species) that expand our understanding of reality, so that rings true to me. Moffat’s larger inconsistencies are never explained as the Doctor learning new things, however. They’re generally swept under the rug so we can pretend there never was an inconsistency in the first place (Moffat especially doesn’t seem to like the Doctor to appear weak or ignorant or wrong). The biggest example, for me, was the way the Weeping Angels behaved in their first appearance in “Blink”, versus their later appearances. In “Blink”, the angels kept their eyes covered to avoid accidentally seeing each other and being perpetually frozen. Sally Sparrow actually survives because of this when the Tardis disappears, leaving her and her friend in the center of a circle of angels, who see each other and are immobilized. The later angels seemed not to suffer from this limitation. To me this smacks of, rather than new and unfolding discoveries, a writer making things up as they go along without accounting for the story that’s come before. It’s lazy storytelling. I don’t go for it in books, and I don’t go for it in television or movies.

      I want to state here that I still do very much love Doctor Who overall. Even Moffat’s Who is head and shoulders above most television on the air today. Had I not been so supremely satisfied with Davies’ seasons–had I not come to modern Who until Moffat–I doubt I’d have these feelings of dissatisfaction. However, I’m not much of a television person to begin with, and it takes something truly exceptional to lure me away from books.

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