For Whom the (Cloister) Bell Tolls, or Why We Hope Steven Moffat’s DOCTOR WHO Is an Island

For people who were so enjoying Doctor Who, we’ve been pretty silent on all things Whovian around here lately. The Steven Moffat era of Who returns to Auntie Beeb and BBC America tonight, and…well, we’re not sure we’re returning along with it. We just aren’t loving The Amazing Cold-Hearted and Illogical Adventures of the Eleventh Doctor and His Companion, The Skirt. And not loving something we were so enamored with makes watching the new stuff all the more difficult.

So what’s the problem? There are certainly things to applaud in Moffat’s Who. While we’re not sure it always works, the decision to explicitly stretch story arcs across the entire season is both ambitious and a wink back at Old School Who. Trusting established “outsiders” like Richard Curtis and Neil Gaiman has resulted in stand-out episodes. The child characters Moffat creates tend to be very successful, perhaps revealing how much he adores his own kids and how much his version of Doctor Who is directed toward kids. There’s been some brilliant set-up (those Silence-sighting hash marks are creeeeeepy).

And if some of that set-up hasn’t paid off, well, how different is that from the Russell T Davies-era Who we so loved? It’s not like we didn’t forgive RTD for sins against storytelling similar to what Moffat is committing. For every example of Moffat ruining something wonderful he’d done before, like taking the Weeping Angels out of the Wester Drumlins basement, you can find an example of Davies doing the same thing. I still refuse to acknowledge that ridiculous “Doctor 10.5 riding off into the sunset with alternate universe Rose disaster that undid the beautiful ‘Doomsday’” thing ever happened. While Moffat sometimes seems to fall in love with an idea and pursues it down a bad, bad road regardless of what it does to the story (no one tell the Doctor someone will kill him in the future, or he’d have to take sensible action!), Davies did that, too (Yoda Doctor of “Last of the Time Lords” is nigh unforgivable.)

But it turns out that nigh unforgivable isn’t the same thing as unforgivable. While our purpose here isn’t to pit Davies against Moffat—they both have strengths and weaknesses—their consecutive eras make for a sad comparison: why were we so willing not just to forgive but to embrace Davies’ sometimes lumpy Who, but we’re about to change the channel on Moffat’s?

  1. Puzzle Problems

It’s not like previous eras of Who locked down excellent science fiction logic. Why, for example, does Meglos need a human to fabricate a Doctor disguise…you know what, don’t even bother trying to answer that. Davies, in particular, made up egregious Point B nonsense to wrest the story from Point A to Point C (“It’s a magic diamond! That the Time Lords threw from inside the Time War! Wheeee!”). Moffat’s stories, however, tend not to bother with things like connective tissue at all. Instead, he merrily hops from Point A to Point C without worrying about whether that shreds the story beyond recognition. How does Rory go from being dead to having his consciousness in a plastic body that’s supposed to behave like a Roman? “Don’t know—he feels himself dying and then feels fuzzy and then feels Roman.” But…how? “Don’t know—doesn’t matter. Got to blow something up now.” But that doesn’t make any sense. “Eh. Call it a miracle.” Moffat doesn’t try to connect Thing A to Thing C at all—he just declares it to be so.

Perhaps the worst offense is the use of the TARDIS as a magic wand. There’s a reason stories about time travel employ rules preventing the characters from going back in time and removing the dramatic catalyst: without the dramatic catalyst, there’s no drama. Moffat’s blatant disregard for general sci-fi tropes about time travel and paradoxes—let alone rules actually established over decades of Whovian lore–remove any sense of tension or consequences from the story. Need a way out of trouble? The Doctor will pop in in a bubble of time and provide the solution. You know what that is? The last 20 minutes of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, where they think to go back and provide themselves with conveniently placed garbage cans and key chains.

But what bothers me most, and this has its roots in the puzzles themselves being a failure, is that the reason puzzles work in stories is because the way they slam together in the end provides emotional catharsis (which, as you’ll see, will lead to our #1 complaint about Moffat’s Who). Sometimes that catharsis is joy, sometimes it’s relief, sometimes it’s a chill down the spine, but it’s emotion. Moffat’s puzzles aren’t providing that emotion, at least in part because their construction is shoddy.

The thing that’s so frustrating is that Moffat has shown he can make the puzzles work to provide emotion. I know I’m in the minority, but I love, love, love “The Girl in the Fireplace,” and it’s got nothing to do with Reinette. I love it because the reveal of the puzzle at the end—the audience learning something that the Doctor will always be haunted by but will never know—makes me cry every time I see it. The puzzle resolution itself has an emotional power that seeing a coffin being carried away doesn’t. Sally Sparrow’s delight and relief at figuring out that she’s the Doctor’s key is actually a big fat cheat, but it’s not as much of a cheat as what Moffat’s trying these days, and it’s an emotional catharsis that completes the entire episode. To paraphrase the great CJ Cregg, “The puzzles are bad. If the puzzles were unknown, I could help you, but they aren’t. They’re just bad.”

  1. Gender Issues

I’ve been trying to be patient with Moffat’s gender problems, but I finally reached my boiling point around the time they started making a game of Amy’s reproductive system. Kay Reindl’s tough but accurate piece on this development outlines very nicely why using Amy’s uterus as a plot point is misogynistic rather than cute, and Moffat’s problems with women hardly begin and end there.

Who are the women in Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who? Alien queens, nurses, soldiers. The problem is the pattern that emerges when looking at them all together: virgin/love interest, wife, mother. The whores or the wombs, the pretty or the evil. Over and over and over. It’s fine that Nancy’s a mother, both to the empty child and to her little band of WWII misfits. After all, the manager of the Flesh plant is a woman. It’s not a big deal that Reinette is, to be delicate, a courtesan—after all, the cool Sirulian Sherlock Holmes and her sidekick are women. But line them up. All four of Moffat’s Davies-era female characters fall straight into the major feminine archetypes: mother, whore, virgin (as far as Larry’s interests are concerned), wife. Now Amy’s a supplicant and a womb. Yay. Is Liz 10 a virgin queen? The “Vampires of Venice” baddie is just trying to protect her offspring—mommy. There are women in “Victory of the Daleks” and “The Lodger,” but they exist to be in love. And so on and so on, ad infinitum. Which is a long damn time when there’s a TARDIS involved.

What of Moffat’s most prominent women, Amy and River? The Amy we know has mostly been rendered non-existent—literally, what we thought was her was not, more than once—and the real Amy gets to be wife and womb. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a woman being married or having kids—in fact, those things are great. But when Moffat got a chance to create a Doctor Who companion, he made one who is nothing but those roles instead an actual human woman with thoughts and feelings of her own that include but are not limited to her family connections and responsibilities. Luckily, Amy’s been available to wear short skirts.

And River? At least she’s fun. But she’s fun because she’s just Captain Jack all over again, minus the Y chromosome. River is Moffat’s replacement Mary Sue, which is why she’s kind of awesome, yet oddly lacking any real depth.

It’s not terribly hard to see the gender issues playing out in Moffat’s overall handling of female characters, but he has trouble with his male characters, too. Looking over his body of work, he seems only to write immature men. And his immature men can be lots of fun when that’s what the story’s supposed to be about: Sherlock and Watson (whom we are loving—there’s the Who we wish Moffat had made), or Captain Jack, or Jeff and Steve and Patrick. But when he forces the Doctor into that box we get a Time Lord who becomes something heartless and twisted, with the brutally self-centered attention deficit of a child. Matt Smith is trying hard, but he’s being asked to play a Doctor who’s coming up on a thousand years old but who could show up on an American sitcom with a wife who is way out of his league. Part of the fun of the Doctor is that he sometimes bursts his seams and shows us an intelligence and perspective beyond human experience. Moffat’s immature Doctor is an all-too familiar brand of fake humanity.

  1. Moral Dilemmas

Again, we don’t mean to pit Davies against Moffat, or to imply that Davies-era Who has no flaws. But in thinking about what we’re missing from Who these days, we fell into discussing “The Waters of Mars,” a story we’ve not yet reviewed at TV Bacon. While we’re split on the end—Susannah doesn’t enjoy watching the dark turn it takes, while I dance around in a little circle singing, “Valeyard! Valeyard!”—we are both staggered by the difference between that episode and Moffat’s stuff. The Doctor’s dilemma in that episode, as in so many of the best of Davies’ episodes, was a moral one. It wasn’t a problem that could be solved by being clever or using the sonic or the TARDIS to fix everything. There was no winning scenario—the Doctor had to choose the best of two bad outcomes and it hurt to watch him do it. It made us hurt for him, which made us love him all the more. The Doctor knows what fixed points in time are, so can he refuse to save Pompeii? Should he have prevented the Dalek race from ever being born? Was it wrong to destroy the Racnoss, or was it just wrong to take steely pleasure in it? Was it wrong to depose Harriet Jones? There’s a moral question like that underpinning all the best of Who.

There’s very little of this exploration in Moffat’s Who, which creates an Eleven who is that arrogant, dangerous Time Lord Victorious from the end of “Waters of Mars.” He doesn’t have moral dilemmas, he’s not bothered about the consequences of his actions, he doesn’t even pause long enough to worry about the people who might get trampled under his feet or feel bad when innocent bystanders end up as collateral damage. Consider the particularly nauseating example of the solution to the Silence infestation of Earth in “Day of the Moon”: humans being hypnotoaded into being weapons of niche destruction. Perhaps it’s a testament to the vividness of his storytelling, but think about what Moffat has created here: in that world, thanks to the Doctor, every time you or I turn around we might feel a compulsion to splatter open a skull. There’s very little to love about a character with so much power who wields it so carelessly.

Part of what’s so maddening is that Moffat often has the opportunity to explore the moral dilemmas right in front of him and refuses to do anything with it. “The Beast Below” was more interested in playing with pointless clown police than in grappling with the moral issues the story set up. Matthew Graham’s Flesh two-parter had all kinds of moral shades available to play with, but right after showing that Flesh and Human should get along the Doctor dispatches Flesh!Amy for a shock reveal. “The Waters of Mars” slaps the Doctor with consequences almost immediately after his bad choices. If there’s a consequence to the Eleventh Doctor’s behavior, Moffat’s hiding it inside a strangely constructed Rubik’s Cube, and we’re no longer convinced he isn’t more interested in playing with the puzzle than finding what’s inside.

  1. Emotional Connections

While we (obviously) have some issues with the details of Moffat’s sci-fi, our biggest complaint is that we feel nothing. We were willing to critique but ultimately overlook hot plot messes in RTD’s work when we got big emotional payoffs, and the same is true for Moffat—as much as crossing the timelines drives us batty, we’d likely get over it if a huge emotional payoff was attached.

There’s no love anymore. No heart. No joy. No sincere affection or emotion of any kind, far too much of the time. (We suspect this is why Rory is so popular, and our favorite Moffat-era character: he’s the only one who consistently displays any genuine feelings for anything or anyone. Everyone else is too busy being glib and clever and showing off.)

And yes, the Doctor has always been glib and clever with a predilection for showing off. But he’s also been a man with two hearts overflowing with affection for the people who cross his path (until/unless they prove themselves unworthy of that affection, and then they better watch out). He used to look at the whole of the universe with a childlike joy and sense of wonder. Now we’re too busy twisting into pretzels to experience wonder or attachment or loss.

Consider our favorite episodes of Moffat’s reign—both “Vincent and the Doctor” (Richard Curtis’ work) and “The Doctor’s Wife” (hello, Mr. Gaiman) tie the Doctor to love. One person he loves is a new friend; one is his oldest friend of all. Both tether him to something outside of himself, stretching the Doctor so that he’s bigger on the inside. The Master once mocked the Doctor’s choice of moniker: “the man who makes people better.” But watching Vincent have a moment away from the ache of his mental illness to hear a museum curator discuss his work as timeless is so moving that it makes the Doctor’s rule-breaking worth overlooking. Seeing the one being who always makes the Doctor better finally get to say hello to him is nearly 50 years’ worth of emotional payoff. Compare that to the revelation of River’s identity, which should be a huge moment and instead feels like a magician shouting “ta da!” and pulling nothing out of his hat.

One of our greatest frustrations is that Moffat has shown in previous work that he can bring the emotion. The Doctor’s pure joy in “The Doctor Dances” is a sure tearjerker. Donna asking if “I’m all right” is Time Lord for “really, really not all right” in “Forest of the Dead” is one of the most piercing moments of Season 4 of New!Who. So why doesn’t he want to make us cry now?

We wonder if weak characterization is part of the emotion problem, not just with the main characters but compared to RTD’s ability to draw colorful, memorable one-off characters we immediately cared about. It’s a good part of why Gaiman was successful—every new person on screen was interesting and, to some extent, deeply sad. Fake and imaginary Amys make it impossible to create deep characterization, and the Doctor doesn’t seem interested in anyone else. That leaves a lot of emotional weight for Rory to carry, with very little help from either side characters or plot to get there. If the theft of a baby can’t make us cry, we’re having a hard time connecting with your world.

While we’d stand by the argument that some parts of Moffat’s Who are simply not well-executed, it’s also true that there’s nothing inherently wrong with flattening out the moral aspects of the show or going for sprung traps over emotion. We suspect that Moffat thinks he’s making a return to Old School Who, and maybe he is. I do think he takes his kids into account when writing this stuff. And the Davies era really was a major update to modern television expectations in terms of infusing emotion into the show. So yay for Moffat if a retrofit is what he wants. We’re just not enjoying watching it with him.

No, *This* Is TOP GEAR Saying, “Konichiwa!”

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I can’t believe we used that header already, given tonight’s season-ending episode of Top Gear. I’m sure it will be very amusing to see the boys battle three German counterparts, but let’s face it–there’s one reason I’m tuning in tonight: Captain Slow chauffeuring sumo wrestlers in tiny cars. Ah–there’s the Top Gear I know and love. Dear BBC America: please show Season Twelve soon! Tonight at 8pm Eastern.

Splattered Cops the Way They Were Meant to Be Played: Marathon of BBC’s LIFE ON MARS Sunday

I confess to feeling grim–grim–as the premiere for ABC’s Life on Mars approaches this week. The new version rips off the basic premise of the BBC’s original–modern police detective is hit by car; wakes up in the 1970s unsure if he’s trapped in his own injured brain or in the genuine past. In addition to main character Sam Tyler’s dizzying predicament, this set-up allowed for an examination of a world without political correctness or ethics committees. The BBC version was so perfectly cast, so perfectly realized, and so perfectly short (shuffling off the screen before it could wear out its welcome) that it’s hard to imagine ABC won’t screw it up.

Someone at BBC America either feels the same way or is feeling cheeky, because the expat channel is showing a mini-marathon of their version on Sunday, October 5, in anticipation of ABC’s attempt. Episodes selected from both short seasons include Sam (John Simm, terrific as a man caught between longing for home and coming to consider the 70s his home) finding himself in 1973; Sam finding out supervisor Gene Hunt (Philip Glenister, who steals the entire show as a corrupt cop who might be persuaded to go clean–if you can convince him it’s his idea) and the rest of the precinct are on the take; Sam facing the real reason his father left the family; Gene accused of murder after a bender; and Sam and Gene as swingers. Yeah, baby. Catch it in its original mindbending, eerie, and often moving glory before it gets screwed up later this week. Starting at 1pm Eastern on BBC America.