The structure of Doctor Who – not fit for purpose, perhaps?

The backlash against Moffat is hotting up and threatening to turn into all-out fanwar with abuse being hurled on both sides. It reminds me very much of the beginning of Series 3, where you couldn’t say a word against Martha without being accused of being a racist romantic who couldn’t deal with the loss of Rose, and vice versa. Neither side was blameless. In such situations, ’twas ever thus.

I have my issues with Moffat I had issues with RTD, though on balance I preferred his take on most things. What I think this all exposes is that if there is a problem with DW these days, it’s systemic. Being showrunner is an almost impossible task. Add in commitment to another TV series and the workload multiplies further – quality is bound to suffer. With SM it’s Sherlock, wirth RTD it was other Who shows.

And when you are under pressure, in my experience at least, the first thing that goes is your ability to do your best writing. Writing takes peace, space, time and lack of urgent interruptions. If you’re a professional you’ll deal with such things and still make your deadlines, but the quality will suffer. I do think there are signs of that manifesting themselves in DW now – repetition and ideas that would work better if they’d been set up with more care and attention to detail. The bottom line is that the show has to make money and get audience share, or it’ll be cancelled. In the end, that’s got to be a bigger priority than pleasing diehard fans who examine every tiny detail. I think we sometimes forget that an awful lot of people will lose their jobs if Moffat drops the ball on that one.

In the end, you do what can’t wait and you skimp and rush what can. That applies equally to both showrunners. Also, you lose perspective. Therein lies the problem, IMHO. It really would work better if the showrunner did exactly that – ran the show rather than writing it. That’s hard to accept because both RTD and SM are extremely good writers. But any writer can use the feedback of working with a team who critique his/her work, and tone down the more unfortunate obsessions that writers are prone to. People who can point out how a certain line or character is going to come over in an important overseas market, or whether anyone will have a clue what is going on if you persist in your oh-so-convoluted series arc.

I know collaborative writing tends to be the way that shows are make in the US, which doesn’t necessarily rule out the role of auteur (after all, they have people like Joss Whedon). It won’t happen but I’d love to see someone give it a try on DW. It seems to me that the show is really suffering from being dominated by a single person’s vision. When that person was RTD it was easy to blame it all on him, but now we are seeing that it’s a more systemic problem.

Also, I think the question of narrative arcs has to be resolved. It’s reached the point where the tension between standalone stories and ongoing ones is making it very difficult to keep characterisation consistent, particularly where the Doctor is concerned. If, for example, we see him being a douche, possibly under the influence of an alien mind-transplant or scrambled timelines, it’s difficult to forget about that and accept him as Mr Nice Guy the following week. You’re always having to hold back some of your emotional investment in case later plot developments show it to be misplaced. Back in the day, there were serials within series. You could allow stories longer than 45 minutes to breathe, and still draw a line under them as separate narratives when they were resolved. The fact that the finales steadily got longer under RTD’s tenure and that the three-part finale became an unacknowledged trend in 2007, 2008 and 2009, shows that this continues to be an issue. It might be time to take another look at format as well as content.

It’s interesting that Christopher Eccleston’s refusal to have anything to do with a 50th Anniversary special has been reported in several quarters lately. Far be it from me to predict anything, but it does occur to me that, since 10.2 is safely tucked away in Pete’s World, you could get around that problem by resetting all the way back to Eight. And, as we all know, in this crazy show, anything is possible.

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19 thoughts on “The structure of Doctor Who – not fit for purpose, perhaps?

  1. A lot of wisdom in this. I’ve seen Davies comment on how different it’s been this year to write Torchwood with a writers’ room, and at least one of them has been one of Whedon’s, so I’ve been very interested to see how differently this summer’s Torchwood will play. And I too remember being disappointed to see how much of his own Doctor Who Moffat has set out to write himself.
    And, while I’d never tell people that they’re wrong to complain of the incidental messages that might be sent when a new showrunner stops riding the previous showrunner’s social justice hobby horse or when a given episode shows the companion in a classically unfeminist light, I can only recognize the exigencies of production as you’ve noted them here and hope for the best for next week, and wish the rest of us would do the same.
    (Also, I don’t think we’ll get another attempt at an all-Doctor teamup till we get a showrunner who’s willing to recast all previous incarnations. And can think up a plot that gives eleven+ Doctors enough screentime and stuff to do.
    (A revisit of a single incarnation, like Timecrash but fulllength and less tongue-in-cheek, is more the sort of thing I expect to actually happen eventually. I‘d still recast any incarnation earlier than McGann’s. Ian McKellum would make a great Doctor Three, for instance, and the old man from the end of Torchwood‘s first series would make a better Doctor One than Hurndall did.)

  2. Some fans have looked at the first two episodes of this season of Doctor Who and made the comparison to heavyily-arced series like Lost or Heroes. After last night’s episode, I think they need to go back a little further in genre television history — Moffat’s making Doctor Who like The X-Files.
    Though I blogged about it a little this morning, I’ll summarize my thinking because I didn’t quite go there all the way in my blog post.
    The X-Files didn’t have an arc, per se, but it did have a larger storyline that was dealt with from time to time. The important episodes for that larger storyline were called “mythology episodes,” and they were written by Chris Carter (the series creator) or one of his trusted lieutenants, like Frank Spotnitz. The rest of the episodes were stand-alone one-offs that had little if any bearing on the larger mythology.
    RTD did something similar with the background element that would spring fully-formed at the end of the seasons, though he made the individual seasons look more cohesive than they actually were. Then RTD would drop the background element and go with a new one in the following season — season one, Bad Wolf; season two, Torchwood; season three, Harold Saxon; season four, the stars going out.
    Moffat seems to be going full-bore for the X-Files style, and like The X-Files Moffat’s mythology episodes aren’t confined to a single season. The Moffat episodes (excepting “The Beast Below”) look to be the critical episodes, while still leaving room for stand-alone runarounds like last night’s “Black Spot” that have no bearing whatsoever on the larger narrative.
    Unlike Chris Carter, I think Moffat does have an endgame in mind. The X-Files‘ mythology grew convoluted and stopped making sense because Carter and Spotnitz were making it up as they went. In television, you don’t want to plan a story that unfolds over more than a season because you can’t be sure of getting the renewal. Moffat has an advantage in that he knows the BBC isn’t going to pull the plug on Doctor Who any time soon and that he’s likely to be around to see his multi-season story through to completion.

  3. I have been perplexed because I really do respect Steven Moffat as a writer but I’m just not enthused by his Doctor Who – not at all. I feel as though he’s trying to bask in his own plot-related cleverness and forgetting character and atmosphere. It’s like, he’s come up with this big, elaborate plot arc and has forced the characters into it. As you say, this is a time-constraint issue. It’s not been able to unfold as it should and the result is less effective drama.
    I don’t care so much about the characters – because the characters feel like they’re being molded to the plot, as opposed to the plot feels as though it’s evolving organically from the things the characters do. IMO all stories should be about the things that people do (where ‘people’ is used in the loosest sense of the word). One of the characters in Moffat’s Who could die and I’ll just go, “Oh X died. Huh.” And go back to eating my chips or whatever. Whereas with RTD’s Who, I welled up at the slightest emotional moment, because I really, really cared about the characters as “people”. I do miss that. I enjoyed caring about the characters, you know?

  4. I’m so with you on that. There was a massive emotional scene with Amy and Rory last night, and I just stood outside it thinking how contrived it seemed, right down to the musical cues. And KG was acting her socks off, so it can’t just be that. I think we’ve seen so many Get Out of Jail Free cards now that it really has desensitised us.
    Also, we still know virtually nothing about Rory’s background. We’ve met Amy’s parents briefly on one occasion. Can you imagine that happening with RTD? By the end of “Rose” we knew volumes about Rose, Mickey and Jackie. Hence, the sucker punch when something really emotional happened. I still recall the scene right at the end of the Cyberman two-parter in S2 where he takes Rose home to her mum – just a hug, barely a word of dialogue, but so emotional.

  5. Recasting Doctors – there’s an interesting idea. Though I confess, I just can’t see Sir Ian as Three.
    Now it’ll drive me mad trying to remember what that old chap in the clock shop was called. I still think he was an evil Time Lord.

  6. I like your blog (your theories are consistently better than reality) so it’s good to hear from you. Not quite sure, however, why LJ has marked it spam, and it’s trapped between worlds waiting for Pete Tyler to pull it into our reality.
    Your point about Amy’s pregnancy – I’m quite surprised nobody’s come up with that before, but hell yeah. I suppose pregnant women are just too needy to be acknowledged in the Moff-verse.
    And on that note, how come nobody found that little lad before now? Didn’t he need to come out and have a pee sometimes?

  7. The character’s name was … Billis? That was his first name. The actor’s name escapes me completely. To the IMDb!
    Character, Bilis Manger; actor, Murray Melvin.

  8. ITA. I’ve said before that I find with Moffat I can appreciate and (to an extent!) understand his cleverness, but with one notable exception (the bedside scene in TBB) I don’t feel the same about DW now as I did back in the Rusty era.

  9. My main beef is that the long game is also a risky game. So far, viewing figures are holding up well – TIA was, I thought, a pretty good “set up” episode and so the ratings for “DotM” were good as people tuned in to find out wtf was going on.
    Thing is – we didn’t find out. So I’m fully expecting viewing figures to be down this week (in spite of a slightly later start time and not such great weather!) as people express their disappointment with the denoument of DotM which left us with more questions than answers.
    There were several newspaper articles last week about whether DW has become too scary or too complicated. I don’t have an issue with the former, but the latter is, I think, a justifiable charge to level.
    I’m not stupid. I read long books. I come from a generation that didn’t really understand the term “instant gratification”. But I don’t like having my chain yanked too much. I don’t mind having a drawn-out story, provided I can SEE it progressing. Moff seems to plant his clues and then – BANG! – The Answer, but with no sense (or not much of a sense) of progression.
    The show that’s ticking my boxes in terms of balanced storytelling and characterisation at the moment is Fringe – although I haven’t seen the season finale yet, which I gather is pretty bonkers!

  10. I loved that scene too. I was punching the air, thinking that finally, Moffat had got it right.
    But in a sense, that was a death scene. That Doctor no longer exists, and what we have now is a construct from Amy’s memories in a rebooted universe. Is that why he feels “off”? Is Moffat comparing our memory of someone to the reality?
    One problem is that Amy’s besotted with the Doctor. Not only is that fouling up her marriage, but it’s really not good for people to see themselves through the lens of a besotted fan. They start showing off. So that could be where he’s going. In which case, he might have to kill Amy eventually so that things can be put right. Now that would be a game-changer.

  11. Well, one of the other things we’ve been teased with is the fact that Amy and the Doctor’s relationship will change forever… or something like that. But I doubt it’s that he’s got her preggers!
    Such is the tendency for hyperbole on the part of the promo-monkeys who fall over themselves to find bigger and bigger hooks for the audience!

  12. Sorry to butt in…
    Moffat’s Who seems closer to Babylon 5, I think. J. Michael Straczynski had a clear endgame originally plotted over 5 seasons. There were key mytharc episodes, but all the standalone episodes contributed in some small way in terms of themes or plot devices. I wouldn’t say “Black Spot” has no bearing at all in the larger narrative of S6. The IMHO execrable “Victory of the Daleks” had the robot-overcomes-evil-programming-for-love plot device which was crucial for Rory in the S5 finale episodes.
    I think RTD’s seasons felt more cohesive because 1) his mytharc for his whole run was theme-based rather than plot-based (“everything ends and everything dies”), and 2) he insisted on “polishing” most scripts he didn’t write. (Except for Moffat’s, which ironically needed the most “polishing” to fit into RTD’s vision of characters.) As far as I know, Moffat doesn’t polish other writers’ scripts at all, so inconsistencies in characterization are more obvious.

  13. (I promise I’ll stop spamming after this…)
    I know collaborative writing tends to be the way that shows are make in the US, which doesn’t necessarily rule out the role of auteur (after all, they have people like Joss Whedon). It won’t happen but I’d love to see someone give it a try on DW. It seems to me that the show is really suffering from being dominated by a single person’s vision. When that person was RTD it was easy to blame it all on him, but now we are seeing that it’s a more systemic problem.
    American TV is collaborative in the sense that everybody on the writing team has a say in developing the final script. That said, individuals still write the scripts; there is still a head writer who is also one of the executive producers; and it doesn’t mean the collaborative approach is immune to inconsistent characterization. *cough*House*cough* It should be fun to compare the team-based Torchwood: Miracle Day with the Chibnall/RTD-authored earlier seasons to see which approach is better.
    Also, I think the question of narrative arcs has to be resolved. It’s reached the point where the tension between standalone stories and ongoing ones is making it very difficult to keep characterisation consistent, particularly where the Doctor is concerned.
    Ironically I think this is a case where an “authored” show might be better than a collaborative show. E.g., Babylon 5 was all J. Michael Straczynski, even the few episodes he didn’t write. (I’m not saying JMS was immune to his id, though!) RTD “polished” most scripts which weren’t his own. (Except Moffat’s. And it shows.) I thought I heard Moffat didn’t polish others’ scripts, so the inconsistencies are more obvious as I mentioned to tiggerallyn.
    I thought I read somewhere that the key figure in classic Who wasn’t the writer, but the script editor. Maybe they need to go back to that.

  14. I, too, have been pondering B5, because that’s one of the few shows with years-long arcs that I was truly fannish about – probably the first one, come to think of it.
    But the thing I keep coming back to, time and again is characterisation. Londo and G’Kar were utter masterclasses in “How To Write Fabulous Yet Flawed Characters And STILL Make Us Love Them.”
    Eleven is fabulous and I assume he’s flawed – I mean, the Doctor is a mass of flaws, right? But I don’t love him. (Not yet – I live in hope). I like him very much, but he’s still too far away from me for me to be able to understand much about him.
    The whole plot > characterisation thing is – for me, anyway – the thing that is currently defining this era of nu-Who.

  15. I said in one of my posts about all this last year that I knew there were loads of people who hated Rusty’s DW and so now maybe it was “their turn” now 🙂
    But that also means that it’s my turn to pick holes, right? *g*

  16. You’re always having to hold back some of your emotional investment in case later plot developments show it to be misplaced.
    THIS. This was the problem I kept having all the way through S5. Rory and Amy were apparently killed off/nearly died in parallel universes/possibly dreaming the whole thing so many times that I stopped caring, because I could never be sure whether what I was seeing was real or not.
    Also totally agree with the various comments upthread about characterisation, characters’ backgrounds etc – I wrote about that wrt Amy at the end of S5; that Moffat’s plot device of having her life be only half there had backfired for me, because it had made her only half a character, and therefore I’d found Rory far realer even when he was a plastic simulacrum of himself…

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