(Minor spoilers for “Let’s Kill Hitler”)
For the first time in nearly 34 years, I am utterly disappointed and disconnected from the television show Doctor Who. After watching “Let’s Kill Hitler” the other night I have pretty much written off the rest of the season.1 Oh, I’ll continue to watch, grumbling as I do because if Doctor Who is on, I’ll watch. But I have such lowered expectations that I’ll be happy if there are a handful of moments that I enjoy.
Why? Why this negative reaction when so much of the world had finally come to the show and the Doctor is, for the first time, a genuine international hit with a larger fan base than ever before? Am I just being pissy because “my” show has become popular? I don’t think so. Ultimately, my problems are with Steven Moffat’s running of the show as its current producer and they stem from his weaknesses as a writer. Last night I had a running commentary on Twitter about my reactions and while this metaphor is a bit facile, I think it makes some sense:
RTD’s #DoctorWho was like a decent if impetuous 12 yo scotch. Moffat’s is like one of those new, flavored vodkas in a fancy bottle.
Moffat certainly knows how to be clever and make flashy shows and design intricate story arcs that are detail oriented and that are like jig-saw puzzles and that, when they come together, provide a sense of completion and a bit of awe at just how clever he was. What he cannot seem to do, and I’ve been waiting for a season and a half for him to get past his “oh look I have a new toy” phase to do this, is write complex and interesting characters with any semblance of depth.
This is not new. Neither is it a surprise to those who have followed, and thoroughly enjoyed, some of Moffat’s shows in the past. Take Coupling for example. One of the funniest comedies done on British television. The timing, the plotting, the dialogue are all pitch-perfect for the genre. Basically Moffat brought back elements of farce to the television comedy that had been lacking in many shows: the intricate plotting and attention to the details of timing and character interactions were breathtaking and hilarious. He moved his characters around a complex, three-dimensional chess board with clarity, intention, and grace. What he did not do is create deep characters or give them genuine story arcs that changed them over the course of the series. Oh, sure, they changed, to some degree, and there were a few moments here and there that were genuinely human and compassionate moments, but for the most part we knew characters had changed because of something they said or did: we rarely saw the process by which they experienced growth.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a bad thing for the show. It was doing some very specific storytelling and it did it well.
Let’s look, for a moment, at his series Jekyll. Compelling to watch, to be sure. But that is almost entirely due to James Nesbitt’s performance of the Jekyll character. Overall the story is a bit clunky, none of the other characters are compelling or memorable, and if Coupling could be forgiven for some of its stereotyping of women because the men were equally stereotypes, Jekyll demonstrates quite clearly just how bad Moffat is at writing women. Which is bad. Seriously bad. When you can take someone of Gina Bellman’s talent and turn her into a boring, cardboard cutout of a character who has no depth and no complexity, you are showing a serious shortcoming as a writer.
Actually, now that I think of it, I wonder if one of the reasons the Jekyll character worked so well, was so damned interesting in that series was, beyond Nesbitt’s performance, the fact that the sociopathic tendencies of Jekyll actually perfectly match Moffat’s sociopathic attitude toward his characters? Think about it. Moffat deploys characters almost always as a means to a plot end. They are tools to move story and plot and comedy along. Characters don’t, in the end, mean anything to Moffat. Just as sociopaths don’t see other people as anything more than a means to their own ends, Moffat treats his characters as functions of a plot, instantiations of a theme, nodes that interact with other nodes to create a flashy narrative and a clever, oh-so-clever plot.2
But he doesn’t care about them. Not in the way a good dramatist cares about his/her characters. Say what you will about Russell T. Davies (overly sentimental, bombastic plots, overuse of the word “impossible”, too much in love with the Daleks, allowing “Daleks in Manhatten” and “The Doctor’s Daughter” to exist, etc), you never doubted that he cared, deeply and genuinely, for each and every character that crossed paths with the Doctor and his companions.
Another problem I have with Moffat is just how little agency and action the characters seem to have. This is, in large part, because they are cogs in a machine. However, one of the results of this is that they don’t actually do anything but react to the variables around them, spinning one way only because another cog has spun them in that direction. There was a time when, if the Doctor had been seriously poisoned by the kiss of a beautiful woman and had 32 minutes to live, he would have used his vast knowledge and scientific genius to work up an antidote rather than let himself die, with only the mildest of protestations and just “hope for the best.” There was a time when, instead of waving a magic wand around, the Doctor would learn and interact with people and machines, struggling to gain some mastery of a situation that was barely containable, even for him. There was a time when character’s choose their fates, when their decisions meant something and had consequences. Moffat’s universe is one of destiny and fate rather than individual choice and the struggle between those choices and how they affect other people.
Additionally, the Doctor may spout off beautiful sounding words, but he doesn’t act curious, he doesn’t seem to take an interest in other people. Even at his most self-involved (and the Doctor’s arrogance is not the issue here—from the beginning, the Doctor has always been arrogant), the Doctor has always been genuinely curious about people and about the worlds he finds himself in. In fact, what made the Doctor’s arrogance work, was precisely that it was not seen as always justified. Various companions would challenge the Doctor (Sarah Jane Smith, Ace, Donna), while others would simply not accept his world-view completely (Leela, Romana). Yes, they and we knew that the Doctor was special and braver and smarter than we would ever be, and that he had certain kinds of wisdom and that he had lived a long life and that he had seen things in the universe we could only dream of. However, the people around him did not, continually and loudly insist that the Doctor was the greatest, the best, the most awesomest person in the galaxy with near godlike abilities to overcome the greatest of odds by simply being brilliant and ohmygoddon’tyoulovehimbecauseheisjustsocompletelythegreatestbeinginthewholeuniverseSWOON.
Because the Doctor seems to know all, he is not curious about anyone around him. Not even his companions. Because he already has every angle covered, every contingency planned for, there is no need for curiosity. No need to learn more. No need to grow. Moffat has created a completely self-perpetuating and self-sustaining character. In fact, growth and change would undermine everything that Moffat is working toward with the Doctor: turning him into a kind of god. All powerful deities are not, in the end, all that interesting.
The more powerful you make a character, the less interesting they are. Batman will always be more interesting than Superman because he doesn’t have superpowers. The Doctor is a man. With 2 hearts and the capacity for a long and varied life and the ability to travel in time. While all that gives him considerable power, he is not a god. He is not a superhero. Throughout most of his existence, he has been a curious, well-intentioned man who makes mistakes, who tries his best to make the world a better place (and does not always succeed), and who has considerable flaws, shortcomings, and blind spots. He is always complemented by companions who do not accept him at his word. Moffat (and, to a lesser but still somewhat culpable degree, Russell T. Davies) is so damned in love with the concept of the Doctor, and is so busy creating an entire universe that spends all its time worshiping or hating the Doctor that there is gradually no room for anyone else to be anything else but a reflection of that glory or hatred. Good guys adore and bad guys hate. Simple, all-encompassing, and, ultimately, boring.
The more times you say “look at me, I’m cool”, no matter how “ironic” you are, the less cool you are.
The more times you say “the Doctor is brilliant” the more times I wonder why you need to tell me that instead of just letting his actions and compassion and brilliance speak for itself.
Moffat insists on calling out the Doctor’s brilliance and specialness time and time and time and time again: look how clever and look how brilliant and look how powerful the Doctor is. But as every freshman in a writing seminar knows, the more you tell something the less dramatically interesting that something is. Moffat, with each and every repetition of “the Doctor is special” is draining all the narrative interest from the Doctor and replacing it with glibness, godhood, and a flashy exterior.
Like I said, I’ll still watch, because the show is woven deeply into the fabric of my life, but I’m not really looking forward to the rest of the season and I don’t expect to see much that will be genuine or true.3 Oh yes, it’ll be clever and witty, but it will be hollow and empty as well. While I know Moffat will be with us for several more years, I am already looking forward to his replacement and I just hope that whoever comes next, they will help create a show with compassion, curiosity, and one that genuinely cares about the characters we encounter. Such a show can still be adventurous, dark, scary, silly, and fun. In fact, I would argue that until Moffat’s tenure, Doctor Who has, on balance4 been all those things and more, but only because we cared about the characters as people and not as pieces on the complex chess-board of Moffat’s intricate plots.
On this day..
- Writing Update for August 30 - 2009
- Where's the
Mad Cow DiseaseBeef? - 2008
- White Sands National Monument - 2008
- Invasion of the Indestructible Plastic Bags - 2007
- Subway Haiku #1 - 2005
- This must be what older viewers felt like when Colin Baker became the Doctor. I like Colin Baker, don’t get me wrong, but from what I’ve read, many people had a strong reaction against his Doctor and the direction that John Nathan-Turner was taking the show. [↩]
- This is also apparent in Moffat’s recreation of Sherlock Holmes: none of the secondary characters mean a damn or have any complexity to them. [↩]
- Compare the first season’s meditation on fatherhood in “Father’s Day” to “The Curse of the Black Spot” for an indication of how RTD was concerned with making Doctor Who a truly decent dramatic program and how Moffat just throws in themes glibly and with no attention to the truly complex human emotions that he plays with. [↩]
- I’m not ignoring the fact that there have been HORRIBLE episodes all throughout its history. [↩]