Why I Don’t Like Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who

(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.

  1. 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. []
  2. 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. []
  3. 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. []
  4. I’m not ignoring the fact that there have been HORRIBLE episodes all throughout its history. []

New Tattoo

Last fall I decided that my next tattoo (my second) would be the Doctor Who logo from the fourth Doctor–my Doctor–the Tom Baker years. In part because I have spent 32 of my forty years watching the show and caring about the characters but also partly because the image of that logo ties directly into me at 8 being transported to different and wonderful worlds while being safe in my grandparent’s house watching the shows on New Hampshire public television on one of those big console tvs. The image is one that is inextricably connected to my childhood.

It is now part of my body.



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Because Asking a Question is a Federal Offense

Well, this sucks. Peter Watts has been found guilty of a federal crime because he asked question and did not submit to the whim of capricious authority without asking “why?” One would have thought that such a stance, you know, personal liberty and the ability to question authority, would be an American value instead of a prosecutable offense.

One would be wrong.

Watts, a Canadian, could face up to two years of jail time for questioning the actions of the boarder guards. He states on his blog that he doesn’t blame any involved in his case, even the jurists who found him guilty, but rather the statute that he was charged under:

I do not know what the jury said amongst themselves. But a question they sent out to the court yesterday afternoon — “Is failure to comply sufficient for conviction?” — strongly suggests that this was the lynchpin event. (Certainly Defense had demolished every other, and the Prosecution had conceded as much.) If that is the case, I cannot begrudge the jury their verdict. Their job is not to rewrite laws, or ignore stupid ones; their job is to decide whether a given act violates the law as written. And when you strip away all the other bullshit — the verbal jousting, the conflicting testimony, the inconsistent reports — the law doesn’t proscribe noncompliance “unless you’re dazed and confused from being hit in the face”. It simply proscribes noncompliance, period. And we all agree that in those few seconds between Beaudry’s command and the unleashing of his pepper spray, I just stood there asking what the problem was. No Moods, Ads or Cutesy Fucking Icons (Re-reloaded) » Guilty

Sure, there are instances of injustice occurring every day that don’t get the attention that Watts’ case did since he is a writer of some repute and with a decent fan base. Still, as he is an artist whose work I admire, I can’t help be feel saddened on his part for being found guilty.

Best wishes to you Mr. Watts.

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New TARDIS Design for the New Series of Doctor Who

This news makes me a very happy fanboy!

This new Tardis – not an obligatory accessory for each new Doctor, but required by the damage done to it in Tennant’s last episode – is big. It must be three times the size of Tennant’s, on multiple levels with staircases in between. Less grubby than its predecessor, with a transparent plastic floor on the main level, its walls are resplendent with polished copper and its central column features a blown glass decoration that could be straight from Tales of the Unexpected. There are old car seats and downstairs – downstairs! – a swing. With a nod to Paul McGann’s Tardis, the central column features an old TV screen on an extendable trellis. It also has a 1980s-style computer keyboard, and a His-Master’s-Voice style trumpet speaker. (Link)

(via IO9)

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Podcasts for Smart People – Welcome to Mars

Between 1947 and 1959, the future was written about, discussed and analysed with such confidence that it became a tangible presence. This is a story of weird science, strange events and even stranger beliefs, set in an age when the possibilities for human development seemed almost limitless. (Link)

I first discovered Ken Hollings’ Welcome to Mars on Boing Boing and can’t recommend this show enough to anyone who is curious about the intersections of science, popular culture, science fiction, and the nooks and crannies of American history from 1947 – 1959. From government agencies setting up brothels in San Francisco to test various combinations of psychedelic drugs, to UFOs, to the creation of suburbia, Hollings takes you on a ride through the kind of history that you won’t find in textbooks or in a Ken Burns documentary. Subtitled “On the Fantasy of Science in the American Half-century,” the series begins with an examination of Levittown, the very first of the modern suburbs and weaves a narrative that is both compelling and somewhat disturbing. Hollings’ narrative is also underscored by the electronic music of Simon James; music that alternates between haunting and jarring. On first listen, the music may seem extraneous, intrusive, or just plain annoying. In part, because Hollings’ story is so damn intriguing that whenever the music pulls focus, you think to yourself “get back to the real part of the podcast, I want to hear what’s next.” On second listen, however, the music and sounds of Simon James, these odd and jangling, ethereal and robotic sounds become a part of the narrative. James provides a non-verbal commentary that weaves together the various fantasies of science and culture that Hollings reveals.

This show tapped into my personal reservoir of interest in UFOs, science fiction and science fact. From fantasies of government conspiracy to conspiracies of government fantasy to the desperate desire for alien actuality, I have—since childhood and my reading about Betty and Barney Frank, the Loch Ness monster, Bigfoot, and the Bermuda Triangle—been intrigued and excited by questions of the paranormal, cryptozoology, and the possibilities of aliens among us. What sets Hollings’ discussion apart from the typical kooky claims, is that he approaches these subjects as a web of cultural and socio-political inferences. For Hollings, the question isn’t “do UFOs exist?” but rather “what does it mean for a culture to believe, disbelieve, and variously represent the existence of UFOs?” As an erstwhile academic influenced by performance studies and feminism, I believe that the connections between government policies, movies, television, architecture, music, and popular representations of science are tremendously important in the attempt to understand ourselves. Hollings offers a snapshot of culture that reveals a number of aspects of the American consciousness that, on the surface of things, may seems trivial, but are, in fact, the very warp and woof of our national identity.

Welcome to Mars is a twelve part series, with each show about thirty minutes in length. If you are anything like me, you’ll probably devour the series in only two or three sittings as you fall down a rabbit hole and find yourself in a strange world that is our own but that is refracted and off-kilter. Like how, when you put your finger underwater, your vision doesn’t quite match up with your physicality. A world of interconnections that rebuild your perceptions about American history and our cultural relationship to science fiction and science fact.

iTunes Link

Website Link

Hollings also published a book version of the podcast that is available on Amazon, Powells, or through Strange Attractor Press.

The Failure of Battlestar Galactica

Warning: spoilers and extremely critical thoughts ahead.

Do you remember the feeling you got in the pit of your stomach when you saw your best friend kissing the girl you’d never gotten the nerve to ask out but pined for night after night and who you just knew would fall in love with you if only she could see just how much you were in love with her?

Do you remember that night when you were five, maybe six, years old and you caught your Dad getting into a Santa Claus costume and your parents assured you that he was just helping out the real Santa but you knew, knew in your fast beating little heart that they were lying to you and that there was no Santa Claus. If your parents could lie about something so important and fundamental as Santa, then how could you ever trust anyone or anything ever again?

Do you remember the first time you lied to someone you loved? Not a small lie, but an important lie. Do you remember how hollow you felt afterwards?

That’s kind of how I feel about the Battlestar Galactica finale.

Continue reading

Farewell to Battlestar Galactica

4 1/2 years ago, I lived in a small studio apartment in Richmond, Virginia where I was attending Virginia Commonwealth University and quickly coming to the realization that it was the wrong school and program for me (not quickly enough, however, to avoid nearly doubling my student loan debt in that one year). Joya was living in New York City and I was making regular Greyhound pilgrimages up to the city while trying to hold myself together in the face of an increasing sense of disconnectedness from myself and the world. My IBM Thinkpad was equipped with USB 1.0 and 802.11b, and I spent something like $200 for a 120 GB external hard drive. I probably weighed about 15 – 20 pounds lighter than I do now. I didn’t have dark bags under my eyes (those occurred in NYC). I was still smoking, but my stage combat class had me moving and stretching like I hadn’t moved and stretched in years. In fact, that class remains one of the highlights of my time in Richmond and to this day I miss having the opportunity to play with a rapier and dagger.

Because I hadn’t had cable for several years, I’d missed the mini-series re-boot of one of my favorite shows when I was a kid: Battlestar Galactica.

When I was eight or so, I adored Battlestar Galactica and had no conception of just how badly written and directed it was. I loved it. I loved the Vipers that Starbuck and Apollo and Boomer piloted and would draw them over and over again when I was bored in school or at home. My drawing repertoire was never very large, and that Colonial Viper was just about the only thing I ever learned to draw well. And then, of course, there was Starbuck who seemed so frakkin’ awesome to me back then with his charm and grin and anti-authoritarian streak. He was a rogue and played by his own rules: exactly what I was so very not. Battlestar Galactica was a weekly adventure that thrilled me no matter how often they recycled the same canned footage for their battle scenes. I have no doubt that the premise, underdogs on the run and persecuted by a remorseless and relentless force, tapped into my own experience of the world as a child. Don’t misunderstand, I had a healthy and happy and overall uneventful childhood. But what child doesn’t see the adult world as generally oppressive and cast him or herself as the beleaguered hero in their own drama?

The mini-series and first season of the new Battlestar Galactica had come and gone by the time I started paying attention and so, one evening I took a look around and found that, yes indeedy, the mini-series was available as a bittorrent download and so I figured I’d check it out.

***

One of the powers given to a television series that sets it apart from other storytelling mediums is just how intimately its stories become woven into the fabric of our lives. Here I’m speaking specifically of the experience of watching a series as it airs. These days it is relatively easy to watch entire seasons of a series on dvd or through downloads or on Hulu.com, and watch them in an extremely compressed time frame, and I’ve done my share of obsessively watching a season or an entire series in a matter of days or weeks (13 episodes of Journeyman in 2 days, the entire series of Carnivale in 2 weeks, 2 seasons of Dead Like Me in 1 week, and the mini-series and first season of Battlestar Galactica in 3 days are just a few examples). As much as I might admire or fall in love with a series watched in such a way, the emotional impact of having a long term connection to a show can’t be recreated with such a compressed form of viewing. The act of coming back to a set of characters, of transporting yourself to another world week after week after week can build an emotional connection that cannot be matched by film or theatre. Doctor Who, X-Files, Twin Peaks, Northern Exposure, Buffy: these were all series that became part of the fabric of my life in deeply interesting and compelling ways.1 Did these shows change my life? Did the recent Battlestar Galactica change my life?

Of course. Not in any profound, I’m-a-completely-different-person kind of way, but everything we encounter in life changes us in small and subtle ways. Powerful stories, whether in film, on television, in books, on stage, or told to us a grandparent, a lover, or an utter stranger will always change us in some fashion.

Stories and change are what it means to be human.

***

Last night I watched the final episode of Battlestar Galactica. In the time that I’ve been watching the show, I have left Richmond, moved in with Joya in NYC for what was the longest and most intimate relationship of my life, started and left a Ph.D. program, shared the sad realization with Joya that we needed to go our separate ways despite our love for each other, and left New York City. I have made an abortive but still emotionally useful attempt to move to New Mexico, decided to become a consultant and open my own business, realized that what I really want is to return to Academia and get my Ph.D. I have moved back to Providence, started temping for Kelly Services2, have designed the sound for eight plays, and applied to Brown University’s Ph.D. program for Theatre and Performance Studies and was rejected. I have faced and fought a number of my own personal demons, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. I have quit smoking, gained weight, and have somehow wandered to the edge of my 30s and am peering, a bit uneasily, into the unblinking eyes of my 40s.

***

When I moved to NYC and moved in with Joya, I turned her on to the series in time for us to watch the second season in the episodic, weekly format. Later, she got her parents and sister hooked on the series while I did the same with my parents. The past 10 weeks of the show have been tinged with a sadness that lies outside of show coming to a conclusion because I have very much missed watching the show with Joya. Battlestar Galactica has overlapped an often rewarding and often turbulent period in my life that is indelibly marked by my relationship with Joya. She and I have shared an ongoing connection through the show since we moved apart last July because, even apart, we have been able to share in this tangible remnant of our life and love together. For the last 10 weeks we have been spending time in the same story even as we write entirely different stories for ourselves in the real world.

***

Good stories are my favorite things in the whole wide world. A good story is a gift. Sometimes we are lucky enough to be the storyteller and give a gift the emanates solely from within ourselves. More often, however, we encounter a story out in the world that touches us deeply or makes us laugh or offers us a piece of ourselves we’d thought lost along the way. We then loan the book to a close friend, or drag her to the movie theatre, or get him watching a particular show, or manage to get her to the theatre. The joy I receive when giving a story to someone I care about fills me with warmth and smiles and a dizzy excitement.

Never let anyone tell you that feeling deeply and passionately about a story is silly. Never close yourself off to a good story just because it may come in a format you aren’t very familiar with.

Battlestar Galactica may not have been a perfect story—the facts of producing a television show rarely make for the creation of perfection—but it was a good story, told honestly and with a love for its characters even when those characters’ actions led to pain, loss, and betrayal. This show was also a remarkable story in many ways, principally because of its strong commitment to gender equality, its commitment to examining deeply political and ethical questions without giving the audience clear-cut answers as to what is right and what is wrong, and its portrayal of love and sex through the bodies of older actors. Ron Moore and David Eick, along everyone who worked on the program, have given us a gift forged in creativity, effort, thoughtfulness, laughter, pain, and love.

So, to all of you who brought this story into my life and to all of you who have shared this story with me, I offer you my gratitude.

***

Was last night’s episode perfect? No. Could I spend another 1000 – 2000 words offering a critique of what didn’t work in the conclusion. Yes, and probably will in the coming days. Right now, however, I am letting myself savor the final chapter to a story I have lived with for several years. I am letting myself feel the precious weight of this gift I’ve been given: this story that has touched me, made me laugh, and made me cry. I am letting myself mourn the loss of a story and cast of characters that made me think about what it means to be human and what it means to be brave and what it means to love.

You will be missed, Battlestar Galactica.

So say we all.

  1. Not to mention the shows I watched as a child: MASH, Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactica, The Hulk, Land of the Lost to name a few. []
  2. Yes, I’m a Kelly Girl! []