Friday 19 May 2017

Damn it, Doctor Who

Watch the video version of this post here:

Alright, this is super out of step with what I usually post on here, obviously. However, this is something which I've been meaning to do for a very, very long time.

Let's start at the beginning.

From 1963 up until the Seventh Doctor's last appearance, the Doctor was always portrayed with a cohesive structure. Even his most abrasive iterations - such as the Sixth Doctor - still held to his own well defined archetype.

In fact, one of the series' largest draws was its immense world building. The writers had no end to their love of the Doctor Who universe. Continuity was the mark of the series, and this becomes even more impressive for a show spanning decades.

Unfortunately, perhaps through an unlucky sequence of actors and writers, the series failed with the Seventh Doctor, despite his five remaining regenerations.

In 2005, Doctor Who returned with totally new branding. The show - in classic early 2000s fashion - adopted a considerably more "grimey" appearance. The TARDIS was beige and brown and the Ninth Doctor was angry and abrasive- a stark contrast to his previous incarnations.

Especially initially, a lot of long-term Doctor Who fans were annoyed. However, this quickly died down once Russel T. Davies began to understand his own direction with the show.

Doctor Who was almost an entirely different show, save for one thing: it was still held together by its own continuity. Of course there were a few lapses and peculiarities, but it was still bound to that one principle. This really began to show during the Tenth Doctor's era. Rules were introduced such as the idea that the Doctor can regenerate limbs when within 24 hours of regeneration, and a more precise definition of the sonic screwdriver's functions.

This is where I believe the series made a dangerous decision. They were no longer binding themselves to the world and rules of the past 40 years, they were flagrantly inventing new ones without any significant regard beyond a quick mention of an earlier encounter.

So what problem did this result in? The problem is that this effectively fragmented the writing. As time went on even towards the end of Season 4, things began to become less and less like the old Doctor Who. The writers had to choose between writing adventures in the "new universe" and the "old universe"- two distinct themes.

The old universe consisted of (mostly) logical alien encounters, technology, and everything was able to be explained with a mixture of continuity and rationale. The new universe had a very different focus- the alien encounters were sometimes arbitrary, and there was a heavy focus on telepathy and other miscellaneous "magic" powers. If you don't believe me, see the Ood. Even the Doctor's regeneration became a force of indescribable power.

I don't have any problem with this, because I enjoyed it. The two universes felt very separated but I feel like Russel T. Davies took it in an interesting new direction.

The problem lies here.

For those of you who don't know, Steven Moffat is the current head writer of Doctor Who, but also wrote one-off episodes such as "Blink", "The Girl in the Fireplace" and "Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead". These episodes were all great. Despite its critical acclaim, Blink is personally my least favourite out of the three stories listed but I believe that's on me rather than him.

After displaying his impressive skill at writing one-off episodes, he was given the title of head writer once Russel T. Davies left the show at the end of the Tenth Doctor's run.

Oh, Steven Moffat. What a terrible mistake that was. To put it simply, Steven Moffat is terrible at writing story arcs. In fact, his skills seem to have steadily degenerated as time goes on.

Let's start at the beginning to break down why a perfect storm of terrible coincidences aligned to ruin Doctor Who.

Season 5

This was the Eleventh Doctor's first season. At this point, a lot of people were already apprehensive due to the actor's age. Matt Smith was the youngest actor to ever play the Doctor up until that point.

Season 5 was a bit of a mess. The arc was clunky and Matt Smith didn't naturally fit the role. He was still trying to be given the quirkiness of his immediate predecessor without being a carbon copy. The third episode of the series brought back the Daleks in what felt like a frantic attempt from another writer, Mark Gatiss, to win back the audience with a fan favourite after the first episode showcased Steven Moffat's awful attempt at writing a female character.

The female character in question was Amy Pond, a character first introduced as a 12 year old girl and shortly afterwards an adult "kissogram". Cheap shock value kicking back against social norms. Well done, Steven Moffat. This is not the first time this simple, formulaic approach is taken to either make a character "unique" or to add "depth".

Despite this, Karen Gillan was a competent actor. She did fit into her role well to the best of her ability. However, when she was written into a semi-romantic sub-plot with the Doctor even though she has a boyfriend(we'll get to Rory later), there's only so much you can do to can save a role.

On top of the cheap use of the Daleks, Steven Moffat brought back what he believed to be his "signature villain"- the Weeping Angels. This felt like yet another cheap attempt to grab the audience back.

"Hey guys, look! It's that one villain I wrote really well one time! Look! You like it, don't you?! Please like it!!"

Unfortunately for Steven Moffat, he wrote the Weeping Angels terribly. In "Blink", he laid out the rule that Weeping Angels move faster than light when they are being viewed, hence why they are able to move the victim back in time. This is why the Weeping Angels were scary. They appear harmless at first, though they possess unimaginable power restrained by something as flimsy as line of sight.

The key here is that the power is unimaginable. The means by which they move is incomprehensible to humans. It plays into the old human instinct to be afraid of the unknown.

However, in "Flesh and Stone", Weeping Angels are shown to move. First of all, they move pretty bloody slowly for a creature which exceeds light speed on a whim. Secondly, the fact that they are being shown moving makes their power imaginable. It makes the way by which they move comprehensible to humans. It removes the way that the enemies so elegantly play into the human instinct to be afraid of the unknown.

In his notoriously clunky style, Steven Moffat had ruined his own greatest achievement by the fourth episode of the season.

However, this is the one time that I can be confident in praising Steven Moffat for one thing. There is one scene in which the Doctor appears wearing a difference outfit than he was wearing in the rest of the episode. Amy had her eyes closed due to a flawed and totally random plot point, so only an attentive viewer would notice. This was later noted as being not a plot hole but in fact foreshadowing for the Doctor's future travels, when he would come back for that scene in the season finale.

However, that is the only thing I can say about Steven Moffat's ability to write story arcs. The arc of season 5 revolved around a mysterious "crack in the wall". This crack ran throughout almost every episode, and spawned numerous theories. This crack was effectively a discount version of "bad wolf" from Russel T. Davies' toolbelt.

Perhaps my favourite episode from this season was "Amy's Choice". This is not because it had any effective story telling techniques nor even any significant narrative points, but rather because the episode explored the Doctor's own psyche. The Dream Lord(the antagonist of the episode) was a physical manifestation of the Doctor's own "dark side". That's especially not to say that this was done well, they crept tentatively around the subject without making too many lore implications and ultimately left the episode being a lot less impactful than it could have been.

Maybe a more accurate term for "Amy's Choice" would be that this is the episode I felt the least disdain for.

From here, a lot of the episodes felt inconsequential. They were not special, nor were they especially flawed. They brought back the Silurians for another round since classic Doctor Who, but it felt almost insulting to the classic series. They visited Vincent Van Gogh. There was a TARDIS-like spaceship for a bit which almost had lore implications until it didn't. Meh.

Now, the season finale. I'm not going to break the whole story down, but this really exemplifies the way that Steven Moffat handles plot twists.

Have you ever been told a riddle like "There ten cookies in the box and I take out one. How many are left?" and you answer "Nine" because obviously there are nine but then the answer is eight because when they took out one cookie there was another cookie stuck to it so it took out two instead?

Well, that's exactly what Steven Moffat's "plot twists" feel like. Random, arbitrary and unfair. Amy's boyfriend, Rory, was apparently a plastic soldier. He waited for 2000 years to protect Amy. The Doctor just undid it in the same episode.


Yeah, you read that right. Totally arbitrary and did not move the narrative forward at all. Sure, it's cute conceptually. If it was written well with any amount of proper build-up or if Amy even reacted like any real human would rather than the stupid archetype of the "bossy woman" that Steven Moffat loves so much, maybe it would have been good.

Okay. Let's move on a few seasons.

Season 10

This is a season which doesn't include so much from Steven Moffat. However, the 2016 Christmas special was written by Steven Moffat and holy fucking shit. This took me several attempts to actually complete, since it was so unbearably stupid, contrived and otherwise awful it deserves a special mention.

This episode is a poor attempt at creating a superhero story. Occasionally, an episode will take a common trope and apply the Doctor Who formula to it. I'm usually not a fan of these episodes, but this was by far the worst of all of them. In fact, this may be the worst episode of Doctor Who to date.

To put it briefly, a child eats a magic space-gem and it gives him superpowers. Also, some random aliens invade for no reason and the boy helps the Doctor defeat them. Also, there was a hilarious romantic sub-plot between the boy and his employer. Simply. Hilarious.

To break down all the instances of horrific delivery, stupid lines and overall insanely bone-headed plot devices would take almost as long as just watching the damned episode. It ended on a potential cliff-hanger, but honestly- if they ever come back to this story, I'll be amazed. In fact, here is my public promise to the people: if they ever return to this story, I will provide a long breakdown of every stupid thing in the original Christmas episode.

So. What a great start.

Epsiode 1 of Season 10 is pretty dire, too. It introduces the new companion, Bill, and the fact that she is gay. Don't imagine that this is done with any subtlety or nuance- Steven Moffat wrote this one too. The character development was lifted straight out of C-grade GCSE papers.

I certainly don't mind having a gay companion. Had it been written by any other writer, maybe it wouldn't have felt quite so contrived that the first episode of the season focused on her having a female crush. Also, not five minutes into the episode and she already started on a self-admittedly random tangent about how she was trying to buy romantic affection from a girl with chips. Real subtle.

But that's not the only problem with this episode, absolutely not. Though it's a minor gripe, Steven Moffat insists on ignoring the fact that the TARDIS has a perception filter. This is described by Martha in "The Sound of Drums" as "you kinda don't want to notice it". However, of course Bill is immune to this perception filter. The same perception filter that allowed three people to walk onto a military site unnoticed.

Also, the Doctor condescendingly stating that the alien is "not human"? It always rubs me the wrong way when the Doctor makes a distinction between humans and any other race to imply that humans are inherently superior. The Doctor is a Time Lord. Time Lords are basically a straight upgrade from humans. There is no reason why the Doctor cares for humans but does not care for... whatever that weird puddle monster was.

Another minor gripe is that the Doctor said that the Dalek-Movellan war was one of the most dangerous places in the universe. The Doctor of all people should know that the Dalek-Movellan war is not even close to the most dangerous place in the universe. Besides, even if it was- why did the Doctor not even try to reason with it? Since when does the Doctor no longer value diplomacy with alien races?

The episode also features pretty horrible pacing. I mean, it has to be pretty bad for me to notice it. I'm no connoisseur of television, but wow. This was awful. The episode jumped straight from "running with Daleks and explosions" to "heavy emotional scene" with little-to-no real transition. Steven Moffat seems to assume that he can snap between these two distinct moods and the audience's emotions will change accordingly. If you were just showing explosions and fast-paced tension, you need to take time to dispel the excitement before building up an emotional scene.

In a similar vein to this, the jumpscares in this episode were used terribly. It's the same cheap horror trick that a lot of Steam Greenlight games use to pride their "scariness". Jumpscares punctuate tension, they don't build it.

Phew. That was a lot for only one episode.

While episode 2 was pretty forgettable, episode 3 turns Steven Moffat's lazy, apathetic writing style around. This episode wasn't written by Steven Moffat, but rather by Sarah Dollard. This episode featured the classic episode format used by Russel T. Davies- show a little bit of the threat, build the threat, learn about the threat with the Doctor.

The episode revolves around a fish monster who lives underneath the ice. It's a simple premise and not particularly interesting in that regard, but the Doctor is written incredibly well. He's written how Peter Capaldi should be written. A spontaneous and whimsical character who is deceptively skilful. This is showed in particular when the Doctor manages to steal 3 pies after getting kicked out of a shop for claiming that he could "probably steal anything from here".

This isn't plot armour- this is exactly that the Doctor is. This is why the Doctor is a "super hero". Without his skill, he has to have plot armour. Without his intellect, all he has is a sonic screwdriver and his TARDIS. If the Doctor wasn't the Doctor, he'd just be a lame version of Batman.

Also, this episode is one of the few that uses the Doctor's sonic screwdriver correctly. Even in the episode, a line is written in about it being jokingly called a "magic wand"- something which I've taken to call it mockingly for the sake of its ability to do stuff like heal skin. This episode reserves its use as a device for emitting sound and light, primarily for scanning for data. Though the Doctor doesn't gather any data from it, he does use it to attract the aforementioned fish monster. What a breath of fresh air.

In addition to this, the Doctor gives Bill the decision to choose the fish or humanity's advancement. This is another move that is decidedly something that the Doctor would do. He limits his role as a sole saviour of Earth, he tries to help and no more. He does not want dominion over the Earth and he does not want to decide its fate. Bill, as a human, ultimately gets the decision to release the fish.

Episode 4 writes the Doctor similarly. The line where he asks the landlord for the name of the current prime minister succinctly tells him everything that he needs to know about the state of affairs in the house. However, there is a line at the beginning which really rubbed me the wrong way. I can't remember the exact words, but here is the gist of it.

Doctor: "blablabla REGENERATION"

I exaggerate, but you get my point. The actors clearly weren't comfortable with delivering the lines. Since the Doctor is set to regenerate at the end of this season, I assume that Steven Moffat wrote this line into the arc. We've already covered why Steven Moffat is the worst, so I'm sure you can understand why the fact it was presented so poorly leads me to this conclusion.

At the time of writing, episode 5 just released. This episode was pretty good and I enjoyed it. It features Nardole, who is the perfect opposition to the Doctor. Other companions who play the Doctor's opposition such as Clara or even River Song to some degree usually go the route of being obnoxious. They condescend him and in a show where the audience wants to root for the Doctor, there is literally no point in doing this.

However, Nardole is written perfectly. Firstly, is reason for providing opposition to the Doctor is on the Doctor's orders. It gives the impression that the Doctor is so powerful that even his closest opposition is still under his control. Secondly, Nardole does not imply that the Doctor is unintelligent. He does not correct the Doctor whimsically nor does he backhandedly dismiss anything.

Lastly and perhaps the most important part- when Nardole does childishly demean the Doctor, it's not something that's on the Doctor. It's on Nardole. It's Nardole having a problem with something that the Doctor did, rather than the Doctor doing something problematic.

I won't go into the whole episode as closely as the others because this is getting pretty long, but I will comment in the closing line to the episode.

In fact, just watch it. I could not come close to explaining it in text.

This is by far the most ridiculously clumsy line that they could have shoved into this scene. Why did he stand up? Why did he look into the camera? Why did he take off his glasses? Why did he make the claim "I can't look at anything ever again" when he knows that he will regenerate eventually? Why was he keeping this a secret from Bill in the first place?! It reeks of Steven Moffat's poor narrative building.

Also, there are several instances in the "Next Time" trailer for "Extremis" of the TARDIS translation circuit apparently not existing, so I'm already preparing to get upset at that one.

I can only hope that this show gets revitalized when Chris Chibnall takes over for head writer in Season 11. God, how I hope it does.

Anyway, just be grateful that I made this one post and not 10 or 15. I could have easily filled up a lot of space just ranting about each episode on each season.

If you made it to the end of this, good job! Again, I'm sorry that this is pretty out of sync with the rest of my content, but it's my damned blog and I can do what I want. Stay tuned!

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