Moffat's Schizophrenic Continuity in Doctor Who
December 03, 2015
Contains spoilers for the Doctor Who episode Heaven Sent that may completely ruin your enjoyment of it. If you have not seen this episode, I advise you not to read the following post. Caution: may contain traces of philosophy.
When it comes to Moffat’s Doctor Who, I have to wonder: can he repair the problems in the show’s infinitely compromised continuity faster than his own problems tear new holes into the Whoniverse?
In Heaven Sent, we have what Radio Times’ TV critic Patrick Mulkern has called an “instant classic”. I tend to agree, even if I found this particular script impossibly frustrating in my impatience to get to the resolution of the current plot arc, which is only very slightly advanced by this achingly slow but brilliantly acted episode. But we also have in Heaven Sent the embodiment of current showrunner Steven Moffat’s philosophy for guiding the show, which is diametrically opposed to previous showrunner Russell T. Davies, even though they share a common vision of Nu Who as classic Doctor Who plus British soap melodrama, as I’ve suggested before.
It’s clear from his work on the show that Davies is a positivist, i.e. someone with faith in the objectivity of the sciences. He mounted all his episodes under a tightly conceived materialist conception of science fiction – very much in the tradition of Terry Nation – despite being willing to play fast and loose with elements many sci-fi fans might consider ill-considered. It was never orthodox science fiction (i.e. hard sci-fi), but it was always under its shadow. While Moffat shares Davies’ anti-religious sentiments, he is not fundamentally a positivist, and has never shown any real sign of being interested in orthodox science fiction. So while Davies pursued Nu Who as sci-fi first and melodrama second, Moffat pursues it as melodrama first and sci-fi optional. In philosophical terms, Moffat is an ontic idealist about the Whoniverse – the complete opposite of Davies’ ontic materialism – a point made abundantly clear in The Big Bang, when Matt Smith’s Doctor restores the universe largely (it seems) from nothing but his own memories. Moffat’s universe, in other words, is essentially pure thought – George Berkeley would have been proud!
With Heaven Sent I believe we can see Moffat’s priorities clearly, in that he is willing to sacrifice anything and everything in terms of the Doctor Who mythos if it makes an episode as much of a spectacle as it can be, and simultaneously provides as melodramatic a plot as possible when taken as a self-contained story. However – and here is where he becomes schizophrenic – Moffat is also far more engaged in the process of maintaining (and repairing!) the ambiguities and problems in the long-term continuity of the show than any other showrunner in its fifty year history. This tension is part of my joyous frustration with Moffat’s tenure at the top, since I must confess that I struggle to find any episodes penned by Davies that I actually liked (possibly New Earth is an exception), while I find the episodes in Moffat’s era to be stronger in almost every sense, despite struggling to find any that are as good as those that Moffat wrote under Davies guidance.
The problem with Heaven Sent is that its temporally-leaky, closed-loop plot device breaks the Doctor Who universe in an all too predictable way. It’s not that other sci-fi writers hadn’t considered using teleporters as “3D printers” (as Capaldi’s Doctor presents it) – indeed, the science fiction megatext is full of stories about this, and I’ve discussed some of these previously in the context of low fidelity immortality. But as a writer working on a long-running show, you don’t use teleporters this way without opening the big can of worms clearly labelled ‘Do Not Open’. For if all that is required to make a teleporter into a replicator of beings is a jolt of energy, then the moment anyone has transmats (as Doctor Who traditionally calls teleporters), you instantaneously have immortality for everyone, not to mention perfect instantaneous cloning, and all the intriguing problems with personal identity than Ronald D. Moore explored in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica. Because energy is a generalized resource, and not that hard to come by – particularly if you can simply zap a humanoid to get it – it is simply not a sufficient barrier to prevent the vast swathe of problems that come from conceiving of teleporters in these terms.
Let’s try and be generous to Moffat and imagine that it is the regeneration energy or time energy in the Doctor’s body that is required to thread the needle and make the teleporter into an autocloner. That at least prevents ordinary humans in, say, The Seeds of Death from having instant immortality and duplication from T-Mat. But the energy put into the teleporter each time should be reduced by the amount used to restart it (if regeneration energy) or entirely expended the first time (if time energy), so neither is a very plausible way of mounting the closed loop required for Heaven Sent to work. The situation is far worse if you just ‘burn’ a body to run it a second time. The Master needn’t have spent so many years hunting down ways to get a new body in the plot arc beginning at The Deadly Assassin (clearly an influence on this episode) since he could just use a transmat and a random victim to make a new him simply by having copied himself prior to his last regeneration. I’m afraid it doesn’t work as an element of the mythos: it only works as a means of making this individual episode have a dramatic finale.
That, in a nutshell, is Moffat’s problem. He’s content to make an episode under his jurisdiction work as well as it can in its own terms, regardless of the implications for the mythos. (Kill the Moon, anyone?) But he’s schizophrenic about this, because at the same time he is so admirably dedicated to maintaining and repairing the mythology and, for that matter, integrating the best of the non-canonical Who lore into the master canon. (In this regard, does the next episode, Hell Bent, imply resolving both the so-called Cartmel masterplan and the loose ends with the 1996 TV movie? Ambitious!) I have nothing but admiration for the way that Night of the Doctor not only gave some closure to the eighth Doctor, but also made all the Paul McGann Big Finish audio plays into quasi-canonical stories by name-checking every one of his companions on screen. That’s a move so bold that I just can’t imagine anyone but Moffat daring to do it.
Perhaps this is the point: Moffat is daring – positively reckless, in fact – with Doctor Who, always trying to mount bigger, more ludicrous high concept stories atop of a rather fluid conception of continuity and long-term plotting that he simultaneously savages and painstakingly repairs. Which is precisely Heaven Sent’s problem. It’s a ridiculous piece of high concept storytelling, utterly dependent upon its opening scene not giving the game away (much like The Usual Suspects, actually), and one that opens up the teleporter wormcan and hopes that its consequences can simply be ignored. (Actually, any psychological consequences can be ignored, since to the last and only survivor of these Doctor-copies only a short time has passed!) Perhaps some future showrunner will be able to fix the complications Moffat unleashes here by reconceptualising teleporters, but I doubt it. More likely, it will remain another tear in the fabric of the Whoniverse made by Moffat in pursuit of his own standards of storytelling. I admire him. He has, as they say in New York, chutzpah; audacity – both good and bad. But I also hope and trust that he’s working on the challenging problem of who could conceivably replace him when he eventually steps down.
I tremendously enjoyed Stephen Moffat's start as a showrunner, but I find that to my taste his tenure has had diminishing returns. Season Five I loved, Six I liked, Seven I uncomfortably tolerated, Eight I made the mistake of suffering through, and with Nine I find it so thoroughly unwatchable that no amount of praise for any particular episode will lure me back.
There are many things that have changed over that time. One is tied to the uneven approach to continuity that you highlight: Moffat loves to suggest a larger continuity, teasing mysteries for the audience to solve and creating momentum in plot arcs, but always eventually uses last-minute swerves to avoid having to deal with the interesting implications of these games. Some of my building frustration with the show was tied to disappointment over the buildup to a twist with River Song that never came, the development of the Doctor going into hiding which was immediately ignored, or the resolution of the Ponds' story being so utterly convoluted (in its efforts to both give them a happy ending and write them out permanently) that I lost all investment in their characters.
But I also feel that there's less of an effort to have the stories be about characters at all. When Matt Smith came on, he and Amelia were immediately fun to watch bounce off of each other because they had so much personality. But then we got Clara, who devolved almost immediately from two intriguing, fun characters into a cardboard cut-out of a companion. And then Peter Capaldi came on, replacing the whimsy and sadness that Matt Smith was able to bring to the part with a monotonous whine.
The bigger problem I have with the current Doctor Who, however, is that it's changed from being a fun fairy tale to a relentlessly sanctimonious political screed. The philosophy wherein soldiers are inherently evil and giving monsters free rein is always a good idea is hardly unique to Doctor Who (especially in British culture), and it certainly hasn't just entered this show, but the message has gotten so pervasive on the show as to be impossible to overlook. As an Israeli, I perhaps am more aware of the realities of war than the average British writer. I've had the sadly common experience of actually seeing missiles be shot down above my head, which were intended to kill me and any other civilians in the area. So to have the show repeatedly insist that a soldier like Danny Pink can only "balance the scales" by killing himself, that to be given control of an army like UNIT is such a horrible fate that the Doctor needs to be physically forced into taking command, and that a mass-murderer like Missy is just an amusing foil who can basically stand in for River Song, is deeply offensive.
Posted by: Mordechai Buxner | December 08, 2015 at 12:26 PM
Many thanks for your comment! It's good to hear from someone who shares my problems with Moffat's approach to Doctor Who, even if we are divided on the merits. I actually found myself really enjoying series 9, after being thoroughly disappointed with series 8, and although I still have my problems I am at least getting some value out of continuing to watch.
One of your comments aptly sums up Moffat's problem when it comes to continuity:
"Moffat loves to suggest a larger continuity, teasing mysteries for the audience to solve and creating momentum in plot arcs, but always eventually uses last-minute swerves to avoid having to deal with the interesting implications of these games"
Aye, and I would add that in doing this he frequently creates the impression of a grand plan in the background, when later it becomes clear that he is just throwing out his ideas more-or-less at random and picking up whichever parts he cares to pursue. I would appreciate far more care and attention to the long term plotting than we've been afforded. A grand twist falls flat when the path to it has not been properly laid.
However, I disagree with your assessment that there has been an underlying philosophy that "soldiers are inherently evil and giving monsters free rein is always a good idea". The ambivalent relationship between the Doctor and soldiers, both in the form of UNIT and in general, has been a long running theme of the show, and I do not feel that the show has been presenting the military in the entirely negative light you imply here.
I have not had the experiences you have had of being frequently threatened by death from my neighbours, and I cannot substitute (say) my grandmother's memories of World War II or my own memories of the IRA bombing of Manchester for what you talk about here as an Israeli. I would like to talk to you further about this topic, since the situation in your country is a source of constant concern to me, and emblematic of international problems we all face. Perhaps I should write to you about this some other time, for I do not wish our discussion of Doctor Who to be pulled solely onto this grave matter, which deserves its own treatment.
Let me instead focus on the three points you make. In the matter of making Missy into "just an amusing foil", I concur. There is something offensive about how this plays out in practice, although I fear it can be traced back to John Simm's Master. The whole identity of the Master character feels radically removed from the original Roger Delgado character, and while the arc of this character in the show has always been towards the darker and more murderous, there is something disturbing about choosing to play this for laughs.
Regarding the Doctor being given control of UNIT, however, I perceive two threads that make this seem in-character - firstly, the Doctor's ambivalent relationship with UNIT from Jon Pertwee's era onwards (beginning with "The Silurians"), secondly the Doctor's discomfort with being put in charge from the Tom Baker era onwards (beginning with "The Deadly Assassin"). I had no especial love for how any of this played out in Nu Who, but it didn't seem to me to be out-of-bounds in terms of the long-term continuity.
Danny Pink, on the other hand, is more of a problematic area. I have a very different reading of this character's role in the show. I was, I shall begin by pointing out, rather disappointed with the resolution of his arc for various reasons - not least of which the ways it seemed to undermine the continuity from "Listen". But for the most part, I found in his character an opportunity to demonstrate the Doctor's distrust with soldiers, and I found the way that Danny's skills as a soldier were portrayed within the show were very much a counter-narrative to the hackneyed 60s sci-fi General who thinks blowing things up is an answer to everything. Particularly within "In the Forest of the Night" (which I didn't particularly enjoy), Danny is shown in his competences, and it is shown that these go far beyond killing - and this is actually a rare thing for a soldier character in any sci-fi context.
The question of "balancing the scales" that you refer to does not play the same for me as it did for you. For the point being made is not that Danny must atone for being a soldier, since my read of the (frankly rather weak) series 8 is that it is largely pushing against soldier stereotypes by virtue of contrasting Danny against the Doctor's prejudices (which are fairly commonly held in the UK, I would say). The point was not that he had to atone for being a soldier, but that he had accidentally killed a civilian, and worse, a civilian child, and that he was given a chance to address this. As a dutiful soldier, he did what he had to do. This was not, to my mind, the worst way of ending his plot arc. I was still unsatisfied with the arc, mind you, but my perspective upon it is radically different from yours.
Many thanks for giving me the opportunity to draw out some of these points in detail.
Posted by: Chris | December 09, 2015 at 12:28 PM
A lot of the things I'm talking about would be perfectly unassuming in isolation. But put them all together, and they paint a troubling picture.
But let's take Danny specifically, because I think our sharpest divergence of opinion is there. Yes, he's sympathetic, but there was no need to make the show's one more sympathetic soldier character be one wracked by guilt. If that's representative of the British army, then perhaps the British army is less competent than ours, I don't know. But if the orders coming down the chain of command aren't utterly disastrous, most soldiers are not going to have that experience.
Again, there's a difference between the views of people who only hear about soldiers vaguely on the news, and people like me, many of whose family and friends has been in the army. Most soldiers are not wracked with guilt over horrible things they've done, because (if the army has any morals at all, and some armies do) they take pains to avoid said horrible things. The soldiers I know are good, idealistic people, who've been proud to do jobs (usually menial ones) that ultimately are necessary for all of our continued survival. They might feel that the army was a waste of time, but they're not (in general) wracked with the kind of guilt that British pop culture would have you believe.
When our soldiers are fighting enemy soldiers or terrorists, they make sure to avoid civilian deaths even when said civilians are making it very difficult (e.g. by standing in front of terrorists, or actively throwing stones and the like). I don't think much of this makes it to the BBC, but we hear stories here about our soldiers getting themselves wounded or killed because people are attacking them and for moral or political reasons they're not allowed to fight back.
When kids get killed (and it does happen), they are often children who, criminally, have been brainwashed by their own parents into inserting themselves into the line of fire for the sake of getting "martyred". When you have kids with knives trying to play at being soldiers, and dangerous rockets and explosives being put into schools, avoiding civilian casualties because inhumanly difficult. But that doesn't mean you can just wash your hands of the whole soldiering business and let people continue to shoot you, to kidnap your civilians, to blow up buildings. I'm living in Jerusalem, where I can't say for certain that walking to the store with my daughter won't lead to someone killing us both with a knife. Because people are doing that, and Palestinian political leaders are explicitly telling them to do that. The only reassurance I have that I can live my life is that we have well-trained soldiers.
But in the UK, for some reason, it seems like soldiers are seen as inherently immoral. There was some footage of an Israeli soldier shooting and killing a man running toward civilians with a knife, and the international media was playing this as unjustified brutality that we should be ashamed of. That's not ambiguous morality. If someone's trying to go on a murder spree, and is very visibly seconds away from starting, you need to act immediately. There's no guilt to be had there. I don't remember the specifics of the incident in Doctor Who, and I'm sure they painted it as much less black-and-white than the scenarios I've cited, but the fact remains that the soldier who's "on our side" in the show is the one who has the most trouble with his history as a soldier. It's just further stigmatizing of the military, from a culture that does so much of it it's a wonder to me that anyone still enlists (and, consequently, that the country still stands).
Doctor Who is a show where any enemy can be beaten by monologuing at them and proving your own cleverness. It's a show where the most fearsome, pure-evil enemy is the Daleks, who over and over have the Doctor standing right in front of them, and don't bother to shoot because they have the good manners to let him say his piece first. This detachment from reality has always been a part of the show, and it works when it's essentially a family show with no real danger. But when the show indulges in season-long arcs about soldiers, when it draws over and over and over from the "nasty military" well, when it stops being "for kids" and starts being self-righteous melodrama, it becomes insufferable and I start worrying more and more about what sort of philosophical damage the show might be doing by so distorting the nature of war.
Posted by: Mordechai Buxner | December 10, 2015 at 11:18 AM
Thanks for returning to continue our discussion.
While I have no direct experience of war, I have had friends in service, and indeed I write about some of these experiences in "Chaos Ethics", during a time that I was writing letters to a British friend of mine who ended up serving in Iraq for the US army. This, and conversations with my father-in-law, who served in Vietnam, have given me a very different perspective on military service than most of my peers in the UK, although of course it is entirely from the outside.
I can see why you found this story arc to be offensive, although I do not think the decision to play up the melodrama here is reflective of any specific criticism of military service, as you appear to. On the contrary, I rather suspect this is simply the modus operandi of Nu Who in a nutshell: science fiction plus melodrama, with the melodrama being pushed as far as possible.
Although it is probably no consolation to you, while I do not align with you on this particular point, I share your concern about the "philosophical damage" the show could do through distortion of chosen themes. I faced this in the portrayal of religion in Nu Who, especially in the Russell T. Davies era, but also under Moffat's watch. I was relieved to get through a whole series this year with only the barest minimum of anti-religious digs included. I wonder, indeed, if this has contributed to my more positive perspective upon this year's shows.
Many thanks for the discussion,
Posted by: Chris | December 10, 2015 at 02:27 PM