Sunday, 8 June 2008

In Which I Take A Writer Massively More Talented Than Me And Explain Why He Sucks

First of all, the necessary disclaimer: I actually rate Steven Moffat pretty highly as a writer. If the space-time continuum had flowed a little differently and I'd had the sufficient time/will/talent/desire to make my parents miserable that would have been required to allow me to write professionally, Moffat's Who output is likely to have been the sort of thing I would have aimed for.

Having said that, though, his latest Doctor Who two-parter has got me wondering to what extent he is a genuinely imaginative writer, and to what extent he is simply regurgitating the same basic ideas in different orders every time he sits in front of the type-writer. As justification for my fears, I present to you the Steven Moffat scary-ass Doctor Who episode checklist, which will allow you too to churn out stories that chubby-faced celebrity-whore RTD will declare genius every time a wide-angle lens allows his flabby face to hove into view.

1. Make something ordinary scary.
Moffat flirted with this in The Empty Child using telephones and tape recorders, and of course children themselves (although from what I remember of my early years, I reckon scary-ass children are considerably more scary-ass to adults), started sleeping with it in Girl In The Fireplace (ticking clocks) then married it in Blink with the statues (to the point where the episode contained a totally unnecessary and borderline fourth-wall breaking montage of various statues, the rapid-fire visual equivalent of having RTD appear at the bottom of the screen and shout "There you go, viewers! Statues are scary now! Your children's lives are ruined! WE DEMAND A BAFTA!"). As of last night Moffat has officially begun to beat his new bride with the attempt to scarify both shadows (hardly original) and dust (just bat-shit insane).

2. Take an innocuous phrase and make it soooooooo spooky!
Item: "Are you my Mummy?" Scare factor: extreme. Doctor Who often does quite well when it touches upon missing children/parents/family members (one of my all time favourite Who moments remains Kathleen Dudman in The Curse of Fenric asking the Seventh Doctor if he has any family himself; his response: "I don't know"). Note that this does not mean they should be basing an entire fucking season around it, but then RTD never had an idea he didn't love so much he would try to cram it into every damn thing he could [1].

Item: "We did not have the parts". Scare factor: None, really, but the moment it clicked what the robots meant I concluded it was the most creepy idea the new series had had to date.

Item: "Don't blink!" Scare factor: significant. Have you tried not blinking? Even attempting to keep winking with alternate eyes doesn't work, for reasons I don't understand. Plus, those statues were genuinely messed-up, even if when you watch the episode again you very quickly realise that there are plenty of times when Sally and co aren't watching the angels and they could've pounced and chose not to [2].

Item: "Who turned out the lights?" Scare factor: Zero. There's nothing scary about the idea behind the phrase. In fact, Moffat had to include the data ghost idea just so the repetition made any sense at all. This is exactly why I had a problem with this story, I could see the gears working as Moffat worked his way through this list.

3. Make sure no-one dies.
I flat-out adored the ending of The Doctor Dances, because as a child of the Eighties I remember when Doctor Who stories positively demanded body counts that would make John McClane blush. Tegan even gave up travelling with the Doctor because she was so disgusted with the constant massacring of all and sundry whenever they rolled up to visit. The idea that, just for once, the massive death tally could be reversed was wonderful (and Eccleston did wonders selling the Doctor's euphoria).

The problem was (and this can't be laid at Moffat's door, in fairness) was that it started a run of episodes in which some or all of the irksome events of the previous forty minutes were hurriedly erased in the final five. In the case of The Parting of the Ways, I was prepared to forgive since the re-ordering of time cost the Doctor a regeneration (and I was still so busy spitting feathers over the idiocy of the "Bad Wolf" resolution that I didn't have time to regenerate my bile), but then New Earth pulled the same trick. So did The Idiot's Lantern, Fear Her, Last of the Time Lords, etc. etc.

The next two Moffat stories avoided continuing the trend he started, but it's worth noting that in Girl in the Fireplace, no-one dies on-screen, although of course the freighter crew have already been killed and harvested, and in Blink the only person seen to die passes away quietly in their sleep having lived a full life. There's nothing wrong with eschewing carnage, of course, but it did mean that when it appeared a whole mess of people had disappeared from the universe's biggest library, the immediate thought I had was not "What happened to them?" but "How convincing will the hand-waving be when they're returned?" (The answer, by the way, was "Convincing enough", although I still don't see why the number was only 4022 given we're supposedly dealing with an entire planet here). Even those that got eaten alive by swarms of shadows merrily pop up in the virtual universe (those pesky data ghosts again) that a little girl from the far future has bafflingly decided to base upon the early twenty-first century.

4. Mock the fan-boys.
Not even fan-boys, necessarily, anyone with more than a passing interest in sci-fi. Maybe not so much in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, in which the nods to the genre were pretty gentle (something about getting “some Spock”, if I remember rightly) but by Blink we were faced with Larry, most one-notey of the one-note geek characters, whose entire character arc was basically the revelation that one could be a geek without being totally worthless. I won’t dwell too much on this one, mainly because Lawrence Miles described it so well last week (here, although because he hates you, yes you specifically, he removes his reviews after seven days), his basic thesis (or at least the relevant part) being that Moffat constantly trips over himself to reassure his audience that what he’s writing isn’t really SF because it has romance and funny lines in it too. Wasn’t it Margaret Atwood who insisted she didn’t write science-fiction because at no point in A Handmaid’s Tale was a space-ship attacked by an interstellar squid (and ain’t that a goddamn shame)? Miles is convinced Moffat is the TV writer equivalent, and I see the point [3]. This time round I guess we only had to live through them chucking the word spoilers around the whole time, forgetting that laughs of recognition are not subject to the rule of three, let alone the rule of three times three.

Actually, I may be being unfair on this one, but then it’s getting increasingly hard not to watch Doctor Who on a hair-trigger for these things. I guess once the ruler of the fascist junta pumping out the caffeine-addled celebrity-enslaved shuffling vacant zombie (that used to be a TV programme rather than a loose collection of sketches, bloated CGI and scenes which are emotionally important because they have VERY LOUD FUCKING STRING MUSIC SO SHUT UP) that is Nu Who comes up with a faintly offensive nickname to describe a non-existent grouping of fans that you would unwillingly labelled as part of, you start to get a little paranoid.

5. Tug heartstrings.
I feel faintly bad about including this one, since it’s possibly just further evidence that I am dead inside, but there was an odd similarity between Donna comforting the data ghost of Ms. Evangelista and Sally Sparrow watching Billy Shipton breathe his last. The latter, though, made sense (well, not really, who the hell writes a list of instructions to a Time Lord she’s yet to meet and includes the line “Make sure you tell the detective the angels kick back in time that he’ll cark it just after the end of a brief spell of precipitation”, but it made some sense); the data ghost thing just seemed opportunistic, a way for people to die instantly but still need agonisingly long death scenes [4] to prove this show is about more than science-fiction (see earlier).

6. The sudden realisation.
The six people line wasn’t nearly as interesting as the first time Moffat did it with end of the tape, or when he did it with ticking in a room with a broken clock. He may have done a similar thing in Blink, although I don't remember it.

So there we are. An enemy scary in its mundane nature, a spooky playground-ready catchphrase, a body count of zero to the point where anyone who dies will automatically be reborn somehow in minute forty-one, needling at anyone who dares to suggest the show be treated as an ongoing narrative rather than a weekly conjuring show with bolted-on fireworks display, a frequently unnecessary attempt to reach for drama, rather than just allowing it to flow naturally from the characters, and a visual or audio clue presented in full view for the Doctor to point out so that he seems smarter than everyone else.

Have I missed anything?

[1] Still, at least it's a theme this year, and not just a word. A lot of people at one time or another have asked why people like me demand stories and plot threads that last for years rather than forty-five minutes. The only answers I can give are a) because they are better and shut up, that's why; and b) I could happily live with Doctor Who not embracing the Buffy model of stories that develop over the course of a year, the problem is RTD apparently thinks he is following that model, but is so cack-handed it took him three attempts to come up with anything that wasn't even a phrase (a totally nonsensical one in hindsight) or a year long advert for a spin-off so poor, it was like watching a thirteen episode long car crash punctuated by strangely sterile sex scenes.

[2] In fact, the only way Blink can even remotely work as an episode is if we as viewers affect the angels as well (observe them attacking the TARDIS at the end, who's watching them whilst Sally and her witless foil are cowering inside?), an idea about which the less said the better.

[3] Miles also makes the excellent point that Moffat's rep as a brilliant character writer may be significantly over-stated, comprising as it does mainly of the fact that the man knows his way around dialogue. Being funny is not the same as being well-rounded, as I have been told in the past several times, both regarding my writing and my daily life.

[4] That’s three out of four mini-rants that have the Data Ghost in them. Could this be the most useful nonsensical plot contrivance since the sonic screwdriver returned from its very, very deserved exile?


Jamie said...

Sounds pretty convincing to me, although I've skipped some of the stuff about seasons 3 and 4 since I've yet to watch them properly.

He's still miles better than Davies though. Should be interesting to see what happens when Moffat takes up the reins...

SpaceSquid said...

Well, again channeling Miles, what does it say that the most cookie-cutter cynical attempt to relive past glories by box-ticking is still the best story this season has managed by a country mile.

God help us for the next four episodes, all written by RTD.

Kim said...

I too was unimpressed. It would have ticked some nice scary-4-kids boxes if I hadn't seen his other episodes. Lame! And I am so fed up of these whiny women who have such a 'strong, loving, platonic connection' to the doctor which appears to destroy them for any other normal fella. Where is little miss 'you dragged me off to terrifying planets, never completely explained yourself and appear to have a genocidal streak- die you lanky freak!'?

SpaceSquid said...

A point well taken. Who's idea of a strong woman seems to be anyone of the XX persuasion who happens to have a crush only on the Doctor and no-one else.

Which is quite a mistake for someone who genuinely understands what makes the Doctor so awesome in the first place: brilliant and unloved.

Gooder said...

To be fair I suspect most of the things listed can be seen as what is being asked of Moffat in terms of a Dr Who script, his work on Coupling and Jeykel is very different.

And having watched Remembrence of the Daleks the other day I suspect it would be a challenge to find any supporting character who only features in noe story who isn't thinly sketched.

Nor I do I feel the impluse to add pathos to the stories is a bad thing, if anything the new series could use more of.

And has there ever really been an strong ongoing narritive in Dr Who?

SpaceSquid said...

I suggested editorial interference myself on the SFX forum and was told in no uncertain terms that RTD leaves Moffat alone completely. Make of that what you will.

I'm happy to concede that minor characters are liable to be one-note. But aside from the Doctor and Donna, I'd argue that River was the only remotely interesting character in the entire two-parter.

As for pathos, I'm all for it, and I agree with you that the show could do with more of it. My point was that this time round it felt so deliberately manipulative. Much like killing of Kylie in the Xmas special; you can't feel sadness over a character's death (especially one who had about three lines all of which were variants on "I'm stupid; please pity me!") if there's a huge flashing sign on screen screaming "THIS SHOULD MAKE YOU FEEL BAD!!!"

SpaceSquid said...

As regards strong on-going narratives, the answer is: only shit ones.

But again, I'm not arguing there has to be one, I'm arguing that it you can't do it effectively, you shouldn't try.

Kim said...

There's pathos and there's whiny bloody annoyances. I don't need to see someone upset and in-love, to feel an emotional draw. I liked River until she went all 'we have a connection'