Thursday, 24 September 2015

The Haldane Paradox

Haldane's the one on the left. I think. It's been a while.
(Spoilers for last week's Doctor Who below.)

Never let it be said that Space Precinct never did anything for anyone. Quite aside from its storming theme tune, it waskind enough to give 15 year old Mini-Squid an important lesson in narrative structure.

Six episodes in, perhaps realising the set-up Gerry Anderson had laid out for them wasn't really going to get the job done, some of the show's writers said to themselves "Sod it; let's just do Terminator", and put together a story in which an unstoppable cyborg goes back in time to murder the shit out of everyone.

And it does pretty well. Within minutes of arrival, one of the main characters is gunned down and killed. Mini-Squid was impressed. It was a bold and surprising move. Main characters just didn't die like that, not back then. A frankly unbearably creaky show, a relic of an era long dead, finally seemed to be doing something new and interesting.

Then a second main character, Jack Haldane, got himself rubbed out, and I worked out what was going on.

I named what I learned the Haldane Paradox, which very simply says that the higher the stakes, the lower the stakes. When a villain announces she will blow up a building, she might succeed. When she announces she will blow up the world, she will obviously fail. When a minor character dies, it might well stick; when multiple headline characters die, it will obviously be a temporary state of affairs.

This is why I'm not convinced by much of the criticism of how "The Magician's Apprentice" ended. If I've spotted a general truth of narrative, there's no chance it will have passed someone like Steven Moffat by. When Missy is atomised in the final moments of last week's Who episode, it's just about possible that she will stay dead, at least as far as that has any meaning for the Villain Formerly Known As Master. Moffat could have left it there, with at least a plausible question mark over what the state of play will be by half eight the day after tomorrow.  But he didn't.  He gunned down Clara too.  There's no point complaining that there's no chance the two characters are both dead; that's explicitly the point. We're being told here that the deaths of Missy and Clara are a temporary state of affairs. That what matters here isn't that the Doctor might have lost his friends forever, but what incorrectly thinking he's lost them will cause him to do - specifically, whether he'll shoot Kidros square in the face.

Now, this is not an approach without problems. Anyone wanting to argue that a fridging done in order to give the Doctor manfeels is still a bad idea even when the fridge will be... unplugged? I don't know how the metaphor functions in this case - isn't going to get any argument from me (though I'd want to see how the gender balance and politics unfold throughout the season before I take too firm a stance on it myself). Knowing Clara and Missy won't stay dead, however, is no more a tension killer than knowing Davros wouldn't actually torture Sarah-Jane and Harry to death in "Genesis of the Daleks".

With all that said, though, I'm aware that I've gone on record getting fed up when Russell T Davies and Chris Chibnall used to wave their magic wands and restore everyone back to life every twenty minutes. Am I not being hypocritical? Well, maybe. I can't deny my low opinion of Davies' and Chibnall's styles (not that I think either of them haven't managed great episodes) might be coming into play here. But really, I think it's a mistake to complain about the actual nature of the "Everyone lives!" ending, as oppose to analysing the aspects of such an ending that make it work or otherwise.  My problem with Davies' use of the trick was that it was done for the sake of overwrought melodrama; that he was incapable of realising that having David Tennant act sad on screen isn't actually very interesting. It works still less with John Barrowman, who whilst undeniably brilliant at certain things has a frighteningly narrow range. Someone (maybe Phil Sandifer?) pointed out once that Davies' approach is that it doesn't matter if the entirety of a story "didn't happen" so long as there is an emotional cost for at least one of the characters. Which, honestly, doesn't seem unreasonable in principle.  The problem comes when you realise Davies only has two settings when following up on that cost, "ignore" and "pound into the fucking ground amid Murray Gold yelling "NOW IS THE TIME FOR SADNESS!" at his orchestra". Davies' resets were just ways to take the Doctorsads to eleven every few episodes in a way that he couldn't were he to follow through on his set-ups.

(There's also the difference between knowing something will be reversed because of the Haldane Paradox and knowing it will be reversed because that's just what Davies' usually writes. Narrative conventions and irritating personal tics are not the same thing.)

In contrast to the Davies approach, what Moffat is doing here strikes me as potentially interesting. As with the best cliffhangers (and this is definitely something I've got from Sandifer) the burning question isn't "Will the Doctor survive/get his friends back" but "HOW will the Doctor survive/get his friends back". On this occasion the ostensible answer is "by effectively murdering billions of sentient creatures by murdering their creator before he'd even drawn up the first eye-stalk". I'm not saying that couldn't go horribly wrong, I'm just pointing out that it hasn't gone horribly wrong yet.  I may well be swearing at my television soon enough. For now, though, I'm holding off. TL;DR: I'm not going to open fire before the Doctor has the chance to.

(Also: loved Missy almost as much as I loved the handmines. Referencing forty-year old stories through the medium of grotesque horror images born of childish puns is absolutely the way to go.)

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