September 3rd, 2012
Does Steven Moffat not want to be writing for the Daleks?
It would make sense that he doesn’t — the Daleks are fundamentally uninteresting antagonists from a story point of view. They’re an incredible visual and aural design, of course, but as far as stories go, there aren’t really very many that you can do with them.
But there appears to be an obligation for the makers of the current series to include at least one Dalek story in every series of Doctor Who, no matter what — in the seven years since the show came back, we’ve had eight Dalek stories, and only one of them (Dalek) has been what a dispassionate observer might call “any good at all”. For comparison, in the seven years that Tom Baker was the Doctor, there were only two Dalek stories (only one of which was any good at all).
So we get stories like this, in which Moffat tries desperately to make the metal pepperpots interesting by throwing everything he has at them.
Dalek stories in what is now apparently called the ‘classic’ series followed a formula to a quite ridiculous extent. A bunch of peaceful humans, or humanoid aliens, with names like Terren and Ashun would be being enslaved on a jungle planet, forced to mine the rarest metal in the world, Terrynatium, by beings referred to only as “…them!”. The Doctor and his assistant would turn up on a spaceship containing a landing party of Space Marines, armed with Space Guns, who would be Space concerned by the Doctor’s sudden Space appearance before deciding to let him be their Space Leader. There would then be a cliffhanger reveal that the baddies in the story, called “Mining Operation Of The Daleks”, were the Daleks, followed by two episodes of the Doctor and his assistant getting captured and escaping (and the Doctor’s assistant spraining her ankle), before the Doctor gives a rousing speech to the mine slaves about how pacifism is wrong and you should fight oppression, at which they say “Oh, we never realised you could fight back!” and beat the Daleks. The end.
There’s a similar formula to even the best of the post-2005 series — each episode has the A-B-C format familiar to fans of soap operas or superhero comics (but I repeat myself) — in the A plot, wrapped up in the single episode, we have an attack by some ‘monsters’ who get beaten by the Doctor doing something clever (or, more often, by the Doctor zapping something with the sonic screwdriver) with the aid of a guest star. Then in the B plot some supporting characters learn a valuable lesson about their emotions (this will usually be a lesson they’ve learned before, because of the way ‘story arcs’ have been grafted badly onto a format that was never really designed for them — hence the “Oh my God, they killed Rory! You bastards!” of the first two Moffat series), which in some way ties in thematically with the A plot (usually weakly — this has tended to be the weakest thing about the post-2005 series). And finally, in the C plot, we get a hint as to a big picture series ‘arc’ that is meant to keep us watching next week.
Onto this standard template — which can work, and has done several times in the past — Moffat has here grafted on so many bits of his own previous writing that this might as well have been put together by Moffatbot 6000 (like the Moffatbot 9000, but with fewer features). We have a story that’s set in one big ‘spooky’ environment — in this case an ‘asylum’ but in previous stories he’s done libraries and museums — but where the ostensible purpose of the environment isn’t really anything to do with the adventure. Here it’s an ‘asylum’ but the Daleks in it don’t seem any more mentally ill than any other Daleks — and after having worked for several years in mental health I can’t help but criticise the lazy “ooh aren’t asylums scary?”, which is almost as annoying as the lazy “just a phase” stereotyped bisexual — but he’s also done a library where books aren’t important. We have ‘nanites’ taking over people’s bodies. We have the appearance of a mysterious woman who is going to be important to the Doctor’s future. We have a female character in a virtual reality who doesn’t realise it. We have that character communicating with the Doctor entirely through the medium of public address systems and the TV. If you added in a little girl who had the Doctor as her imaginary friend, you’d have a complete line in Moffat Bingo.
As an isolated episode, it works well enough — there are plot holes through which you could drive a fleet of Dalek spaceships, but when haven’t there been? — but in the context of the way the series has been going it’s worrying.
Moffat is far from a bad writer — in fact, other than Rob Shearman he’s by far the best writer the post-2005 series has had (yes, that includes Gaiman), but he’s a particular *kind* of writer. He can do two things well. The first is a kind of sitcomish dialogue — well, ‘dialogue’ is the wrong word, really — banter. That’s the word. he can write sitcom banter very well. Not in a way that’s to my taste, necessarily, but in a way that a lot of people do like. He’s no good on character — all his characters have much the same voice, when he doesn’t have a very strong actor defining the part for him — but he can come up with witty and memorable phrases.
So that’s not too bad — granted, the emotional character moments are going to be weak, but they always have been since 2005.
More problematic is his plotting style. Moffat is very, very good at coming up with Twilight Zone style plots, with genuinely surprising twists and an intricate construction that allows for some exciting and spooky moments.
But these plots only work if you don’t have any time to think about them. The Big Bang, for example — the 2010 series finale episode — makes absolutely no kind of coherent or logical sense on any level. That’s not a criticism — very far from it. It’s a magic trick, and all magic tricks work by misdirection, making you create a coherent story in your head from a bunch of signifiers, while in reality something totally different was going on. You can like or dislike that kind of plot — it’s not to my personal taste, as it happens — but it’s a perfectly valid way of telling a story, and very suited to Doctor Who.
The problem is that last year Moffat applied this kind of thinking to the series as a whole, for the ‘story arc’, and from the evidence of this story (where the only bits where Moffat’s writing seems inspired, rather than just going through the motions, are the bits hinting at future developments) he’s going to do the same again. The ‘story arc’ (I hate that phrase, but it seems to be the one to use for this kind of thing) seems to be more important, certainly, than the story for this individual episode.
And the problem is that Moffat’s kind of plotting just doesn’t work well over an extended period, precisely because of the magic trick nature. A good close-up magician can force a card, substitute it for another one while distracting you with her other hand, fake shuffling it back into the pack, and drop it into your drink for you to find there. She can do that because the trick takes place in a space of minutes, and she has control of the room and the rhythms of the performance.
Trying to extend Moffat’s plotting style over a thirteen-episode ‘story arc’ is like the magician taking a week between each step of the trick, and allowing you to watch repeats of each step, in slow-motion if you choose, while discussing every aspect of it with an international community of millions of magic-lovers. No magic trick could survive that, and neither could Moffat’s story arc last year.
Moffat has, of course, been talking about how there is much less of an overall storyline to this year’s series, with everything conceived as single-episode stories, but Moffat also happily lies about the show to preserve suspense (as he should). From the look of this episode, we’re in for another series where the series arc matters more than the individual stories.
Still, maybe he’ll surprise us. If he can come up with a series-spanning arc that works as well as his best individual episodes, then this could be as good a series as any we’ve seen.
On the other hand, next week’s episode is by Chris Chibnall…