October 4th, 2012
I feel sorry for Chris Chibnall. He’s clearly the least talented writer working on the new series of Doctor Who by some considerable way — you only have to watch anything he’s ever written to see that he has about as much understanding of writing drama as I have of the diplomatic relations between Finland and Latvia in the 17th century — but he’s *trying*. You can see him struggling against his limitations in the scripts he’s done for the new series. He’s been told his scripts are sexist, for example, so he made sure in Dinosaurs On A Spaceship to have a bit where someone says sexism is wrong. He’s been told his scripts are too grimungritty, so he writes two ‘fun’ episodes this year. He’s learning from his mistakes.
That doesn’t make the results any good, of course — he’s still basically incompetent as a writer — but it’s heart-warming, like watching a little kid on school sports day having to pick their beanbag up for the seventh time in the egg-and-spoon race, but keeping going anyway.
And in this series, Chibnall has been up against Toby Whithouse and Steven Moffat, both of whom are writers with infinitely more natural ability, but neither of whom have bothered at all, and the result has been, amazingly, that Chibnall’s episodes have held up better than the rest.
The Power Of Three, for example, is a poor piece of work, but it’s not *offensively* bad. The basic plot of the adventure, such as it is, is a decent idea — billions of little boxes turn up on the Earth one day, and just sit there doing nothing. Mike Taylor points out, correctly, that this is probably ‘inspired’ by the 1970s children’s SF book Trillions, by Nicholas Fisk, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Doctor Who has an honourable tradition of stealing ideas from anyone and everyone, and Fisk’s books are literary cousins of the early Target novels, both Fisk and Terrance Dicks essentially writing English versions of Robert Heinlein’s ‘juveniles’.
The main problems with the story, in fact, boil down to only two things. The first is that, as in an increasing number of episodes of post-2005 Doctor Who, the plot is narrated in large part by getting loads of celebrities to make supposedly amusing cameos as themselves on TV. Quite who is meant to be impressed or entertained by these cameos, I’m not sure, but they are just infodumps that happen to be made by famous people rather than by characters in the series. (At least I assume they’re famous people. I don’t watch much TV. I recognised Brian Cox though, so I assume the others are equally well-known).
The other problem is that rather than the plot being resolved by anything that comes from the setup, characters or anything else intrinsic to the story, it just gets resolved by the Doctor waving a magic wand and making everything better. It’s not really actually a plot at all in any conventional understanding of the term, just a bunch of stuff that happens.
But of course, the point of the story wasn’t the plot. It was to set up the departure of the Doctor’s companions, by showing that they don’t need him any more and are growing away from him. And Chibnall did that, if not well, at least competently. We were hit over the head with the themes over and over, but we were left in no doubt as to what they were.
So it’s a shame that Steven Moffat decided to waste all that work and just have them be zapped back in time by baddies instead.
At this point, frankly, I want to say much of what Dorian Wright has said on postmodernbarney about this episode. In particular, I think this gets right to the heart of the problems, not just with this story but with the series:
No, I think where the laziness is coming from is that the people in charge of the show aren’t interested in people who are Doctor Who fans, they’re interested in people who are fans. Full stop. People who are, essentially fans of…being fans. Who just like to be into…things. Because it’s a thing, and God help you if you’re not into it. They want to please that mercurial, fickle, transitory audience that watches an episode and immediately floods the internet with animated gifs and posts on Twitter and Tumblr about their “feels” about the show and who communicate with one another entirely in references to pop culture ephemera, like that really shitty Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, only with jokes about bronies and t-shirt’s mashing up Dexter and Game of Thrones.
The show under Moffat, even more than under Russel Davies (who was a much worse writer than Moffat is) has become very cynically targetted at that specific audience, and has become, in effect, a mega-budgeted tumblr meme.
The thinking behind it is precisely the same thinking that is used in every shitty image macro you’ve ever seen, a sort of post-postmodernism for cretins. Take two symbols of “awesome” and bash them together, and generate something more “awesome”. It’s the postmodern technique of collaging signifiers divorced from their context, but with the difference that you must show *absolutely no interest whatsoever* in investigating any ideas that this juxtaposition might inspire.
There is an active resistance to the idea of anything having even an emotional through-line, let alone making any kind of logical sense. In Time Of Angels, time is rewritten, but the Doctor then says that another bit of time can’t be rewritten. Why? Because he says so. Except we’re told all the time that “the Doctor lies”. Except that this time apparently he *isn’t* lying. And we’re expected to be moved by the death of Rory, even though he’s died twice before *in the same episode*, as well as explicitly mentioning all the other many times he’s died.
The only way this kind of thing can possibly work is if you deliberately decide not to think about anything that happens. Certainly the only way someone could be surprised by the ‘reveal’ that Melody Malone is the same character as River Song (real name Melody) is if they’d taken quite large doses of thought-suppressing drugs before watching.
Because this isn’t a drama, any more, not even in the sense that the old show was. It’s a vehicle for creating “awesome” juxtapositions.
And that might not be too bad, were there any imagination at all shown in that creation. The logic of surrealism is not that far from the logic of the tumblr meme, after all — put two familiar things, like a lobster and a telephone, together and see what kind of interference pattern results in our mind.
But the choices in this series are from what seems to be a pre-approved list of “awesome” stuff. Film noir detectives and time travel, dinosaurs and spaceships, cyborgs and cowboys, Daleks and ballerinas. The kind of combuination that only the most tediously unimaginative person could ever possibly think was original. No doubt next year we’ll have cats with lasers (inspiring jokes about how now it’s *them* with the laser pointer), monkeys riding unicorns, pirates eating bacon, and steampunk lesbian sumo wrestlers teaming up with Sherlock Holmes.
And if they don’t actually get round to making those episodes… well, it doesn’t really matter. Someone can knock up a few animated gifs, and nobody will know the difference.