Yes, it’s an extra-special double review!
A generic baddie

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.

16 Responses to “Doctor Who: Power Of Three and the Time Of Angels”

  1. My review of the last two episodes of Doctor Who « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] Is up at Mindless Ones. I wasn’t impressed. Share this:PrintEmail [...]

  2. Mike Taylor Says:

    Lots to disagree with here :-) But I LOVE your Chibnall takedown in the first two paragraphs.

  3. Paul Ankers Says:

    Solid post, Andrew.
    I don’t spend a lot of time wondering why I hate new who, but I watched Dr Who solidly between 1979 and 1989 without knowing the sonic screwdriver existed. And I am pretty sure nobody was reincarnated, but it happens week in week out.
    I pretty much just watch to drool over the assistants now. But with Arthur Darvill gone… whats a boy to do….

  4. Lawrence Burton Says:

    You were on fire this time, Andrew.

  5. Asteele Says:

    I’ve been talking with my brother about season 6, and it occures to me that the problem is that while the episodes have stories (there is rising actiOn/climax/resolution) they don’t really have plots, or they have plots with real logic problems at the foundTion of the action.

    In power of three the aliens left the cubes on earth to study us, but then we learn their from the future to kill us before we spread all over the universe(that can be rewritten), but then why do they need a year to decide to give us artifacts.

    In angels it’s a big tragedy that rory/Amy are stuck behind a timey-wall, but in the very next scene rivers talking about how she’s going to go back in time to tell Amy to add an afterword to the book. Can they not get another vortex thingy, frankly those things seem better than the tardis anyways.

  6. Asteele Says:

    Bah! Give us heart attacks, stupid iPhone.

  7. Hal Says:

    The best short analysis of Moffat Who, The Angels Take Manhattan (another terrible unevocative title as well, if it had been the Muppets it might have been better), and the entirety of a particular kind of moronic modern pop phenomena (fanomena?) bar none. Particularly good on the idea that actually *thinking* about Moffat’s Who is discouraged as it could lead to some naughty criticism of his (Moffat’s) narrative piss-taking. “No, it doesn’t make sense. Yes, it does seem he’s making it up as he goes along and that there are contradictions *within the episode itself*. But… FAIRYTALES and WEEPING ANGELS and *look* we’re *meant* to *CRY*, Goddamnit! Have you not read his interviews? And we can’t criticize because it might spoil the party and people might not like us! La la la la! He’s STEVEN MOFFAT! He’s won awards! Anyway *everyone’s* so sophisticated now, here’s a .gif of Amy and Rory. Get thee hence, Blasphemer!”. Ah, well, got carried away there. A nicely egregious example of Moffat’s clunky manipulations that the Stepfordians seem curiously willing to embrace despite the obvious asininity of it all is the way that Amy is intent on telling the Doctor he should *never* be alone (gee, thanks for that Steven… I mean, Amy!) even though it was the Doctor’s infantile attachment to Amy and her nice but dim husband that got them zapped back to the past. Surely she’d say the berk *should* travel alone? Good Old Moffat. Subtly guiding the audience with the power of narrative bullshit. Genius, is obviously not too strong a word. Heh. Poodle pizzle.

  8. Hollistic Tendancies Says:

    I’ve been told by people who have lived in Britain longer than I have and own TVs that Moffat is able to be good at writing scripts, but I’m having to take their word for it. If Chibnall’s “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,” Moffat seems to have picked up his beanbag for the 20th time but is doing an interpretive dance instead of racing because he might not win the race but is counting on someone to take an amusing instagram photo of him and is already thinking up good captions in his head.

  9. Mercy Says:

    Power of three’s ending struck me as less “didn’t think this through” and more “didn’t have time for a proper one”.

    I mean that’s no excuse – they should have scrapped some of the earlier bits to make room for a proper denouement – but the thing with the earlier monsters don’t even do anything and there’s no explanation for why they kidnap Rory’s dad, clearly there was a longer ending there that got written out and replaced by reversing the polarity.

    Anyway the basic problem is 45 minutes isn’t long enough, and they’ve given up on two parters for this season.

    Not sure you’re on the right track with the target audience being tumblr, what the logic jumps really reminds me of are silver age DC comics, and again the problem there is the lack of space to put in more realistic explanations – you want to do a story about the doctor altering somebodies attitude in the present by messing around in their past, and the only way to fit that in in the time frame/page count is to have them reacting to the changes in the present, so that’s what you do, even though you know it makes no sense at all. Maybe it’s just that the Amy/Doctor relationship in Power of Three reminded me of Superboy and the Legion.

  10. ZodiacFirebroom Says:

    Doctor Who is a series about an eccentric and flamboyant character that can be dropped into any genre or location you could care to mention, so you can have fun watching him recklessly ploughing through the narrative before putting it back together again (or not).

    Time travel is the maguffin here, and you dwell on it too much at your peril.

    Moffat’s run is overloaded with time – alternate time, overlapping time, reverse time, stealing time, stretching time, reversing time, dreaming time, waiting time – you start with Carey Mulligan saving herself in her future/past and you’re thinking “ooh that’s quite fun and clever” but it gets stale pretty quick and fuck me they’ve milked it – serious paradox fatigue.

    I took power of 3 as a Russell T Davies pastiche – shitty domestic setting, when gadgets attack, BBC guest stars, no fucking ending.

  11. Hal Says:

    ZodiacFireBroom – Absolutely Correct! Moffat now uses “timey wimey” (stupidy dupidy) paradox-happy stuff as a crutch, and what’s worse he makes no pretence that it has to make *sense* any more (those who mention “fairytales” can, as they say, Fuck Right Off – Moffat’s stuff is an insult to fairytales) not even on a surface level. I suppose it beats having to tell a proper fucking story. Not that the sycophants seem to care, and even some of those who venture to criticize seem curiously cautious, almost as if they fear being ostracized for criticizing something “fun” which is an all too fatuously schoolyardish reaction. There’s a difference between reasonable criticism arising from a disgust with smug or poor writing and unreasonable baseless abuse it’s a pity that some can’t see this and therefore demonize all criticism no matter how justified. Hmm, I can hear matron calling, I’m not supposed to get “excited” like this (insert smiley face emoticon here. Heh).

  12. plok Says:

    Pirates eating bacon!!


  13. plok Says:

    (I can never figure out that crazy-for-bacon thing, seriously does anyone know what the deal is with it?)

  14. John e boy Says:

    I just can’t see how this man is so passionate about this programme when he didn’t seem to watch it? You review a book/comic after you’ve read it not after you look at the cover and flick through the pages. He writes with such passion and strength but seems ignorant to the fact it’s a Saturday night sci fi programme family’s have watched and enjoyed for years. Negativity, long words and references to kiddies doing there best for mum and dad on The sports day field are great to sell reviews and slaughter writers but do nothing for the family who enjoy sitting down to watch a show which in my eyes ticked the boxes of a good episode. An enjoyable family episode and time that a programme like this generates, that flashback to your younger days running behind the three piece to escape the darleks but now the angels who I must admit still worry me a bit! All the pompous bullshit can harm and mar a show which is still enjoyed by family’s throughout the world but not so much it seems buy “comic book guy!” The best advice I could give as a father, fan, joe public and general punter is put down the pad, crack a beer relax and enjoy life because this kind of anal retentive ness can only cause failure of the enjoyment gland! I think that’s my spleen truly vented thanks very much!!

  15. Matt Says:

    Yes I agree with John. No matter how much you hate the new found Tumblr fans, they enjoy the show. They are generating the interest, they are the ones watching it every week. Families too are also enjoying it. They way I see it, Doctor Who reflects the era it’s in. The 2005 series was very cheesy and pop-y. This is how TV is today. Don’t expect hard hitting drama, it is billed as a family show after all. Still, a well written review!

  16. A Frequent Topic Of Discussion | englebright dot co dot uk Says:

    [...] television, committed by the talentless Chr*s Ch*bn*ll (who is superbly patronised by Andrew Hickey over here). Children of Earth, however, was Proper Drama, (for more, Lawrence Miles over here because [...]

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