October 29th, 2013
Doctor Who has had several radical reinventions over the years — when it stopped being about Ian and Barbara, when the Doctor first regenerated, when it became an Earth-bound show during Pertwee’s time, when it stopped being on TV altogether and became a series of books…
Most of the time, the programme has a tendency to revert back to something like the mean, but each time it retains some of the new with the old.
Moffat’s reinvention of the series has received surprisingly little notice, in part because superficially the programme is still very much the same as it was during Davies’ period in charge of the show — in particular, Moffat’s first couple of series matched Davies’ structure almost exactly.
But underneath, Moffat is doing something very different, and it’s interesting to look at precisely what.
Davies’ version of the show was criticised, sometimes rightly, for focussing on the companions at the expense of the Doctor or the science fictional element of the story, but what Davies’ series did, for the most part, was to use the companion as a means to draw both the Doctor and the viewer into the story. The companion was an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances, and the story was about how she reacted to those circumstances, and how that reaction changed her relationships with family, friends, and the Doctor. Whether or not he was always successful, that was the basic idea behind all Davies’ stories.
Moffat, on the other hand, before becoming the head writer and executive producer, had repeatedly told a rather different story. Elements of it can be seen in almost all his Doctor Who work from the short story Continuity Errors on, but the platonic ideal of it, perhaps, is in The Girl In The Fireplace. In the Moffat story, the Doctor appears in the life of a young girl, and changes her life forever, before disappearing, and then reappearing in her adult life to change it again in a very different manner. This is usually combined with some sort of temporal confusion or other — either their meetings happening in a different order for each person, or the Doctor arriving too late for a promised meeting.
The time travel aspect is fairly obviously there to provide an excuse for the plot, but what’s interesting here is that the rest of this is designed to mimic the experience of being a Doctor Who fan — the Doctor enters your life as a child, changing it forever, then disappears from it until you reconnect as an adult. In fact, between this and the Time War in Davies’ stories (which explains why everything’s different now, not like it was when you were a kid), it could be argued that the two biggest villains in the post-2005 series are adulthood and Michael Grade (who made us grow up by taking our childhood away when he had the series cancelled).
The interesting thing here is what Moffat does when he has an entire series to play with. His first instinct — and a good one — is to make the new companion the person whose life the Doctor disrupts. But in doing so, he changes the whole focus of the series.
It’s an accepted convention these days that a series must have an ‘arc’ — that rather than be made up of individual, self-contained, stories, it must tell one long story over the course of the entire series, or even multiple series. And so Moffat’s story — the girl who encounters the Doctor in her youth, and whose life changes as a result, and who encounters him in a temporally-confused manner — has to stretch out. He does this in various ways — most obviously by having multiple iterations of this story running in counterpoint with each other, as with River Song and Amy — but the most major one is to make the companion herself a mystery to be solved.
This has some problematic aspects — Moffat has a tendency anyway towards sexism, and particularly towards an attitude of “Women! Huh! Nobody can understand them, am I right?” — but more importantly it changes the whole focus of the programme.
While Davies was accused of making the programme about the companion (and there’s certainly a slight Mary Sue aspect to Rose, for example), Moffat actually does this. While all previous versions of the programme have paid lip service to the idea that the companion is “the audience identification figure” (not really true, at least not since about 1964, but something that’s been a consistent part of the show’s mythology), now the story becomes about the Doctor, the familiar figure, investigating the unfamiliar and strange companion. What is the crack in Amy’s room and why does she have no family? And, later, who is River Song and why is she so important? Why does Clara keep appearing?
These investigations give Moffat another chance to write in his preferred mode. As we’ve discussed before, Moffat is fundamentally a farce writer, and much farce is based on two characters each having information that is withheld from the other, with presumably-hilarious results. Moffat’s characters are all concealing information, sometimes inadvertantly, whether that be the Doctor’s “real” name, Rory’s being wiped from existence, or River’s “spoilers”.
This is, of course, an unsustainable direction for the programme to go in over the medium term. There can be only so many most important people in the universe with hidden secrets relating to the Doctor’s future before the show tips over into absurdity (and some would argue that that has already passed) especially when one considers that they also have to be what is generally considered “good companion material” — female, physically attractive, capable of tossing out bons mots whenever the situation calls for it.
But even once Moffat leaves the programme, assuming it continues in any recognisable form, “the companion who is special” will continue to be a tool in Doctor Who‘s box, much like the UNIT story, the celebrity historical, or the multi-Doctor team-up.
Moffat has found a new thing that Doctor Who can be, and while it won’t always be that way, it will sometimes be that way from now on.