Doctor Who: Is Moffat Being Too Smart?

Posted: September 15, 2014 in watching
Tags: , , , , , , ,

If, like me, you’ve seen the internet, you’ve probably noticed by now that the new series of Doctor Who is pretty divisive. I’ve seen a lot of strong opinions expressed on why this episode was awful or that one was great, and even the hardcore Whovian opinions seem hugely varied.

This weekend’s episode, ‘Listen’, helped me pin down what I think’s going on. So in case you haven’t seen it already, spoilers ahead. Also, you should go watch it. Whether it fills you with hatred, admiration or a bewildering sense of ambivalence (like me) it’s still worth watching because it says something significant about where genre TV, and Doctor Who in particular, is at right now.

Steven Moffat’s a smart writer

Let’s start with the basics. Steven Moffat is a smart writer. ‘Listen’, with its exploration of fear and motivation, its closed time loop and its charming romantic scenes, was proof that the man can rub two narrative sticks together and make an admirable fire. I love smart writing, and this sort of thing is why I was so excited when he took over the show.

But as ‘Listen’ also reminded us, Moffat feels a constant need to show how smart he is. It’s as if some high school maths teacher tattooed the words ‘show your workings’ across the inside of his brain, and he’s been trying to live up to that ever since. Seriously, if we got in the Tardis and hopped back along his timeline we’d find some adult who gave Steven the need to prove his smarts over and over and over again. And I would have very stern words with that adult, because they’ve become the subconscious voice that’s ruining one of my favourite TV writers.

Moffat has other ticks whose charm/annoyance depends on your personal taste. Charlie Jane Anders has dissected a bunch of them over on io9. But the one that really troubles me is his attitudes towards sex and gender. Steve’s dinner party porn speech from Coupling, while a sharp and hilarious piece of writing, also reflects an assumption that men are one way and women are another. It’s essentialist and heteronormative and a bunch of other troubling and long-titled concepts, and I laugh every time but I shudder too.

(I tried to find a clip of it to include here but apparently YouTube doesn’t like it. If you have the chance, go watch ‘Inferno’, season 1 episode 4 of British sitcom Coupling to see what I mean. Content warning – the bit I’m directing you towards is a two minute diatribe about why pornography is good, and that reflects the tone of the show.)

Smarts in service to the story

If I like smart writing, why does a smartly written episode like ‘Listen’ not excite me?

In short, because I like a compelling story too.

I like smart writing to exist in service to the story, but ‘Listen’ seemed like a story in service to smart ideas. There was no compelling narrative to draw me along, no forward moving tension to engage with, no sense that the characters really had something at stake in the main arc of the plot.

And before anyone says ‘the art of storytelling can be about character, dude’, or something along those lines, I also watched The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford this weekend, and that film proves that you can focus on art and character while still having a compelling narrative.

In fact Joss Whedon does this all the time. He’s another incredibly clever writing, working in similar genres and industries to Moffat, yet he uses his smarts to craft exciting stories every time. Because those stories aren’t about Whedon being smart – Whedon is being smart about the stories.

Show runner as auteur

What I this reflects is that some TV show runners are now seen as auteurs, the creative geniuses behind their shows who should be left to express their distinctive voice.

I’m OK with that. It over-simplifies our understanding of creativity, but it also gives creators like Moffat and Whedon a lot of freedom. It creates television that is distinctive and individual and fascinating, rich with new ideas and of course flaws.

This means that I’m not getting the Doctor Who I want, or the Steven Moffat TV that I want, both of which would need a restraining hand pulling Moffat back in line. But I’ll pay that price for a genre TV landscape that’s richer and more interesting.

Because ‘Listen’ might be self-indulgent, but it’s also fascinating. And a TV industry that can create this will leave room for some other smart, story driven shows.

  1. I don’t even watch Doctor Who and I thought this was interesting. I like what you say about a TV environment that nurtures an exciting creating (well, fascinating) environment.

    And I esp liked,

    “If I like smart writing, why does a smartly written episode like ‘Listen’ not excite me?

    In short, because I like a compelling story too.”

    Thanks, Andrew!

  2. This is why writers need editors and beta readers that they respect. That they understand are there to serve the purpose of the work, not to ‘restrain the talent’. I think there’s a point in a lot of media-creators’ lives where they are no longer getting effective criticism from their team, or are discarding everything because of their ‘vision’. But unlike visual art, which has no explanation and can be argued to not need one, any narrative needs to make frickin’ sense — no matter what your vision is. And if your vision is ‘I am a smart guy, look at me!’ then maybe you’re in the wrong story…

    That said, I haven’t seen the episode yet. However, I’ve often found Doctor Who episodes to be too clever and self-congratulatory without any actual impact. If I can’t follow your thought process, writer, it doesn’t make me impressed — it makes me not care.

    • I think that point about editing is spot on. Pretty much any creative effort is made stronger through collaboration, and as the named creator becomes unrestrained weaker work follows. I was recently talking with a writer who’d been disappointed by the lack of editorial input on one of their published works – they felt that they hadn’t got the attention and refinement they needed from the publisher.

  3. mjtierney1 says:

    I agree somewhat with your premise. For me, I think the new season lacks a vision, a compelling overarching theme. They hinted at one in the adverts before the season started (“I’ve made a lot of mistakes. It’s time I did something about that.”), but we really haven’t seen anything result from that premise. I’m willing to give Moffat some more time to get things going with the new Doctor in a coherent fashion, but I haven’t seen it yet. Here’s hoping!

    • Good point about coherent theme, and I think that’s something Moffat will achieve – making sure to set that up is one of his strengths. For me the question is whether he’ll also give me enough reason to care about the theme. Given some of his amazing past writing I hope so.

  4. jhmae says:

    Well, I’m new to the series so I can’t really say much. BUT I love the stories Mr. Moffat has told so far. I’m quickly becoming a Whovian. As for smartness and stories – I agree too many writers brag first and worry about storytelling later. But honestly, I don’t mind so far.

    Btw – read the first story in your collection, “The Cast Iron Kid” and loved it. Looking forward to the rest! 👍

    • Thanks for the comment about The Cast Iron Kid – really glad you like it. I had the idea for that one years before I got down to properly writing, so it has a special place in my subconscious.

      I suspect that coming to current Who without watching what came before may be an advantage – you can enjoy the work in its own right, not coloured by expectations. A lot of the angriest reactions I’ve seen are clearly from long-standing fans who feel that the show doesn’t match their expectations.

  5. It can be interesting when the TV environment starts to change, becoming a vehicle for an author/creator as opposed to the characters/actors. It can be great, like when Rod Serling brought us The Twilight Zone.

    On the other hand, it can be J.J. Abrams giving us Lost.

    But overall, I think it’s an improvement over the same-old-same-old malaise that TV has fallen into. Good or bad, it’s a welcome change, if only for variety’s sake.

  6. glenatron says:

    One of my criticisms lately has been that Dr Who has been too flagship and too telegraphy. So I liked this episode ( can only comment now as I only saw it last night ) because it was at least a little bit subtle and playful and didn’t give you the answers to all the questions in two hundred foot high neon letters, which is a trait we have seen too much of in the past.

    • That’s a good point, and one of the aspects I liked. Again, Moffat’s smart writing pays off in some ways, even if it vexes me in others. And shows he doesn’t need to turn the Statue of Liberty into a monster to make a point.

  7. […] sure there’s an element of truth to this. Doctor Who has gone from something loved by Brits and the more diligent international nerds to a global […]

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