Fezzes are Cool

Abigail Nussbaum did not like this year’s Who:

So, when I come to assess my disappointment with Steven Moffat’s first season at the series’s helm, the first question that must be asked is, has the show actually gotten worse (worse, that is, from a series that wasn’t trying to achieve, and was in fact actively avoiding, many of commonly accepted definitions of good TV) or have I simply had enough? Has the switch to a new Doctor and a new companion simply been the shock I needed to lose all investment with a series that had long ago relinquished any claim on my interest, or has something actually gone wrong? The answer, I think, is yes, in that Moffat has kept many of the series’s most exasperating attributes, and jettisoned much of what allowed me to enjoy it regardless. At some point, I stopped caring about Davies’s stories except as delivery methods for the characters and some agreeably zany moments, and though Moffat and his writing room have delivered better writing, it’s not so much better, or so different in its essence, from the kind of stories Davies delivered to make me care again. Meanwhile the characters, main, recurring, and one-offs, which were often the show’s saving grace under Davies’s reign, have been allowed to fester.

I find myself in previously unexplored territory with respect to this year’s Doctor Who: I really enjoyed it. As someone who never had a strong relationship with old Who, who admired RTD’s pre-Who work but was mortally disappointed with the actuality right from the word “Rose”, and who watched partly out of a desire to see the good episode of any given season, and partly out of a desire to keep up with a genuine sf cultural phenomenon, this is something of a surprise. In fact, my situation is almost precisely the opposite of Abigail’s; instead of wondering whether the change in production team has made glaring previously forgivable flaws, I find myself wondering whether it’s papered over previously unforgivable flaws. I find myself wondering whether, essentially, Doctor Who has just worn me down, so that I accept it for what it’s been all along.

I find myself wondering this, in part, because at this point I think I could happily watch Matt Smith read the proverbial telephone book. I could disagree with much of Abigail’s assessment of the Eleventh Doctor’s inconstancy pretty much assertion by assertion — the key difference between the Saturnynians and the Silurians, for instance, is that the latter have a valid claim to the Earth and the former do not — but she’s obviously right that he is “a mass of mannerisms”. Where we differ is that I don’t find this a bug, but a joyous feature. I don’t care that he’s not someone to identify with; I care about him because I’m fascinated by his mercurial nature. I don’t care that he overshadows the other characters, because as far as I’m concerned Who‘s characterisation has never risen above the cartoonish anyway, and the Eleventh Doctor is, so far, a cartoon that’s proven to be enduringly watchable. So I’m sure I do forgive this incarnation of the show failings that I wouldn’t have accepted in Russell T Davies.

At the same time, however, I’m not sure I can agree with Abigail’s take on Moffat’s plots:

What I discovered was that Moffat actually wasn’t very good at plotting, possibly because he didn’t tend to do it very often. “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink” have only the barest hint of a plot, and it’s the same one for both of them–the non-linear relationship between a human and the Doctor. What makes them special is their structure (which was also one of strong points of Moffat’s previous series, Coupling), and the fact that they use time travel as more than a means of delivering the Doctor into the story and taking him out again at its end.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I don’t agree with her definition of plot. My understanding of plot is the one that crops up on this website about writing, among others: that it concerns the organization of the events in a work of fiction, as opposed to the story, which is how those events would proceed in raw, unembellished form. So I’d turn Moffat’s strength and weakness around, compared to Abigail. He clearly does return to the same set of ideas quite frequently, and work to find new ways to iterate them, and sometimes this is more successful, and sometimes less so. But I’d also argue that saying Moffat is good at structure is the same as saying he’s good at plotting, at the mechanics of putting a story together. And I’d argue that whichever word you use, this season bears out that Moffat is good at it; it feels to me a much more cohesive work than any of Davies’ seasons did, and than a lot of other TV series in general. True, under Moffat Who has shifted even further into fantasy — if I have a reservation about the season, this is it; that, like Alastair Reynolds, I might wish for a show that placed a bit more emphasis on the brilliance of rational enquiry — but it does a reasonable job of being coherent on its own terms. The biggest of the authorial fiats are established early on. The Doctor is a spacetime event complicated enough to close the cracks in the universe. Anything that can be remembered can be recovered. There’s no reason these things should be true, but because they’re established in episodes where it’s not essential that they’re true, by the time they’re needed in the season finale I’m happy to allow them.

It’s not just plot that I feel binds this year’s episodes together, though. There’s an overarching concern with how stories get told and what they signify, for instance. I can feel enough loose threads nagging at me there that I might even rewatch this season, at some point, and see if something can be woven from them. But more than that, even, what this season of Who has conveyed to me, for the first time, is what the joyously seductive confusion that is the Doctor’s life, or the life of this travelling with the Doctor, might feel like. I think the purest sense-of-wonder moment Russell T Davies managed came at the end of his second episode, in the juxtaposition of the death of the sun several billion years in the future with a crowded London street in the present day. To say that Moffat’s Who actually makes use of time travel is, for me, to say that it’s built around those juxtapositions, the repetition and magnification of them; and so it seems somehow right that Moffat’s Doctor himself is a continual stream of unexpected incongruities, who lives by them and is bored to tears, as in “Vincent and the Doctor”, when they cease. Where Abigail and I agree, in the end, is that I also think Moffat has written the Doctor he wanted to write: one for whom anything is possible, and everything must be fun.

10 thoughts on “Fezzes are Cool

  1. Where we differ is that I don’t find this a bug, but a joyous feature.

    Quite right, Niall. Couldn’t agree with you more. I was worried that Smith would just be boyish eye candy. Instead, he seems as endearing as a mischievous grandfather to me. I’m pretty much in love with Moffat’s idea of the Doctor.

  2. I delighted in “The Eleventh Hour”, but was as close as I’ve ever been to giving up on New Who over the next few episodes. They seemed to belittle the Doctor and undermine the heritage of the series – both Old and New – moving the agency in the story to Amy, but without giving her any foundation for that. “Amy’s Choice” was finally a good episode – maybe it was that all three of the core characters were given some room to move – and I survived the reboot of the Silurians to fall in love all over again with the last four episodes.

    There is a lot of Old Who in there, and we seem to have been released from the dread of UST – at least as far as A Companion; it’s harder to see where River Song will take us, but she provides an impression of being an adult. There is also an open-ended threat not completely wrapped up in the final episode, and I think Moffat has gone some way to de-escalating the series finale. Yes, yes – we had the end of the multiverse, but at least we didn’t have four billion Daleks fighting five billion Cyberman and six billion Autons/Sontarans/Vogons. Instead they all slipped off stage for the characters to get on with their own stuff and for Moffat’s ontological paradoxes.

    Of course there are things I’d like to see changed. I completely agree with Alastair Reynolds on the move away from a conception of scientific method and it would be great if the dumped the magic wand. (It was nice to see it constrained in the “Lodger” episode. On the whole, though, Matt Smith is now starting to look a worthy inheritor of Old Who. The danger is that we end up with the inward looking Fan obsession often blamed for the end of the series back then.

    For me – I dreaded the RTD/Tennant specials after the bombast of their last full series. Now I’m really looking forward to whatever Moffat has to throw at us next.

  3. Selenak has a nice overview of the season’s strengths and weaknesses, I think:

    Little Amelia praying for help and Amy in her wedding dress both conjure the Doctor and the TARDIS into appearing – they do believe in fairies, they do, they do – but there is a difference showing the road between. Amelia doesn’t really know what she’s asking for, and she becomes the girl who waits. Amy isn’t asking but summoning – a bit like River, who summons the Doctor twice that season and has done so in the Library episodes as well -; the power of the spell is with her. There is a parallel there with Rory, who became the boy who waited, literally, but for whom the waiting is finally over not because of a return to the old but because he’s part of the creation of something new. In something blue. They won’t live happily ever after, but for now, everyone lives. (TM Steven Moffat.)

    Duncan: yes, there’s a definite dip in the early part of the season. I’m not keen on either “The Beast Below” or “Victory of the Daleks”. Apart from anything else, they feel to me like attempts by writers who are not Russell T Davies to follow the RTD approach to Who, rather than playing to their own strengths.

  4. Where we differ is that I don’t find this a bug, but a joyous feature.

    I wasn’t trying to suggest that this was a bug either. As I said, I like Matt Smith’s performance and there were some very funny Doctor-ish moments over the course of the season. It’s the way the Doctor overshadows the rest of the show’s universe, and particularly the other main characters, that bothers me. If he were less prominent – if the show were more about Amy and how she’s swept away by this mad, alien person – or if there were no other main castmembers – I think that this Doctor, unlike Nine and Ten, would work well as a solo unit, meeting one-off companions at the locations he travels to – the season would have been much stronger. But instead we get the writers constantly telling us how important and special and awesome Amy is, or how deeply in love she and Rory are, without doing anything to earn it.

    Just the thought of trying to settle on a definition of plotting vs. storytelling vs. structuring gives me hives, so let’s just assume that I might have mixed these up – surely you’ll still admit that there’s a qualitative difference between the kind of story told in “Blink” and the one told in “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances,” and that the latter relies more strongly for its effect on the events that occur, whereas the former relies more on the manner in which those events are presented?

  5. If he were less prominent […] the season would have been much stronger

    But that’s my point: for me, it would have been weaker.

    the latter relies more strongly for its effect on the events that occur, whereas the former relies more on the manner in which those events are presented?

    Not really. “Blink” has a less conventional structure and “The Empty Child” has a more conventional one, but they both have structure, and in both cases the emotional notes are supported by the manner in which they are presented. You wouldn’t get the same effect from “everybody lives!” if that story had been told non-linearly, and you wouldn’t get the same impact from old Billy if that story had been told linearly.

  6. I’m curious as to whether either Niall or Abigail came into the series when it came back in 2005, or if they had a longer association (or knowledge) with it, going back to the classic show. As someone who’s been a fan since the mid-1980s, and who has seen every existing Doctor Who episode going back to 1963, I find myself more capable (it seems) of accepting the fact that this show is one of constant change. The writers change. The Doctors change. The producers change. Sometimes year-by-year, or every few years. As such I’ve been able to enjoy the series (or not) based not just on the merits of a particular era, but with a big-picture viewpoint. I loved almost every minute of RTD’s version of Doctor Who, and I loved the new season under Moffatt, because I’m able to compare it with the best of the original series, and ignoring the special effects and production values, what I find remarkable is both RTD and Moffat “got it”. They understood what Doctor Who was about, what the Doctor was about, and they managed to keep true to that vision, while stretching the envelope. I do have to say that calling Girl in the Fireplace or Blink poor in the plot department leads me to wonder if the viewer was actually paying attention, or wanted to be watching in the first place. To each their own, but I will agree that if you hated RTD but have been won back by Moffat, hey that’s fantastic. You’ve joined a proud fellowship of DW fans who in the past have abandoned the show during a disliked producer or Doctor era, only to return later. If neither the RTD or Moffat eras appeal to you, and you have no interest in the original series, it’s probably a waste of your time proceeding further and you’d be better off watching something else.

  7. I’m curious as to whether either Niall or Abigail came into the series when it came back in 2005,

    As I suggest in the post, I’ve never really watched old Who — I probably saw some Sylvester McCoy, and I have a vague memory of watching the Paul McGann movie, but that’s it. Friends have attempted to convert me to old Who by showing me “The Caves of Androzani”, which is terrible, and “City of Death”, which is worse. I watched “Rose” out of an interest in (a) British tv sf general, and (b) Russell T Davies, based largely on The Second Coming. It, too, was rubbish. Moffatt’s Who is enjoyable fluff, at least.

  8. I was a big fan of the first 4 seasons, despite some bad episodes. My favorite stories were by Moffat: Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, Empty Child. But most of this 5th season was disappointing to me. I felt that Moffat canabalized his earlier work and made a mish-mosh. That is, until the Pandorica/Big Bang two parter. I think he tied everything all together quite well, and was entertaining. I finally came to really like the 11th Doctor.
    Read more in my blog: specifically The Cloister Bell,
    Doctor Who and Impressionism, and even The Naked Doctor.

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