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.

London Meeting: Doctor Who book launch

Tonight’s BSFA London Meeting will be a panel discussion of and book launch for The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who, featuring contibutors to the book, Melissa Beattie, Simon Guerrier, and Colin B. Harvey.

The venue remains the same: the upstairs room of The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

The event will start at 7pm, though there are likely to be people in the bar from 6-ish; the meeting is free, and open to any and all. There will be a raffle (with sf books as prizes).

London Meeting: Terrance Dicks

A day early on this one: the guest at tomorrow’s London Meeting is author and Doctor Who script editor Terrance Dicks. He’ll be interviewed by Tim Phipps.

As ever, the venue is: The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

The meeting is free and open to anyone who’s interested, and the interview will start at 7pm, although there’ll be people around in the bar from 6; in fact, I may even aim to get there earlier, since I suspect this one will be busy.

Human Nature

Of necessity, this will be more of a compare-and-contrast than a review. Paul Cornell’s 1995 novel, Human Nature, is the first Doctor Who novel I’ve read, and almost cripplingly mired in continuity I have next-to-no knowledge of. So if I say that I didn’t like it as much as the recent TV adaptation (as “Human Nature” and “The Family of Blood”), in part all that means is that I don’t know the context. The outline of the plot is the same for both versions – the Doctor, living as a human teacher in England, in the months immediately before World War I, watched over by his companion, falls in love, and (unrelatedly) is pursued by an alien family. But the details are different. In both, the companion is the viewpoint character; but I don’t know Bernice Summerfield like I know Martha, and nor do I know Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor.

Some of the changes are cosmetic. Benny is clearly cut from the same cloth as Martha (or rather, vice versa; both are smart, proactive, athletic, funny), and has an equally impressive resume, being a professor of archaeology, not to mention more overtly political in ways that would probably not sit comfortably with the current TV incarnation. In fact, in some ways it’s hard to imagine a more companion-ish companion, and at times Benny comes across as almost too good to be true, in the manner of the characters in The West Wing: you want very much to believe in her, but there’s always a nagging suspicion that people as intelligent, competent, and passionate about what they do as she is are too awesome to really exist. On the other hand the book’s family, never named as the family of blood, are more alien but less threatening than their TV counterparts. In the novel, the family are from a species of shapeshifters known as the Aubertides, who reproduce by budding. The catch is that (apart from their queen) they can only do so for a half-dozen generations, after which point they become (a) a complete family and (b) sterile. To get around this, the particular family in Human Nature want access to Time Lord “biodata” to enable every member of their family to reproduce 13 times — more than enough to form an army. We are told that this will lead them to scourge Gallifrey (among other places), mostly out of boredom (“Don’t knock it,” says one family member. “It’s something to do”). So they set a trap for the Doctor. As fuel for the action of the plot they work well enough, but none of the family members are as well-defined, as instantly sinister, as their TV counterparts.

Other changes between book and TV are more fundamental – surprisingly so, in some ways. The novel takes an impressive risk (if you don’t know what’s coming) by introducing us to John Smith as though he is just another character. It’s only when we see him through Benny’s eyes that we realize he’s the Doctor in human form. (The downside of this, of course, is that we’re not given a chance to get to know the Doctor before the story starts, so without context we don’t know how similar he is or isn’t to Smith; but the same could be said of the TV version, in isolation.) But to my mind, in the end the novel is a somewhat safer work than the TV episodes. For example, it seems that much more of the Doctor remains in Smith, who is never quite as nakedly human as his screen counterpart; when confronted with the truth of his nature, his reaction is not fearful but pragmatic. He attempts to do what the Doctor would do to save the day – albeit never with any intention of letting himself be turned back into a Time Lord. And what changes his mind is not the desire to do the right thing per se, but the appearance of a character who has been lurking in his memories throughout the novel, Verity. As in the TV episodes, the actual decision to change back takes place off-screen, to set up an encounter in which the Doctor bluffs the family. But, not knowing who Verity is, Smith’s choice in the novel feels more than a bit ex machina. In the context of the New Adventures it may all make perfect sense, but coming to it cold it looks clunky. Moreover, a plot contrivance allows Smith and the Doctor to talk to each other before the end, to reach some sort of accommodation; neat in theory, but unfortunately the scene comes across as nothing so much as an attempt to absolve the Doctor of his responsibility for creating a life he only ever intended to destroy, and that’s a shame.

At the same time, the other big difference of emphasis is that there’s much less of Smith in the novel’s Doctor. In “The Family of Blood”, the Doctor tells Joan (Smith’s love) that he’s capable of everything Smith was — including, implicitly, love. In the novel we get the opposite. Smith certainly still loves Joan, but after he has changed back, the Doctor tells Benny, “I can’t love her”; “whatever [love] is, I’m incapable of it” is how he puts it, bluntly, to Joan. On the flipside, this Doctor is more aware of the moral consequences of his actions – in the novel it is he, and not Joan, who raises the issue of how many lives he caused to be lost by choosing this time and place to become human, citing it as a reason he can’t risk changing back. This fits with the more selfish nature of the original choice to become human: as noted above, in the novel the Doctor walks into the family’s trap, choosing voluntarily to become home to take “a holiday from being himself”, rather than undergoing the transformation as a last resort to hide.

Of course, much of the power of Human Nature comes from the contrast of Smith’s love story with its setting – among schoolboys training to be soldiers, on the eve of a singular, terrible, global war. That aspect is the same, and similarly effective, in both novel and TV episodes — if anything, the argument for pacifism is stronger in the original. The epilogue – which, as in the TV version, plunges us fully into the midst of war – is probably the best piece of writing in the book, arguably the only place where the prose aspires to anything beyond the comfortable. But in the novel, Timothy, the boy who finds the Doctor’s essence (which in the novel is stored in a cricket-ball-like pod, rather than a watch) only goes into the conflict as a member of the Red Cross, a choice made as a direct result of his experiences with the pod. Both versions of the story shift focus as they develop, moving the rural idyll from foreground to background, but the extra room to breathe in the novel makes the contrast between quiet, pastoral life and the harsh intrusions of conflict that much more powerful. It’s a contrast that, in the end, perhaps gives us a taste of the Doctor’s perspective, his capacity for what in the novel is called loving “big-ly, not small-ly”; or is that already part of human nature?