Monday, June 28, 2010

Where's the Fun? Doctor Who Thoughts

For the last couple of weeks I've been trying to put into words just why I've found the most recent and just-concluded season of Doctor Who so underwhelming.  What's standing in my way is the fact that somewhere around the second season I lost the ability to think or write critically about the show.  Oh, I've produced the occasional piece, but what they've all had in common was an emphasis on a single character or plot arc that I could get a handle on, while the show as a whole seemed to elude my grasp.  From the moment it exploded onto our screens in 2005, New Who's defining characteristic seemed to be its cheerful and relentless determination to ignore all the rules of good writing in favor of spectacle and, as Jackson Lake so accurately put it in "The Next Doctor," wonderful nonsense.  Russell T. Davies came out and said that he wasn't interested in coherent plots or nuanced characterization or subtle moments, that what he wanted was to elicit wonder by any means necessary, and that is exactly what he did in his five years at the show's helm, constantly cramming more gunpowder into his cannons in order to achieve ever-greater explosions (and compensate for the audience's growing desensitization).  To criticize Who in its third or fourth season for not making any sense and for substituting bombast for coherent writing seemed not only pointless but hypocritical, because that's what the show had been doing from day one, and whether you thought this was brilliant or horrible depended entirely on where your personal threshold between wonderful nonsense and just plain nonsense lay, and whether Davies had already crossed it.

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.

These are both contentious points, so let's go through them one by one.  During most of Davies's run, Moffat was known as The One Who Could Plot.  Which I was on board with, because he'd written three of New Who's best stories, and even the Library two-parter had its moments.  Then I watched Jekyll, a miniseries that seems not to have been written so much as spewed onto the page, which changes the tenor, direction, and even genre of its story with each of its six episodes, and gestures at a dozen endings, none of which materialize.  It ought to be taught in screenwriting classes as an example of what not to do, and it made me take a closer look at Moffat's contributions to Who.  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.  "Silence in the Library"/"Forests of the Dead" is, plot-wise, a mess, piling nonsensical last-minute saves on fast-talking gobbledygook on utterly arbitrary rules and limitations ("Don't think you'll regenerate!" is, I still believe, one of the series's most risible lines) in the best Davies tradition, but with a bit of Moffat-ish flare.  The only really well-plotted story Moffat produced under Davies's reign was "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances," which is an un-Moffat-like story in many other respects as well--it gives the companion something to do instead of sidelining her, the prominent guest star is a man and not fixated on the Doctor, there's no timey-wimey stuff--and is an achievement that he has yet to recreate.

So no, Moffat isn't a good writer.  He's a clever writer, and that cleverness is on display at certain points in the season--"The Eleventh Hour," River Song making sure that the Doctor will be where she needs him, when she needs him by leaving him messages on galactic landmarks he's sure to visit at one point or another, the time-traveling jumble that is the first half of "The Big Bang" (though personally I could have done without the explanatory recap halfway through the first act--honestly, if viewers haven't figured out the concept of time travel by this point, there's probably no hope for them).  But for the most part what we've been getting is the Russell T. Davies special--very loud, very bombastic nonsense.  I've seen a lot of references to this season as having taken Who into the realm of fairy tale and relying on fairy tale logic, and I just don't see it.  Fairy tale logic is still logic.  Martha using the Master's mind-controlling satellite network to beam a wave of rejuvenating faith into the Doctor is fairy tale logic (and I still maintain that that ending could have worked if its execution were not so sentimental and over-literal).  The resolution of season 5--the Doctor's enemies band together in an elaborate, galaxy- and time-spanning plan to imprison him all based on the false belief that he's the only person who knows how to fly the TARDIS, and to do so they create a trap from Amy's memories including Rory whom Amy doesn't remember because he was sucked into the crack and erased from existence, except that Amy has remembered other people who were sucked into the crack and erased from existence, and despite having been erased from existence and her memory Rory is able to make Amy remember him just in time to become an Auton and kill her, only then he's fine again and helping the Doctor, and it turns out the only way to save the universe is for the Doctor never to have existed, so he winds back his entire life but still manages to leave Amy with a memory of himself even though it never happened, which is enough of a germ for River Song, who shouldn't remember the Doctor either or have a TARDIS notebook because unlike Amy, she didn't grow up with a crack in her wall pouring the universe into her head, to prod so that Amy can bring the Doctor back into existence by the sheer force of her main-character-ness, which somehow causes Rory to not only remember the Doctor as well but also remember his life as an Auton, including the two thousand years he spent guarding a prison that shouldn't have needed any guarding because it was absolutely impervious to harm and also impregnable unless you happen to be the person who is already inside, which seems like quite a design flaw in a prison made for a time traveler--is not.  That's just throwing stuff at the wall and hoping that the speed and sheer tonnage of your throwing will obscure the fact that you have no idea what you're talking about.

None of this, of course, was unexpected.  It's one thing to write a single mind-bending, brilliantly structured episode to break the routine of a season of traditional Who-ish running-and-shouting stories, and quite another to be in charge of the whole season, and given that Davies served up this kind of overcooked mess on a regular basis for five years and only truly lost me in the last of them, there's no reason why Moffat taking the same approach should have been so alienating.  Except, of course, that there is.  The other thing that Moffat's Davies-era episodes were known for was their memorable and instantly beloved guest characters--Captain Jack made a great companion (if a significantly less great series lead) and Sally Sparrow's name was bandied about as a possible fifth season companion within seconds of the announcement that Moffat was taking over the show.  When I considered what kind of Who Moffat would create, I didn't seriously expect him to deliver a season of "Blink"s or "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances"s, but I trusted that he would write his Doctor, companion, and guest characters with the same wit and verve he had applied to the characters in these episodes, and that hasn't happened.  Or, to be more precise, the wit and verve are still there.  Moffat is still the best at writing characters that are instantly funny and appealing.  What he can't, or won't, do is develop them beyond that point.

You see this in the near-total lack of character continuity over the course of the season.  In "The Vampires of Venice" the Doctor happily sentences an alien race to extinction in order to preserve a single human city, while in the Silurian two-parter he's so invested in the notion of human-Silurian coexistence that he brushes aside the latter's genocidal tendencies and even the Dr. Mengele-like proclivities of one of their scientists, whom he embraces as a brother.  River Song was an Indiana Jones-like character in "Silence in the Library"/"Forests of the Dead," brash and secure in her own abilities, effortlessly in charge of her team.  In "The Time of Angels"/"Flesh and Stone" she's more of a femme fatale, whose arrogance conceals insecurity and a deep fear that the Doctor will find out the truth about her past, but in "The Pandorica Opens"/"The Big Bang" that fear and insecurity are gone, even though this episode is the earliest of the three in her personal chronology, and the event she doesn't want the Doctor to find out about has already occurred.  In "The Beast Below," which is only her first outing with the Doctor, Amy displays a deep and unearned insight into his character, just as Rory does in "Vampires of Venice" when, only hours after meeting the Doctor, he identifies the dangerous effect he has on his companions. 

It's even more blatant in the series's lack of interest in developing any of these characters--you could spin River's personality changes as character growth, but only if the series seemed to be interested in her as something other than a means of kickstarting the plot and moving it along.  Even worse is Amy, who actually grows flatter and less interesting as the season draws on.  There's a lot of potential in her introduction in "The Eleventh Hour"--both the courage and attention to detail that bring her to the Doctor's attention in the first place, and the horrible way in which he screws up her life over the course of the episode--but it's never explored.  Amy doesn't grow or change over the course of the season.  Like River, she's used to move the plot, and at the end of the season she's actually the McGuffin, not because of anything she chose or did, like Rose in "The Parting of the Ways," but simply by virtue of having slept in a particular bedroom.  The closest the season comes to developing Amy is strengthening her romance with Rory, which would be aggravating even if Rory were not such a non-entity in himself, who needs to be transformed into a millennia-old killer plastic robot to become even the least bit interesting, and actually ends up backfiring on Amy, because there's no groundwork laid to make me believe her when she tells me that she loves Rory in "Amy's Choice," and what actually shows up on screen is a woman who is dismissive to the point of cruelty to the man she's promised to spend the rest of her life with.

All of this, of course, comes down to the Doctor.  It was obvious even from his Davies-era episodes that Moffat envisions the Doctor not as a close personal friend who forms deep bonds with his companions, but as a distant trickster figure who upends their lives but doesn't really engage with them because he's too alien.  So far, so good, and if the season had focused on those upended lives I probably would have enjoyed it, but instead what happens is that the Doctor isn't distant.  He's in the center of the frame, constantly, relentlessly, and he simply will.  Not.  Shut.  Up.  Moffat's Doctor is a truckload of mannerisms piled on top of funny gags and witty catchphrases, and some of this is very enjoyable ("I wear a fez now.  Fezzes are cool." or the obvious-but-impeccably-done slow burn realization when Rory turns up in "The Pandorica Opens"), but it also sucks the oxygen from everyone else in the room.  One of the Davies's Doctors' most enduring traits was how easily they fell in love, not only with their companions but with guest characters, whom they would rush to praise and make much of.  They noticed people.  Moffat's Doctor has his hands full just processing the never-ending, deafening churn of his own thoughts, and his writers have their hands full trying to depict that churn.  That leaves very little space for other characters and is probably the reason why, though there have been some wonderful single-serving characters this season, there's been so little character development--because the moment another character becomes prominent enough to gain the Doctor's attention, Amy, and later Rory and River, get starved out.  The better episodes of the season have focused on the Doctor's intense, one-on-one relationship with a single character.  In "The Eleventh Hour" that character was Amy, which is why it's the most nuanced glimpse we get of her as a person rather than a plot device, but "The Lodger" needs to lock her away in the TARDIS in order to give Craig room to breathe, and "Vincent and the Doctor" tries to give both Amy and Vincent the room they need but doesn't have it to give, and ends up short-changing them both.

The problem is that the Doctor is not a person.  He's a mass of mannerisms.  Matt Smith is quite good at portraying them, and the sense that the Doctor is a very old creature in a very young body, but that's still not a character.  We have no idea what this Doctor wants or fears and the season seems entirely uninterested in telling us about these things--the closest it comes is "Amy's Choice," but if you really need to dredge up a psychic echo of the main character's darkest impulses to stand on the set and explain the character to the audience then something has clearly gone wrong.  This Doctor is, quite literally, the oncoming storm--a strange, uncontrollable, unpredictable event that changes everything--but that's not exactly an audience identification character.  Which leaves the season bereft.  There's no one to care about, and the most memorable moments are not the ones when Moffat and his writers brilliantly pull off a story or tug at our heartstrings, but the moments in which they are especially clever.  That's not enough for me.

I feel a little guilty coming off so negative about Moffat's first season because, again, there's not much that he's done wrong that's worse than anything Davies did, and in some technical respects he has written a better season than any of Davies's.  A lot of my complaints come down to taste and personal preference, and I can certainly understand fans (and especially Old Who fans, which I gather the season has come into closer alignment with than the Davies years did) who prefer the Doctor as someone distant rather than a potential boyfriend, and who have no need for weepy moments between the companion and her family.  It seems obvious that Moffat has successfully written the Who that he is interested in.  It's just not the Who I want to watch.  I kept on with Davies's Doctor Who despite the fact that it wasn't, and had no interest in being, any good because even very close to its end there were moments of enormous fun in it.  The last season of Doctor Who has not been a lot of fun for me, and I'm not sure whether I'll be back for more.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one.

The show become self-indulgently stupid, hyperactively meaningless, and I reached the point where one looks back at the people who are still watching it, who still think it's any good or has anything to offer, and catches a glimpse of how we fans look from the outside.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

one looks back at the people who are still watching it, who still think it's any good or has anything to offer, and catches a glimpse of how we fans look from the outside

I certainly wouldn't want this essay to give that impression. Something that has both fascinated and frustrated me over the course of the season was the experience of watching friends whose reactions to Who have, in the past, been more or less congruent with mine embrace Moffat's new spin on the show with an enthusiasm that's left me baffled. There's certainly an interesting discussion to be had about the reasons that the new season has created such deep divisions within fandom, but I doubt that simply dismissing the fans who still like the show is the answer.

cammalot said...

I wrote up an entire post and then lost it due to operating the Open ID badly. I've just now got up the gumption to try rewriting. Sigh.

What I was going to say, although probably not as well this time, is that I am rather glad to see The Doctor as Quasi Boyfriend, apt to ruin himself emotionally over one Companion motif of the Davies years go, and good riddance. The Doctor has always worked best for me when he is slightly creepy and definitely alien, and the series relaunch has consistently strayed too far into love-polygon territory for my taste. The Doctor is alien, first and foremost — he may have a fannish obsession with the human race, may even love us, certainly appoints himself our protector and spends an insane amount of time observing (but as an outsider) and philosophizing (but as an outsider) about us, but he doesn’t really GET us. “Waters of Mars” and with the Time Lord Victorious theme was the first time I saw the series really recapturing some of that flavor — the Doctor wears a benevolent face (because deep down, he does sincerely like us) but he is not “safe.” I like Matt Smith’s take on this --- I wasn’t expecting to, and am still surprised. He captures the weirdness, the oldness, the not-what-it-seems-on-the surface aspects of the Doctor. It reminds me of “my” Doctor, the one I cut my teeth on, Tom Baker. (With touches of Patrick Troughton.)

“This Doctor is, quite literally, the oncoming storm --- a strange, uncontrollable, unpredictable event that changes everything” --- that’s the most beautiful description of everything I have wanted from the Doctor I have ever read. In classic Who, I never identified with the Doctor; I wanted him to save everyone, and as a kid I may have idolized him, but I identified with Teagan and Adric and Sarah Jane. The Doctor is Luck Ex Machina in vaguely human form. (The Ninth Doctor touched on this somewhat.)

With Amy, on the other hand, I worry. As you say, Moffat does excellently well at introducing funny, appealing characters. What I have noticed him doing as he develops them, though, is more troubling --- he’ll put together these compelling, multifaceted, interesting, and competent women, and then escalate this to the point where he’s sort of caricaturing their strong points while inviting us to sympathize with the overwhelmed and beleaguered men who have to live around them (an egregious bit of plot in “The Vampires of Venice” to my mind, that “Thank you” business). There have been times when I felt the show was tragically wasting Smith and Gillan.

So the gist of my lost, better post (with references! And quotes! Oh, I should learn to hit “save”) was that I’m good with this Doctor --- far, far more than I thought I would be --- and I like a great deal Amy so far, but I fear for her. I’ve gone back and forth between enraptured and repulsed with how I feel about the individual episodes (and at the moment, I’m more than ready for the show to quit being about Amy’s love life, REALLY). But I have a fairly positive outlook. The entire season hasn’t aired here yet (U.S.A), so I hope I can maintain this outlook when I get to the end of the season, as you have.

Anonymous said...

This is a long comment, for which I apologize. Having waited for your take on this series since I discovered your blog through Andrew Rilstone's, I found that your take articulates a lot of the thoughts I and others have had about Moffat's first run. "Eleventh Hour" seemed well enough for those involved, but the Doctor and Amy and Rory were so inconsistently characterized over the course of the series that I wondered if there was some breakdown between Moffat, individual directors, and Matt Smith.

The strange "rewinding"-attention-to-detail that we see appear in "Eleventh Hour" and "The Beast Below" made me wonder if that little technique was going to be some staple of the new Doctor and his companion. It called attention to itself and was distinct from previously established broadcast dramaturgical conventions in the series to merit a WTF reaction. But now it seems it was just Moffat's way of telling the audience to pay attention to all the little details he'd worked in because there'd be a test for coherency by the series finale.

"Victory of the Daleks," meanwhile, felt like one big empty (1) plug for the new adventure games and (2) chance for Moffat to say his candy color-coded Daleks were bigger and cooler than Davies'.

River Song's appearances, compared to the two-parter from Tennant's time, were working overtime to establish some kind of badass rep for a character who was never implied to be such previously. As one friend put it, the scene where the Dalek begs for mercy would have functioned just the same structurally but have been more consistent had the Dalek instead boasted, "*I* killed the Doctor." Song was annoying and cliched to me this series.

Rory and Amy's relationship, meanwhile, was so badly represented that I kept expecting they were never supposed to be together, despite the series' pushes to "emphasize" their love for each other. A lot of their interaction before the finale seemed strained, as if neither of them actually felt for each other as fiance and fiancee should (at least in terms of the cues the audience was given). Even in terms of blocking, they were never particularly *close* to each other.

In fact, I wound up feeling rather antagonistic to the new series until "Vincent and the Doctor." Here, at least, it started to feel more fun and less character inept, and Smith either was finding his groove or the writing and direction was working better than it had been. Still, the finale indicated that Moffat sees no reason to avoid the overwrought spectacle that Davies indulged in repeatedly through his run. Tennant's Doctor saved the entirety of the universe (indeed, multiverse) in three finales. Not just the Earth, but all of space-time and all those parallel universes out there. In the end, though, neither Davies nor Moffat appears capable of eschewing sentimentality in these finales.

I suspected early on that Moffat just wasn't a good producer for the show--maybe a better writer, with editorial control, but not all that great a producer and show runner. As the boss, he was just doing everything he thought about or wanted to do without any substantive feedback or editorial conscience to keep that in check.

Arthur said...

"The last season of Doctor Who has not been a lot of fun for me, and I'm not sure whether I'll be back for more."

To be honest, the first four seasons of New Who weren't much fun for me, but this most recent season, by my reckoning, is fantastic.

I think Moffat has very deliberately written the Who that he was interested in, just as RTD wrote the Who that he was interested in, and I think this is vital for the show's continued health: if RTD stayed on forever, or if Moffat and successive later show-wranglers stuck to RTD's course, it'd just get completely stagnant. I would much rather have a show that regenerates (like the Doctor!) every few years and which I occasionally love and occasionally dislike than a show which stays the same forever and which I'm merely indifferent to.

Bluntly, we've had four years of RTD-Who, and that's plenty for RTD diehards to sustain themselves on until the pendulum swings back to them. Right now, it's our turn - the turn of those of us who just weren't as thrilled by RTD's own particular quirks as you were to have the sort of Who we want. I'm sure the next person at the helm will have a brand new style, and maybe I'll like it, maybe you'll like it, or maybe we'll both like it or both hate it. That's the joy of what Moffat's done - he's shown that there's all sorts of different things that New Who can be, and I think that's saved the show from an RTD-inspired rut.

Put it this way: if the situation had been reversed, and I was thrilled by four years of Moffat-helmed Who but less than tickled by RTD's new style, I would hope I'd be honest enough to acknowledge that the two guys cater to different segments of the audience, and it's probably healthy for the show not to be stuck in one particular mould forever. Agree?

Kit said...

I think it really must be a Old/New divide, because I found myself liking the season- or more precisely, Matt Smith's Doctor- much better than Davies' without thinking that any individual episode or the season plot arc was particularly good. You're absolutely right; the plotting in the finale was abysmal, and the fact that I scarcely noticed it while the illogic of Davies' finales made me want to tear my hair out is probably significant.

Like you I came into Who with Eccleston and Davies, having no previous exposure to it, but unlike you I went back and watched much of the Classic series midway through Tennant's run, and that seems to have made all the difference.

Smith isn't just good at portraying an old being in a young body, he's extraordinary at portraying the Classic Doctor in Matt Smith's body, in a way that Eccleston and Tennant either couldn't or didn't wish to. For the viewers who are familiar with the old series, this provides a convenient shortcut to characterization- we know Smith's Doctor already because we've watched him for 26 years, and we see a character arc spanning the entire course of the show's run. It's illusory- it was created by chance and actor changes and cobbled-together plot arcs penned by writers who never even met- but especially for someone like me, seeing the show after the fact as a single aggregate entity, it's impossible not to read it as teleological. This season and Smith's Doctor become a late chapter in a thick book rather than an independent novella, and so for us the character isn't a cypher because the character work was already done in earlier chapters.

You and I, and most likely you and your Smith-loving friends, were in agreement about the previous seasons because Eccleston and Tennant weren't tapping into this history, and so when Tennant's characterization was failing for you up to "Human Nature" it seemed hollow to me too. But Smith is using character work done by Toughton and Davison to fill up the void, a chewy filling which is nonexistent for you because you haven't seen their episodes.

It's a pretty dangerous choice Moffat is making, if the season can't work for anyone who hasn't seen the old series. I wonder how the mainstream British audience is reacting. I'm willing to watch the Doctor do any ridiculous thing as long as there is clever dialogue and he seems Doctorly to me, but I would expect a non-fannish audience to demand something more.

Nix said...


the two thousand years he spent guarding a prison that shouldn't have needed any guarding because it was absolutely impervious to harm and also impregnable unless you happen to be the person who is already inside, which seems like quite a design flaw in a prison made for a time traveler


Plainly the Doctor is channelling Havelock Vetinari. Only Vetinari actually has a coherent personality (though the distant-and-alien parts apply to him too, in a different way).

Omer said...

Unlike Kit, I haven't seen any of the "Old Who", but I still enjoyed Moffat's season, although less than I expected.

I agree with you on most of what you write, including the weak plotting and the characterization of the companions. But the greatest problem for me was the huge difference in quality between the Moffat episodes and the episodes written by others. I enjoyed parts of “Vincent and the Doctor” and “The Lodger”, but as a historical drama/romantic comedy, rather than in a Doctor Who way. The rest of the non-Moffat penned episodes were dreadful, and the Sillurian two-parter especially so.

What I think you’re missing in your correct critique is the sure sense of awesomeness in Moffat’s “Doctor Who” episodes on a moment-by-moment, scene-by-scene level. Moffat’s episodes for this season made little sense, but they were so packed with great sequences, that I’m willing to forgive their incoherent plots. Scenes like River Song’s confrontation with the Dalek, the opening teaser for “The Beast Below”, the great “Fish-fingers” scene, the Amy/Rory exchange in “The Pandorica Opens”, Amy’s great line before the Tardis materializes in her wedding – and many, many more I could mention – are simply brilliant, funny, scary, touching etc. I think I’m willing to overlook almost all the faults of the show because it delivers so many great scenes and sequences. It would be better if, in addition to these great moments, the show’s plot would actually make sense and its characters would be more engaging – but you can’t have everything.

The only point of real disagreement is on the character of River Song; I think she was entirely consistent between the “Angels” and “Pandorica” storylines. The reason she was fearful in “Angels” was because of the soldiers/priests around her – when they’re not around she always knows more than the Doctor, and has the upper hand – but with them around her, able and willing to rat her out, she acts very differently.

Alexander said...

Abigail, thanks for an interesting and well thought out piece of reasoning on the issues with the season. I'd say that I disagree with your conclusions and the disconnect you feel, and disagree with the dislike as much as I disagreed with your general liking for the dreadful third season of Dexter. It is always good to get a thoughtful analysis from someone with a different take, and this post certainly delivers that.

I'd agree that Jekyll was incredible rubbish for everything after the third episode, though I've never really had that colour my view of Moffat's Dr. Who writing much. Partly because of the different points in the career, partly because they seem to aim at different tones and storytimes--among other things the Dr. Who stories tend to be far more optimistic.

I'd be interested, if you were ranking all the episodes of this season from most enjoyable to least, how would you list it? I gather from this post that "The Eleventh Hour" would be at the top and possibly the Lodger or Silurian two parter on the bottom, but are there others you found particularly closer or further away from effectiveness?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Cammalot:

What I have noticed him doing as he develops them, though, is more troubling --- he’ll put together these compelling, multifaceted, interesting, and competent women, and then escalate this to the point where he’s sort of caricaturing their strong points while inviting us to sympathize with the overwhelmed and beleaguered men who have to live around them

That's a pretty good description of why I found the relationship between Amy and Rory so unbelievable and eventually unpleasant (except that compelling, interesting, and multifaceted is probably going too far where Amy is concerned). It reminds me of Moffat's Coupling, and the cliche of childlike man/domineering woman that drove it. The difference being, of course, that Doctor Who isn't a relationship sitcom, and that Amy and Rory were shoehorned into most episodes and hardly developed, so instead of coming off as funny (and occasionally sweet) they just became unconvincing as a couple.

Arthur:

I suspect that if Moffat had taken charge of the Who reboot five years ago I never would have stuck with the show long enough to be either criticizing or praising it today. I also have to wonder, given how tepid the US reaction to Moffat's season has been, and the fact that the UK ratings for the season have dropped from last one, whether his Who would have enjoyed the success and amassed the cultural currency that Davies's did.

Kit:

As I say to Arthur, there's been a consistent drop in UK ratings over this season as compared to last one. There could be factors other than a dislike of Moffat's spin on the show, of course - some viewers, like myself, may have lost their patience with Davies's Who and taken the opportunity of the rehaul to abandon the show, or the year of specials may have encouraged more casual fans to wander off. I suppose the real test will be next season's ratings.

Omer:

Moffat’s episodes for this season made little sense, but they were so packed with great sequences, that I’m willing to forgive their incoherent plots.

I think I'd say the same about Davies. Honestly, there's not much between the two of them, as they've been writing Who, except that Moffat is cleverer and less interested in his characters.

The reason [River Song] was fearful in “Angels” was because of the soldiers/priests around her – when they’re not around she always knows more than the Doctor, and has the upper hand – but with them around her, able and willing to rat her out, she acts very differently.

If that were true, she would still feel the fear. She'd just be less nervous about the secret coming out. If the character had any interiority, any existence beyond being a plot device with occasional cool moments (though I have to say that I found the Dalek scene horribly overdone - it came off like a classic case of making a character galactically cool to make up for the fact that they are so underdeveloped), we would still sense that fear in her.

Alexander:

On the contrary, the episodes I liked this season were the ones in which the Doctor had a well-developed character to play against. So, "The Eleventh Hour," "Vincent and the Doctor," and "The Lodger". My least favorite by quite a wide margin is the Silurian two-parter, though "Vampires of Venice" gets a dishonorable mention for being so very boring.

Omer said...

I think if you told Steven Moffat's that his Who is "like Davis's, only cleverer", he'd be quite pleased (even with the somewhat prejurative sense of the word "clever" in English).

I haven't thought about this before, but the " childlike man/domineering woman" is a recurring theme in all of Moffat's works. It's the relationship between Spike and Linda in "Press Gang", between Mark and Betty in "Joking Apart", between all the parings in "Couplings", between Sally and Larry in "blink", and now between Amy and Rory.

cammalot said...

Now that I've seen the finale, I can definitely see more of your interpretation, Abigail. This Doctore is definitely the planet around which the satellites revolve, at least in how the individual scripts read... I'm just not sure that Davies' Doctor was not a similar sort of planet, just with slightly less alieness about him, and more Jesus-figure.

We definitely prefer the same episodes, and dislike the same ones.

The charm of the actors is still carrying this thing for me, though. (The Davies era Doctor as Tortured Jesus thing was getting on my very last nerve. They even had him uplifed by angels. I mean really. Somehow the actual lust that some of the characters display for this Doctor seems more honest than the pining and/or symbolic desire that the characters had over Ten. It doesn't color everything.)

-Peder said...

Finally got a chance to see the finale and have been waiting to read this until I had. There is much I agree with here. The incredibly unconvincing Amy/Rory relationship undermines so much of what the writing wanted to tell us. From the beginning it seemed like a bad pairing. When she finally chose Rory conclusively it seemed like more of a lack of will than a deeper love.
I was a fan of the classic series and I think you might be right about the division in the fans. I liked the idea of the Doctor falling for one of his companions. But not the idea of him falling for each and every single companion. That seemed like overkill and extremely lazy writing. The detachment of Matt Smith was welcome not so much as an echo of old times as much as it was simply a different direction.
You couldn't be more right about the resolution to the Pandorica. They literally wrote themselves into an unbreakable box and then spent almost no effort getting out of it. Just had to wave the magic wand, excuse me 'sonic screwdriver', and voila, no problem. (Seriously, how overpowered is that thing? Most overpowered lazy writers device in history?) The shame of it is that the buildup was tremendous. Which means that it can join the last few season finales with having a very weak payoff.
I'm sure I'll be back for the next season, probably for the same reason that I watched 'Lost' all the way to the end. Now that I've invested this much I may as well see where it goes from here. I kind of hope you come back for it too.

Patricia said...

Great post Abigail, I also wasn't impressed by the spotty characterisation in the Amy/Rory relationship, and wasn't at all convinced by their relationship. That said, I largely agree with Kit, though my viewing of old Who has been spotty at best I saw something in the new Dr that really rang true to the series for me.

Omer said: "the "childlike man/domineering woman" is a recurring theme in all of Moffat's works"... ..."between all the parings in "Couplings""

I don't see where you're coming from with this one really. Steve/Jane, the initial couple is a nervous or unassertive man vs domineering woman, but the main relationship of the series Steve/Susan is an unnassertive (not childlike) man/ordinary woman.
There aren't any other consistent couples in the series, but Patrick is not a childlike man, he is a handsome, but thick/unaware man. (To reduce him to cliches). Jeff is also not childlike, but rather neurotic and imaginative. Jane is domineering, or at least tries to be, but as she is kind of crazy people take her with a pinch of salt (certainly Sally and Susan do) and she isn't actually that dominating, that often. Sally is not domineering at all.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I would certainly call Steve, Jeff, and Oliver childlike men, though Steve is the worst of the three, and clearly expects Susan to be the adult in the relationship all the time. Patrick, I agree, is sort of an exception, which may be why I liked his and Sally's relationship the best of any in the series.

Patricia said...

We may be having a semantic difference here, if by childlike you mean 'not fulfilling the dominant masculine role in the relationship' then I see where you're coming from. That suggests normative gender expectations that I couldn't condone though.

I barely remember Oliver so nothing I say applies to him. But for Steve, and more so Jeff, I don't see all that much childlike behaviour. They are both well paid professionals, holding down their jobs and getting on with life.
Jeff is neurotic, overthinks things, and is not that assertive. That should not map to 'childlike' just because he is a man and men are expected to perform a certain social role. Steve is whiny and unassertive, which can come across as very childlike, but he also spends a lot of time mentoring Jeff in a mature and parental fashion, and is competent and cool headed in many situations. (This is less true in the worse final season(s))
It is also nice to see a show where the woman is not always portrayed as the more submissive and passive person in a relationship. But I don't think that because the women step up and take charge a lot of the time that this means that their partners are rendered childlike, as if a man must always be assertive and dominant otherwise he is being childlike and unimpressive.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think that the men are childlike in their emotional reactions, their ability to deal with changes, challenges, and setbacks, and the tone they impose on their relationships with the women, whose job often becomes to console and comfort their male counterparts. It's not about dominance and submission. It's about who gets protected from the world and who has to deal with it.

Patricia said...

In that case I think there's largely only a problem with Susan, who is more professional, competent and emotionally mature than all the other characters put together.
Jane freaks out whenever anything goes wrong for her (see getting fired - Jane and the Truth Snake), and lives in a fantasy world populated with bizarre fantasies and built on denial.
Sally spends her entire life trying to avoid changes, largely worried by the inevitable progress of time and aging, and has trouble coping with merely being around old people. She, like Jeff but less so, is also fairly neurotic.

"whose job often becomes to console and comfort their male counterparts"

This I don't recognise at all. Can you be more specific?

None of the men impose anything much on their relationships, Steve is constitutionally incapable of imposing on anyone - as seen when he fails even to break up with Jane in the first episode - Jeff is hardly ever involved with anyone and is too neurotic to control anyone, far from being consoled and comforted by any women he is mostly terrified of losing her, bemused and trying too hard - Patrick is all about not being bothered, and at no point turns to anyone for comfort, though he does provide support, consolation and comfort to the more neurotic Sally when they finally get together.

Omer said...

In term of the dynamics, I guess I was thinking mostly in terms of control. The women tell the men what to do, or manipulate them into doing this - and the men are generally either terrified of or controled by the women (or both) This is true in all the "Coupling" couples. Even Patrick becomes very much the child in the relationship with Sally; He tries to leave her house at night and can't, he tries to hide from her the video of Jane, and he tries to hide the engegement ring from her. In all cases he fails. Whereas Sally tries to keep him from going on vacation to Gold, tries to get him to stay the night at her place, and tries to find the Jane video - and is successful in each effort.

Patricia said...

That was the impression I got from your comment. I guess I'm more inclined to agree with Abigail's take on it as the men are unambiguously bad at dealing with changes, challenges and setbacks, but I think that's true of all the characters except Susan, who is the only one with a level head.

I agree that the men are generally terrified (Patrick excepted) but I'm not so sure that they are generally controlled by the women (with the exception of Jane in the first episode), I see it as more about the negotiation and irrational terror that the emotional vulnerability inherent in complex relationships engenders in many people.

Your interpretation of Patrick is interesting. I saw it as more that he was caught, he 'the one that got away' for most women; hot, successful and emotionally uninvolved in all his relationships, he was finally learning what it meant to be in a relationship, to be open with someone, unable to hide your secrets (such as his cupboard). More that he was growing up than being reduced to a child.

Anonymous said...

the writing is better than all of the who put together moffat is great , so is matt and karen and if you just sit there and pick apart plot lines than watch something else.

apophasis said...

Just to comment on a two year-old thread, I suppose as a form of shouting at the sky to validate my own agency: I think you misread Coupling, though understandably so. Susan is the only healthy adult in the whole series and since she and Steve are the main characters--and Steve pretty much the viewpoint character--the most visible and the most permanent, stable relationship we see does have that dynamic. That is just a function of Susan being the straight man in the comedic workings of the series though. Interestingly, in interactions with any other main character, Steve usually plays the straight man but with Susan his insecurities get the better of him. This rings somewhat true to life in that I think most people's partners, especially in the early years of a relationship, can bring out our more crazy side.

You can argue that having the central and most healthy relationship in the show have this dynamic is defining for Moffat but I'm skeptical, especially since I don't think think that holds for Amy and Rory from the Season Five finale on. And maybe even earlier in Season Five; I see Amy as more constitutionally ready for an adventurer role than Rory, who grows into it--largely pushed by wanting to be with Amy and perhaps also reflective of the Doctor's having influenced her for much longer,whereas Rory has to play catch-up.

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