Kierkegaard told us that life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards. Some Doctor Who fans have become familiar with that feeling this year. Because Steven Moffat’s translation of that Kierkegaard axiom would probably be that Series Six has to be watched forwards but can only be understood when the DVD box-set comes out.

I’m a big fan of Moffat’s work in DW but something curious has crept into the DW experience since THE CHRISTMAS CAROL. From what I hear, I’m not the only one finding it hard to enjoy the episodes of Series Six (2011) on first viewing. “Enjoy” is a relative term for a DW fan. What’s not to enjoy  when we’re watching new DW stories? When we talk of enjoying DW, we’re not asking if we had a good time watching it but rather how much did we enjoy it compared with the other stories/episodes we’ve seen. We wouldn’t be fans if we weren’t itching to draw up lists of things at every opportunity. However much we grouch about this week’s episode, we’ll still be there next week watching the opening scenes with excitement. It takes a truly catastrophic lack of enjoyment like FEAR HER to make us actually consider never tuning in again. Or one like TIMEFLIGHT to make us consider not carrying on with life. I never took wholeheartedly to David Tennant’s Doctor. The general breeziness of his portrayal lacked something for me. The less said about my views on Donna, the better. But I was still there every Saturday evening, excited that there was more DW to be watched. It was still miles better than anything else on TV, it just wasn’t another BLINK or GENESIS.

The Silurian story apart, I adored everything about Series Five (2010) and Matt Smith so I was a bit shocked on Christmas Day 2010 to find myself completely unenthused by THE CHRISTMAS CAROL. It seemed all over the place to me and extremely ropey. Until I watched it again on New Year’s Day and loved every moment of it. Now I regard it as one of the high points of New Who. At the time, I put it down to the effect of too many mince pies settling on top of the simmering resentment that adults only get a handful of presents at Christmas. I just have to keep reminding myself during the festive season that giving is more enjoyable than receiving. It’s also considerably less painful in the absence of a water-based lubricant.

Therefore, I was pretty shocked to find that I wasn’t “enjoying” Series Six (2011) anything like as much as Series Five (2010). Even after repeated rewatching, it seemed that something nebulous was missing. As the mid-season cliffhanger approached, I began to understand what was wrong. For the first time in New Who, Moffat was writing a story arc.

It seems to be accepted wisdom that every series of New Who since 2005 has had a story arc but Series Six (2011) is really the first. The series arc in Series One (2005) consisted only of The Long Game and the finale. The series arc in Series Two (2006) consisted only of Tooth & Claw and the finale. A series arc is surely a series where, at the end of each episode, you’re left wondering what will happen next in the series arc plot. It’s not one where you spend the week between episodes on tenterhooks, wondering how the next throwaway mention of “Bad Wolf” (S1), “Torchwood” (S2), “Saxon” (S3) or “Oops, where’s my planet gone?” (S4) will get crowbarred into the script.

Even when the arc motif became physical (the cracks in space and time), it drove individual story plots at best (the escape of Prisoner Zero, the despatch of the Angels, the loss of Rory), it didn’t drive the whole series other than the finale.

Series Six  is the first real attempt by New Who at a proper series-long arc and that may be why it’s so disorienting. But I suspect that the problem also lies in Moffat giving us something of a halfway house. He gives us individual episodes which are fundamentally tied into a series arc and whose issues by definition cannot be wholly resolved within those individual episodes. I’ve no problem with that. Where then is the halfway house?

I said that these issues are tied into a series arc but it’d be more accurate to say that they’re tied into (presumably) the series finale and the mid-season cliffhanger. We don’t learn more and more from each new episode. At the end of DAY OF THE MOON, we’re left with questions which are then completely ignored the following week for a rollicking pirate story and then THE DOCTOR’S WIFE wherein the sole concessions to the series arc are the brief appearances of the Eyepatch Lady and the TARDIS scanner doing its pregnant/not pregnant routine which are as crowbarred in as all the Bad Wolf references.

Even when we get back onto the lost trail of the series arc with the Flesh two-parter, the sole connection to the series arc is the admittedly gobsmacking last minute where the Amy ganger is dissolved. In retrospect, we learn that the progression of the series arc has been happening off-screen. All along, the Doctor has been observing and planning and visiting acid monasteries in pursuit of the series arc mystery. But what’s the point of all that if it’s kept entirely from us? Yes, we see in retrospect that a lot of what the Doctor has been doing in the series has been geared towards solving the Amy/ganger question but we only get a sense of this in retrospect and it’s only in retrospect that we discover that there even was an Amy/ganger question.

There’s the halfway house, or the two stools between which Moffat has fallen in the first half of Series Six. The individual episodes have been so laced with suggestions that something more important is happening that those episodes in themselves feel strangely incomplete and a little unsatisfying. You could argue that that’s no different to the Bad Wolf arc except that those throwaway lines in no way overshadowed the individual episodes. When you’re watching one of the best dalek stories ever (and possibly one of the best Doctor Who stories ever) in DALEK, the line “Bad Wolf descending” is a nice teaser but pales into thingummy compared with the surrounding story. Whereas in THE CURSE OF THE BLACK SPOT, the final brief glimpse of the pregnant/not pregnant scanner is far more interesting and exciting that the whole other 40-odd minutes of the story. Also the appearances of the Eyepatch Lady are so bizarre that they too overshadow what’s happening around them.

The result is that, with the exception of THE DOCTOR’S WIFE, individual episodes lack a sense of internal cohesiveness and are diminished as stories in their own right by the nods to the series arc. That would be OK if that sense of something lacking was counterbalanced by a concrete and cohesive series arc driving our interest in the series from week to week but there isn’t one. Unless multiple online forum discussions as to who the Eyepatch Lady is and whether Amy is or is not pregnant count as a driving series arc for you. In the rare cases where the individual episodes progress the story arc, it’s either done off-screen (the Doctor plotting away without telling us) or it’s done as a last minute reveal.

To what extent are we prepared to sacrifice a satisfying story each week in exchange for it all making sense when we eventually buy the DVD box-set? I don’t think that the series arc should be used as a get out of jail free card for the ropiness of the first half of Series Six. When you’re ploughing through the series week by week and looking forward to every Saturday only to be left unfulfilled, the promise that it’ll all work out in the end isn’t much consolation.

Remember how in Series Five (2010) people were excusing Amy being an incredibly irritating character by hypothesising that she was being written that way because her annoyingness was going to be revealed as important to the plot. Even if that had been true, it still meant that in the meantime we had to put up with her being annoying week after week. No plot resolution could make up for that. It may be philosophically interesting to see the 10th Doctor brought low by his arrogance, but to achieve that, we first have to put up with him behaving like a swaggering prick boasting of all the famous women he’s shagged. I’d rather miss out on the latest riff on how are the mighty fallen, thank you, if it means turning the Doctor into a dislikeable character.

I never thought I’d find a Russell T Davies story more fulfilling than a Steven Moffat one. Christopher H Bidmead said in a recentish interview that RTD was a brilliant first draft writer which I think, in TV writer-speak, was intended as a crushing put-down. Presumably he would call Moffat a third or even fourth draft writer. The joy of “getting” a new DW story at first encounter will always outweigh for me any knowing satisfaction at “getting” it only on the third or fourth attempt.

If Moffat’s series arcs are going to follow this pattern, perhaps we could persuade the BBC in future to release the DVD box-set of every new DW series before the series is actually broadcast rather than after. That way I can fully enjoy my Saturdays again.

(Kierkegaard’s long lost cousin)


Posted June 26, 2011 by docwhom in Misc


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  1. You describe season six (2011) as being the first season of new Who to have a story arc, and yet your progression of that argument places the season very much on a par with its predecessors. How different, for example, is Moffat’s halfway house, with it’s nods to the arc via the Eyepatch Lady and pregnant/not-pregnant scans, to references to Torchwood or Saxon, or disappearing planets? All, it can be argued, have been equally shoe-horned in. The crack from season five (2010), it can be said, formed far more of a story arc. Of the first eleven episodes, it deliberately drove four of them and appeared in a further four, and of those further four we learned something new about it on two occasions. Only in THE LODGER and THE BEAST BELOW did it appear to be somewhat unnecessarily shoehorned in. I think you might be somewhat disorientated by the scale of the openng two-parter in comparison to previous years, and yet it would be wrong to say that the story arc hasn’t been palpably progressing since then. It’s difficult to say how important the Flesh two-parter is going to be in the end. If it does prove to be more than just a preamble to the closing scene (and Amy’s relationship to the ganger Doctor was important), then that would mean that five out of seven episodes have so far been driving the story arc. That’s a bit more than a halfway house. And in that case your problem is more to do with the fact that the Doctor isn’t laying his cards on the table. Would you, if you had an enemy which could project the consciousness of a companion straight into the TARDIS?

  2. Tut – bureaucrat!!!

    My point about series arcs was primarily to do with their impact on individual episodes, not whether they did or didn’t actually exist.

    I made the point that the fact that the words “Bad Wolf”/”Torchwood”/”Saxon” were being shoehorned into Series One/Two/Three was pretty irrelevant to the individual episodes as you could take or leave them. If you were a casual viewer, they’d most likely pass you by and, if you were a fanboy viewer, the biggest reaction they’d provoke woud be a knowing little “ooh there’s another one” said to yourself. They never took you out of the episode. They were almost subliminal at times. Whereas the appearances of the Eyepatch Lady in Series Six are so visually jarring that they almost stop the relevant episode dead in its tracks and, even when she’s reclosed her hatch (matron!), the viewer is left thinking “WTF?” for a few minutes. Each time she slides open her hatch, it’s as if Moffat is slapping you in the face with a wet fish and saying “this episode isn’t dealing with the really important things in Amy’s life” but giving you no clues as to what those really important things are. Thus diminishing the individual episode without giving you a decent tie-in to a wider story arc in compensation. And the pregnant/not-pregnant scans are even worse in that the fact that Amy may or may not be pregnant is a far more pressing, scary and, dare I say, interesting affair than buggering about on a pirate ship. Again diminishing the power of the episode by letting you know that there’s something far more important going on in the lives of our heroes than this week’s romp but not giving us the vaguest idea what that may be.

    The issue of not laying your cards on the table may be good strategy on the Doctor’s part but we’re talking about a TV show, not a novel. There’s no author’s voice letting us know what the Doctor’s up to. We know only what we see on the screen. If we’re not only visually denied the workings of the Doctor’s plan but aren’t even given any real notion that he has a plan (beyond a vague sense that he’s up to something mysterious at that monastery), then where’s our emotional involvement in his pursuit of his plan? The climax of The Almost People may have been jaw-dropping but it was effectively divorced from the rest of that two-parter because it’s impossible for us to even guess at it. The jaw-droppingness at the end is nothing more than surprise at the unexpected. It’s in no way the emotional climax of a dramatic journey for the viewer. I wouldn’t mind that so much if we’d had something to hold our attention in the meantime which was more interesting than running around corridors. If we’re going to excuse divorcing the viewer from a dramatic presentation of the Doctor’s struggle to solve the problem, then we’re veering dangerously towards Timelash territory. If we can be denied seeing it happen, why not also deny us the later explanation? Why not have the Doctor disappearing into a locked room at the start of episode 13 together with the Eyepatch Lady, the Silents and the Headless Monks, only to emerge from the room alone at the end of the episode to tell Amy and Rory that he defeated all the baddies and that he might explain to them one day how he did it?

    In that way, it’s a bit like the resolution to the cliffhanger at the end of The Pandorica Opens which many of of us had actually guessed at before we saw it. Not because we were super clever or because we’d followed a trail of clues but because we were thinking: this cliffhanger is so impossible to extricate the Doctor from that there’s a danger that Moffat will use the cop-out of a temporal paradox. Which he did. And although that resolution might have been logically sound (within the limitations of sci-fi notions of time travel), it was in no way a dramatically satisfying resolution because none of our heroes had to be brave or clever to resolve the cliffhanger.

    As for being disorientated by the scale of the opening two-parter, I can only imagine that you mean geographic scale. There was nothing else disorientating about it.

    • I think you’ve been completely disorientated by the scale of the opening two-parter. Your entire argument rests upon the fact that, for you, the questions which remained unanswered at the end of the second episode just aren’t being progressed quickly enough. The appearances of the Eyepatch lady in the early episodes – structured, I would guess, to remind the audience that there is a bigger story going on – being simple reminders to you that Moffat just wasn’t getting on with it. You emphasise this point with your reference to the Doctor’s inner thoughts, and how being denied a window into these denies us an emotional involvement in the story arc. Given that the Doctor’s plan relied upon seeing how far a ganger Amy would bond (for want of a better term) with a ganger Doctor, then what was he to say to whom? Subtefuge was a necessary part of the plan. Any emotional involvement comes in how far you a) care about the Amy character, and b) are interested in what the Doctor is going to do about this particular situation. Granted, the arc has been considerably BIGGER than the junket episodes which have come between it. Even so, I’ve come to the conclusion that with the upcoming return of characters from THE LODGER it’s rather difficult to say just what is going to prove to be important to the arc and what isn’t. Not to mention the fact that episodes 4 and 6 have given us an alien entity aboard the TARDIS and a ganger Doctor which may or may not prove to be relevant.

      On the subject of the Doctor disappearing into a locked room at the start of episode 13, etc. This is exactly what has happened. Only it occurred at the start of episode 1 and we are now on a journey to find out exactly how he defeated his enemies (finally finished having to save us) and whether or not it really will cost him his life. This is a further cause of disorientation resulting from the opening two-parter.

  3. Three replies! Your stalking of me has made me feel a twinge of sympathy for Jon Blum and that’s something I cannot forgive lightly.

    At no point have I argued that the unanswered questions weren’t being progressed quickly enough. I was arguing that there was no sense of their being progressed at all.

    As for the dilemma of how to reveal the Doctor’s plan to the audience (or, more accurately, the sense that he even had a plan), that’s for Moffat to solve, not me. He chose to tell a story which would necessitate the driving arc narrative being concealed from the audience. So it’s up to him to solve the resulting problem of the series appearing aimless and all over the place by either providing another series driver or telling a different story.

  4. I’m sure Jon Blum feels the same… Oh, look at me… making enemies among such giants…

    Moffat hardly, “chose to tell a story which would necessitate the driving arc narrative being concealed from the audience” when from episodes two through to five we (and no one but us and the Doctor) regularly saw the Doctor conducting secretive scans of Amy with the TARDIS. Not to mention his occasional rejoinders to “breathe” and “push”. Then there was the Comic Relief special which in hindsight was something of a massive spoiler.

    I would certainly argue that Eyepatch lady and her hatch was being pushed just a little too far: it couldn’t have been sustained beyond the end of season without it becoming just a tad boring…

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