I don’t want to keep going on about Dr Who especially as I’ve severed myself sufficiently from the programme that I haven’t even read the blogs for subsequent episodes on either the Guardian or TV.com, but another thought has come into my head to further define what I now find so unacceptable about Stephen Moffat’s writing.
No, I’m not talking about his continuing habit of making Clara Oswald into such a puffed-up, self-absorbed, pig-ignorant embarrassment who can’t recognise being out of her depth when on the ocean bed without a bathyscape (sorry, I really loathe the character, does it show?)
The thought arose from re-reading Terry Pratchett’s non-fiction collection, A Blink of the Screen, and the several essays he had to write at different times, defending and defining the writing of fantasy. Despite the heavily advertised SF trappings, Dr Who is and for a very long time has been a fantasy programme. What else is the sonic screwdriver but a magic wand? In particular, under Moffat, it has made its name as a programme in which anything can happen.
But the main problem with Anything Can Happen fiction is that you can’t have simply Anything Happen. Fiction can be greatly enlivened by the employment of the unconventional and the unexpected, but these must in turn obey conventions and be at the very least expectable if they are to succeed.
To take an example: think back to that moment in The Fellowship of the Ring where the Fellowship is racing to escape from Moria, only for the awakened Balrog to pursue them across the Bridge of Khazad-Dum. Only Gandalf stands between the Fellowship and disaster. Imagine therefore that, instead of waxing defiant and breaking the bridge with his staff, Gandalf whips out a Thompson Sub-Machine Gun out from under his grey robes and blows the Balrog to fiery chunks?
Why can’t you do that? After all, it’s only what Indiana Jones did in Raiders of the Lost Ark when that sword-enhanced Arab stepped out in front of him, demonstrating the looseness of his wrist when it came to scimitar-swinging. Indy just blew him away.
But what happened in Raiders was the explosion of a cliche in a manner that, whilst unexpected, was nevertheless completely in keeping with the world of the story. Guns not only existed but had already been used in the film. All Indy did was to refuse to follow a convention of the kind of pulp fiction that informed and underwrote Raiders.
To try a similar trick in Tolkien, who is engaged in the creation of a coherent secondary world in which guns, gunpowder and other weaponry of that class do not function, would be to explode the book, and Middle-Earth with it.
Dr Who has for a very long time, and especially under Moffat, a much looser programme. Anything Can Happen. It continually does. Anything Can Happen, and so large amounts of Anything must keep Happening, every time, so as to continually dazzle the audience and keep them gasping. But the more Anything that Happens, the bigger and brighter and less expected the next Anything must be. It becomes a game of spectacle, which is precisely the point at which a diamond-hard control is required.
And that’s what Moffat lacks. Some of the things he springs on his audience are solely for effect. They cannot be related to the story in any way. Take episode 1 this series, where the Doctor emerges from a fog of dry ice, in medieval times, riding on a twenty-first century tank and playing heavy metal guitar on an electric guitar that is not plugged in because there is most of a millennium to go before there will be anything that it can be plugged into but he’s still rocking it like Pete Townsend.
That’s not even something that was done in service to the plot, but it’s emblematic of Moffat’s whole approach. The trouble is that if Anything Can Happen, and literally Anything Does Happen, then every part of the story ceases to hold any meaning. Dramatic tension, emotional significance, personal development, all these are dependent upon the story holding a real measure of conflict and the realistic possibility of consequence.
But if, at any time, the hero can produce a rabbit of any shape, size or colour out of his back pocket, danger and death and destruction become irrelevant.
Where is the battle if the wizard can, whenever he feels like it, turn the opposing army into pink butterflies? What is the point of the story if it can be resolved by some madcap, off the wall gesture that has no bearing on what has happened thus far?
If Anything Can Happen, there is no point to what does happen or what has already happened.
Moffat obviously used to understand that but he’s lost sight of what is a fundamental requirement of fantastic fiction. He’s fallen in love with the idea of spectacle and incongruity, and lost the ability to control his fiction. At that point, any writer is doomed, usually to see his audience drain away like the dirty suds at the end of the bath. As we now understand is happening.