We’ve established earlier in this blog that the current version of Doctor Who is the creative child of Steven Moffat, and that, as a result of certain underlying presumptions on his part, some conscious and others not quite-so-conscious, the show has gone off on a particular tangent of which I am not particularly fond. Let’s be clear, though: I am a Doctor Who fan from 1963, since ‘An Unearthly Child’; I will watch some episodes over and over again with delight, classic and new; and I will even ‘sit through’ the really awful parts of the programme’s long history because loyalty demands it. Doctor Who is like faith or riding a bike -once you’ve ‘got’ it, you can’t really ‘unget’ it, even though that might lead you into all kinds of trouble.
Why don’t I like today’s ‘take’ on Doctor Who? For reasons I have touched on before, really: the current show-runner, Steven Moffat, says he has a different core concept of who the Doctor is (though I think that, perhaps unknowingly, other ideas of the Doctor make it through that predilection at times). He doesn’t think that the Doctor is ‘Gandalf in space’; I do. He thinks that, in accordance with modern society’s ironic focus on subjective emotion and psychology, as opposed to external reality and uplifting adventure, plots aren’t senior to mood and that therefore plot-holes don’t really matter. There have been some universe-sized plot-holes during his time as show-runner and they still irk many fans like me, but because character and the mood or surprise of the moment in a particular episode outweigh any sort of objective solidity in his judgement, Mr. Moffat finds himself continually appearing on chat-segments to ‘explain’ huge and gaping illogics or contradictions in his stories to disgruntled fans.
He probably says to himself (in order to sleep at night) something like this: ‘Well, it’s a show about a traveller in time and space-all of time and space. How can it help but be full of contradictions, paradoxes, unexplained sequences, and mish-mashes?’ ‘Blink’, hailed as Moffat’s greatest story, contains a few of these illogics that hang there to entertain the modern viewer. And now and again, he’s right: a tantalising illogic to make you think is probably good for you occasionally. I enjoyed ‘Blink’ very much. As the Doctor himself said once: ‘A straight line may be the shortest distance between two points, but it is by no means the most interesting.’ The problem arises when the kind of illogic we are talking about is so huge that it doesn’t hang there as a thing to ponder, but like a noose, killing off the credibility of the story as a whole.
That being said, it isn’t even illogics that are the core difficulty. They are a symptom; a sign that we are reading a certain kind of story. When Time goes awry and when things don’t make sense, look for other signs too: lots of death and negative emotion; a protagonist who is hollow or undefined; a sense of chaos at work behind the scenes. These are the hallmarks of Irony as a genre, and reflect the fact that we are in an Ironic culture at present, one which has no great faith in Providence or underlying order, one where fleeting subjective emotion is taken to be king, one where life and meaning are under threat, implicitly or explicitly.
This is epitomised in the episode ‘Listen’ (another simple bodily function, like ‘Blink’, forming the title to a Moffat story). In it, Clara tells the Doctor ‘Fear is a superpower. Fear can make you faster, and cleverer, and stronger. And one day, you’re gonna come back to this barn, and on that day, you’re going to be very afraid indeed. But that’s okay. Because if you’re very wise and very strong, fear doesn’t have to make you cruel or cowardly. Fear can make you kind….you’re always going to be afraid, even if you learn to hide it.’ That’s a statement straight out of the Ironic culture in which Moffat is writing -because of course, fear is none of those things: fear takes away power, it weakens, it impairs wisdom. Fear usually makes people cruel and cowardly; it rarely makes anyone kind. Kindness is based on trust and a rejection of fear. What Clara tells the Doctor -effectively implanting in his mind the datum which Mr. Moffat would love him to operate on throughout his long life, when he is still a child in that barn on Gallifrey- is a lie.
The episode is still good. It challenges our thinking a little bit, it makes us jump and our hearts beat faster for a few minutes. In the context of Mr. Moffat’s phrase ’Time can be rewritten’, it’s designed to ‘reboot’ our concept of what motivates the show’s protagonist, and to remove any vestige of the Gandalf persona that he might have retained, replacing it with that of a quaking child. It culminates in that statement from Clara, but begins earlier in the story with the Doctor’s rantings on survival which make us wonder whether he is spending too much time alone.
But in an Ironic culture, we are all alone. There is no God, there is no real connection between us, the universe is so empty of meaning that it can be rebooted by a Tardis like some kind of computer programme. We journey into the forbidden territory of the Doctor’s youth on his homeworld, not to see glory but a shaking, weeping boy having nightmares. He’s our hero, in Moffat-world. Everything else is a disguise.
Clara’s homelife, briefly glimpsed in 'Listen', is a paint-by-numbers tableaux; her personality is dependent on the needs of a particular story at a particular time, as is her career -is she a nanny? A computer expert? No, she’s a teacher, and to give that some weight she’s not just a teacher but teaches at Coal Hill School, where the show began. And the rest of her is scattered across the universe, fragmented and then inserted into every adventure the Doctor has had, because that’s how characters gain emotional purchase, isn’t it?
For me -and I know I’m not alone- Doctor Who was (and is) at its best when things, appearing not to make sense at first in order to grab and hold our attention, then make sense. There was always lots of death in the show, but not often a lot of negative emotion; its protagonist was mysterious, but not hollow, undefined but heroic; occasionally there was a sense of some higher power at work behind the scenes (the original treatment of the Time Lords was the best). These are signs of Epic as a genre, but the show, a child of the simpler and more Epic ‘60s, couldn’t sustain that genre in the changing times of the ‘70s and ‘80s and effectively died as a result. Russell T. Davies -honour to him- resurrected it for the new Ironic age but it’s walked a fine line ever since.
When the Doctor asked himself ‘Am I a good man?’ at the beginning of Series 8, I was hopeful that Moffat would take the opportunity to use the new incarnation of the show’s protagonist as a way of re-creating the Epic mode. Instead of concluding, disappointingly, ‘I’m a madman with a box’, the Doctor could have told us he had found out exactly who he was, and then not told us, the audience, what that was. Instant restored mystery and grandeur, at the stroke of a pen. But instead, we have the trembling boy pretending to be grown up in a dark and meaningless void rather than the unfathomable Lord of Time, occasionally cloaked in the guise of a fool, with his delightful predilection for earthlings, journeying through all of time and space doing right in his inimitably entertaining way.