Someone get out the horse tranquilisers; Moffat’s off on a rant again.
An article in today’s Metro quotes his comments to BAFTA Guru, in which he speaks about the “fairly stupid” people who dare to suggest that the shows he creates are too complicated. “They’re both huge international hits,” he allegedly fumed. “We make no apology. Don’t expect to do the ironing; sit down, pay attention and think about it.”
The image of ironing during Doctor Who (something I do when we’re watching the older, simpler stories) reminds me of a review I once read of Johnny Cash’s Unearthed box set – a posthumous compilation of outtakes and unreleased material from his various American Recording sessions with Rick Rubin. “This is not music,” said the review – which may or may not have been in Q magazine – “to have on in the background when you’re washing up, or in the car, or at dinner parties. This is music to be savoured, digested and above all listened to properly”. I’m paraphrasing, but you get the point: there are some things that need to be savoured. It’s too easy to let them gloss over you and ignore what’s going on. In a pleasing nod to the times when people used to really explore the music they acquired, Classic Album listening parties have recently become something of a hit.
It would be tempting to suggest that the stupid people to which Moffat refers are brain-dead, council estate-residing simpletons who think that what you see on The X-Factor is what actually happens, believe everything they read in the Daily Mail, consider Eastenders to be the summit of good drama and whose parents worshipped Diana and were big fans of “that lovely song from Titanic“. It would be tempting, but it would be inaccurate, because it would ignore the work of the hopeless Dan Martin, who obviously thought that Moffat’s complicated writing style warranted a front page Guardian article (OK, front page of the Guardian website, but isn’t that all anyone looks at these days?). Indeed, the web’s awash with debates and blog posts about whether the show is now too complicated for younger viewers – a sentiment that is as needlessly patronising as it is hideously inaccurate, given that most younger viewers can programme the Sky+ box with more adeptness than their parents, as well as outclassing them at video game events and even understanding the plot of Artemis Fowl. What we really mean, I suspect, is that it’s just too complicated for us.
When Russell T. Davies left the TARDIS at the end of the last decade, Doctor Who was still compelling television, even if it had deteriorated into soap. His obsession with grounding the Doctor and giving him a family (completely in opposition, one could argue, with the original spirit of the show) had detracted from some of the very good ideas he’d had, because all too often we were forced to watch the invasion stories through their eyes. Thus when John Simm used his DNA as a template for every human being on the planet, we were treated to three minutes of Catherine Tate crying on her mobile. When the Autons crashed through a shopping centre, we were forced to endure a screaming bout from Camille Coduri. And when the Children of Time (and don’t get me started on how much I detest that terminology) were trying desperately to get hold of the Doctor, the entire sequence was hampered by Billie Piper’s incessant whinging. Frankly the only extended family member on Doctor Who that never outstayed his welcome was Bernard Cribbins, who was never less than great, even when he’s dropped into the middle of a shameless Star Wars rip-off (14 minutes in, if you wanted to look).
Moffat’s response to all this was to tone down the domestic drama and bring in a string of plants and pay-offs, ontological paradoxes and general wibbly-wobbliness. Now, instead of remarks about disappearing bees, we’re given thirteen glimpses of Amy’s crack (Must. Not. Make. Jokes). Instead of the Doctor actually dying at the edge of the lake, we discover that he was hiding inside a robot we’d met earlier in the series (that one was, at least, faintly plausible). And all those random apparent continuity errors in series five were, in fact, an older Doctor who was wandering back through the memories of Amy Pond just before she rebooted the universe.
Which reminds me –
ANDY: Rimmer was a hand-picked special agent for the Space Corps. He had his memory erased and was programmed to behave like a complete twonk so no one would suspect he was on a mission to destroy Red Dwarf in order to guide Lister to his destiny as the creator of the second universe!
LISTER: You what?!
ANDY: Yeah! You know the bit where Lister jump starts the second big bang with jump leads from Starbug?
RIMMER: [Incredulous] Jump starts the second big bang?
ANDY: Well, that’s the final irony, isn’t it? Lister, the ultimate atheist, turns out in fact to be God!
Meanwhile, back on planet Who, the Amy Pond who’s wearing the eye patch is a parallel Amy Pond who’s not married to Rory. She’s not the same Amy Pond as the Amy Pond who visited the Gangers with the Doctor and Rory, or who dressed up as a pirate in ‘Curse of the Black Spot’, because that turned out to be the Ganger version of Amy. Nor is it the future Amy who has (despite no formal training) become highly competent with a sword, even if she’s got the odd wrinkle. The real Amy was in fact in some sort of medical bay about to have a child. But even this Amy is re-imagined from her own memory.
Which reminds me:
[RIMMER sits on the edge of his bunk, thoroughly depressed. What’s about to happen will not alleviate this state.]
RIMMER: [VO, muffled] I don’t want you to panic, Arnold, but I’ve had a jolly good think, and I think I know how to explain this to you.
[He sticks his head above the table. His past self stares at him with a mixture of fear, shock and abject horror.]
PAST RIMMER: Hi. I’m staying calm this time.
[Just then CAT and LISTER enter. The past RIMMER does a double take, looking from the LISTER on the bunk to the one in the doorway.]
LISTER: Yo, Rimmer, there you are. I’ve been looking everywhere.
RIMMER: Not now, Lister.
PAST RIMMER: [very tense] TWO Listers? And a strange man with large teeth!
CAT: Hey, I’m a cat!
PAST RIMMER: [not a well man] Oh, of course you’re a cat! Come in, sit down, there’s plenty of room.
[Just then who should drop by but the just-married couple, LISTER and KOCHANSKI.]
FUTURE LISTER: Yo!
PAST RIMMER: [losing it fast] THREE Listers!! Splendid!!! Perhaps Lister here would like to go over to the fridge and open a bottle of wine for Lister and Lister!!!! Rimmer here doesn’t drink, because he’s dead, but I wouldn’t mind a glass!!!!!
RIMMER’S VOICE: I don’t want anyone to get into a flap here, but I’m the RIMMER who’s from the double-double future.
[He rises from the dresser in the corner and steps forward. He is dressed in a tux, and has a thin moustache.]
FUTURE RIMMER: I’m the Rimmer who’s with the Lister who married Kochanski. Now, from this point on, things get a little bit confusing…
PAST RIMMER: Please! Before anyone says anything else, I’d just like to make a little speech. GO AWAAAYYYYYYYYYYYY!!!!!!
Or, as Kryten might have put it, “Now I have to go back in time so that I can sacrifice myself, so that we can end up in the mess we’re in now. All in all, today’s been a bit of a bummer, hasn’t it sir?”.
The point is that general paradoxes and silliness were fun in Red Dwarf because the pudding was deliberately over-egged. It was television that made you think – the time travel-themed episodes, in particular, were always complicated – but there was never any question of the science being allowed to overshadow the comedy, and you knew that as soon as Robert Llewellyn had finished making one of his complicated expository speeches, Chris Barrie would interject with a snide comment and steal the scene (or Danny John-Jules would just play dumb, which was also amusing, at least for a couple of episodes). Now, you have River Song revealing herself as the long-lost daughter of Amy and Rory, whom they first met in what was (we presume) her second incarnation, before seeing her again towards the end of her life, and then encountering her again as a child, who regenerated into the girl they grew up with who then regenerated into – anyway, the point is that none of this is funny and that at the end of it, we’ve still got River. Nothing has been gained, and much time has been wasted having to endure Alex Kingston admiring her own arse.
Essentially, the ontological wizardry of Doctor Who seems to have become its entire mythos. The show has become a show that is about time travel, rather than an adventure story with time travel as a central element. In the old days, the Doctor would go somewhere and have an adventure, and then disappear. There was no mucking about with history, no sudden appearance of gigantic black bats, no talk of fixed points or time being in flux (well, there was occasionally, but not every sodding week). When the jacketed Doctor in ‘Flesh and Stone’ who tells a blinded Amy that she has to start trusting him is revealed to be the later Doctor who is about to be erased from history, I don’t think “Ooh, how clever”. I think “You smug bastard, Steven”. Because (and I’m sure I’ve said this before) it smacks of showing off. I know that he uses predestination and parallel realities to drive home an emotional point – something that worked particularly well in ‘Blink’ and in ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’, and to a certain extent in the first River Song story before she became the irritating hussy she is now – but it feels these days that it’s more about making the programme complex and involved simply to up your game, rather than because it’s the right thing for the Doctor. In other words, our chief writer sticks these things in as ‘rewards’ for fans who deconstruct each episode to oblivion on the blogosphere – while Davies hated internet geeks, his successor seems to relish their work, as long as they’re not revealing spoilers.
But there’s always a danger in pandering too much to one community. The central problem under Davies’ reign was that Doctor Who was trying too much to be lightweight Saturday entertainment, losing something of its original self in the process. With Davies’ departure some of the original spirit has arguably returned – there’s still too much of Amy and Rory working out their marital discord, but at least we don’t have to spend every other episode wandering around Cardiff. Doctor Who has evolved in this manner at the cost of some of its abrasive charm: it’s an overblown, epic drama these days, and perhaps they’re so far down that road they’ll never be able to return, but the narrative would arguably work better if the writers would learn that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and that while most sensible people can follow the intricate dot-to-dot patterns they sketch out, we’re so exhausted by the time the picture is completed that we no longer care what it is. So I don’t think Moffat’s approach to the show is excessively complicated. I just think it’s needlessly complicated. There’s a difference.