Comments on: Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who: Challenging the Format Theorem? Responses to Media and Culture Fri, 12 Feb 2016 19:35:04 +0000 hourly 1 By: Rick Wallace Tue, 03 May 2011 13:31:21 +0000 That is a very interesting argument. The sense that the question isn’t just ‘do people understand what is happening?’ but also ‘are people enjoying the ride?’ is fundamental here, and as you suggest Matt, this could well be divided along line to do with viewing modes, rather than knowledge/understanding of the show itself.

There are several things in play here then. There’s the sophistication of the show and the increased knowledge on the part of the programme-makers that they are dealing with a programme that has a large and regular viewership. This is evinced by Moffat’s extra-textual addresses as noted above, and interestingly in an interview for the last issue of Doctor Who Magazine he very tellingly writes: ‘It’s time we stopped pretending that people don’t watch the show […] Everybody knows that Alex Kingston [River Song] plays someone who might be the Doctor’s wife – do we really have to explain it every time she turn up? We’ve developed a weird humility where we say, “We’d better remind everybody of what’s going on.” Around eight million people watch this show every week! […] Everybody knows. I wanted to exploit that this year.’ The reason why these first two episodes seem (are?) more complicated is that Moffat seems to have dispensed with the re-introductions and the groundwork, by assuming that we already know this stuff. The question I suppose is, who ‘we’ are; is it the fans, or as the interview suggests, the general television audience? Also do the viewers understand, and does it really matter for the way in which they view the show? I think he’s probably right with his suggestion that most viewers know what is going on, but not necessarily with the impact that this has on viewers who aren’t interested in ‘playing the game’.

It’s interesting that the split is often down lines of fan / non-fan – on one Doctor Who forum there is a weekly thread accompanying each episode entitled ‘What did the kids and the “Not We” think?’ as if somehow the collective fan viewer watches the show in a significantly different way to the casual viewer. It is interesting then, that there is such division within fandom about how ‘good’ particular episodes are, with some calling the plot holes lazy and unsatisfying, whilst, conversely, others gain pleasure specifically from anticipating what the implications of the unanswered questions are for the rest of the series. It seems like it’s the typical fan relationship with the open text (as Fiske etc. call it), but is more problematic that that because not all fans engage in the same way, and I’m sure a significant number of non-fan viewers will find the playful elements of the show more appealing than episodes which result in definitive closure each week. It will therefore be very interesting to see how this series is received both critically (by viewers who watch either for closure or for play) and in terms of viewing figures / share, as it is entirely possible that the shift towards the more challenging format will lose regular viewers who are not interested in ‘playing along’, even if the ambition and overall quality of the show might getting even better.

By: Matt Hills Tue, 03 May 2011 03:15:02 +0000 Indeed, although I’d still want to qualify any reading of a promotional paratext by looking for what it doesn’t say, as well as for the discursive framing that’s enacted. What’s intriguing about this great quote is that it’s a showrunner talking about “evolution”, but the central concern isn’t the writing, or the arc — it’s the loss of a star actor, and his replacement. And while this may have reflected a real anxiety on the part of the BBC, what remains structurally absent is a discussion of the replacement of RTD by the Moff. (Dis)continuity is centred on Tennant/Smith and the Doctor. Does Moffat speak about “reassurance” in terms of emulating the RTD template for much of S5?

Also, pre-season paratexts tend to cue inflationary or superlative readings: bigger, better, scarier, scariest (The Silence). Hence those fan jokes about how many times Phil Collinson could say “we’re raising the bar” or somesuch. And these promotional discourses of inflation also prime audiences to look for, and expect, difference — the ghost train, hurrah, not the boring old funfair from last time. This may, in part, explain why critics and sections of fandom have particularly picked up on eps 1 and 2 as being somehow negatively “repetitive”, precisely because paratexts have (exaggeratedly) stressed difference, leaving some audiences and journos feeling at odds with the official line?

And in terms of structuring absences, I can’t recall any promotional paratexts discussing BBC America co-funding the show in any detail, can you? The US filming has been repeatedly positioned as about “ambition/scope/scale/cinematic quality” (stressing difference again; a US shoot as USP). But discussion of BBC America funding has been minimal at best, I’d say (again, speaking in the UK context).

By: Sean Duncan Tue, 03 May 2011 02:19:06 +0000 Moffat’s saying the same thing, quite openly these days:

“How has this series evolved from last year?

Steven Moffat: Well we’ve moved through the funfair a bit – we’ve done the rollercoaster, now we’re on the ghost train. Last year, in a way, was all about saying, don’t worry, it’s still him, it’s still the same show, nothing’s really been lost. Losing a leading man like David Tennant is seismic – unless you gain a leading man like Matt Smith. It’s been the biggest joy to see him stride in and just claim that TARDIS for his own. But now he’s really here, and the part is his, and the bow tie is cool, he’s ready to lead us places we didn’t know existed. Last year we reassured you – this year, to hell with that, we’re going to worry the hell out of you. How well do we really know that man, or what he’s capable of? We’re putting the Who? back in the Doctor.”


By: Matt Hills Tue, 03 May 2011 00:02:22 +0000 There’s a lot here to respond to, Sean, so if I miss any of your points feel free to call me on it, and I’ll have another crack (appropriately) at responding. I agree that Moffat is escalating the scale of timey-wimey content — though of course he only had single stories to work with in the RTD era, so was contrained to *have* to work at this level (as a story contributor rather than showrunner). So yes, there are definitely differences in the scope and scale of Moffat’s repetitions.

I’m not sure I’d say this has never been done before in nuWho though. It’s just that RTD did it in the margins of the show rather than front-and-centre; surely the Face of Boe/Captain Jack implication at the end of S3 causes events spanning series one-to-three to be re-read (or re-readable) with whole new significance, as well as being very timey-wimey indeed. But this game isn’t the *point* of series one-three, it’s just a bit of business, a bit of showrunner cheek! And like Moffat, RTD also did episode-level timey wimey, e.g. in ‘New Earth’, and series-level paradoxes (Bad Wolf) before graduating to multi-series time-travel games.

RTD’s work was strongly marked by repetition in the ways you indicate — and it was exactly these sorts of templates, carefully structured to guide the new/mass audience, that I was referring to in my original post when I contrasted RTD and Moffat — noting that RTD writes *with* these industry requirements in mind more of the time, whereas Moffat seems to write wilfully *against* certain industry logics.

I’m not sure how you can conclude that there is no sense of ‘quality’ in RTD’s authorial repetitions and Henriks riffs etc — are you sure you’re not shaping an argument in line with your fan sentiments and evaluations here? (I.e. valuing Moffat over RTD?) RTD won the Dennis Potter BAFTA award for TV writing after series one; in industry terms, RTD’s nuWho was *absolutely* positioned as ‘authored’ and as quality TV, at least in the UK context. Also, is there not a danger of overstating the extent to which Moffat’s work is now unfettered? For example, it seems highly likely to me that the series will end by returning to events of ep 1 (the same pattern as S5!), which is why I playfully refer to a ‘story ellipse’ rather than a ‘story arc’ in my post. Though the mid-series split (which I’ll be back to blog about) does complicate this narrative circling — I’d hazard that Moffat will return to events of ep 1 in ep 7 (perhaps via the eye-patch lady) and *again* in ep 13, circling back twice rather than iterating the single loop of S5. In other words, there are emergent templates in Moffat’s writing, as there were in RTD’s, but they may require a greater level of ludic reading — and a greater toleration for the spaces of speculation and guessing — than RTD’s more incidental enigmatic signifiers. Time will tell. Eventually. Probably. If it’s not constantly rewritten, that is!

By: Matt Hills Mon, 02 May 2011 23:30:23 +0000 The musical or sampling metaphor works very well! By referring to impure repetition and family resemblance in my original post, I certainly meant to indicate that Moffat’s work isn’t outright repetition pure-and-simple; it could just as well be symphonic in tone, or contrapuntal.

To take one instance; River Song’s dive into the TARDIS doesn’t just reference ‘The Time of Angels’, of course, it fuses this reference with a previous swimming pool gag from ‘The Eleventh Hour’ if I remember rightly. And it also works for the first-time viewer, who is simply reading the text rather than intratextually reading-through a knowledge of other eps. So Moffat’s repetition can be multiple; working his motifs into new combinations and rhythms as he iterates.

And like Myles and Rick, your comment also raises the issue of how, and whether, we can tolerate confusion in response to a story arc/ellipse. This strikes me as a really important area for research, both on fandom and outside of fan studies. Because to partly repeat myself — and as I noted in response to Myles — I think it’s all too easy to create a false binary of knowledgeable fans who can tackle narrative complexity versus ‘mainstream’ audiences who don’t favour ‘complexity’. This apparent binary seems, instead, to mask a more complex question of reception where certain audiences like to read-for-game-elements in the narrative (who’s in the spacesuit when it kills the Doctor?; what do they say to one another in the ‘Logopolis’ long shot? etc) whilst other audiences are keener on reading-for-closure. So perhaps it isn’t that Who is getting “too complicated”, but it may be that some audiences don’t want to read ludically (whilst this is something that online fandom usually revels in!). I’d be tempted to open up a sociological theorisation of just who reads Who playfully.

By: Matt Hills Mon, 02 May 2011 23:10:00 +0000 Thanks, Rick, I absolutely agree with this. Moffat has spoken in paratextual material about wanting to make the arc more central and more important this year, and as such his episodes immediately set up far more open-ended content. There’s still a lot of authorially-marked repetition, but there’s also a self-conscious escalation in the text’s ludic construction. Whereas the “Silence” last year approximated to one of RTD’s enigmatic signifers iterated across episodes, this year’s Who has immediately announced its intent to scale-up all the timey-wimey game playing.

So, yes, I’d argue that Moffat is quite precisely stepping up his ‘default’ style, having deliberately sought to bridge the transition between RTD’s Who and his own, and so prepare audiences for the latest game. Viewed from today’s perspective, Series 5 looks more and more like a long transition between the differing approaches of the two showrunners.

By: Matt Hills Mon, 02 May 2011 22:54:54 +0000 Myles, I think you make an important point here — directing us to think about levels of fan knowledge. It’s something that Rick and Derek touch on below as well; how might long(er)-term fandom prepare audiences to tolerate (or expect) loose ends in Moffat’s story arc?

Anecdotally, unanswered questions at the end of ep 2 didn’t concern me at all (like Derek, I fully expect Moffat to address deliberate narrative gaps and ontological puzzles). But I know other viewers — less focused on nuWho — who found all the dangling narrative threads to be distracting and unsatisfying. I’d hypothesise that increased fan knowledge typically facilitates an increased ludic engagement with nuWho, and a reading-through or intratextual response that tracks authorial patterns further and further back. In this case, it could even mean harking back to before nuWho altogether, and Moffat’s short story ‘Continuity Errors’ in Decalog 3 which prefigures many elements of his TV Who.

However, we also need to complicate any possible correlation of fandom and ludic reading — Moffat’s writing style so clearly hails this form of response (he did the same thing in ‘Chalk’, ‘Press Gang’ and ‘Coupling’, in fact) that somebody reading his work on the show, but without being a longer-term Who fan, could still align themselves with such a mode of reading, as you’ve done.

Rather than saying that Moffat’s work is “too complicated” for casual or mainstream audiences, perhaps the real issue is whether these audiences want to play the game that Moffat’s work incites and invites?

By: Derek Kompare Mon, 02 May 2011 14:45:24 +0000 Excellent analysis, Matt, and a great update on the Davies vs. Moffat comparison (which, as it turns out, one season was not enough to explain!).

We’ve just seen arguably the two most challenging episodes since the series’ return. More than repetition, Moffat’s storytelling is subdividing and retracing like a baroque fugue. That is, themes and variations, cascading, looping back, counterpointing, etc. To carry on the musical metaphor, it’s as if Davies was crafting each series like a standard rock or pop album in the 70s and 80s, while Moffat is instead conceptualizing his entire output (between individual stories and entire seasons) as an abstract sonic array. He’s DJ Shadow to Davies’ Michael Jackson.

I’d add that for us old school fans he’s delivering the goods as vague references and callbacks (i.e., “sampling” bits of the original series, to stick with the metaphor). Every previous regeneration story was quoted in “The Eleventh Hour.” The long shot of the Doctor and the Astronaut in this season’s opener screamed “Logopolis,” etc. Moreover, while Sean is absolutely right that narrative arcs were very rare in the original series (and on most TV of its time, for that matter), the narrative pacing of individual stories, in multiple parts, drew out questions on a smaller scale. By sheer coincidence, I watched the first two episodes of “The Pirate Planet” (a Tom Baker story from 1978) with my kids yesterday, and was struck by just how much is unexplained in the first half of the story (e.g., Who are the Mentiads?) and wouldn’t be fully answered until episode four. 30+ years later, Moffat’s more or less doing the same thing, just juiced with denser, timey-wimeyer questions for an era of constant rewatching, discussion, and theorizing.

So even as a (very) long-time fan, I’m confused by a lot of what I saw in “The Impossible Astronaut” and “Day of the Moon.” (tops being the woman with the eyepatch and, of course, the jaw-dropping final scene). But that’s just how I want it, knowing that the journey will be exciting and the payoff will be tremendous.

By: Sean Duncan Mon, 02 May 2011 11:56:28 +0000 Great comments, Matt, and a great follow-up by Myles. But, I hope you’ll both pardon me reversing the polarity here for a rel to challenge the central thesis. I’m not completely sold that repetition works as a mark of quality, nor that it’s anything new to nuWho. In fact, I’d argue that Moffat’s key contribution has to play off the apparent repetition in his storylines while taking some of the themes he’s explored into new territory.

As a fan, I see Russell T Davies’ era to be significantly more repetitive, similarly flagging authorship, albeit with the different goals you state above. A short litany: The wink-wink acknowledgment that the Doctor & his companions are always running; the reliance on the Doctor’s catch-phrases; “HUMANS, YOU’RE SO AMAZING”; the revival, over and over again, of classic series villains as the “big bad” (Daleks, Cybermen, the Master, Davros, Rassilon), etc. In RTD’s era, these marked something else other than “quality” I think — it feels more like it was the construction of a template to manage viewers’ expectations, to restart the series as something that could be easily digested and easily understood by children and fans of the old series alike. I think this is corroborated by the violent reaction that some casual fans have had to Moffat’s challenges to RTD’s template.

To wit, I think the 6th series’ most significant *non*-repetition so far is the way that Moffat’s finally broken free from the structure of an RTD series. Every series from 1-5 began with some crisis on Earth introducing a new companion (or Doctor, in the case of “The Christmas Invasion), then quickly hopped to the far-flung future, then back in time to encounter a British (and often literary) historical figure. Then there was the obligatory 2-parter, then a cost-saving episode, another two-parter, and eventually building up to the final two-parter that would first riff on some current British television series/celebrity (Big Brother, Sharon Osbourne, whatshername from EastEnders, Richard Dawkins) then introduce some classic series villain after months of (mostly) inconsequential hinting. Moffat broke with that template even last series (the cracks become a persistent plotline starting in episode 4), and has further broken from that model with a modern day/historical two-parter that leaves more questions than answers.

As a fan, I have no idea what the overarching narrative structure of this 6th series will be, and that has me giddy. I also see Moffat repeating himself by upping both the consequence and the *scale* of the timey-wimeyness — in “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink,” time was immutable and ultimately brief, the Doctor & his companions simply along for the ride, then back to normal afterwards. “The Pandorica Opens”/”The Big Bang” and “A Christmas Carol” threw that out of the proverbial window, and given the death of a future Doctor in “The Impossible Astronaut,” I can’t imagine that Moffat won’t be exploring the immutability of this timey-wimeyness over the course of the entire series.

So, I suppose that’s the one thing that needs addressing re: repetition — that “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink” were self-contained, while the timey-wimeyness is now an ongoing, important plot thread. Moffat’s innovation has been to take these themes and truly explore them over the span of two (perhaps three) connected series. Sure, he’s repeating himself in one sense, but perhaps it’s more properly thought of as unleashing his desire to play with time from RTD’s restrictive template. Other than a few arcs (Key to Time, the Mara stories, Trial of a Timelord, E-Space, etc.), the original series shied away from arcs at all, and Davies’s era bracketed storytelling arcs by series/companion. Moffat has carefully connected his two series (via River, the Silence, the ship from “The Lodger,” the pregnancy in “Amy’s Choice,” etc.) into one long story, parceled out much more like contemporary American television, and told in multiple time periods. That’s not repeating anything in Doctor Who that I know of — that’s something no one’s done in any series of Doctor Who, classic or new.

Really looking forward to more of your ongoing thoughts on this series of Doctor Who, Matt!

By: Rick Wallace Mon, 02 May 2011 11:27:59 +0000 This is a really interesting piece. I would like to add one point to your ideas of repetition. It goes without saying that repetition increases familiarness and I like your suggestion that this is indeed a calculated way of indicating/establishing authorship. I think that tied into all this is the idea of ‘preparation’. I think that these opening two episodes are quite complicated, more-so because of the unanswered questions / open endedness of the narrative, however it is precisely because of Moffat’s repetition of various ideas / narrative structures in the previous season, and in his writing for RTD, that as an audience we are now prepared to accept what might currently appear to be plot holes, because we know from previous experience that in all likelihood these holes are not holes at all and will be revisited / filled at a later date. The repetition therefore is central to Moffat’s ability to tell a long-form narrative – as he seems to be doing this season – as it prepares the audience to expect that not everything will be resolved in each episode.