The Doctor Will Be Back: Doctor Who and the Showrunner’s Cliffhangers

After all the publicity focused on this “game-changing” episode, what interests me is the following question: is there such a thing as a distinctively Moffat-esque cliffhanger? We might reasonably assume that his vision for the show is one that confers particular importance on a well-crafted cliffhanger, given a recent interview on the subject. So, how has this showrunner tackled the end-of-episode narrative lure?

We can analytically distinguish between three different (sometimes overlapping) types of Doctor Who cliffhanger: standard threat, narrative lack, and mythology supplement. In the first, most traditional guise, protagonists are placed in clear and present danger. And Moffat’s initial effort, ‘The Empty Child’, reads as this kind of trad creation – the Doctor under threat from a newly-revealed inhuman menace. The resolution is elegant and economical, to be sure, but the set-up would have been perfectly at home in the classic series. By the time of his next cliffhanger, ‘Silence in the Library’, Moffat was already shaping self-consciously ‘authored’ and logocentric puzzlers, iterating his reputation for a catchy catchphrase by ending on a collision of two menacing phrases.

But these examples were written when Moffat was a contributor to Russell T. Davies’s NuWho. By contrast, Moffat’s cliffhangers as showrunner fall into my latter analytical categories: episode endings representing ‘narrative lack’ or ‘mythology supplement’. Take ‘The Time of Angels’ – here, we don’t exactly end on the Doctor under threat, but rather on his improvised response to the situation (firing a gun up at a gravity globe). This jolts audiences out of the narrative not at a key, visceral moment, but instead at a more intellectualised instant – is the Doctor’s behaviour out of character? What exactly is he up to? And ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ cliffhangers similarly, this time on Amy shooting the mysterious child – has Pond committed a tragic mistake? Is the child dead?

These are character-led cliffhangers rather than threats per se, and they are particularly marked by narrative lack or epistemological deficit, i.e. we don’t know what just happened. I’d put Moffat’s biggest cliffhanger to date in the same class of storytelling. It comes in ‘The Pandorica Opens’, where we see the universe ending; stars wink out of existence, and silence falls over deep space. And yet there’s an epistemic deficit here too – have Rory and Amy ceased to be? Has River, in the TARDIS white-out? Again, we’re not really sure what’s happened.

As showrunner, Moffat’s cliffhangers move away from the archetypal ‘Doctor under threat’ model, and towards this mode of narrative lack – impressing upon audiences that they don’t (yet) have enough knowledge to understand what’s going on. Not cognitive estrangement so much as cognitive delay – come back next time if you want to really get it. And, of course, the shock cliffhangers to ‘Day of the Moon’ and ‘The Almost People’ this series – the latter dictated by Moffat – have been part of the same strategy. Just what happened to Amy in the latter case was partly explained in Doctor Who Confidential following the ep, and clarified in ‘A Good Man Goes To War.’ And we still don’t know who emerged from the regeneration at the end of 6.02 – that cliffhanger is still hanging…

But if Moffat’s cliffhangers have shifted along with his change in production role, then what of the River Song reveal? This falls into my third category: it’s the provision of new arc knowledge – like the reveal of Amy’s wedding day as the Time Explosion’s date at the end of ‘Flesh and Stone’, or the appearance of her wedding dress in ‘The Eleventh Hour’. Like these moments, it supplements the show’s ongoing mythology. It reconfigures and re-orients our understanding of major characters’ relationships, acting as a sort of cognitive relay and so tempting the fan-viewer, at least, to rewatch River’s previous appearances.

Trad cliffhangers tend to be the province of hired writers. What I’ve termed ‘narrative lack’ and the ‘mythology supplement’ are the showrunner’s prerogatives – building the arc, and altering our overall understanding of series’ narrative. Russell T. Davies did the same, using epistemic deficit particularly in the lead-in to Christmas Specials (“what? what? what?!”), and supplementing mythology in big, ‘event’ cliffhangers near the end of each year’s run. Given this, Moffat’s use of cliffhangers may, ultimately, be readable less in terms of his ‘author-function’, and more in terms of an industrial context – let’s call it the ‘showrunner-function’ – concerning discourses of mythology management and brand currency.

If ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ does give us anything distinctively Moffat-esque in its Big Reveal, I’d hazard that it’s the merging of emotional realism with science fiction tropes. Whereas Davies layered emotional realism into Doctor Who‘s fantastical premise – and it was about time for convincing, ‘down to earth’ characters doing ‘out of this world’ things – Moffat has tended to fuse soap drama with SF more thoroughly. The result is that rather than the ordinary tempering and illuminating the extraordinary, they are intermixed and muddled: Amy is a mother, but the mother of a super-weapon, part-Time Lord character she already knows as a grown woman. We’re twenty thousand light years away from the real-world believability of a Rose Tyler, a Martha Jones, or a Donna Noble.

And River Song is a daughter, but daughter to the time vortex as much as to time-rift-irradiated Amy. Where’s the emotional realism here? It’s disintegrated into Doctor Who‘s SF novum, no longer working to ground the series in any plausible, ‘relatable’ way. I don’t think the issue with Moffat’s Who is simply that it’s too complicated or convoluted. More precisely, the difficulty is that the show’s crucial levels of meaning (soap drama/SF) are no longer qualifying and enhancing one another, but instead have collapsed together in a flesh-like gloop. And a significant moment in that ongoing deconstruction of the Russell T. Davies era – specifically its use of the emotional realism/SF binary – arrives with Steven Moffat’s River Song cliffhanger.

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1 comment for “The Doctor Will Be Back: Doctor Who and the Showrunner’s Cliffhangers

  1. July 11, 2011 at 4:17 PM

    “Where’s the emotional realism here? It’s disintegrated into Doctor Who‘s SF novum, no longer working to ground the series in any plausible, ‘relatable’ way. I don’t think the issue with Moffat’s Who is simply that it’s too complicated or convoluted. More precisely, the difficulty is that the show’s crucial levels of meaning (soap drama/SF) are no longer qualifying and enhancing one another, but instead have collapsed together in a flesh-like gloop.”

    Thank God. I’d rather have a TARDIS full of this particular kind of “gloop” than the “emotional realism” of the RTD era, which wasn’t terribly “real,” and slathered on in the roughest of rough strokes. You’re wise to identify Moffat’s continual deconstruction of the RTD era in this way. Perhaps this alienates some viewers, but those kinds of viewers (the ones who were drawn to the show because they could relate to Jackie Tyler or somesuch) have made being a Doctor Who fan very difficult these last few years.

    I appreciate what RTD did to restart the series, but appreciate what Moffat’s done to simultaneously return it to the kind of geeky realm the old series inhabited, while also pushing it into new, “fan service” directions that reward those of us who have stuck with the show for a while.

    I didn’t much care for “A Good Man Goes to War,” but this series is fantastic so far.

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