Doctor Who & Authorship – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Lost and Found Doctor Who: Time-Travelling TV? Mon, 19 Dec 2011 14:56:32 +0000 Doctor Who deserves celebration. But perhaps the tempting notion of two cultures or past/present eras of TV deserves a measure of critique. ]]> In the world of Doctor Who fandom, just a week or so ago, something tremendously exciting and important happened: two episodes of 1960’s Who were returned to the BBC archives. The find was announced at a BFI ‘Missing Believed Wiped’ event, and soon the internet was abuzz with news of the discovery. ‘Galaxy Four’ episode three (1965) and ‘The Underwater Menace’ episode two (1967) might not have been considered lost classics, but the uncovering of an episode from each story still means more Doctor Who for fans to appreciate. 106 episodes remain lost, however – wiped many years back so that the BBC could reuse videotape which, at the time, was extremely costly. Richard Molesworth has painstakingly documented the whole debacle.

In the slower-moving world of TV Studies, meanwhile, scholars have been theorizing different stages in television’s history. One way of contrasting TV’s past and present is offered by John Ellis in the (2000) book Seeing Things: Television in the Age of Uncertainty. Ellis contrasts an earlier age of “scarcity” with the contemporary phase of televisual “plenty” (2000:39).

Bringing these two worlds together for a moment: what can the re-discovery of previously lost Doctor Who tell us about different moments of TV? Today’s Who is readily available, whether via iTunes, or illegal downloading, on DVD or through TV repeats – it’s not so much on-demand as always-there. The notion of this version of Doctor Who being ephemeral, or being lost after its broadcast, seems absurd. By powerful contrast, 1960s and 1970s Doctor Who wasn’t just part of an era of scarcity, it was sometimes worse than scarce, becoming effectively non-existent in some cases, other than as telesnaps, audio tracks, and fan-made reconstructions. In the era of digital plenty, Doctor Who‘s participatory audience can mash-up, remix, and create fanvids… but even in the age of scarcity, fandom was already a pre-Internet participatory culture. Amongst other things, analogue fandom could involve making reel-to-reel tape-recordings of an episode’s audio. Yesterday’s fans didn’t typically mash-up or remix; instead they recorded, archived, and preserved the TV culture of the day even when broadcasters themselves failed to do so. So although the re-emergence of two episodes of 1960’s Doctor Who dramatically brings different ages of television into collision, the conjunction also highlights how today’s participatory audience culture had its own analogue forty or fifty years ago. Scarcity versus plenty: it sounds like a binary, but it’s one which hides shared patterns in fan activity as dedicated audiences pursue ways of replaying and commemorating their beloved fan objects.

At the same time, the discovery of old Who also illuminates vital changes in audience activity. For it is not only television itself which has shifted from “scarcity” to “plenty”, or from what Mark Bould (2012:148) has recently termed “good-enough” TV (complete with William Hartnell’s “billy-fluffs”) to “quality TV” (single-camera, composed, ‘perfected’ drama). Audience interactions have also mutated and shifted; 1960s and 1970s fandom would itself have been scarce and “good-enough”; some fan knowledge was later proved to be wrong, as people mis-remembered story details and repeated them in print until they became fan lore. Fan interactions were also relatively scarce – restricted to slow-moving print culture or arranged meetings, shepherded by fan clubs and  similar fan institutions. Today’s fandom is a web whirl of “plenty”, a 24/7 always-on digital experience. On the day of the official announcement that more episodes had been returned to the BBC – Sunday 11th December – I encountered this news via Facebook status updates and comments, and through the iteration of many, many tweets: fandom was buzzing with developments, minute-by-minute. Real-time speculation and anticipation of a 5pm BBC announcement meant that fans were on tenterhooks – just like today’s television of plenty, there was a similar abundance of audience chat, debate, squee, and swirling rumours.

The irony is that while a flurry of fan comments circled around ‘Galaxy Four’ and ‘The Underwater Menace’, always-on social media was absorbing into its orbit two episodes of black-and-white Doctor Who which once belonged to a very different culture: an on-off TV world, where after it’d been viewed then a programme was gone, perhaps never to be repeated, never to be seen again. By surfacing online in Facebook and Twitter feeds, ‘Galaxy Four’ and ‘The Underwater Menace’ were travelling in time, in a sense, staging a clash of two cultures: today’s always-on social media versus yesterday’s on-off, here-today-gone-tomorrow telly.

But perhaps this tendency to create eras, and narratives of change, is itself somewhat misleading. Fans like to do this just as much as TV Studies’ academics, of course (instead of scarcity/plenty, we could just as well debate “the Russell T. Davies era” or the “Hinchcliffe-Holmes years.”) All these narratives, these ways of seeing television (and its audiences) are only partly true  – they blind us to the fact that culture is always somehow time-travelling, always rediscovering the past in new and old ways, always threading continuities through historical, technological, creative changes. Yesterday’s analogue fandom was perhaps even more crucially participatory than today’s digital fandom; and yesterday’s “good-enough” TV, errors and all, finds itself mirrored in the fact that even today’s “quality TV” is marked by occasional continuity errors, blind spots, and inconsistencies. Eras are forever impure, marked by their predecessors and by traces of the past which can’t be exterminated. “Lost” Doctor Who is never entirely lost. And newly found episodes are never simply “found”, for that matter, instead being read through and in relation to pre-established fan knowledge.

The tantalising return of two episodes of early Doctor Who deserves celebration. But perhaps the tempting notion of two cultures or past/present eras of TV deserves a measure of critique.


The Doctor Will Be Back: Doctor Who and the Showrunner’s Cliffhangers Mon, 13 Jun 2011 08:00:36 +0000 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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A Showrunner Goes To War: Doctor Who and the Almost Fans? Mon, 06 Jun 2011 08:00:48 +0000 With episode 6.06 having transmitted in the US, and 6.07 – the ‘game-changing’ midseries finale – already broadcast in the UK, this week seems like a good time to ponder the issue of Doctor Who spoilers. Continuing my focus on authorship, I want to consider how the online fan culture of spoiler-hunting impacts on notions of authorial craft and control.

Showrunner Steven Moffat recently berated Doctor Who fans for posting full details of episodes one and two after the series six launch: “can you imagine how much I hate them? …It’s only fans who do this – or they call themselves fans – I wish they could go and be fans of something else!” Seemingly having a “Bastards” moment (Russell T. Davies’s infamous title for chapter three of The Writer’s Tale discussing Internet fandom), rebellious fans were once again the problem.

I’m not interested in whether Moffat was right or wrong, but rather in the performative nature of his statement – in what it does more than what it says. Back in Triumph of a Time Lord I identified the “info-war” that’s been symbolically fought between the fans and producers of NuWho. Sections of fandom have consistently sought spoilers ahead of broadcast, acting as pre-textual poachers by contesting the interests of brand guardians long before the TV text has unfolded. Already, following Moffat’s critique, Internet fandom has divided into collaborative and rebel camps: Doctor Who Online has declared itself “spoiler-free”, while Gallifrey Base continues to allow spoilers.

Readers may want to offer nuances here, but I’d hazard that US showrunners are rarely known for publicly criticising their shows’ fandoms, and are quick to apologise if “dipshits” hits the fans. Yet Doctor Who has form on this; Moffat is following in the footsteps of Davies. Online fans might regularly criticise production teams, but I’m not aware of Radio Five Live mounting a feature off the back of this, nor BBC Breakfast Time inviting Benjamin Cook in to discuss what (Moffat’s invented forum regular) Killdestroyer208 thought of last week’s ep. The showrunner’s cultural power extends beyond controlling what goes into the text, and into the terrain of the eminently newsworthy, especially when it’s a ‘showrunner hates fans’ riff on ‘man bites dog’.

What interests me is why Doctor Who seems especially prone to this, and from producers who are themselves life-long fans. Is it the perfectionism and the idealism of the fan – transposed into a production mentality – that gives rise to such ‘ranting’? It certainly shares the edge and the sting of habituated fan commentary. Is it the fans’ habitus, the critical voice of fan culture itself, that is on show (albeit professionally recoded) when Moffat and Davies chide sectors of fandom? To my ears, at least, they sound more than a touch like disgruntled fans unhappy at developments, assuming the freedom to say so very loudly as if posting to a forum rather than writing a book or speaking to a BBC reporter. Steven Moffat is Killdestroyer208… but what would have been forum grumblings now have a very different cultural reach.

Commentary has pondered the sense of entitlement felt by sectors of online fandom – but what of the entitled (fan-)showrunner? These privileged creatives seek to control a brand, but they can’t (yet) control how their shows are read, nor how audiences behave. Moffat’s stance implies that, for the show’s benefit, he should be given a degree of spoiler-impeding control over both fans and the press. And the press may well play ball; they are industrially dependent on good will in order to gain access to preview discs, interviews, launches and the like. Fans, however, are less malleable; in the digital age they inhabit an informational economy – seeking spoiler information; scouring agents’ pages for casting news; watching filming in public locations, and tweeting outsider info. And this is what Steven Moffat’s dismay flags up: industry outsiders can’t be silenced so readily.

There’s another important context here, though: the BBC as public service TV. US commercial television operates within a discursive context of ‘serving the consumer audience’. Even today, I’m less sure that BBC TV drama and its production cultures inhabit that same world, for good or ill. Moffat seems to work within a paternalistic value system where audiences don’t know what’s best for them, and where they need to be shown how to behave. This resolutely public service voice wants to set the rules of the narrative game in advance for citizen-fans. Not coincidentally, I think, Moffat’s initial complaint about these detailed spoilers – in his ‘Production Notes’ column for Doctor Who Magazine 434 – also seized upon the “bungling, ham-fisted English” (2011:6) used by fans to write up eps one and two. Moffat isn’t quite calling these ‘almost fans’ stupid, but their literacy is certainly called into question. This schoolteacher-showrunner isn’t just entertaining the audience, he’s educating and informing the naughty kids too. Properly disciplined, tutored and creative screenwriting calls for properly disciplined, tutored and creative audiences.

Well, you can send a love letter to the fans, e.g. ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ recently, but telling them how to express their love? “I order you to love the show in this way (spotting the in-jokes and intertextualities crafted for you) but not in this way (sharing detailed spoilers which have fan-cultural currency and status)”. Series five and six may be exploring the catchphrase “Silence will fall”, but where Doctor Who spoilers are concerned this remains wishful thinking. Perhaps contemporary TV authorship means losing definitive control over the parcelling out of narrative shocks and surprises, and accepting that sections of fandom will frequently pre-view beloved shows. Though these fans may, like gangers, become devalued replicas or simulacra of fandom in the eyes of production personnel, they’re not about to dissolve away. Producer-versus-fan tension rumbles on, when a showrunner goes to war.


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Matthew Graham’s Doctor Who: Fear Him? Mon, 23 May 2011 07:01:19 +0000 Series six seems to be shaping up into a tussle between ‘Rad’ and ‘Trad’ tendencies. If it’s showrunner Moffat or fanservice Gaiman, then we get something a little more radical. Otherwise, it’s back to “good old-fashioned runaround” and “far more traditional” Doctor Who. This week it’s Avatar-meets-The-Thing in castles around South Wales.

And for Who fans steeped in discourses of authorship, it’s a scary episode. Yes, it’s the return of Matthew Graham, the Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes co-creator, but also the writer of 2006’s ‘Fear Her’, frequently voted the least-loved story of modern Doctor Who. The obvious critical question is this: which Matthew Graham do we get here? The LoM and A2A scribe? Or the ‘Fear Her’ and Bonekickers doppelganger? For Graham’s author-function is itself unstable and fractured – far from guaranteeing consistency and classification, as Foucault has it, here is a gothic author-function which has been doubled and self-divided by fan debate. Quite unlike Foucauldian theory, it fails to secure authorial identity and value, instead collapsing into Jekyll-and-Hyde instability. Usually author-functions work discursively to secure audience responses: “trust me”, they say, “I’m the Author.” But trust becomes an issue in relation to any unstable author-function, as audiences wonder whether a writer’s tale will be worth their while.

Trust is also a major theme here, with Graham cliffhangering adroitly on words we feel we’ve heard a thousand times before, but never in quite this way: “trust me, I’m the Doctor”. Doctor Who: The Unfolding Textthe first academic book on Classic Who – argued that the show’s Time Lord villains were doppelgangers for the Doctor; constructions of the alien set against his connotative humanity (Tulloch and Alvarado 1983:138). But ‘The Rebel Flesh’ rebels against programmatic versions of “us” and “them”, suggesting with posthumanist verve that originals and copies are equally worthy.

Despite pilfering a key image from The Exorcist, there are no obvious demons here. It is the less-than-subtly named Cleaves (Raquel Cassidy) who ultimately cleaves workers and their gangers into two warring groups, each threatening that it’s “us and them now”. Running these two scenes side-by-side pushes the audience to read them as mirror images. The real doppelganger here isn’t the gangers at all – it is, rather, the process through which each group fears the other. Somebody’s “us” is always somebody else’s “them” – violence is mimetic even when there’s no hero or villain, no original or copy.

Given Graham’s gothic author-function, ‘The Rebel Flesh’ polarises into pop-cultural poetics and ham-fisted moments. In the former camp: music is beautifully used as a mnemonic object, and as a repository of self (an effect somewhat blunted by cliched recourse to a childhood photo). The TARDIS is going to have to become inaccessible somehow, and Graham has fun with this narrative requirement, just as he played games with the TARDIS in ‘Fear Her’. And there’s a highly knowing attempt to rework Frankensteinian tropes by substituting a solar storm for lightning as life’s spark.

However, in the camp of less-than-successful moments are the following: didn’t anyone consider that, for the pre-credits sequence to work, you needed to see a close-up of Buzzer’s avatar clearly, visor up? Is the bluff blokiness of the TARDIS-as-pub, complete with sound system and dartboard, not a touch out of character for Doctor Who? And much of this episode fails to transcend its Blade Runner-esque source material. ‘What does it mean to be human?’ seems to have become a reductive shorthand for science fiction – an alibi assumed to make SF ‘acceptable’ in the eyes of critics and mainstream audiences just as long as the genre can be pinned to this ‘big’, ‘philosophical’ question. And we know that this is “serious” stuff with philosophical import because Cleaves says she’ll debate philosophy with the Doctor over a pint (bluff blokiness creeping incongruously into this character voice as well as into the TARDIS).

As well as giving the episode a Northern accent, Graham ups the author-function ante by penning the first ever Doctor Who story whose entire setting can be construed as an authorial in-joke, or even as product placement. This monastic production hails from one half of Monastic Productions, the indie owned by Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah. Take a look at their themed website: clips from ‘The Rebel Flesh’ will fit right in with Monastic’s sacred branding. World-building as an almost business card; it’s an audacious approach to the commerce of TV authorship.

‘The Rebel Flesh’ is Doctor Who not to be sneezed at; while self-consciously advertising Graham’s production company, it also promotes how “philosophical” it is – here’s a text that keeps wanting to shout “hello subtext!” until its depths are all rendered as surface showiness. It does succeed in posing one terrific question, though: if original and copy have the same memories and experiences, then how will a ‘ganger’ Doctor behave? Will our Time Lord protagonist, alone together, be immune from the logic of “us and them”? A twinned Doctor surely promises to defuse the threat posed by gothic doubles, rather than delivering Manichean groans…

Matthew Graham may have a disrupted, non-unified author-function (hero to some in the TV industry; a villain to some fans) but this episode critiques the logic of ‘hero’ versus ‘villain’, arguing for resolution and reunification. It wants our trust. And yet, like Graham’s gothic author-function, ‘The Rebel Flesh’ remains self-divided, continually rebelling against itself. The narrative says one thing thematically – the only monster is she who sees monsters (Cleaves) – whilst visuals constantly scream the very opposite: look at the scary monsters, see how they are misshapen, blobby, neck-twisting, super-elastic Things. Fear them.


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Neil Gaiman’s Doctor Who: Fan Service Meets the Junkyard Look Mon, 16 May 2011 05:05:23 +0000

‘The Doctor’s Wife’ is a title that plays with fan knowledge. It cites a fake Doctor Who episode title from the show’s history, except this time it’s canon. With corridors. And roundels. As a mission statement for an episode by Neil Gaiman, the title itself proffers fan service. It promises consistency with Gaiman’s author-function, reperforming values linked to his ‘brand’. Writing in The Neil Gaiman Reader (2007:122), Jason Erik Lundberg argues that Gaiman’s work has been marked by “the old switcheroo” – an emphasis on character reversal. Though one might argue this is a convention of weird tales, what’s striking about ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ is just how much its addition to the mythos of Who relies precisely on reversal. It’s even thematically signalled in the quarrel between the Doctor and Idris – while the TARDIS doors bear the legend ‘Pull To Open’, the Doctor is chided for doing the reverse, and pushing his way in. When push comes to shove, this episode also reverses the show’s foundational scenario: rather than the Doctor stealing the TARDIS to see the universe, it’s the other way round, with the sentient Ship stealing a Time Lord in order to go travelling.

There’s an illusion of transformative work here – although this seems to alter the rules of the Whoniverse, in fact it leaves all the game pieces in play as they were. As such, it feels like the perfect piece of media tie-in writing, illustrating what M. J. Clarke’s article on the subject calls a “paradoxical situation” whereby tie-in writers are called upon to add “elements to a series… [in an injunction that’s] fundamentally at odds with the… mandate of playing within the rules” (2009:447). ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ finds an inventive way of playing this game by giving the TARDIS a narrative voice – filling in blanks in the programme’s hyperdiegesis which have been previously hinted at (TARDIS sentience) yet never dwelt upon. While this supplements canonical knowledge of the Doctor’s departure from Gallifrey, it doesn’t actually change anything. The events of the Doctor’s back-story are affirmed yet re-inflected – recoded in line with established fan knowledge. Likewise, the bubble universe conceit narratively justifies a shifted, Gaimanesque tone while insulating the established Whoniverse from this authorial voice. The TARDIS is thrown into a human body; Gaiman’s world-building is thrown into a bubble outside usual storyscapes. And the episode’s special, Gaiman-y status is made visible on-screen via blatantly budget-saving reuse of the Ood and old control room: “look”, this announces, “I’ve written something so ambitious I’ve ripped out the show’s budget matrix”.

Again like the perfect tie-in writer, Gaiman blurs the line between fan and producer, not only in terms of his own Who fandom, but also via “using fan-created artifacts as short-cuts in… research processes” (Clarke 2009:444). Interviewed in SFX #209, Gaiman notes that he called upon the services of a Doctor Who expert, fan Steve Manfred, in order to incorporate TARDIS continuity (2011:82). Similarly, tie-in writers interviewed by Clarke attested to the need to create stories which meshed perfectly with continuity. These writers were often fans of the franchise they were contributing to (Clarke 2009:443), drawing on their knowledge and/or asking other fans for help with hyperdiegetic information. Clarke’s sociology of culture account accords perfectly with Gaiman’s working practices, suggesting the latter has internalised industry pressures.

But, I hear you cry, what about Gaiman as auteur? What of the fact that he’s writing for the Doctor himself, on telly and everything, rather than creating a tie-in? Well, Gaiman observed in 2003: “It’s probably a good thing that I’ve never actually got my hands on the Doctor. I would have unhappened so much” (in McAuley 2003:9). And here’s the thing: when he does get to write for TV Doctor Who, Gaiman doesn’t “unhappen” back-story at all. Rather, he rehappens it, giving a new perspective on established events and nesting an alternate story story (rather than an alternate history story) within ‘The Doctor’s Wife’. This is why Neil Gaiman’s Who is more akin to a tie-in than we might expect; Gaiman would certainly be licensed to “unhappen” stuff if he was the showrunner. This is exactly what Russell T. Davies did when he took over and promptly unhappened Gallifrey (whilst Moffat unhappened the entire universe in his first series). But as a contributor to a show run by others, Gaiman is structurally in the position of a tie-in writer despite creating a TV episode. He has to leave things as he found them: the TARDIS can acquire a human voice, but come episode end, everything’s put back in the (Police) box, bar one new mysterious line of dialogue: “the only water in the forest is the river”. (Wouldn’t it be ironic if, in an episode about the TARDIS’s voice, Rory misheard a word or two in this final message?).

Gaiman’s skill lies in how expertly he resolves the “paradox” faced by the tie-in writer, or the contributor to someone else’s show. Idris allows him to simultaneously “add value” (the TARDIS speaks) and honour minute details of TARDIS continuity. Myth has often been defined in media studies as a resolution of contradictions. And in this sense, Gaiman creates new myth in his franchise contributions – he finds surprising ways to resolve contradictions between continuity and “added value”. Here is an author-function premised, in part, on cleverly recoding franchise mythology.

Showrunners might encode meaning in formats and arcs, but the writer-as-hired-hand is called upon to analyse a different creative problem: how to patch something in which fits the current format and how to put a distinctive stamp or tattoo on that contribution. Recoding – pull not push; the TARDIS not the Doctor – is Gaiman’s mythic resolution to the tie-in paradox. In short, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ is fan service as bricolage; shiny novelty assembled from the bits in continuity’s junkyard.


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Steve Thompson’s Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who: A Pirate Copy? Mon, 09 May 2011 05:01:49 +0000

‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ reveals the curse of the ‘meh’ slot. It’s a return to workaday Who after a two-part series finale, a Christmas Special, and a two-part series launch imitating a finale for good measure, all of which carried the signature of showrunner Moffat. By contrast, this is self-consciously “ordinary” Doctor Who, coming after mission statements from ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ and ‘Day of the Moon’. Even its arc elements feel reheated already – oh, it’s the eyepatch lady looking through another impossible hatch, and Amy’s Schrodinger’s pregnancy, along with flashbacks to the Doctor’s future death.

This episode doesn’t, at first glance, appear to carry any ‘author-function’, beyond copying last week’s arc stuff. It isn’t identifiable as carrying a specific writer’s preoccupations, tropes, and repetitions. The guiding parameters seem instead to be pastiche – as Steven Moffat remarks in the accompanying Doctor Who Confidential, you want certain things in a pirate story: a storm, swashbuckling, a stowaway child, and so on. And ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ serves up these warmed-over intertextualities with gusto. But such manic repetition of generic fare seems to over-ride considerations of authorial distinction. Somewhat reinforcing a sense of non-authorship, Confidential writes out the flesh-and-blood writer of this piece, Steve Thompson. Mentioned once in passing by director Jeremy Webb, Thompson is otherwise absent, being neither interviewed nor appearing on camera, and not even being referred to in Moffat’s commentary. (By marked contrast, Neil Gaiman is fronting next week’s making-of; the show looks set to become one long paratextual cue for ‘written by Neil Gaiman!’)

So, where’s Steve Thompson? Why has this empirical writer been forgotten about and cast out into the (Authorial) Silence? (He similarly disappeared from paratexts for Sherlock, where his episode alone had no DVD commentary).

Television authorship is a fickle business, it seems. All TV drama is written, but not all of it is ‘authored’. And this is the major value of Michel Foucault’s concept of the ‘author-function’ – it allows consideration of authorship as a discourse, granted in some cases and denied in others. Showrunners and ‘star’ writers are often extratextually present in promotional, paratextual content and fan readings – Richard Curtis even got special publicity trails last year. And at the other end of the spectrum are jobbing writers, yet to achieve paratextual presence let alone pre-eminence; those who professionally write TV drama but don’t yet publicly ‘author’ it.

Enter Steve Thompson. What preoccupations and tropes demarcate a Thompson script? We don’t know, and Confidential doesn’t help us find out because all statements about the story’s contents are entrusted to Steven Moffat, who in effect ventriloquises Thompson. And yet Steve Thompson appears to be Moffat’s discovery or protege – entrusted with the second episode of Sherlock, and reappearing here. On Sherlock and Who, Thompson has thus far been a (literally) middling writer – he’s done the stuff that showrunners need to farm out, the bits in the middle, after the important set-up and before the important finale (though Sherlock series 2 seems set to promote him to the finale of all finales, intriguingly). For now, Thompson is working his way up the industry ladder, aided by Moffat’s powerful support and mentoring.

And this makes Moffat’s standing in for Thompson both telling and ironic. Telling because Thompson himself can act as a sign of Moffat’s industrial power – the showrunner’s status being indicated by his very gift of patronage (likewise, Russell T. Davies supported Tom MacRae; Paul Abbott recently entrusted the writing of Exile to Danny Brocklehurst, and Jimmy McGovern has used The Street to mentor and develop new writers). In a sense, ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ is Mentor Who, with Steven M paternalistically building the TV career of Steve T.

But Moffat voicing Thompson in Confidential is also ironic, because this is surely a script marked by choice Moffatisms. Automated technology carrying on, saving humanity whilst being misinterpreted as evil – that’s textbook Moffat, right out of ‘The Empty Child’/’The Doctor Dances’. Moving from a historical setting to a futuristic spaceship… say hello to ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’. The story’s basic premise seems designed to appeal to Moffat’s sensibilities as a writer; one might even suggest this is pirated Moffat, with Thompson imitating and voicing his patron. Authorship thus self-deconstructs; the protege appropriates his master’s voice in a process of indeterminate doubling. But this indeterminacy – authorship flickering between two states like Amy Pond’s pregnancy – means that piracy cannot quite be fixed or located. Perhaps Thompson (un)consciously appealed to Moffat with his initial story pitch; perhaps Moffat pitched in across the story’s development. Industry discourses can ‘t be trusted to resolve this ontological mix-up, as hierarchies and careers have to be protected and conserved.

What this suggests about TV authorship is not merely that it is multiple, but rather that it is extra-textually and paratextually bestowed on some while discursively denied to others. In short, authorship is hierarchical, forged here through a mentor-apprentice dialectic. Unsurprisingly, Steve Thompson’s Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who represents rather less of the former Steve and rather more of the latter Steven. ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ devolves into a menu of pastiche pirates with a side order of pastiched, pirated Moffat. Last week saw the showrunner copying himself and introducing difference into repetition; this week introduces repetition into difference via the sincerest form of showrunner flattery.

‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ is standard Doctor Who – just a spot along the way on Thompson’s career arc, and a step towards the ultimate finale of ‘The Final Problem’. Unrecognised writing is what typically gets done in the middle; recognised, paratextually-promoted industry prestige begins and ends with the prize of authorship.


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Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who: Challenging the Format Theorem? Mon, 02 May 2011 05:31:15 +0000 Just so you know, and to avoid any ambiguity, today’s blog entry ends with this concluding sentence: “Yes, Steven Moffat’s work on Doctor Who is becoming ever more repetitive.” Jump ahead and check, if you like. There, see.

Because the opening two-parter of series six, ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ and ‘Day of the Moon’, has been accused in certain sectors of online fandom and in some newspaper reviews of rehashing past successes. The Doctor is killed, but time travel shenanigans mean that the show can go on (or has gone on); monsters have a sight-related gimmick; the Doctor is placed in something of a rom-com context; and River Song cautions against spoilers and appears with her customary introductory line, as well as (literally, this time) diving into the TARDIS. Non-linear storytelling, plot mechanics, and brisk dialogue all tussle for dominance. Now with added ‘perfect prison’ motif.

And as Moffat’s vision for Who moves further out of the long shadow cast by the Russell T. Davies era, contrasts between the two showrunners come into sharper focus. Davies’s authorship twisted industry common-sense into art; he turned down the sci-fi, upped emotional realism, and avoided scaring off the mass audience. He also coded his own voice into a range of tightly restricted formats; the light season-opening romp; the quirky, experimental story; the big, brash finale; the mid-series filler. But whereas Davies’s masterstroke was to write with the restrictions of industry common-sense, Moffat often writes against industrial norms for ‘mainstream’ TV. His authorship is more combative, more assertive, restlessly looking to think the unthinkable and so write what Doctor Who‘s format theorem tells him cannot be written.

To wit – kill the Doctor in the first ten minutes or so of the series, but structure narrative gaps into the event that can be revisited later (what do the astronaut and the Doctor discuss before his death?). Casually throw ontological puzzles into the mix: was it really pre-1967 at Graystark Hall Orphanage? What was the hatch all about? (There might almost have been a Lost reference or gag lurking there). Oh, and end episode one of a family show with the Doctor’s companion shooting a child asking for help. As Paul Kirkley has pointed out, this hardly presses the right demographic buttons or readily hails a target audience. Unlike Davies, who was the consummate integrationist, pulling together storytelling needs and industry contexts and pressures, Moffat pits his wordy cleverness and narrative complexity against forms of ‘mainstream’ industry wisdom. Not wholly, of course; the gambit of a series opener working like a finale does have a certain industrial logic to it, as well as creatively playing with established ways of doing Who. But Moffat challenges the TV industry establishment far more notably than did series one through four. He’s the Tom Baker to Russell T. Davies’s Jon Pertwee.

Just so you know, this blogged argument doesn’t really begin with the sentence “Just so you know” above. Its discussion has a prequel; a response to last year’s season finale for Antenna, where I argued that Moffat’s skill as a writer is to misdirect, and to separate moments of seeing and understanding such that the audience typically experiences a feeling of ‘ah! How could I not have spotted that!’ But the difficulty for fan audiences is that favoured tricks used by a writer can become familiar, anticipated, and rapidly recognised. Ironically, when the Silence are revealed here, after a season-long wait recapped in flashback, they represent the monster as ultimate anti-spoiler; nobody can remember them a moment after they’ve been seen. Though this feels vaguely reminiscent of the Weeping Angels, it is a repetition of authorial vision and distinction; authorship itself as a brand of the uncanny – indeed, as the ultimate anti-spoiler – where the longed-for “reveal” proves to be startling… yet in a somehow familiar, already-known guise.

For, NuWho has been distinguished from its classic predecessor, above all else, by virtue of becoming ‘authored’ television. And authored TV implies – in fact, requires – markers of its vision; iterations of its distinctiveness; variations on its authorial themes. Time travel is the perfect metaphor for auteurism; each involves going back over old ground and making it surprising, showing the work of the world in a new light. Equally, auteurism is the perfect metaphor for time travel, always starting with a new chance, a blank page, and yet finding that history can’t be entirely rewritten nor its patterns of meaning wholly resisted. Moffat, of course, exploits and mines the metaphor until it collapses altogether: this version of Doctor Who gives us time travel as auteurism. And a story arc that seems to be shaping up into a ‘story ellipse’, as Moffat’s nuWho explores new ground by doubling back over Freud’s “family romance”, as per pop time travel staples like Terminator, or Back to the Future. Author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger, even includes an intertextual shout out to Moffat’s ‘Girl in the Fireplace’ in Her Fearful Symmetry, acknowledging their twinned authorial territories.

Rather than indicating creative exhaustion, or narrative fixation, repetition has always been essential to NuWho, not just to convey its nature as genre TV, but more than that, as a sign of its ‘quality’, and its status as TV art, even. Impure repetition, like a subtly shifting time loop or a family resemblance, is the sine qua non of any identifiable authorial vision. Becoming repetitive means just this: articulating auteurism and creating ‘quality TV’ within and against the confines of a tightly-formatted, popular series.

Yes, Steven Moffat’s work on Doctor Who is becoming ever more repetitive.


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Words are Cool: The Magic of Moffat’s Doctor Who Mon, 26 Jul 2010 15:37:09 +0000 Now that series five has drawn to a close, how did Steven Moffat’s first year as showrunner acquit itself? Billed as a ‘dark fairytale’, the series ended up edging closer to a version of stage magic. Surely it was no accident that Matt Smith donned a Tommy Cooper-style fez in “The Big Bang,” for here more than ever before the Doctor was rendered as a magician. Young Amelia even asks “how can he do that, is he magic?” This was time travel as a brand of illusionism, less concerned with logic and rules of the ongoing series, and more concerned with creating moments of shock for viewers.

Along with representing time travel as a kind of parlour trick, Moffat repeatedly pulls one particular trick on viewers. His screenplays show us something we assume we understand, and then point out we’ve misinterpreted. That sun in the sky – it’s not the sun. River Song saying the same thing over and over again – not a recording. Statues in “The Time of Angels” – not statues.  Even the series finale title, “The Big Bang,” tells you the reset-button plot twist, you just don’t twig it’s been staring you in the face. Then there’s Moffat’s sly seeding of something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue into the Doctor’s dialogue. Only when Amy intones the wedding ritual do we realise how the Doctor coded himself into her memories. The wedding day’s been there all series, narratively flagged up, yet who had guessed the importance of that ritual phrase? It seems inevitable, yet simultaneously startling: a narrative event embedded in timey-wimey audience interpretation as ‘of course!’ collides with ‘I didn’t see that coming!’

That’s Moffat’s favourite trick: the detail already there, right in front of you, only you’re misdirected by a conventional interpretation. It’s a great trick too, sustaining an aesthetics of shock – not just the surprise of an unexpected reveal, but the jolting shock of “how could I not have spotted that?” Forget retconning; Moffat majors in retro-active re-interpretation as his narrative machineries snap into place with a telling phrase.

Words can save. Words matter. Series five is in love with magic, but with the magic of words especially. Ironically, its big buck, big bang visuals and CGI special effects are trumped by the most startling special effect of all: a blank, black screen then carrying a single inter-title caption: “1,894 years later…”. Here is Moffat’s mission statement boiled down to essentials: Words are cool.

Series five’s treatment of the series-long arc has also emerged as different from Russell T. Davies’s approach. Moffat refuses to give away all his narrative’s secrets, creating a multi-series arc. Davies’s work was haunted by excessively (or insufficiently) meaningful words; will we ever learn what The Moment was? These words implied whole tantalising worlds. Moffat’s cause-and-effect arc works more directly: it has an absent cause. We don’t yet understand what caused the TARDIS to explode, nor whose voice invaded the console room to announce “silence will fall.” There’s something behind the Alliance’s plan; the Doctor’s been framed, manipulated.

This new showrunner manipulates narrative complexity in a showy way – like a stage magician expecting his audience to gasp – and he’s written a shadowy, manipulative force into Doctor Who. The unseen, unknown Big Bad of series one is perhaps a reflexive shadow of Moffat himself: the consciousness behind the story, plotting everything out. Some have speculated that Rose Tyler was Russell T. Davies’s Mary Sue, wanting to run off with the Doctor. By contrast, it would seem that the unknown multi-series villain, intently pulling narrative levers behind the scenes, is Moffat’s Mary Sue. We may all be stories in the end, but if that’s true then the ultimate magician’s power lies in who gets to construct those stories. Perhaps the force narrating the Doctor’s universe isn’t Omega or the Master. Perhaps the clues are staring us in the face… it’s been the Showrunner all along.


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‘New New’ Doctor Who: Brand Regeneration? Mon, 19 Apr 2010 06:00:46 +0000

Writing in his BFI TV Classics book on Doctor Who, critic Kim Newman observes that the triumphant success of the show’s 2005 reinvention might yet cast a long shadow, with the series coming under pressure to stay the same for a long time to come. Doctor Who‘s continuation under a new showrunner, Steven Moffat, along with eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith) and fresh companion Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) very much reminds me of what I’ll call Newman’s Dictum.

Doctor Who starts over every now and then, re-casting its leads and unfolding anew. But since 2005 there’s always been a thread of continuity: Billie Piper bridging the 2005-6 series, and David Tennant remaining in post until recently. As such, 2010 poses a key threat to the brand, and to its ‘flagship drama’ status in the UK – what if a new Doctor, companion, and exec-producer team represents too much change for audiences to take? What if, this time round, British Doctor Who fans – i.e. the UK’s mass audience – don’t recognise post-Tennant, post-Davies Who as the show they’ve come to love?

Moffat’s reign therefore begins, as Kim Newman foresaw, by channelling Russell T. Davies. The new production team have poached furiously from the old, taking bits of visual continuity – beginning with a view from space before plunging down to Earth – as well as Moffat generating pastiche Davies-style dialogue, e.g. the alien Atraxi being addressed as “you lot”, one of Davies’ writerly tics. And narratively, this is still very much the Whoniverse of the Shadow Proclamation (first name-checked in Christopher Eccleston’s debut story) and of planet Earth as “defended” (set out in David Tennant’s opening story). We might be shown all previous Doctors, but this episode is strongly weighted towards recent textual memory.

‘The Eleventh Hour’ feels the need to reassure child viewers who have grown up with the Tennant era that it’s still OK to love Doctor Who; they don’t have to let go of the habit. Where Rose Tyler represented the show’s desired new fans within its diegesis, Amy Pond represents what are by now older fans of the BBC Wales’ version, cautioning them to keep on believing for the next twenty minutes, or longer, and never to out-grow the Doctor’s appeal. But it addresses this anxiety – that the already won-over UK audience may become deserters – by embracing a regenerative difference/similarity that’s weighted towards sameness. The title sequence is re-created, but reworks the 2005-onwards version; the theme tune is remixed, but in a way that again most strongly cites the 2005-onwards version. Fans may already be picking over the ‘dark fairytale Who‘ promised in advance publicity, but reading-for-change as an interpretative community misses the branding mark of this regeneration somewhat. This incarnation feels like a Greatest Hits package from the off. It’s a smacking great irony: a re-brand and a re-launch that daren’t actually regenerate.

Don’t get me wrong – I loved Matt Smith, and Karen Gillan, and Moffat’s rabid one-liners, and Murray Gold’s soundtrack, and the giant-eye aliens, and Amy as a creative fangirl par excellence making her Doctor dolls and drawing her TARDIS pictures…

But at the same time, the show feels like Doctor Who perfectly impersonating an image of its own established brand identity under Russell T. Davies  – and I’m not sure it’s ever felt quite that way before. Not for me, anyway. Something not widely remarked upon is how the “bad alien” in ‘The Eleventh Hour’ is defeated. It becomes a perfect impersonation of itself. Perhaps that narrative resolution is the most ‘meta’ moment in a screenplay jostling with potential candidates, because I can’t help wondering whether Doctor Who just became its own dream-made-reality Prisoner Zero. Not hyperreal, but hyperfictional: dreamt in its own established brand image.

And if so, that may tell us something interesting about the possibility of wide-ranging textual change under contemporary systems of TV branding and franchising. Conceptualised as a blockbuster TV brand – as it is now in the UK – Doctor Who seemingly can’t do regeneration anymore, or can’t be allowed to. Its surfaces are altered, upgraded, upscaled; there’s a shiny new HD-friendly TARDIS inside and out, but the real game is all about reassuring viewers that things remain substantially the same. Set up a story arc (“Silence will fall”); plan episodes to coincide with major cultural events (‘The Beast Below’ falling on the first Saturday of the UK’s general election campaign) so as to boost publicity; carry on from where you left off in the move from ep one to ep two; follow a present-day opener with futuristic and then historical tales. In all this, the Moffat era shows clear signs of studiously imitating the Davies’ masterplan – and of self-consciously borrowing what worked in 2005.

This leads me to a perplexing thought: if Doctor Who, back in 1963, had been industrially conceptualised as a ‘brand’ and a ‘franchise’, then it never would have lasted until today, because it would never have been free to chaotically and brilliantly tumble through wholescale reinventions. The ‘brand’ problem is that it guarantees consistency, but has to simultaneously promise periodic re-invention so as not to ‘become tired’. The product of this commodified self-contradiction is superficial change and substantial sameness. Or spin-off shows/new franchise entries as a different mode of TV drama continuation.

But regeneration as a ‘brand re-launch’ proves not to be too much, or even very much, regeneration at all. Perhaps time (and wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff) may yet prove Newman’s Dictum wrong; perhaps Doctor Who will be permitted to change radically once again. Who knows… but the fan in me will wait and see, of course. Here I am already, bags packed, sitting in my back garden. Waiting. And dreaming.


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