Steve Thompson’s Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who: A Pirate Copy?

May 9, 2011
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‘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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10 Responses to “ Steve Thompson’s Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who: A Pirate Copy? ”

  1. Sean Duncan on May 9, 2011 at 6:02 AM

    I liked this significantly more than “The Blind Banker” (the lack of broad racial stereotypes in “Black Spot” makes it immediately more enjoyable), but I generally agree re: the odd tone to this episode.

    So, I’ll just say it — I really don’t mind rehashing and repetition, and don’t understand the focus on this in your two blog posts to date. I don’t mind seeing Moffat’s concerns come up again and again, because, well, I suppose I genuinely like them. If Doctor Who in the Robert Holmes era was consistently about the Doctor and his assistant battling the machinations of some deformed villain living underground, then I’m fine with Moffat re-using bits from earlier stories. It’s a showrunner putting his mark on the series, and that’s to be expected.

    But back to my point of agreement with you — what did bother me a little with this episode was the tonal shift from last week’s episode. There was the attempt at the end of “Day of the Moon” to form a “hey, let’s all go have fun!” bridge into this week’s episode, and there’s a similar bridge out of “Black Spot” to the big arc points (Amy’s pregnancy, the Doctor’s death). This was handled rather poorly in both cases, IMHO, but the intervening story had plenty of elements I enjoyed, regardless of their originality — the ripoff of Star Trek Voyager was cute, the second ship element was better handled than “Girl in the Fireplace” in some ways, and the resolution with the pirates struck me as a fun set-up for a later appearance. Two other elements struck me as clever foreshadowing — “There are lots of universes nested inside one another” might be hinting at where the series is going this year (the Schrödinger’s fetus inside Amy implies a Many Worlds Interpretation, perhaps), and the aliens (with “D.I.H.S.” on their shoulders?) seem like a nugget that could be followed upon later (like last year’s proto-TARDIS in “The Lodger”).

    I enjoyed “Black Spot” just fine, and rather than see it as a second data point indicating how awful Thompson’s work is, I see it as a point of improvement over his abysmal “Blind Banker.” If anything, I’m now encouraged that his version of “The Final Problem” might be passable, and that Moffat is providing us with interesting pieces that will fit together later.

    • Matt Hills on May 9, 2011 at 12:49 PM

      Thanks, Sean; I agree that the arc elements were poorly integrated in ‘Curse’, along with the bridging from ep two to ep three feeling rather creaky. Given the general adroitness of Moffat’s plotting when left to his own devices, it seems a shame that these serial elements haven’t been handled better.

      On the subject of why I’m taking authorship (repetition/rehashing) as a route into these blog posts, I’d say there are a number of factors. Matthew’s touched on one motivation, I see: to reclaim repetition from the value systems of sectors of online fandom *and* press coverage of the show, where Moffat “repeating himself” is assumed to be a problem.

      But I’m also interested in two major differences between classic Who and nuWho, which I’d set out schematically as follows:

      1) Authorship is no longer the preserve of fan readings. So while Holmes signatures, or Bidmead signatures etc have been debated for many years in Who’s fan culture, nuWho is markedly different, I would say, in the way that discourses of authorship circulate in mainstream press coverage, and are industrially promoted via paratexts. Richard Curtis got a promo trailer during S5; Robert Holmes never did (but should have done!). Authorship’s meanings, contestations, and attributions thus have a very different place in Who now compared to, say, the JNT era. By contrast, RTD and Moffat have raised some related issues — e.g. I note RTD’s championing of MacRae as a point of comparison with Moffat’s support for Thompson (certain writers were also notably absent in Confidential during the RTD era, e.g. Matt Jones on ‘The Impossible Planet’ and ‘Satan Pit’).

      2) Authorship tends to be *decidable* in relation to Classic Who — documentation and testimony reveal conflicts between writers and script editors, for instance, or indicate just how much Terry Nation did or didn’t write of “his” stories. But nuWho, as a going concern, renders processes of authorship undecidable in some cases, even while purporting to show us behind the scenes. As such, I’m interested in how paratexts like Confidential manage and construct their “access” to industrial creativity. Because, for me, Thompson’s absence and the indeterminacy of whether this ep was Thompson emulating Moffat, or Moffat guiding Thompson, partly destabilise authorship discussions. If we attribute the ep to Moffat’s control as showrunner then we close down meaning and exnominate Thompson and his situated agency. But if we try to restore Thompson’s position as writer then we potentially miss Moffat’s industrial control as showrunner. And there are, at present, no extra-textual or paratextual guides to accurately or meaningfully addressing these processes of authorship — in marked contrast to Classic Who.

      Anyway, hopefully some of that gives a little more explanation for the path I’ve taken with these two S6 blog posts. There are also major authorship issues on the horizon, I’d say: what degree of fanservice and revisionism will Neil Gaiman introduce? Can Matthew Graham redeem himself in fans’ eyes after ‘Fear Her’, or will TRF/TAP be ‘Fear Her’ II? And to what extent will the mid-series cliffhanger be readable as distinctively Moffatesque?

      Oh, and like you, I’m very much interested to see what Thompson makes of the Sherlock S2 finale! It’s surely a step up for him in industry terms.

  2. Matthew Kilburn on May 9, 2011 at 6:43 AM

    ‘Repetition’ deserves to be addressed and defended as something deliberate and structural because so much of (online) ‘Doctor Who’ fandom sees it as a sign of unoriginality rather than an indicator of authorial concerns and arc direction. I’d urge critics not to look so much at the repetition, as where it points viewers. Sean, I think you are spot on where the “universes nested inside one another” comment is going – it’s a thought which the Doctor seemed keen to distract Amy from.

    On the wider question of authorship, after the breakdown of the script editor-as-head writer supervising/anonymously rewriting other people’s work model in the 1980s/90s(?), there seems to have been a trend in series drama (particularly in genres perceived as difficult) to entrust every episode to one writer – such as Charlie Higson’s domination of the first series of the remade ‘Randall and Hopkirk [Deceased]’. Authored drama was perhaps perceived as a badge of reliability within the industry, and promotable as ‘quality’ to the outside audience. Hence the expectation that Russell T Davies would write the final version of almost every episode of ‘Doctor Who’ in his tenure; and that the authorial signature on ‘Doctor Who’ now should remain very much that of Steven Moffat.

  3. Matthew Kilburn on May 9, 2011 at 6:49 AM

    One more thought, and going back to ‘The Blind Banker’… it strikes me that the importation of anachronistic racial stereotypes might be an attempt at Gatissian colour, exaggerated Victorianism mistakenly transported into the twenty-first century setting. If so, Thompson’s role as credited author of ‘The Final Problem’ might represent a position as moderator of the interests and styles of the series creators of ‘Sherlock’.

    • Matt Hills on May 9, 2011 at 1:02 PM

      Ansolutely — it does seem very much that the expectation for nuWho as ‘quality’ TV is that it should now be Moffatesque at all times, rigorously in line with a showrunner model. Though I’ve not heard any discussion of “tone meetings” under Moffat — have these been discontinued, I wonder? RTD did seem rather more intent on controlling consistency across episodes, and clearly had a different level of visual involvement in the look of the show, e.g. literally sketching monster designs.

      As for Thompson mediating showrunners Gatiss and Moffat on Sherlock, I find this a very interesting idea, though it troubles me that the symbolic result is, again, to place Thompson “in the middle”, as it were, rather than him having a more primary creativity. If he ends up mediating Gatiss and the Moff, then isn’t he symbolically subordinated albeit in a new way? (Though perhaps that’s inevitable, playing the third man to a showrunner double act!).

  4. Kristina Busse on May 9, 2011 at 12:16 PM

    Matt, interesting follow up to last week. I actually enjoy your preoccupation with repetition–possibly because I am likewise obsessed with its value and its necessity so to speak within fannish texts.

    The author function is a weird animal indeed. Your invoking of Foucault moves it immediately into a conceptual position rather than one focused on the purported genius of one writer or another. And as such, it’d make sense that these author function auteurs can be multiple, right? Because it’s a collection of attributes and texts and ideas as much as a live body generating them. Freud and Marx aren’t their 19th century bourgeois selves as much as they are the founders of discourses. I guess here we’d translate that as generator of tropes and themes and characterizations (that easily can be written and repeated by not!live body Moffats?)

    Of course then TV has always been the multiauthored text, so it’s only recent obsession with auteurism in television that even makes it necessary to disavow the single-body authorship and replace it with a more abstract conceptual auteur function, right?

    • Matt Hills on May 9, 2011 at 1:23 PM

      Glad you’re enjoying my focus on authorship and repetition, Kristina, as I suspect there’ll be more of it to come, especially with a Neil Gaiman ep coming up 🙂

      The author-function interests me precisely for its conceptualisation of authorship (and its linkage to cultural power). As a fan I might have views on the genius or otherwise of media producers, but I don’t see it as part of my scholar-fan work to import these value judgements wholesale into TV Studies. So perhaps Foucault is my current scholarly insulation from my lived fandom…

      And I think that the industrial, paratextual focus on single authorship and ‘the TV auteur’/showrunner *does* very much call for a type of critical reading or response which the author-function can offer (as will other concepts and theorists, of course!). So, yes, I’m very much in agreement with your last paragraph. Likewise, the control of a contemporary TV brand (or franchise) means that creative processes are opened up paratextually like never before, yet at the same time paradoxically closed down in a series of ways — something that the author-function may also be able to contest.

      Following your invocation of Foucault on Freud and Marx, I especially like the idea of showrunners as “founders of discourse”, though this may also run the risk of naturalising industrial hierarchies and reinforcing forms of cultural power held by showrunners. I may very well toy with the notion in a subsequent blog post 🙂 But I guess my concern in this week’s entry was predominantly to use the author-function to highlight how not all professional TV writers are paratextually and industrially granted the status of “authors”. I’d suggest that these franchise-led or brand-led absences in authorship can be problematic, to put it mildly.

      • Kristina Busse on May 10, 2011 at 4:46 PM

        this may also run the risk of naturalising industrial hierarchies and reinforcing forms of cultural power held by showrunners Yes, I think this is a really important caveat, because both the “naive” auteur/author concept and the author-function are weirdly divorced from socioeconomic contexts (because in a way even Foucault historicization is weirdly ahistorical there I’d argue).

        I’ve always been fascinated by the AUTHOR and his (?!) authority–I know that in fanfic I tend to write only of WRITERS, partly because we aren’t JKR but also because we purposefully eschew the level of authority the former term invokes.

  5. Melissa Beattie on May 9, 2011 at 7:02 PM

    With regard to a rehash of Moffat, it struck me that 6.3 also had strong similarities to 6.X (‘Christmas Carol’), though it tried to make it appear to be an inversion at the beginning. Both eps featured nautical elements, with 6.X’s flying sharks (a staple of underwater horror) and then 6.3’s pirates and sea-based setting. Both also featured a female whose main characteristic/weapon is song– in a series where the main enemy appears to be the Silence, though to be fair song as destructive and positive/healing is present in 1.13 and 3.3, both RTD eps– though in 6.X song is used as a positive/healing/attractive power, in 6.3 it purports to be dangerous, then turns out to be positive/healing/attractive rather than destructive (a la the Sirens). If Matthew is right above, and Blind Banker was an attempt at mimicking Gatiss’ style, but with a ‘twist’, then perhaps that could be Thompson’s ‘signature’? It would make sense, especially if he were a ‘script doctor’ of some sort, since that job requires rewriting by mimicking style. I don’t know if two eps is enough of a sample size to really say for certain if any stylistic points can be unburied, especially when he’s working under the same exec in brand-led series. *shrugs*

    • Drew Walko on May 11, 2011 at 7:49 AM

      Interesting point about recent examples of the beneficial and destructive properties of song, given that this is the apparent dichotomy in the character of River Song. Is Moffat telegraphing a point about the character through symbolism?