Sunday, June 26, 2011

Doctor Who 2011, Part One: Preamble

So, I'm moderately busy these days. I'm working full time (although still as a temp), I've mugginsed myself onto three (count 'em!) SF-related committees, I'm contributing a regular column plus irregular other items to the Wellington Phoenix SF group's monthly circular, and book reviews (typically one a month) to the SFFANZ website. Then there's the weekly evening fixtures.

These are my freshest and (hopefully) most convincing excuses for not having blogged during the first three months of this year, and for only now blogging about the latest crop of DW episodes. It's also worth mentioning the circumstances in which Jo and I got to see the episodes: Prime has, in its wisdom, decided to broadcast the current series on Thursdays rather than Sundays, which doesn't suit us, so we've been getting e-copies from the UK via a local friend in fortnightly servings. When we've actually watched the episodes has then depended on what other social commitments we've had to fit them in around.

The upshot is that I've seen the full demi-season before having a chance to blog about any of it, and am thus in a position to approach the stories in that broader context. I plan to take advantage of this by dealing with the two-parters as single stories, just for a change. This foreknowledge of the episodes does also mean I'm less likely than ever to take care over potential spoilers. Readers should assume that crucial details of any of the seven episodes may be blurted out at any time. That was your fair warning right there.

Before tackling the individual stories, let's get some preliminary observations out of the way. As ever, no complaints about Matt Smith's performance as the Doctor. Still hum-ho about Karen Gillan - I think she's doing a better job this year, and I can see that some work has been put into refining the character of Amy, but in a way it's too little too late for me. Arthur Darvill has stepped up to the plate now that Rory's a full-time companion, and I've generally been impressed with his performance over the demi-season.

Breaking the season into two halves (whatever the actual reason for doing so) was an interesting move. One positive result of sticking a finale halfway through the year is that the arc stuff, or at least large bits of it, didn't have to be stretched out with those awkward little weekly reminders over the whole year's run. We only got the exact same routine of the Doctor pregnancy-testing Amy and the eyepatch woman sticking her face in four times - it could have been ten times, so count your blessings, folks. On the downside, it did mean that the arc stuff accounted for a larger proportion of what we got: two arc-heavy two-parters and the finale, with only two completely free-standing episodes in the middle.

Now, what I think could work well for this show - and it's a crazy idea, but bear with me here, folks - would be to take this idea of sub-seasons with mini-arcs even further, and have thirteen self-contained one-episode arcs. Or "stories" as they're sometimes known. Just thought I'd run that one up the flagpole. I'm waiting for your call, Steven!

One of the most interesting developments in Wholand this year happened outside the series itself, when someone leaked the entire plot of the first two-parter online, and Steven Moffat gave BBC Radio his views on the matter. Leaving aside the reprehensibility of the plot-leaker's actions and the broader debate over the merits or otherwise of spoilers, what I find interesting is the bit down at the bottom where Moffat claims the following:
"Stories depend on shocking people," he said.
"Stories are the moments that you didn't see coming, that are what live in you and burn in you forever."

Now, this is worth noting for two reasons. Firstly, it's wrong. And I don't mean that I personally, subjectively believe that it's wrong, I mean that it's demonstrably wrong. Wrong wrongitty-wrong wrong.

For instance, I know that I'm not the only person in the world who enjoys re-reading Murder on the Orient Express. So where's the appeal in it, or in any crime novel, once I know whodunnit - one the shock is gone and I can see it coming? Perhaps in going back and seeing how the clues were laid out on a second reading, but what about the third reading? What about the tenth, or the twentieth? That's about the writing, about the prose and the characters and the plotting, and if a book is going to last, it needs to depend on those things and not on "shocking people".

Or what about the Star Wars films? Don't depend on shocking you with the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke's father, do they? They depend in large part on visual spectacle, but that alone doesn't account for their continuing popularity - it's surely more that there's something timeless and mythic about the story, something universal, something Hero-With-a-Thousand-Faces-ish about the characters and the basic plot. The Sixth Sense, now there's a film that depended on shocking people, that quite honestly had bugger all else going for it. Does anyone care about The Sixth Sense today?

Or what about children's bedtime stories? Do children demand to be shocked and surprised each bedtime? No, far from it, they demand the same familiar stories over and over, and they complain if the story changes at all from what they remember.

Shocks and surprises are well and good in a story, but they're only one of many things that help to sell it to the reader or viewer. What Moffat's talking about there isn't story, it's purely disposable entertainment. One-off, watch-it-once-and-never-care-about-it-again telly depends on shocking people. Soap opera depends on shocking people. But in the age of the DVD, it's not enough for a drama series to depend on shocking people, and god help any story that does. So, wrongy wrongness there, Steven Moffat.

And secondly, it's a pretty ironic thing to have said considering just how easy it was to see some of this season's most loudly trumpeted moments coming. Of which, more anon.

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