The Bad Math of Doctor Who

I’ve been a big Stephen Moffat fan since Coupling. That show was pure brilliance and, to my mind, the most tightly written sitcom ever.

Comedy writers talk about math—the structure of emotional connection. In comedy, that’s laughter. Each show has its own rhythm. Family Guy and 30 Rock play fast and loose with joke set-ups, while a good Seinfeld episode plays four set-ups to their extreme ends for laughs.

Coupling felt like perfection. Which is good and bad. There was resonance between the story-structure and the jokes with perfect call-backs and clever, tight resolution.

The bad thing is that such writing runs the risk of feeling like math. I think of volleyball. Bump-set-spike. Bump-set-spike. Bump-set-spike. A harrowing rhythm to maintain on the court, but a dull spectator sport.

Cleverness is intellectually satisfying, but emotionally neutral.

Moffat is a master of math. Coupling is brilliant. Sherlock is incredible. Doctor Who’s Blink and The Girl in the Fireplace are fantastic. but his run as showrunner is plagued by unsatisfying drama. Things (mostly) fit together intellectually but it’s kind of blah.

A Good Man Goes to War? The Wedding of River Song? The Pandorica Opens? Dramatic titles for sure, but where was the drama?

Moffat thrives within the sitcom and mystery structures, but sci-fantasy drama is too flexible. The limitations are variable (especially death) and the characters are moved around like chess pieces. The reasons (barely) make sense but I leave most episodes with a shrug. 

The Day of the Doctor was no different. The morning after I’m excited about what will come next on Gallifrey, enjoyed the banter, but I’m underwhelmed by any of the “big” stakes that were supposed to be present.

I miss Rose, Donna and (especially) Martha. Jack Harkness, even the one-off Lady de Souza. They were characters and not math. They made choices, they won, they lost. 

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My Process: States of Being

  • Potentially Awesome. A flash of inspiration. The possible forms it might take are endless—a decalogy, a movie franchise, an epic poem. Laughter, tears, bitter insight into How The World Really Works. It’s all there, and it’s mine to plunder.
  • Awesome. First draft done. From nothing to something. Gold has been mined but not refined. Is it rough? Sure it’s rough, but its beauty shall blind anyone who dares read it! Let it sit briefly, before the world beholds its wonder!
  • Decidedly Not Awesome aka damn, this needs a lot of work. Three weeks after the first draft, doubts have arisen only to be confirmed when the drawer is opened. What was exciting has been muddled and lost. It’s going to take a lot of buffing to polish this turd…
  • Okay. One month later. Re-written, shown around, re-written again. It can no longer be denied that it is a story. Maybe it’s better. After all the work, perhaps it is better than originally hoped, a submission ought to give me the answer…
  • Crap. Absence may make the heart grow fonder but two months in slush limbo only bring its glaring faults to the forefront of my mind. I can’t bear to open the file and confirm the spelling errors, logical inconsistencies and derivative prose. Yet to know that I can neither correct its faults nor protect myself from a reader’s umbrage…shameful.
  • Confirmed Crap. Rejected thrice!!! It doesn’t work. They can’t use it. They may want to see other things, but never again this vile piece of shite! Away it goes, banished to corners of the hard drive saved for tax receipts and college one-acts. Never again will it see the light of day.

Until…Two years later. I click on a document folder whose title I don’t recognize. The story within, well, it’s got a certain whiff of inspiration. Sure, it’s buried by tonal issues and the pacing is flabby, but with a little work…

Repeat.

Psycholinguistix

There is a bias in modern mental health toward pharmacology. A diagnostic term is a lifejacket on the Titanic. Bipolar Disorder is salvation. Schizophrenia? Thank the Lord! Post-traumatic Stress Disorder!?! Hallelujah!

Label implies treatment, implies excision, implies happiness.

Unfortunately, diagnoses portray a level of remission that mental health treatment rarely achieves. Hope turns to disappointment. Disappointment turns to anger…Yoda would have more to say.

When the DSM took over nomenclature and reduced psychiatric diagnoses to an Internet Chinese menu (for better and for worse), human experience and psychiatric labels were placed in conflict.

Examples:

“I have Anger Management issues.”

“I’m totally ADD. Like, totally.”

“My boyfriend tells me I’m Bipolar.”

The language of emotion has been subsumed by the vernacular of diagnosis or treatment as if it’s only pathology. One can’t be angry or inattentive or reactive or vengeful or ambitious without a label, or the popular acceptance of a term.

Anger can be appropriate. Inattention, too. 

Most of my day is spent as a translator; I am Fezzik in The Princess Bride.

Personality is the general term for stable traits. Those that are recurrent, predictable. It is not a derogatory term, it might be everything.

Fiction often captures more about personality than the DSM. Reading a novel, you will learn more about the trajectory of personality, of sadness, of anger than a psychiatric diagnosis.

Inherent in psychiatry are the concepts of. baseline and change. Inherent in fiction are the concepts of flaw and motivationThe goal of psychotherapy is to make the inherent articulated, the inchoate communicated. Fiction celebrates “flaws” as interesting.

Don’t tell me a diagnosis. Tell me what pisses ya off.