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. 

On Killing (beloved) Characters in a Science-Fictional Universe

[vague spoilers for Fringe, Doctor Who, Lost, Star Trek:TNG]

I used to like The Twilight Zone growing up.  A single premise, one protagonist.  Nice, clean, one-off, storytelling.

I also used to love Star Trek: The Next Generation. Over seven seasons, how many main characters died? One.

Two different approaches to genre television, and both are outdated. In the new world of genre television we expect arcs lasting a season, plotlines to build on the previous episode, and we won’t tolerate the sit-com device of resetting the world weekly.

The question is:  haven’t we gone too far?  Both Fringe and Doctor Who advertised recent plots with promises of characters dying—“tune in as we say good-bye to a beloved character.”  It’s Clooney’s last episode of ER, Diane saying good-bye to Sam, and it’s definitely Charlie’s “Not Penny’s Boat” moment.  I tune in, kleenex in hand.

Both shows delivered, and un-delivered, and no doubt will deliver again, because both have done so through the narrative devices that sci-fi allows (glimpses of the future, changed timelines, remarkably successful CPR, impersonating androids, reincarnation, etc.), leaving such deaths no more than a TV guide blurb: [Main Character] dies, returns next week.

Here’s where I feel cheated. Speculative fiction allows for heightening of scale of the human experience. It’s impossible in other genres to take an internal conflict and raise the stakes to the jeopardy of all mankind.  That is a great power, but with it comes great responsibility. The minute that an internal conflict can destroy reality and then be undone each week, we’re much closer to South Park or The Twilight Zone than we are to a season arc. It also leads me to believe that the showrunners have little respect for either the characters or their audience.

I blame Lost.  For all of its novel story-telling devices, that whole last season was a shooting gallery…and then it wasn’t. But please, if you’re going to steal something from Lost, does it have to be the most reviled element?