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.