Sunday, November 24, 2013

Doctor Who: The Day of the Doctor is a Triumph for Steven Moffat

Steven Moffat was set no small task on Saturday night. Love it or hate it, Doctor Who is now a flagship BBC property, and worth many, many millions of dollars to the Corporation. The 50th Anniversary Special wasn’t just written for the Doctor Who fanbase – it was written for the broader sci-fi market of America, where the real money is to be earned (hence dollars as the correct currency of measurement).

In writing the 50th Anniversary Special, Moffat had to keep the fanbase happy, impress the Yanks and turn around two years of under-achievement with the franchise, which have been a letdown compared to the promise Moffat showed when he was appointed showrunner in the first place.

Moffat did all that, and more. People sometimes think writing is just pretty prose. It’s not. Without a plot, it all falls into the void. The Day of the Doctor was a tour-de-force plotting performance on Moffat’s part, and a supreme exposition of the screen-writer’s art.

Moffat faced three particular and peculiar challenges, any one of which could have broken another writer. It is to Moffat’s supreme credit that he overcame all three.

The Huey-Dewey-Louie Problem
In his book Hype and Glory, screenwriter William Goldman recounts a problem faced by a friend of his who was a scriptwriter on Charlie’s Angels. It seems the Angels, like all actors, were acutely conscious of billing, and kicked up blue murder if they thought one of their number was getting more lines than the other. That led to ridiculous dialogue where the writers had to make sure that each Angel got an equal amount of speaking time.

So, instead of having one Angel say “I’m going down to Tesco’s to get a box of teabags and a pint of milk,” Kelly would announce her intention to go to Tesco for teabags, Sabrina would tell her to make sure it’s Lyons’, and Jill would remind her not to forget the milk. Equal dialogue for Huey, Dewey and Louie.

Moffat had the same problem. He had three leads – three Doctors who are the same person and yet subtly different. He didn’t have clear delineation of character, but he did have three actors as capable of munching scenery as anyone out there if not kept on the bridle. And Moffat succeeded against the odds – each Doctor was able to co-exist, perform and not crowd the others out.

The Timey-Wimey Problem
Time-travel will never be possible. The potential paradoxes are impossible to resolve in reality. But time travel is always interesting in science-fiction, because it allows us to wonder: what if? What if Hitler won the war? What if John F Kennedy hadn’t been shot?

The problem of writing time-travel science-fiction is in dealing with the paradoxes – following each paradox through to its logical conclusion. This is what made Blink, the Doctor Who episode that really announced Moffat’s genius, so good. The paradoxical elements of Blink fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. Moffat was less successful in the expanded River Song story that dominated the season before last, as the plot never quite clicked open and closed as it had in Blink.

The Day of the Doctor isn’t quite as complex as Blink, but there are many paradoxes to be resolved through the three strands of the story – the contemporary, the Elizabethan and the Time War. Moffat tied them all together beautifully in a way that, like all truly great stories, that is both inevitable and unexpected. This was triumphant plotting on his part.

The Gallifreyean Problem
Russell T Davies, Moffat’s predecessor as Doctor Who showrunner and the man credited with much of the modern Doctor Who’s success, made a big decision at the start of that process – possibly bigger than he realised at the time. Because Davies found the Doctor’s essential loneliness an interesting part of the character, Davies decided that he would make the Doctor lonelier still by wiping out the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey.

The problem with that is that it leads to a considerable hostage to fortune as regards future stories – it’s not easy to churn out plots, and by wiping out Gallifrey Davies had denied himself a very rich potential source. Davies was always more of a soap-opera writer than a science fiction writer and either didn’t realise or wasn’t bothered by the problem of the fall of Gallifrey – his own plotting and frequent resorting to alakazam! solutions would suggest the latter.

Moffat, however, is a science-fiction writer and must have known for some time just how important the return of the Time Lords must be. (It would be interesting to find out just when Moffat started plotting The Day of the Doctor – many years ago would be a sensible bet). Because he is a science-fiction writer, Moffat knew that Control-Z wouldn’t cut it, and for him to solve the Time Lord problem just when the series needed a barnstormer for its 50th Anniversary is a breathtaking achievement.

It had been reasonable to assume that Moffat’s attention towards Doctor Who was distracted by his writing of Sherlock, Doctor Who’s blood relation as an archetype. Sherlock has been superb, and Moffat’s Who started falling off as Sherlock thrived. The Day of the Doctor dispelled all fears that the madman in the box is in danger of being neglected. The BBC will be booking convention at Comic-Con in Las Vegas for many years to come, and Moffat deserves no small credit for that. I hope he gets a raise.