[This was originally posted in early 2020 under the title “Holistic Storytelling in Doctor Who”. Minor such edits]
There’s a line from Steven Moffat’s Dracula that jumped out at me this year, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Regarding the three seemingly arbitrary rules that govern a vampire, Van Helsing reasons “But you see, we are wrong. These three things must be one thing. Much tidier,” and while even as a big fan of the miniseries I admit this doesn’t quite pan out in the finale, it is a nice explanation of how Moffat writes stories, and in my opinion makes clear the most marked difference between his writing and Chris Chibnall’s. (That’s what this is going to be about. Sorry.) I wanna talk about how this difference is both the worst, AND THE BEST thing about the current era of Doctor Who. Yeah. Didn’t expect that, did you? I’ve got positive things to say, as well.
The comparison has been done to death already, so I’m sorry in advance, it’s just such an obvious one-to one: let’s look at both eras’ opening episodes, The Eleventh Hour, and The Woman Who Fell to Earth. (I was going to do Pandorica/Big Bang and Ranskoor, but it seemed like a slightly unfair comparison.)
In the former, everything is doing double duty. Prisoner Zero gets into the world through a crack in space, which is also the main body of the series arc. It’s a shape shifter, which lines up nicely with the Doctor’s changed face, and gives the nice “who is that supposed to be?” moment at the end. (And this is is idea iterated on by Moffat’s second Doctor Debut episode, where he sets the purpose-doubting, identity-crisising Twelfth Doctor, on one face more than a Time Lord should have, against ancient Clockwork Robots on a quest so pointless and endless that they’ve replaced each of their parts so often that there’s nothing of the original left, a metaphor not just for the Doctor but for the show, coming off the self-reflective 50th celebrations’ recognition that we’re a lifetime away from where we started.) It leaches on dreams, and the story is about Amy’s childhood dream coming back in adulthood, and the getting-the-voices-confused, two-faces-one-creature thing allows that moment with Amelia and the Doctor at the end, as well as being an original way of making a monster out of the ordinary. Even the name “Prisoner Zero” is important, tying in the tension building ticking clock, the title of the episode, and, of course, facilitating the Doctor’s plan to identify him by setting all the world’s clocks to zero, which is itself a bit of a wink to The Eleventh Hour as a reboot of sorts.
In Woman, on the other hand (an episode I still quite like), Tzim-Sha is allowed on Earth by a floaty, golden, runic contract signed by Ryan, which demonstrates his irresponsibility in a roundabout way (although it’s hard to say “touching a thing” was really a character failing on his part, and I definitely hope we’re not supposed to side with Graham’s awful ableism) but there’s nothing done with the idea of consent-based-hunters, nor the notion that Ryan is the signatory for all of this.
He lands in a in a big, fungus-like bulb, which is taken by a guy who wants to kill Tzim-Sha, which leads to a convenient exposition video (the second direct-to-camera recording in the episode, with nothing connecting them) but that doesn’t actually teach anything that plays into how he’s defeated, and the egg-esque spaceship jars with the rest of the alien’s aesthetic (as do the runes) which suggests that these might be stolen technologies, but it’s later revealed that while Tzim-Sha does have stolen technology, it’s actually the hunting animal that he shouldn’t have, which is the only thing that actually fits with his design!
He’s ice cold, needing an environmental suit to survive on Earth, killing people with coldness which, while arguably a kind of metaphor for his callousness, doesn’t play into the actual narrative, neither revealing any important clues or setting up how he’s defeated. He’s a trophy hunter, putting teeth in his face, using an illegal, cyborg-slave animal, cheating at a ritual sport, but that isn’t important either, apart from giving us the awful line “sorting out fair play across the universe,” as if the problem with Tzim-Sha murdering people was that he cheated in doing so. The animal isn’t freed against him as ironic punishment, proof of his cheating isn’t used to blackmail him, the ritual or rules of his sport killings aren’t cleverly turned against him. How he is defeated, is that some collar-bone micro-bomb implants (yet another extraneous thing that the monster does) are, off screen, seemingly impossibly, transferred from the companions’ necks into the tentacled cyborg-slave, and then were physically transferred to Tzim-Sha when he downloaded data from it… for some reason… A staggering logical leap in a story where we’ve already established that the monster takes out bits of his victims and sticks them in his face. Even when the ideas are asking to be married in Chibnall Who, they rarely are.
I might be editorialising, slightly, but I think it’s a pretty clear difference. Moffat’s holistic approach allows the episode climax to swing on a single moment, and because it’s built upon things established, it doesn’t need a longwinded explanation; the clocks are all at zero, his name is Prisoner Zero, it’s all traceable back to Rory’s phone with the pictures of all Prisoner Zero’s faces from his own investigations. Prisoner Zero’s next move, changing into the Doctor, follows intuitively as a sneaky out and shifts focus from the clever-clever Plot Solution back to the central dramatic relationship: that between the Doctor and Amy and Amy’s childhood imagined version of the Doctor (Prisoner Zero’s shape-shifting now working as a literalisation of that metaphor). The Doctor gets the Big Clever Plan moment while Rory’s helpfulness is overlooked and under appreciated, as a bit of structural characterisation, and Amy gets the actual, meaty, emotional resolution that deals the final blow to the baddie by remembering the face of the monster that’s been living in her house all these years, making it change shape again, and foiling its plan. It’s a characterful, clever conclusion that establishes our main cast, our central themes and precedents, and the basic logic and meaning of the show going forwards.
Of course there are still extraneous details. For example, the sun “going out” isn’t doing as much as it could: it immediately and visually ups the stakes; introduces Rory and his phone in a clever way by having him be the only person not taking photos of it; and sets up the Atraxi for the Doctor’s denouement confrontation with them, as well as the interesting-if-unintentional political implication that while Prisoner Zero is Not A Good Guy, it’s actually the prison guard/police/institutional force that represents the existential, world-wide threat; but it’s disconnected from most of the character work that the episode is doing elsewhere. To keep focus in the right place, the idea is introduced, it facilitates the scenes it needs to, and then it is shelved and doesn’t draw attention away from the more important elements, and the fact that Rory is watching Prisoner Zero rather than the sun directs us to what really matters.
The beats are simpler, and hit harder because of it, and the fact that each moment is doing so many different things means that in an episode we get more depth and complexity — when the Plot and the emotional work are one and the same, each has twice as much time as if they were segregated — and it improves the show on a series-wide level as well, creating clear motifs around which to focus the characters and dynamics in future stories, like “the girl who waited,” or “raggedy Doctor,” or the idea of a traumatic hole in Amy’s life which sees Rory erased the same way her parents were. Every episode in the series forwards the characters on these grounds, or focussing on these ideas, in a way that you would be very hard pressed to say for the current series, and that’s because it’s written with the understanding that “everything must be one thing” because it is neater.
I don’t think the absence of this holisticism in the current era is all bad all the time. Namely, I appreciate how it allows for what is, at least to me, its outstanding highlight: the “yeah, why not?” attitude. Why not just do a James Bond story? And why not put the Master in it? And why not have a secondary cast of cool historical women? The ideas don’t need to come together properly, they can just be loose, messy balls of creativity. Why not do a giant spider episode? And, uh, I don’t know, put Donald Trump in it? And sure, those stories would all be better with a more focussed sense of meaning, but they also simply couldn’t be as wildly full of stuff as they are. Chris Chibnall is the kind of writer to just include the Indian space program and an Egyptian Pharaoh, just because, and I sorta dig that.
It’s not my favourite mode of the show, not by a long way, and it’s not generally what I look for in stories, but there’s a wildness, an unpredictability, a sheer volume of raw potential behind this kind of series. An entirely new Doctor can turn up half way through a series, in the god damn Judoon episode, as a LATE ADDITION TO THE STORY! All my instruments are thrown off, and I’ve got no way of knowing where we are or where we’re going.
But I also think there’s some subdued opportunity for meaning here.
There doesn’t need to be some reason for Ryan to be dyspraxic, he can just be that. It’s controversial, and I’m not dyspraxic myself so it hardly matters, but despite a slightly absent-minded application, I really quite like that form of uncentred representation. It’s an element of the character not to be overcome, not to be learned away by a character arc, not to be the focus of stories, just to be, as a fact of life, as disabilities like that so often are. And that’s clearly an interest of Chibnall’s, judging by Elliot in The Hungry Earth. I don’t think it’s a terrible idea to have the showrunner approach things from this perspective, and to leave the meaning-making, the Demons of the Punjabs and the Can You Hear Me?s, to guest writers who know better, like decentralised creativity . I just hope that the show finds some more effective way to capitalise on this “yeah, why not?” potential, and draw all its disparate threads together to actually say something.