Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Bit of a Who S5 Post-Mortem: How Moffat's Who Differs from RTD's

There's a spoiler below for the season finale, premiering tonight in the US, so if you're a US-based viewer, beware.

Is Star Wars SF or fantasy? Most people would say the former. I usually say it's high fantasy with spaceships, but really, in the minds of most people, that's a distinction without a difference.

So what about Doctor Who? Was it SF during RTD's tenure? Is it now Fantasy? Does it matter?

Yes, yes, and not sure.

"Not sure" because although a significant paradigm shift has clearly occurred under Moffat -- a shift we would never see in a US franchise at this point, as it represents considerable risk for the network -- after watching the whole season, I think the jury is still out on whether it was for the best.

RTD's Who was informed heavily by alien invasion and first contact tropes dating from 50s B-movies and 80s genre films. Flying saucers were overhead wreaking havoc all the time. Aliens possessed or masqueraded as people regularly, always with nefarious, conquest-related intent, and we invariably got those TV montages detailing the reactions of the global media. None of this stuff happened in secret. On the contrary, it was writ large. We were in Downing Street many times, in the UN, on the tarmac with the President of the United States debarking Air Force One, etc. That RTD was almost never concerned with exploring political ramifications is understandable (albeit consistently disappointing to me) when you consider that neither were many of the B-films from which he took inspiration. Political ramifications weren't typically the point.

And of course the Doctor and his companion visited a lot of alien planets and cultures during S1-4.

We can pretty comfortably call all of this SF rather than fantasy, even the farting grotesques in their "Edgar suits."

Moffat's season, by contrast, was about the crack in a little girl's bedroom wall and how it transformed her life. This is what Moffat means when he says he sees the show as "dark fairy tales" about "the things that live under your bed."

Is it still a show about a guy with a time traveling spaceship? Of course. Are there still alien baddies? Of course, but look at how the references have shifted. The show is no longer informed by Alien or Aliens, The Abyss, War of the Worlds, Earth vs the Flying Saucers, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, et al, but by Indiana Jones (i.e., River's scenes at the start of both the Angels and Pandorica two parters), The Time-Travelers Wife (again, River), and the stories of Alan Moore circa 2000 AD and Neil Gaiman (who, of course, will write one of next season's episodes).

And look at the shift in how the show presents its aliens and monsters -- from cities in flames and mustache-twirling heavies with paper-thin motivations (i.e., Davros) to the weightier morality plays and political allegories of this season, i.e., "Vampires in Venice," the Silurian episodes, and the (under-appreciated) Starwhale episode.

Were these episodes always successful? Not at all, but I do think they were more ambitious than many of the RTD episodes, and that these differences in approach are significant in terms of the paradigm shift affected by Moffat.

Note that I'm trying like crazy to avoid making a quality remark here. And failing. So fuck it. Here's some more: I often thought RTD's era could have been a little more challenging, the heavies a little more multi-faceted -- again, see Davros' hysterical monologuing about "The. Reality. BOMB!!!" -- but I also feel that Moffat could offer us more bang for our buck. His Doctor is such a wimp. And Amy hasn't turned out to be as interesting or three-dimensional a character as I thought she'd be. Furthermore, Karen Gillan seems to have a single line reading she deploys for all occasions, and it's pissing me off. As the season wore on, I started to feel like Moffat had thrown out too much of RTD's approach. Maybe I'm just impossible to please. Then again, maybe there are occasions when a little US-style network interference works in a show's favor. I do think there has to be a happy medium here, and I hope next season, which promises to reveal the off-camera heavy lurking around the margins of this season's arc, is more successful at striking it.

In any case, it seems clear that Doctor Who was but is no longer a show about alien invasion. (It doesn't seem like the people of Earth even remember all the alien invasions of the RTD era. Moffat is much more interested in presenting a 2010 that is recognizable and relatable to our own real 2010, as opposed to RTD's contemporary reality, where the Earth has been regularly invaded by Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, et al, for years and famous people are seen cracking wise about it on late night chat shows. They're so over it. Incidentally, now that Amy's family has been restored, I hope Moffat develops the town, and her family, into significant supporting players because I felt the absence of that anchor, one of the best features of all of RTD's seasons, this year.)

Equally clear is that Dctor Who is now but didn't used to be a show about time travel, by which I mean that, although there was obviously plenty of time travel during S1-4, it was presented in a fairly straight-forward, easy-to-follow way.

RTD was always reluctant to go down the temporal rabbit-hole.

Moffat's show, on the other hand, lives down there, and that's laudable. It's clear that what interests him is the idea that things "don't always happen to [the Doctor] in the right order." His season consistently challenged the conventions of linear storytelling in a way RTD's seasons--with the exception of Moffat's own episodes--never did, having effect precede cause with River, with the cracks and their attendant paradoxes, with messages sent back and forth across history, etc.

Personally, I file all this timey-wimey stuff under fantasy (and under "fascinating"), though obviously time travel doesn't have to be fantasy any more than space ships have to be SF. It depends on how these things are contextualized in the story.

I'd be interested to hear other opinions of the season...

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