4 years, 1 month ago
The Curse of Fatal Death is a 1998 comedy spoof of Doctor Who written by Steven Moffat. It's also embedded below this paragraph. If we want to get accusatory, of course, it's also a work of cynicism by somebody who doesn’t really like Doctor Who and only wants to mock what’s wrong with it. There is, puzzlingly, an entire line of thought about Moffat that works on this logic, insisting as it does that he does not actually like Doctor Who very much, and how he’s only interested in writing for it in order to show how smugly superior he is to it. Not that I think any of my quite respectable and sharp readers would actually go with this line of argument, even the camp that doesn’t like Moffat. But this is still a surprisingly persistent line of argument.
Though for the sake of honesty, at least, we should probably admit that there are less adamant versions of the argument that we could make if we were so inclined, and that these versions are perhaps more compelling. Most of them would focus on the infamous tipsy ranting session he had with Paul Cornell, David Bishop, Andy Lane that got transcribed by the New Zealand Doctor Who Fan Club for their fanzine Time Space Visualizer, in which he made several of his most trotted out quotes like, “If you look at the first episode of Doctor Who, that betrays the lie that it’s just the 60?s, because that first episode’s really good. The rest of it’s shit,” “some old actor like Tom Baker would come to a shuddering halt in the middle of the set and stare at the camera, because he can’t bear the idea that someone else is in the show,” and “You’ve got Patrick Troughton, who was a good actor, but his companions – how did they get their Equity card? They’re unimaginably bad.” These quotes do not endear Moffat to some people.
There are two defenses to mount here. The first is that the easier to find version of this ranting session is the one at the Doctor Who Interview Archive, which reformats it to look like an interview. It wasn’t - it was four fans drinking and bitching on tape. The DWIA version cuts out all the stuff that isn’t Moffat, and a fair amount of the stuff that is, completely losing the sense of tone and giving a terribly misleading sense of what was going on, making it sound like an interview where he was the center of attention. The full interview makes him come off much better, in part because it sets up the sort of conversation that was actually being had - one that Moffat is quiet for long stretches of. And he comes off much better in it.
But why reach for the weak defense. Let’s go for the strong one: he’s right. I mean, I love 1960s Doctor Who - and, crucially, so does Steven Moffat. But the Hartnell era is a mess. The only three writers with any sense of how to structure drama are Whitaker, Spooner, and Cotton. Maybe Lucarotti if you want. Virtually nothing not written by one of them holds together as drama, instead appearing arbitrarily stretched and compressed. How good Hartnell was varies by episode and his health. Several companions are extraordinary - Jacqueline Hill and Maureen O’Brien are fantastic with almost no dud moments across their time. Others, Carole Ann Ford and Jackie Lane in particular, are almost unwatchably awful. It doesn’t hold together well at all, and functions only on the fact that it wasn’t meant to be watched closely (or twice) and had a sort of mad, cackling ambition, or, at least, it did under Verity Lambert. Similarly, Tom Baker was a scene-hogging git at times, and Patrick Troughton’s companions were at times awful. We, as fans, have managed to retcon this into a virtue, describing Jamie as noble and loyal, but let’s be honest, what we really mean is that the writers and Frazer Hines never gave the character a single trait that wasn’t “he trusts the Doctor.”
But the thing is, and crucially, this is something Moffat says as well, but nobody pays attention to that bit of the interview, I adore it anyway. Not just the genuine, proper brilliant bits like Power of the Daleks, which you watch and realize that it’s so good that when Rob Shearman nicked bits for Dalek in 2005 it still looked fresh and original. I love almost all of it. The Web Planet is one of my favorite Doctor Who stories not because everyone is wrong about the laundry list of massive flaws but because the thing is so screamingly weird that I love it in spite of its flaws. Or, as Moffat put it in the conversation, “I dearly loved Doctor Who but I don't think my love of it translated into it being a tremendously good series.”
The Curse of Fatal Death is a celebration of exactly that: the love of something in spite of its flaws. But that’s not quite correct either. Yes, Moffat includes a lovely prototype of every speech about how wonderful the Doctor is that he ever writes in the remainder of his career, but this isn’t a story about what works in Doctor Who. It’s a story about how its flaws are part of the charming fun too. Which is something that is important to get out of both the interview and this: Moffat adores all of Doctor Who. And The Curse of Fatal Death is, every bit as much as The Scarlet Empress, a celebration of the sort of unreconstructed and hedonistic sense of wonder that constitutes Doctor Who.
For the most part The Curse of Fatal Death works by indulging in things that would have broken the series if it had to actually function as one long-term. So, for instance, it fully embraces a ludicrous series of plots and counter-plots as the Doctor and the Master successively rewrite history to provide a suitably long sequence of dei ex machinis. Gratuitously chained regeneration sequences are cheerly explored. Everyone, basically including the Master himself, admits that he’s camp and rubbish. None of this is possible within the context of the series itself, even though it all captures fairly essential truths about the series. Also telling are the sorts of criticisms that are issued of the series. It’s not stuff like Daleks climbing stairs (which is just refrigerator logic) or even of cheapness as such (though there is a bit of snark about how all the corridors look the same, it’s the lead-in to a joke in which CGI is used to have what, by the production logic of the series, is an impossibly large set of Daleks behind a door, not an extensively milked joke about corridor-running). This isn’t a case of mocking the program for it’s faults - it’s a case of loving its faults and recognizing that there’s tremendous fun to be had in what Doctor Who is, as opposed to in some vision of what it might have been instead. In this regard it’s a close cousin of The Scarlet Empress.
But there’s a difference, and it’s one that gets at another one of the standard debates about Moffat, which I’m apparently trying strenuously to knock down and sort out before we actually get to the Moffat era. There’s a basic similarity between The Scarlet Empress and The Curse of Fatal Death, but there’s also a massive difference, which is that The Scarlet Empress is rooted in gay fandom and gay culture while The Curse of Fatal Death is fundamentally and at its heart the work of a straight bloke. There are very different fan traditions at play here, and those differences matter.
Let’s start by scrubbing some of the obvious objections in one paragraph that I know is going to be the main bit of catnip for at least some of my commentators. One of the standard lines of objection against Moffat, pushed by some critics I normally strongly agree with, is that his vision of Doctor Who is heteronormative. There’s something that needs to be distinguished here, though: Moffat is, in point of fact, a heterosexual man. As with any writer, he draws on his own life when writing. Of course his Doctor Who is going to appear straighter than Russell T Davies’s - he is, after all, considerably straighter. Equally, however, Moffat is tenaciously an ally. When it was pointed out to him that he’d included no queer content whatsoever in Series Five he made an active point of fixing it in Series Six. He’s been vocal in support of same sex marriage. He’s solidly on the right side of these issues. No, he doesn’t share the depth of Russell T Davies’s overt focus on diversity, and so they aren’t as often the animating force behind an episode, but his record is solid. The criticism that his vision of Doctor Who is straighter than Davies’s comes perilously close to saying that heterosexual men can’t write autobiographically. I am among the first to call foul when accusations of reverse discrimination are raised against social justice movements, but in this case I’m depressed to admit that it’s a fair cop. Moffat gets stick for no reason other than that he’s a straight man writing from his own perspective. Yes, there’s too many of those, but why on Earth would we go after a straight white dude who’s actually a good writer when we could be chasing Judd Apatow from the cinemas or something? I mean, yes, death to heteronormativity, but if we’re culling straight writers from television let’s at least start with the shitty ones. Instead of one who’s less heteronormative than average, a good writer, and largely on the right side of these issues.
The larger problem with this criticism of Moffat, however, is that it erases what many of his stories, including The Curse of Fatal Death, actually are: redemption narratives for arsehole fans. If Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the moment where fandom sacked the anoraks and War of the Daleks marked the point where a particular sort of fandom finally suffered a crippling blow within Doctor Who, The Curse of Fatal Death is the moment where the heirs of those approaches start making good on themselves. In many ways this harkens back to Joking Apart, where we observed that the centerpiece of the narrative was the fact that despite being clever and funny and witty, Moffat’s surrogate character was a complete jerk whose wife was absolutely right to leave him. This is one of the dominant themes in Moffat’s writing: the way in which smart, clever, and witty men are oppressive jerks. Starting with Joking Apart and continuing through to ““when one is in love with an ageless god who insists on the face of a twelve year old one learns to hide the damage,” Moffat is acutely aware that people like him are assholes who hurt and diminish the people around him even though they’re charming.
Or, to put it bluntly, Moffat writes about overgrown man children and the fact that they need to grow the up. This is even the dominant theme in the four-way conversation. It’s not that he didn’t love Doctor Who - it’s that as a reasonably professional television writer and producer who knows what he’s doing he recognizes its flaws and isn’t going to childishly delude himself into thinking that The Mark of the Rani was even remotely fit for transmission. Or, for that matter, that someone along the way shouldn’t have pulled Robert Holmes aside and said, “Robert, the script’s great, absolutely brilliant, but what in God’s name makes you think that we can do a giant rat?” Because, you know, he’s grown up, gotten a job, and learned about the world. (Moffat is, of course, ambivalent about growing up. That’s part of the tension implicit in his work that makes it good - he on the one hand recognizes that childishness is destructive, and on the other recognizes that growing up is tragic.)
And yes, writing as a heterosexual fanboy who eventually grew up and stopped being quite so much of a jerk, Moffat focuses on the sorts of things that got him to grow up. Which, based on an even cursory examination of his life and autobiographical works, is pretty clearly “girls.” Both in the sense of developing the wisecracking bastard persona to overcome a sense of shyness and awkwardness that is, let’s face it, not unfamiliar to a lot of geeks, and in the sense of growing up, getting married, having kids, and learning from that to be a bit more restrained and empathetic. And so Moffat writes, here and in the series itself, a Doctor that grows up when he meets a girl.
But what is largely more important than what prompts the growing up (although there are some interesting things to say there, and we will eventually get to Sherlock, which I’m currently leaning towards covering episode-by-episode as the spin-off it frankly is) is the fact that Moffat’s work is in part about that segment of fandom and its growing up. And Curse of Fatal Death marks the moment where that process finally jumps over from the gay and feminist corners of fandom and starts converting the more classically stereotypical fans. That’s not to say that there weren’t plenty of standard issue straight male geek fans with earlier redemption narratives: Paul Cornell seems to have had a personal journey to this effect, having talked about incidents early in his life and fandom where he was, in his view rightly, ostracized for being a bit of a creeper. But it’s not surprising that there are a lot of these. For the better part of a year one of the dominant themes in this blog has been how Doctor Who got marginalized as “cult” television. It’s not that this approach to Doctor Who was unanimously heterosexual (I mean, Ian Levine, to pick the most blatant counter-example), but equally, John Nathan-Turner wasn’t putting Nicola Bryant in that bikini for his own sake. The cult television audience isn’t just white men 18-34, it’s tacitly straight white men. And in that regard the basic story Moffat tells - of clever but socially maladapted boys discovering girls and being less dickish as a result - is an important one, if only because the alternative solution would have gone down even worse than the badger cull, and probably prevented this blog from ever being written to boot.
Nevertheless, the fact that The Curse of Fatal Death does on the one hand hew to a heterosexual male sort of fandom that is recognizably from the standard “cult television” audience while on the other hand demonstrating the sort of wittier, more clever love characterized by post-Buffy fandom is telling. Not surprising, of course - Buffy, after all, was also written by a straight male who also has a profound commitment to feminism and gay rights. (And also botches both occasionally.) But significant. It’s not that The Curse of Fatal Death is some vital turning point - very little of the latter Wilderness Years can be described as a turning point for Doctor Who. But it’s a vital marker that shows that the series’ recovery continues apace and that the right things are happening within it.
And it is quite funny and charming. “It has three settings!” is particularly glorious.
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