|In this scene, Clara is cleverly disguised as Oswin Oswald.|
If you missed it, the latest volume of TARDIS Eruditorum is out. Print availability glitched yesterday, but it’s now fixed and available for ordering. My apologies for the screwup.
It’s October 14th, 2014, and this goes up in eleven hours. It’s a bit of a late start. My fault. People were wrong on the Internet.
If you’re reading this in the blog version, this is the first regular-season Moffat story to be placed in the proper order since The Beast Below, a tactic that has had the effect of jumbling the narrative of his stewardship of the program, slightly obscuring the business of actually making history out of it. If you’re reading this in the book version, this sentence will have a better ending reflecting whatever my final decision is on how to do the River entries there. (I’m kind of unhappy with the idea of the Tennant book not having Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead and with the Smith book lacking Name of the Doctor. And if the conceit of the entries works out, ultimately reading the River Song entries in their correct places ought to work just as well as scrambling them.)
It’s not the best time to be writing this, honestly – a statement with sly double meaning given that the real deadline is three hours, as that’s when Jill comes home from work and we need to head to bed, because it’s another 5am wakeup tomorrow. God help me, I’m on days. But what I mean is on October 14th, 2014, with what are probably just four more episodes of Clara’s story to air. Here I have to tackle the first part, and there’s an impossibly large amount of potential foreshadowing that might be worth highlighting. To pick just one possible example – something that could turn out to be a meaningless blip, or could turn out to be a major thematic point: Clara quite literally makes a good Dalek. Who knows what else there is.
This is a characteristic of Moffat’s plotting, and is worth unpacking. There’s a popular theory within media criticism that says that, when plotting an extended storyline in a serialized medium, you should know where you’re going when you start. This, after all, helps with that whole Aristotelean unity thing. If you know the ending, you can set it up at the beginning. Many people – Alan Moore still visibly holds a grudge over this – say that’s what was wrong with Lost all along: that they were making it up as they go along. And yet there’s clearly an extent to which this is not true. I’ve been leafing through TheFrom Hell Companion lately, and it’s full of amusing anecdotes highlighting the ways in which From Hell did and didn’t unfold according to a set design, and how Moore’s conception of it changed based on what Campbell did with the art. Yes, there are many ways in which the broad strokes were in place from the start, and even many specific details, but there was also lots that changed along the way. The same can be said of Babylon 5, the original and fetishized object of complex multi-season plotting.
The invocation of Babylon 5 is a particularly important one, in that it reminds us that we are talking specifically about objects that attract a specific sort of vocal fan, with a specific set of attendant problems. Fans are a particularly pathological sort of reader. Not a bad sort, but a pathological sort, with an odd degree of textual attentiveness. This creates an implicit demand that this sort of attentiveness be rewarded somehow. We – let’s not pretend otherwise – enjoy being flattered with in-jokes. We get off on hearing Androzani mentioned. We like it when things are introduced and then paid off years later. We’re identical to soap fans, basically – a point we’ve talked about before. Notably, however, Doctor Who has to work for non-fans. Anything smaller than one of the fundamental aspects of the show (like, for instance, that the nice silly bow-tie man is being replaced by that cross Scottish guy from The Thick of It) needs to at least be partially reintroduced to be used.
So we have a strange thing – stories that have to work in an Aristotelean way, but must nevertheless adapt both to the realities of collaborative creative work, which is that no plan survives contact with your collaborator, and to the need to make it so that you can bring in new viewers effectively, especially for a generational show like Doctor Who that has to continually manage that.
Moffat’s solution to this problem has always been to leave hooks that clearly beg to be picked up on, figuring that he’ll come up with something for them later. He may well have some idea what that will be, but the details will come when he gets there. (It’s a strange fact of Moffat’s writing that he approaches all scripts strictly linearly – he never jumps ahead and writes a later bit. He knows where he means to go, but he approaches it as linearly as the audience, experiencing them in scene-by-scene order.) Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, things don’t get picked up. In the Doctor Who Confidential on Victory of the Daleks, there’s a story about him telling Gatiss to call the yellow Dalek “Dalek Eternal,” and Gatiss asking what that meant. Moffat’s answer was something to the effect of “I have no idea, but it’ll be brilliant when I come up with it.” And of course, he probably never will, given that the New Paradigm Daleks have been quietly retired as the aesthetic disasters they were.
In other words, Moffat writes in such a way as to make Aristotelean unities easy to generate, and then fills them in at the correct dramatic points of the story. And over the course of the last few years of his writing, he’s clearly come to a controversial aesthetic conclusion: given that Aristotelean unities are not fixed parts of the story but magic tricks that you can generate out of some pacing and camera work, they don’t actually need to be all that unified in the first place. This reaches its zenith to date with The Reichenbach Fall, which openly declares its central mystery to be a magic trick, and then, in its 2014 resolution, ultimately concludes that there were so many ways to pull it off that which one they picked was irrelevant. And fair play, he’s proven his point. He’s consistently popular. He wins major awards. His critics can (and do) complain that he breaks their stated rules for how writing has to work, but eppur si muove.
I mean, obviously I’m a fan, in every sense. For my money, Moffat at his best is untouchable. He’s one of the all-time greats, like Whedon or Sorkin or Holmes. Especially when you consider the length of his career. He may be at his popular peak right now, but he’s been making brilliant television since 1989. Press Gang was brilliant at least once a season. So was Coupling. Joking Apart’s first episode is unparalleled. Chalk is… not actually that bad, from the episodes I’ve seen. And then you get the run of sheer, gobsmacking brilliance that starts with The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, and continues through Girl in the Fireplace, Blink, The Eleventh Hour, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, A Study in Pink, Scandal in Belgravia, Day of the Doctor, His Last Vow, and Listen. And of the stories that I didn’t list… look, I’d rather watch the worst post-2005 Moffat Doctor Who script than a fair number of writers’ best, and I doubt I’m alone in that.
But there’s really no way around it. Asylum of the Daleks shows his approach stretched to its breaking point, or at least, to a breaking point. It’s an astonishingly messy, overstuffed story, where none of the elements have any room to breathe. For every standard line of criticism about Steven Moffat, Asylum of the Daleks is a story that provides you with ammunition. Large parts of its plot setup are offloaded – the nature of the Doctor’s summons to the official prequel, the nature of Amy and Rory’s impending divorce to Pond Life where, inexplicably, it’s forced entirely into the fifth part of that, although to be fair, it’s hard to complain about the loss of vital character moments when they’re replaced with a the punchline “Ood on the loo.”
The result is a plot point that feels unbearably rushed, as Amy tearfully declares that she threw Rory out so he could have children because she knew she couldn’t after Demon’s Run, which on the one hand seems like an attempt to deflect the criticism that the consequences of Amy’s ordeal weren’t sufficiently explored, but which on the other is so perfunctory and lacking in any setup that it ends up creating more problems than it solves, not least because it’s not entirely clear there were problems in the first place. Plenty of defenses of the discretion with which the series treated Amy’s trauma existed at this point. Few can be mustered for treating such a massive trauma like this, with the plot point of Amy’s anguish being neither set up nor paid off, but nevertheless given substantial space in the episode, forcing us to confront her anguish without any sort of context with which to serve it narratively, so that it becomes a crass and exploitative thing.
A similar sort of cynicism pervades the Daleks, who are oddly pushed to the sides of this story. It’s most potentially interesting thematic resonance – the entire Parliament of Daleks angrily chanting the oldest question in the universe – ends up being a complete non-point. The much hyped “every Dalek ever” is just obscure window-dressing for people with a HD copy and a pause button. The Dalek Asylum is just some grotty corridors, which is inevitable in one sense, but the lack of any real weight behind it feels like a wasted opportunity. Moffat has always tended towards the narrative substitution, and this time the abandoned story is that this was ever a Dalek story in the first place.
And yet for all of that, there’s an almost Bob Baker and David Martin-level of obsession with constantly throwing out new ideas. Dalek possessions, the Parliament of the Daleks, the Asylum, the nanocloud, and Amy and Rory’s impending divorce all come in rapid succession, but none of them really go anywhere. They’re employed for their set pieces and then we move on. It feels like this could stretch to a two-parter effortlessly, or at least to a seventy-five minute “feature length” episode, and yet it’s only four minutes extended.
And yet… it still just about works. It’s far from the highlight of Moffat’s tenure, and it does kick off his annus miserabilis, but if you’re going to screw up, screwing up in a way such that the audience wants more is a pretty good way to do it. The sense of trying to do too many things is just as easily read as Moffat pushing against the limits of the format, actively testing how much he can get away with. If Asylum of the Daleks is a failure, it’s at least an ambitious one. Moffat puts an extraordinary amount of trust in Nick Hurran’s ability to use the visuals to do work that would normally go to exposition, and while this is the weakest of Hurran’s five episodes, it’s unimaginable with any other director. Pushing the idea of “Doctor Who is a fast-paced show” to see just how far you can go in 2012 is a worthwhile endeavor. And the knowledge that the show eventually stepped back from that extremism and took the lessons learned under advisement while it went on to do other things helps make these episodes go down a little smoother. Moffat is exploring contemporary television and narrative conventions as technology, doing for his own narrative magic tricks the same thing that Terror of the Autons did for CSO, Kinda did for video effects, and The End of the World did for the sense of scale that BBC Wales was offering, which is to say, exploring the consequences of them.
And ironically, if Asylum of the Daleks can be said to work, it works because of the decision to push this already massive pile of ideas one step further and to preview Clara. This was a complex decision that’s not easy to read. If you were the sort of person who followed Doctor Who news enough to recognize Jenna Coleman when she appeared, her appearance overshadowed the entire story and became the focus of it. If you were not, she was a reasonably effective guest character, and the focus of the episode was presumably elsewhere, although I honestly can’t guess where. Probably Amy and Rory, which must have been a bit unsatisfying. Or, perhaps, just on big Dalek explosions and spectacle. Not since, well, Dalek has there been a story that’s clearly working for two audiences here, but where Dalek was an immaculately lean, focused thing, Asylum of the Daleks is unabashedly serving two masters in the sloppiest way imaginable.
But this has never been a project entirely concerned with speculating as to the reactions of inattentive viewers. So let’s instead focus on what this episode does in terms of Clara, not that we knew who Clara was yet. First of all, we should note that this was a late decision. The original plan was to introduce Clara in The Snowmen, and she was added to Asylum of the Daleks late in the game. This is slightly flabbergasting – it’s impossible to imagine the story without her. To remove her character and put some random supporting character would render that plot as undeveloped as all the others. The decision to tease Clara a few months early is so self-evidently correct that it’s almost impossible to imagine doing it any other way. And yet we know that they did.
Some of this seems to be a reaction to realizing what they had with Jenna Coleman. Watching her in this, after seeing twenty more episodes with her, it’s surprising how much of her performance as Oswin is subtly different. There’s always been a touch of the manic pixie dream girl trope to Clara – a concept we’ll have to unpack at some point, but let’s save it for the moment. Here that’s pushed higher into the mix. Oswin is impossibly competent, written to the point where if she ever actually came into contact with the Doctor the accusation of being a Mary Sue – in the classic “A Trekkie’s Tale” sense – would actually ring true. Coleman is launching a fantastic charm offensive, and she’s incredibly charming, but what’s surprising in hindsight is how little else she opts to bring to this particular performance. It’s deceptive in its simplicity. Because so much of the mystery over Clara was who she was, it’s not until she’s completed her time playing multiple characters on the show that the audience knows to go looking for the nuances of her performances. Here we get a very surface-level iteration Clara, all banter and cleverness. And by making that choice, Coleman does a sleight of hand that cleverly obscures the range with which she can actually imbue the part, and eventually will.
Well. Sort of. There’s one exception, but let’s look at a consequence of this first. A key aspect of Clara’s initial arc is the misdirection. We know in hindsight that this will eventually resolve with the revelation that she was an eminently possible girl all along, and that she simply did an extraordinary thing one day because there was nobody else to do it. The entire “Impossible Girl” arc is a narrative substitution in which the audience is fooled into treating Clara as a mystery, much as the Doctor does, so that both can be scolded for erasing her as a person. By introducing the character in such a flat and straightforward way, Coleman gives the impression that she’s simply Generic Companion, which allows much of her later subtlety to go unnoticed until the story is ready to pay it off, resulting in the soft reboot of the character that eventually comes when Peter Capaldi shows up – a reboot that amounts to the narrative actually telling us to pay attention to Coleman’s range instead of actively trying to distract us from it. But this misdirection is only heightened by the lack of context for her first appearance. What’s key is not merely that the next companion shows up early, it’s that she turns out to be a Dalek and then dies.
Which brings us to the one piece of real range here, which is everything after the reveal that Oswin is a Dalek. The flashback to her conversion, especially with the hindsight provided by seeing further episodes, is one of the most staggeringly upsetting things ever seen in Doctor Who. It may not be a “real” companion death, but it’s visceral and cruel in a way that not even the capricious murder of Katarina (subbing in for Vicki) really reaches. Certainly Earthshock has nothing on this in terms of shock. Hurran hits this out of the park, letting the lighting in Oswin’s cabin turn dark and ominous, and really selling the awful realization striking Oswin and the Doctor.
But… it’s just a fridging. It’s exactly the thing Moffat so impressively avoids most of the time – the thing he subverts with Lorna’s death in A Good Man Goes to War. All Oswin is there to do is be revealed as this horrible violation of the companion. The skill with which its displayed only makes it more sickening. It salvages the episode from the mess that Moffat’s ambition paints it into, but at the cost of making this an incredibly ugly, cynical piece of work. It has all the cleverness of Moffat’s best scripts, but absolutely none of the moral integrity that crackles out of The Beast Below, A Good Man Goes to War, or His Last Vow. Inasmuch as Moffat is the spiritual successor to Robert Holmes, this is the story where he comes to embody Holmes’s worst tendencies of not thinking enough about the moral dimension of his stories or about how his innate cynicism can be usefully directed, and of ending up turning it inwards to score an own goal. This is a story in which all of the female characters are tortured and violated, all for no reason other than generating tension. It’s an ugly, ugly thing.
Moffat is capable of better. There is much to admire here, but very little to like. Many of the reasons he is so good are also reasons why this story exists. And the basic creative bravery and integrity involved in pushing aspects of your approach further than they’d ever been pushed before just as you’re reaching a popular peak is difficult to praise enough. It would have been very easy for Moffat to play it safe at this point and simply continue giving people what had worked before. Instead he tried to move forward. And so while this is in most regards the sort of episode I’m prone to selling down the river in order to justify an argument about the necessity of change, it doesn’t even feel like a criticism to say that it demonstrates this. This is an episode that’s desperate to find ways to change and grow. And Moffat is already responding to his own calls for creative evolution.
But that doesn’t change the fact that this is an episode in which his worst instincts overwhelm his best ones, and one that provides far more ammunition for his detractors than his defenders.