Mything the Point
What’s the difference between RTD and Moffat?
RTD, for all that he’s an atheist, has a fundamentally religious view. I mean that, while he may not have any belief in an actual god, his basic outlook on life (at least as it finds expression in his writing) is religious in tone and is informed by religious mythology. RTD can’t think about concepts like ‘the end of the world’, or ’saving the world’, or ‘regenerating’, or any of this stuff (all very much the bread and butter of pulp fantasy fiction, which is all Who is really) without connecting it, maybe subconsciously, to religious concepts and stories. (Well, he can, but for the purposes of this theory, I’m going to pretend that he can’t. So there.)
‘Bad Wolf’/’Parting of the Ways’, ‘Gridlock’, ‘Voyage of the Damned’, ‘Sound of Drums’/’Last of the Time Lords’ and the other season finales… they’re all soaked in religious language and imagery, in Christian symbolism. And the theme of fiery judgement is never far away, nor is the idea of someone sacrificing themselves to redeem the world. Isn’t ‘The Ark in Space‘ supposedly his favourite classic story? No wonder.
I might also mention the fact that his most Whoish work prior to Who (much more Whoish than either of those kids’ fantasy serials he wrote) was about the second coming of Christ. This isn’t unusual. Douglas Adams was another atheist sci-fi writer obsessed with religion. H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapleton, Arthur C. Clarke… in fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a half-decent sci-fi author who doesn’t spend a large amount of his time thinking and writing about religion in one form or another.
Moffat, on the other hand, has no such underlying religious conception. He plays with these concepts on a technical level. He’s much more interested in playing around with plot for its own sake, twisting it around like origami. But there are some problems with this.
Firstly, he doesn’t tune into the mythological/religious basis of science-fiction (which is a reiteration of mythology in the secular age of technology). Secondly, he seems to lack any real interest in evil… which is problematic because Doctor Who, like religion (and, incidentally, like Shakespeare), is absolutely obsessed with evil (and not always in a simplistic way). You might be tempted to bring up Jekyll now… but I’ll remind you that, in Moffat’s conception, even Mr Hyde turns out to be an expression of the fierceness and danger inherent in love.
Consequently, his stories tend to be about malfunctions. They’re about things going wrong, usually technology. Nanogenes, automatic repair systems on spaceships, etc… but also chronology (any supposedly linear, predictable system, really)… and, when dealing with chronology, he can use that as a way of playing around with plot for its own sake.
The problem with playing around with plot for its own sake is that you tend to tie yourself into narrative knots that are very hard to cut through while retaining dramatic values. For all Moffat’s supposed mastery of the time-travel jigsaw plot, the greatest instance of this kind of thing yet found in 2005+ Who is RTD’s deceptively simple trick with the tie in ‘Smith and Jones’. Not because it’s more complicated and twisty than any Moffat bit of “timey wimey” stuff (it clearly isn’t), but because it serves a purpose for both plot and characterization. The real cleverness of it lies in the punning. The Doctor ties the story into a neat little bow with his tie. He goes back to create the confusion that alerted him and Martha to each other in the hospital, simultaneously giving her proof of time travel before she’s even stepped into the TARDIS.
In ‘The Big Bang’, Moffat pulls off something similar when he reveals that the peculiar sequence from ‘Flesh and Stone’ actually fits into another story. The scene has genuine dramatic power, despite being a bit of narrative trickery concealed within a time travel macguffin… though the travelling-back-through-Amy’s-timeline thing is cheating really, a bit of baseless gobbledegook, evidently just made up on the fly and inserted into the story to make it possible for the Doctor to save himself via Amy’s memories.
Most of the time, however, ‘The Big Bang’ relentlessly undercuts itself with its constant mucking about with chronology. Moffat obviously intends us to be going “oooh, that’s clever!” every few minutes. The most egregious example of this is the stuff about Amelia’s drink. It serves no purpose but showing off. It is, essentially, exactly the same thing as the ‘tie trick’ in ‘Smith and Jones’ but stripped of any plot or character significance. However, it’s also probably the least damaging instance, precisely because it has no import for the plot. When, by contrast, you have vital plot points that turn out to be nothing but trickery (i.e. the future Doctor appearing and, apparently, dying), you are looking at a story that isn’t really a story but is just pretending to be. There is absolutely no reason for that sequence to be in there. There’s no reason why the Doctor couldn’t just come up with his plan and clamber into the Pandorica without first getting shot, going back in time by 12 minutes, whispering to himself and appearing to die. It’s not only gratuitous and artificially complex, it also creates a feeling of the drama being undercut. (In fact, if there’s one single factor that repeatedly neuters the dramatic values throughout the entire 2005+ show, it’s the refusal of the dead to stay dead.)
Anyway, the point is that you can do a story in which time (i.e. plot) ties itself into knots and make it interesting as long as the knots are not the whole basis of the story, as long as the story is about something more than that, i.e. ‘Day of the Daleks’, ‘Smith and Jones’, even ‘Blink’ saves itself from being about nothing but sitcom characters caught in plot knots by thinking a bit about what the passage of time really means for people, how it changes them, etc. But when you have a story that, really, is about nothing but plot taken apart and then reconstituted like one of those puzzles with several equally valid solutions…
The other thing that Moffat lacks is, as I said, any real interest in evil or malice. He occasionally tries (i.e. Prisoner Zero is rather nasty) but, really, his baddies are usually malfunctioning, runaway systems or predators. He even writes the Cyberman in ‘The Pandorica Opens’ as an empty, unoccupied machine still running on its old programming (i.e. as a malfunctioning, runaway system) and casts his rogues gallery of Who monsters as uniting to save the Universe!
The ultimate expression of both of these tendencies (plot knots and no evil) came in ‘The Big Bang’, in which the big enemy, the Doctor’s opponent, was *drum roll please* just a malfunctioning, runaway plot!
RTD’s season finales usually left me underwhelmed… but I can’t help thinking that they were all fundamentally more interesting than Moffat’s first effort at an end-of-season blowout, precisely because they all locked into the legendary, mythic aspect of sci-fi and concerned themselves with the Doctor struggling against galaxy-powered malice. It’s hard not to look at ‘The Big Bang’ and see nothing but a well-crafted exercise in manipulating plot, in pushing plot to the limit of its tolerances within the Who milieu. Admittedly, there are some intimations of a theme concerning the relationships between fairytales, childhood imagination, stories, history and… and something or other. But it’s all rather garbled and facile. You’d be much better off just rewatching ‘The Mind Robber’.
Religious stories rarely make much sense, but they often resonate powerfully. Moffat’s style is more like a labyrinthine whodunit, in which the murder turns out to have just been an accident with a misifiring gun all along.
You’d think that, as an atheist, I’d be unhappy with RTD’s religion-soaked stories… but at least they had some political content. You see, one reason why religious stories are so resonant is because they often have strong political themes. The better (earlier) Gospels, for all their frequent deformities and obscenities, are revolutionary tracts that offer a (for the time) radical political message. They were, after all, popular political expressions of a people subjugated by empire. Of course, the concentrated forces that have appropriated, reinterpreted and controlled these stories for centuries have done a good job of stripping them of this context and content. Whether the people running things are scammers or no, successful religions tend to find their first recruits amongst the poor and downtrodden. Religion, as Marx pointed out, is an expression of and protest against very real suffering and alienation. That’s what ‘Gridlock‘ is about.
As well as being a reiteration of mythology, sci-fi is (and always has been) drenched in politics (how could it not, religion being a political ideology?) Look at the foundational texts of science-fiction. Frankenstein is about a scientist who plays God (he creates another man in his own image, endows him with free will and then banishes him to wander alone in a cruel and incomprehensible world) but it is also about the Age of Enlightenment, about the radical new ideas sweeping Western society, about the revolution going on in how society relates to the individual, about the role of education in forming personality, about the ideas of Rousseau, etc. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine is a satire of the class system, with the workers oppressed for so long that they evolve into troglodytes and the idle rich devolving into helpless children, but is also highly redolent of the Garden of Eden and the serpent. The War of the Worlds is both a critique of British imperialism (casting us as the natives being conquered) and a reiteration of the Christian apocalypse.
None of this need surprise us. For centuries, Christianity was the dominant social ideology in Western culture, and was part of the underlying mental grammar of just about everyone in the West. The people who rebelled against the establishment at any time almost always cast their objections in terms of religion. The fiery radical priest John Ball couched his demand for universal equality in terms of the common ancestry of all men from Adam and Eve. The Levellers and the Diggers likewise. The abolitionist movement in both Britain and America did much the same. Protestantism itself began partly as a result of disgust at the corruption and decadence of the Catholic Church, comparing it unfavourably to Christ the pauper. In our own age, it’s all too easy to think of dark alliances between political rage and religious ideology… but, lest we get too Sam Harris about this, it’s also possible to find alliances between progressive politics and sectors of religion. It’s the sigh of the oppressed creature, and sighs can be the expression of murderous rage… or progressive outrage.
Anyway. This inherent political dimension to religious storytelling could be precisely why science-fiction (as myth reiteration) is also so concerned with politics. I dunno. Ask a proper scholar and see what she thinks. (Sorry, how silly of me… any scholar of science-fiction will obviously be male.)
RTD’s mental connection to this religio-mythic element in sci-fi is probably what causes his stories to be so political. For example: The Master in ‘Sound of Drums’ / ‘Last of the Time Lords’ is not just the Anti-Christ, bringing the tribulation and controlling mankind through their own original sins, he is also a Blairesque opportunist who flashes his fake smile at the TV while using the state apparatus to arrest innocent people and scheme for war.
Which I dug.
One last remark. There is another Who story involving a bit of timey-wimeyness and a drink. It’s called ‘Warriors’ Gate’. The Doctor walks into the cobwebby, ruined Tharil dining hall and sets right a goblet that was left on its side centuries ago. Later in the story he is taken back to the moment that the Tharils began to lose control of their empire, when they were attacked at the height of their power by the revolution they thought they could dodge forever. Disgusted by their treatment of their slaves, the Doctor pours wine into the very same goblet (but centuries before he first saw and righted it) until … well, until the Tharil’s cup runneth over… and then knocks it over in a gesture of splendid, ironic contempt for their decadence; decadence built on the suffering, servitude, abuse and unrequited labour of those the Tharils call “only people”. It is an amazing moment. It unites plot, theme, myth and politics. It brings home to you the tangled and circular nature of time at the gateway. It connects the past, present and future… but it does this not only in terms of the temporal shenanigans that form the conceptual heart of the story, but also in terms of the story’s political message about the temporary and fragile and brittle nature of all power built on the cruel usage of others.
Both RTD and Moffat have done excellent work but… well, they don’t write stories like that any more.