Red Bicycle When You Were Twelve (Last Christmas)
|I have a cat with chronic upper respiratory issues, and about once a day she just starts sneezing really hard and snots all over her face.|
It’s December 25th, 2014. X-Factor winner Ben Haenow is at number one with “Something I Need,” with Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars, Take That, One Direction, Taylor Swift, and Ed Sheeran also charting, the latter with “Thinking Out Loud,” which has been clanking about the charts since before Deep Breath, cracking the top ten in the same week as Flatline, and not leaving it since. In news since the Brigadier returned from the dead as a Cyberman, the US resumed normal relations between the US and Cuba, while riots broke out in Ferguson after Darren Brown was not indicted. In the country we actually care about, meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon becameFirst Minister of Scotland, while her predecessor Alex Salmond announced that he’ll stand for parliament, and the Church of England allowed women to be appointed as bishops and Libby Lane became the first person to do so.
While on television, nothing; an entire episode that writes itself off as a dream. So Moffat is continuing in the vein of cheeky arrogance, doing an episode that flagrantly commits one of the stereotypical “bad writing” twists. That this is the second time in his tenure an episode has resolved this way softens the brashness slightly, but Amy’s Choice tried to deflect from the glibness of its resolution with the simultaneous reveal of the Dream Lord’s true identity and by positioning itself as a serious-minded character piece, at least within the context of Doctor Who. Last Christmas, on the other hand, revels in its final twist, pulling an accelerating series of “it was all a dream!” reveals building up to the final episode-encompassing one so that there’s no way for the focus to go anywhere other than the ostentatious use of a cliche.
It’s dubious, however, whether any other approach could have possibly worked. We are steadily approaching the inevitable peak of Moffat’s ambition. With Last Christmas following so closely on Series Eight and being so distant from Series Nine, it functions much more as a second season finale than as a stand-alone or prelude. And with Moffat deciding to retain the same TARDIS team his only option was to keep the momentum and barrel into Christmas with the same energy that had suffused the back half of the season. Indeed, even Death in Heaven presented Last Christmas as its continuation, cutting into the credits to metatextually critique the episode as a resolution and promise a further installment of the Doctor and Clara’s story.
And so we get Inception meets Alien, only with Santa Claus. Like a Mummy on the Orient Express or the moon being an egg, this is an exquisitely well-balanced concept. It is oversignified to a precise degree that only Doctor Who can get away with—not quite so over the top as to be unmanageable, but sufficiently so that it feels appealingly audacious. Inception and Alien go together well enough, though they’re a dubious choice for Christmas. Adding Nick Frost Santa Claus to the mix not only fixes that, it’s pleasantly bonkers in its own right. It’s a stunt, to be sure, cut from the same cloth as Catherine Tate and Kylie Minogue. And, of course, Moffat is as usual raiding his own back catalogue—the “don’t think about the dream crabs” dynamic is a cut price “the image of an Angel becomes an Angel,” to say nothing of the gag I named the entry after. (And the bits that are new are things he’ll use again later: the Helman-Ziegler test is just the “pick a random number” bit from Extremis in reverse, and “you’re a dream who’s trying to save us” is similarly recycled for that episode’s climax.) But as with anything Moffat is doing at this point, there’s a manic intensity—a sense that nothing’s being left on the table.
The real pleasure, however, is in the details. Nick Frost’s Santa Claus is efficient but delightful, blending the genuine warmth the part needs for Moffat’s claim that this is the real, actual Santa Claus to fly with a sense of comedic exasperation and a capacity for impish naughtiness. And the supporting cast is outright exquisite, with Faye Marsay stealing scenes with such casual ease that it almost makes you regret that Jenna Coleman sticks around and we don’t get her as a companion, which was apparently a possibility if Coleman had left. Paul Wilmhurst, meanwhile, is on the same level he’d established with Kill the Moon and Mummy on the Orient Express, absolutely nailing the pivots in tone between horror movie and Santa. (The scene where everyone is rescued by an army of toys is a particular masterpiece of giddy “WTF is even happening.”) Ultimately it’s these things, along with a couple of other details like a strong monster design that ensure that the episode can get away with things like it’s ending.
And so the overall result is somewhat a matter of perspective. Taken on its own merits it’s a nicely above baseline episode of Doctor Who, and miles above most Christmas specials. Within the context of the grandiose run of episodes Moffat is on, however, it is merely functional. For the most part this says more about Moffat from late 2013 through 2015 than it does about Last Christmas. But the fact remains that Moffat is flying dangerously close to the sun here. The premise is, as I said, ingenious, but it’s clearly asking “will this do” even as it sails effortlessly over that bar. It’s not a close call, but it is a moment where you’re suddenly aware that he’s only making it look easy, and that there’s an awful lot of plates spinning right now. This can’t last forever; the only question is whether it ends gracefully or it all comes crashing down.
This is, of course, also the case for Clara and the Doctor. With the character functionally having been around since 2012 and in practice having been around for basically the last two seasons, keeping Clara on board for another season was far from a given. Indeed, on balance it seemed unlikely; had Coleman and Capaldi not formed an extremely strong working relationship and the character not evolved into so many new and startling forms in the last half of the season it would surely not have happened. But they did, with Capaldi imploring her to do another year on the grounds that it would be fun. But there was never any doubt that she was heading into her last season. A four season companion is unheard of; even Sarah Jane only got three and change.
An oddity of Clara is that her departure was regularly rehearsed. She has at least four pseudo-departures prior to her real one, and more if you want to count either Time of the Doctor or Deep Breath. But this episode becomes the zenith of that, simultaneously addressing the previous faux-departure and finding time to indulge in one of its own with the inverted Time of the Doctor scenario prior to the final wake-up scene. The episode makes whether Clara is going into a source of active suspense, supported on the paratextual level, since this went out before Series Nine filming started meaning the secret could be and was effectively kept.
This means, however, that Last Christmas is very much about Clara’s departure. As we’ve already noted, its explicit subject is “what would make a good ending for Clara Oswald’s story?” What, then, is the reason behind the rejection of the two on offer here? Why are the mutual lie of Death in Heaven and the aged Clara of the penultimate scene inadequate endings? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is closely related to why the desire for a third season of Clara became irresistible. The nature of her excellence as a companion demands that she have agency in her departure. To have her age out of the role because the Doctor failed to come back in time or to have them part on a mutual deception/misunderstanding denies her any real control or choice in the matter; she ends up departing because, essentially, of bad luck.
But if Last Christmas highlights how Clara can’t leave, it doesn’t go very far towards showing how she can. This is fine; she’s got twelve more episodes, after all. The whole point of this is that she’s not going anywhere. But the question still tacitly stands; when you’ve ruled out this many departures, you’ve really upped the stakes for the actual one. Obviously writing this in 2018 gives certain advantages; we all know the answer to how she’s going to leave. But you didn’t have to know what’s coming to have a sense that there’s going to be an element of tragedy to it, and not just because that seems to be the only way anybody is allowed to leave the TARDIS anymore. There is a sense of active unwisdom to her decision to stay—the Doctor’s plea that she come with him emphasizes the recklessness of it, and she’s already admitted to it being an addiction. She’s essentially suicidal with grief following Danny’s death, and that doesn’t get dealt with here beyond her running off in the TARDIS. This is unhealthy and self-destructive behavior above and beyond what running off in a TARDIS usually entails.
What this provides is more or less unique in the series: a veteran, settled TARDIS team with the opportunity to really explore new depths that the show could never push to without an extended buildup with which to get the characters to that point. And, for that matter, without an actress of Jenna Coleman’s caliber for whom the work of establishing a character and then pushing them to conceptual extremes would be worthwhile. Without naming names, this has not been the case for every new series companion, and never for one who saw a third season. (OK, I suppose I just named a name.) Classic series companions are harder to think about in these terms as the characters were never really built for growth; Katy Manning and Sophie Aldred come the closest to getting something like this. The benefits are obvious and make it worth doing, but the word “worth” is doing a lot of work in that assessment. In a show that thrives on constant change, this is a decision that clearly has a price. That’s mostly a thread to pull next episode, but as this is the episode where the decision is actually made it’s worth pointing out the exchange.
But this gets us back to the tension implicit in the unexpected rekindling of the fire in Moffat’s belly. Like Clara, what he’s doing here is reckless and unsustainable. Ending well seems unlikely. And yet it seems clearly and undoubtedly worth it. When else have we seen anything like this on Doctor Who? A writer whose capacity for brilliance is already beyond doubt going on an extended bend of pushing himself, honing and evolving a late style? Even someone like Russell T Davies, who’s written a staggering quantity of Doctor Who in his own right (Moffat only passed him this season, at least in terms of officially credited scripts), only did it over the course of four years. But Moffat is eight seasons into an unprecedented run of contributions to ten consecutive seasons over thirteen years; 2009 is literally the only year since Doctor Who came back that Moffat hasn’t had an episode. The gap between The Empty Child and Twice Upon a Time is twelve years and seven months, longer than the gap from The Daleks to The Android Invasion. And unlike Terry Nation, Moffat is not a feckless hack whose style steadily regressed over his Doctor Who career.
In terms of both volume and longevity, there’s only one Doctor Who writer to whom Moffat can even be compared: Robert Holmes. (As of Last Christmas, Holmes is the only writer with more screen minutes of Doctor Who written than Steven Moffat, a record that will finally be broken somewhere in the midst of The Zygon Inversion.) Wry turns of phrase about Gatiss aside, Holmes is really the only other Doctor Who writer who has a genuine late style. And he saw out his last days on the program toiling under an alcoholic who should have been sacked ages ago writing absurdly ill-advised briefs for Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant. Moffat has Peter Capaldi, Jenna Coleman, and is in charge of the ship. There’s never been anything like this before. There probably never will be again. The question isn’t how it’ll end; it’s how far it can go.
June 18, 2018 @ 9:25 am
The idea of Moffat going too far is very appealing, especially if we subscribe to the ‘Moffat casting himself’ school of thought about Peter Capaldi, whose Doctor is often accused of going too far.
Hell Bent in particular sees the supporting cast repeatedly say the Doctor is going too far, but the Doctor still ploughs on regardless, and it culminates with the Doctor saying ‘look how far I went… I became the hybrid.’
Basically what I’m saying is… what if Moffat was the Hybrid all along?
June 19, 2018 @ 8:35 pm
Moffat as the hybrid – I like it!
June 18, 2018 @ 9:51 am
If Last Christmas is about Clara’s departure, by pointing at something which isn’t a good story end then saying it’s not that, (I can barely remember anything about the story myself, so I can’t tell for myself whether that’s right,) then this is where Moffatian narrative utterly loses me.
Surely you tell stories by having a chain of events which builds to some conclusion. What’s the point of including things which aren’t part of that? If something would make an unsatisfying conclusion, shouldn’t it be discarded at the planning stage? What purpose does putting it on-screen serve? What’s wrong with just deciding what the right conclusion is, and then just doing it? (And all the events which lead to it.) Tell good stories, and just don’t even begin to tell bad ones.
The spare time could be used to tell stories about the new and interesting places and times where the TARDIS lands. You know, the thing that the basic format of the show is designed for. The reason we have a TARDIS in the first place.
June 18, 2018 @ 10:48 am
It’s not about telling bad stories. It’s about commenting on other stories and how they can be improved. Or, at the very least, it’s about showing people that there are more interesting stories to tell than the ones we’re used to. It’s what fiction has always been doing (amongst other things): exploring certain storytelling dead ends and trying to push past them.
Take Hell Bent: it comments on how the Doctor was wrong to erase Donna’s memory in Journey’s End. It’s about consent and the Doctor learning to respect other people’s decisions. The same points gets made once more in The Pilot. Sure, Moffat could have decided that erasing someone’s memory without their consent is wrong and just commit to never inculding it in his stories. But he decided that the story about the Doctor learning what he did wrong was more interesting than the alternative.
In regards to Clara, showing and then discarding some of the possible endings to her story serves to highlight how accustomed we have become to tragic companion departures. We’ve come to expect them to get punished somehow, to die or become lost or lose their memory. Reminding us of those tragic endings by showing us Clara sacrificing herself in The Name of the Doctor or dying of old age because the Doctor arrived too late makes the refutation of such tragic stories much more powerful than just showing Clara getting a happy ending. Because it shows us precisely how those endings strip the characters of their agency.
In short, those “false departures” are not unsatisfying conclusions or narrative mistakes that should’ve just been cut. They’re a chain of narrative events building up to a satisfying conclusion. They tell a story. Here’s how DW companions used to leave the TARDIS. Here’s why those tragic departures were wrong. Here’s a better way to do it.
June 18, 2018 @ 12:37 pm
The trouble with that is that if there was an expectation that companion departures will be tragic, that’s the responsibility of two people, and Moffat is one of them. It was by no means the norm in the classic series, where companions mostly just disembarked somewhere with little fuss. Not only had Moffat never given a companion a painless send-off before, he actually provided a perfectly decent non-tragic ending for Amy and Rory, indeed one explicitly explained as an effort to avoid a tragic ending, then went back, scrubbed that out and gave them a tragic one instead. Devoting great time and effort to deconstructing widespread and longstanding narrative trends in the tradition you’re working in is one thing, but when the trend in question is one recently created by yourself, or yourself and your immediate predecessor, simply not doing that any more seems a much more proportionate response than spending more than a season explaining the wrongness of behaviour that almost no one but you had engaged in anyway (and doing so to an audience that had never had any say in the matter).
There are close similarities to his “people not puzzles” routine that we were talking about recently, especially when you look at that in relation to Doctor Who companions specifically. Moffat writes River as a puzzle, something pretty much no one else had done before (you could probably make a case regarding Ace, but that seems about the limit of it), then arguably does something simliar with Amy, then spends best part of a season explaining to us how it’s wrong to think of companions as puzzles.
It’s like someone causing a power cut and moderately electrocuting themselves by trying to personally rewire the lighting at work, then calling a staff training day and lecturing all their colleagues at length on the dangers of attempting such work without the necessary expertise, when it would never have occurred to anyone else in the office to try something so silly in the first place.
June 18, 2018 @ 1:07 pm
Depends on how you look at it. Out of 3 Davies era main companions, two had tragic departures, one of which was later rewritten as a bittersweet one. And there were lots and lots of one-off companions like Astrid who died for the Doctor, as Davies himself reminded us in Series 4 finale. Out of 3 Moffat era main companions, one had a non-tragic departure rewritten as a tragic one (although the fact that Amy got to spend her life with Rory arguably makes it a bittersweet one) and two had tragic departures rewritten as happy endings. One can read this era as Moffat realizing that he made a mistake with Amy and Rory and trying to correct himself.
As for “people not puzzles”, I’d say River was both a puzzle and a character with lots of agency whom the Doctor respected. (And she knew she was a puzzle – she intentionally presented herself as one). With Clara, the Doctor treated her as a puzzle without telling her about it and repeteadly lied to her to cover that up. I don’t think those two cases are the same.
Although you’re right that Moffat seems mostly interested in commenting on his own Doctor Who.
June 19, 2018 @ 4:01 am
Might be a little weird, but think about Moffat for a moment typing at a computer or something, trying to come up with an ending for his character. It’s like he has an idea, like Amy and Rory should leave, but then he can’t bear that idea later on, or he still writes them back in, and then he knows he has to eventually write them back out again.
And then with Clara, so many tragic endings, and then he can’t bear to leave it like that, so he comes up with a solution for her and the Doctor manages to save her. Similar thing with Bill, although he set that up a bit with The Pilot at the beginning. I sometimes watch YouTube comment videos, and one of them suggested that Moffat has a fear of death, or finality, or how can he bring back characters and actors that he likes. Even after a character’s died, they’re brought back or they make an appearance as a ghost or flashbacks. Moriarty!
The commenter, I think it was one of those FiveWhoFans videos (I’ve seen one or two others, but avoided others that were…not to my taste) suggested that, in comparison to the old series where companions did leave and there seemed to be more risk to them and others, there was a possibility that it reduces stakes a little bit. I don’t know, just something I was musing about for a moment.
June 19, 2018 @ 4:10 am
I’ve also been watching James Cameron’s History of Science Fiction on AMC, and the last episode was the Time Travel one, and they had been interviewing Peter Capaldi throughout the series-I was happy when he first popped up-and they did a whole segment on Doctor Who at the end of the time travel episode, of course. AMC also owns BBC America now, so a bit of synergy, but anyway, Peter Capaldi makes a comment that the wonderful thing about Doctor Who is that death’s incorporated into the show, that it’s the point of time travel, to avoid it, or something like that, and they ended the show with a last conversation between James Cameron and Chris Nolan about looking back in time through space with a telescope, the ultimate time machine.
June 19, 2018 @ 2:09 pm
I agree that Davies was more responsible than Moffat, it’s just that devoting so much space to making the case against it feels a bit incongruous when Moffat himself is one of only a couple of people “to blame”. It’s a matter of proportionality – this is a issue that’s very specific to Doctor Who, not one with wide implications for culture in general, and one that was a recent phenomenon even within Doctor Who. Letting your response to it hang over more than a season, such that more than a third of the tenure of one of the longest-serving companions in the history of the series was preoccupied with how she would leave it (with, as I see it, damaging repercussions on the treatment of other characters which I have expounded on in the past) seems wildly disproportionate to a problem that would have been entirely solved by just stopping doing it. I mean, the problem was not that tragic exits happened but that other sorts had recently largely ceased to happen. That sort of pattern, so newly-established and shallowly-rooted, doesn’t need to be refuted, just broken by starting to do things differently again.
(Actually, as for how he chose to break it, I don’t think his alternative is one that offers a sustainable approach for the future. In the face of the question “How can characters stop being in Doctor Who without being forcibly and traumatically removed?”, I don’t think “They can just carry on being in their own version of Doctor Who, but not on television” is an answer that can be repeated very often. Twice in a row was already looking quite tired.)
I don’t think those two cases are the same.
They aren’t – but River, and Amy, were a lot more similar to what was being critiqued through Clara than any other companion in the history of the series (again, give or take Ace). Again, Moffat could have solved that particular problem, if that is what he thought it was, by just doing things differently in future – he wasn’t fighting an established tradition, because pretty much the only examples of what he was attacking were his own work. In so far as it was not clearly a problem at all (just as you suggest), that only deepens the dubiousness of devoting so much attention to critiquing it.
Of course, in this case there were wider issues of puzzly storytelling involved beyond just the Doctor Who companion question, but the extent of his own responsibility for introducing that mode of storytelling to this series, and the less-than-enthusiastic response to it of much of the audience, still made that an odd choice of topic for lengthy lectures to that audience about its supposed deficiencies.
In both cases, if he felt the need for a personal mea culpa, a scene would seem more proportionate to the need than a season.
June 20, 2018 @ 7:59 am
You know what, I think you’re right. That is a lot of time to spend commenting on relatively uncommon plots and tropes you yourself introduced or heavily explored. Perhaps I’m wrong about Moffat’s motivations then. Maybe it’s neither the need for a personal mea culpa nor the desire to rebel against established narrative conventions. Perhaps he just couldn’t find a way of parting with Clara that felt right.
(I wonder if the “getting old” ending was originally meant to be Clara’s final fate before Jenna Coleman changed her mind about leaving. If so, that paints… an interesting picture).
“I don’t think “They can just carry on being in their own version of Doctor Who, but not on television” is an answer that can be repeated very often. Twice in a row was already looking quite tired.”
I’m not sure about that. I feel like with Bill it was mostly a matter of not earning your happy ending. Not only was it not properly set up – it also didn’t really give Bill agency in regards to her final fate. She was granted a miracle because she once helped a girl. That’s very fairytale but not terribly satisfying. Had Bill’s departure been better planned and executed, I don’t think it would’ve felt tired. Although sure, repeating that ending too often would be just as bad as constantly giving companions tragic departures.
June 30, 2018 @ 3:21 am
I’d say the departure of Amy and Rory was a tragedy only to the Doctor because he would never get to see two close friends again. I don’t see how it’s a tragedy for two characters who are very much in love to die of old age together.
Also, I believe I mentioned when the episode in question was mentioned that Moffatt’s biggest mistake vis a vis Clara was in “Journey to the Center of the TARDIS.” Instead of hitting the reset button (and then having Clara inexplicably remember what she’d forgotten in “Name of the Doctor”), she should have remembered everything she learned in JttCotT and immediately confronted the Doctor about it. He’d have apologized for treating her as a puzzle to solve and then she would have insisted on exploring the mystery of the Impossible Girl along with him. That could have flowed immediately into “Crimson Horror” with the Doctor and Clara’s investigation of “Victorian Clara” being the reason they were in that era in the first place. The rest of the season could have played out as written. (Well, except for “Nightmare in Silver,” because if we’re rewriting Series 7b that disaster should be the first to be reconsidered.)
June 18, 2018 @ 1:21 pm
OK, well firstly I don’t watch Doctor Who to see stories about how to write Doctor Who stories. And I don’t think that’s just an idiosyncrasy of mine. I’m a Doctor Who fan who regularly reads very interesting essays about it from sites like this and sometimes makes detailed comments about them. If someone like me doesn’t want to see Doctor Who stories about how to write Doctor Who stories, I suspect at least 99% of the audience doesn’t either.
Secondly, if there’s already a string of tragic departures demanding a non-tragic departure, then don’t you already have that “chain of narrative events”? Why do you need more?
And lastly, and most importantly, no, that’s just not a story. At all. That is not narrative.
Stories, narrative, is all about cause and effect. “The king died, then the queen died of a broken heart” is a story. “The king died of smallpox, and then the queen died of old age in her sleep” is not a story, even though that might be a nicer way to go.
The human (conscious) brain is ultimately an effect-prediction machine, going all the way from “if I pour that clear, colourless substance down my throat this unpleasant “thirst” sensation will disappear” all the way to “we will only overthrow the dictator if we all work together” or “absolute rejection of torture leads to better outcomes” or “if you show people kindness, they’ll be better able to practice it themselves”. It allows us to take actions which produce good effects by predicting those effects. And stories supply all kinds of ideas and data about how that might work, which (if they’re good stories) improve our ability to do so, and so do the right thing. Storytelling makes people smarter. Both emotionally and intellectually. That’s why it matters.
And a non-tragic companion departure is not in any way a consequence of a load of tragic companion departures. You only get a narrative element once you introduce a Steven Moffat character into the narrative, watching or creating all the tragic ones, and being changed by that process into a person who wants to write a non-tragic one. The character needed to make that into a story is entirely missing.
What you’ve got there is not narrative, but rhetoric. “Here are some things which are bad. Look at what’s bad about them. Here’s a thing which is better. Look at what’s good about it.”
(And it works for everyone. If that becomes how TV works, the right can do it just as well as the left can, because the fact that their opinions are generally incoherent and based on lies becomes irrelevant. It becomes about who can shout the loudest, which is where their strengths lie.)
By contrast, the Doctor learning to respect other people’s decisions is definitely a thing worth doing. But you don’t need this “comments on how the Doctor was wrong to erase Donna’s memory in Journey’s End” angle. Why does it have to be all about Doctor Who like this? What’s wrong with having the Doctor learn not to mind-rape people simply because he’s a mind-rapist, which means he’s liable to rape someone’s mind, but that’s wrong, so he’s liable to learn why it’s wrong when he tries it again?
It shouldn’t be in the story because Journey’s End is wrong. (I just assume Journey’s End is wrong about everything.) it should be in the story because mind rape is wrong. That’s a thing which normal people who aren’t Doctor Who writers should understand.
June 18, 2018 @ 6:33 pm
“The king died of smallpox, and then the queen died of old age in her sleep” is a story, it’s just a story about how someone suffered a great personal tragedy but got over it in order to live a full and successful life. We would read it and, through our effect-prediction machines, learn that the best way to live fulfilling lives would be to mourn those we’ve lost but never allow sadnesses to define us. Hell, this is a much smarter thing to learn than “My husband’s dead, there’s nothing else for me to do but die.” I would much prefer the book in which the king dies of small pox and the queen dies of old age.
In terms of whether the mind rape should be deconstructed because it’s wrong, it is deconstructed because it’s wrong. This type of thing is still a common trope in sci-fi and in the media in general. In this context, having a story where these narratives are rejected in favour of another one is fully valid. Because we’re in a Doctor Who blog which analyses each episode as part of a continuing narrative of what Doctor Who is, the most identifiable example of a recent mind rape is in Journey’s End. Moffat’s critiquing Doctor Who here because he’s critiquing something that Doctor Who has done, but he’s doing this almost incidentally as part of his wider-reaching critique of media in general.
June 19, 2018 @ 10:11 am
“The king died of smallpox, the queen got over it, and eventually died in her sleep” is certainly a story. I didn’t mean those things as synposes.
June 19, 2018 @ 7:53 am
I don’t really know what to tell you. I enjoy stories about how stories work and how they can influence us. You clearly don’t, and that’s fine. But that does not make them “not stories”.
June 19, 2018 @ 10:49 am
Well… one of my favourite pieces of television ever, I mean, lifetime top ten, is Princess Tutu, which is ultimately about a few characters in a story fighting the writer of the story and his insistence on creating a tragedy. So I don’t think the basic idea here is one I’m unsympathetic to.
The key difference here might be between fighting for your happy ending, and having it given to you. I feel there’s a point about revolutionary socialism in there somewhere.
June 18, 2018 @ 11:02 am
You might as well ask why we have stories at all, why not just arrive at the desired conclusion? And the answer is: because the shape of the process matters. And if we include some dead-ends and wrong turns, that teaches a valuable lesson, I think: that you don’t have to accept the first conclusion you arrive at, that you can always interrogate your situation and ask yourself if this is what you want. I think that’s useful.
(And I’m not even getting into the material realities of TV production and what to do when an actor announces she’s leaving but then changes her mind.)
June 18, 2018 @ 11:08 am
As one of my favourite quotes from “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality” (I know, I know, but there are some good bits there!) puts it:
“Mr. Malfoy is new to the business of having ideas, and so when he has one, he becomes proud of himself for having it. He has not yet had enough ideas to unflinchingly discard those that are beautiful in some aspects and impractical in others; he has not yet acquired confidence in his own ability to think of better ideas as he requires them. What we are seeing here is not Mr. Malfoy’s best idea, I fear, but rather his only idea.”
June 18, 2018 @ 1:27 pm
No no no, the reason you need the story is because it’s not enough to know what the desired conclusion is, you need ideas about how to reach that desired conclusion when an analogous situation arises in your own life.
June 18, 2018 @ 4:40 pm
I don’t think that’s a good explanation for how stories work. I doubt I’m ever going to find an analogous situation to being confronted by statues that only move when I’m not looking at them and might send me back in time. That’s not why I’m going to rewatch Blink.
One might say that one of the foundational motives of modern fiction (as in since the seventeenth century) is suspicion of the belief that plot cause and effect corresponds to real life cause and effect. Modern Western fiction arguably begins when Cervantes starts telling a story about a man who becomes a knight, and then instead tells a story about a man who fails hilariously at trying to be a knight.
June 19, 2018 @ 10:32 am
Any situation in which you’re faced with a menace and you need to understand the properties of that menace and work out from them how to counteract it is analogous.
But the hypothesis isn’t that, when you next sit down to watch Blink, you’re going to be thinking “better get some more training about menace analysis and countering”. It’s that this is what has guided human evolution and culture to the point where you enjoy watching it in the first place, working through a load of other mechanisms. And so if someone is going to move away from things which actually do it, then it either needs to be in a sphere like comedy where it doesn’t really matter where the reaction comes from so long as you get it, or they need to be very careful.
June 19, 2018 @ 10:21 pm
I don’t think you can derive normative aesthetic theories from theories about how the brain evolved narrative, because if you could there would be no need: everyone would like the same things. The fact that you’re trying to argue that one way of telling stories is superior to another shows that other people’s brains are compatible with other ways of telling stories.
This is especially so if you’re arguing from theories that are necessarily speculative, and have to be vague enough to fit the data that one can’t see how they could be confirmed or discomfirmed.
Stories aren’t at face value the best way to handle information about how to achieve effects through action, since that generally requires a lot of if-then-but-if-not-then reasoning, and stories only really incorporate the if-then rather than the but-if-not.
If one has to find a brain-wiring grounding for narrative, it’s probably in understanding our social interactions with our conspecifics. Since that will have a strong meta-understanding component to it (we understand them based on they are understanding other people), that means that the stories we tell ourselves to help understand other people will include reflections about the stories the other people tell themselves to help understand other people. So on the most plausible evolution of the brain theory a good story would include reflections upon what stories to tell.
But as I said, I don’t think one can ground normative judgements in how the brain and culture have evolved.
June 18, 2018 @ 5:22 pm
This is the second post on which you’ve expounded at great length about a theory of narratology that seems to me to have very little grounding in, um, much of anything actually. Like, I can see some half-digested Aristotle in there, but you’ve rendered his insights so dogmatic that even I, who loves to wheel him out to argue against “suspension of disbelief” as an idea, am forced to say “eh, that’s a bit narrow.” But mostly you just seem to have recklessly cleaved off huge swaths of narrative art to proclaim it “not stories” because you can only conceive of one possible thing that a story could do.
June 19, 2018 @ 12:48 pm
I’d call it a perspective. It isn’t really interested in things like what makes us invest in narrative, so much as when it’s a good idea to do so. It may completely fail to predict that people will find a giant spaceship suddenly appearing two thirds of the way into a kitchen sink drama unsatisfactory, but that’s not what it’s for.
(Wonders if this is because it’s a viewer’s perspective, as opposed to a writer’s perspective.)
June 19, 2018 @ 8:47 pm
“And lastly, and most importantly, no, that’s just not a story. At all. That is not narrative.”
Hi Lambda – after reading the conversation above I am left with the feeling that stories are not one thing – a this or a that – but they are many, many thing and I am sure can even fall into categories that we individually cannot conceive of. They are alive and are a part of us, we a part of them, and over time they change and grow. So yeah, I don’t feel they are easily reduced down to comments that state what they are not.
June 18, 2018 @ 11:23 am
This episode always had elements of Ubik in it for me, but that might be going a little too far. It’s good, and I really like it, but I still much prefer Extremis for going the opposite way. “Nothing but you is real” is far less scary than “You aren’t real” as far as twists go; and it’s a less common twist.
Did any other new series companion really get three seasons? The only one I can think of was more a glorified cameo.
This is a great post, and really sums up the state of Doctor Who.
June 18, 2018 @ 12:03 pm
This episode always had elements of Ubik in it for me
I was going to see Elizabeth’s “Inception meets Alien, only with Santa Claus” and raise you “A Very Ubik Christmas,” but I see I’m too late with the comparison.
June 18, 2018 @ 2:27 pm
But you say it so much better than I do, so now I feel a little guilty for taking the thunder.
June 18, 2018 @ 1:51 pm
“Did any other new series companion really get three seasons? The only one I can think of was more a glorified cameo.”
I believe the companion who “saw a third season” El was referring to was Amy, who has two full series and then the five episodes that made up 7A. She didn’t get three full series, but then El didn’t say that, and besides, neither did Clara really, nor anyone else since Sarah Jane Smith.
June 18, 2018 @ 2:43 pm
Moreover I’d argue that 7A is a full season, even though it’s not usually regarded that way.
June 18, 2018 @ 3:07 pm
Can you explain? Or have you explained that elsewhere? Because I tend to view 7A as a postscript to Season 6, and a prologue to 7B.
It does have its own identity, but that’s mainly Brian Williams. A lot of the rest feels like a highlight reel. Asylum is a Series 5 episode meeting a Series 9 one, Dinosaurs is Series 6 farce, A Town Called Mercy is Tennant-era second or third episode, whilst The Power of Three is a Sherlock episode by Chris Chibnell, and The Angels Take Manhatten is Moffat doing his RTD style. But I wouldn’t say any one of them is a stand-out of its style.
June 18, 2018 @ 3:51 pm
When series 7A and 7B aired, they were two blocks of episodes with a year between them, so personally I think of them as two separate series for that reason
June 18, 2018 @ 4:31 pm
Really just that the caesura between 7A and Snowmen / 7B is so great. A new console room, a new Doctor costume, a new companion, a new title sequence plus the mentioned big gaps between broadcasts. It’s true that the episodes of 7A are a somewhat random assortment of odds and ends, but so was original season 3 or 19 or 25. And the length shouldn’t be a factor as 7A is roughly the same duration as Torchwood S3.
June 19, 2018 @ 4:18 am
Two and a half at least, Moffat’s other long-lasting companion.
June 18, 2018 @ 3:39 pm
With the implication at the end that Santa is real, the Old Clara scene becomes a sort of test. Will either of them admit that this isn’t what they want? Will they tell the hard truth, seeing what their comforting lies have cost them? The Doctor finally does, and poof it was all a dream. Santa made it not real. The naughty boy does the right thing and is rewarded by the only god he’d ever give the time of day to- the god of the kiddies.
I keep thinking “this is my very favourite episode, except-” and then thinking of a bunch of episodes that are even better. But still, this is a damn good one
June 19, 2018 @ 7:30 am
I really like that reading.
June 18, 2018 @ 4:05 pm
Ah yes, the second time that year where Steven Moffat flagrantly nicked something from an episode of Press Gang.
June 19, 2018 @ 7:15 am
Well if you can’t steal from yourself…
June 19, 2018 @ 4:40 pm
“What, then, is the reason behind the rejection of the two on offer here? Why are the mutual lie of Death in Heaven and the aged Clara of the penultimate scene inadequate endings? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is closely related to why the desire for a third season of Clara became irresistible. The nature of her excellence as a companion demands that she have agency in her departure.”
There’s also the fact that a happy ending just isn’t going to be straightforward for Clara. The aged Clara isn’t just offered up as an inadequate ending, but specifically as an inadequate happy ending. Simply being abandoned on Earth and married off like most companions won’t be in any way emotionally fulfilling for Clara. She pretends that she’s enjoyed her life on Earth, but Santa’s return and the look on her face tell us all we need to know. That was never the life she wanted.
That’s true regardless of whether it involves agency — she’s just not right for a Martha Jones-style exit. Clara’s a reiteration of the Donna Noble problem, a character who, seemingly, can only ever leave the TARDIS through tragedy, who will be inadequate as anything other than a time traveller. The solution, now so obvious in retrospect, was to just to let her be one.
I’ve really enjoyed these essays, Elizabeth — particularly how you’ve chosen to go against the grain and focus on Clara.
June 19, 2018 @ 8:51 pm
Yes Janine, I have also been really enjoying Elizabeth’s focus on Clara the last while – a really good shift and a really refreshing one (not for this site, but more in the face of criticism the character has unfairly received!)
June 24, 2018 @ 7:21 am
So for want of a better place to put this question (which is quite unrelated to the above blog post, interesting though that may be), is there any news on Last War in Albion and when it’s coming back? I did a bit of an archive dive but can’t find anything more specific than “2018”. I apologize if I’ve missed anything.
I’m particularly curious how it will be affected by Doomsday Clock, but mostly I just want to see it continue for its own sake.
Also, I notice that both this page
and this one
are a couple entries out of date, as is the relevant tag. Just thought your websquid should know, in the unlikely event she doesn’t alread.
June 24, 2018 @ 7:25 am
(Last word should of course be “already”).
Meant to add, if the answer is Patreon-dependant, let me know what I can do to help the process along :-).
June 25, 2018 @ 1:52 pm
If I understood correctly the fake ending of the episode, the Doctor followed Clara into where she was sleeping/dreaming under the effect of the dream crab, without knowing exactly where/when that was.
When he arrives and it turns out that she had been dreaming from a point in her old age, it becomes tragic.
And I liked that.
It shows time travel as both solution and problem.
Time travel made it possible for the Doctor to go exactly where and when Clara needed help but by going there at that moment he cancelled the possibility of meeting her sooner in her timeline, so that it establishes that old age meeting as a fixed time.
It thought it was deliciously and horribly ironic and I think Clara could have left like that.
July 1, 2018 @ 10:23 am
Minor stylistic quibble – “gap” suggests there’s nothing there, and I was confused as to what the paragraph was about. Of course, these are periods with everything in. Would suggest “distance from” better than “gap between”.