Time Can Be Rewritten 34 (Continuity Errors)
Back in the dark days of the wilderness years, when I mistakenly thought I had either talent or inclination to write fiction, I had a fiction teacher who cautioned me off of being clever. Cleverness, he gravely told me, is a trap. Once you are pigeonholed as a “clever” writer it is all over for you. Steven Moffat, as it happens, is terribly clever. And this is the source of most of the attention paid to “Continuity Errors,” hailed as one of the best Doctor Who stories of the Virgin era, focuses on how clever it is.
This is not wrong. The story is utterly clever. The Doctor meddling extensively with history in order to check out a library book is one of the greatest premises ever. Telling it from the librarian’s perspective so that the shifts in her history happen between the lines is a beautiful little trick. And the cuts away to a lecture about the dangers of the Doctor that casually renders many of the ridiculous premises of the series diegetic add a splendid bit of menace to proceedings, making the familiar trappings of Doctor Who just a bit uncanny.
This, of course, is also the problem. This sort of cleverness comes perilously close to breaking the structure of the series. Yes, it’s terribly fun to have a Doctor who does things like handle a stray attack of evil plants just to make a librarian less angry so that he can stop an alien war. But the entire story hinges on the fact that this sort of thing only works if your perspective isn’t lined up with that of the Doctor’s. The entire point is that the Doctor is having a comically elaborate adventure for seemingly small stakes. This is good for a short story from the perspective of the people affected, but you really can’t build it into an ongoing series where the Doctor is the main character.
In Moffat’s defense, of course, he doesn’t try to. He writes a twenty-six-page short story and then buggers off out of Doctor Who for the next three years, then for another six after that. The fact that he eventually ended up in charge of the entire series does not mean that it’s sensible or valid to interpret his first story as some sort of blueprint for the future. Not even when several of the ideas get used then. Yes, there’s the objection raised by Lawrence Miles to the Graham Williams era whereby granting the Doctor seemingly unbounded power and suggesting that maybe he and Romana can fly “breaks the narrative” or whatever, but that remains as silly in 1996 as it was in 1978. As ever, the issue is that the rules are different in different contexts. It’s much like the old rule of thumb in Marvel Comics that Doctor Doom is a villain that takes the entire Fantastic Four to defeat, except when he’s in a Spider-Man comic, in which case Spider-Man can do it. Or in an Avengers comic, where it takes the entire Avengers. In a willfully silly short story the Doctor goes to these sorts of elaborate lengths to get a library book. But in a more normal adventure he doesn’t.
(Later, of course, Moffat builds this out to more exquisite lengths via his conception of what the Doctor gets up to between adventures, explained in particular detail in the “Night and the Doctor” suite attached to the Season 6 box set. But the basic concept there is clear – the interstitial moments in which the Doctor fits ludicrous chains of non-adventures and preposterous things function precisely because they are untelevised and thus do not impact the long-term storytelling in the same way.)
So yes, the idea that time and history can be so cavalierly rewritten as “Continuty Errors” implies is a mess. There’s a direct line from this to the absurdist reductions of The Curse of Fatal Death, which largely amounts to taking the ideas of this story to their logical conclusions. But there’s a natural defense here based on the fact that a short story collection from Virgin and a Comic Relief special are by their nature marginal texts in which this sort of larking about can be accomplished safely.
But that risks discarding “Continuity Errors” as a piece of mere cleverness – interesting because it has some good jokes, but ultimately something that has to be ignored. And while treating it as the secret decoder ring for the entirety of the Moffat era is overplaying one’s hand ridiculously, treating it as utterly disposable fluff is missing the point as well. Especially because this is Moffat’s first piece of published Doctor Who writing, and the longstanding nature of his fandom is exceedingly well documented. So when given the brief to do a short story with any Doctor, the fact that this is the first thing he went for has to be treated with some seriousness.
Actually, perhaps the first thing we should discuss is that we’re doing this story now. I mean, it’s a solo Benny/Doctor story, so this is the last place we can put it, since we’re doing Original Sin on Friday. But we were going to do Moffat’s first piece of Doctor Who wherever it landed. Why is it landing in the Virgin era itself? It’s certainly not that he was a fan of the Virgin era broadly – the infamous four-way interview establishes that he did not read them regularly, though he had read a few. And yet he did not set it in his beloved Davison era, which is, from most portrayals of Moffat, what you’d expect. Of course, his love of the Davison era is based almost entirely on his love of Davison as an actor, and he wouldn’t have that in prose. One could chalk this up to why he never wrote for Big Finish – they didn’t have McGann on board when they asked Moffat, and Moffat only wanted to write unbound by future continuity. But this came out in 1996, and it’s not unbound by future continuity. Benny stopped being the sole companion in mid-1995. Hence this being a Time Can Be Rewritten entry.
So why did Moffat chose this era? Well, actually, it’s not quite fair to say he chose this era. He chose Paul Cornell. The influence of Cornell on Moffat, broadly speaking, is pretty obvious. Moffat has lifted Cornell’s stuff thoroughly, most obviously in Girl in the Fireplace. Moffat was the best man at Cornell’s wedding. They get along. And “Continuity Errors” is not so much set in the Virgin era as it is in Paul Cornell’s vision of Doctor Who. “Continuity Errors” specifically references Cornell, or, rather, Orcnell, who wrote a book called Four Seasons and a Wedding, which doubles as a concise summary of Cornell’s five New Adventures. The use of Benny as a companion is thus best read in terms of the fact that Benny is Cornell’s creation, and Moffat’s characterization of her draws much more heavily from Cornell than from other writers.
This puts Moffat’s story more firmly in context. The focus on a tiny and seemingly insignificant thing – a single library book and the Doctor’s need to read a copy – is very Cornell, with its implicit valuation of the mundane and the small in the face of the epic. It’s as notable that what the Doctor does is save a marriage, rescue a child, and give a few lectures as it is that he’s wildly rewriting history. It’s easy to miss the fact that “Continuity Errors” is also a story about the Doctor saving a species from genocide by fussing about library rules. The Robert Holmesian equation of the mundane and the cosmic is alive and well here. And while in this case he takes a somewhat larking, silly perspective on that, that’s probably the right angle for a book of short stories.
But what really stands out as one of the defining traits of Moffat’s writing – something that is true for really just about everything he’s done, which is that he’s terribly adept at complex structures. This starts to feed back into the basic pigeon-holing of Moffat as a “clever” writer, but as with most of Moffat’s overt cleverness looks not only can be deceiving, they outright are, and “Continuty Errors” is a prime example of this. Structurally it’s quite complex, cutting back and forth between the librarian’s point of view as her life changes around her without her noticing it and a lecture about the Doctor that sets up the story’s larger probing of the themes of the story – the ways in which the existing gaps in the series’ mythology create a sinister air to the Doctor. The lecture muses, for instance, on “why any military outfit he comes in contact with hands him the keys to the gun cupboard, not to mention supreme command, before they’ve even cleared him of the murder they’ve usually just arrested him for,” before finally musing, “most troubling of all, everyone on record as having known the Doctor insists that he is a good man, a hero in fact. But did they think that for themselves? Or did he think it for them?”
The first thing to point about this structural complexity is that it’s not showing off. I mean, it is to an extent, but it’s mostly about finding a way to focus the story on the right part of the action. The story is about the librarian having her memories changed, but as she doesn’t understand what’s happening to her it needs some sort of focus elsewhere to give context to what’s happening. But if you take the point of view anywhere other than her experience you lose the meat of the story. Moffat’s virtuoso structure thus lets him tell the story from the perspective of an unreliable and limited narrator while also continually highlighting the nature of the gaps in her reliability so we get both her interior experience and the context it exists in. It’s not just a way of being terribly clever, it’s a way to tell a story that can only come out of a structure like that, and a way focused on character building.
That said, Moffat is terribly clever. And he couples all of this with a doozy of ideas. “Continuity Errors” and its associated one-page afterword make the explicit claim that “when, as has happened more than once, a culture extrapolates his existence from his multiple interventions in their history, the Doctor has a favourite ‘panic button.’ He simply slips back in time and introduces himself as a fictional character in the popular mythology of that particular world.” This ties in with the title of the story itself, and the way in which the lecture raising suspicions about the Doctor plays off of the ever-present logical gaps in the series. On one level it’s the most developed form of the paranoid approach to date, in which the gaps and complexities of the documented record subvert the entire heroism of Doctor Who. Except that it’s all so much fun. Moffat takes a calculated risk here, and it pays off perfectly. He enumerates all of the reasons to hate the Doctor, suggests that the entire existence of Doctor Who as a narrative might be a vast conspiracy within its own narrative to get us to like the Doctor, and then trusts, quite rightly, that anyone reading Decalog 3 is going to be a sufficient Doctor Who fan to be utterly unconvinced.
Because, of course, Moffat’s cleverness is simply more fun. It’s far more fun to have a magical figure who fights off giant plants, saves marriages, and prevents genocide with library privileges than it is to have some dour and conspiratorial manipulator pulling the strings for his own twisted agenda. And Moffat, following firmly from Cornell’s work on the Seventh Doctor, establishes that that is, in fact, what he is. That, in the end, is the rejoinder to those who would object that Moffat’s conception of the Doctor is too powerful and breaks the narrative. Much like the sonic screwdriver is largely defensible under its current form of “being able to do anything that it wouldn’t be more interesting to do in another way,” Moffat’s conception of the Doctor is simple: he is, in any situation, the one that it would be by far the most fun to have win.
And so he always does.
October 31, 2012 @ 5:31 am
I love the idea that a "continuity error" can in fact be deliberate, that by explaining it away within the text itself, it somehow magically becomes something else — in this case, an artifact of time-travel. So in one short story, Moffat has eliminated every continuity error in the existence of Doctor Who, including future ones, because now we say they aren't in fact errors, but evidence of the Doctor's interventions.
And this makes Doctor Who a perfect text, technically speaking — putting aside aesthetics and philosophy, for the moment. It's a lovely bit of martial art, 'cause now instead of complaining about all the myriad inconsistencies of the series, we can go about telling stories about what sorts of intervention might have led to the introduction of a particular "mistake"; all it takes is sufficient cleverness and creativity.
This also serves as a nice little treatise on the nature of "errors." Errors do not exist except in our heads. They are fictions, created by the inconsistency between map (an intention or understanding of the world) and territory (reality). As a perfectionist, I find this sobering. I always have a choice between fixing the territory or the map, or, increasingly, neither, since any such disjunction may also be viewed as "perfect" should I choose.
October 31, 2012 @ 8:39 am
"Moffat’s conception of the Doctor is simple: he is, in any situation, the one that it would be by far the most fun to have win.
And so he always does."
Turns out that was all I ever wanted. Neat!
October 31, 2012 @ 9:04 am
My conception of the Doctor is the person who would be the most fun to run away into the space/time continuum with, if not necessarily the most reliable.
Jane, if there was a 'like' button I would have used it on your comment. Your distinction between 'map' and 'territory' perfectly describes my attitude to 'continuity' and 'canon' I would add though that while I enjoy his take on the Doctor's interventionist shennanigans I didn't need Steven Moffat to explain it to me. It's pretty obvious to me that anyone, let alone someone as mercurial as the Doctor, is going to be making a bit of a mess of linear narrative time-lines if they have access to a TARDIS.
October 31, 2012 @ 2:11 pm
Hello, a good read.
You write – 'So yes, the idea that time and history can be so cavalierly rewritten as “Continuty Errors” implies is a mess' as if you've elaborated on why it would be a mess, why this sort of thing would be "breaking the structure of the series" but I'm not sure you have really made clear why, though you suggest "But the entire story hinges on the fact that this sort of thing only works if your perspective isn’t lined up with that of the Doctor’s".
You also say "But there’s a natural defense here based on the fact that a short story collection from Virgin and a Comic Relief special are by their nature marginal texts in which this sort of larking about can be accomplished safely", however, I would say Moffat's A Christmas Carol is "Continuity Errors" written for the series.
Now, does that Doctor Who episode "break the structure of the series"? I would say no, and that actually it fits with the general timey-wimey themes of the Moffat era.
Doctor Who – before the 21st Century era – rarely acknowledged the mechanics of time-travel, and now during the RTD era and Moffat era there is much mention of "fixed points", time that CAN'T be rewritten.
The corollary, that "time can be rewritten" is shown during "Continuity Errors" and A Christmas Carol.
October 31, 2012 @ 3:13 pm
"Map and Territory" comes from Jonathan Z Smith's essay (in the collection of essays by the same name) "Map is not Territory".
Applying it to Doctor Who continuity was all Jane's brilliance.
October 31, 2012 @ 3:48 pm
Jonathan Z Smith! I'd read Smith before, as part of my studies in ritual, but I never knew the map/territory distinction was his. Can't remember where I first heard it — it might have been from a friend; it might have been from reading Robert Anton Wilson.
October 31, 2012 @ 4:19 pm
"A Christmas Carol" is a much more mature take on it (which makes sense, given the extra fifteen years Moffat's had to hone his writing) and delivers an emotional punch lacking in the more cerebral "Continuity Errors."
It helps that the stakes are more personal. In CE, we find out the Doctor is trying to save a planet — a planet we never see, with people with never meet — while in ACC it's just a spaceship, but with good friends on board, and eventually people who are singing for their lives. Lined up against these stakes are an anonymous evil alien race, who never appear, and a bitter old man. Notice that the person who's time is rewritten in the latter is the actual antagonist, rather than some gatekeeper.
Most importantly, though, is how the resolution is achieved. In CE, it turns out the Doctor's efforts to remove the tragedies in Andrea's life are for naught; she was turned against the Doctor on account of his reputation — by an academic. In ACC, the Doctor's efforts to turn Sardick result in a continuity error (the Sky Organ no longer works for him); instead, the day is saved by Abigail, at great cost to Sardick. (That this is a metaphor for the Doctor's loss in The Library is just gravy.)
November 1, 2012 @ 1:50 am
I always thought it was a
situationist/deconstructionist slogan. I'll have to check out this Jonathan Z Smith.
November 1, 2012 @ 4:23 am
I thought it was Alfred Korzybski who first said the map is not the territory? Wikipedia gives the credit where it's due:
The expression "the map is not the territory" first appeared in print in a paper that Alfred Korzybski gave at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1931: In Science and Sanity, Korzybski acknowledges his debt to mathematician Eric Temple Bell, whose epigram "the map is not the thing mapped" was published in Numerology.
November 4, 2012 @ 8:26 am
When you were describing the story, Phil, I couldn't help but picture Matt Smith's Doctor in my head. It fits him to a T. 🙂
Welcome aboard, Mr. Moffat. Good to see you again… for the first time.