Warning: this article contains spoilers for “The Day of the Doctor,” the 50th-Anniversary Doctor Who Special.
Blame it on the proliferation of soundbites. Or our declining attention spans. But there’s been a marked increase in “cool moments” in our fictions, inserted with little regard to narrative context or plot.
It’s as if we have a generation of writers, raised on the endless repetition of Scarface shout “Say hello to my little friend!”, and who now seek to create such moments of their own. But the point of that line, cool as it is, wasn’t that Scarface was a badass to the last. It was that he was a strung-out shell of his former self, too blind to see that all the violent arrogance in the world didn’t make someone invulnerable, and that his rise to power had been as much a function of chance and smarts as toughness. It’s this arc, of rise from nothing to great heights, followed by willful self-destruction, that the entire film charts. That cool, shotgun-wielding moment comes at the very end of this arc, minutes before the character’s death. It’s this context, this placement within a plot with multiple arcs of character and theme, that determines the cool moment’s meaning. Stripped of this, that cool moment’s something random, meaningless, adrift. Like a cutaway on Family Guy, it might look cool, it might even be funny, but it’s certainly not meaningful in any narrative sense.
One of the hardest things for some writers to learn is that cool ideas are a dime a dozen. Kids come up with wonderfully cool ideas. “What if all the oceans of the world turned to glass?” That’s a very inventive idea, and it’s important that children be taught to use their imaginations. But that’s not a story. It’s at best a germ of a story. The story is everything that grows up around this idea or this image. It’s why the oceans turn to glass, how this affects the story’s characters, and inevitably how this would affect ocean life, humans dependent on shipping and water, and the entire planet. This wider scope might merely be the backdrop for our central characters, but it’s important, and those central characters are inevitably symbolic for society as a whole. All of this is how adults tease out cool, childlike ideas into actual stories. The idea itself isn’t a story. It might be cool or imaginative, but it certainly isn’t smart. In the same way, saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if a building got wider as it ascended?” isn’t a building. It requires actual architects to make it so. In retrospect, when a story works, we say it was such a great idea, as if this kernel were all that mattered, as if the story itself were merely the inevitable outflowing of a simple but compelling idea. But that’s not true; lots of great ideas turn into rotten stories, and as a result no one praises those ideas, even though they were just as good as abstract ideas. It’s the story the adult mind weaves around the wild, childlike idea that counts.
This is a lesson that Steven Moffat – a smart writer, to be sure – doesn’t seem to have learned. His Doctor Who is filled with cool moments and clever little ideas. But they’re dropped into stories, rather than weaved into them. In fact, the “stories” themselves often seem like little more than scaffolding, on which to hang these little moments. The result is often shockingly ramshackle constructions, foisted on the public and decorated with incredible filigree, as if this is all anyone might care about.
How else are we to respond, in “The Day of the Doctor,” when the Zygons threatening London are simply abandoned? Everyone knows the good guys will win, so let’s not even bother to show that. We all know everyone’s far more interested in guest star John Hurt, a “War Doctor” retconned into Doctor Who history, and the Time Wars between Gallifrey and the Daleks.
There’s no doubt that “The Day of the Doctor” is filled with excellent little twists. For example, Moffat uses shapeshifters rather brilliantly. But he would, since shapeshifters lend themselves to surprise twists – and that’s just how Moffat uses them. Characters are revealed to be shapeshifters, and Moffat even reverses this formula, having one shapeshifter revealed as the character she’s impersonating. Moffat plays these twists for dramatic or comedic effect, and they work. But never does Moffat follow through on these twists in any way. No one talks about what it was like, hiding in the form of an inanimate object, an alien living as a human while plotting to decimate humanity, or a human hiding among murderous aliens. None of this has any psychological effects, nor any implications that will affect the narrative. Any of these situations are fertile ground for short stories or for character arcs within an episode. But here, they’re nothing but the twist, the clever idea. And once you’re done laughing or marveling, you’re not supposed to think about these again. The “story” is too busy driving forward towards the next cool moment or clever twist.
This has been true of Moffat’s Doctor Who for a long time now. Moffat’s Who is about the visual of the Doctor driving a motorcycle up the side of a skyscraper. The visual of all of spacetime collapsing, leaving only the Earth. The revelations of River Song’s identity. The visual of someone in an astronaut suit killing the Doctor. The revelation of how the Doctor will escape this. The clever, quick amusement of popping back and forth in time. Most of these things don’t even make sense within their episodes, and none do within the larger multi-episode and multi-season “story” that Moffat’s attempting.
This is a man who, when it was convenient for Amy Pond to have a female friend growing up, retroactively introduced her in the very same episode that revealed her identity. Despite that we’d seen and heard plenty about Amy’s childhood, which was actually a major plot point. But never mind, because we got a cool reveal and a chase scene.
Moffat’s encouraged viewers to follow “mysteries” from season to season. But he’s demonstrated that he doesn’t care about episode-length stories, let alone a season. The moment alone is all.
Wouldn’t it be cool to see David Tennant hanging around with Matt Smith? Wouldn’t it be cool if Tennant’s Doctor were married to Queen Elizabeth I? Wouldn’t it be cool if there was an undiscovered previous Doctor? Wouldn’t it be cool if Gallifrey survived the Time Wars somehow? Isn’t the idea of people surviving inside paintings cool? What about bringing the Zygons back? What about a secure installation that secures itself by wiping out people’s short-term memories? Wouldn’t it be cool if this could somehow also be used to make shapeshifters forget what species they were? What about a bomb so powerful that it developed not only sentience but a conscience, such that it tried to convince someone not to use it? Wouldn’t it be cool if we cast a former companion as this machine’s avatar? Wouldn’t it be cool to have all the Doctors’ TARDISes converge on Gallifrey and help save it? Wouldn’t it be cool if we cast a fan-favorite old Doctor as a future Doctor?
Why yes, it would be cool. All of it. And one would say this to a child, if he came up with such wonderfully inventive ideas. But none of these things make any sense as part of the narrative of “The Day of the Doctor,” nor in Moffat’s wider Doctor Who.
Many of these cool “twists” aren’t even more than rough ideas even within the episode. For example, we’re very briefly told about the memory-wiping security devices, and this is played, in Moffat’s typical style, for brief comedic effect. We see a security guard who doesn’t recall having let his boss through before, even though he’s done so for years. To accent the humor, he appears to be middle-aged. Watching this, I immediately felt uncomfortable. This man is arguably being tortured. He must know his age. How does he even process not remembering years of his life? How does his family process this? This isn’t thought out and doesn’t make sense. Worse, it serves absolutely no role in the plot – until it’s suddenly used as a Moffat twist, when it’s used in a way completely inconsistent with everything that’s so briefly been established about it. The Doctor waves his magic wand – I mean, sonic screwdriver – and suddenly the Zygons impersonating humans don’t know they’re Zygons!
Making someone forget his species – and presumably his entire life up to that point – is a very different thing from wiping someone’s short-term memory. All that’s relevant about the device is that it affects memory; anything else is just a capability or limitation on the device that can be fudged with the wave of a sonic screwdriver. But somehow, the device doesn’t wipe all memories, because we’re told the Zygons and humans will negotiate now, which presumes they know the current situation – in other words, their short-term memory. It’s a cool idea, just like using the device as a security system was a cool idea. But this second cool idea is the opposite of the first (long-term vs. short term), not a cool application of the first. And if you’re temporarily altering everyone’s entire memories so radically, why not wipe everyone’s short-term memories along with their sense of identities? Why not turn everyone temporarily into drooling idiots? Ah, but this wouldn’t communicate the cool idea of two sides negotiating without knowing which side they’re on.
Both of these cool ideas are conveyed in a matter of seconds, with no implications investigated and neither really making sense. But it’s this second idea – supposedly a twist on the first – that resolves the Zargon plot. In a matter of seconds. To the extent that negotiations are a resolution at all.
Early in the episode, U.N.I.T. carries the TARDIS by helicopter, and the Doctor dangles out of it. The episode’s clearly in love with this silly idea, devoting more time to it than, say, the silly twist that resolves the Zygon plot. But even the Doctor points out that U.N.I.T. might have bothered to knock. In fact, U.N.I.T. would have had to go to great pains not to make such sounds, as it rigged the TARDIS for carrying. Of course, the Doctor’s often having high-stakes adventures, in which he might need the TARDIS, and U.N.I.T. seems to respect him. Presuming it’s abandoned, as U.N.I.T. seems to, doesn’t mak sense. But fuck it because – hey, there’s Matt Smith hanging out of the TARDIS! Cool!
But what can you expect, in a series in which we’re routinely told that areas are “time-locked” so the TARDIS can’t go there, except that it routinely does? Or that there are “fixed moments in time,” defined as being inalterable, except that they routinely are? Or that you shouldn’t alter time, except that characters do all the time?
It would have been easy for “The Day of the Doctor” to say that Gallifrey was always saved. Alter all, it’s saved in such a way that everyone thinks it’s destroyed. (Even though this is preposterous; basically, a single line of dialogue tells us that all those Dalek ships around Gallifrey will fire on the planet, which when it disappears will make those ships blast each other. Every one of them. It’s the old “make the bad guys shoot each other” scene except times thousands and over vast distances in space. Later, we’re treated to a planetary explosion that doesn’t look anything like this. Because, of course, it can’t.) There’s no reason to say the Time Wars have been changed, which of course presents huge logistical problems, and yet “The Day of the Doctor” is adamant that yes, this is a change. Then the Doctors all resume their places in their timeline, conveniently forgetting that any of this happened – so as not to mess with continuity, because we wouldn’t want the entire show to come undone. Except that the episode takes pains to make sure we understand time has been altered. None of this makes any sense, but what’s most shocking about it is how willfully it resists making sense.
Compared to this, who can object to the fact that David Tennant’s Doctor being married to Queen Elizabeth I not only dilutes the importance of his marriage to River Song but that the Doctor being married doesn’t mean anything. After all, Queen Elizabeth I died, and the Doctor probably didn’t live with her his entire life. He just zapped to another time, when she was dead, and suddenly he’s a widower. Even if he zaps himself away and returns to witness the moment of her death, when did he become a widower? At the point in his own timeline that he witnessed her death, if he even did? What does marriage mean for a time traveler? Why does the Matt Smith Doctor consider himself married to River Song, then? These are actually fascinating questions, and they would make for a more interesting and emotionally resonant story than “The Day of the Doctor.” But Moffat’s Who isn’t interested in such implications; it only wants the cool moment of revealing this previous marriage.
Moffat thinks he can get away with this because, as he’s put it, there’s no such thing as a continuity error in Doctor Who, owing to its use of time travel. That’s interesting, as a literary or critical theory. As an approach to crafting stories, it’s catastrophic. It lends itself to throwing everything cool and interesting into your stories and not even worrying about the continuity errors it produces, let alone any deeper narrative implications.
If it needs pointing out, this approach is especially disastrous in a series in which the protagonist has a time-traveling spaceship that can go anywhere, including before the story started, without concern for fuel. And let’s not forget his sonic screwdriver that can reprogram just about any machine. This premise lends itself to deux ex macina plot problems, so you’d normally want to limit this by paying extra attention to narrative logic and continuity. Instead of – cynically, it feels – deciding that all the audience wants is its “Say hello to my little friend!” moments and wild ideas, rather than stories in which those might fit.
This problem is actually rooted in how we understand the history of Doctor Who. If you watch old episodes of The Twilight Zone or the original Star Trek, you’ll see how they weave adult plots around wonderous, childlike ideas. Most of those Twilight Zone episodes revolve around a simple, single idea. Some of these ideas don’t even have explanations and are very much of the “What if this happened?” variety. But within the space of a half hour, these episodes tease out how these ideas and situations would affect a character. We may not always know why something happens (though we do in most episodes). But we don’t just see the cool idea; we see the implications of this idea on character and on a short plot. Men and women struggle with their sanity. Yes, the pacing’s slow by today’s standards, but the original Twilight Zone is a case study in how you can rattle off compelling stories based on simple ideas.
On the original Star Trek, the Enterprise might visit a planet where something weird or paradoxical was happening. In other words, an easy and convenient setting for a cool idea. But you’d see the implications of this weird planet and what it was doing. The writers didn’t stop at “Wouldn’t this be cool?” The writers also asked questions like “How would this weird idea affect a planet’s culture?” And “What does this story mean?” And “What kind of characters do we need to communicate these things?” Even some of the weaker episodes are remarkable for their plotting, for the graceful way they set up a story’s central conflict and follow it through. Yes, there are plot holes and inevitable fisticuffs, but like Twilight Zone, Star Trek’s an excellent example of how cool ideas can be teased into great, fun stories.
Early Doctor Who isn’t this good. The first episode is masterful, and each character is concocted to play a role in the plot, which works perfectly to wow viewers and pull them into this amazing story. (That original title sequence is still the best, in my opinion — and yes, it was fun to see it redone in “The Day of the Doctor.”) But the first serial that follows is abysmal. Even the first two Dalek serials, which are among the best of the early years, don’t have the feeling of being too carefully constructed. Characters are introduced and developed just enough that they seem to represent a theme, only to be killed off. Characters rush from one setting to another, then back to earlier ones, in ways that most writers would compress. In the third Dalek serial (“The Chase”), they’ve got their own TARDIS-like ship, which they built. The companions often don’t have much to do, the monsters of the week often look silly, and plot holes abound. Doctor Who was never a philosophical show, like Star Trek or The Twilight Zone could be. The Doctor was never as cool as Captain Kirk; originally, the action hero was one of his companions. In fact, that’s part of what makes the Doctor cool today, when his more professorial, slightly mad styling feels geeky and offbeat. But the Doctor’s stories were never all that smart. They were, however, filled with great ideas and visuals, like the Daleks and the Cybermen.
In his interview for the 50th-anniversary rebroadcast of the Second Doctor serial, “Tomb of the Cybermen,” Moffat pointed out that the plot didn’t really make much sense. He mocked the Cybermen’s plan as basically being to conquer the universe by going into suspended animation. But he said this didn’t matter, because the episode featured the memorable visual of the Cybermen waking up, bursting through their suspended animation pods like something actually otherworldly. That’s all anyone remembers. And he’s right. The specifics of the story don’t make a whole lot of sense, and it’s these high notes that stick in the mind. Those sets – like the suspended animation pods against the wall like something out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis — certainly stick with me.
What Moffat’s done, as showrunner, is to identify this historic strength and ramp it up to unprecedented levels. No one in Doctor Who’s history has tossed around as many clever ideas as Moffat. It’s just that the stories, such as they are, are transparently threadbare vehicles on which to hang these twists and visuals. The old Doctor Who used to tell stories, weak as they sometimes were, around its monsters and cool sets. The revived show, under Russell T. Davies, seemed to improve upon this weakness – and what’s odd is that Moffat’s episodes were no exception, when he wrote episodes while Davies was showrunner. Now that Moffat’s in charge, however, he’s all but jettisoned this sense of story in favor of YouTube-ready moments – the kind of stuff his successors might comment upon much as he did about “Tomb of the Cybermen.”
But if continuity doesn’t matter, storytelling doesn’t really matter, and all that matters for Moffat is the cool moment, it’s worth remembering the doomsday device in “The Day of the Doctor,” which is called a “galaxy eater” and can kill all the Time Lords and the Daleks at a single push of a big red button. If you push it, everything dies. The episode’s very clear that it’s wrong to push it, tempting though it may be as a solution to an intractable narrative problem. In the episode, it’s called “the Moment.”