08 May 2013

Why New Who Can't Be Like Classic Who

There's a misconception floating around. For some reason, people seem to think I hate the new series of Doctor Who. No, I do not hate the new series of Doctor Who. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I love Doctor Who. It's Steven Moffat I have a problem with. So now you're thinking, "Oh, he's one of those Steven Moffat haters". Again, that's not quite where I'm coming from. For the most part, I think Moffat is a decent writer. So what then, you ask, is the problem.

It is my belief that Steven Moffat is a prime example of "The Peter Principle". The Peter Principle is a proposition that states that the members of an organization where promotion is based on achievement, success, and merit, will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability. The principle is commonly phrased, "Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence." (wikipedia)

Okay, so my problem with the new series is with Moffat, not the show itself. Glad that's settled.

Now let's get down to the analysis.


There is a difference between the style of narrative used in the classic series than what is expected by today's audiences. Classic Who followed the general design of a linear storyline. The story started at point A and finished at point B. Sure, there were some small nuances. But there was rarely any complicated interweaving time lines. The Space Museum in Hartnell's second season was one of the first stories to venture into this area. The Doctor and his associates saw their possible future and attempted to change it in order not to become specimens in the museum.

The linear style of the classic series was due to one main reason. It was shot on videotape in a multi-camera style. In the sixties, videotape was outrageously expensive. Directors were not supposed to splice these tapes unless there was a major problem. That is the reason you see so many minor fluffs in classic episodes. So the show was shot in the order it would be shown using up to four cameras to capture all the action from different angles. It really was like filming a stage play. Hence the reason most of the stories were in a linear timeline. There was only so much room to create sets in a sound stage.

This style of story was generally done till Doctor Who went off the air in 1989. Yes, they shifted to the more advanced shooting schedule allowing them to shoot scenes out of order, but there still wasn't a lot of complicated time traveling. Some, but not much.

Then, in the 80s, something happened to American television which would change the landscape. That something was Hill Street Blues. It started a trend away from the standard episodic television drama and into a more complex story arc system. Small arcs at first, but arcs they were. For the first time, things that happened to characters in one episode were carried over to the next episode, and the next and the next. It was more like a real life drama than individual stories that came to a nice, clean reset of an ending. Kind of sounds like a soap opera, doesn't it.

Then into the 90s came other dramas which began to build more complex story backgrounds. Babylon 5 [1994] had a complex five year plan [which sort of got abridged to four years] and Buffy [1997], which effectively used the season story arc to build upon the larger series arc of fighting vampires and dealing with major teen angst. And after the millennium, producers seemed to ramp up the drama even more with shows like Alias and 24 each of which showed signs of complexity as of yet unheard of.

This is what Jason Mittel calls Complex TV. So in the early naughties, American TV shows were a mixture of large story arcs consisting of episodic dramas which stay connected to each other via the larger story arc. It appears that the standard episodic drama was quite dead.

And as for Doctor Who, it was beginning to awaken from its long slumber by Russell T. Davies [RTD] who was working to revitalize the show. But it would be an amalgamation of both an old version and a brand new version. But it needed to start slowly. In general, the Ninth Doctor's stories followed the linear style of classic Who. Rose contained the TARDIS moving solely from place to place in London, although, at the end, he does mention it also can move through time. But as the show progressed, a strange thing had begun to get noticed. There was this Bad Wolf reference in some of the episodes. The viewers were beginning to see a continuation thread emerging. This led up to the wild and crazy conclusion to series one with the defeat of the Daleks and the regeneration of the Doctor. And the fans went crazy!!!

So far, I'm completely OK with what has been done to Doctor Who. It took something old and put a new spin on it. Doctor Who had come back with a vengeance. And though I was not happy with how human RTD made the Doctor toward the end of Tennant's run, I was still OK with that. After all, my show had returned from the grave and that made me happy.

Jason Mittel's studies trace how television has gotten more complex plots and characters since Hill Street Blues, and especially in the new millennium. And this has affected the style that Doctor Who has morphed into. There is no way the show could have ever come back in its original format. It would have failed [and miserably]. People now want more mystery, more drama, more [dare I say] timey-whimey plots. From all the chatter on the Doctor Who forums, that is the main reason many viewers who were introduced to Doctor Who by the new series don't really like the classic stories. They claim they are dull and boring and nothing happens. I feel they are wrong but that's for another entry.

So Doctor Who was moved into the 21st century, only giving enough of a backward glance to show it had a connection to that 20th century show. But in order to succeed, it needed to shed its shackles and fly free. And again, I can live with that.

But now we get to the part where Steven Moffat is taking over as show runner. At first I thought he was the ideal choice as I generally liked his stories [ even with the odd plot holes and dangling plot threads ] but it seemed like a minor problem [ like the Doctor falling in love with Madame de Pompadour and forgetting about his undying love for Rose ].

Moffatt's plan as show runner was to create a mysterious Fairytale landscape. He was to be a mystical being who finds a special girl. An slightly David Whitaker outlook for the Doctor. Okay, so instead of the quirky sci-fi show we had under RTD, we would get a more magical story style. I can live with that too. It all started out well enough. Amy was a mystery, as was that crack in her wall. And as the season went on, more and more mysteries began to be added. But wait a minute. Wasn't that how LOST went about things. That's the reason I didn't like LOST. Adding more and more questions without really answering much is not good storytelling.

But this is where we bring back the name, Jason Mittel. Mittel is an associate professor of American studies and film and media culture at Middlebury College whose research interests include the history of television, media, culture, and new media. In the 21st century, people want more from the entertainment. And RTD and The Moff were ready to give it to them.

But the word we began hearing more and more about the show was "brilliant". Everything that came out of Cardiff was brilliant. If came from Moffatt's mouth, from the fans mouths, from everyone involved mouths. As season five came to a close, I was still enjoying the show. Matt Smith was a delightful Doctor and I couldn't be more pleased. But I wasn't seeing the brilliance of the show. What I saw was a dark cloud on the horizon.

Season five ended with the destruction of the universe. The Doctor had to sacrifice himself to reset it. And only through Amy, the special girl, remembering about the Doctor did she magically conjure him back into existence [ Hey Rocky, watch me pull a rabbit out of my hat ].

Season six ended with the destruction of the universe with all of time jamming together having Pterodactyls living with humans, Charles Dickens on TV, and the Roman Empire which never fell. Yeap, the end of the universe all due to the Doctor not dying when he was supposed to. So the Doctor had to die in order for the universe to live. But the Doctor decided to pull a fast one on time itself. He replaced himself with the Tessalecta [ and it's crew of miniaturized people ] take his place. Funny ha-ha, the Doctor fooled time. Time thought the Doctor died so everything was restored. Isn't that special...

Season seven looks like it's building up to yet another destruction of the universe when the Doctor reveals his name. I wonder what reset button Moffat will think of this time.

Remember when I said I was alright with those little plot holes and dangling plot thread from Moffat's stories in the RTD era? During that time he had someone [ namely RTD ] to rein him in so they didn't get completely out of line. The plot to The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances was originally going to be a convoluted, timey-whimey mess but RTD over ruled him. Unfortunately as show runner and head writer, there is no one to tell him he's gone a bit wonky. This is a prime example of, "The Emperor's New Clothes". With no one to stop him, there's no telling where he might take the show.

Too bad they didn't keep one aspect from Classic Who. There was a producer and script editor who were in charge of the show. And neither of these two was supposed to write anything unless it was absolutely necessary like when a script fell through or there was a need for a massive rewrite in order to make a writer's script workable. I do not believe it's in the best interest of the show to have one person in charge of the show who also decides he is going to write all the major stories AND also tell all the other writers what they need to put in their own stories.

It's the old saying, "With great power comes great responsibility". Something Moffat has neglected.

On the other hand, his favorite saying should be, "If you can't dazzle'em with brilliance, baffle'em with bullshit".

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