Monday, October 12, 2015

Style Over Substance in (New) Doctor Who

Style Over Substance in (New) Doctor Who

***Spoiler Alert! You may want to watch the episode first before reading this review.***

Which came first—the chicken or the egg? In Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who universe the answer is of course “both.”

Before the Flood starts out with a scene in which we see the Doctor by himself in the TARDIS. He breaks the “fourth wall” by talking directly to the viewer as he peers directly into the camera lens. In spite of Peter Capaldi’s engaging performance, this is still considered a very poor writing technique. Dumping information into the viewer’s lap upfront means the writer doesn’t trust that the viewer is intelligent enough to discern it for himself or herself simply by watching the episode. 

As in all strong writing, the principle of “show not tell” should be adhered to. The “wink-wink” of actors talking knowingly into a camera should be avoided, as it indicates to the viewer that the character of the Doctor realizes he’s a fictional construct and the episode is all just so much make-believe. Instantly, all tension and wonder at how the Doctor will survive this week’s dilemma evaporates. Why should we continue watching if we know how it’s all going to end?

But under the current producer’s guidelines it seems that the series protocol is to write down to the lowest common denominator of viewer intelligence. So, the Doctor starts out by telling us all that he believes in time paradoxes (even though this form of time travel has been forbidden in the past). He, essentially, is going to rewrite his own history, and he knows full well that he’s going to do it. Okay, this paradox of time travel was used to great comic effect on Futurama when Fry goes back in time and accidentally sleeps with his own grandmother, impregnates her and becomes his own grandfather. But why does Doctor Who feel it needs to repeat this particular sci-fi cliché?

With a thin plot about a time paradox that’s been done many times before (and often to provide comedy), there’s not much else to enjoy in Before the Flood other than the very nice underwater base set and the very interesting Cold War 1980s military training village the Doctor and two others travel back to in order to save Clara. Of course, he has to save Clara at the cost of the others’ lives. Saving other characters isn’t important, as their function is to serve as cannon fodder to create “tension” in an episode that has no inherent tension. (And why do they travel in time to the Soviet-style village in Britain anyway? Couldn’t it have been just a normal Scottish village built near a massive dam? No explanation is given, and it’s a shame, as it looked like a very unique place to set a Ten Little Indians type of tale.)

To sum up, we’re given the entire episode’s plot premise in the first few minutes, and to fill in the remaining 45 minutes we have lots of running around on well-constructed sets and a few explosions and SFX. Well done. A couple of the survivor side characters express love and admiration for each other. Nice enough. The handsome Peter Capaldi smiles some at the camera and shows off his awesome guitar-playing skills. Fan girl “squee!” 

All of these things are done well, but you're left with a hollow feeling inside. You feel that nothing really has happened of any consequence for the Doctor, and nothing was ever at risk since we know how it all will end in the first scene. A true triumph of style over substance. If we know the “punch line” from the start, why tell the joke at all?

Which came first—the chicken or the egg? Does it really matter if they’re both cracked?

What do you think? Please leave your comments below. And check out my reviews of earlier episodes of this series of Doctor Who:


Edward Buatois said...

I did not see the episode, but I think you're right on all counts. As an aside, the new series made me a Who fan, but I just can't get into Capaldi. I've only seen three of his.

Sam Dulledge said...

I can't help but think this is unfair. A few years ago, in the middle of Series 6/7, Doctor Who (and Steven Moffat) was criticised for being too complicated by various people. Personally I don't think they were right, and it was just the viewers not paying attention properly.

Now we have an article saying that this episode, which explained the premise of the episode in a fun and experimental way (I've not rewatched the episode yet, but I find it very similar to the pre-titles of 'Listen'), was a welcome change from 3 very dark episodes (okay, maybe not 'The Lodger', but certainly not as dark as last week), and we're not complaining that the episode was, basically, too accessible.

The Doctor Who fandom appears to be in meltdown 99% of the time, and it's normally because one side of the fandom wants one thing, and another wants something different. Surely we should just enjoy the episode for what it was? Very good, well-constructed, funny at parts, not as rich as the opener, but still very strong.

Tommy said...

The problem with Doctor Who is that at its core is the plot device of being able to go anywhere in the whole of time and space, but for some writers... that's just not enough.
Exploring the nature of the journey is, of course, their right and probably to some degree their duty...
But it becomes an issue when you have one episode saying "Time Can't Be Rewritten!!! Absolutely not, no way, no how... Once it's been written down in a book... it HAS to play out the way it says in the book! It just HAS TO!!!" but that story is 6 episodes after an entire series devoted to telling the story of how one man can trick history into believing one thing while another thing was happening.
There is no continuity in the method. That's fine if you do it every ten years, and it's the core of a complex plot that won't work any other way, but it;s like every series there is a new rule of time that cancels out the old ones to make telling a story a bit simpler.
Rory laying in a bed as an old man... Dying...
All the Doctor had to do was close the door, phone his mates in the Teselecta, get them to nip back in time disguised as old Rory and pretend to die in the bed...
EXACTLY the self same trick the Doctor used to avoid his own death at Lake Silencio 6 episodes earlier...
But NO!!!! They "saw" Rory die... so he HAD TO die... there was no way round it...
It beggars belief that those two Time Travel stories were written by the same man within about 12 months of one another...

It;s nothing to do with people not understanding or being a bit bloody simple. The stories don;t make sense when stacked against one another, because they contradict each other in areas that are flat out stated as rules.

Of course now we have the author's voice in he characters mouth... "Just Accept It!" when something stupidly unlikely happens... dressed up in the guise of a joke about a cup of tea, but the message is clear... it doesn't HAVE to make sense.. because I'M writing it!

Who Fan said...

"It's nothing to do with people not understanding or being a bit bloody simple. The stories don't make sense when stacked against one another, because they contradict each other in areas that are flat out stated as rules."

Exactly. Poor writing and poor script editing are still poor writing and script editing. Any show that isn't well scripted is going to suck frankly. It's called the "George Lucas Effect" with its best example being "The Phantom Menace". All the nice sets, all the nice SFX and explosions can't hide the fact that the story is boring and the actors weren't given adequate direction so they could develop their characters. Special effects and nice sets alone don't make for a decent story. The story, the WRITING has to be first rate before the special effects and sets are added, otherwise you're just throwing your money down the drain.

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