|Obviously, the excitement is killing evil Clara. Not.|
Telling not Showing (on new Doctor Who)
If you’ve ever taken a writing course, I know you’ll recognize this maxim: Show not tell!
What does this mean to the average person who isn’t a writer or even interested in learning how to write well? Essentially it means what it says—you never tell a story by listing dry facts or endless narration telling the reader/viewer what to think, what is happening, what to feel. Instead, the effective writer shows the story’s characters in motion (in a manner appealing to the senses) and that action imparts the story to the reader/viewer. Face it, it’s more exciting to experience a scene when we see and almost feel something happening where the stakes are high than to simply be told what’s going to happen to the characters if they don’t do such-and-such.
The Zygon Inversion or Inversion of the Zygons (depending on which site you look for pictures for it) gives us a good example of tell not show which my college screenplay writing professor would have given failing marks. After last week’s episode, it’s a true non-event. Sure, we get to see “evil Clara” looking smart with heavier make-up and her hair pulled back, but essentially all she does is walk around, shoot an airplane, stares at the “sleeping Clara” in the pod, zaps one Zygon to turn him “inside out” and…that’s about it. No particularly exotic locations, no big action scenes, no exciting complications of plot. She does her bit as she’s told and very little else.
The last act consists of a lot of talking in a room at UNIT headquarters where evil Clara and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart face off by staring across a table at each other with their hands hovering over a couple of boxes while the Doctor pontificates for several minutes too long. (Kate miraculously survives her journey home from New Mexico we learn, but, of course, the excitement of her escape takes place off stage. Sigh!) Staring across a table in a dimly lit room—that’s the extent of the climactic action. No huge battles involving the sucker-covered aliens and the brave fighting men and women of UNIT. Nada.
Now, picture this—literally picture this in your mind. What if, instead of having the Doctor harangue evil Clara and Ms. Lethbridge-Stewart for fifteen minutes, he took them in his TARDIS and showed them what life would be like if they started an inter-species war on Earth? He could show them the devastation of another similar world’s conflict or take them backward or forward in time and show them Earth after a devastating war. There could be explosions and battles and lots of colorful images and provocative sounds and smells and other appeals to both the viewers’ and the characters’ senses. Think how well this sort of sense-filled demonstration would illustrate his point without the need for long-winded speeches. Think how exciting this would be for the viewers! (It might have been fun for the actors to perform, too.)
Even the devil showed Jesus from atop the mountain all the riches, the kingdoms and power he’d have if he’d do as the devil asked instead of what God asked. The devil tempted Jesus with food when he was starving, appealing to his senses of smell and taste. Matthew 4:1-11 is a very visceral Bible story, and it makes a lasting impact precisely because it appeals to the senses. Would Jesus passing up all that power, wealth and food have made the same impact on the reader if the devil had simply told Jesus what all he was passing on and hadn’t given Jesus the chance to see and experience what all he was missing? When you experience something it’s much harder to give it up, right? Obviously, the writer Matthew knew this and didn’t let up on the appeal to the senses or action.
I know I looked at the time more than once while the Doctor scolded evil Clara and Lethbridge-Stewart and delivered a diatribe on how naughty they were. I kept wondering how and when an action sequence was going to fit in. After all, in a science fiction adventure television series viewers expect to experience some excitement and action around every corner, especially at the climax. Unfortunately, this episode was “pear shaped” and had no corners to turn.
No big battles of Zygons vs. humans, instead we were treated to another “Osgood” in the seventh Doctor’s famous question mark knitwear. Cute in a stereotypically nerd girl way. I think Osgood would make a great companion some day, but only if she actually does something active instead of function merely as a model to push sales of classic Who DVDs to the younger crowd.
Of course, how well she and other characters function is up to the series’ writers and script editor. Let’s hope they hit the books and study up on how write a stronger script next time.
What do you think? Please leave your comments below. And check out my reviews of earlier episodes of this season of Doctor Who:
The Zygon Invasion