Monday, November 09, 2015

Telling Not Showing (on New Doctor Who)

Obviously, the excitement is killing evil Clara. Not.

Telling not Showing (on new Doctor Who)

***Spoiler Alert!***

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


James Kirkpatrick said...

I think there's alot to be said for having a talky end to an episode. This is Doctor Who, not a superhero film, we don't NEED a big, action filled climax. Doctor Who is so much more than that, it has a hero who doesn't carry a weapon as a habit, he can outwit his foes, he understands that war's aren't won through fighting, they're ended through talking. That's what tonight's episode focussed on, there aren't any big action sequences because there SHOULDN'T be any big action sequences. Personally I loved the episode and thought it a massive improvement over last weeks dull first part.

Anonymous said...

You are utterly wrong.

Anonymous said...

Um ok so lol the fact that you cannot identify a great moment in the shows history is enough. lol xd

A J said...

I can identify a 'great moment' in the show's history (and I've watched Doctor Who since the end of Hartnell's time) That was not one of them.

Obviously tastes have changed. No one wants to watch good SF drama any more. Instead they want fangirly crap with lots of special effects and as much drama as a used teabag. In future if Moffatt's byline is attached to any script I'll not watch the episode.

Cynthianna said...

Styles may change, but one would hope that strong writing would never go out of style in any genre. Since TV science fiction adventure is primarily that--a genre that presents a story with characters in an action scenario located within a sci-fi universe--then perhaps we'll need to reclassify the new Doctor Who into a new genre apart from the classic series? Teen angst space opera, perhaps? (This isn't my take, but it's been voiced by several other television critics over the past few years.)

I can go with a little bit of "preaching" by the Doctor (since he is very ancient) but at the expense of the drama itself? That's where the structural elements of the script are weakest. He can "preach" by demonstrate through the use of his TARDIS and Time Lord abilities the follies of war. He doesn't have to go on for twenty minutes like your professor at an 8 AM philosophy class. Since most people claim they are visual learners rather than audial learners, using visuals and other appeals to the senses would make a stronger impact on the viewer/characters.

Think of the example I gave above--one reason why Bible stories stay with people who even leave the church. The visual/appeal to the senses in those stories are examples of strong writing. If people could write strong stories 2000+ years ago without a college education, surely people nowadays can do as well, right? That's what they're being paid to do, correct? Offer a decent story and not just fan fiction level writing?

Jack Everett said...

As a writer, I know the 'show not tell' thing well. However sometimes dialogue-heavy scenes work far better than action. For one, tension builds as we wait in suspense for something to happen. Then, of course, the words are just everything sometimes. Words can linger longer in the memory than some disposable or interchangeable action. There's no denying that sometimes (OK, a fair bit!) writers are just looking for quotable moments - and this was certainly one of them!

Cynthianna said...

I didn't take away any "quotable moments" but then I didn't have my closed captioning on. Perhaps this should have been a novel or short story manuscript and not a screenplay? That's one big difference between writing for the page and writing for the screen. Screenplays are VISUAL. Too much dialogue and "talky" and you usually can't sell your screenplay. (For example, how much "talky" is in the Star Wars trilogy--old or newer one? There is dialogue and then the characters DO SOMETHING, right?) ;)

Perhaps it was the direction and lack of visual cues that made the scene overly "talky" to me and others. Another aspect of screenplays, particularly for television, is the need for frequent cutting and dynamic flow of visuals. A dark room with little or no physical movement of actors doesn't give much of a dynamic flow, IMO. So, direction probably could have been stronger as well with the script, but with some weak scripts... the director and the actors can't do anything much to help. The structural problems are just too great to cover up with gimmicky acting or visuals, which seems to be a common feature with a Moffat script, alas.

Jack Everett said...

I wouldn't call it a structural problem. In fact it was a very strong script IMO, got it's point across beautifully. Now, it may not be the done thing to have loads of dialogue-heavy scenes in your script, but actually I find the visual element an irritating cliché that is a blight on good storytelling. (It's one of the many reasons I hate Hollywood; everything has to be formulaic that there is no room for risk-taking or artistic licence.)

Answer me this: did you not listen to every single syllable that came out of Peter Capaldi's mouth? Did you not inhale his every word and consume the very essence of what he was saying? Don't you think if this was some same-old-same-old scene with some kind of intrusive action you may have simply forgotten about it a few minutes later?

Words are powerful - it's why the novel caught on - and Doctor Who isn't your average mindless TV show, it's intellectual and challenge you to think. Besides, the whole point of the story was that sometimes talking is far more powerful than acting. As Murray Gold put it in the title of one of his tracks: Words Win Wars!

Cynthianna said...

I listened to Peter (as he is a gorgeous actor and who wouldn't want to stare at him for hours on end? I'm approx. his age, and I think he's dead sexy!) but I can't recall any "quotable quotes" in this script like I can from Matthew 4:1-11. Can you WITHOUT RE-WATCHING THE SHOW give me a direct quote of everything he actually did say in that scene? If you can give me the verbatim of his speech more than 24 hours after watching episode ONCE, then I'll take your word for its quotability, Jack. :)

I think Doctor Who started out in 1963 under Verity Lambert as a much more intelligent show than it is today under the current show runner. It was originally for families and for school-aged children (my British spouse being one of them) to learn about history and science topics. I don't think the new series can claim it's upholding that particular mission to educate anymore. In fact, you could say since the Daleks first appeared, the mission statement got pretty diluted at the Beeb. It's primarily seen as a cash cow, alas!

If you want to see some intellectual Doctor Who episodes that say something about our destroying our environment and ruining our ecology, check out the Jon Pertwee series, particularly "Inferno" and "The Green Death". Now those episodes had some quotable lines with great sci-fi action to boot. You can have both in scifi adventure--great action and deep thinking! ;)

Alex Wynn said...

Words can do more to evoke emotion and thought than an action ever could. If you didn't feel anything during/after Capaldi's monologue then I think it's a probably with you and not the writer's. This speech is one of the most emotive speeches there have been since Doctor Who came back in 2005

Tommy said...

It was typical of what we've come to expect.
Kate's "escape" was possibly the weakest scene this series...
"Kate, how did you possibly escape the hideous death awaiting you at the hands of a Zygon?"
Drum roll..... "Errr... I shot it."
Why didn't any of the UNIT soldiers armed to the tits with assault rifles do that?
Why didn't Johnny and his men have their guns trained on the Zygons in the church in case they did exactly what the soldiers had been told to expect, and turn into Zygons and try to kill them.
ONE bullet is all it takes. They're not Cybermen or Daleks. BANG! They die! But did the soldiers in the tunnels shoot when the Zygon gang lined up sneering and gurning? No... they just died...
There was so much wrong with this story...
The Doctor had clearly forgottn that the Presdiential plane had been commandeered by Cybermen and used as WMD against Belgium, and that everyone aboard it had died... including the psychologically damaged sister of the Osgood who had been dusted by bloody Missy... the same person he was taking the plane to save, because rather than use his TARDIS, the plot required a cliffhanger, so he decided to take a plane that had already been destroyed by aliens once, and STILL takes to the skies without a single piece of air support.
Of course the biggest problem was the plot itself... OK, we got it really early on... the humans are bigots and the Zygons are coming over here stealing our benefits, and jobs, and faces, and want more... both are equally flawed and no one on either side seems to break mould. Apart from the couple of "clever" ones. (Osgood, Clara and The Doctor)
The pompous lecturing and simplified resolution was weak to the point of being stupid.
Yeah... War = Bad, Peace = Good... we get it... but expecting us to accept that every single nation would agree to Kate Stewarts peace treaty was facile... Does ANYONE think the US government would accept the Doctor "FORGIVING" the Zygons for what happened in "Truth or Consequences"? Get lost... the CIA would be all over the spongey bastards, and that poison... they'd have the Porton Down records sifted till they found the formula...

It was trite, childish, and the only good thing about it was how Capaldi at least gave that tiresome resolution some depth by acting his socks off.

Cynthianna said...

Is "emotive" the same as "strong writing"? I think not. You give a video link to the scene, but you cannot actually write out the words of the speech upon hearing it through one time, can you? (Please prove it to yourself--what exactly word by word did he say?) It's not a particularly "quotable" passage if you can't actually remember any one or series of sentences verbatim, is it? What you are remembering is Peter Capaldi's good acting skills and facial expressions probably, but you aren't remembering the words exactly as they appear on the page, are you?

That's the difference between "telling" vs. "showing" in writing. You are remembering Peter's great (good-looking) face and his acting abilities. All good stuff, but it's the VISUALS that you remembered and not the actual word by word of the script, correct? :)

So, why not use Peter's great acting abilities plus add some exciting VISUALS to the scene? Why not take evil Clara and Kate Lethbridge-Stewart on a short TARDIS trip to SHOW them the consequences of war? Wouldn't a few good visuals along with Peter delivering a long speech about the follies of war have made even a great impact emotionally?

That's essentially what I'm saying. The script needed some editing with emphasis on its screenplay nature. Moffat is lucky to have Peter Capaldi as the Doctor, but for how much longer? Would you have "remembered the words" with an actor who wasn't quite as good on screen? Possibly not. I'm still not convinced anyone really does remember exactly what was said by the Doctor in the scene, either, since they can't seem to write out a direct quote or paragraph from the scene upon hearing it through only the once. "Words alone" didn't stick in anyone's head for very long, or so it seems. It seems to be more about the visuals of Peter's face, expression, tone of voice, etc., but not about the actual WORDS.

An experiment you might like to try: Play back the sound only from the scene for a friend who is NOT familiar with Doctor Who or Peter Capaldi and hasn't seen this episode. Don't tell your friend anything about the scene or the show. Does your friend feel this scene is effective with the words alone and without your preconceived notions of the program and its assumed visuals? Why or why not? Are our preconceptions stronger than what actually exists in reality? (A psychological experiment for certain!)

I have to agree about the CIA, Tommy. It doesn't seem very likely they'd let aliens into the USA and not have their eyes on them all the time. Especially during this recent era of immigrant bashing, they'd have deported the Zygons long ago. After all, they can't vote and they aren't donating large sums of money to Super PACs! ;)

I suspect I'm the only person commenting who's actually been to T.O.C., New Mexico, as well. Yeah, the locals call it "T.O.C." ;)

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