The Christmas Who
(Know that if you click 'Continue reading...' there will be spoilers for yesterday's Who.) Em kindly bought me The Writer's Tale as one of my Christmas presents. It's a collection of very honest e-mails where RTD, chief Who writer, talks about what goes on in his head and behind the scenes to get a Doctor Who script ready to shoot. I've been very surprised so far at how wise, eloquent and capable RTD evidently is. I've grumbled such a lot about the declining quality of Who that I was sure the book would be full of glib and/or dippy statements which would prove that the muddle that ends up on screen comes from the muddle in his head. But no. RTD thinks many of the same things I do about writing which, while it doesn't make them correct, means that they do seem awfully sensible to me. And he discusses and manipulates the components of story very well in his e-mails. It's much like the way I work in the notes I use to plan out a story, but if anything his thoughts are more fluent and clear than mine. This, as you can imagine, is a bit of a blow. I've looked at the slightly shabby end-product of an RTD script and imagined that I could do better. But now I'm not quite so sure. What if RTD is a sound writer, and it's the process of turning scripts into finished episodes that causes the magic to evaporate, leaving only lots of pointless running, interspersed with big, confusing plot chunks? I'm only fifty pages in, and it's a big meaty book, so maybe my opinion of RTD will dwindle as it goes on, but I've been impressed by the insights so far into the mind of someone I expected to be dismissive of.
But that said, the Christmas Day Who didn't wow me. Apart from some fun CGI of a skscraper-tall cyber-robot blasting the buildings below I don't think I sat forward in my chair once. Or laughed. And David Tennant can usually sift comedy gold out of the drossiest script.
Despite RTD's apparent understanding of story, he didn't really set up his characters for The Other Doctor. Everyone apart from Jackson Lake felt so sketchy. In fact it was ironic that the episode featured cybermen because almost everyone in the story seemed like they were following programming rather than reacting to events. Rosita was plucky and full of herself, but it was like she'd stepped out of another story. She's there fighting aliens and talking back to the Doctor: a fully-formed companion bursting onto the scene, before gradually retreating into the background, leaving us with very little idea of what was going on in her head, or what was driving her. She seemed to be robbed of purpose once the Doctor was up to speed, which isn't the greatest arc for a bold and energetic character to follow.
Miss Hartigan operated in much the same way: an implacable super-villain with a deadly mind who is simply there, no real explanation offered, bossing around cybermen and exacting revenge upon Victorian gentlemen whose relationship to her is difficult to grasp. And those gentlemen were being culled and herded why? Because they alone could lead the children from the workhouses they ran into the cybermen's lair to turn capstans and carry buckets, which after a few hours would provide the last bit of power the giant robot needed to activate itself. Really? As sketchy plots go, that's alarmingly arbitrary and thin.The cybermen couldn't have just grabbed the kids themselves or rounded up some brawny adults to be their slaves? Or found a power source that didn't involve manual labour? And Miss Hartigan had been killing people for weeks (still not sure why) culminating in murdering the one man whose funeral would bring the four workhouse owners together, thus allowing her to capture the people she says have walked past her on the street so many times. It's so intricate and yet so nonsensical. But perhaps Miss Hartigan had her reasons, though it would have been nice if she'd let us in on the secret.
Jackson Lake was a little better defined than the rest. For a start, he had actual motivation for his actions. Unfortunately, from the point of view of empathising with him, hiding his true motivations was part of the mystery of act one, so we were left for a while with guest characters who were all simply serving the ridiculous plot. But Jackson's story was quite poetic: the bereaved and despairing man clutching at another identity to escape his pain. And it was fun trying to work out who he was (while praying that we weren't supposed to take him seriously as a future incarnation of the Doctor). But a good mystery should give you all the clues while still leaving you foxed, and then reveal itself, producing a real moment of revelation. We didn't have most of the clues, so while the mystery was fun, the payoff didn't fire on all cylinders.
All in all, the episode seemed small without being intimate (because we didn't understand most of the characters or much of the plot) and then suddenly we were looking at a giant robot striding above the houses, which rescued the programme from feeling like it was shot for thruppence.
I know plots in shows like this don't need to be cast iron, but if they're complicated then they do sort of need to hang together. If you want to gloss over the logic then don't get too specific. RTD plots often seem pedantically concerned with details which don't connect together at all well. These 'infostamps' are data storage canisters that the cybermen use, which can be turned into deadly weapons for killing them simply by snapping the tops off? That's a bit of a design flaw, isn't it? Because if they'd only left their cyberman iPods at home, they'd be indestructible. And Jackson Lake worked out how to convert them into weapons with what he learned from the Doctor's database? And yet he picked up nothing else about technology at all, leaving him battling aliens with rope, a screwdriver and a balloon. Moreover, he somehow picked up some of the current Doctor's speech patterns (e.g. 'Allons-y') without taking in the pictures of his face. I think if your plotlines are filled with exceptions which make no sense, except in that they help the story along, then you need to conceal all that under lashings of spectacle, drama and wit. The latter two of which this story needed a lot more of.
But I have to say, the attitude I have now to Doctor Who is of a sportscar which has been sold to a new owner but not yet handed over. All RTD has to do is not run it into a lamp post before Steven Moffat gets behind the wheel and all will be well (I hope). So on that basis, yesterday's Who was a relief. Flawed, frustrating and flat in places, but not woeful, and not likely to drive so many viewers away that the franchise is endangered. Roll on 2010.
Update: I'm a little further into The Writer's Tale now and RTD is talking more and more about the pressure, the depression, his druggy and boozy past, his inability to start writing until almost the last possible moment and then the chaotic scramble to get the script finished. That, perhaps, begins to explain why someone with apparently good instincts and skills could keep fumbling whole episodes. He also talks of poor Helen Raynor, the writer of the awful Daleks in Manhattan double-bill, physically trembling with shock after spending two hours reading just how much some fans hated her episodes. It's difficult to know what to think about that. The episodes were awful, but it's terrible to think of a writer directly exposed to so much negative hyperbole that instead of improving she's almost too afraid to write any more (though it didn't stop her delivering another appalling double episode next season, so perhaps my sympathy should be qualified). I suppose the blame for putting her in that position should go to the producers who didn't spot they'd been handed and were filming a dud. Still it must be a horrible experience, being savaged for your best efforts. It makes me wonder whether I'd actually want to put myself through it, given the opportunity.
Update: I have to recommend The Writer's Tale to anyone interested in how a story comes together - assuming you like Doctor Who, of course: it would be a bit pointless if you weren't a fan. It's an enormous (and very nicely typeset and compiled) book, full of wise words, as well as plausible ideas in which you can see the seeds of folly. But annoyingly for me, reading the scripts and listening to the thought processes behind them, I wonder whether I would have spotted the problems ahead. I can watch an episode and see that it's chaotic and too childish (or alternatively too bleak) and ultimately unsatisfying, but I've been reading the scripts, and learning about all the incremental tweaks that were made, and I'm not 100% sure I would I have spotted those flaws at that stage. That's troubling. Will I have to let RTD off the hook for his many howlers? The only thing I can say for sure is he really could have done better with his dialogue in a lot of places. I can now see that RTD has some great instincts and some excellent self-imposed guidelines for writing, but he doesn't push himself hard enough to come up with original but realistic lines for his actors to say. And his standards for what makes sense in plot terms are definitely on the low side. But then if you aim to write five or six episodes a year, as well as extensively rewrite as many more, and supply the ideas for those others (all except Steven Moffat's) - and that's on top of lots of exec producer duties - then you'd better be organised and use your time effectively. And sadly for RTD he's more of a panicker and a last-minute-scribbler. I can't help wondering what his scripts would have been like if he'd got to work in good time. Better? The same? Dull? The Writer's Tale is excellent food for thought if you write for a living and lean towards exuberant yarn spinning.