I would like to propose a theory: let us call it the Inverse Law of Creative Actualization.
Stated simply, my theory is this: that artistic strengths—if they are indulged too often, and too long, and too successfully—will inevitably become artistic weaknesses. My theory proposes that the very qualities that make a creator successful in the first place are increasingly indulged until they become habits, and then crutches, and then, ultimately, failings.
It's a half-serious theory, and I haven't thought it through to decide if it can be applied universally throughout the artistic world. I only came up with it just now, in relation to Doctor Who, and specifically in relation to the two men who have acted as showrunners since the revival of the series in 2005.
I would, for example, characterize the chief strength of Russell T Davies as emotion: he brought a genuine humanity to Doctor Who when he revived the show for the 21st century. He created a Doctor—the Ninth—who was complicated by more emotional baggage than any previous incarnation, and he created a companion—Rose—whom I would still argue is the most complete, relatable, touchingly human character ever to travel in the TARDIS. Season One of new Who had a strong emotional subtext that made it the perfect reinvention of the series for a modern audience.
But then the emotional subtext increasingly became text, didn't it? It wasn't enough for there to be a powerful emotional bond between the Doctor and Rose: it had to skew into a doomed romance. It wasn't enough for the companions to be richly human: they had to become clingy, lovelorn, and hysterical. It wasn't enough for the Doctor to be emotionally complex, he had to become downright emo, prone to frequent breakdowns and increasingly maudlin, histrionic outbursts. The poignant emotional content that had served as a welcome undercurrent for Doctor Who threatened, towards the end of Davies' run, to absolutely subsume the show in a tidal wave of progressively cheap, manipulative, overwrought tears. Davies became a more indulgent, less restrained version of himself as time went by, until his greatest strength became his greatest weakness.
Enter Steven Moffat. What emotion was to Davies, cleverness is to Moffat. Moffat's stories under Davies—"The Empty Child," "The Girl in the Fireplace," "Blink," and "Silence in the Library"—were so clever. We marveled at his cleverness. We rejoiced in his cleverness. Wouldn't it be wonderful, we thought, if someone so fiendishly clever was writing Doctor Who all the time?
And it was, for a while. Cleverness is the most powerful tool in Moffat's toolbox, and he can do wonderful things with it. Most of Season Five is clever in a good way: stories like "The Eleventh Hour, " "Flesh and Stone," and "The Big Bang" don't completely make sense, but then neither did "Blink": what matters is whether they use their cleverness in service of good storytelling, and I'd argue that those stories—for the most part—do.
But the problem is—as the old saying goes—when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Throughout Moffat's run, stories have grown more intentionally convoluted, as though a simpler construction is somehow beneath him. One clever idea is never enough: each story needs at least three or four different, disconnected clever ideas that can battle it out for illogical supremacy. (Think how relatively simple—how tight—episodes like "Blink" and "Girl in the Fireplace" seem now, compared to overcrowded clusterfucks like "The Wedding of River Song," "The Time of the Doctor," and "Death in Heaven.") In short, it feels like Moffat has lost control of his cleverness, much as Davies once lost control of his emotion.
I didn't intend to rant about all of this today, but somehow it was the only way I could find my way into talking about my frustrations with "The Witch's Familiar." Because there was a great episode of Doctor Who to be found here, if Moffat could have just reined in his need to be so, so clever.
The binary hearts of this episode—and the elements that work just fine—are the two parallel pairings: the Doctor/Davros and Clara/Missy. All four actors are wonderful here, and I could have watched them each square off against their counterparts all day long. One of the problems with the Daleks as the Doctor's arch-nemeses is that their conversational style leaves a lot to be desired, and so Davros has always filled that rhetorical gap in the series. He never really does much, but he provides an eloquent voice of opposition with whom the Doctor can actually argue. (One suspects this was the entire reason he was created, much like the Borg Queen in Star Trek: First Contact: if you want to have philosophical arguments with enemies who are designed to be mindless drones of destruction, you need to give them a spokesperson.)
And the content of the Doctor's arguments with Davros here is fairly satisfying, centering as it does around the central bone of contention between them: the issue of compassion. Last week, Davros taunted the Doctor to admit, finally, that compassion was wrong, that it was a weakness. This week he expands on that theme both in his words—"It grows fierce in you, like a cancer," he says of compassion—and in his evil scheme, which is designed to play upon the Doctor's sympathies. Calling back again to "Genesis of the Daleks," he tempts the Doctor with nihilism, pointing out that the Doctor could annihilate the Daleks by committing "genocide, in a moment." But his real plan is to do the opposite: to take advantage of the Doctor's "weakness" and sucker him into pouring not death but life—his regeneration energy—into the Dalek network. Things get a little thematically dicey when it is revealed that the Doctor knew what Davros wanted, and played along with it as a means to destroy every Dalek on Skaro, but I think it works overall with the larger point: the Doctor wins not by committing an act of hatred, but by committing an act of compassion.
This is all good stuff, and it works in part because we have to assume sincerity in the duplicity. The Doctor does have it within him to commit to genocide, and Davros—for all his blustering about compassion being a weakness—cannot completely be faking the emotions he expresses to lure the Doctor into the trap. (I simply do not believe Davros is a good enough actor to have totally faked the tears and genuine pathos he displays here.) He is a dying old man. He is wondering whether he has done the right things in his life. There is a part of him that—after destroying his own race of people—finds the survival of the Doctor's people moving. His emotions are real: he just fights against them. He still has his Kaled—human—eyes: he just doesn't open them very often.
The Doctor's anger is real too, but he fights against it: that's what makes him the Doctor. He is capable of abandoning a child alone on a battlefield, but he will ultimately make the choice to go back and save that child. As I said last week—referencing back to "The Day of the Doctor"—he would rather fail doing the right thing than succeed in doing the wrong. ("It will kill you in the end," Davros says, of compassion. "I wouldn't die of anything else," the Doctor replies.) But no one is ever just one thing: this is a theme that pervades Moffat's run on Doctor Who. It's given form here by both the Doctor and Clara climbing inside Dalek machinery at various points, and it's articulated at the end by Missy. "The friend inside the enemy, the enemy inside the friend," she says. "Everyone's a bit of both, everyone's a hybrid." It is always—as we've seen again and again, and as we see in the Doctor's decision to save young Davros on the battlefield—a choice.
Missy and Clara, too, embody this dynamic. They each contain potential for good and evil, for compassion as well as hatred. "The Doctor does not use weapons," the Daleks say, when the Doctor points a blaster at them. In the very next scene, Clara is threatening to kill Missy with a pointy stick. "Do you really think you could?" Missy asks, and turns her back to provide Clara with the opportunity. But Clara, of course, chooses not do it (even though Missy has—hilariously—just pushed her down a hole). Missy's dualities are on display as well: she is capable of total callousness one moment—using Clara as bait for a trap—and compassion the next. (Watch how, after the snare has been set, she throws herself against Clara to protect her from the exploding Dalek.) Enemy and friend, friend and enemy: everyone contains both, and it's always a choice. Missy—the Master—is just one of those people whose mixture tends a little too far in the wrong direction, one of those individuals too often tempted to make the wrong choice. (Her attempt to trick the Doctor into destroying Dalek-Clara at the end plays out less like an evil plan, and more as a momentary weakness, a whimsical indulgence of her evil curiosity and petty jealousies.)
As I've said, this is all worthy stuff. So why, you may be wondering, did I begin this post with so much complaining?
Because I wish all this worthiness had not been crowded and complicated and choked by so much goddamned cleverness. I wish Steven Moffat trusted his audience to enjoy a fairly simple story about interactions between people, without surrounding it with stopped planes, and recombinant snake men, and medieval rock concerts, and confession disks, and mysterious prophecies about hybrids, and phony cliffhanger death scenes, and Hostile Action Dispersal Systems. (What was all the nonsense about the Doctor expecting to die? Did we get any explanation for that?) When I heard Season Nine would consist mostly of two-parters, I hoped it meant stories would be less crowded, not more: the ideas in either one of these two episodes would have been plenty to occupy both running times, but Moffat apparently can't help himself from continually introducing more balls than he can comfortably juggle.
And I dearly wish the resolution of this story could have centered on something other than the phony contrivance of Chekhov's Diarrhea Daleks, a disgusting and illogical pasty goo introduced roughly half an hour before they would be needed to make the Doctor (and Moffat) seem brilliant. This is exactly the sort of faux clever idea that makes me insane about Moffat's Who: it is disingenuous clutter, neither necessary nor earned. What's worse, it is thematically irrelevant, and therefore unsatisfying: the resolution of the episode doesn't ultimately hinge at all on the philosophical conversations between the Doctor and Davros, but simply on the convenient presence of a subterranean layer of Shitleks. (Had the Doctor's regeneration energy simply destroyed the Daleks directly—a positive force of mercy and compassion that their fundamentally evil little systems couldn't handle—it would arguably have been cheesy, but it would have less contrived and more on-point. Or, going further: what if the regeneration energy had actually regenerated the Daleks, beginning to turn them back into fundamentally more human Kaleds? That would have been very on-point, tying back to Davros's Kaled eyes and the fundamentally hybrid nature of good and evil.)
Sigh. I'm beginning to write in my head the episode I wish I had watched, and that's always a poor way to review. So I'll simply conclude by saying that I'm finding Moffat's Doctor Who increasingly frustrating, to the point where I've honestly wondered if I want to keep writing about the show. There is almost always enough good stuff at the core to make it worthwhile, but it's becoming harder and harder to sort through all the clever clutter to find it. When Moffat brings focus, he's still as good as—or better than—nearly anyone. (Last season's "Listen" was Moffat at the height of his game, taking a brilliant idea and not suffocating it with tons of extraneous nonsense.) But the sad truth of the matter is that I've reached a point I never expected to reach: I find myself dreading the episodes Moffat does write more than the ones he doesn't.
A Toby Whithouse two-parter begins next week? By all means, bring it on.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Apologies for the extreme lateness of this post. It was a combination of factors: my ambiguous feelings about this episode played their part, but I was also both overworked and under the weather this week. Sorry.
- Lest you think me entirely cranky, there was a lot of good stuff here, and some very funny writing. Yes, I laughed when Missy pushed Clara into the hole, though it was completely predictable. (Probably because it was completely predictable.) I laughed at Davros's line about "the only other chair on Skaro." I laughed at the Doctor's line about being in Davros's chair. ("Admit it: you've all had this exact nightmare.") And, god help me, I laughed at Missy's line: "No, he's the Doctor: he fell into a nest of vampire monkeys."
- Michelle Gomez is fantastic as Missy. I go back and forth between worrying that Moffat will overuse her—as previous Masters have been overused—and wanting her to be the next full-time companion.
- As I've written before, I am sick to death of Moffat obsessing about the nature of the Doctor: as far as I'm concerned, he finished that arc with "The Day of the Doctor," and we don't need to revisit the question of what sort of man he is for a while. From that perspective, there was a little too much navel-gazing in his interactions with Davros. ("Sometimes, on a good day, if I try very hard, I'm not some old Time Lord who ran away. I'm the Doctor.") But in the very same scenes there were lines I liked, that speak to the Doctor just being a good man, and not agonizing over it all the time. ("I didn't come here because I'm ashamed: a bit of shame never hurt anyone," he tells Davros. "I came because you're sick, and you asked.")
- The failure to reference back to the fact that Clara was a Dalek the first time we met her speaks, to me, to a fundamental incoherence about Clara's overall arc. It should mean something significant that Clara's been inside a Dalek three times now—counting "Asylum of the Daleks" and "Into the Dalek"—but the development of that character has always been frustratingly inconsistent and fuzzy. (The titles of these episodes just underline the problem: I made a stab last week at an alternate interpretation, but really they only make sense in relation to Clara: she is both the magician's [Doctor's] apprentice and the witch's [Missy's] familiar. But these episodes could hardly be less about Clara.) I suspect I'll have more to say about this as we get closer to Jenna Coleman's departure.
- Speaking of which, it was announced this week that there will be a Sarah Jane Adventures-style spin-off set at the Coal Hill School. Hey, whatdya know, I predicted that last year! (I must use these powers only for good.) Of course, I predicted that such a spin-off would feature both Clara and Danny, the first of whom has not been confirmed, and the second of whom would now seem unlikely. Still: partial credit, surely?