Doctor Who and the Sin of Sloppy Storytelling

Warning to Whovians: This post contains spoilers for the most recent season, including this week’s episode.

Warning to everyone else: You’re probably not going to care much about the particulars of this post, so feel free to wander on by.

Storytelling.  No matter what medium you choose – movies, TV, novels, flash fiction, or comic books – there’s nothing more important.  Storytelling is the overarching competency with which you build your world, develop your characters, and follow the actual series of events that constitute your plot.  There’s nothing more important because there’s nothing else you’re trying to achieve, really.

Storytelling is everything – and Doctor Who is really bad at it.

For the purposes of full disclosure, I’ll start off by saying that I’m not a die-hard fan, by the most stringent definition.  I’ve only picked through a couple of the classic episodes just to get my bearings, and I started watching the new series a mere three years ago, so I’m late to the game.

But I really enjoy it, and I think it’s done some excellent things over its (gasp) nearly ten-year-long run.  I think Peter Capaldi is a fantastic actor, and I love the passion and wryness that he’s bringing to the role.

Which is why it’s so disappointing to see him fall victim to really terrible plotting and some cringe-worthy, elementary storytelling mistakes.  This season has been especially dismal, as the showrunners try to jazz things up and make everything cool and dark and edgy.  It’s been nothing but failure after failure, and there are lessons for storytellers of all kinds in those rudimentary errors.

Here are four of the biggest pitfalls that the Doctor has failed to avoid in recent weeks.

Detail doesn’t always equal world building

Little things can make a big difference when it comes to fashioning a realistic society.  A mention of a past cataclysmic event, the unique wording of a minced oath or a prayer, and the way a woman dresses or a man greets his friends can add life and color to an otherwise flat environment.

But knowing where to put in details – and where to leave them out – is what distinguishes a rich world from a cobbled-together mess of cultural clichés.  Let’s take the Indo-Japanese set-up in Sleep No More, for example.  You may remember that each of the soldiers talking over their communication device would say something like, “Come in, Ando.  May the gods look favorably upon you.  Are you dead yet?”

Now, I’m sure the writers intended that phrase to bring a bit of Neo Asian spice to the rather haphazard and poorly-presented 38th century cultural landscape, but here’s the rub.

Number one, I guarantee half of you misremembered the phrase as the one from The Hunger Games, so that was poorly planned.  Number two, there was nothing about gods in the rest of the plot, so who cares if they’re looking favorably at anyone?  Everyone dies anyway, so clearly it doesn’t work as a benediction.

Number three, extraneous words like that have no place in military communications, where they could be garbled and confused, and they certainly waste time and effort when speaking on a two-way radio.

So what did that detail bring to the party, other than confusion?  Did it make you feel more connected to a world you never even really got to see?

Suspension of disbelief?  Rubbish.

In the same episode, the Doctor commits the cardinal sin of storytelling: he gets roped into telling, not showing.

“Well, of course the vicious sand men are the sleep from the corner of your eye,” he says based on no evidence whatsoever.  “You’re just going to accept that dead skin and mucous can become sentient and kill people, aren’t you?  I’ve never encountered this before, and I’m not even going to bother making up some silly technical jargon to explain how they came to life, but let’s just take this as a given because we have to get to the pointless ‘twist’ at the end pretty soon.”

He did the same thing with the quantum shade in Face the Raven this week.  What is it?  Why does Me have it?  Why can she only control it to the exact degree required to manipulate the rest of the plot into shape?  Why should we just accept that Clara is destined to die, when the Doctor is so good at getting out of all these other “inevitable” situations?

Now, the episode will be continued next week, so I guess we can’t discount the possibility of an explanation.  But with the way things are going, I wouldn’t bet my hat on it.

This is especially frustrating because you can look back at an episode like Mummy on the Orient Express, where the Doctor spends a lot of time trying to figure out what the hell the monster is.  Because we already know the Doctor hasn’t come across every single type of lifeform in the universe.  And when you see something new, you have to figure out what it is before you can kill it.

He actually solved a mystery, instead of stating that a) there is no mystery because the Doctor knows things he really has no way of knowing, or b) the mystery is simply unsolvable or irrelevant, so you’ve just got to accept it because they said so.

You can’t just say things that are outrageous or unfamiliar to an audience and expect them to go with it.  You have to at least throw them a little bit of a bone.  Even if you’re just going to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow, you must have some sort of justification for why things happen the way they do.  “Trust me, I’m the Doctor” only works in some situations, not all of them.

The Doctor has (nearly) infinite time, but we don’t

Cut to the chase.  Really.  I mean, can we talk about Odin in The Girl Who Died?  What was the point of that?  Unless it was some kind of subtle homage to Monty Python, I haven’t seen anything so ridiculous since the low-budget days of the 1970s.

Tell me I'm not the only one who saw this.
Tell me I’m not the only one who saw this.

Also, think about it.  If a big alien guy is going to come to a Viking village, eat all its warriors, and then immediately leave, why does it have to cloak itself in a form familiar to the culture?  Any big scary monster is going to make the warriors come out to fight.  It doesn’t have to insinuate itself into the mindset of its enemies.  It wasn’t planning to stay until Aschildr antagonized him.  Why waste our valuable time pretending that it matters?

The whole episode was a bit of a stretch, with the montage of preparing for the battle with the Mire and whatnot.  It definitely felt like they had enough material for one-and-a-half episodes with Maisie Williams, but they had to stretch it out into two.

The thing is, they really didn’t.  Doesn’t the Doctor have enough to say about immortality (or something like it)?  Couldn’t they have done some better foreshadowing if they knew Me was going to come back and kill Clara a few episodes later?  After all, they’ve made such a big deal about Clara’s drawn-out leaving saga that they could have spent more than five minutes on the fact that she was actually, finally going to die.

TV episodes have 42 minutes to make us care.  Doctor Who tries to make a brand new big, complex world fit into that tiny block of time each and every week.  There isn’t room for meandering and filler.  There isn’t room for loose writing and pointless detail.  Tighten up on the reins and give us the punch in the gut we know you can.

Tugging on the wrong heartstrings

Speaking of which.  Am I the only one who had absolutely no recollection of Rigsy?  I was not given any indication that I had to remember him when his primary episode ended, so I spent the whole time trying to recall where he was from.

And that meant that I didn’t particularly care that he was accused of a crime he didn’t commit.  Yes, the wife and baby at home gave it a gloss of tragedy, but let’s imagine something else for a minute.

Imagine if the episode started with Clara in her bathroom.  Wait – first imagine that you’re not totally sick and tired of Clara.  Then imagine her in the bathroom looking at the back of her neck.  She picks up the phone, her hand shaking slightly.  “Doctor, I seem to have a tattoo…and it’s counting down.”

You’re immediately invested, because you know Clara and you care about her.  You’re intrigued if she blanks out for a whole day, because you know she’s smart enough and experienced enough to be aware of alien things that might happen to her.  So why can’t she remember?  Bam, instant tension and mystery.

Bam, the Doctor has an immediate and pressing motive to figure out what happened.  He has to fret about losing Clara for the whole episode, not just the last two minutes.  They both have to face the inevitability of mortality, and they get to do it together.  Clara can do more than throw away a single line about courting death this whole time.  She can explore who the Doctor has turned her into, and she can either forgive him or blame him for it as she stares down her final moments.

The Doctor has to face the fact that he can’t save everyone – not because Clara made a stupid and clumsy mistake just to further a plot point, but because sometimes there are evil forces in the world greater than he is.  The Doctor doesn’t always win – and we could have had 42 minutes to explore his pain at that notion.

But we didn’t.  We had five minutes, and it felt like a total waste of time.  Because the writers missed this golden opportunity for some serious drama.  They misjudged the audience, and they misjudged their own capabilities to craft an absorbing farewell for a long-running character.

The problem is that they’re trying too hard and they don’t have enough of a critical eye to make it work.  Everyone needs to be a little brutal with the red pen before anything gets finalized, and I don’t think they have an editor that can ask the tough questions and make the right calls.

It’s very disappointing that this season has struck such a sour tone.  It isn’t all bad – I liked the underwater ghost episodes, and I enjoyed Peter Capaldi yelling at the Zygons about peace in our time.  But there are so many amateur mistakes in the construction of these episodes that there’s so little incentive for me to keep watching as faithfully as I have.

So please, showrunners.  Get it together.  Trim the nonsense, find a way to get under our skin, and skip the silly meandering around what really matters.  You’ve done it before.  I’m sure you can do it again.  And if you want me to fly over there and set you all straight, I’ll start booking my tickets.

3 Replies to “Doctor Who and the Sin of Sloppy Storytelling”

  1. I’m not a regular viewer myself. I’ve only seen a handful of episodes with Tennant and Smith, and couple with Capaldi, but I do like the show in general. However, I saw the ‘Sleep No More’ ep., and thought it seemed awfully sub par.

  2. That was the worst one in recent memory, I think, and that’s saying something.

  3. I feel the same way. Moffat seems more interested in telling us how we’re suppose to feel, rather than actually working for a genuine reaction. I was sad Clara died but….the way she died was SOOOOO dumb. She died because she was being an idiot. I also wish they could have examined more closely the way traveling with The Doctor has effected her. It was pretty glossed over in the grand scheme of things. Most of the time I prefer showing and not telling, but in this case The Doctor should have done more. At some point he should have taken her to the side and said “hey, you need to cool it. You’re gonna get yourself killed.” Only in a more Doctory way. Also, I felt like The Doctor’s reaction to her death was a bit…understated. I didn’t want to see hysterical sobbing, or anything, but Capaldi’s performance seemed less like a person who just lost their best friend, and more like a person who had their car keyed. I mean, I know the guy can act, I saw The Zygon Inversion, so I was a bit underwhelmed by his performance in this scene. Then again, maybe it was just poor direction. Or poor writing.

Comments are closed.