On Doctor Who, Narrative, and Theories

Doctor Who inspires theories. I’ve had some interesting ones over the years, from what Jack Harkness might actually be (more interesting than the Face of Boe, let me tell you), to how Donna Noble was actually the TARDIS, to reset buttons, to a switcheroo in lieu of regeneration. Absolutely sensible, absolutely logical, and…

Absolutely wrong. Every last one of them. :oops:

Though I’m still holding out hope for my theory on Jack Harkness. It really is just too cool for words.

I was reading Stuart Ian Burns‘s blog this evening, and in his latest post he points to a Doctor Who blog post by MaryAnn Johanson in which she argues that clues have been planted throughout the current season that lead to the conclusion that Doctor Who is just a dream, and evidence from the latest episode, “The Hungry Earth” is trotted out.

If this season of Doctor Who is just a dream, then “Amy’s Choice” makes the dream positively phildickian, because then we have dreams-within-dreams-within-dreams, and I’m not sure that the family audience the BBC targets with Doctor Who would be receptive to that much of a mindfuck.

That said, Stuart points out that, even if MaryAnn is wrong in her theory:

These details show that the whole series is working at far higher narrative order than any of the first four and that includes the bees. But let’s also not forget the detailed theories that spun out of Bad Wolf and what a shambles that turned out to be.

I read Stuart’s post, thought about it, pondered it. Comparing “Bad Wolf” from the Eccleston season (and Tennant’s “Turn Left,” though I, like Tennant was himself, am completely baffled as to what the hell “Bad Wolf” meant in that episode) to the cracks manifesting themselves in space and time in the current season is apt — they both appear to be narrative element that ties the season’s story arc together. I say “appear” deliberately; we don’t actually know that the cracks and fissures of the current season are anything more than a red herring. We’re assuming that the cracks are the arc, because they’ve been ever-present, but also because of past experience with arc elements in Doctor Who‘s recent past. we, as fans, as the audience, are making the assumption. It’s not an unwarranted assumption, but it’s still an assumption.

As an aside, I suspect that “There are no ducks in the duck pond” may be more important to the season’s arc and its resolution than the cracks. The cracks may be a symptom of the disease, not the disease itself.

That said, making the assumption with the cracks as the arc, building presumably toward the Pandorica opening, whatever that means, then the comparison to “Bad Wolf” is apt. And “Bad Wolf” as the arc, as Stuart suggests, really did not make a whole lot of sense. Nor, for that matter, did the other season arcs. The reason? Russell T. Davies’ narrative style.

Reading The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter recently, what struck me was a passage near the end where RTD discusses the manner in which he constructed his narratives. He wrote for the moment, or words to that effect. The conventional structure — Chekhov and his gun on the mantelpiece — held no interest for him. When things came together, as random or as unprepared as they may have seemed to the audience, RTD wrote that the surprise was the point. It seemed that he was saying that we as the audience shouldn’t have been able to put “Bad Wolf” together, we shoudln’t have been able to figure out that Professor Yana was the Master (until the moment “Utopia” whacked us over the head with a mallet), we shouldn’t have been able to figure out why the stars were going out. (I’ll be honest; I’m still unclear on that one.) RTD’s narratives were designed to withhold information from an attentive audience, and while he left interesting puzzle pieces on the table from which interesting theories could be built, because we could see those pieces RTD had little to no interest in using them. They weren’t part of the breathless moment, that sense of “now.”

I read a certain amount of defensiveness in RTD’s explanation to Ben Cook about his narrative tricks. Of course, maybe I wanted to read that defensiveness. Maybe in reading how the year of specials came together I realized how wide the gap was between the public perception of RTD as a man with a plan and the reality of RTD as a producer who was making it all up as he went along. His longer narratives were shambles because they had to hit the emotional setpieces he wanted, whether they made any narrative sense or not. That’s what I got out of The Writer’s Tale: The Final Chapter.

(The other thing I got out of TWT:TFC was the impression that Children of Earth was a happy accident that came together in spite of RTD’s inability to plan, which only makes me appreciate that series more. But that’s a musing for another time.)

The problem with trying to evaluate Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who mega-narrative for this season is our familiarity with RTD’s past. To some extent we’ve become deadened to narrative signposts because we’re used to them not meaning anything, and so we’re inclined to dismiss them or not accord them proper weight. We’re also used to each episode occurring largely in a vacuum. RTD gave the appearance of an overaching plotline in each of his seasons, but in reality perhaps only a quarter of each season was actually relevant to the arc.

If RTD’s stories hit emotional buttons in me (and yes, I admit that they did, at times), Moffat’s season thus far has been hitting narrative buttons. I’m coming away from the episodes feeling, not that they’re discrete stories on their own, but that they’re chapters in a larger narrative. I find it somewhat gratifying that people who dismissed my take on a scene in “The Eleventh Hour” — young Amelia on her luggage in the morning and the sound of the TARDIS materializing was taken online universally as a dream — have begun to entertain the possibility that this scene is actually important in the wake of “Flesh and Stone.” Moffat has said that a scene in “Victory of the Daleks” will have to be rewatched, though at this point I have no idea which scene that is. “Flesh and Stone” feels like the shift in plot a movie has at roughly the one-third mark, where everything you thought you knew gets spun in a different direction, and I expect that sometime in the next two hours (err… episodes) everything is going to go to hell as we set up for the final act.

I crave narrative. I like plot. And I can feel the narrative gears turning with this season of Doctor Who. The narrative gears were there in the past, only they never amounted to anything. This year, it feels like they could have a genuine payoff. I’m trying to be cautious, in case they don’t. Doctor Who has disappointed me in the past with its finales. Yet, I cannot help but think that Steven Moffat has decided to show Russell T. Davies — and fandom, for that matter — what a story arc really looks like.

I’m not theorizing about where this season of Doctor Who is going. Oh, I’ve toyed with ideas like Amy not being entirely real, or the “No ducks in the duck pond” suggesting a chameleon circuit or perception filter, but a vast, overarching theory that takes the pieces Steven Moffat has put on the table? No, I’m not doing it.

Though I am throwing out the idea that Moffat may push the reset button that Davies did not. :holmes:

And for readers wanting more of Stuart’s Doctor Who musings (which are always entertaining and thoughtful), be sure to read Behind the Sofa on a regular basis where he, and a number of other fans, hold forth on the latest episodes. It’s well worth your time.

2 thoughts on “On Doctor Who, Narrative, and Theories

  1. “Though I am throwing out the idea that Moffat may push the reset button that Davies did not.”

    Perhaps the scene from Victory of the Daleks that’ll require review is the scene when Amy doesn’t remember Daleks.

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