On Dramatic Structure and “The Impossible Astronaut”

Has Steven Moffat become Brannon Braga? Or, more to the point, has Moffat always written like Brannon Braga, only we’ve never, ever noticed?

Last night, the first episode of Doctor Who‘s sixth season, “The Impossible Astronaut,” debuted on BBC1 and then, a few hours later on the other side of the pond, on BBC America. BBC1 aired it without commercial interruption. BBC America announced it would be aired “with limited commercial interruption,” thanks to the good graces of BMW, but there were a number of commercial breaks. BBC America also added a US-exclusive opening credits sequence that adds an Amy Pond voice-over, not unlike Quantum Leap‘s “the leap home” or Star Trek‘s “Space, the final frontier…”; it was a nice — and unexpected — touch.

The Eleventh Doctor“The Impossible Astronaut” is the first part of a season-opening two-parter, part of which was filmed in Utah. Beginning an indeterminate time after “A Christmas Carol” (and several months after Amy and Rory have apparently left the TARDIS), Team TARDIS — Amy, Rory, River Song (escaped, again, from Stormcage), and, of course, the Doctor — converge in a remote location in the American West where a lakeside picnic becomes a horrific nightmare when an elderly man in a pick-up truck arrives — and a space-suited figure emerges from beneath the lake’s surface.

Does someone die, as I blogged about last week? Unequivocally, yes, even if the BBC spoiled the precise details of that plot point with three promo photos they released Friday evening. From there, the story races back in time, to April 1969, a secret meeting in the Oval Office, and an encounter with an ex-FBI agent, Canton Everett Delaware III. Meanwhile, Amy has an encounter, in a White House restroom, with an incredibly sinister alien — whereupon she forgets it entirely. Then, a jaunt by TARDIS to Florida, tension, mood, and heart-to-heart conversations, and then, suddenly, a cliffhanger — a space-suited person appears, Amy seizes a gun, and she shoots at the spacesuit while the Doctor screams at her to stop.

As I watched “The Impossible Astronaut” last night on BBC America, I felt uneasy. At first, I wondered if, perhaps, the hype machine for Doctor Who‘s new season (and this new season was hyped to an insane degree) had raised my expectations so far that nothing could — or would — meet them. But as the commercial breaks started to fall — and fall more quickly, in spite of BMW’s “limited commercial interruption” — I realized what was bothering me about “The Impossible Astronaut.”

Structure.

A typical hour-long drama has five commercial breaks. This divides the story into six parts — a teaser and five acts. Each segment should have rising action and incident, and it should climax with a mini-cliffhanger that captures the audience and keeps them hooked through the pause of the commercial break.

“The Impossible Astronaut” had the superficial structure with the commercial breaks. The incidents, however, were completely wrong. When a commercial break was slotted in, it typically didn’t fall at a dramatically appropriate moment. Worse, the commercial breaks highlighted how unincidental some of the events of the episode were, especially starting at roughly the halfway point, and thus the structure of the episode overall fell flat.

Now, many of you reading this are saying to yourselves, “Allyn, you ignorant slut. Doctor Who is written for a commercial-free network. It’s not supposed to conform to the American six-segment episode structure. You can’t expect Steven Moffat to write like that.”

I can’t argue with that, except that Doctor Who, like all drama, should conform to the rules of drama — rising incident, plot complications, and resolution.

“The Impossible Astronaut” didn’t have that, except in fits and drabs. There were some incidents. There were some complications. There was no resolution, though as the first part of a two-parter that’s largely to be expected. The end result was an hour of scenes that were individually good, often quite good, but which lacked energy and had little momentum behind them, adding up to an aimless and formless whole.

Or, to put it another way, Steven Moffat’s script for “The Impossible Astronaut” would have failed a Syd Field Screenwriting 101 course.

Moffat’s script for “The Impossible Astronaut,” in terms of its dramatic structure, resembles greatly a late-period Brannon Braga Star Trek script. This is not a comparison I make lightly. In Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise, Braga pioneered a story structure that deliberately avoided placing dramatic hooks at the act breaks. This resulted in unengaging, undramatic, and lethargic storytelling and certainly contributed to Star Trek fandom’s feelings of apathy toward the two series. While Moffat clearly owes as much a debt to Braga’s narrative and temporal tricks as he does to Audrey Niffenegger’s, emulating Braga’s anti-dramatic tricks is a sure recipe for disaster and dramatic failure.

In Moffat’s defense, “The Impossible Astronaut” is the first part of a two-part story that will conclude next week in “Day of the Moon.” It’s not unreasonable that certain elements of last night’s story exist solely to set up the conclusion and will pay off next week, and I expect that a week from now I’ll be able to see “The Impossible Astronaut” in a different light with a greater appreciation. Perhaps, without commercial interruption the structural flaws of the script are not as blindingly obvious. However, these facts don’t obviate the need of the script to function as a dramatic whole on its own, which “The Impossible Astronaut” manifestly does not, nor does it excuse the script its structural flaws. As a result, “The Impossible Astronaut” is the weakest season opener for Doctor Who since its return — and arguably Steven Moffat’s weakest script for Doctor Who ever.

On the positive side, there’s only one direction the new season of Doctor Who can go from here — up.

13 thoughts on “On Dramatic Structure and “The Impossible Astronaut”

  1. Aww, I don’t even ~want~ to pillory you for this.

    I’m not sure I entirely agree– I think the “rules” of scriptwriting are something that should only interest screenwriters with minimal experience and/or talent, and are best avoided in debating merit– but it’s certainly true that “The Impossible Astronaut,” like “Rise of the Cybermen,” “The Impossible Planet,” “Human Nature,” “The Sontaran Stratagem,” “Silence in the Library,” and “The Time of Angels,” is very much a setup-based part one. It’s often remarked that the one-part contemporary Doctor Who story reaches what would be a classic four-parter’s cliffhanger by the opening credits; it’s less often noted that contemporary two-parters often match the four-part structure exactly, reaching the first non-tease cliffhanger halfway through. (The other usual model for contemporary two-parters is to hook two narratively-related but thematically and tonally distinct stories together, as with “Bad Wolf” and “The Parting of the Ways” or “Army of Ghosts” and “Doomsday.”) And on top of that, “The Impossible Astronaut” is also setting up several season-spanning elements, so it’s got rather a lot to squeeze in.

    Personally, watching the commercial-free BBC1 version, I liked the relaxed pace– it made a nice change from the frenetic “Here’s a new companion and/or Doctor and an Earth invasion in 45 minutes” approach of past years, and I thought the jokes landed better in no small part because the edit didn’t have to be so tight to shove everything in. And beyond that, it felt genuinely rather than cosmetically different from the RTD era, unlike series five, which matched a new visual style with a recycled script/season structure. Whatever else it was, “The Impossible Astronaut” was a redefinition of how contemporary Doctor Who works, and I admire it for that.

  2. I give Moffat props. “The Impossible Astronaut” is unconventional in terms of television narrative, and I applaud his cojones in feeling secure enough in his position and in his audience that he could launch a season — and, from all indication, a season-long story arc — with such a non-traditional episode. I don’t think Davies would have done something like this, which is forty minutes of set-up with absolutely no resolutions. Even “The Time of Angels” answers a few questions by the end; “The Impossible Astronaut” answers nothing.

    Based on the episode itself, we can’t even say with any certainty who the antagonists are. We certainly don’t know what their goal is. And the protagonists have done, as best we can determine, nothing at all to thwart their plans. That’s an incredibly risky thing to do. If Doctor Who were a cult series with a dedicated audience, along the lines of Babylon 5, I could accept this better. But for a mainstream series that, by design, should appeal to all ages, the lack of definition on some basic storytelling points strikes me as an ill-considered, perhaps even self-destructive, move.

    The more I think about that, the more dismayed I am with “The Impossible Astronaut,” because I feel like this was a wasted hour and that the plot hasn’t started yet. I keep thinking of the classic editorial advice, that if your story doesn’t start until chapter two, you chuck chapter one out the window and you start with chapter two, even if you have cool scenes and character moments in chapter one and you loved writing it. If it’s not serving your story, it’s unnecessary and it doesn’t belong.

    I’m unused to feeling this negative about a modern Doctor Who story. “The Impossible Astronaut” feels wrong to me in ways that even RTD’s stories, at their worst, didn’t feel wrong. And yet, I have to admire the audacity of the story, that it willingly does wrong things, even embraces them.

  3. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the final ratings and AI to get hard information, but I’m not sure that the mainstream audience actually concerns itself with those “basic storytelling points”– so many major blockbusters have atrocious narrative structure, but succeed anyway because the viewers didn’t pay attention in English class and didn’t learn about the (putative) importance of clearly defined this, that, and the other. It’s commonly argued that they have a sense of such things even if they can’t elocute it, but that’s an easy claim to make, and a difficult one to prove. More generally, I think fans place a higher premium on Doctor Who making sense and being “accessible” than the mainstream audience ever has.

  4. If this weren’t the season opener, with an impossibly grim premise, I would agree that it was risky. However, Doctor Who being what it is, this is really exciting in terms to narrative structure. Not for episode narratives, mind you — we’ve just been thrust into this season’s Big Bad.

    It’s strange because we didn’t get a nice primer plot to ease us into things. There weren’t any little clues to discolor the Doctor’s short-term triumph. What we got was a peek at the grim future and what amounts to the Doctor’s opening moves in a game that, out of necessity, he doesn’t know he’s playing. It’s a bit off, but if nothing else, it set a tone of urgency and seriousness for the season that we don’t usually see — all while preserving the Doctor’s personal whimsy, and therefore maintaining the proper amount of whimsy. I’m actually quite enamored with the idea. The semi-antagonists and their uncertain intentions aren’t going to be resolved at the end of the two-parter. These two episodes may have a weak internal plot, but they will have much more far-reaching and heavy-handed consequences than anything else we’ve seen so far.

    Because if it’s just a coincidence that our spooky forget-me-now creatures were listed in the credits as “The Silent,” than I will lose all faith in Steve Moffat.

  5. “Doctor Who, like all drama, should conform to the rules of drama — rising incident, plot complications, and resolution.”

    I wonder if your impression would be different if you hadn’t seen it with adverts first time around.

    But I’d also disagree with the above statement with a single word. Why?

    Personally I thought this was one of the best of the season openers because it didn’t do many of things you’ve listed. It was in places wilfully obscure in fact, more like an art house narrative which as David Bordwell would explain wilfully ignore the rules you’ve given. It is as you say brave, and it also assumes some intelligence in the audience which should and has to be applauded.

  6. If I explained the title it would give away too much information and potential spoiler so Im leaving that alone. Shes afraid that one day shell meet him and he wont know who she is and perhaps it will kill her. The commercial breaks were still a bit annoying not in the right place but thats American TV for you..Rating 9.5 10.

  7. Stuart, I’ve been wrestling with that question, and I don’t know that I have a good answer.

    I have since seen the uncut episode, and while it does flow better, it still lacks narrative coherence in my mind. The individual scenes are goid, the direction is top-notch, the performances are compelling, but in the end it feels like something less than the sum of its parts.

    It is a challenging episode, and I applaud Moffat’s confidence that he can do that. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that Moffat’s treatment of the Silents was a misstep — we know they’re evil not because of the episode itself but because of promo material and Confidential. I wish the episode hadn’t been as dismissive of the Silents as it was; yes, it’s cool that the audience knows more than the characters in the story, but ending the episode with the characters still in the dark contributes to my feeling that the story hasn’t started yet.

    I know that come Saturday I’ll feel differently about this episode; the rapturous reactions to the preview screenings, to say nothing of my past experience with Moffat’s narrative puzzle boxes, tells me this. Indeed, I wonder if the two episodes shouldn’t have been shown together, giving the audience a more complete narrative experience.

  8. “we know they’re evil not because of the episode itself but because of promo material and Confidential.”

    …And because one of them murdered that woman in the bathroom for no reason. (Proving their evilness probably ~was~ the reason for that, which is rather sloppy writing, actually.) I do agree that the Silents were not terribly well-integrated with the rest of the episode, which is especially unfortunate given they got the latest round of SCARIEST MONSTER EVAR hype.

    Depending on how part two flows, I wouldn’t be surprised if I wound up feeling that broadcast on the same day, maybe with one programme in between, might have been the way to go. But of course that would be a nightmare to schedule, and judging by the AI the audience clearly found part one a complete narrative experience all by itself.

  9. And because one of them murdered that woman in the bathroom for no reason. (Proving their evilness probably ~was~ the reason for that, which is rather sloppy writing, actually.)

    Brendan, I promise I’m not being disagreeable for disagreeableness’ sake here. :)

    I have entertained the notion since Saturday that Joy wasn’t murdered “for no reason.” It’s not until the Silent vaporizes her that the Silent gains a mouth and the ability to communicate verbally with Amy. It’s entirely possible that the Silent didn’t murder Joy out of malicious intent but because it needed to communicate with Amy. (And yes, I realize just how Star Trek that sounds; it’s what Gene Coon did in “Devil in the Dark” with the Horta.)

    Based on the promos for “Day of the Moon,” yes, I’ll be the first person to say that that’s an utterly absurd reading of events in “The Impossible Astronaut.” But that just points to how badly structured some of “The Impossible Astronaut” is, that you need to have out-of-the-box evidence (promo pictures, interviews, trailers, Confidential) to make the right read of elements of the episode.

  10. Okay, I’ll even make the counter-argument to my assertion there at the end — “that you need to have out-of-the-box evidence (promo pictures, interviews, trailers, Confidential) to make the right read of elements of the episode.”

    It’s Doctor Who. The Silent looks like a monster. Monsters in Doctor Who are bad. So of course the Silent is bad. While other readings are possible (like the Star Trek-esque “don’t judge by appearances”), any reading other than Silent=evil monster is wrong.

    I’d like to think, however, that Doctor Who outgrew that simplistic moral paradigm with the Ood, and then buried it with Torchwood: Children of Earth where the humans were more horrific than the Four-Five-Six.

  11. That’s an interesting theory about the Silent’s communication–even if it’s not right, it should be.

    1. It occurs to me that the idea — that the Silent had to kill Joy to gain a mouth and a voice — is reminiscent of Lance Parkin’s The Eyeless, where the Eyeless didn’t have eyes until they killed someone and took their eyes.

      What made me think of it was the misdirection of the woman’s name — Joy.

      She gets vaporized.

      Amy asks the Silent why he did that.

      The Silent says “Joy” with a menacing voice. Clearly Amy takes that to mean that the Silent vaporized the woman because it brought him pleasure — and the audience is meant to take it that way, too.

      But then the Silent says, “Her name was Joy.” Which makes the previous exchange somewhat ambiguous — did he say “Joy” because it was her name or because it was the emotion he was feeling — and suggests a slightly more charitable read of the situation.

      If it weren’t for the previews of “Day of the Moon,” I could see Moffat pulling an M. Night Shyamalan twist where the Silents are actually good and someone we assume is good is doing something really bad.

  12. “Or, to put it another way, Steven Moffat’s script for “The Impossible Astronaut” would have failed a Syd Field Screenwriting 101 course.”

    Has it occurred to you that this is a good thing? A very, very good thing?

    I disagree with the rest of what you wrote intensely, but I don’t want to come over all ranty. But suggesting that good television writing should be based on “fitting the story to the adverts” and making sure it works in exactly the same way as all other TV dramas seems like the most depressing thing I have ever heard.

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