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 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.”
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.