04 January 2014

Stop the Big Damn Heroes, Just for One Day

I'm going to start by saying something controversial: I think Stephen Moffat is a pretty good TV writer. There might be certain flaws in his characterisations. He might be pathologically incapable of making anyone actually properly die. But as a writer he has an impressive talent for messy, complicated situations, where all the loose ends neatly knot together at the end in a fun surprise. So, he's not only come up with two of the scariest monsters in Doctor Who - not just scary-looking but conceptually terrifying - but, by the end of the episode/double bill, the main, terrifying aspect of them has been used to defeat them. Coupling had its spectacularly fuckawful moments and got entirely unwatchable after two serieses, but the two funniest episodes ('Sex, Death and Nudity' and 'The Girl With Two Breasts') were funny because they did this tying together thing very, very well. And obviously this is a useful talent for 1. Programmes about bizarrely incomprehensible time-travel and 2. complex whodunits. He also does a lot of quite good self-referential running gags and one-liners.

But the main reason I found his Doctor Who refreshing was that I hate heroes. I was sick of Russell T. Davies's dashing, handsome, heroic heroes, swaggering round being dashing, handsome and heroic. David Tennant being all cool, Captain Jack with his chin drawn with a set-square, the swishing fucking trenchcoats of it all. It was refreshing to see Matt Smith and Stephen Moffat turn Doctor Who into a madman with a box, an exciteable idiot on holiday. An exciteable idiot with terrible dress sense in a stupid tie and a hat nobody likes. Sherlock, too, is funny because, as well as being an affectionate parody, it plays up what an obnoxious, insensitive, arrogant little dickweasel Sherlock Holmes really is.

Trouble is, Moffat has his own set of problems with heroes. By the end, Number Eleven is swaggering around, swinging a prop in fiery silhouette, as heroic-saga narration explains how much buns he kicked. Genuinely intelligent people are acting as if bowties and fezzes actually are cool, rather than this being the opinion of a badly dressed box-madman. We've got the same insufferable hero worship we got with David Tennant, but with a novelty geek theme. More importantly though, almost all Moffat's major characters and antagonists tend to have the hero as their main or only motive.

Take Moriarty for example. In 'The Final Problem', when Conan Doyle introduces him, he'd barely been aware of Sherlock Holmes, and for a long time completely unaware that Sherlock Holmes had heard of him. Sherlock Holmes needed this to win. In the meantime, Moriarty had a whole crime empire to run rather than pissing about trolling amateur sleuths. In BBC Sherlock though, he's the mastermind behind five of the six episodes in the first two series, specifically targetting and toying with Sherlock Holmes in at least three of them. I wouldn't be surprised to see his ghost surface in Series 3 either. Rather than Sherlock giving up his life pursuing Moriarty, Moriarty devotes his entire existence to pursuing Holmes, seemingly just for the fun of it.

At the climax of each Moffat series, it turns out most of the episodes have been building up to a big conspiracy. As likely as not, all the monsters in the galaxy have turned up in their spaceships and are waiting for him. Maybe they want to put him in a big box, maybe they've stolen a baby and they want it to kill him and he cheated, maybe Withnail has been listening to their prophecies and lured him to his own grave to sneak inside his life. But whatever it was, every Moffat series has a conspiracy against Doctor Who. And then, in this year's Christmas special, it turns out that all those conspiracies - the exploding Tardis that made everyone want to put him in a box, the stolen assassin-baby, the weird Trenzalore knock-knock joke adaptation - were all part of the same conspiracy. An entire version of Doctor Who - and Moffat's entire session as showrunner so far - has been driven by the same conspiracy just to get one bloke. Even the Daleks - who have thousands upon thousands of other sentient races to destroy - put ludicrous amounts of time and energy into chasing round one idiot in a stupid hat.

You also see this with Irene Adler. Now what I will say for Moffat's Adler is she gets a massive upgrade from the books. She goes from a small-time blackmailer who he tricks and exposes, but who outwits him enough to give him the slip and escape with her dignity, to having a ninety-minute intellectual duel with him. But her motives have to change. She's no longer an ordinary musician trying to sneak away with an incriminating photo of her high-profile lover, she's a fangirl who wants to play with him. Maybe she wants to bone him, maybe she wants to play detective powerplay brain-chess with him, maybe she wants to play detective powerplay brain-chess with him as a kind of substitute boning, but either way, her motive is Sherlock. This, it turns out in the end, is her undoing (though if you count it up she might still win on aggregate).

Then we see Doctor Who's lady friends. In and of themselves, I'd say the Female Companion is quite a good way to do it. Yeah, it's quite creepy, even more so after it we got rid of the eccentric uncles and brought in cool handsome young Doctors the companions almost always end up fancying. But the character the audience identifies with, the character whose eyes we're supposed to look through while we try and make sense of this enigmatic, irrational character and his mysterious whims and thoughts, is invariably a woman. It's at least a neat, believable gender-swap of a lot of very old clichés. River Song too, is a brilliant idea for a character, especially since she's seen it all already and runs rings round her husband - though obviously as the story arc goes on the roles get reversed. The problem is, not only do Amy Pond, River Song and Clara Oswald end up becoming mysteries Doctor Who has to solve, the answer is always the same thing: Because of Doctor Who. River is an assassin made to kill him. Amy is her mother. Clara is a succession of variants of herself sent to get him out of sticky situations. Only Amy is introduced as someone who was just getting on with her life before he clattered in and turned everything upside-down, and even that ends up with some odd 26th-June-2010 magic behind it. Then in turn, Rory has the same relationship to her: a plot-device to service a plot-device.

One major thing I like about Doctor Who is his way of saving the day, not after seeing some sort of horrible-bowtie bat-signal and running in, but after blundering accidentally into situations that are already going on. Here, the Weeping Angels are sort of Moffat's saving grace: since they don't have any agenda besides eating time or whatever, he can just stumble in - though even with 'Blink' their initial motive is to get their hands on his delicious Tardis. Sherlock Holmes is the same - he sits around smoking, taking cocaine and playing the violin until someone rings his doorbell with some petty crime that intrigues him. Moffat can't do this. Moffat can do flawed, idiotic, bumbling, arrogant, prickish, quasi-genocidal, actually-slightly-embarrassing heroes, but he can't do heroes who are just there. He can't do heroes who the surrounding characters are indifferent to, or have lives independent of, or would be getting on fine with their galactic crime empires if it wasn't for these meddling nerds. He can't even do heroes without every woman in the show wanting to bone them - at least Captain Jack's square-jawed pan-sexy stud act was funny rather than dim background hum.

Initially this was clever. The Doctor had spent ten, if not twelve, incarnations going round bollocksing up various alien empires' dastardly plans, so it's not surprising a few might be out to get him. Tardises probably are really powerful and desirable. The unwanted fame and cult status and fan speculation become a really good running gag in Sherlock. The "question as old as time itself", broadcast throughout time and space, is quite a smart nod to the "Doctor who?" thing being a really, really old joke, if not a funny nod to it. For all the characters to be basically caused by the hero, for their lives revolve entirely round some galaxy-trotting idiot in a box, can work in small doses. Even Moffat has made it work very well at times. But you need very, very careful gender politics to pull that off, and, well:

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