Steven Moffat: Time Lord
This short piece offers a critical appreciation of one writer (Steven Moffat) and his achievements in one programme (Doctor Who [BBC, 2005-ongoing]). It suggests a way of raising awareness of the impact of a television writer's involvement without elevating the individual above and beyond a programme's wider history, its visual and generic arrangements, or its place in the much larger world of 'Television'.
In the synthesis of word, image, and televisuality in Moffat's Dr Who episodes, the writer acts as conductor: a conduit between the verbal and visual; a virtuoso orchestrator of this operatic drama's many strings, voices and ever-expanding mythos. Moffat excels in channelling the elements of Science Fiction (and its hybrid incarnation in Doctor Who) away from the genre's often frequented pitfalls of cod-philosophy and mysticism towards the light of liberal humanism. His episodes find the strange or significant in the everyday, the humane in the alien. To cite Ken Chen's pin-sharp reading of the recently regenerated series, 'Doctor Who is always brushing the flashlight on the spotty humility of the self' (2007: 57). The image of a flashlight roaming the surfaces of the Whoniverse is as important here as Chen's observation of the series' sensibility. Moffat's work on Doctor Who calls attention to, as much as it calls for, a sustained process of interpretative analysis: a flashlight tipped toward the screen; a TV reflection.
Soon to take over the reins (reign?) and responsibilities of Executive Producer on Doctor Who from Russell T. Davies, Moffat has already demonstrated, in the form and concerns of his episodes – in particular 'The Girl in the Fireplace' (2: 4); 'Blink' (3: 10); and two-parter 'Silence in the Library' (4: 8) and 'Forest of the Dead' (4: 9) – a fascination with three 'T's of his own: Time, Technology, and Television.
In 'The Girl in the Fireplace', the Doctor (David Tennant) and his companions land on a 51st century spaceship, inhabited by clockwork robots. The ship 'contains' 18th century Versailles, and the living quarters of Madame de Pompadour (Reinette [Sophia Myles]), which the Doctor accesses via a 'time-window': the eponymous fireplace acting as a portal through time and space. Each time the fireplace swings open and allows passage between worlds, Reinette grows older. The Doctor, increasingly enamoured with the beguiling grande-dame, remains the same age. The episode is a melancholy love-letter to time (and relative dimensions in space). As a meditation on mortality, it ends with Reinette dying of natural causes in old-age, while the Doctor (yet again) must move on through the universe in his battered wooden box.
The bizarre appearance of the clockwork robots – as bewigged courtiers with cogs for brains – hints at a developing interest in the (con)fusion of futuristic technology and time honoured forms. Moffat considers the effects of such collisions again in 'Silence in the Library', when dusty old books save lives by way of a human-based computer hard-drive. 'Forest of the Dead' culminates in the image and application of a book and sonic screwdriver placed together, odd bedfellows teetering precariously on a wall's edge: a true cliff-hanger.
he appearance of the book itself merits sustained scrutiny. Bound in blue leather, it is shaped to echo the form of the TARDIS. It is the Doctor's diary, brought from a time yet to come. There are multiple layers of rough-hewn pages and gentler appeals to significance. The book, an age-old artefact, is presented as an emblem of the future. In recalling the TARDIS, this particular tome prompts thoughts on the tumble of meanings contained in that mysterious, aged, futuristic box of tricks (the ultimate TV box, shuttling through countless channels at the flick of a switch?) Old and new are bound together in puzzle-boxes – the diary, the TARDIS, the episodes themselves – as Moffat has 'become known for a Doctor Who speciality ... the 'puzzle-box' story structure' (Arnopp 2008: 26). Equally, the episode's interest in a book of words that dictates future narratives (or 'spoilers' as the Doctor calls them: a term more readily associated with the more modern media of film or television than the written word) hints at the place of the writer in this televisual universe. Yet, rather than appearing as a wilfully self-conscious conceit (such as a character reading 'The Singing Detective' in The Singing Detective [BBC, 1986]), the book effortlessly integrates into the narrative and wider world of Doctor Who, taking its place in the visual and thematic arrangements much as Moffat's episodes combine form and content.
Another prop at the centre of the earlier episode encapsulates these concerns: the fireplace acting as a window between centuries. Rather than CGI or pyrotechnic wizardry marking the Doctor's shuttling across worlds, the scenario's dramatic impetus hinges on a single, decidedly unspectacular rotating wall-panel. An ingenious choice and handling of dcor reveals the episode to play with the viewers' fond memories of the (much) earlier series' notoriously clunky cardboard sets.
However, there is nothing wobbly about the set here; it soundly balances an expression of possibility within television's (budgetary, aesthetic) limitations, and suggests the transformative qualities of an everyday object. Chen brings both points together in evoking one of the series' charms: 'Doctor Who celebrates the lovely smallness of human scale. The show loves to depict daily life – doing the laundry, Christmas dinner, tea and bathrobes – because these details collect into a thread that leads us back to the texture of being alive' (2007: 59). 'The Girl in the Fireplace' is particularly attuned to the 'lovely smallness' of television: finding a route to depth and complexity through a simple swinging panel. Moreover, across episodes, Moffat adorns such markers of daily life – fireplaces, statues in Blink, shadows and books in 'Silence in the Library' – with a quality of otherworldliness that at once changes their aspect. Encouraging a childlike process of dramatisation, curiosity and re-appraisal, Moffat in turn alerts us to the specialness of the objects' more ordinary manner of being in the world.
From television's sets to TV sets: the unsettling 'Blink' entreats us to look more closely at the medium. Time and space are fractured by the evil Weeping Angels: seemingly stock-still statues that spring to life and attack when you blink or turn your back on them. Like 'The Girl in the Fireplace', this later episode explores the sadness of intimates wrought apart. As inquisitive Sally Sparrow (Carey Mulligan) unwittingly enters into a dramatic realm of time travel and parallel worlds, her would-be lover is 'zapped' by the Angels back into 1969, and her best-friend into the 1920s. Salvation is found in a handful of seemingly disparate DVDs, all of which feature snippets of the Doctor in direct address. The Doctor's messages are meant for Sally, guiding her to the TARDIS and the vanquishing of the Angels.
'Blink' combines a complex study of the relationship of television with DVD, and an appraisal of our relationship with both. The Doctor's cryptic vignettes of information are hidden as 'Easter eggs': a well-known secret of DVD technology, allowing for the embedding of surprise features that have to be unlocked by the diligent viewer (and comprising another valuable puzzle-box for Moffat). Threading the technical device into the narrative, this episode of Doctor Who sidelines the Doctor: he appears only briefly on television screens (primarily in the background of scenes) and in the closing moments.
While perhaps wryly commenting on the popularity of Doctor Who's consumption in the form of DVD boxed sets, the intricate use of this framing device speaks intelligently (and urgently) about the critical opportunities presented by such developments in media technology. As James Walters notes, 'Interpretative criticism, we might say, is founded upon a personal desire to return to and scrutinise works of art – be that television or something else – that affect us emotionally and that arouse our intellectual curiosity. DVD technology facilitates that process of critical engagement, aiding the inclination to revisit and review any aspect of a television programme's aesthetic composition, and in turn revisit and review our understanding of it' (2008: 113). To return to and scrutinise: 'Blink' and its characters repeatedly review the Doctor's messages on DVD, in order to interpret and understand them better. Placed in the context of a broadcast television programme, this motif tells us something about the enduring quality of the DVD as well as its formal possibilities of slowing, stilling, rewinding and closely surveying the ephemeral image of a TV drama.
Blink and you'll miss it (or, worse still, die). The episode deftly develops its motif to consider not only the benefits of keeping your eyes open, but also of paying close attention to the DVD image. It is here that 'Blink' and Moffat offer sophisticated thoughts on the process of interpretative analysis. Only when Sally finally focuses fully on the Doctor's messages, to replay and pause them, can she enter into a conversation with him, on a DVD player, across time. The fact that the material is pre-recorded is not an obstacle to this mutual course of acknowledgement and understanding. Sally struggles to understand the Doctor's remarks; their meaning remains, even in the end, opaque. Yet their interaction becomes a conversation, equal on both sides. It is an instructive and wittily literal example of a critical art. As Andrew Klevan reminds us of Stanley Cavell's approach to the study of film, 'The eloquence of particular films ... means that they will continually have a 'say' in their interpretation, ensuring that we will never know them, or know our experience of them; rather, we remain in the process of knowing them and knowing our experience of them...' (2005: 119). The final shot of the episode is a freeze-frame of the Doctor's eyes in close-up, wide open: an appeal to look again, and keep looking, to have a say and allow television its say, too.
'Whoniversal Appeal: An Interdisciplinary Postgraduate Conference on Doctor Who, and its Spin-Offs' at Cardiff University, 14-16 November, 2008
A conference report by Rebecca Williams
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