Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Why Does "No One Die" in Steven Moffat's Stories?

In reviewing The Beast Below, I registered my concern over Steven Moffat's aversion to killing people off in his stories, and that this formula had better dissolve fast. I notice that John Bensalhia has the same complaint:
"Steven Moffatt never seems to want to bring anybody to a sticky end. Reinette [The Girl in the Fireplace], Billy Shipton and Kathy Nightingale [Blink] meet natural ends. River Song and her buddies [Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead] apparently meet horrible ends, but they then end up in a cheesy afterlife scenario. Last week, Dr. Ramsden [The Eleventh Hour] met her maker offscreen. And this week [The Beast Below], again, (sigh) everybody lives. Even in the light-hearted Graham Williams years, characters got killed by angry stones, aging time accelerators and shaggy Mandrels, so there's really no excuse for not killing off at least one supporting character."
Actually, The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink are flawless stories, because in context the natural deaths of the characters are more tragic than getting bumped off by any aliens. The Doctor watches Reinette grow from child to adult and forms a romantic attachment to her, and so when he returns thinking he's going to take her as a TARDIS companion and finds her dead, it's truly heartbreaking. As for Shipton and Nightingale, they actually are killed off by aliens: the weeping angels. Getting sent back in time to die naturally in the past is precisely how they are killed in the present, and I should say -- at least from one point of view -- that's a worse fate than getting blown away by a Dalek-gun.

Season four's Silence of the Library/Forest of the Dead is when the Moffat-rot set in, for here Bensalhia is right: the afterlife epilogue in the matrix is cheesy, and it trivializes River Song's sacrifice. The refrain she parrots, "Everyone lives," becomes a lame trope copycatting what worked fairly well in season one's The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. In that story, everyone getting saved at the last minute was presented as something truly exceptional ("Just this once, Rose, everyone lives!"), and it followed hot on the heels of enough tragedy (Dalek and Father's Day) that we hardly even noticed the exception. But season four and (so far) five show Moffat increasingly uneasy with blood on his hands -- something classic Who was never squeamish about.

This isn't about satisfying our blood lust, by the way. It's about good drama, pure and simple. Doctor Who has always been about saving the world from lethal menaces, and when people don't die, the stakes feel pretty low. One reason the Hinchcliffe era remains so golden owes to all the horrific and hideous death scenes that infuriated Mary Whitehouse. The early Tom Baker years were so dark that victories really felt like rewarding payoffs. Good doesn't come cheaply. It's no accident that the best stories of the new series involve heavy body counts -- Dalek, The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit, Human Nature/Family of Blood (though even these are rather lame compared to what we were treated to in the lightest years of classic Who!).

I'm glad to know I'm not the only one worrying. In an interview the question is posed directly to Moffat, undoubtedly on behalf of many fans: "It seems like hardly anyone ever dies in your episodes. What is your reasoning for that?" This is his response:
"There wasn't a reason. It's a big old coincidence that it happens, as many times. And I'm trying to work out when blood is first on my hands (in the series). It's in the first episode, though it happens off screen. Someone gets offed, and people do get offed this year. It's not a strategy — you couldn't keep that going, you'd be insane. I was a bit astonished when I realized I'd done it. I think there's another episode I've done this year in which nobody dies. But it's not the plan. Maybe I'm just not that dark. Who needs dark, it's dark!"
I'm not sure if this is subterfuge or not, and I'm not even sure what is being said in the last line. Is Moffat justifying himself by saying, "Who needs the show to be any darker? It's dark enough as it is." Or is he chastising himself a bit by saying, "Doctor Who admittedly needs more darkness, because it's supposed to be a dark show." I sincerely hope the latter.

I don't want to leave anyone with the impression that Moffat is doing a bad job overall, for as we know, he's been by far the most creative writer of the new series and brilliant in serving up the scares. And again, I really don't have a problem with the stories he penned in seasons one, two, and three. Even the season-four library story was perfect until the thrice-damned epilogue copped out on us. Let's hope season five isn't undone by any more cop outs, and pray that we see stakes being raised, sacrifices which mean something.


Blogger Mark Goodacre said...

Enjoyable post, Loren. I read Moffat's statement as saying that there is one more episode to come in which no one dies. He is confirming that (Doctor) Who needs dark.

It don't care too much whether people die or not as long as there are strong stories. Father's Day would have been terrible if Pete hadn't died at the end, but the death was part of the brilliance of the writing. I completely disagree with you about Forest of the Dead -- the epilogue there is sublime and has been set up by everything that goes into the previous 80 minutes or so.

If you are really keen for bodies, you should definitely get stuck into Torchwood, and especially Children of Earth, which is *very* dark.

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Thanks for the comments, Mark. I notice your tendency to rely on the word "sublime" when defending questionable aspects of the new series. :)

But I'm afraid I disagree: the epilogue to the library two-parter made me want to smash the screen. Cheesy, maudlin, offensive, and just plain insulting to our intelligence. Far from sublime.

Blogger Mark Goodacre said...

Thanks, Loren. Well, put it this way: given that the premise of the entire Silence of the Library / Forest of the Dead story is the possibility of some kind of after-life, at least for the consciousness, why would the doctor *not* try to grant such to River Song after she has clearly shown herself to be something special, and when the future version of himself has sent the Tennant version of himself a message from the future?

Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

It's not so much about what the Doctor might want to try, but the fact that he was able to succeed. That of course brings up the second component of the ending which I find so offensive -- the way he literally flies down the shaft like a comic-book superhero for a cheesy, last-minute rescue. My point stands that in classic Who protagonists were able to accept loss, and learn from it, better than they do in a significant number of the new series episodes. I really wish Paul Cornell had written a story for the fifth season. He understands perfectly what I'm talking about, and he would have never written this kind of ending for the library story.

Blogger Mark Goodacre said...

Watched Forest of the Dead again on Sat. as part of the Doctor Who marathon on BBC America. Absolutely excellent ending, and just what the whole story is moving towards given the focus on the weird computer after life thing.

Anyway, thought of you during Victory of the Daleks when I saw them shooting dead a couple of Stevenses. Happy days are here again!


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