Sunday, June 01, 2008
Excellent news for Who
What splendid news. Steven Moffat is to take over from Russell T Davies as Dr Who exec.
Halfway through series four of the revived Dr Who (though some of us oldies think it should be called 'Series 30' - give or take), we can look back at The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace and the utterly wonderful Blink as the highpoints of the revival. Now we have Silence in the Library (and next week's Forest of the Dead). Just listing these episodes gives you the best moments of Dr Who, new style. All other episodes fall into a ragged joint-second place - in my very humble opinion. Why?
For two reasons, one which is just appreciation and another which is a regretful criticism.
The better reason is that Moffat writes Science Fiction. Not 'SciFi', that bastard child of comics and TV that includes Buck Rogers and Space 1999. Not 'SF', the yellow-covered arcana where dodgy grammar and shallow characters matter less than the idea and that only the characters from the Big Bang Theory could really like. Moffat writes in that way that satisfies everyone who cares. He's the Stephen Baxter of the screen.
Looking at his record (Coupling, Murder Most Horrid, Jekyll, Press Gang and the new Spielberg Tintin) you'd never have guessed he'd actually have the essential talent for Science Fiction. That essential talent is so clear in Blink. Science Fiction that uses the methods of science to produce fiction: imagination, speculation, hypothesis, exploration and disproof.
The other reason for my enthusiasm about Mr Moffat is my mixed feelings about the undeniably generally great Russell T Davies. RTD writes the best scripts. His writing, his characters, his plotting and, probably most important of all for this revival, his sense of TV - they are all exemplary. But... his enthuisiasm has driven him to destroy the Who-verse. London in Who has been decimated by the Slitheen, the Daleks and the Cybermen, etc, etc and ripped apart by Torchwood's experiments. Cardiff has been split by the rift and its inhabitants have been menaced, controlled or transformed by all and sundry.
So? Well, we know this isn't true. So, it's fiction. But fiction draws its impact from its relation to reality. If aliens crash into Big Ben again, it won't be impressive. We know Londoners will just shrug and say: Bloody aliens, we just rebuilt that!
We also know that any future stories in London or Cardiff will be set in a completely transformed world, one of rifts and monsters and completely punch-drunk natives.
Basically, RTD has wasted our world as a setting for science fiction. It's done. Nothing in RTD's Earth is remarkable because it's all been done.
One of the basic skills of science fiction is to isolate and insulate your strangeness so it can be contrasted and embedded in recognisable reality. Devastate a village, colonise an island or just trouble one individual. If you end the world, it's ended. Fine in an apocalyptic novel or even a disaster movie (just watched I am Legend - excellent - except for the usual namby-pamby American ending) but not in a TV series where, for budget reasons at least and artistic referential reasons at best, you return to the same territory, history line and characters.
In RTD's Who-verse, the landscape is desolate. Nothing works anymore.
But in the Moffat stories, we have a forgotten mystery of a hospital in war-torn London, a strange and inexplicable incident with some clockwork (brilliant!) dolls in 18th century France, one troubled girl in a derelict house in London and a bit of infestation in a 51st century library. Big, big stories but they leave the world intact for tomorrow.