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Chris (may I call you Chris?)…

November 14, 2021

…you really need to start clearing things up.

We’re halfway through the six episodes you’ve got to wind up your involvement with DOCTOR WHO and you just introduced a whole new thread, a self-righteous and maternal looking woman who has informed the Doctor that she’s closing down the universe that the Doctor ‘is so fond of’ and there’s nothing the Doctor can do about this and what is more it’s all the Doctor’s fault this is happening because Reasons.

Next week, you’re going to be dragging us back to the 1950s and having Weeping Angels attack a rural English village which will probably turn out to be half St Mary Meade and half Midwich (of Cuckoo fame). You can probably afford to have that be a more or less self contained story inside the wider arc of the Flux. Indeed after this week’s mad ride through history and the backstory of everybody, including the Doctor. (If that was actually her past history and not a double bluff) it would make a nice, restful change.

Which just leaves us the final two weeks to:

Introduce the first glimpses of What Is Really Going On.

Make us tremble at the Terrible, Terrible climax plotted by the baddies.

Kill off any companions you plan to kill.

Give the Doctor a last mad scheme which Just Might Work.

Destroy and/or Recreate the Universe in a form which other writers will be willing to pick up and run with.

Have the Doctor nobly sacrifice herself and regenerate.

Crash the TARDIS and allow it to redesign itself. (I do hope you haven’t gotten it into your head to destroy the old girl, the way you did UNIT, Gallifrey and other plot elements you felt were a burden on your genius.)

What I’m saying is, you need to get a bit of a move on.

I’m not yet willing to condemn what you’re doing. I am increasingly dreading you either doing something really dumb in the Big Reveal or just failing to resolve the thing you have promised to resolve, a thing that NuWho has been prone to in a manner more offensive than Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s chickening out in Biographia Literaria, which is the worst violator of the Law of Chekov’s Gun I know of.

  1. There’s something of an intrinsic problem here: it is innately more satisfying to build up complexity than to unwind it. Building it up causes the viewer to think, to speculate, from “what’s really going on” to “how will they get out of this”. Unwinding it always has some release of tension; as Stephen King put it in Danse Macabre:

    The audience holds its breath along with the protagonist as she/he (more often she) approaches that door. The protagonist throws it open, and there is a ten-foot-tall bug. The audience screams, but this particular scream has an oddly relieved sound to it. “A bug ten feet tall is pretty horrible,” the audience thinks, “but I can deal with a ten-foot-tall bug. I was afraid it might be a hundred feet tall.”

    And I think that works at a plot level too. Consider for example Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead from nuWho season 4: the first episode is great, building up the tension and mystery. Weird and scary things are happening; what’s going on, what can we do about it, how does this link to that? And then the second episode spends all its time unwinding all the tension and mystery, a long dull lecture of “this happened because, and that really means, and…”. No matter how clever the writer, no matter how satisfying the solution, there will always be that undertone of “oh, I thought it might have been…” or “phew, at least it wasn’t…”, an edge of dissatisfaction.

    Which comes down, I think, to: “writing resolutions so that they’re interesting and satisfying is really hard“. Some series of course don’t even bother; Lost and Abrams’ earlier Alias, arguably quite a bit of X-Files back in the day. Some try but fumble it: the Battlestar Galactica remake. None of these, to my mind at least, has anything approximating a satisfying ending, however enjoyable the rest may have been.

    It feels like borrowing against future earnings: you can build up complexity to have more excitement now, but eventually you have to pay it back with interest. Or of course let the series get cancelled and get the audience to blame the money people rather than your lack of narrative plan.

    So Chibnall (it is Chibnall, I think? I’ve gone from being a teenage fan to someone who doesn’t even notice when the thing is being broadcast; but if it is I say “Cyberwoman” and “Countrycide” should have been enough to get him banned from scriptwriting for life) has already given himself an impossible job to do even without the episode-count constraint. I don’t think he will even try. A significant portion of the modern Who audience wants to see the moments that could be excised for trailer clips: (person I recognise) says (something that shows they’re cool). If you give them a constant stream of those, with no breaks for actual plot or detailed characterisation, they’ll be happy.

    • Oh, God. I had managed to forget about ‘Countrycide’. You swine, sir! How dare you remind me!

      I’m very much afraid that he’s going to go for a climax that’s meaningless and explains nothing. (“Here, Russell T Davies! Write your way out of that!”) I am only slightly less afraid that he’s going for a climax that wipes out most of the history of the series and leaves nothing to do but restart the entire enterprise from the start and do a ‘reboot’ of the concept.

      I doubt very much that he can pull out of his hat a resolution which has me saying “How cool!” “How insightful!” “Why didn’t I think of that?”

      But your argument seems to be one that means no one should ever write anything ever again. I have a low expectation of this particular writer but I haven’t given up on the whole breed.

      • Well, no, more that a writer should be cautious in using the “this is all terribly mysterious and it’ll pay off later” design pattern, because the amount of competence needed to make it pay off well is greater than it appears, and perhaps because a significant subset of serial-media fans has been let down several times already and regards the use of that pattern as a warning sign.

  2. That pattern seems de rigeur in the Whoniverse. At least NuWho. Some writers have difficulty making individual episodes come out coherently but this doesn’t stop the show runners from having higher ambitions.

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