The Rebel Flesh/Almost People
This is the way my fandom ends ...
There comes a point when intentions don't matter, but only results. Now six 45-minute episodes into his second series in charge of Doctor Who, Steven Moffat has this year given us precisely one (count it, one!) episode that was entertaining in and of itself and that didn't insult our intelligence.
I'm not an uberfan — I don't read novelizations or write fanfic — but I've watched a lot of episodes, in black and white and in colour, some of a lot more than once. And I can't recall seeing as consistent a stretch of bad writing, slip-shod plotting and ludicrous mis-characterizations as that which Moffat's run has so far provided us.
The fault this time out isn't Moffat's missing moral compass (see my reviews of the recent Christmas special or this series' two-part opener for my thoughts on that score) but just the remarkable shoddiness of the product.
After being teased into hoping for something better by Neil Gaiman's expert workshop in the fine art of story-telling a couple of weeks ago, "The Rebel Flesh" and "Almost People" (hereafter referred to as "Almost Rebels"), returns us to the inconsistent characterizations and nonsensical plots that have been the Mark of Moffat.
Now I can't bring myself to believe that Steven Moffat actually hates Doctor Who, but the on-screen results of his stewardship make that hypothesis as evidentially plausible as that which posits that he just doesn't understand the fundamentals of story-telling. (It shouldn't need saying, but for the record, I do know Moffat didn't write these episodes — direct responsibility rests with Matthew Graham, from whose keyboard came what was arguably the weakest episode of Series 2, "Fear Her". But Moffat is the show-runner and so ultimately responsible for what appears on our screens.
And what we do see once again leaves us — the viewers, the fans — with two choices. We can ignore the idiot plot in favour of speculations about the none-too-subtle clues About! Future! Episodes! or we can do the hard, unhappy work of picking apart the lousy construct.
(Yes, we could also turn off the set and go for a walk, or catch up as-yet unwatched episodes of Treme, but we are fans; walking away is not something we're willing to do, not yet.
So let's talk a bit about the basics of story-telling (again). Let's talk about such niceties as consistent characterization and internal logic as if they matter — even when slumming in the bastard field of children's science fiction.
The idiot plot strikes again
I must have been in a good mood last week. "The Rebel Flesh" didn't seem so bad the first time I watched it. Not good, but not bad, either. It seemed a plodding, mildly entertaining episode that had the potential to improve in its second half.
Or so it I thought. The second episode was all kinds of stupid and, when I made the mistake of re-watching both, I realized the signs had been there right from the start.
The problem begins with the setting; consider the "acid mine".
Okay, this is Doctor Who, and we accept that our hero is 900 years old and that his little blue box flies through both time and space; we're not expecting rigorous scientific extrapolation. So we tell ourselves that maybe they do mine sulphuric acid on some other planet.
But wait! We're not on some other planet! We're on earth! Less than two hundred years in our future!
First sign of Viewer's Cognitive Dissonance sets in. We know the Earth doesn't have huge deposits of sulphuric acid lying to be mined; sulphuric acid is a byproduct of other mining. And while were recovering from the first concussion, there's a second.
We know that even the worst solar flares don't and never have caused wind-storms, let alone earthquakes. They just don't. We need some kind of justification for these remarkable new states of affairs. We are Doctor Who fans so it doesn't have to be much, but we need something to explain this radically different state of affairs. Or ...
Or the episode could have been set on another planet Where Things Are Different. And problem solved, no cognitive whiplash.
But all this is just Minor Stupid. Much worse is to come.
Such as the dialogue. Take these painful samples.
- "My factory, my rules." Cliches r us, Idiot Boss Who Won't Listen to the Doctor's Cryptic Warnings.
- "I'll take revenge on humanity with or without you." Ooo-kay, first cliche's got nothin' on this one!
- "Rory? Rory! Always with the Rory!" So many jokes, so few laughs.
- "Boss, maybe if the storm's bad we should get underground. The factory's seen better days; the acid pipes might not withstand another hit." Who knew Star Trek's Scotty was an acid miner before signing up with Starfleet? And who would have guessed that the best place to hide from leaking acid pipes is right underneath them!
My head hurts.
What else? Why does Rory keep trying to help Snake Lady after she tries to eat him? He's a good bloke, is our Rory, but a wee bit thick.
My head doesn't hurt, it throbs.
The direction is incompetent. Outside of high-school drama-class have any of you ever seen a fight-scene so poorly-staged as that between Snake Lady1 and Snake Lady2? And pity poor Arthur Darvil, forced to shriek Girls! Stop it! like some B-movie heroine circa 1937.
And how about the Plot Phails? (Did I say throbs? It throbs and pounds.)
Remember Miranda, the boss? Remember when she shows up brandishing the electric thingie and announces its time for the Flesh to "be destroyed"? It's obvious to everyone in the room — human and Flesh alike — that she's lost it. And the Doctor and everyone else are saying No! Don't shoot, don't do it!, then she does it and then the Doctor soliliquizes about how the dead 'ganger "had a heart!" and then she's tackled.
And only then, after the lone nut has been neutralized, do the Flesh run away, as one mind, the better to plot their "war" against humanity.
Why run, when the threat is done? Because the plot requires it, that's why.
Speaking of Miranda, when she isn't psychotic, she's portrayed as tough and smart, yet she still uses her favourite password, even though she knows her 'ganger knows everything about her.
And meanwhile, Amy can't get over her bigoted conviction that one Doctor is better than an identical Doctor, despite her many experiences in time and space (hell, despite having seen at least one version of the big guy die).
Idiot plot. Idiot plot. Idiot plot. I can't go on much longer.
And meanwhile, the factory is gonna explode anytime, gotta hurry, gotta hurry ...
Except to take a phone-call from poor dead Jimmy's son (who for some reason can't keep his hands out of his pants), so that we can be manipulated into shedding a tear for the sheer pathos of it all.
And except again, during the climactic scene, when Snake Lady is battering at the door, barely held at bay by the shoulders of the Doctor and Miranda — except when they stop pushing and just casually lean against it as they stop everything to argue about who's going to sacrifice themselves and why it's vitally important that the TARDIS get enough "time to dematerialize" lest a long-necked monster who can't even batter down a door gets into the room.
Never mind, never mind, NEVER MIND!.
What is the bloody point?
My favourite escapist pleasure is in the hands of a puzzle-maker who doesn't seem to know what a story is. My suspension of disbelief has been slapped around, shot-up and sent to Davy Jones' Locker and I just don't care anymore.
I don't care that the Doctor "shot" Fake Amy after blathering on about how the Flesh are actually people, and I don't care that Real Amy is about to give birth and I don't care that Eye-Patch Lady looks like River Song in fright-makeup.
There is something profoundly irrational in the love of a fan for a franchise character. We can take an awful lot of abuse, if only because we know that this too shall pass. But I fear I'm reaching the limits. When my objections were philosophical there was at least room for argument, but when the problem is as fundamental as the basic craft of story-telling, there's little room left for love.