The Seven Shitty Moffatisms Destroying Doctor Who – Part II

This is no way to write an episode.

The Moffat episode in a nutshell.

(Part II) Moffat’s Shitty Epic Pretension: Narrative Experimentation Gone Awry.

Extremites, it happened again.

My Mac conked out and this time it was a fresh hard drive that failed. So Part II of Shitty Moffatisms has been delayed for more than a week.

All this extra time has had its bright side. It has given me a really long time to wrestle with the first Moffatism and how Doctor Who has changed for the worse under the Moffatocracy.

What I have come upon is a Moffatism that, I think, is an extraordinarily important misread, on the part of Steve, on how to create a powerful Who episode. Indeed, how to create a powerful drama. I am referring to Moffat’s incessant use of ‘Epic Structure.’ 

When I say ‘use,’ what I really mean is ‘attempt to use.’ Steven Moffat wrongfully applies a legendarily tough narrative structure to a show that is already a complex premise.

Doctor Who relies upon the clarity of simplicity to really succeed.

Let me ask you a question, darling Whovian: after you first watched any Moffat helmed episode did you truly understand what was going on?

I have never understood a Moffat helmed episode without further researching and reviewing what I saw. My first thought, half way through most of his episodes, is usually something along the lines of: “did I miss something?” I often feel like the show’s action begins after important motivations that are never established. Upon further viewings, I discovered that this ‘confusion’ is the result of one of the favourite Moffatite aspects of the show.

After speaking to many of you Moffatites, I have discovered that one of your favourite virtues of the Moffat tenure episodes is the way that they ‘hit the ground running,’ so to speak. They begin at a place of heightened conflict therefore creating a dramatic tension that thrusts its way to the conclusion.

Though I understand where your admiration comes from; who doesn’t love action, action without causation is mindless. 

I’ll backtrack for a moment and explain what I mean by Epic Structure.

Let me take you back to English class and remind you of writers like Homer and Virgil.

You know, those guys who wrote the massive stories that seemed to go on forever?

Well, my dear Whovian, these works, The Illiad or The Odyssey in Homer’s case and The Aeneid in Virgil’s case, are called Epic Poems. The word ‘epic’ is not just an adjective describing the shear length of the poems, it is also a description of how the poem operates and, furthermore, the form the story telling takes.

Uniformly defined, an Epic Poem is a work that describes the acts of a hero in a heightened form. ‘Epic’ comes from the Greek ‘epos,’ which means ‘a series of events that are worthy of a long form narrative.’ By that definition, most over arching plot lines focused on one character (Harry Potter, Star Trek, The Hobbit) could be called an epic. Epic Form, or structure, however, is a more succinct description of how a story is put together.

Most modern dramatic works rely on Three Act Form. The Three Act Form has dominated story structure for the last 200 or so years.

You know it well… it can be reduced to:

  1. The Setup: a period of exposition, usually Act I or the first 16 – 18 minutes of a film.
  2. The Confrontation or the Rising-Action: when the protagonist attempts to resolve a problem incited by the first turning point and learn new skills to defeat the antagonist: the meat of the story sandwich. It usually encompasses Act II. Ending in the lowest point for the hero at a period of great strife.
  3. The Resolution: which ties up and finishes all plots and sub-plots.

Epic Structure, unlike Three-Act, departs from a more straight forward narrative and begins the action somewhere in the middle, (usually at a moment of great despair or peril); in Three Act Form this would be the end of Act II. Most of the narrative is spent on recounting how a protagonist got to this moment of despair. For instance, in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the seminal English language Epic, the story begins with Satan falling to the lake of fire after being cast out of Heaven.  It then moves backward to find out how he got there; moving toward to this bleak moment on the lake, then proceeding past it to the climax. Most epic poems operate this way or at least the ones that draw heavily on Greco inspiration.

Enough of the scholastic diatribe… Doctor Who!

Let’s apply this structure to one of Moffat’s most popular episodes: A Good Man Goes To War.

This is, I think, one of the worst episodes in Moffat’s tenure. The reason for this is you need to have prior understanding of the last episode, and about four others, to have an idea what is going on. As a singular episode it is convoluted and just plain confusing. A large reason for this is its structure.

Good Man… begins “hitting the ground running,” to use a favourite cliche of the Moff himself, with Rory, in an unknown part of the galaxy fighting Cybermen, and the Doctor running around like a tweed clad headless chicken doing …uh… something on a ship that looks like the set from Star Wars. What ever it is he’s doing, it appears we are mid battle. But how did we get there?

The preceding episode — this was a two part arc, or at least meant to be —  suggested no battle and ended with the characters in entirely different locales and situations. The beginning is jarring and when the Doctor finally cuts the needless unexplained action with a confusing vaguely expository speech directed at the ‘Eye-Patch Lady;’ (her actual credited name, though we’d later know her as Madame Kovarian) I was still as confused as I was in the opening moments.

This confusion results from Moffat’s attempted use of Epic Structure. He tries to begin in the midst of the action but forgets a crucial part of the shape: the retroactive look. It is never explained how they got to this point in the action. The story just moves forward, meaning the watcher has no understanding of the ‘stakes of the situation.’ It’s obvious characters are doing things — things that are very important — but no body can understand why this is by the information given.

You can find this problem in most of the Moffat helmed episodes of the Matt Smith era.

Why is any of it important? Well, because we are told it is. Take a look at the cold open: (Forgive the fan titles)

On the other hand, one of the major tropes of the ‘two-parter’ episode in the Davies days, and indeed older Doctor Whos, was ‘the cliffhanger.’ What made these cliffhangers better was the way the following episode would begin immediately from the preceding ending point and continue on. The connection of the supposed two part arc, that A Good Man… is intended to be, is never demonstrated. Essentially the Davies period two parters were long three acts. The first episode was Act I and II, cliffhanger at the moment of strife, and the following episode was Act III.

Perhaps, I may be giving Moffat too much credit.

Maybe, he isn’t trying to utilize Epic Structure in his episode creation at all. If that is true, then it just means that Steven Moffat has no understanding of television writing.

However I would never claim that because it would be wrong of a blogging bitch, such as myself, to conclude something without personal experience. I have never written an episode of Doctor Who. You may not have known this, but it is true.

I chalk this failure of narrative clarity to an overindulgence of experimentation for the sake of … well… experimentation.

Nor is it really correct of me to say that Epic Structure cannot be used in the creation of a television episode. Vince Gilligan, the astounding head writer of AMC’s Breaking Bad, famously uses it to create his episodes. The all important pilot of that show was structured like this: beginning with an action packed Winnebago’s jaunt down a dusty road and then retroactively showing how Walter White got to that race and where he’ll go from there. The reason why it works for Gilligan and not Moff is due to its simplicity. Though heavy action takes place in the opening of the BB pilot, it is not complicated action.

A Winnebago is flying down the road… why?… because it is running from sirens… why?… obviously because of something illegal. Easy, peasey, Japanesey.

Gilligan: B+A +C = Coherent Through Line.

Moffat Who: B+Nothing+C = An Unexplained Series of Events.

Keep it simple, stupid.

Until next time, Extremites, I remain: Julian Munds

As always, this is part of a conversation about Doctor Who. For Sherlock criticism: go here.

To Part I

To Part III

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About Julian Munds

I possess a degree in Theatre and Drama from the University of Toronto. I own my own theatre company called Snobbish Theatre. We focus our work on new versions of classics.

Posted on February 26, 2014, in Doctor Who and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. “after you first watched any Moffat helmed episode did you truly understand what was going on?”
    Yup. All of them.

    If you can’t follow A Good Man Goes to War… um, why? Would you seriously need a five minute scene where the Doctor painstakingly explains that they need to find Amy so they’ll threaten some Cybermen, and they need help to rescue her so let’s go ask this person and that person and… all of that is obvious. It would take the focus off Amy and the soldiers at Demons Run. And it’s unnecessary. We can fill that in ourselves, so skip to the important bits: Amy. Her Daughter. Lorna Bucket. The soldiers teaching each other to avoid psychic paper.

    Does it bother you when movies skip over characters driving from one place to another? That’s what you sound like. “I didn’t understand this” is a comment about you, not the show.

    • That is exactly my overarching problem with the Moffatocracy… its elitism. If someone doesn’t like something in the show, clearly, it must be the problem of the watcher, not of a convoluted style. It’s interesting you mention a ‘five minute scene where the Doctor painstakingly explains what is going on.’ This scene does exist in most Moffat episodes, including, this one where there is a long scene where the Doctor, either in a speech as in this episode or a voice over (more common in later Moffats). Doctor Who under Moffat is nothing but explaining. There is no subtlety and it is because of a failure in Narrative Form. Thanks for your comment. My best, Julian Munds.

  2. Wow, that is very odd that we should both mention Milton in connection with The Doctor on the same day. Will sent me that post we ran today 5 or 6 days ago. How cool.

  3. I’m still early in Eleven’s career, but I have noticed some of what you say. And I think the connection we both draw ( but to different incarnations helps both our points. “Impossible Planet” and “Satan Pit” definitely use the Davies extended 3 Act you mention.

  4. You’ve really thought about this a LOT! I like it, and agree. Moffatt needs to tone it down a bit and take a step back or it’s going to get more and more convuluted

  5. “just plain confusing” → This is THE prime indicator of somebody being too *fucking* dumb to comprehend anything. Doubly so, with added weasel words like “just” or “simply”, which highlight that is is truly the scraping of the barrel.
    You should look up the Dunning-Kruger effect. Because your sorry excuse of a brain is getting the full load of that due to grinding the very bottom of that effect’s scale.

    Moffat’s work is bad because it is too HALF-ASSED. Too simple. Not thought through. Shit is just glossed over, even though it’s a blatant violation of the rules of the story universe. it makes it impossible to take it seriously. It becomes more of a childrens’ story where nobody gives a shit about believability anyway.

    Though I guess to get to YOUR level, it would have to outdo the Teletubbies in primitivity.

    • Also:
      “It is never explained” → And that is another prime indicator of stupidity:

      Not everything needs to be pre-chewed down to meat slurry consistency, just so the mold on old toast can comprehend it too!
      Maybe you’re just not suited to watch TV. Because, hell, I’m surprised you even know which end down to sit on the toilet, in which end the food goes, and where to shit out… although I’m not really sure you know.

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