Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Battle of the Doctor Who Producers - Part One - Stories and Writing

Russell T. Davies Vs Steven Moffat - Battle of the Doctor Who Producers

Part 1 - Stories & Writing

By Ken Parker

The moment Russell T. Davies announced he would be stepping down as executive producer for Doctor Who I planned on writing this article. I was ready to happily compare Steven Moffat's take on Doctor Who compared to Russell's view of the TV show. I knew without a doubt that Steven Moffat would run the table and be better at the job than Russell T. Davies.

Having been an American fan of Doctor Who since the late 70's, I was eagerly awaiting the return of the series in 2005 but the show did not meet my expectations. Numerous things, in my mind, made the show inferior to the classic series and I felt that Davies was responsible for much of the problem. I did feel that the show had some good points and it struggled to keep a constant quality product. One of the highlights from the first few years was episodes written by Steven Moffat and so when it was announced that he was taking over from 
Davies, I was ecstatic.

Both have produced around the same number of stories as of right now, 2015 and so comparisons between the two seem fair now. In order to have an actual comparison I will look at several elements of the Doctor Who series and determine who might have done a better job at providing a quality product. Obviously, my stance on Doctor Who is not all positive. This opinion that I express is just that, an opinion but it is based on comparison to the original series and story telling in general as well as my own agendas and experiences with Doctor Who over the years. I am no expert and welcome discussion on this.

Stories and writing in general is a very broad topic to start with and probably the biggest element to cover. Stories are ultimately the responsibility of the writer but it is the producer that sets the stage and often has the entire season mapped out with the main threads of plot woven within guest authors' scripts. The producer has the responsibility for the tone, look and agenda for the series and so the writers must adhere to the guidelines and fit their story within these confines. Good writers will often be able to excel within good overall structures and may be able to even shine within poorly designed seasons. Bad written stories may even be able to get away with it if the structure of the season is superb.

Russell T. Davies was all about emotional set pieces. He had agendas and objectives that were obtained by creating a series that would highlight these agendas and points. His top agenda was the changes that people go through while traveling with the Doctor. This was a life changing event and it was something that virtually every character wanted to do. People would want to travel with the Doctor and would often fall in love with the Doctor to some extent. The Doctor was charismatic and it was addictive to be with him. You look at examples of this where companions and characters lay down their lives to support the Doctor. They would do anything to be with the Doctor. Captain Jack abandons Torchwood in a flash to be with the Doctor. None of the companions want to leave the Doctor. They all want to be with him or travel with him. It is all about the Doctor.

This touches upon that controversial idea of companions falling in love with the Doctor. This was virtually non-existent in the classic series. I felt that the relationship between Doctor 9 and Rose was well done and at no point did I feel that they were falling in love with one another. The thought is too odd. Of course, many fans wanted them to fall in love and saw that there was an emotional connection beyond just friends. This shipping would blow up with Doctor 10 and ultimately Davies made it come true. Again, I feel that he did okay with it but now it was all about everyone falling in love with the Doctor. The Doctor was cool and everyone wanted to be with the Doctor. Davies is taking the literal idea of people watching Doctor Who who want to be with the Doctor and making it really the case for the characters in the show.

Traveling with the Doctor is fun. The Doctor and the companions are all having fun. Even with death all around them, the writing includes many scenes of companions high-fiving the Doctor and enjoying their time. Their lives are miserable before and after the Doctor. Within a couple of minutes of Rose hearing that Mickey might be dead at the hands of the Autons in “Rose”, she is running down a bridge with the Doctor, hand in hand with a huge smile on her face. This scene was the most important part of that episode. Davies wanted to establish that Doctor Who is fun. Classic fans watched the show when we were young and like Davies, had fun watching it but Davies took that fun literally and elected to translate that as the characters are having fun. This does not gel that well with the fact that their lives are in danger and people are dying around them all the time. 

 This was one of my primary reasons why I had trouble with the show to start with. In “Boomtown” the Doctor, Rose and Jack are having the time of their lives talking about unseen events that happened to them. Mickey is jealous as should all viewers. All viewers want to be part of that inner circle while traveling in the TARDIS.  Of course, why would someone stay with the Doctor if they were not having fun? The argument could be that Davies wanted companions to have a reason to stay with the Doctor as most companions in the original series might not have had a clear cut reason to stay aboard the TARDIS.

Davies adjusted this as time went on and even addressed this directly in some episodes. In “Tooth and Claw” the Doctor and Rose are all giddy while dealing with a werewolf and this is called out and questioned by the Queen. He also toned down the 'love' aspect for the Doctor as that was getting old, fast. We will get into more about this when we cover the Doctors and companions in another part.

Davies wrote a fair amount of the episodes each season including the premieres and finales. His episodes range from excellent to horrible, in my opinion. His guest writers seemed to do better with quality scripts. In the first season the top several received stories include “Dalek”, “Father's Day”, “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances” which were not written by Davies. Second and third season highlights include “School Reunion”, “The Girl in the Fireplace”, “Rise of the Cybermen”, “Age of Steel”, “The Impossible Planet”,“ The Satan Pit”, “Blink”, “Human Nature”, and “Family of Blood.

Davies was not a bad writer, he often had to craft the big picture and at times that was a let down (see season 3, if you must). He did have some really good stories including “Bad Wolf”, “The Parting of the Ways”, “Tooth and Claw', “Army of Ghosts”, “Doomsday”, “Utopia”, “The Fires of Pompeii,” “Midnight,” “Turn Left,” “The Stolen Earth,” and “Journey's End.”

His priority was with these emotional set pieces and this was something that helped and hurt him. In “Doomsday,” the big moment when the Cybermen and the Daleks met for the first time, Davies smartly countered the scene with Jackie Tyler meeting the alternate reality Pete Tyler in an emotional scene that almost bested that other fan moment. Davies was good with characters for the most part.

Despite having some emotional discontinuity (Rose smiling after the death of Mickey for example) we saw more character development in this series in one story than we did in entire seasons of the classic series. Davies was not superb with characters, but he was good with them. This priority would make stories suffer at times. The conclusion to stories would often include a reset button or an easy out at a single action. In “Age of Steel,” “Doomsday,” and “The Last of the Timelords” a simple and
often poorly designed out would save the day.

 Davies loved to up the odds and put characters in impossible situations. While we waited to see the resolution of how is the Doctor getting out of this one, often Davies steered our attention away from not how he gets out but the emotion and adventure of actually doing it. This is actually clever but can give the impression that the episodes have a weak ending. I often criticized Davies for these weak endings. For the most part, the ending of “Doomsday” is 'throw a switch and the problem is fixed.” I had a problem with this but I look back at that episode today and feel it is probably the best finale of the new series. It had a heartbreaking departure of Rose that I thought was outstanding. The scene with the two of them separated by a dimensional wall was fantastic. The goodbye on the beach was not nearly as strong but still effective.

Davies loved to make connections in the show and bring back characters often. This resulted in a smaller universe for Doctor Who. Everyone knows everyone else and the Doctor deals with the same aliens and bad guys and everyone is related to something we have seen in the show already. Davies also created a fan world with Doctor Who. Fans on forums love to guess that the Cybermen would return, that Donna is the Rani that Rose is a Timelord and so on. These ridiculous guesses at times were just shots in the dark but the writing would often feel the same way and sometimes we would have ridiculous plot developments that only a fan could come up with. One prime example is that tongue in cheek scene where Captain Jack says he is the Face of Boe. This scene makes little sense and while it is obvious that Davies is poking fun at fans and their horrible guesses, perhaps he is making fun at his own writing.

Davies loved to elevate his stories and get the audience involved. He would have scenes where people prayed for the Doctor and would no doubt want the audience to be so swept up in this emotion that they too would be on the edge of their seats praying (“The Last of the Time Lords”). This was often just too much for me and felt contrived and weakened the plots. Again, if Davies was successful at getting people to buy into the emotion of the scene and punch the air when the Doctor triumphs, then more power to him.

Watching Doctor Who could be very emotional for me. I remember watching absolutely horrible
stories but being caught up with the emotion. If Davies had the ability to do that then he was successful. At the time I would feel the emotion but also feel that the story was not so great. This mis-direction would often distract the audiences from the fact that the plot was not that good. Audiences will love a story at first glance if something overshadows the plot. I had trouble ignoring some of the weakness of the script but would love the emotion that was available. In “Journey's End” the conclusion of the season has Donna losing her memories and leaving the Doctor in one of the most heart wrenching moments in Doctor Who. This was beautifully plotted out and acted by Tennant, Tate and Cribbens. A highlight for sure but the resolution of everything was based on Donna pushing a few buttons on a control panel. Really? Davies is again, emphasizing that it was about characters and emotion, not plot. My thinking was, why can we not have both!!??

Davies was good at luring people's attentions away to something else that might be horrible or silly.
My favorite example of this was in an online poll of season 3 that appeared after the end of the final episode. “What was your favorite scene from season 3?”. The choices included the many highlights from that season from stories such as “Human Nature”, “Family of Blood”, “Utopia” and “Blink”. The number one answer was...... The final shot with the Titanic crashing into the TARDIS. Davies managed to avert many people's attention to something else with that one shock scene. Good or bad? Who knows.

I was a big hater of Davies while he was producer of the show – I blamed him for most of the issues I had with the series but there managed to be a few really good episodes each season. One of his own written highlights for me was “Midnight.” This story is my favorite by him as it took the Doctor out of that smug all knowing mode into a new realm where you felt the Doctor was out of his element. He was defeated and did not have the upper hand – something rare in Doctor Who. I loved that and gave Davies all the credit for thinking outside the box on that one. One of the other reasons that I also have seen Davies in a new light was when comparing him with Moffat once Moffat took over as head writer and producer.

Steven Moffat's writing during Davies era was some of the show's best. Moffat wrote concise, well crafted stories that were all original and thought provoking and, compared to the majority of the series, superior on every level. His Twilight Zone like feel made the stories seem like they were missing something but in the end, it all made sense. Moffat had some great sci-fi ideas and concepts that were well received by the public and critics, earning him awards year after year. He won the Hugo three years in a row during this time period.  He has only won a Hugo for "The Pandorica Opens" since taking over as producer.

One would assume that he would be able to carry over this excellent writing when he took over as producer but in my opinion, as with Russell, he suddenly was not the best writer on the show and
guest writers often took that spot.

Steven Moffat was my favorite writer for the first 4 seasons of the show and when he took over as producer, I half expected each season to be full of “The Empty Child” and “Blink” caliber episode. Like the return of Doctor Who in 2005, I was yet again disappointed. Moffat was great with plots and concepts, a weakness for Davies and I expected this to improve drastically.

Davies loved to up the ante but that was nothing compared to what Moffat did. The end of time, the end of the universe, the end of the Doctor. Moffat writes each season into an impossible corner like Davies did. Davies would give us an out in the form of a big red button. Moffat would throw in a mish-mash of characters and confusion along with an unusually clever out that, on its own, was excellent, but at times muddled with too much going on. Moffat's conclusions often had too much going on and sometimes the stories would be too clever. In “Death in Heaven” Moffat had to steer too many narratives to reach the idea that the Cybermen were taking over the dead. If only this would have been simplified to taking over living people it would make much more sense and steer clear of the entire muddled downloading souls, and so forth. This story, stripped to bare bones, would have been outstanding, instead it was a mess and not a good one.

Seasons would slowly build up momentum and often finales were like reunion specials with appearances by primary cast from the previous seasons.  This build up and expectation that would involve a huge cast and answers to how it all comes together would mean viewers would be invested in the finale and would have no idea how the story would resolve. One of my biggest 'punch the air' moments in Doctor Who was when the Pandorica opens and it is Amy. WHAT??? An incredible build up of a cliffhanger in the previous episode, “The Pandorica Opens” gave the viewers an impossible out. There is no way the series could fix the fact that Amy was just shot and killed by an Auton Rory and the Doctor is locked in a cell with no way out. In “The Big Bang” Moffat delivers an outstanding resolution that works.  Also in those episodes are my favorite "timey wimey" scenes where the Doctor travels back in time to fix some minor things with his Fez, young Amy's drink and so on.  

In building up over the season, the Doctor Who series seasons 1-4 and the specials had big bads or an ongoing story arc which includes things such as Bad Wolf, the return of Rose, the hear 3 knocks, one of them will die. These are annoying but are just easter eggs for the audience. I hated most of these because they made little to no sense within the context and were only for the audience. Moffat takes it one step further with the crack, seeing the Doctor die, Amy pregnant, the impossible girl and Missy and her ridiculous plan. These arcs have more impact on episodes throughout the season and are more than just little hints for the audience. They are important to the story.  They may have easter egg like features and certainly fans can be proud that they spotted a clue from time to time.

 An example of this is when the Doctor leaves Amy behind as she can no longer open her eyes, in "Flesh and Stone" but returns moments later and tells her to remember.  In of its self it is a great and touching scene but eagle eye fans correctly noted that this Doctor was from the future and was there because of events happening in the future.

Moffat is probably better at writing sci-fi than Davies is. His stories do have more intelligence and are less juvenile. They don't have rhino and pig aliens and don't rely on flatulence and slap stick gags.  The scripts and often the concepts are pretty solid and on paper probably beat Davies's work again and again. He has more trouble mixing in good emotional development and characters. If only these two producers could work together now.

With that said, Moffat has pushed the narrative to a more fantasy theme and less sci-fi. The plots are often magical without really good science behind them. This shocks me because I always thought he was more into science.  One big criticism is how the Sonic Screwdriver has become a magic wand.  It is used as a weapon and it can do just about anything.  Thankfully it has been toned down but Matt Smith used it more than any other Doctor.

One of Moffat's biggest weaknesses was his character work. Within his first season it was obvious that his characters did not have the appeal as previous seasons. Virtually every female in the series is aggressive, over-sexed, lusting for the Doctor and confident in themselves. Amy, River, Liz 10, Queen Nefertiti, Tasha Lem and Missy are all very much one dimensional with only Amy and River able to have moments in some episodes where they are able to break this mold. Davies was able to coat poor stories with good characters but Moffat was not able to coat bad characters with good story – at least not as successfully as Davies. We will talk about characters in another segment.

Moffat has also relied on shocking imagery to push the story along. He is trying to out do the weirdness by giving us images of dinosaurs on a spaceship, a dinosaur in London, trees in London, biting snow, and the misleading title “Let's Kill Hitler”. These are meant to shock the audiences and get them to watch. It takes the idea of normal everyday objects which turn out to be something more (statues as weeping angels) and going a huge step further and sometimes going too far.

The final say on stories is a tough call. I am trying to focus on scripts alone and for that I think Moffat has the clear advantage. Still, I look at Moffat's first season and 11 good scripts (imho) but probably only 6 good stories. Davies's first season has 8 good scripts and more like 6 good stories. Again, this is my view and to each his own.

I am going to have to give Moffat the nod on this category. I think he has better writing skills and wins outright. It would be really interesting to see Moffat producing a Davies written script to compare.

Next time we will look at the Doctors, Companions and characters that each producer has handled and see if one of them has done a better job than the other.

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