Punitive Narrative Justice

Redemption is a reductive kind of moralism. 

Zuko doesn’t really have a redemption arc, because he was never “bad.” The Diamonds don’t really have a redemption arc, because they never become “good.” Redemption is a weird external moralistic concept that has nothing to do with individual character development or lack thereof.

To put it another way: The Last Airbender never condemns Zuko, so forgiveness isn’t the point of the story; and Steven Universe never forgives the Diamonds, because nothing could ever make up for what they did.

This isn’t to say that the characters don’t change their behavior for the better. What I’m criticizing is a binary and extrinsic reading of morality in relation to narrative function, as opposed to an intrinsic reading of situational character motivation. 

Redemption is an externally imposed concept that doesn’t allow for agency or intention, but rather describes a functional narrative approach to character. It suggests: 

  1. an innate change of a character’s essence, 
  2. to serve the demands of another’s morality…

… which is a simplistic understanding of psychology, social dynamics, and… just, judgment. Really, redemption is all about judgment, which lies in the perspective of the narrative voice. It’s an external thing, where the story passes sentence on characters and demands that they change who they are in order to suit its morality and make up for their past sins, and to thereby be forgiven by the story. Which is a super basic concept of humanity that doesn’t apply in either case above.

Zuko is shown from pretty close to the start as a victim; he’s not a Bad Guy who Turns Good. His arc is a matter of self-realization and emergence from an abuse narrative, and its resolution involves reaching a common understanding, not repaying moral debt.

And the Diamonds, they are never forgiven. They change their behavior out of argument for how it’s not helping them achieve their own individual intentions. Even at the end, they are shown to be extremely self-centered characters who have difficulty understanding anything outside of how it affects them directly. Steven tolerates them at a stretch, once they change their behavior enough that they no longer pose a threat to others. But what they did will never be okay, no matter what they do, and the story makes no pretense of balancing the scales. 

Compare to, say, something like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the characters of Angel or Spike. In the case of Spike the protagonists stick a microchip in him, taking away his agency, until he gets used to behaving the way they want him to. With Angel, the change mostly happens before we meet him. But the notion is that they’re Bad characters who become Good, and then feel sorry and try to make amends for what they’ve done. Similarly Missy, in the Peter Capaldi era of Doctor Who, undergoes a redemption after serving penitence for years in solitary confinement and out of a desire to please the Doctor and try to play out his concept of morality. 

In all cases, there’s this notion of penitence and turning from Evil. With Spike the change comes after the microchip, which changes his behavior until he becomes accustomed to the new way of being, even after it’s removed. It’s a punitive, judgmental, carceral sort of a moralism. The idea is to show people how Bad they are until they are ashamed of themselves and they want to stop being Bad—”Go to your room and think about what you did”—all of which ignores the complexities of how and why people do things based on their understanding and their systemic context, and treats others as lacking a degree of agency independent of those passing judgment on them and their own individual interests.

You are not a person, the redemption narrative asserts; you are a story function within my life. 

Capaldi and Coleman: Bigger Than a Joke

I’m not so wild about Moffat; as a writer, he’d pretty much used up all his ideas by the end of 2007, and from then through 2013 mostly set about remixing them in increasingly self-aggrandizing ways.

But from 2014-2017, something rather astounding happened: he started to listen to people, and he started to look inward. He was still Steven Moffat, but he began to question how and why he did the things he did, and out of that came actual art. Some of the best writing, and best creative direction, the show has ever had; better than nearly anything in the previous 50 years of the show. Granted, this energy began to taper a bit after 2015 — understandably given that 2017 was a padding year, after he’d already resolved to go but before Chibnall was able to take the show off his hands, and that Moffat suffered some personal issues along the way — but his final series was still stronger than anything else he’d done outside of the previous two, and stronger than most runs of Doctor Who in general.

Before 2014, Doctor Who on television hadn’t really been big on character development. I don’t mean growth here; characters had grown, as far back as William Hartnell’s Doctor and particularly over Davies’ time. Even Moffat’s previous writing, stilted as it was on a human level, had characters increasing their RPG stats, if you will, as they went along. But this goes beyond the (wonderful) melodrama of Davies or the later Cartmel era. This is more out of literature: defining a character trait, establishing its logical dimensions, and then spending a book’s length exploring what that means, both in terms of the character’s inner life and behavior, and its consequences when applied to a world defined outside the character.

It’s kind of basic stuff for serious fiction, but it’s not really where Doctor Who has ever gone before. The show has always been too focused on the moment, and how to play up the brilliant, often abstract ideas (or, more likely, plodding base under siege) that it’s exploring right now, to spend much time on the, for lack of a better phrasing, philosophy of its perspective. Even Davies’ characters, as gorgeously as he maps out their minds and reactions and speech patterns, are defined as simple declarations that we’re meant to glom onto and just carry forward, nodding as events bounce off of their defined personalities in ways we can easily trace.

And Moffat has never really been much for psychology. He’s not interested in how other people think, in the way that Davies is. It’s a bit of a truism, yet still mostly true, that as a consequence he has mostly written ciphers. His writing serves to deliver sitcom jokes, often with plot revelations as the punchlines. He’s so manic about control over the narrative and the notion of spoilers for the same reason a comedian doesn’t want you yelling out the punchline before he reaches the end of his joke. That’s his thing. It’s always been his formula as a writer, and he’s only ever had so many jokes to tell. His first three series as showrunner were labored attempts at building bigger, more complex versions of those same few jokes, each retelling more tortured than the last as he tried so hard to cast the structure in a new light. In this model, Moffat’s characters are as two-dimensional as the foils in a vaudeville routine. They’re not meant as earnest explorations of the human condition; their function is vehicles to deliver jibes. Which is why in place of Davies’ carefully blended dialogue with Moffat we mostly get one-liners, put-downs, and pure exposition.

His run from 2014 to 2015 changes all of that. He’s still Steven Moffat, and he’s still carrying around his well-worn sack of tricks, but here he approaches the show from a different angle entirely. He’s more settled, more measured. More thoughtful. And somehow out of that convoluted, often tortured long-joke structure he carves room for meditation. A kind of meditation that hadn’t come before, from any writer or era; not at this kind of a length, not with this much time and control to keep on dwelling and prodding. And out of this we have the most psychologically complex Doctor and companion, and Doctor-companion relationship, in the show’s history. With this as the show’s new story and narrative baseline, Moffat is free to Moff off and toss his toys around the room, as in otherwise by-then trad scripts like “Listen,” and suddenly they take on a greater significance by the tricks acting in aid of a greater narrative cause rather than simply to conduct the story in their own right.

Of particular note is series 8. On top of the sudden focus on character development, there’s this excited shift in narrative structure, with a mix of nonlinear scene editing (e.g., that whole sitcom sequence in Into the Dalek where Danny fails to ask Clara out on a date) and longer scenes with more dialogue, a pair of minor innovations that play out to their logical extremes early on, in “Listen,” but then continue throughout the run. And then there’s the way it revels in recurring thematic beats, in a way I’m not sure the show has before. Nearly every episode, leading up to the finale, involves one or more of the following:

  • Soldiers
  • Cyborgs
  • Cyborg soldiers
  • A companion who wasn’t, possibly for one of the above reasons

That’s off the top of my head. When I was watching the first time I had a longer list of things the scripts kept riffing on, prodding from different angles, lending the whole run of episodes an unprecedented sort of thematic unity. But I’m sure it’s clear what character and story elements the above serve to reflect.

That’s the thing about a good story: however complex it may be, it tends to be a fractal, with any part representing the whole and the whole representing any part. Again this is fairly basic when we’re talking about literature, but — well, Doctor Who has never really aimed for literature before. It’s been doing its own thing, often rather well. Here, Moffat takes aim with his golden arrow and nails that space ship right in the bull’s eye.

Series 9 is an astoundingly good sequel, exploring the fallout of everything that drives series 8, and the two of them make a greater whole, but series 8 is where most of the hard work happens. It’s where Moffat learned to listen. So that’s the one that really stands out to me as a revelation.

(Although Series 10 is in more ways than one Moffat’s hangover series, and both stretched thin and disjointed in a way the previous two aren’t, it’s also often the most refined culmination of Moffat’s artistry, and individual moments over these twelve episodes are some of the best moments of the entire show. It’s an afterthought, but also a worthy coda.)

It helps that at this time Moffat also found a new backing band; a more sympathetic stable of writers, interested in pushing the show to new extremes and exploring its creative fabric more than the ultra-trad fan contingent on whom Moffat had largely relied to that time (when he wasn’t chasing down one-off celebrity writers). The likes of Dollard and Mathieson embody Moffat’s own shift in priorities, and their earnestness mixed with roiling creative insight give the show the added boost of energy to really develop it into its own thing. It’s interesting to see that even as the first half of series 8 mostly uses “safe hands” to pedal in the new Doctor, Moffat still co-writes nearly every script, shaping it to be a bit more than it would otherwise be. This is unprecedented for him, and it shows the extent to which he actually had a vision for the show, that none of the familiar writers were of much help in capturing.

None of this is new from me. I play my own familiar tunes. But I really think the last three years have been a creative renaissance of the sort we haven’t seen since Andrew Cartmel. But it’s all the more remarkable, because it’s more like Andrew Cartmel had never existed, and instead somehow those last three years of the 1980s had been Saward all along, after some major revelation, and they had turned out exactly as they did. I’m not sure we’ll see a progression like this again, and it’s a pretty damned interesting case study.

Twelve Thoughts

I’m staggering into well-trod ground here, I realize, but bear with me. I’m going to lay out a series of thoughts, and let’s see where they may lead.

Thought #1: Steven Moffat has been on a mission lately to wrap up dangling story threads, from River Song and her screwdriver to Simm’s regeneration into Gomez, to the “missing” regenerations between old series and new, to generally resetting the show to its factory settings (as well as that’s even a thing) for the next show-runner to make use of at will — putting Gallifrey back in the sky, putting the Doctor on the run, returning major foes to recurring status. Not all of these threads are his own; some, he inherited from Davies. Some predate Davies, to an extent. If there’s a loop to close, late-era Moffat has gone out of his way to close it.

Thought #2: Moffat also has gone out of his way to cater to Capaldi’s whims. Capaldi said over and over how much he’d like to face off against the Mondasian Cybermen; how if he was to go out, how great it would be to be done in by one of them. Moffat scoffed, and he scoffed. But, look what happened. He’s been sending the scripts (e.g., the upcoming special) past Capaldi for review, taking on board minor and major suggestions, and altering them accordingly. In turn, Capaldi, being a fan since the show’s beginning, has his share of suggestions — not all realistic, but many well-informed and well-intentioned.

Thought #3: In wrapping up his era — in fact, the whole “revival” era of Doctor Who — Moffat is not only returning the show to its factory settings. He’s bringing Capaldi back to his own first memories of the show. Capaldi gets his own Mondasian Cybermen, which is fine — and then as he denies his regeneration he’s transported back to the Doctor’s first encounter with those same Cybermen, which is in turn the Doctor’s first regeneration. Dramatically, this is some good stuff: some by-the-book thematic mirroring, to draw clear metaphors and enhance semiotic coherence amongst far-flung events, creating a sense of epiphany and oneness. It’s kind of like Chekhov’s Gun, or advanced intercutting (a technique with which Moffat overtly experimented throughout series 8, e.g. in “Listen” and “Into the Dalek”), in terms of James Burke-ing a sense of holistic significance on the chaotic and often desperate causality that tends to define the show’s narrative.

Thought #4: Moffat not only hews to Capaldi’s whims; he also seems to take an impish glee in running with off-handed remarks that tickle him enough for Moffat to make mental notes, e.g. the Doctor’s electric guitar. There were no plans to insert an electric guitar into the show, but after the first series Moffat asked Capaldi what changes he’d like to see; Capaldi had no clue, so, being an ex punk rocker, he joked about putting a guitar amp in the console room. Of course that would be silly; he just didn’t didn’t know how to respond to the question, in that moment. So, for no reason other than to rise to the ridiculousness of the suggestion, Moffat did as he wasn’t really told. Likewise at a convention panel, in response to Moffat’s canned joke about Hartnell not returning his calls for the 50th anniversary special Capaldi fleetingly suggested they could have got David Bradley in. And Moffat had a Larry David moment, staring off into space and thinking, “Oh.” So, lo, William Hartnell’s impostor is the Fender Stratocaster of series 10.

Thought #5: There is one glaring, famous unresolved thread of continuity to this series that presents itself in every clip show, at the show’s every anniversary, that people tend to collectively pull up their collars and avoid mentioning, lest they stray into “Paul McGann is the Rani” territory. You just don’t go there, for some reason, like it’s an unwritten law. For someone of Moffat’s impulses and humor, that challenge must seem awfully tempting.

Thought #6: Moffat is not exactly known for the expansiveness of his toolbox. In Capaldi’s era he’s become more adept at using his few tricks more constructively to tell meaningful stories, as opposed to flashing them around at the audience to show how shiny his tools all are (see: the Matt Smith era). Still, his scripts are typified by a few concepts that he uses over and over again. For instance, out-of-sync relationships with extreme time gaps. We first see this with Reinette, where we meet her as a girl, then a few minutes later as an adult, then eventually the Doctor pauses too long yammering about the plot only to find her dead — that he just missed her by moments. The same concept is remixed a bit for River Song, is worked into a monster-based story for “Blink” (e.g., when Sally turns her back only for Kathy to turn up dead, her note for Sally as delivered by a relative echoing Reinette’s for the Doctor), becomes basically the entire basis for Amy Pond, nearly becomes Clara’s exit in “Last Christmas”, and has some of its final echoes in the way Capaldi’s Doctor misses Bill by just a few hours, as a result of getting distracted by exposition back at the top of the ship. Moffat has a half-dozen patterns that he uses over and over, but this one seems to be his favorite.

Thought #7: Earlier, between the filming of series 8 and 9, a certain actor from the show’s past visited the current production and was shown by Capaldi around the TARDIS set. He said to that actor, oh, you need to come back, seriously. Then he went to Moffat, and said, oh, Steven, wouldn’t it be great to see them back? Moffat gave a non-committal response, as one does to that luvvie nonsense. Yeah, sure. Everyone should come back. Put them all in a boat with a single oar, and see what happens. We’ll broadcast it exclusively in IMAX at 2 a.m. Apply in the affirmative; nod and smile; yes, of course, let’s do it. Now let’s move on.

Thought #8: As further evidenced by the selling point of the forthcoming Christmas special, Moffat sort of a has a thing for screwing around with Hartnell’s continuity. He’s had Clara visit the Doctor as a young boy, then several hundred years later shown a splinter of her interfere with the Doctor’s choice of an escape capsule. Outside of the modern era, there’s no other part of the classic series that Moffat has shown such a significant and repeated interest in reinterpreting. This interest is starting to border on an obsession, and considering that Moffat is now brazenly dancing into the events surrounding Hartnell’s regeneration — something already fairly well-documented if one ignores that the episode in question is in fact missing — one wonders how deep this obsession will go.

Thought #9: Throughout series 10 — and here, if you’ve somehow been glazed over with my argument so far, you should be ready to groan — the Doctor has two photographs on his desk, representing the painful dangling threads of his family. One of those, Moffat took the care to resolve two Christmases ago, so for us her portrait is more of a recent, rather warm, reminder — though for the Doctor it’s a certain recent and raw trauma, as obliquely addressed in his Missy flashbacks. The other portrait is the one we’re not supposed to talk about, lest we look like total loons. And yet there it is, receiving regular camera focus — a recent continuity reminder, sitting with equal status beside what we must interpret as another deep-dive continuity reference, of the sort the show seems to do more and more under Moffat (e.g., Hartnell’s face turning up on that dingy machine in “Vincent and the Doctor”). Which is fine. Though, the camera really does like to focus there.

Thought #10: It has become something of a modern series cliche at this point that at the moment of regeneration the Doctor revisits the companions of his recent past. David Tennant’s narcissistic Doctor claimed his “reward” by visiting every major companion of his era, including threatening to bring on a paradox by visiting Rose several months before she ever met him — or, rather, met his previous incarnation. Smith’s Doctor had his weird “Head Amy” moment while Clara stared on. The recent trailer confirmed that Pearl Mackie is making one last round this Christmas, despite apparently having left in the previous episode, and well-informed whispers suggest that her predecessor has also put in at least a cameo.

Thought #11: At the start of the recent trailer, we were graced with a tampered Hartnell quote. It wasn’t the quote, the quote that you’ll always expect someone to use, for instance at the start of The Five Doctors (the previous time that Hartnell’s Doctor was recast with a not-quite lookalike); it was a moment from Hartnell’s final serial, into the final moments of which Moffat has chosen to insert his own final script for the show — in much the way that Hartnell’s visage weirdly morphs into David Bradley, to misdeliver his last few words. The quote used for the trailer was appropriate for its provenance, and yet because of its positioning and because of the expectations set about by prior art, it is conspicuously not the quote that we’re looking for. If anything, it seems to undermine that expectation. To read in some possibly unwarranted motivation, almost to misdirect from that expected quote — and by so doing, to create a dissonance that sets up a certain subconscious expectation.

Thought #12: In the recent past, Moffat has shown great willingness to bring back old characters when it suits the story, and to totally refuse to unless it does. In the forthcoming special alone, we’re already bringing back the (recast) first Doctor, and — to enormous surprise — a recast Polly Wright in some capacity. Clearly bringing back the two of them suits the story that he wants to tell about Capaldi’s Doctor. About facing the regrets and the pain and exhaustion that prevent him from feeling entitled to, or even to want, redemption. It seems to me there’s one deep regret that the Doctor has never addressed, that his fourth and twelfth incarnations may both share with a similar (if in one case more present) ache. If the Doctor is going to move on, and unreservedly accept a new, unburdened life, it may be some therapy to release that pain.

All of which is to say, the Doctor never did come back, did he. At least, not in dramatic terms, in the primary continuity of the television show. He made a bad call, and he knows it, and he’s been avoiding it ever since.

And, all things considered, it seems to me this may at last be his moment of catharsis.

The Politics in Doctor Who

A fellow on reddit (yes, I know) with a history of GamerGate-related posts went on a tirade in response to another redditor’s post that engaged with a Mark Gatiss episode on a critical level. It wasn’t even that deep; it was that whole “Unquiet Dead” business, where the plot is about refugees who play on sympathies to gain entry to one’s country in order to attack it within. Which, you know, ick. Especially in the current context of Brexit. Mark Gatiss clearly didn’t intend the most obvious reading of the work, but then he’s not a very deep thinker about these things.

Anyway, as they do, the GamerGate fellow rambled on about ethics in Doctor Who commentary and whatnot, insisting that the other redditor was imagining things to suit their agenda, and that politics have no place in Doctor Who and have never been a part of the show except for where people like Russell T Davies have brought them in.

This is, of course, an amazing thing to claim. Yes, there’s all the overt political commentary that Davies and, to a lesser degree, Moffat have brought to the show in recent years — “massive weapons of destruction” and all. But it goes way deeper than that. So, trigger my response:

And Malcolm Hulke, Barry Letts, Andrew Cartmel — all very engaged. Hartnell’s third season had a stern reactionary in charge for part of it, and boy did that affect the show’s tone.

All art is political, by the virtue of being the product of a human being with a perspective on life who exists in a social context. Any art that is consciously apolitical is also political, in that it is saying the status quo is just fine, thank you. It’s making a judgment as to what is and is not appropriate to discuss, which is extremely political.

Screenwriting like any art is a form of communication. By necessity what is being communicated is a result of the author’s frame of reference. The author may or may not consciously draw conclusions (Gatiss does not), but by translating and reiterating that material you are in effect propagating and condoning it. In Gatiss’ case, his source material is in fact conscious and deliberate in its commentary. Nigel Neale is far from subtle in his reactionary views. Quatermass IV is entirely about those dirty hippies and the danger they bring. Earlier stories are consciously about fear of attacks or negative influence from outside the UK’s borders. He never made a secret of that. And when you internalize and then regurgitate this material without considering its meaning… you’re really misfiring as an artist, to start with.

It’s probably worth considering that the very creation of Doctor Who was a political act.

In the 1960s, the BBC was losing viewers hand over fist to its competitor, ITV — so they called in a Canadian expert, Sydney Newman, to figure out what was going on and take whatever steps were necessary to fix it. The problem was pretty obvious: ITV spoke to people in a way that the BBC didn’t. Whereas ITV consciously tried to show a variety of perspectives and reflect the lives of its viewers, the BBC was an establishment institution with a single very narrow perspective. It was staffed largely by old white upper-class or upper middle-class men, who attended the same few private schools — and so naturally its output reflected that, being mostly concerned with what upper-class white men with fancy schooling thought was worthwhile. You got lots of sniffy adaptations of The Classics; lots of prim and proper, uncontroversial children’s entertainment (often based on The Classics); lots of televised plays.

Newman came in, said “Bunk,” and set to overturning the apple cart. Let’s make programs that people actually want to watch. Everyone hated him for it, but he got results.

I’ll stop here to comment on motivation. Newman’s, and the BBC’s, reasons for all of these changes are more easily attributed to pragmatic factors than consciously ethical ones. That doesn’t change the substance and effect of the changes. If you endorse a bill for, I don’t know, gay marriage, you may well be doing it for the votes but you’re still carrying out a perspective with real meaning and potential consequence.

That out of the way, it is clear that the BBC’s exclusionary tendencies were high on Newman’s mind for more than just their poor business value. He was an outsider to the institution; a Canadian, a Jew, and not particularly high in the class structure. There were reasons that he understood a populist voice; he was in many ways sympathetic to a contrarian view toward the establishment.

To that end, he was really fond of science fiction — which at the time was considered extremely low art, and basically worthless on a cultural level. So of course, against all advice, he set about commissioning research to figure out how to make a worthwhile populist sci-fi show. On a bureaucratic level, this absolutely is a political move.

Then when he found a premise that he liked, he went out of his way to staff it with neglected voices. He hired on a young Jewish woman to be the first female, and one of the youngest ever, BBC producers. He hired on a young gay Indian director. This show was something that personally interested him. He wanted it to have a life outside of the old upper-class white male framework that defined most BBC output. This had to be new and fresh and exciting, which meant that it had to be the product of new, fresh (for the BBC), and exciting perspectives.

Doctor Who basically exists to flip the bird to the establishment and show what else is possible within the system that they set up — and, just to prove the power of getting weird, to get people watching.

As a result of this whole context, Doctor Who was pretty much a pariah within the BBC from the day of its commission to the day of its cancellation. It was never the correct thing, that the BBC was supposed to be doing. It was always a waste of valuable BBC resources.

This is political. And given this environment, it should be no surprise that the show’s content has nearly always been itself political, especially concerned with the voice of the disenfranchised. The Doctor has nearly always been portrayed as the underdog, an outsider, sympathetic to (for lack of a more inclusive term) humanitarian concerns. Weirdly enough, the most obvious counter-example is from an era largely guided by a Buddhist pacifist and a politically active Communist — but I guess the military framework provides all the better a canvas to explore things like Apartheid (The Mutants), indigenous rights (The Silurians), environmentalism (The Green Death), and what-have-you. Makes it easier to slip things in.

So, yeah. Of all shows, it’s a pretty strange thing to ask Doctor Who to avoid politics. But then, given how political that demand is in itself, it’s not a very rational argument in the first place…