The Question of the Doctor

You know that thing that stage magicians do where they wave a handkerchief or wand around or otherwise make a distracting flourish to point your eyes in one direction so that you aren’t paying attention to where the trick is really happening?

I feel like this is why Steven Moffat, more so than previous showrunners on Doctor Who, has directed so much attention to the idea of “Doctor who?” as an unanswerable question: in a vain attempt to stop us from asking “Doctor, how?” or “Doctor, why?”

Originally I was going to try to fit that sentiment into 140 characters so I could tweet it out into the nethersphere as a little bit of wit, but the more I think about it, the more I think about one of the annoying “Doctorisms” of the current era: the Doctor telling everyone in the room and audience what questions they should be thinking.

It’s a very stage magician-thing to do, and the 12th Doctor is very explicitly referred to as such a magician, though nothing in the series except that people keep referring to him as one really sells it. He does behave like a magician in one way, though: he very deliberately leads people in the direction he wants them to be thinking.

In “Under The Lake,” the question he tells you that you should be asking is what “the temple” means in the interstellar directions “The Dark, The Sword, The Forsaken, The Temple”.

Without the Doctor to tell you this, you might instead be wondering how aliens would know the three lights in Orion’s sword are supposed to be a sword when that’s earth mythology and they don’t even form a line when viewed from other angles, or you might be wondering how aliens are supposed to connect “the forsaken” to a single specific abandoned town or why they need directions to find the planet from which a radio signal is emanating in the first place.

Without the Doctor to tell you that your questions are boring and pointless and indicative of low inteligence unless they are the questions he wants you to ask, you might be wondering why the ghost of a character who died 150 years in the past doesn’t show up to haunt the present until we the audience see her die, even though someone else who died in the same era was the first ghost and even though the ghosts could totally have used her at the moment when every ghost we knew about was trapped.

In fairness to Moffat, Doctor Who is a fantasy series and there has never been an era when its science made sense, when it wasn’t powered by cardboard and whimsy, and when the story logic was tighter than a child’s puppet show. I know it’s not popular to acknowledge this and I’m sure that a lot of people who hate Moffat and were nodding along right up until this point stopped when they read that, because of course it wasn’t like that in whatever they regard as the golden age of Who.

But of course it was. It always has been. God willing, it always will be. We ignore these flaws when the show works for us, but wouldn’t recognize it without them. It’s all part of the charm.

But I said it’s part of the charm, and I mean every word of that phrase. It is only part of the charm. And if the rest of the charm isn’t there… well, you know what it’s like when something breaks and you step on a part of it. Not very charming, is it?

Steven Moffat doesn’t know how to charm us, not consciously, and doesn’t have any confidence in his ability to charm. When he tries to be charming, he comes off like his avatar from Coupling trying to be anything. Ditto when he tries to be clever. So he gives us stories wherein the characters tell us again and again how clever the twists are, what we should be paying attention to, what we should be questioning, what we should be leaving alone, and all this comes at the expense of making the episode fun enough for us to go along with it willingly.

It’s all supposed to be a neat magic trick, but he does it with all the deftness and subtlety of, well, Steve, and it ultimately just grates.

Full disclosure: I have only seen the first two stories of the most recent season. My impression so far is that it’s better than last season (which was possibly the low point for New Who, in a lot of ways). I think the show gains a lot from a multi-episode story format. That’s what’s ultimately worst about these failed flourishes: they’re so unnecessary.

Audiences are no longer invited to consider a viewpoint where the Doctor’s idea-powered magitech makes sense; we are berated and badgered and hectored and upbraided for not already being on board, we’re told we’re a bunch of slow-witted, unevolved ninnies for not already knowing the story’s going to go in the direction the writers have decided it must, and we are promised that if we are clever and wise (and worthy of being a companion like Clara), we will see the Doctor as the world’s greatest magician and regard every conclusion he forms as solid and unassailable, every word that comes out of his mouth as sparkling brilliance.

And why do we put up with this?

Of course, that’s the wrong question. The question we should be asking, the question that matters is “Doctor who?”