Sunday, August 03, 2008

4:8 and 4:9 "Silence in the Library" and "Forest of the Dead"


The Doctor confronts a space-suit which contains the skeleton of "Proper Dave" but which also contains a swarm of invisible alien piranhas which ate him but because space suits use telepathic transporter technology in their intercoms there's a sort of print of his mind in the space suit which means that it's still talking with his voice which means that the doctor can theoretically communicate with the swarm of invisible alien piranhas through the suit because did I mention that they're telepathic invisible alien piranhas? We know that Proper Dave is dead because his suit keeps saying "Hey, who turned out the lights?" over and over again. (A completely cynical Doctor Who fan might point out that Steven Moffat has already used the idea of repeating an innocuous phrase over and over until it becomes scary in "The Empty Child.") We gradually realise that "Other Dave", who's also in a space-suit, is repeating "Doctor, I think we should go now" over and over again, which means he's also been eaten by the swarm of invisible alien telepathic piranhas as well. So the Doctor is trapped. Between TWO telepathic alien zombie space suits. So, he starts to talk really, really quickly and then he whips out his magic screwdriver and escapes by dropping through a concealed trap door which had been there all along.

Let's watch that again in slow motion.

Doctor. Trapped between actually genuinely quite spooky monsters.

David Tennant. Talks really, really quickly.

Trap door. Already there.

Hero. One leap. Free.

History will record that this was the exact moment at which Doctor Who jumped the metaphorical shark. The exact point at which the normal rules of narrative - of cause and effect, of simple logic, were abandoned, and everyone sensible switched off and started watching old episodes of Buffy instead. Or The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. Or Bagpuss, come to that.

It was, I suppose, inevitable that this should happen while RTDs anointed heir was officiating.

Steven Moffat has penned two very good Doctor Who stories ("Blink" and "The Girl in the Fireplace") and one very, very good Doctor Who story ("The Empty Child" / "The Doctor Dances"). The pity of it is that "Silence in the Library" is a very, very good first episode, introducing an unusual environment, an interesting situation, spookily different monsters and a non-obvious mystery to which "Forest of the Dead" palpably fails to provide any interesting resolution. Not that the two episodes aren't still a jolly enough way to pass 90 minutes on a Saturday evening; but it really does surprise me that anyone could call them flawless. "About as good as we can reasonably expect something jammed into the ludicrous formula that RTD has established for Doctor Who to be," is as far as I would go.

"Silence in the Library" consists of 5 disparate plots, any two of which would have been slightly too many for a 90 minute story.

1: The biggest library in the universe which has been left deserted for a century.

2: Invisible telepathic alien piranhas who live in the darkness and indicate who they are about to kill by causing him to grow a second shadow.

3: A little girl who believes that the library is only in her mind; and who can see what is going on inside it on her TV.

4: A mysterious woman who claims that she will be very, very important to the Doctor at some point in his future and her past.

5: Donna experiencing an alternate life in which she is happily married.

None of these plots goes anywhere: there is no sense of forward motion or development in the episode. The narrative is the process by which we gradually work out how the five plots connect up. There is nothing wrong with this. Many good stories present us with a situation and then work backwards to reveal how that situation came about. (One could mention High Noon, Oedipus Rex, Citizen Kane and every detective story ever written.) But the five stories turn out to be connected by, well, by trap doors. Since Doctor Who no longer functions according to any discernible kind of narrative logic, anything can be connected to anything else. So it's very hard to care.

The library, for example. There are any number of stories which might have been told about a library which contains every book that has ever or will ever be written. I mean, if you went to the biggest library in creation, which book would you go looking for? The book that contained the cure for cancer? The book that contained the story of your life? The book that you really loved when you were seven and have never seen a copy of since? And are there closed off sections which contain secrets that man was never meant to know? Vigilante groups that try to stop people going to the corridors that contain dangerous heresies? An erotica section that would make your body explode with pleasures too powerful for the human mind?

But Moffat isn't telling a story in that sense. The library's function is simply to exist: to be a big dumb environment which the Doctor can land in. The story wouldn't have been a whole lot different if the Doctor had landed in the Biggest Public Toilet In The Universe.

Or the piranhas. Why are millions of invisible piranhas haunting a library? Just before dropping through the trapdoor, the Doctor pulls a solution out of thin air. Vashta Nerada live in forests; books are made of paper; you make paper by cutting down trees; so the Vashta Nerada spores were brought to the library in the paper of the books. Q.E.D. But if Moffat had gone with my idea, he could just as well have said that Vashta Nerada are microorganisms that grow in the disgusting sewers of Tersurus and that would have made just as much, or just as little sense. (And loos are spookier than libraries.) This isn't story telling: it's just drawing a wobbly line between two arbitrary points.

Or, indeed, the little girl. (A completely cynical Doctor Who fan might say that the idea that the Doctor is a figment of a child's imagination has already been used in "The Girl in the Fireplace"; and the idea of the Doctor talking to someone through a TV set has already been used in "Blink.") The idea of a dying child's mind being transferred to a computer which also contains every book in the universe (because she loved reading) is cut-price Phillip K Dick, which is fine: Doctor Who has always been omnivorous about the material it rips off. But the idea of a "a disembodied mind in a virtual world" is not interesting in itself; it's a thing which you may or may not be able to do interesting things with. You can do philosophical things with it. That's what Dick does: what does it mean to be a mind without a body? Can you detach "the mind" from "the brain" any more than you can detach "90 miles per hour" from the car? If your loved-one is dead, does the fact that someone kept a back-up make you feel less bereaved? Or else, you can just do fun things with it. You can say "What would happen in a virtual world made of books? Maybe the Doctor could meet up with famous fictional characters, like, say, Gulliver, Rapunzel and, I don't know, maybe some superhero."

Moffat chooses instead to do nothing with the idea. We see Donna slowly working out that she is in a virtual world; and the Doctor opens a trap door which reveals that the virtual world was created for the dying child and that the missing library users have been saved onto the disc by the teleport, and we move on to the next idea.

And don't anyone dare say "You can't possibly deal with philosophical questions about the mind/body problem on 7PM on BBC 1. The mainstream viewers are too thick to understand that kind of thing." The sub-plot about Dawn in Buffy the Vampire Slayer was pure P.K.D. If reality takes shape only in our memories, then what happens if someone messes with those memories? If Buffy's memories of her sister are real, then is her sister real, even though in the empirical world, she hasn't actually got a sister? And what's it like to be the non-existent person? This is assimilated so seamlessly into the structure of a high-school soap opera that we don't even notice that it's happening.

Then, of course, there's all the over-wrought nonsense about Mrs. Who. A perfectly good story could be written about two lovers who encounter each other non-sequentially. (A completely cynical Doctor Who fan might point out that Moffat has already touched on the theme in both "The Girl in the Fireplace" and "Blink.") But this isn't a story. This is, as so often, an idea for a story. All sorts of interesting things could have happened. I mean, what if you married your boyfriend when he was 35, and then suddenly met him when he was 15, and he turned out to be just the sort of nasty teenager you least liked - could your marriage survive that? But no: we're supposed to think that the discovery that Bernice Summerfield sorry, River Song is the Doctor's future wife is interesting in itself, not because of its consequences. This is Doctor Who. Nothing has consequences. The only interesting question is whether the Doctor will trust River, or whether, in fact, she is misleading him in some way. This could have been explored by the use of Character and Motivation, but Moffat prefers to give River a Big Red Button which opens a Trapdoor. She knows the Doctor 's name. So that settles it.

The Doctor's true name has never been revealed. Unless you count The Making of Doctor Who. And The Armageddon Factor. And The War Machines. But anyway... Time Lords are known by titles, rather than names, apart from Morbius, obviously. And Rassilon and Omega. Oh, and Romana. But anyway... It's reasonable to assume that there is something quite special and secret about Time Lord names. But nothing in the previous half-century has remotely implied that Time Lord names are like True Names in Earthsea or Soul Names in Elfquest. Moffat's just made it up. On the spur of the moment. Out of his head. To save him the bother of actually telling a story.

The conclusion of the story, of course, involves David Tennant talking really, really quickly. All the people who disappeared from the library have been backed up to the hard drive, along with the little girl. The computer is failing, and all the people will be lost. But there's a trapdoor: the Doctor can save them all by incorporating his own brain into the machine, only this will kill him. ("And don't think you'll regenerate!" exclaims River Phoenix. Why not? Who cares? Change the rules on the hop, why don't you?) But it's okay because River has a trapdoor of her own: she knocks the Doctor out, ties him up, and incorporates her brain into the machine, killing herself. But that's okay, because the Doctor has yet another trapdoor: in the future, he will/has arranged for River's mind to be backed up onto the sonic screwdriver, so by talking really, really, really quickly and running he can save her to the hard drive where she'll live happily ever after with the little girl and various other people who've been killed and copied during the episode. So this time, everybody lives. Even the least cynical Doctor Who fan knows that "everybody lives" is a direct quote from "The Doctor Dances". The cynical ones are sitting in the corner chewing of their own legs with embarrassment.

The man who saved Doctor Who after the disastrous 17th season – and then managed to kill it all over again during seasons 22, 23 and 24 -- was universally known as "J.N.T". The man who resurrected Doctor Who in 2005 and dealt it a mortal wound in 2008 is known, by me at any rate, as R.T.D. Doctor Who is now becoming painful to watch, but many of us have a strange compulsion to put ourselves through this pain. I therefore insist that the incoming producer be referred to from now on as "S-M".


Abigail Nussbaum said...

I don't think it takes a great deal of cynicism to notice that "Silence in the Library"/"Forests of the Dead" is a medley of Stephen Moffat's favorite plot devices, though given the obviousness of some of these quotes (the Doctor falling through the trapdoor, for example, is a direct reference to "The Doctor Dances") I can't help but wonder whether this was more conscious self-referencing than self-plagiarism. And really, why not? Just as "Turn Left"/"The Stolen Earth"/"Journey's End" acted as a cap and summation of Davies's tenure as show-runner, SitL/FotD acts as a cap and summary of Moffat's tenure as the guy who writes that really good episode every season. As show-runner, his duties, and presumably his focus, will be quite different.

Which is not to say that "Forests of the Dead" is satisfying, because it's not. Like "Blink," however, I have a soft spot for it for daring to tell a non-linear story. Honestly, in a show about a time-traveler, you'd think these would be less thin on the ground.

NickPheas said...

A perfectly good story could be written about two lovers who encounter each other non-sequentially. (A completely cynical Doctor Who fan might point out that Moffat has already touched on the theme in both "The Girl in the Fireplace" and "Blink.")
Of course a completely cynical casual watcher would instead point to "The Time Travellers Wife" by Audrey Niffenegger.

Greg G said...

Just as "Turn Left"/"The Stolen Earth"/"Journey's End" acted as a cap and summation of Davies's tenure as show-runner, SitL/FotD acts as a cap and summary of Moffat's tenure

I agree with you that this is what's happening, but question whether the assumption that they intended the given result excuses it in any way.

I'd rather have stories than a check-list of references and self-congratulation.

Phil Masters said...

Dr Who? is a show about a time traveller in the sense that some of the stories take place at wildly different nominal-historical dates, and you need time travel to do that. Mostly, for quite a long time, I think it was using time travel purely as a way of juggling stage sets for entertainment purposes.

Which is fine; a lot of perfectly good time travel SF does little more. Using time travel stories to make big statements about destiny or the grand sweep of history by showing how stuff changes over time, or at least to generate sense of wonder at the beauty and the horror of deep time (ref., say, Wells's The Time Machine) requires a certain amount of confidence in and command of one's material; I'm not sure when Who first did that at all effectively. (I keep thinking of the Doctor's verbal exchanges with the villain in Talons of Weng-Chiang, but there must be earlier instances. I'm really not an early-Who buff.)

Using them to do really complex things with paradox and non-linearity is really rather hard work, demands concentration from your audience, and runs the risk of looking like mere sterile cleverness and having your whole narrative structure disappear up its own fundament, so it's fairly rare in popular media SF. Back to the Future earned plaudits for doing it on a very simple level; there are probably a few other examples, but Who only seems to have started attempting it quite recently and tentatively, even in the spinoffery. (Okay, someone will now tell me about some 1964 storyline which I've never seen.) Arguably, it's so far from what the series is all about that it should be actively avoided. Insofar as the writers have ever addressed the subject, they've thrown in a few mentions of classic skiffy observer effect problems to make it all but impossible.

Phil Masters said...

By the way, isn't it a bit of a stretch to claim that one-bound-he-was-free moment as some kind of crucial shark-jumping moment, where narrative logic was abandoned? I mean, dearly as we may love the show in some of its manifestations, it's always been a bit prone to - shall we say - a pulp-like approach to narrative convention and plot structure.

I can't be bothered to dig through any available old episodes for anything very similar, but this moment was notable only for its relatively low technobabble content. Even in the great days (well, the best days since I started watching), the Doctor was always prone to arbitrary exercises in plot-convenient gadgeteering (jokes about reversing the polarity of the neutron flow exist for a reason), and the 21st century version was cheerfully sloppy pulp science fantasy (as opposed to science fiction, however soft) from the first.

If you asked me to choose a shark-jumping moment, it'd probably be some point where the sonic screwdriver first got used as an all-purpose magic wand, rather than as a handy high-tech tool with moderately constrained abilities. But that's my scrusty old science fiction tastes showing.

NickPheas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gavin Burrows said...

Silence in the Library? Chatter in the blogsphere!

A completely cynical Doctor Who fan might point out that Moffat has already touched on the theme...

But are we those kind of men?

Of course you’re right to say Moffat’s Moffati-isms are now starting to show. But I also agree with Phil Masters when he says that trapdoor scene was hardly some huge turning point. Perhaps the distinction we really need here is between the repetition of devices, and of themes and motifs. I don’t care much if he repeats his innocuous-phrase-into-sinister-catchphrase schtick, any more than I care if the Daleks say ‘ex-ter-mi-nate!’ (I only care about that when the Daleks only say ‘ex-ter-mi-nate!’) Those things are just currants in the cake. But if every week is wrapped around Another Little Girl Who Has to Believe in the Doctor, that’s quite clearly a different matter.

The library's function is simply to exist: to be a big dumb environment which the Doctor can land in. The story wouldn't have been a whole lot different if the Doctor had landed in the Biggest Public Toilet In The Universe... Moffat chooses instead to do nothing with the idea

I quite like the concept of the Doctor tackling Monstrous Cottaging. But I’m not really sure this is true. There’s only a fuzzy kind of linkage, I will readily concede, but it’s more than a shopping list of cool-sounding stuff. First, the darkness invading the Citadel of Learning does strike me as a potent image. The Vashta Nerada represent the predatory darkness that’s inherent in the world, the stuff that just makes you want to flee. (“Vashta Nerada? Run!”) The Land of the Mind the girl retreats to is like the Land of Fiction, obeying many fictional rules such as jump-cutting and time compression. This fantasy world gives Donna everything she wants, but none of it is struggled for and so none of it is real. No labour pains, just cut straight to two children. It’s like a secularists conception of heaven, comforting but unreal.

Moffat then blurs the distinction between the two, in a way that may be smart, may be fudging it and is most likely some mishmash of the two. The ‘real’ world gets set inside the TV; in a metafictional conceit embracing reality and its dangers becomes the same thing as taking up a fictional adventure series. Donna becomes aware of the sort of place she’s in from Miss Evangelista whose whole persona has been turned upside-down, she’s now smart but ugly.

As I say, this is fuzzy. The girl doesn’t flee the Library because of the Vashta Nerada but an illness. And its not necessarily unrepetitive, it shares themes with Rose being marooned with her family on Parallel Earth. I haven’t said much about River Song, because I regard her as more of a subplot.

And don't anyone dare say "You can't possibly deal with philosophical questions about the mind/body problem on 7PM on BBC 1. The mainstream viewers are too thick to understand that kind of thing."

I wouldn’t say that. But I would say it’s more likely to bring up such concepts in a broad and provocative sense than a thorough or clearly-defined one. ‘Take some big themes and mash ‘em up’ is better than ‘put some big themes onstage then sit admiring them.’

Or, returning (sort of) to the themes of a previous thread, is it possible that New Who is setting the bar a little too high for itself and getting hoisted by its own petard? It projects, proclaims and exudes a self-image where its no longer some silly SF TV show but embraces issues, characterisation and... you know...stuff. Sometimes it even can. But the downside is that you really notice this when it fails.

Reading your blog, you sometimes appear to have quite a schizo response to New Who. A few times you’ve vowed to focus only on its positive features, then later insist its really lost it this time. (Even over a cheat cliffhanger, the sort of thing the old show did all the time.) I wonder if you can never quite decide to take the glass as half-full or half-empty.

Phil Masters said...
If you asked me to choose a shark-jumping moment, it'd probably be some point where the sonic screwdriver first got used as an all-purpose magic wand, rather than as a handy high-tech tool with moderately constrained abilities.

However annoying the screwdriver-as-wand thing may be, my choice would be the first literalisation of the deus est machina – Boom Town. (Lest I seem to have it in for Boom Town, let me offer this explanation – I have it in for Boom Town.)

NickPheas said...

Shark jumping moment? I reckon it was when they got that guy in from All Creatures Great and Small. I've heard others say it was when they got that guy from the Navy Lark.

I have no idea why my con-addled subconscious decided to say Only Fools and Horses...

Norrin said...

Nu Who definately jumped the shark in "The Last of the Time Lords."

I think that you can go all the way back to "The Three Dcotors" for a really classic jumping of the shark. That episode really only makes sense in the context of trying to create an anniversary episode with all the three doctors in it. And like the equally stupid Five Doctors they don't even manage to get the requisite number of Doctors. I mean if you haven't got a story that makes sense then at least make sure you've got three doctors.

Anyway a real purist, having watched An Unearthly Child might say that Doctor Who jumped the shark and betrayed its educational brief the minute those merchandise monsters turned up the The Mutants.

Andrew Stevens said...

Norrin, The Three Doctors most certainly did have all three Doctors. William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, and Jon Pertwee all appeared. Granted, Hartnell was confined to a television monitor due to illness, but he was in it.

Norrin said...

Yes Hartnell was in it but his screen time was so small that his contribution wasn't much more than Dr Tom in The Five Doctors. Anyway, that fact that they had him on his webcam teleconferencing in really makes it more of a shark jump because it meant that the narrative had to be even more contrived to shoehorn him in.

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't disagree that it was all a bit contrived, but I think you're being way too hard on the story. It wasn't that great, but it wasn't that bad either, and it was a whole lot better than "The Five Doctors." Much of the banter between Troughton and Pertwee was quite entertaining. The story itself doesn't really hold up, but it was still good fun. Actually, the worst thing about it was that it inspired "The Five Doctors" which was a terrible idea.

I have a theory that "The Deadly Assassin" was the real moment from which Doctor Who never recovered. Not because it was a bad story in itself, but because it was so popular and the show spent the next twelve years disappearing up its own backside, lost in Gallifreyan continuity.

I'm a huge fan of the old '60s stuff, but there's no way I'd care to contend that Doctor Who "jumped the shark" before Tom Baker even took on the role. That's far too strong a statement.

laBiscuitnapper said...

It would have made more sense for the Vashta Nerada to be a virulent form of fungi/spores from the pages of the library books (seeing as Moffat had decided they were still made from paper and not some form of graphit or plastic). Perhaps, like the common cold, that bane of all librarians, the ever dreaded 'book mould', could also prove impervious to our otherwise increasing scientific, medical and technological advances.

Ah well...