Sunday 16 September 2012

Double Coded

There's a scene that is evidently supposed to justify the way Moffat's version of the show has been talking the Doctor up as a powerful, scary, dangerous bad-ass.  It supposedly justifies the Doctor's own increasing tendency to appear decidedly impressed with himself, to see himself - and talk about himself - as Mr Scarypants.  It justifies the decision to show him (especially in Moffat scripts) as being hubristic, bombastic, aware of his ability to strike terror into the monsters.  Look me up, Vashta Nerada, and then run away.  Look me up, Atraxi, and then run away.  "There's one thing you never put in a trap..." and "Don't ever think you're capable of playing games with me..." and all that pompous, I'm-so-hard, showoffish bum-gravy.

The scene in question is said, by some, to throw all this into relief, to undermine it, to pull the rug from under the Doctor's feet, to be the reversal towards which all this was leading, a treacherous terminus that forces us to reassess our hero's morality, and to make him reassess it too.

The scene is near the end of 'A Good Man Goes to War'.  It's the scene where River rebukes the Doctor.  He says "None of this is my fault!", referring to the war waged by the anonymous military people and their anonymous Headless Monk friends, the war in which Amy and her baby have become unwilling pawns, in which other friends and allies of the Doctor have been killed.  River snaps back at him that it's all his fault.  He brought it all upon them by allowing himself to become a figure of terror to the bad guys, a warrior... to the point where even his name - "Doctor" - has come to mean "mighty warrior" in the language of the anonymous military people.

You see, Doctor, what a pass this has come to?  Ooooh, you have become what you were fighting.

Except that it doesn't do or say or achieve anything of the kind.  If that is the intended import of the scene, it fails miserably.

Firstly, how many times are we supposed to have seen the Doctor bitten-on-the arse by his own hubris now?  And when has it ever changed his behaviour?  He's supposed to have been humbled at the end of Series 5... only to come back at Christmas, so arrogant, such a self-appointed puppet-master, such an unrepentant and moralising neoconservative of other people's souls, that he inserts himself into a man's past, his memories, his innermost self, and rewrites his life - as he watches.

It's similar with the Doctor's 'lesson' at the end of 'A Good Man Goes to War'.  Once River has finished lightly scolding him, and he's finished looking faintly sheepish, he instantly snaps back into normal mode.  River - the quintessential Moffat 'strong female'... i.e. slavishly obsessed with her man - goes all gooey-eyed as she reveals her (entirely predictable) identity and the Doctor, grinning, announces to Amy and Rory that all is well.  He knows that they've just lost their chance to raise their daughter, irrevocably, forever.  But he doesn't tell them that.  He says he can fix it all and promptly buggers off, apparently believing that they'll be okay to learn that their daughter is now a quip-engine stalker in the body of a woman older than they are.

Two of those warriors we're not supposed to admire.
Secondly, why exactly should it shock or worry us viewers, or the Doctor, or anyone else, that the Doctor is now seen by some as a warrior?  After all, hasn't the entire episode, up to that point, been extolling the virtues of warriors?  Rory, apparently at the Doctor's arbitrary insistence, dresses as a Roman soldier.  And we are reminded how wonderful he was in his Centurion guise by Amy's silly narration at the start.  The Doctor goes and picks up his (never before seen) friends.  The Silurian female and her maid/girlfriend turn out to be sword-wielding ninjas (or something) and we're evidently supposed to love them.  Skrax is nominally a nurse but he's also a Sontaran, complete with a Sontaran warrior ethic.  The Sontarans in classic Who represented militarism as bluff, crude, vicious, arrogant, sadistic, bigoted... in Moffat Who they've become potentially likeable creatures, possessed of a noble soldier's code. (Though we must be fair to Moffat and mention that they'd already started becoming TNG Klingon-esque under RTD's regime.)  Skrax dies in battle, and we're evidently supposed to be moved by his noble warrior's death.  And then there's the female soldier who only joined up to meet the Doctor again (once again, Moffat creates a female character who is slavishly obsessed with the Doctor... and we still haven't met Mels yet).  She dies a noble death, fighting, and we're evidently supposed to be as moved as fuck by her anonymous passing as she sinks back into the bland mush from which she was just molded like a jelly.  Wherefore, with all these noble warriors about the place, dying heroic and moving warrior's deaths in the cause of friendship and justice, should our distaste for the idea of the Doctor as a warrior spring?

What we're seeing here is the quintessential Moffat move.  Show the audience one thing.  Then inform them that they're supposed to feel or think something about it that is entirely inconsistent and contradictory.

We are shown how wonderful warriors are.  We are supposed to weep for the warriors.  The good men and women who went to war.  And then Moffat/River informs us that being a warrior is somehow shameful.  That the Doctor should be ashamed of how much like a warrior he has become, by how many people now see him as a warrior.

Moreover, the bad faith inherent in this maneuver stretches even further.  It stretches all the way back across the Moffat era up to this point.  Because all those times when the Doctor talked tough, looked mean, made people scared, made people run away, got spoken of in hushed tones as a frightening enemy, turned up and acted like a ego-maniacal dick... we were so supposed to dig them.  We were so supposed to wet our pants with fanboy glee as the bad-ass Doctor talks like a hard-nut and then pastes the baddies.  We were so supposed to swell with pride and awe as people run away from him, talk about him like he's a dark god and generally genuflect before his power, might and ruthlessness.  Moffat is evidently in love with depicting the Doctor this way... just as he's in love with making every 'strong female character' into a Doctor-stalker who follows him around like a devoted puppy, endlessly talking about how wonderful he is.

Show the audience one thing.  Then inform them that they're supposed to feel or think something about it that is entirely inconsistent and contradictory.  'See the Doctor being a powerful bad-ass.  Exciting isn't it?  But it's also bad.  Because I suddenly say so.'

And don't try to tell me this is intentional.  This isn't double coding.  This is double standards.  This isn't irony.  This is the opposite of irony.  This is a writer who is deaf to the ironies of his own bad faith.


  1. I partially disagree. I think you're right to argue that there's an inconsistency in A Good Man Goes to War between the tone of what is showed and what the audience is told to feel about it. And on my first pass I found the episode quite a disappointment because of it. But it's since risen to be one of my favorites of the Moffat era - probably my third favorite Moffat script of his own era outright. And the reason is something that I think you're overlooking in a big way.

    The major issue, for me, is that we are told there's a contradiction from the start. The entire episode is explicitly a shell game. Moffat lays all the cards on the table at the outset - River's explanation to Rory as to why she can't go is straightforward in this regard. We're told the Doctor is going to get huge moments of triumph, and then is going to fall. And I think the fact that this comes prior to almost all of the Doctor's badassery is crucial. Because we're invited first to misread it. It's the classic magic trick structure - we're told what's going to happen, and then Moffat pulls off the reversal, getting us to invest in all of the badassery that we've already been told is a false rise. But all of that pleasure comes pre-undermined here. Yes, Moffat never gets around to spelling out a reason for why we're wrong to take pleasure in it, but I think the need for an explicit moral reason is reduced by the fact that the pleasure, at least in that story, never gets to stand on its own in the first place.

    There is a major wobbly bit in the resolution, and you identify it - it's the way in which Amy and Rory's trauma is elided. But I think it's key to note that it's elided, not erased. We do see glimpses of it - in the finale when Amy kills Kovarian, in the Let's Kill Hitler prequel, and in Asylum of the Daleks we get moments where we find out that there's a genuinely traumatized Amy who never fully processes her relationship with her own daughter. I'm not entirely convinced by the decision to elide that. It worked well enough for me, but I readily understand why it doesn't work for the people it doesn't work for.

  2. I don't find that convincing at all, I'm afraid.

    Firstly, the problem of fetishizing the Doctor's power goes back much further than any shell game this episode might be playing. But even discounting that, it manifests in 'AGMGTW' before River's comments, with the explosion of the Cyber-fleet and Rory's "Would you like me to repeat the question?". Does anything said or done later imply a serious repudiation of the badass-Doctor embodied and worshipped here? It's not even addressed. And this is prior to River's supposedly undermining comments, as noted. We might want to ponder the ethics of this action. We're not shown that it is a response to an attack or anything. It looks suspiciously like an act of aggression - one might even want to call it an act of genocide - committed without direct provocation. Yes, the Doctor's drift towards being a terrifying force of war is later *said* to be bad. That doesn't, to my mind, even begin to address the fact that we've been invited to watch and applaud.

    Secondly, how does it undermine the badassery of the Doctor's rescue to tell us in advance that it will ultimately backfire? It simply invites us to fear for the moment when the badassery stops working properly. I don't think the statement that the Doctor will triumph for a bit and then fail constitutes the announcement of ethical contradictions in his approach.

    I still think the contradictions, or incoherences, are in the writing itself. Moreover, the ethical incoherence is hugely exacerbated when the 'rise' referred to turns out to be a supposedly bloodless victory. The Silurian praises the Doctor's great achievement in winning without bloodshed. And then the baddies spring their trap, causing the bloodshed the Doctor had up til then avoided. So, the blood is on their hands not the Doctor's, whatever River may later say. The Doctor's scary badassitude is absolved by its apparent harmlessness. He's caused no deaths (apart from all those thousands of Cybermen he killed in an act of terrorism... but everybody's forgotten about that) and yet must be scolded for being a warrior. Meanwhile, the warriors are noble and admirable anyway. Okay, there's *some* promise in the characterisation of the two married male soldiers. It's a bit like those bits in the first Austen Powers movie where we get to see the families of the henchmen he guns down. But they (the married soldiers) don't get killed by the Doctor. They get killed by the baddies, who wear eye-patches (literally!) or are gallumphingly crass metaphorical figures representing religious fundamentalism. So, even the grunts on the opposing side fail to represent an indictment of warriorship!

  3. Once again, Jack, I have to agree with you here. And honestly I think the precedent for this is set in the McCoy era -- I'm more than just a Time Lord, I'm a master manipulator, I might very well be some sort of virgin-birth deity -- and if we don't quite get to the point of "every woman who meets me adores me," I think the damage is done. It's one of the many reasons that while I appreciate the leaps in quality of Cartmel and beyond, I've never quite warmed to the Seventh Doctor and may never do so.

  4. I'm not sure the cyber fleet destruction is about the Doctor's badassery at all, though. The entire point of that scene is that we're led to think that we're looking at a scene about how cool the Doctor is only to find out at the end that it's been a scene about Rory the whole time. The point is that we're mis-identifying the Doctor there.

    I think the episode is largely structured in exactly that way. We're led to think we're watching one kind of story, in which the Doctor gets his big badass moment and a good man goes to war. But you're right - the destruction of the cyberfleet is the only big "going to war" moment he gets, and as I noted, that's very much deferred and put into a scene that's really about Rory's badass warrior credibility. Instead we get the Doctor flailing around and manifestly failing to slot into the roles we expect. That's also the point of the "the cradle, it's mine" scene, which is structured to look like the big revelation about Melody's parentage when, in fact, those are completely the wrong codes. And it's why Moffat has that silly little bit in which the Doctor seems completely oblivious to the possibility that Amy and Rory had sex on the TARDIS. Because the Doctor, in A Good Man Goes To War, is actually oblivious to what he's doing. The Doctor is the last one to realize that he's gone to war.

    The audience, in other words, does the same thing everyone else around the Doctor does, misreading him as a badass. But the entire point of A Good Man Goes to War is that the Doctor isn't that. And, more to the point, that the audience doesn't want that, or if they do, they're watching the wrong show. If there's a problem here it's that too much of the audience does want that, and that Moffat has underestimated the allure of the badass Doctor.

    And it's telling that the series has largely shied away from that approach since then. The Wedding of River Song resolves with the Doctor actively avoiding the path that typically leads to his big badass moment, getting angry at River when she tries to play towards the "but everybody loves you" approach. And the biggest badass character moment of that episode - Amy killing Kovarian - is played to be disturbing. There is, in that story, a rejection of a particular kind of epic storytelling that has thus far stuck.

  5. Encyclops - I think there's some truth in the idea that the badass Doctor rot began in the McCoy era, but I also think it's a bit rough to bring up an unbroadcast line and a concept that only featured in spin-off novels! Cartmel/McCoy generally handles the idea that the Doctor can be scarily ruthless a lot more delicately. He wipes out the Cyber-fleet in Silver Nemesis too... but as a response to direct aggression. Similarly, the Daleks... though I'm inclined to be a bit more critical than most on 'Remembrance', and I do think it rather dodges some of the implications of the Doctor hiding a doomsday device in Shoreditch.

    Philip - "I'm not sure the cyber fleet destruction is about the Doctor's badassery at all, though. The entire point of that scene is that we're led to think that we're looking at a scene about how cool the Doctor is only to find out at the end that it's been a scene about Rory the whole time. The point is that we're mis-identifying the Doctor there." Hmmm... it's surely implied that the explosion of the Cyberships is the 'message from the Doctor' that Rory was talking about, rather than Rory's own doing?

    As for the rest of it... I have to confess that I'm a bit confused by your argument. You seem to be saying that the Doctor *has* gone to war but hasn't realized it, leading to a shock when River points out to him what he's done. But you also seem to be saying that he *hasn't* gone to war but that he (and the audience) think he has.

    But, if he *has* then the stated moral objection to him being a warrior clashes with the evident results achieved by the sacrifices of warriors, sacrifices which we are invited to find moving. And if he *hasn't*... then what exactly is River having a go at him for? Previous excesses, I suppose. Excesses which brought them all to this pass.

    In the end, however, it's clear (to me anyway) that the Doctor *has* gone to war. I mean, he may not personally fight but he definitely leads warriors into battle and makes big threats. If he isn't really fighting, he's at least threatening to fight while getting others to fight for him.

    I'm quite attracted to the idea of a Doctor Who story that, in effect, punctures the desires of fans/audiences who want to see the Doctor being a badass... I just don't think this episode achieves this. I'm not at all convinced that this is even the objective, let alone the effect. The queasiness introduced about the Doctor's moral status still looks, to me, like a fig leaf on a story that fetishizes his power and might. It's a bit like when something like Boardwalk Empire shows you prostitutes being used and abused. It's saying "Look how badly those girls were treated back then!" while simultaneously making sure the camera cops a lens-full of exposed boobage.

  6. Well, here we get into an interesting distinction. Yes, clearly as a matter of diegetic fact the Doctor destroys the Cyberfleet. But in terms of how that's presented to the viewer it's Rory who gets all the badassery of the scene. Not just in his glib one-liner in classic Schwarzenegger fashion, but in the fact that the entire scene is built to make us think we're getting a hymn to the Doctor's badassery only to, at the last moment, turn out to be about how cool Rory is. The entire monologue that builds up to that is about mythologizing Rory as the Last Centurion. So yes, on the "facts about imaginary people" level the Doctor destroys the Cyberfleet. On the "how it's sold to the audience" level, though, Rory gets all the glory.

    To take another example, the first nineteen minutes of the episode are Doctor-free. We go nineteen minutes of meticulously building up the Doctor's eventual appearance. And then when we finally get him he's been, in effect, hiding under a sheet. He doesn't even do anything terribly impressive. He turns the lights off and runs off into a corner. The entire episode is playing with this sort of deferral - building up what looks like a fetishization of the Doctor's grandeur and then, at the last moment, swerving to avoid it.

    I think you're more or less right in identifying where the weak part of Moffat's approach is, which is that it's a little fuzzy exactly what the Doctor is doing that's wrong. It's not a matter of whether he's going to war or not. It's that the Doctor is behaving in a way that causes the people around him to read him as being a badass warrior. It's not quite that anything he's doing is wrong, but rather that what he's doing gets misread, both by his fictional friends and his non-fictional audience. I'm not sure it's even a critique of the Doctor's moral status so much as it is his aesthetic status.

  7. First off-Never stop Jack, you are wonderful, and so often say what I want to say so much better-ly

    I disagree with Phil because what the Doctor does do IS supposed to be terribly impressive. Intercut with the 20 minute setup of how great and mysterious the Doctor is, are scenes of how fearsome the headless monks are and how prepared they are. Then the Doctor bounces in with his "gang" and effortlessly saves the baby. Also in those awful opening scenes Rory clearly says "I come here with a message from the Doctor" before blowing up the cyberfleet. It's clearly the Doctor setting up all this badassery. At best you could argue that the Doctor AND Rory are portrayed as badass.

    Which brings me to another big problem I have with Moffat's Who. He never deals with what the Doctor is really fighting. There's no real evil, either it's malfunctioning machinery (all too bloody often) or it's poorly defined. Madame Whatsherface is the nearest to a villan but what does she want?'ll be explained later in the arc (the bloody arcs-another big problem-just tell a story)

    This means that far too often there's almost little moral conflict, the villan is vaguely evil, but the Doctor does something cool and a bit comforting and that's it. This is the only Doctor who left a whole murdering Dalek fleet alive and functioning after making his parting quip. Why? Because, because, the asylum already went boom, there was a big emotional bit and...and..why worry about any of the issues. Maybe it will be resolved later in the arc....

  8. Series seven looks like it might, might, actually address some of these critiques. There seems to be a conscious effort at the moment to keep the stories small, to erase the Doctor's reputation, and to make the audience more uneasy with his moments of bravado. (spoiler) The Doctor's execution of Solomon in 702 and near-execution of Jex in 703 don't feel cool or badass in the slightest. I almost wonder if we aren't seeing the Valeyard beginning to manifest in 11.

    I could be wrong, of course, and we might still get the big badass reckoning with the Silents and it might just be a case of "The Doctor Needs a Companion to keep him in check." I hope not.

  9. Have you seen The Wedding of River Song? If you have and you still say the "look me up"/"you make them so afraid" irony is unintentional, I don't know what's wrong with your copy of the series.