Thursday, 25 April 2013

Does DOCTOR WHO need more people in charge?

Occasionally I am asked why I don't review Doctor Who on the blog. The answer is pretty simple: I do not regard Doctor Who as a serious SF drama. I enjoy watching the show, especially with my girlfriend's son, but usually as a way of switching my brain off and just having fun without having to worry about analysis. If I did try to analyse the new show and review it with its myriad plot holes (which at this point are so numerous as to make the show resemble Swiss cheese) and often very ropey writing, I would probably go mad.

"Splendid fellows, all of you."

It was not always so. I grew up with Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, although I didn't count myself a fan until Remembrance of the Daleks and the final two seasons of the original show. I spent most of the first half of the 1990s collecting large numbers of Doctor Who stories on VHS. A few years back I revisited some of the more classic stories, like The Caves of Androzani and The Ark in Space, and found (dodgy effects and being filmed on video aside) that they still stood up quite well. The new series has had some very good moments, such as The Doctor's Wife, Blink, The Girl in the Fireplace and, most recently, Cold War, but generally speaking it has been mostly incoherent and confused.

There has been much discussion in fan circles of why this is so, with some going as far as saying they are going to 'break up' with the show. Some have cited the decision to move the show to mostly self-contained 45-minute episodes (rather than the 25-minute, three-to-seven part serials of the old series), which severely curtails the time available for plot setup, resolution and characterisation. There may be something to this, as Doctor Who does not have a regular cast outside of the two or three central figures and each story needs to establish its own cast, location and threats, which is a tall order in just a few minutes. This is the inverse of most shows, where the cast and location are fixed and a small number of guest cast come in every week who can be set up quite quickly. However, I don't think it's the whole story, especially as most of the two-parters (which are roughly the length of the old four-parters) suffer from the same issues.

More convincing is the argument that the show has become way too dependent on season-spanning story arcs: Bad Wolf, Torchwood, Mr. Saxon, the disappearing planets, the crack in time/exploding TARDIS, the 'death' of the Doctor and now the mystery of Clara Oswald. In contrast, the old show had exactly two season-spanning story arcs in twenty-six years (three, if you count the much looser 'E-space' trilogy in Tom Baker's final season). Doing a season-spanning epic story arc is great if you have a really compelling storyline for it. At the moment it feels like the story arcs are there simply because it's 2013, and almost every series has a big story arc of some kind, so Doctor Who needs to do one as well. Doctor Who has never been a trend-follower, so it's not entirely clear why it has to be one now.

However, I have also been pondering if one of the problems with the new series has been that it puts way too much work on the shoulders of a single person: the showrunner/head writer. Since 2005, Doctor Who has been run by just two people: Russell T. Davies (2005-10) and Steven Moffat (2010-present). Davies and Moffat have both been in charge of the show and have also been the head writers, each penning several episodes per season in addition to handling rewrites on other writers' scripts as well. There have been other producers (a veritable revolving door of them, in fact) but their roles on the show seem to have been more like facilitators and enablers rather than having a strong say in the creative process.

Going back to the original series, there is a stark difference in how the creative workload was handled. Going right back to 1963, the first showrunner, Verity Lambert, was not a writer. She made business decisions and had a strong say in the creative process, but the creative direction was handled by her script editor, David Whitaker, and the individual writers. An associate producer, Mervyn Pinfield, was also present to help with production issues, although in reality Pinfield was actually only present due to BBC concerns that Lambert, who was only 28, might be too inexperienced to handle the whole show; this criticism was withdrawn after Lambert overruled the BBC executives who didn't want to include the Daleks in the series and was shown to be right, with a massive boom to the show's profile and popularity following their introduction.

Throughout most of the show's history this pattern was repeated: a strong producer focusing on the big picture but rarely actually writing episodes, with a script editor who handled the creative direction of the show. The show's most creative and interesting periods were usually the result of an excellent producer and a good script editor working in concert: Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks during most of the Jon Pertwee era and Philip Hinchliffe and Robert Holmes during the early Tom Barker period are the most notable examples of this. Later partnerships were more troubled but also successful on occasions: the pairing of Graham Williams as producer and Douglas Adams (yes, that Douglas Adams) as script editor resulted in one of the very best Doctor Who stories of all time (City of Death) but also several of the very worst. John Nathan-Turner's controversial, long period in charge of the show in the 1980s was marked by bursts of creativity led by strong script editors, most notably Eric Saward in the late Davison and Colin Baker years, and Andrew Cartmel at the end of the original run.

Did these guys blow up the TARDIS? Maybe. Yes. No? Who cares?

This set-up may also be more familiar from American television, which is often handled by two or more executive producers with a number of other writers working for them. Game of Thrones is handled by two showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. Lost was handled by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. Battlestar Galactica was handled by Ronald D. Moore, who focused on the show's writing, and David 'not that one' Eick, who focused more on production. Babylon 5 divided its executive producer credits between head (and often the only) writer J. Michael Straczynski, business facilitator Doug Netter and on-set producer John Copeland. The Star Trek shows of the 1980s and 1990s may have been overseen by Rick Berman, but he devolved a lot of authority to individual showrunners, such as Michael Pillar, Ira Steven Behr, Brannon Braga, Jeri Taylor and Manny Coto, each of whom in turn was supported by other writers and producers. And so on. Running a TV show is a big job, and arguably requires more than one person in charge.

Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat are interesting in that both are quite capable writers (the latter rather moreso than the former, to be frank) but in both cases their writing seems to have suffered when they had to handle production duties as well. Moffat wrote several of the very best episodes of the new run when he was working as just a jobbing writer under Davies, but since he became showrunner the quality of his scripts has nosedived. Even great concepts he created under Davies, such as River Song and the Weeping Angels, seem to have gone off the boil under his stewardship of the whole series. Arguably the role of the showrunner-producer should be more focused in one direction or the other. If Moffat wants to keep writing, he needs a strong production partner who can keep an eye on the show as a whole (and who perhaps can advise Moffat when, for example, he has incomprehensible and overly-confusing story arcs for two seasons in a row). If he wants to run the show in an oversight capacity, he needs a strong writing partner who can focus on the show's creative direction.

As it stands, the constant comings and goings of the sub-producers and the seeming lack of anyone equal in rank to Moffat as producer means that the show is way too dependent on just one person, which is definitely a recipe for disaster.


Paul Weimer said...

I do think there is merit to the idea, Adam. Having one person means that the vision of the show is ultimately unified.

That is, though, a double edged sword.

And many would rightly argue we need more women writers and producers for DW too.

Adam Whitehead said...

That would definitely help.

Ilya said...

So you noticed this too, eh? I still maintain that the strongest of all the New Who (to use a widely-used term) is the first, as there was a certain conservatism of excess that seemed to fall by the wayside in later seasons. Granted, farting alien duology aside (still not sure what to make of those two episodes), the series never quite recovered its emotional resonance. Particularly in the last few years, where the writing removed a considerable (if not all) pathos from The Doctor (barring the wonderful Gaiman-scripted episode, The Doctor's Wife), and replaced it instead with a tone that feels almost cartoonish by comparison. Which might account for why the episodes produced during Moffat's tenure (thus far) have never quite held the same appeal as those produced during Davies' run.


GunMetalBlue said...

As I said a few years back on our blog when I compared RTD and opinion is that RTD did emotion and coherent long story arcs that didn't intrude on each standalone episode until the finale two-parters...and Moffat (while just being a writer) was delivering more compellingly memorable single stories that felt very DW.

I actually agree. Moffat needs to be writing, and not overseeing the whole shebang. After Caroline Skinner's recent leaving tho, I've heard tell that Moffat is some kind of narrow-minded tyrant these days and no one can tell him he's wrong....not even a producer.

But if I'm totally honest, I want RTD back. I feel his addition of emotion and drama to the show was FAR superior to Moffat's "narrative tricks and timey-wimey" stuff. But that's just me.

The Writer said...

New Who has been like this for me, too. People try to analyze it, but when they do it doesn't stand up. So I don't analyze it too thoroughly. This was easier to do in the Davies era, however, since Moffatt always tries to be exceedingly clever (which, to be fair, he can be).

I do think more women writers/producers would be a good idea, as the Moffatt era hasn't done an especially good job with female characters (with a few notable exceptions). More than anything, though, there needs to be someone to check Moffatt. He's smart, yes, but even the best authors need an editor, and even the best directors don't truly work alone.

Daddy Grognard said...

I couldn't agree more with you about the story arcs. The River Song one made 'Let's Kill Hitler' practically unintelligible for anyone who hadn't followed the entire series.

Done well, and subtly, they can provide an underpinning theme that will deliver in spades at the pay-off but this does come at the cost of mystifying the casual viewer.

As you've mentioned, the pre-revival Who did have them but very rarely and even then, the stories were capable of being watched as stand-alones.

Wastrel said...

It's worth pointing out, however, that battles between writers and non-creative showrunners have produced an awful lot of rubbish TV too. And the 'single auteur' model has produced some brilliant TV (and film). As recent examples, The Wire, The Sopranos and Deadwood were all created under this model.

The problem is, the auteur model depends on the auteur. And Moffat is no Simon.

Anonymous said...

Weren't The Wire, Deadwood, Sopranos, and even Babylon 5 (to name a few) better-planned than Doctor Who?

I never got the impression that Doctor Who had such a plan beyond. Each season/series? Of course. But in terms of long-term thinking? Moffat's not struck me as having had such a plan. Davies did (he's been quoted as having stated that he wrote the last words of his last episode, and aimed all his episodes roughly in the trajectory of that final episode and final set of lines).

JD Woodman said...

The idea has merit, but your apparent basis for it, that: "since he [Moffatt] became showrunner the quality of his scripts has nosedived. Even great concepts he created under Davies, such as River Song and the Weeping Angels, seem to have gone off the boil under his stewardship of the whole series," is one I disagree with wholeheartedly.

As to season-long arcs, they're the trade off of multi-part serials.

Mo Ryan said...

My biggest problem with the single-person-in-charge model is that the head writers gets to repeat the same ideas again and again. Both Moffat and Davies have certain ideas or tropes they go to again and again, and nobody tells them not to. This season especially is suffering from a lack of originality (a "puzzle woman" again? Really?).

There just aren't enough voices supplying story ideas and casting doubt on questionable ideas or premises. A writers room (on the US model) might go some ways toward fixing that, or a strong producer who helps oversee the larger creative vision -- and has enough power that they're not always overruled by the showrunner.

Drake said...

One head writer who writes several episodes a year and oversees most of the going-on's is how most shows in the United States are made, especially the smaller cable shows (which are usually the ones that get all the critical acclaim). Doctor Who has a similar episode-count per year nowadays, so it makes sense they would follow that sort of method. Don't forget that in the classic series there were upwards of 25 episodes per season, and sometime a decent deal more. You NEEDED more than one person to keep everything straight!

And let's not forget that the last few years of Who have had just as many fans as detractors. The fandom is so big that there are probably quite a few episodes that are loved and hated in equal measure. For instance, I hated "Cold War," thought it was the worst episode of the season. But a lot of people thought it was the strongest. I'm not going to argue that Mark Gatiss shouldn't be allowed to write episodes anymore just because I don't like his writing. I might skip some of his episodes in the future, but I know that a lot of people like them, so clearly he's doing something right.

Bob The Wordless said...

This season so far has been rather ho-hum.

The first episode was certainly something that would befuddle first time viewers,never mind those of us who have been watching Doctor Who since we were wee 'uns

By the way, will the Cybermen ever evolve? They still look like robots,and, "delete,delete" is certainly the worst lines ever spewed from a Who villain.

And, personally, I really don't want to know what the Doctor's real name is.

Doctor Who will suffice.

Anonymous said...

After all these new adventures from the past several years, I still find it strange there's not a cliff-hanger at the end of every episode. That's what I remember as a kid from the Tom Baker shows. I think more or most episodes should be 2-parters.

Anonymous said...

It's never been real sci-fi. It's just a fun bit of telly you can watch with the kids. I dip in and out of it without really caring that much. I mean, the rules of the Who world are just too restrictive (the Dr never really dies, the companion never dies) for the series to ever be really interesting. I forget the details of the storyline of the sixth series but I'm pretty sure that it ended with the doctor tricking time by having a replica of himself killed in the Wedding of River Song. That sort of thing kills it as a sci-fi show, that and the deus ex screwdriver. But it's a fun show if you switch your brain off for a bit. I'd watch it more if it was shown int he winter when the evenings are cold and dark and I can't find something better to do.

Bob The Wordless said...

(the Dr never really dies, the companion never dies)

Wrong,one of the Doctors companions did die

Spoiler alert,61164/

Adam Whitehead said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam Whitehead said...

Four, in fact: Katrina, Sara Kingdom, Adric and Kamelion.