Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Doctor Who and The Art of Pretension

Everyone enjoys media in different ways; some crave action, others go in for emotional investment, a few for intricate stories and well developed characters, and some just like watching the pretty lights.  I speak here of pure, visceral pleasure derived by an individual from a work, not an evaluation of artistic merit or an appreciation of form.  However, within each group of culture fetishists there exists a hardcore that seems impossible to please to many fans.  Assuredly, many of these people are simply taking full advantage of the amazing capacity the internet gives us to be opinionated assholes (hi), but many, through one factor or another, have added another category of enjoyment to their filters

Could I have done better?

Now, to truly fit into this category, a critical mass of not necessarily positive traits must build up.  A self referential critical consumer must:
1) Consume enough media and works within the criticized work's genre to have thorough understanding of the tropes and storytelling methods entailed
2) Have the academic training in the relevant literature necessary to be able to properly suggest an alternative to a criticized element
3) Have a high enough opinion of themselves that they believe that, in a complete role reversal, they actually could have done a superior job than the artist whose work they consume.

For example, let us consider the epilogue to the Harry Potter series.  Someone who falls into none of the above 3 categories might say "That epilogue was fucking terrible," someone who meets only the first might say "That epilogue was worse than Hitler, here's a list of similar media who executed an end to an epic series more gracefully," someone who meets the first and second qualifications might say "That epilogue was so bad it made me lose faith in the human species, and I know precisely how I would've improved on it," while someone who is described by all three will say "That epilogue violated me personally, with a cactus, I know precisely how I would have improved it, and now let me tell my friends about it incessantly/post fan-fiction I claim is the 'real' canon (those people exist)/post a blog all about it."

As you have probably gathered by now, either from knowing me or from my tactful balance of self deprecating humor with obvious desire for everyone to hear what I think, I count myself among this self chosen few.  This is not necessarily a good thing.  There are plenty of films, books, and other works of art that this standard, which is just as subjective as any other standard of enjoyment, has striped of enjoyment for me.  In most walks of life (and in mine so far), all it would do is strip me of precious happiness that could have been and spice that sullenness up with pretension.  As an aspiring filmmaker, I have been able to write it off as of yet, because the practice of story crafting is actually invaluable, but so far it hasn't been exactly rewarding in a concrete sense.

This is not to say this attitude cannot be enjoyable in its own right.  There is a thrill in seeing where a work of art went wrong, a voyeuristic supremacy in being able to know with 100% certainty that an artist's work pales before your imagined version of it that you could never muster the nerve to say to their face.  And often, these imagined works are a joy in their own right, provided you can find anyone willing to sympathize.  I would say that its your choice whether or not the pros outweigh the cons, but I really don't believe it is.  I, for one, cannot simply turn it off, it is an inherent component of the brain processes I have spent 22 years expertly honing for consuming media.

Now, as the title suggests, what has made me think a moderate amount about this aspect of media consumption and write about it on the internet is Doctor Who, specifically the first 3 episodes of the second part of the current sixth series, if that description is even slightly helpful.  Here's the part where I should probably advise you that massive spoilers follow, and also that I'm only going to be providing the bones of context about the show, so if you are either not familiar with Doctor Who or are a bit behind on your viewing you may want to stop reading at the end of this paragraph.

Alright, are they gone?  Good, now that its just the cool kids,  we can get down to business.  Normally, Doctor Who is one of the few things that can be exempted from the question of possible improvement, not because I can stop asking it, but because I can always rely on the answer being "Of course you couldn't have done better, its Doctor Fucking Who."  In fact, even this rare moment of criticism comes from a string of episodes I still profoundly enjoyed, which actually served to make the one major mistake all the more glaring.

The midseason finale, "A Good Man Goes To War," was an instant classic, with wrenching emotional punch and an insane twist.  One hour of television contained two of my favorite all time televised moments; the unspeakable terror of baby Melody dissolving in Amy's arms, followed quickly by the assurance that in the long run everything would be okay, because that baby would grow up to be the ass kicking River Song.  But, with an emotional impact that huge for both the characters and the audience, and the whole middle of that life to be played out, the show left itself with a vital question: where do we go from here?  Obviously, no matter how her adulthood plays out, Amy and Rory still want their child back, and the chance to raise her, and the Doctor has promised to give it to them, but how can we pull this off without completely rewriting history?  Unfortunately for a show about time travel, Steven Moffat and the rest of the show decided to rewrite history in a different way.  In the first episode after it broke for summer, it turns out Amy and Rory did get to raise their daughter, in the form of their childhood friend Mels, secretly their daughter all along.  Now, this raises a whole series of unaddressed questions, such as "Was melody transported through time from her last regeneration in mid twentieth century New York to late twentieth century England, or was she secretly pretending to be much younger than she actually is," and "If she was already brainwashed to kill The Doctor, was she actually her parent's friend or just manipulating them for years to gain access to him," or "Does it violate causality if you're the original catalyst for your parents hooking up?"  However, its most significant repercussion, and the only one stated outright in the episode, is that since Amy and Rory have already spent their entire lives entangled with their daughter's timestream, it makes attempting to rescue and raise her a moot point.

Now, you can label that as a brilliant strategy by The Doctor's enemies to protect their weapon, or a punt by writers who found that they had plot-twisted themselves into a corner, but my real issue is with what comes next: Amy and Rory just get over it.  The next two episodes of the show contain not a single line of dialogue, character moment, or even implication that this young married couple are learning to accept that they will never be able to raise the child they just learned that they have.  For other characters, this might have been understandable, but a child with Amy has been shown as Rory's idea of a perfect future since "Amy's Choice" in series 5.  But even beyond the wildly out of character moment, what makes this nonchalance infuriating is that these episodes are structured perfectly for metaphorical explorations of these adult fears.  "Night Terrors" has our human heroes thrown into a giant, empty doll's house, menaced by childhood icons, and sharing the house with a cranky old woman who is completely alone.  Add in the framing story of even a couple who cannot physically have children being parents while they are not and another kid with dangerous potential, and the symbolism is practically screaming, but none of the characters seem to hear it, let alone respond.  The next episode, "The Girl Who Waited," revolves around Amy literally growing old and bitter alone.  Seriously.

Of course, its possible that this is just subtlety and my desire for more explicit acknowledgement is just me being another brash American misunderstanding British television, but considering that "Night Terrors" was relocated from the first half of the show with very little alteration and "The Girl Who Waited" already uses its themes to explore Amy and Rory's relationship, I think its more likely that the potentially brilliant metaphors are entirely accidental.  There are also several reasons other than either lack of talent or active malevolence to either the characters or the fans (looking at you, people who bitch on fan forums) for this oversight.  Television writing is a collaborative process, even more than cinematic screenwriting.  A showrunner writes season premiers, finales, and event episodes, and provides the bones of a season long narrative that must be told in between.  Individual lead writers then craft independent ideas for episodes that fit somewhere in that progression, and incorporate the necessary elements of metaplot that showrunners discuss with them  Its entirely possible the rich symbolism of "Night Terrors" and "The Girl Who Waited" was simply lost in communication between showrunner and writer.  Its also possible that producers looked at the overall feel of the season and decided that there was too much baby stuff and emotional drama, and mandated that episodes in the interior of the season give us a monster of the week lull before the second half builds again to the season finale.

Whatever the reason, I think this is the single biggest missed opportunities in television that I can name.  With everything that is already going right for Doctor Who, this sustained emotional drama and brilliant use of the premise to create metaphor could have been the catalyst for a launch from 'universally critically respected genre program' to 'genius dramatic art in the same category as Breaking Bad.'  Maybe the remainder of this season still will be able to make that transition, but for this egregious oversight of perfect storytelling opportunities, I have to say for the first time since I started watching Doctor Who

I think I could've done better.

All I need now is an army of meanwhiles and neverweres