04 February 2014

Moffatt! Nooo!!

If you have read even a few posts on this blog, you'll know by now that I am a rabid fan of BBC television, especially Doctor Who and Sherlock. When I fall for something, I fall hard. I think about it all day. I dream about it all night. I lose friends over it. I talk about it all the time, with anybody who will listen, and some people who won't. 

So I made sure to watch the Doctor Who 50th anniversary show and the Christmas special, and Sherlock's Season 3, as soon as possible and in some cases even sooner (thanks to the slightly nefarious actions of some tech-savvy friends).  

Please DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER UNLESS YOU ARE ALL CAUGHT UP on both shows, as this post contains MAJOR SPOILERS.

First of all, let me assert that I love these new episodes. I laughed and cried with the rest of you. I had tons of fun. They are probably way above all other television out there (but since I don't watch much other television, I wouldn't know). 

But they don't measure up to their own standard. In my opinion, these latest installments were much poorer art than preceding material. I've already discussed this with several friends over on facebook, so thanks to those I am be plagiarizing! 

Here are some reasons: 
1. They were cobbled together from bits of fan-food. I'
m not arguing for a general rule that fan-fiction is a poor genre or that art is made bad because of fan input; not at all. As The Tolkien Professor points out in his latest Riddles in the Dark episode, some of the greatest works of literature in the history of the world have been fan fiction, such as Virgil's Aeneid and most of Shakespeare's plays! However, I am arguing that in these two cases, the art has been made worse by the ways in which fan input has been tacked on.  Whatever fans were clamoring for, we got it. 

They've gotten away from really good story-telling and instead are feeding us sound bites (and picture bites) of snacky stuff. The story reads as if it were a collage of blog posts by fans over the last year. 

You want to see Benedict kiss somebody? OK. You want to see him shirtless? OK (even though he's super scrawny and the color of a dead fish). You want to see your favorite villain back, even though he's dead? OK. Death, no, not a problem here.

You want more regenerations? OK. You want James Bond-style action? OK. You want lots of Doctors together regardless of what nonsense ensues? OK. And so on.

2. They
contained very cliched material, poorly integrated into the fabric of the plot.

The James Bond sequence of riding the motorcycle and pulling John out of the fire in Sherlock 3.1 is one of the worst examples of this. Even worse again was the scene lifted straight from V for Vendetta: the Guy Fawkes lets-blow-up-parliament-with-a-subway-carriage sequence. That was poor writing, unoriginal, and poorly integrated with the rest of the story.  

But what I object to most of all is:
3. The internal rules of the imaginary worlds are broken.

Here is an example from earlier in Doctor Who series 7. In "The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe," the exact same thing happens that had happened in "Father's Day"--
going back in time and doing something so the father doesn't die--with no bad consequences, although previously it caused the end of the human race and the universe being ripped apart!

Here is the biggest offense in Sherlock: Bringing back Moriarty. Now we have no parameters for judging reality in the show. Faking Sherlock's death was one thing. Faking everybody else's randomly is unfair according to the rules of the visual medium's game. 

One rule is that SHERLOCK ALWAYS WINS. It's essential to the story (and to its morality, I could argue) that Sherlock is always one step ahead of Moriarty. Let me expound.

I don't know whether Sherlock was actually fooled by the rhythm from Bach's partita, and I do think that Moriarty's suicide came as a shock to him. So Sherlock does not always need to be ahead of his enemies on every point. 

However, the main rule of the show is that Sherlock will always win in the end. Think of the woman: "Everything I said--it was just a game." "And this is just losing." So no matter how many times and in how many ways Moriarty fooled Sherlock along the way, Sherlock was ahead of him on the biggest point, on the only point that really mattered: He figured out long ahead of time that his death would be required, so he figured out how to fake it. If it turns out that Moriarty did the same, well then, the #1 rule is broken: Sherlock did not win.

If, however, it turns out that Sherlock and Moriarty planned their two fake deaths together (because SH knew he would need JM as a reason to come home and to keep the game going) then that just puts the whole show onto a different plane, with a different tone, maybe even a different genre, and would have serious moral consequences.

Two faked deaths would also have another serious (and, I would argue, bad) consequence. It would mean that we, the viewers, could not believe our eyes.
And that's what we've got in a visual medium: Our eyes. Thus, the second rule is that we have to be able to believe what we see

If we see someone put a gun into his mouth and pull the trigger, then we see the resulting fall and pool of blood, that is evidence of his death. True, we didn't see the wound, the hole: that would be too graphic for this genre, for television. I wouldn't want to see that. Yet we were given full visual evidence within the parameters, that JM was really dead. If he isn't, then we no longer have a standard for judging reality. We no longer had any foundation on which to stand. We didn't even see any blood with Magnussen's death; we just heard the shot and saw him fall. So maybe he's not dead either? Maybe nobody dies, ever. Maybe they get regenerated.

Of course, we can always be fooled within the visual medium as long as the pieces tie together and other, more reliable evidence is given. For example: the viewer can be shown a dream, daydream, fantasy, hallucination, or memory -- but some visual or textual evidence always puts that into its context. We might see the hallucination disappear into the character's eye, or text might read "Three days earlier...." If we are given conflicting evidence, as in Inception, that is part of the genre, part of the particularity of that individual work.

Sherlock needs to operate within a framework of realism in a way that Doctor Who doesn't. Otherwise, the science of deduction is useless. 

What I am talking about is a kind of cheating within the genre that drives me crazy: Like a murder mystery that reveals at the end that the murderer wasn't among the suspects all along, but was a stranger only introduced after his identity as murderer has been revealed. That's not fair.


Katherine Sas said...

Nice post, Sorina. I can concede some of your points, but I have to respond to a few which I think are flawed in conception:

1) Though the opening Sherlock episode definitely has elements of fan service, I think it's more tongue-in-cheek than you give it credit for. It undercuts the fan-service of incorporating fan theories of how Sherlock survived the fall if they all turn out to be bizarre, fannish contrivances which are systematically lampshaded and generally made fun of. Fans are acknowledge but are also poked fun at. They are part of the narrative, but they don't run the show.

2) The meeting of Doctors in the 50th Anniversary is a time-honored tradition embedded into the fabric of the show. Multi-Doctor stories have been an integral part of the story since the early 70s, so you have to go back much farther than Moffat for this particular piece of the puzzle. Also, I suggest that the multi-Doctor story is essential to the story as a visualization and literalization of the Doctor's thought process and character development over 400 years. Fun for fans, yes, but absolutely plot-critical and (I would argue) hugely consistent and artistic.

3) Finally, the problem of Father's Day: If you're looking for consistency in DW, you're looking in the wrong place. DW has never played fair or consistently with the rule of time travel. In fact, Paul Cornell (the author of Father's Day) is a firm believer that there is no such thing as cannon in Doctor Who (his argument is here: and another great argument is here:

Now, I do agree that Moffat has lately been getting carried away with his own ideas, bordering on wish fulfillment, and has often contradicted even his own recently-made decision with alarming regularity (in fact I argue this here: However, I think some of this is a little more complicated than the issue of fanfic or fan input.

Sørina Higgins said...

Oh, you're good, Kat. I agree!