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Take My Angels, Please

October 1st, 2012

I was so excited when it was announced that Steven Moffat would be the new showrunner of Doctor Who. He was both a brilliant writer and an über-fan. Most important is that he appeared to “get” Doctor Who. Consider this dialogue from his spoof episode “The Curse of Fatal Death,” spoken to a dying Doctor by actress Julie Sawalha:

“Doctor, listen to me! You can’t die! You’re too nice! Too brave, too kind. And far, far too silly. You’re like Father Christmas, the Wizard of Oz, Scooby-Doo! And I love you very much. And we all need you and you simply cannot die!”

“He was never cruel and never cowardly, and it’ll never be safe to be scared again.”

Moffat had written several of the best episodes of nu-Who, including “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances,” “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink.” The latter introduced the Weeping Angels, bizarre creatures that were akin to a living game of “Statues”: they could only move when no one was looking at them.

My glee began to turn to dismay by the start of his second full season as showrunner and head writer. The overarcing plot became so complex that not even a think tank of fanboys with a whiteboard could fully work it out. The show was less about the title character and more about Moffat’s pair of Mary Sues, Amy Pond and River Song, both of whom were so awesomely awesome we were repeatedly told. (Tip to writers everywhere: if you have to tell us how great someone is, they’re not.)

What bothered me most, however, was the sloppiness of the storytelling. Gaps in logic abounded. (Pretty much all of “Asylum of the Daleks.”) Major plot points were left unexplained. (A question still hanging from two years ago: how was the TARDIS destroyed by the Silence? Blowing up a TARDIS is supposed to be a very, very, very hard thing to do.) Rules were invented on the spot to fit the needs of the moment. (When the Weeping Angels returned in “The Time of Angels”/”Flesh and Stone,” their signature move–killing people by sending them back in time to live out their lives in the past–was conveniently ignored in favor of them simply snapping necks.)

Fast forward to this past weekend’s half-season finale, “The Angels Take Manhattan,” the swan song of longtime companions Amy and Rory. All of the above came into play, and the result had me wishing that Steven Moffat might hand over the reins before next year’s 50th anniversary.

(Major spoilers ahead. Beware.)

Here again, the Weeping Angels changed to meet the dictates of the plot. They weren’t creatures that merely resembled statues, they actually possessed existing statues…including the Statue of Liberty, which was laughably able to walk across Manhattan without anyone looking at it. They returned to sending people back through time…except when they only teleported them a short distance away. And the whole “that which holds the image of an angel becomes itself an angel” bit (from “The Time of Angels”) didn’t result in Statue of Liberty posters coming to life.

Meanwhile, there was the nagging matter of the Ponds to contend with. Never mind that they’d been leaving the show since last year’s “The God Complex,” their relationship with the Doctor had become so codependent that a regular departure simply would not do. Even though they’d already had expressed a couple of perfectly good reasons for ceasing their travels (the inherent dangers of their adventures; their enjoyment of a “normal” life), it would have to be something Earth-shattering, Rose-trapped-in-a-parallel-universe-ish to get them fully out the door.

And so it was that a new rule about time travel was introduced…”Once we know the future, it’s written in stone.” The idea here is that once the Doctor learns the details of his own future, he cannot (or should not) change them.

Not only does this flatly contradict the entire previous season of Doctor Who–the Doctor wriggling out of the “fixed point” of his own death–it invalidates the core of the show itself.

Let’s now spin back to 1975, Who‘s 13th season, for the classic tale “Pyramids of Mars.” It’s frequently cited among the top stories of the old show, chiefly for the utter malice of the villain Sutekh, an Egyptian god/all-powerful alien who terrifies even the Doctor despite its inability to do so much as stand up from its throne.

One of the most remarked-upon scenes occurred when then-companion Sarah Jane Smith questioned why they needed to worry about Sutekh destroying Earth in the year 1911 when she herself hailed from the not-destroyed Earth of 1980. The Doctor responded by slipping forward in time and showing her the hell-blasted landscape that would result from their inaction.

Granted that it took 13 seasons to make this explicit, but the point here is crystal clear: knowing what the future is “supposed” to be by no means guarantees it will play out that way. The Earth exists throughout much of the Doctor’s personal history–he’s there at its creation in “The Runaway Bride” and at its final destruction in “The End of the World”–but that doesn’t make it “written in stone.” If it was, pretty much every storyline involving a threat to Earth’s past could be safely ignored. One of the central tenets of the show is that the future is something which constantly must be defended.

I could go on for awhile restating the massive logical flaws involved in keeping apart the Doctor and the Ponds, but others have done my work. Bad enough that the “written in stone” thing will from now on be cited as one of the “rules” of Doctor Who, but it doesn’t even truly serve its purpose within last week’s story. If the Doctor can cheat his own “fixed” death with a robot duplicate, there’s nothing final about a simple tombstone.

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