Time-Jumping the Shark? Moffat’s Revolution

Funny how you can watch a favourite show, enjoy it – yet still sit a bit uneasily in your seat – because things are not… as they were! The Dr Who Christmas special was a bewitching swirl of snow, wit and imagination, but left me with something to think about.

In this story, the Doctor saves the day by repeatedly going back in time to change the life of one bitter man for the better. He appears with effortless ease at a series of Christmas Eves, shaping a sad soul into a brighter one. This follows on from the Big Bang, in which the Doc also popped backwards and forwards in time to solve his problems. Funny, yes, creative – yes, but it made me wonder.

This may work in the merry confection of the Christmas special, but what happens at a later stage when someone close to the Doctor (maybe even Amy) is killed in action. Bewildered viewers won’t understand why the Doc doesn’t just hop back in time and make everything turn out right. Well, there’ll be tears. Some might feel cheated.

In the last two outings, Moffat has instituted something of a revolution in Dr Who. He has made the Doc’s ability to change time a kind of superpower that he employs willy-nilly. It’s weird to us older viewers because up to recently… Dr Who hasn’t actually been about time travel.

It seemed to begin with Paul Cornell’s ‘Father’s Day’ in 2005. With Dr Nine, Rose travels back in time to see her father’s death – but saves him instead. This unleashes a series of disastrous consequences, but creates a delightful creepy frisson as we see time meddling and its consequences coming to the forefront of the series.

Then Dr Ten gets into the action. To impress Martha in ‘Smith and Jones’ (2007) he nips back in time to take off his tie and imprint a memory into her mind. Russell T Davies knows this kind of time-larking is forbidden – especially with the hard core fans – so he cheekily gives the Doctor this line:

“Crossing into established events is strictly forbidden. Except for cheap tricks.” Nice one, RTD.

Then, in Waters of Mars (2009), we see the Doctor choosing to change a historic outcome – a fixed point in time, by rescuing the crew of Bowie Base One. To Doctor Ten this is a massive rebellion against his past beliefs, a moment of hubris – part of his downfall and plunge into regeneration.

But now, Doctor 11 has donned the mantle of time meddling monkey with great alacrity. The youngest Doctor ever, he’s like a kindly, rather privileged young prince, who accepts twiddling with time as his birthright. This is all very new stuff to a very old series.

Traditionally, the Doctor landed his Tardis at a moment in events, future or past, but after that was stuck in the same temporal flow as everyone else, bound by the iron rules of a tough universe. It made him mortal, subject to the same hopes and fears as the rest of us.

Now we have the Doctor dancing back and forth through the years, able to alter the experiences of anyone who gets in his way. If he has to, he can change your memories – everything that makes you what you are. Something a bit scary about that.

Has Moffat damaged the storytelling integrity of the longest lasting sci-fi show on TV? Or does he have a master plan up his sleeve to punish the Doc for his transgression, re-instate the Time Lords and get back to the old order? Maybe River Song is his time probation officer..?

The rules of time in themselves don’t matter. The key is to entertain and intrigue the viewers. Moffat is taking a chance, but like all his predecessors, he finds himself in the lonely position of having to set his own rules. Like the shark, as Woody Allen once pointed out – it has to move forward to stay alive.

HEY – I must thank my pals Nick Abadzis, Alan Cowsill and John Tomlinson for some of the amusing emails and TV- related chats that helped me on these ramblings. Nick is blogging about Dr Who here:

http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/12/the-mystery-of-the-cosmic-hobo-or-bow-ties-are-cool

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2 responses to “Time-Jumping the Shark? Moffat’s Revolution

  1. Gareth Perry ⋅

    I agree, the consequences of the Xmas special time dabbling, mind changing events does pose difficult questions. I was always under the impression that he couldn’t undo a persons death no matter what he tried. But perhaps with the latest incarnation being the last timelord the rules no longer apply.
    I would argue that perhaps after multiple doctors and multiple writers the real question is ‘Are there any definitive rules that Doctor should abide by or should the rules be manipulated to keep up with the evolving times, after all what was Science Fiction in the early 60’s ain’t applicable now’. And how many times are Marvel going to reinvent the origin of the Hulk?

  2. John T ⋅

    You’re right about the time-meddling of course. I had vague misgivings about that aspect of the Christmas show, remembering that huge CGI lizards showed up to eat the scenery after the Doctor dared to change time in Father’s Day. But my main problem with New Who is… Doctor Who. I worry that the character is now locked into an irreversible tailspin in which each regeneration must be younger, cooler and craaazier than the one before. I like Matt Smith’s Doc on the whole, but in order to live up to his tooth-gnashing, nostril-flaring predecessor he’s frequently had to overact like a man trying to turn himself inside out. It works against the drama too… the Doctor goes right on posing, prancing and blethering long beyond the point where any actual foe (or friend) in any recognisable reality would long since have shot, stabbed or pushed him down an empty liftshaft.

    The great Charlie Brooker screenwiped New Who a few years ago, just after the end of David Tennant’s first season:

    Unfortunately, every one of his points applies equally to the latest incarnation. Only one man can change all that, and he won’t even have to go back in time to do it. C’mon Moff – you know it makes sense!

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