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Steven and Russell and How to Make Jewelry

There are two necklaces on the table before you. The first is the one that catches your eye. It's an intricate piece, with chased silver worked into cunning frames for colorful faceted gemstones, gorgeous things that refract and reflect all the available light. The strand holding this confection together is so delicate that it almost seems to disappear when held against that light. You turn your eyes to the other necklace. It is less appealing; several pewter ovals with serviceable engravings of nice images, perhaps flowers or birds, together on a sturdy chain with a solid clasp.

You pick up the first, and the chain breaks. The lovely chased silver settings hit the floor, and you discover their stones were loose to begin with. They are dashed free of the metal and, when some of them shatter against the floor you realize they weren't really stones, at least not all of them. Some were just glass. You sigh, and pick up the pewter necklace, put it around your neck, and are grateful for the sturdy chain and strong clasp, and the pewter? Well, it grows warm against your skin, and the dull gleam of it is somehow homey. It'll do.

Which would you have? The cleverly-made one that falls apart and may not be quite as cleverly-made as you thought at first? Or the sturdy pewter piece that isn't artistry at all, just adequate craft, but which holds together, which will do while you search for something truly beautiful? (Because after all, neither one is really right, eh?)

That's how I've felt about the writing in the first three episodes of Season Now of Doctor Who. (S5, Sdouble-digit, S1, be pleased to call it whatever you want. The one with the new kids.)

"The Eleventh Hour" and "The Beast Below" were Steven Moffat stories. "Victory of the Daleks" is a Mark Gatiss story. Guess which are chased silver foolers, and which one is dull but homey pewter?

I came out of TEH and TBB charmed, and unsatisfied. I came out of VotD unimpressed but pleased. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized what it is - or what several things there are - about Moffat's work that are both eminently admirable, and unhappily disappointing. What makes his stories glittering things that, two thirds of the time, fall from their inadequate chains and shatter in my head, with a hole in the middle of them that leaves me dry-eyed at their destruction.

I also realized how few differences there are between Moffat and the man he succeeded at the helm of Doctor Who.

(Caveat time. I admit that my commentary isn't really about Victory of the Daleks, or about either of the two Moffat stories. I really, really want to comment on all three, but my thought processes are so slow that it's taken me this long to put anything on paper. It's far too late to comment on TEH beyond what I did a couple of weeks ago. It's also too late to comment on TBB, despite all my thoughts about it, and I'm really ticked off at myself for being so slow. I may, if I'm good and disciplined — if I hold my mouth right, as my Nana used to say — get to VotD before Friday, and talk about why Gatiss and his writing of this story is serviceable pewter rather than dodgy brilliance. But this rambling? This is more a contemplation on Moffat and Davies, sparked by VotD. And even then, it's by no means complete. With all that in mind, we return to the world beyond the parentheses.)

Here's the thing. I think Steven Moffat is a gifted writer, a born trickster with just a bit of a nasty edge to him, a good heart in there somewhere, an eye for beauty, a mind for remarkable concepts and no patience whatsoever. In those respects, he resembles Davies. And, like Davies, Moffat's brilliance is matched only by his writing and self-editing faults — which, in both cases, usually devolve into thinking so big, or so cleverly, that the whole thing grows too heavy and unwieldy to work as well as it should. No, really. Davies may work with characters' hearts, and Moffat may delight in putting the hearts away so that he can play with their minds, but both are apt to do far better with those hearts and minds when they think smaller than they want to.

This is why, all their partisans' claims notwithstanding, they are more alike than not. They both love the building of plots, but seem occasionally to get lost in the building and forget the completing. They both love remarkable concepts (grand ones in Davies' case, clever ones in Moffat's) — and they both forget too often to take the concepts out of their heads and put them down on paper in a polished fashion. Or even just a finished fashion.

What else? They both can weave stunning, haunting images with words, beautiful pictures that resonate with something deep inside of us: the turn of the Earth, the little boy who turns into a Doctor who is worth the monsters, a bad wolf self-created, with the power to scatter atoms and end a Time War forever, a whale who comes as a miracle to save crying children, who bears them on her back into the stars. Gorgeous imagery, evocative language, powerful concepts, and when all the concepts work, or at least work well enough, the necklace of story and concept and image and plot and characterization is stunning, and the stories leave their marks on us forever. But too often, the chain that holds them together is too light, and its clasp is apt to come apart; the necklace falls from our hands, the jewels are revealed as glass and the glass splinters into shards.

Which stories are which? Well, this is fandom, and a gathering of fans is a little like a gathering of lawyers. Put a dozen of us into one room and ask us to give our opinion of anything, and we will come up with 13 separate opinions. In the case of these two writers, every fan can hold up at least one Moffat story and one Davies story that reached transcendence. Every fan can hold up one story that collapsed of its own weight and (if we can mix metaphors) became the sodden remains of what had once been a light and airy dramatic souffle.

If all this seems to say that I'd rather leave the glittering necklace on the table every time, and go for the mundane pewter piece, then I've written it wrong. I'd rather pick up the brilliant artistry every time, and hope that it stays together even 5 out of 10 times. But I will acknowledge that the necklace's creator sucks when it comes to consistency. And I will always turn to the pewter necklace when the gorgeous one disintegrates.

And maybe later this week I can talk about VotD, and perhaps a little about TBB. Perhaps, too, I can talk about that hole in the middle of Moffat's jewelry. And yet again, perhaps I can talk about why I intend to continue watching Doctor Who, and loving the writing on it, despite everything I've said here.

Date: Monday, 19 April 2010 10:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] joking.livejournal.com
I'm very surprised that you should say this, because I found Victory of the Daleks much flimsier as a story, both plotwise and more viscerally, than TEH and TBB. It felt like a bunch of unrelated elements stuck together into a Frankenstein of a story. I imagine someone telling Gatiss, "Write something with Churchill, the Blitz, and Daleks!" and he hastily slapped them together as best he could within 40 minutes. The Eleventh Hour, on the other hand, flowed beautifully as a story. There was a logical and emotional connection between the enchanted girl at the beginning and the strong young woman at the end.

Date: Monday, 19 April 2010 11:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mack-the-spoon.livejournal.com
However, to me Victory of the Daleks felt like a story. The first two didn't, to me. They felt instead like little ideas — gorgeous ideas, brilliant ones — glued together without quite as much attention paid to the narrative as was necessary to make each episode feel like a story to me.

I think this is how I feel at this point, too. I'm finding it difficult to explain to myself or others why I'm pretty sure I actually liked Victory of the Daleks more than the previous two episodes, and this might just be it. I've definitely enjoyed all three episodes, but this last one felt more... something. I was more satisfied with it upon reflection than the previous ones.

Date: Monday, 19 April 2010 10:08 pm (UTC)
ext_28681: (Default)
From: [identity profile] akirlu.livejournal.com
I haven't seen any of the current season; I expect I shall eventually. I am inordinately fond of large swaths of the (largely non-skiffy, but occasionally fannish) show Coupling, though, which Moffat authored. And I do think several of the finest eps in the prior two Dr. Who series were Moffat scripts as well. So on the whole, I'm willing to cut him some slack for his reach exceeding his grasp sometimes -- deadline driven work is seldom perfect. I guess that's another vote for the fragile but ambitious confection, because sometimes the results aren't fragile at all, and you don't get those without the others.

Date: Monday, 19 April 2010 10:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] dameruth.livejournal.com
"Davies may work with characters' hearts, and Moffat may delight in putting the hearts away so that he can play with their minds, but both are apt to do far better with those hearts and minds when they think smaller than they want to."

That sums the two of them up as well as anything I've ever read or said. Lovely essay. :)

Date: Monday, 19 April 2010 10:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mortaleternity.livejournal.com
Ooh, I enjoyed reading this very very much. I love your metaphors and imagery :D I'm not sure whether or not I agree with all of what you said, but I can definitely understand it and where you're coming from with it. :)

Although I do have a problem seeing which ones you define as the pewter ones..

Date: Tuesday, 20 April 2010 05:02 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] tardis-stowaway.livejournal.com
I love your comparison of Moffat and Davies and the ways in which they are more alike than different. However, I do feel very differently about Victory of the Daleks. It's gaudy costume jewelry, put together to wow from a distance but without real worth or artistry. It felt like someone made a list of "Things That Would Be Totally Awesome To See Onscreen" and tossed them all in the episode willy nilly: dogfight IN SPACE! Daleks serving tea! The Doctor hitting a Dalek with a wrench! Amazing Technicolor Dream Daleks! It felt like a desperate attempt to resurrect a tired villain, and it didn't hold together at all for me.

*shrug* Your comparison of fandom to a roomful of lawyers is apt. Disagreement is to be expected, and your posts are always an engaging read.

Date: Tuesday, 20 April 2010 05:58 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] verlaine.livejournal.com
It saddens me that people are being generally negative towards VotD - which has to live with being sandwiched between 2 episodes by the most popular nu-Who writer on each side. Yes, it's all over bar some pointless faffing by about 30 minutes in, but to my mind it's Gatiss's best script yet, the least annoying Dalek outing since "Dalek", one of the less annoying "meet and fawn over a historical celebrity!" eps, and just a charming little bauble of a thing, all things considered. I guess the Daleks suddenly having fat bums really matters a lot to some people?

Date: Tuesday, 20 April 2010 02:55 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] autographedcat.livejournal.com
First of all, I love this essay. Great analogy, and a lot of interesting things to think about.

One of the things about Moffatt's approach to DW that I think makes it easier to understand (though not necessarily better or worse) these first three episodes: He sees Dw primarily as not science fiction but faerie tales.

My biggest disappointment with VotDaleks was that it set up a story that had the potential to be really interesting (Churchill enlists the Daleks against the Nazis), and then midway through pivoted to tell an altogether less interesting story (The Doctor Must Choose Between Destroying the Daleks Or Saving The Earth. Again.) Still, I didn't find it as dire as I was warned I would. And I'm actually looking forward to next weeks, which is a nice feeling to have back after the last couple of years.

Date: Tuesday, 20 April 2010 04:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] autographedcat.livejournal.com
I've been saying to anyone who'll listen (and many who won't) for years that *all* science fiction is a subset of the larger genre Fantasy. (As, for that matter, are faerie tales. And alternative histories. And a dismaying number of political speeches. But I digress...)

Date: Tuesday, 20 April 2010 10:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] caz963.livejournal.com
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this - very well said.

Victory of the Daleks felt like a story. Yes. It was bonkers, and I didn't like the solution to diffusing the bomb, but I enjoyed it more, overall, than TBB, which left me feeling a bit flat.

I've likened RTD and Moffat to Beethoven and Mozart. Both are wonderful, but one is the heart and one is the head.

Date: Wednesday, 21 April 2010 07:05 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] caz963.livejournal.com
It's just something I've written in the odd comment, but I may well write it down "properly" at some point - it needs to percolate in my brain a bit more.

Date: Wednesday, 21 April 2010 07:24 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] acciochocolate.livejournal.com
I'm impressed! I think that you might have hit the nail somewhat on the head, but not squarely. :) A lovely metaphor or analogy, though. However, at the same time, neither of these writers for S5 have quite "got" it. Although, "The 11th Hour" is the best of the bunch so far, IMHO.


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