PS21 Review — How Doctor Who’s Stephen Moffat explains Donald Trump

Peter Capaldi as Doctor Who, via

Robert Colvile is former editor at the Telegraph and BuzzFeed who writes about politics, technology and culture and — hey! — has a book out soon. He is also a PS21 Global Fellow. He tweets at @rcolvile.

There’s a certain kind of sci-fi fan for whom it’s not about the stories — it’s about the worlds. They want to pin their favourite characters to the table, pull apart the universe to see the wiring underneath. How old is the Doctor? What’s the top speed of the Enterprise? How many miles is it from Rivendell to Mount Doom, and how long would it actually take to walk?

In some people, this condition becomes pathological. For others (myself included), it manifests more mildly, as a desire to have things “make sense”. We want to feel that our favoured fictional world is acting according to an internal sense of logic, that A follows B.

(This is, incidentally, one of the main reasons why I hated The Force Awakens — because its reluctance to get bogged down in continuity translated into an adamant refusal to explain, in the wider galactic context, what the fuck was going on.)

The king of this kind of storytelling is George R R Martin. Game of Thrones, and the books it came from, are arguably fiction’s greatest, most sprawling chain of cause and effect, action and reaction. The Targaryens do this, so the Baratheons do that, so the Starks do this, so the Lannisters do that. Each link in the chain is fastened, unbreakable, to the next.

Which brings us to Steven Moffat, who recently announced his departure as head writer of Doctor Who.

The strange thing about Moffat, as Jonn Elledge pointed out at the New Statesman, is that for an award-winning genius, he’s kind of hated by his fanbase.

Jonn ascribes this, in part, to the backlash against Moffat’s sometimes problematic treatment of female characters. I’d like that to be true, but I’m not so sure it is: sadly, problematic treatment of female characters has rarely been an obstacle to fan-favourite status elsewhere (just look at the comic book industry).

Moffat takes a positive glee in setting up cliffhangers, and then ignoring the resolution

No, I’d like to suggest an alternative explanation, which is that Moffat offends against many fans’ sense of story. On both Doctor Who and Sherlock(which he co-created with Mark Gatiss), he takes a positive glee in setting up cliffhangers, and then ignoring the resolution. You leave the Doctor facing certain death, or Sherlock having plunged to it, and come back a few months later to find him skipping about as merry as can be, with only the most grudging explanation (normally buried deep into the episode) about how exactly he escaped.

It’s not only continuity within stories that Moffat disdains, but continuity between them. If he wants the Cybermen to come back, they’re just back: there’s no fan-pleasing explanation of how exactly they rebuilt their empire. Likewise the Master: one series he’s seen disappearing into the dimensional void along with the rest of the Time Lords, the next minute he’s reincarnated as a she, in the delightfully bonkers form of Michelle Gomez (while, in the background, nerds howl about how he/she was meant to have run out of regenerations years ago).

Then there’s the way Moffatt will set up a new status quo, but then abandon it with no further explanation. On his watch, we’ve had the Doctor vow to be humbler, quieter, and work in the shadows; seen any of memory of him wiped from the Daleks’ databanks (“Doctor… Who? Doctor…. Who?”); and had him promise to dedicate himself to finding Gallifrey. All seemed to be setting the series on a new trajectory. All were, as best I can tell, completely ignored when Moffat got a better idea.

What the broader public is after isn’t a sense of thematic unity, but a series of dazzling moments

But here’s where it gets interesting. Steven Moffat is not a stupid or lazy man. He is probably the best and certainly the most interesting writer in television today. In my new book about how our lives are getting faster, I include a chapter on popular culture: his scripts were Exhibits A, B and C.

Moffat is also a Doctor Who geek of old. He knows about canon and continuity, and he really, really knows about narrative logic. His script for‘Blink’, for my money the best Doctor Who episode full stop, is a beautiful puzzle-box of cause and effect.

So why doesn’t he give the fans what they want? Why does his work generate more listicles along the lines of “X Questions We Really Need An Answer To” than any other writer’s?

Because he’s calculated that what the broader public is after isn’t a sense of thematic unity, but a series of dazzling moments. Moffat will do his best to tie together each individual story, sometimes in fantastically ingenious ways. But they’re always built around and building towards the money shots, those moments of verbal or narrative trickery where the Doctor or Sherlock gets to be the hero (slash superhero) that we want him to be. Continuity, if it gets in the way of that, can go hang (or at least be relegated to a spin-off novel or comic book).

Which brings me, after that deep, deep dive into my personal nerdery, to politics — and, in particular, to Donald Trump.

To be honest, you probably knew what he looked like (Picture: Gage Skidmore via Flickr, Creative Commons)

In politics as in fandom, there are people who like to deal in cause and effect. Many of these are what is now referred to, usually scathingly, as “professional politicians”.

They’re the people who won’t put out a budget plan unless they know it will be signed off by the relevant watchdog. They’re the ones who care about action and reaction: I want society to be like this, but it’s currently like this. So which taxes do I cut or benefits do I raise (or vice versa) in order to move things closer to the state of affairs I desire? And what side-effects will that have?

Like the rules of magic or hyperspace travel set out by a writer, their starting assumptions may be very different from each other’s. But they share the same basic commitment to having things “make sense”, to fashioning that chain of logic and hoping that it holds true. Barack Obama is this kind of politician. So is Hillary Clinton, to her very marrow.

Just as Moffatt is the perfectly modern writer, so Trump is the perfectly modern politician.

For Trump, that approach is so much bullshit. Just as Moffatt is the perfectly modern writer, so he is the perfectly modern politician. His aim, too, is to try to create a series of moments — to dazzle the audience so effectively that they stop worrying about what came before, or what happens after.

We want to cut immigration? Let’s build a wall! How will I pay for it? Mexico will pay for it! How does my healthcare plan work? I can’t tell you, but it’ll be great. Super-great. And China? Let me tell you, my friends, under President Donald J. Trump, China will be paying us.

There is, of course, a significant difference between Moffatt and Trump (apart, of course, from their personal politics). The Moffatt style of razzle-dazzle is intended to take the appeal of his shows out from the niche market and into the mainstream. The Trump model is intended for a very particular set of voters, who can be told that the mainstream (and the media it produces) are dumb, crazy, stupid losers.

But the similarities are striking. For Trump, making racist announcements about banning Muslims isn’t just a provocation. It’s the strategy.

Boring old policy wonks like me might howl that he doesn’t offer a convincing, coherent explanation for anything he says or anything he’s going to do — that has lied about the facts again and again. And eventually, we may be proved right.

But the reason Trump is currently winning (aside from the obvious structural factors like anger, inequality and the rest of it) is that many people are happy to ignore coherence as long as they’ve got spectacle. And if there’s one thing you can say about Donald Trump — and one thing that Trump would tell you about himself — it’s that he’s pretty goddamn spectacular.

This article originally appeared on Medium on January 27, 2016. 

PS21 is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views are the author’s own.

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