Doctor Who, Cinema, and Being a Smart Person

At this year’s CONvergence, I had the privilege of being on a couple panels. Two of them were Doctor Who-related. One was called “What Do You Think of the New Companion?” and the other was “Neil Gaiman’s Doctor Who Episodes.” I’m not sure which panel this discussion was brought up in and neither of them were recorded, but whatever.

During whichever panel, I was talking about the sci-fi aspect of the show and how I’m really unhappy with how much simpler the show has gotten in respect to the technology and plot. It used to be that the Doctor would launch into detailed descriptions of the technology of his ship, or some alien tech, or how Time and Space function. I mean, a lot of the time he got a blank stare from whoever he was traveling with, but I followed it up to a certain point. Some of it sort of made sense and a huge part of the fun of science fiction is wondering how that fiction translates into real science.

Someone in the audience (both of these panels were really relaxed and more like whole-room conversations with a team of moderators) objected to my objection by basically saying that a lot of that tech stuff goes over people’s heads. I had to stifle my desire to be a giant condescending asshole by telling her that maybe she should find another show to watch.

I’ve been considering this visceral response I had for quite a while and trying to come up with words for why I hate the perpetual simplification of a show I adore for its complexity. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

There are a depressingly small number of shows that cater to intelligent people. This is also true of a variety of minority groups, but let’s keep the focus on complexity and digestibility for now. Thinking of it in terms of high school, there are kids who struggle in school because the material is too challenging or isn’t being presented in a palatable way. There are also hyper-intelligent kids who flunk classes because the material isn’t challenging enough for them to care. It seems as though cinema (TV and movies alike) tries to appeal to as broad of an audience as possible, therefore losing a lot of the complexity which might thrill the intelligent viewer but scare off the average.

We end up with more engaged viewers of average intelligence, higher ratings for the show, and a whole bunch of people who get bored with TV and decide to read or play video games instead.

I haven’t immersed myself in as much classic Who as others have, so I can’t speak to what the show was like in terms of descriptive technology; but starting with Eccleston we had a Doctor who didn’t mind blowing his companion’s mind with the sheer insurmountable complexity of Time and Space and aliens and futuristic technology. This carried through Tennant’s run (with a few Timey-Wimey hiccups) and then when Smith started (and Moffat took over head writer HM.) the Doctor would start to launch into a complex explanation of whatever he’s doing and then abruptly stop. (It seems like the explanations of technology would inevitably become more complex as our real technology grows exponentially.)

It could be argued that the Doctor simply learned better, that his human companions were not likely to understand the advanced concepts and thus stopped wasting his time explaining. But knowing it’s a TV show written by Muggles, I’m aware that Moffat is apparently less tech-savvy than Davies. There was a guy at CON who was on a lot of DW panels, who had a hand in editing the show in recent seasons. He did admit that in the seventh season, they were trying to dial back the intensity of the show. The storyline has less of an intertwiney plot, the season was episodal. (No multi-part episodes.) And there’s much less of a focus on the sciencey-wiencey aspects.

Not only are they taking away from the depth of science fiction, but they’re also continually simplifying the Doctor’s personality. He’s an incredibly dynamic character with many layers (like an onion!) who, through Smith, was infantalized and made to be very silly. Sure, there’s still a lot going on with him on a lot of levels. He’s got a whole emotional thing with River Song and guilt over the Time War and trying to be friends with Rory and Amy. But there’s no doubt that Smith conveyed a Doctor of simple extremes. Either he was being very silly, or very VERY dark (by Doctor standards, anyway). He started lying a lot more, and I feel like making that an established aspect of his personality (“Rule 1: The Doctor lies.”) was both a cop-out for the writers (“whatever, we can rewrite canon later and explain it away by quoting the whole ‘the Doctor lies’ thing”) and a means by which to take away from his depth. If the Doctor isn’t being truly honest with anyone, then there’s no way for us to get close to him.

Moffat also has this horrifying tendency to re-write or erase canon. Sometimes it’s not even canon that he had a part in creating. (I’ll leave this alone because Spoilers.) And lots of things happen because Reasons. Rory showing up at the Pandorica after being erased from Time? Reasons. Amy remembering the Doctor and thus bringing him back from erasure from history at her wedding? Reasons. The universe getting rebooted multiple times throughout Smith’s run? Reasons. Amy and Rory trapped in 1938, but the Doctor doesn’t think to land outside New York and take a bus or rescue them in 1939? Reasons.

THEN there are shows like The Big Bang Theory which on the surface seem to be geared toward an intelligent audience, since it’s a show about a bunch of physicists, but it really ends up catering to a more average audience. (I haven’t watched this show a lot, so feel free to viciously correct me if I’m wrong.) And there are TONS of shows like The Office and Ancient Aliens and 16 and Pregnant (endless examples) which aim for an average audience and do well with those viewers.

I guess my point is that there is a lot of media available to entertain people of average intelligence. I don’t want to be continually bored or dissuaded from watching one of my favorite shows because the writers and producing company feel the need to cater to a wider viewership. Although maybe if I’m seeking intellectual stimulation I should take an online class rather than watching TV.

And all that doesn’t even cover how turned off I am by the subtle misogyny in much of media, including Doctor Who. And don’t even get me started on Heroes–that show gets its own, giant, dedicated post.

(Yeah, I’m an intellectual elitist and I’m pretty much okay with it. #sorrynotsorry)

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4 thoughts on “Doctor Who, Cinema, and Being a Smart Person

  1. The people whose work I respect are generally able to appease a mainstream audience while reaching higher levels of complexity and depth. Whedon comes to mind with his fast-paced dialog and complex characters that you can appreciate thoroughly if you care to. The universes he builds that are consistent and full of unannounced details. Or you can just like space Westerns or hot chicks kicking ass.

    I think about The Avengers and how much he was able to elevate characters who, aside from Stark, didn’t have the deepest personalities.

    This also makes me think of forms of media. Television seems to be more limited in its ability to break the mold. Film more so because it’s an individual installment that can make it through with enough appreciation. Video games similarly.

    Though not sci-fi, what about Breaking Bad? That was a wonderful show, brilliantly written, produced, shot, edited, and it’s one of the most popular ever. But again, that’s deviating from your angle in this post!

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    1. Yeah, Whedon is a good exception to this. I’m not intimately familiar with his work, but I did love Firefly and The Avengers.

      I haven’t seen any of Breaking Bad, and I’m a little worried about trying to get into it because violent/drama shows are sometimes quite triggering. Still pretty sensitive to outside influences at the moment. =/

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      1. Breaking Bad is difficult for sure. People ask if the show is even enjoyable and not just… a moving, brilliantly-created experience. Season 2 has a lot of lying and deceit that made me more uncomfortable than any moments of violence.

        Dollhouse (Whedon) is a fun 2-season show that I really appreciated. It’s got some cool science that they keep exploring deeper and deeper, since it’s one of the central points to the plot: replacing people’s personalities and memories with someone else’s.

        Topher is one of the coolest characters, and he’s one of the only ones who understands how the tech works. I think there was ONE moment of the annoying-as-fuck phrase, “English, please” after some techno-babble. Almost every other time they try to really explain how things work.

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  2. Some of my favorite movies and shows are ones where I wasn’t “entertained” at all, but that I still love due to the intellectual stimulation. I can’t think of anyone who would come away from a movie like ‘Altered States’ thinking, “That was fun!”

    I feel like even if a show or movie is directed at an audience of average intelligence, it can benefit greatly from having smarter people in the creators’ chairs. Even such goofy, lowbrow movies as ‘The Stupids’ or ‘Killer Klowns From Outer Space’ work as well as they do because the jokes and gags are well thought-out by smart writers, well-implemented by competent prop artists/effects technicians, and well-presented by good direction, cinematography, and editing. On the other hand, there are “comedies” such as the current run of genre spoofs, which appear to have been written and directed by the aforementioned Buster and Petunia Stupid. (By the way, I completely agree with you about the Smith/Moffat run; shame since some of the episodes Moffat wrote during Davies’ tenure were fantastic.)

    Sorry for such a long comment on such an old post, lol.

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