Doctor Who writer Steven Moffat is seriously screwing with the conventions of how dramatic tension in adventure fiction ordinarily works. Cause and effect? Linear, progression to ensure dramatic tension? That’s so 20th century. Moffat has realized that because the Doctor can move through a narrative at speeds and angles unavailable to other fictional characters that he is poised to virtually tear apart of the fabric of television fiction.
(Spoilers for “The Impossible Astronaut” below.)
Famous fantastical author Kurt Vonnegut excelled at non-linear stories that employed an all-knowing timeless narrator. In Slaughterhouse Five Vonnegut insinuates his main protagonist into the role of the timeless narrator by literally having the character become unstuck in time. The reason why this decision is so effective is because most fictional characters exist in a sort of timeless state anyway. When we think of “big” fictional characters like Hamlet or Darth Vader or Harry Potter, we don’t think of them in one stage of their life. Similarly, we don’t necessarily replay their biography in a linear way; instead these characters occupy our consciousness different than real people do. They are already written and dead but active and alive simultaneously.
The Doctor is one of the most unique characters in this respect because in addition to already having the timeless benefits of being a fictional character, he also literally reasserts a status quo by regenerating upon death AND by being a time traveler. In the universe of the show, the Doctor is constantly fighting the Time War at the same time he is on Earth working for U.N.I.T., while simultaneously being in Washington D.C. and so on and so on. And like Billy Pilgrim, the Doctor can tell us the story of his life from any point he wishes. But here’s where the character really pushes that narrative convention: he can also choose to jump around the chapters in his own life to tell us the story. And make no mistake; just because the show is told in third person, from a literary point of view, the Doctor is the narrator.
In the early pages of his 2008 book How Fiction Works, critic and author James Wood addresses the subject of omniscience in narration.
So-called omniscience is almost impossible. As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking.
Nowhere could this maxim be truer than in time-bending adventures of the Doctor. If Doctor Who were a novel or a collection of short stories, the plots would unfold in a close third person and the style of the prose would be close to the Doctor’s voice. Thinking about that, the fact the character is a time traveler means we’re basically dealing with a doubly unreliable narrator. He can’t be trusted because the narrative is inherently subjective (the show is about him after all) and because time travel stuff creates contradictions and logical fallacies.
But instead of viewing this as a problem or a cheat, Steven Moffat is really using this stuff to come up with new kinds of ways for the audience to experience the drama. This new season opener “The Impossible Astronaut” is a great example. When River Song describes to Rory that one day she will meet the Doctor and “ he won’t have the slightest idea who I am ” and that that will “kill her” the emotional stakes of that scene branch out in multiple temporal directions. If you’ve never seen “Forest of the Dead” from season 4, then you might not know that this event has indeed already occurred in the narrative. Even so, you’ll still probably feel bad for River Song anyway. If you have seen that episode, despite knowing exactly how this character supposedly is going to die, you still experience fear for her death coming! Maybe even more so because you know what it feels like.
How can we worry about River Song and feel sorry about her death at the same time? Because Moffat has temporarily displaced the audience. Yes, it partly has to do with how we treat fictional characters, but also because the fictional convention of time travel is being used to mess with the emotional subtext of the fiction itself, rather than just a plot device.
This is not to say that the time travel of Doctor Who isn’t also a plot device. But by having time travel screw with the dramatic stakes of a story, Moffat is acknowledging the meta-fictional conceit that what you are watching is indeed and in fact a story. Oddly, this isn’t ruining anything, and instead allowing us to appreciate all the aspects of the story in a more timeless way. The purpose of television is basically to get you to watch more television. Though historically, that’s been in a sort of progressive linear way, with Moffat’s Doctor Who, you’re encouraged to go backwards in the series as well as forwards.
“The Impossible Astronaut” stars two characters that supposedly have fates depicted to them by the audience. Both the Doctor and River Song are dead. And then the story begins. The beginning of A Hundred Years of Solitude is similar. We know Colonel Aureliano Buendia will face a firing squad. The difference with Doctor Who is that maybe the Doctor and River Song’s firing squads will change, and maybe they won’t.
And that’s part of the dramatic tension, too.
Ryan Britt is a staff writer for Tor.com. He is very worried about the Doctor.