Apr 25 2011 5:25pm

Is Steven Moffat Tearing Apart the Fabric of Fiction?

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.

Steven Moffat

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.

The Doctor dies

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 He is very worried about the Doctor.

1. redhead
one day he won't know who she is, and that will "kill her"?

major revelation/possible spoiler/I really hope I'm wrong - she's not the little girl in the spacesuit, is she? Cuz that "help me" voice sure sounded like a cross between the ghostly "end of the life" (i have no idea what they were really called) recordings in the Library episode and the alien upstairs from last seasons The Lodger, who had a control room that looked eerily like the underground area that River & Rory found. . . . River would still be dead, just different dead. And she does like to go around saying how she killed a very good man. . . .
2. cranscape
The person in the suit was as tall as the Doctor. So if it was River it wasn't child!River at that point or child anyone. But if that happened in River's past wouldn't she now recognize the beach and what was happening and remember being in the suit? She acted like she was giving the Doctor some space because she wasn't worried but then was as freaked out at as the others at what happened. (How much do you think she wished she had a blaster instead of a period gun...not as cool looking but better than bullets?)

Another theory is that it is Rory and Amy's kid. *shrug* I'm not too worried about who the kid is. There have been kids in other episodes of Doctor Who and we haven't been trying to follow their genealogies. Not sure why we are now. For all we know this is just an alien kid or a projection of the Tardis or Romana III or Rory's second cousin Janet. It would be fun if the space man she's afraid of is the Doctor though. Or if it turned out the Doctor was in the suit.
Helen Peters
3. Helen
Speaking of the relationship between River and The Doctor - I absolutely love it! I'm waiting to get to the point where the Doctor knows more about River than she knows about him. And the grin on her face and the glee in her voice when she says 'spoilers' is, I think, the best TV around.
4. Rowanmdm
River can't be the person in the spacesuit b/c at this point she knows who she killed but she doesn't know who is in the spacesuit.
Ashley McGee
5. AshleyMcGee
I think the importance of the girl in the space suit is more of Moffat's writing messing with the emotional stakes of the show. Whether we acknowledge the importance of the child or her unimportance is not the argument. The emotions we experienced when Amy shot her is what our blogger is digging at. By playing with the language earlier in the bathroom scene, Moffat leads us to believe that Amy should tell the Doctor about his future death. This conclusion can be drawn from what we've already heard River, Rory and Amy already discussing about the paradox of revealing the Doctor's future to him. What we do not know, or what is not evident from the plot of last night's show--is that Amy has a secret outside the plot of the current episode. What we do not know--but what I suspected throughout the show--is that what Amy must never tell the Doctor is that she is pregnant. Not only is Moffat playing with the timeline of the fictional reality, he is also playing with knowledge and information shared between the characters in fictional reality. Whether or not a secret is known to all characters tends to be irrelevant because all secrets are known by the viewer thanks to a little plot device called dramatic irony. However, the plot structure cannot account for secrets kept from the viewer. Keeping secrets from the viewer and other characters is another meta-fictional element to key up the events of the last few minutes of the episode. Amy's horror at the Doctor's death increases a thousand fold at the thought that Amy cannot hope to change the future by killing the person in the space suite--which we already knew--but also that by attempting to change the Doctor's future, she is essentially destroying her own. Viewer and character alike experience an emotion deeply because of the non-linear plot.

All analysis aside, though. This secret of all secrets, the one that Amy does not share with the others, is what makes me think that the girl in the suit is Amy and the Doctors (on that circumstance alone I base my hypothesis). I suspected Amy was pregnent through the entire episode, especially after she got sick and the way she reacted to the Doctor's death. A girl married to someone else does not throw herself over the corpse of a 'friend' in abject hysterics unless she is closer to him than we are led to believe. We must not forget the power that the Doctor has consistantly had over women in the show. Lets not put it past our writers to have constructed a plot horrific enough for Amy to shoot her and the Doctor's child.
F Shelley
6. FSS
Now I wish I was one of the lucky ones to see both parts at the premeire!

I don't think Amy's pregnant. Both she and River Song complained of stomach ailments all of a sudden after seeing the Silence for the first time, and after both were under the mental influence of the Silence. It's entirely possible that the sentence (I'm Pregnant) was a last second lie to avoid telling the Doctor about his eventual death (i.e. she was about to, then changed her mind, but needed a revelation big enough to mask her tension). Or it could be that she thought she was pregnant due to the Silence's mental influence.

Also note she was drinking wine with the Doctor at the picnic, and that's a no-no while pregnant. And it seems like the happy picnic would be the best time to spill that secret, no? Not in the creepy room (unless your main objective is to leave the empty room).

Also - the Doctor didn't want to kiss Amy last season. When she tried to seduce him, he went and grabbed Rory straight away. Now that they're married, and it had apparently been a few months since the X-mas epiosode, I just don't see the Doctor popping in for a quick shag.
Iain Coleman
7. Iain_Coleman
An interesting post, but this bit:

"...from a literary point of view, the Doctor is the narrator... 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."

is bollocks.

First of all, it's empirically untrue. From 1991 to 2005, the continuing story of Doctor Who was a series of novels, and they were not generally written in that style. The most common point of view was close third person with the companion as the point of view character.

And this ties in with the approach of the TV show itself. From An Unearthly Child to Rose, the the show has consistently had human point of view characters, with the Doctor as a mysterious and magical figure who disrupts their world and takes them on adventures. Of course, this has varied a bit over five decades, but still the main thrust of the programme is that it takes the point of view of the people around the Doctor much more than that of the Doctor himself.

Which all makes sense. The Doctor is an impossibly clever, mysterious alien. If he becomes the narrator of his own story, then that mystery will be lost - and no human author is going to be as clever as the Doctor.
8. No Mann
Quite right, Iain. The Doctor is just the point on the timeline that a given episode focuses on. He has never been in charge of telling the story. Is that where Mr. Moffat is taking this encarnation? It remains to be seen.

If the remainder of Doctor Who is nothing more than himself narrating the 200 odd years between last season and his being cremated, I will be extremely annoyed.

If this entire series is a figment of Amy's immagination or a splinter time line or The Doctor from another dimention, I will be extremely annoyed.

If this series is just some filler while David MacDonald, sorry, Tennant, takes an acting break, then returns to the role, I will be very happy.
F Shelley
9. FSS
Btw - should we really believe the doctor about his age at the start of the show?

After all...the first rule of the doctor is...the doctor lies.
10. Aubrey Dee
My current theory is that the Doctor who we saw killed was a double ... a clone of sorts. He and the other Doctor can never be in the same place, or else the universe rips itself apart (as it did last season). I have heard hints that this season will investigate further the WHY of the universe exploding. Two Doctors traveling in the same universe just might create such a cataclysm. Remember the first Doctor we met, the one 200 years older, said he was tired of running. Running from what? The other Doctor. His fate. The inevitability that he and his doppelganger cannot exist in the same temporal fabric.

After much t0-do and a whole bucket list of pre-funereal fanfare, the Doctor calls on his closest friends, who have just saved the universe from the catastrophe he has been causing through his continued existence, to witness his death. Who kills the Doctor? Someone the Doctor trusts. Probably the person the Doctor trusts most of all. Himself.

At the end of the season, of course.

I could be wrong. I may have a different theory next week.

As to whether Amy is pregnant, who knows? She could be. She could not be. Neither, as I see it, changes the paradox in question.
Steven Halter
11. stevenhalter
I seriously doubt the Doctor is dead in any but the most metaphorical sense even as we saw him killed. For one thing, without even needing to resort to timelines, it seems quite unlikely that he would live for another 200 years without regenerating during that period. So, a Doctor 200 years older would not look like he currently does. Then, of course, there are many alternate timeline ways in which he could not be really truely dead.
Ursula L
12. Ursula
As far as Amy being pregnant goes, I'm inclined to think that she is pregnant, based on her reaction when the Doctor tells her she's put on a few pounds during the picnic. She's happy and relaxed, and smiles at his comment. Under normal circumstances, I'd expect her to have a teasing reply, or some sort of comment - telling a woman she's putting on weight is not generally a nice thing, and doing so seems to merit at least a comment about how alien the Doctor is for mentioning it.

Also, during the argument about going to 1969, the Doctor mentions dropping Amy and Rory off back home to "make babies." In that context, it seems as if Amy and Rory wanting children is something they've discussed with the Doctor, and is perhaps some of the reason for the change from full-time travel with the Doctor to occasional trips.

I took her urgency in telling the Doctor she was pregnant as being a transfer of her emotions. She'd just decided, urgently, that she had to tell the Doctor about the aliens she's been seeing. But then she can't remember the aliens, and only remembers that she has something to urgently tell the Doctor. And that's really the only somewhat-newsworthy thing she has to tell!

Amy's no fool, and isn't going to make a mistake about something like being pregnant. Both Amy and Rory are sexually sophisticated enough and well enough educated to understand and effectively use birth control, and to decide together when they want to stop using it and try for a pregnancy.
Mike Foster
13. zephyrkey
Re: Doctor Who telling stories non-linearly

Amy: Okay, but why would anyone want to trap us?
The Doctor: Don't know. Let's see if anyone tries to kill us and work backwards.

And that is pretty much the story of Doctor Who right there.
Ryan Britt
14. ryancbritt
@Ian and No Mann

I think that while the narrative voice in the show and spin-off media prior to the 2005 relaunch stuck with the companions, but that shifted to the Doctor around the time of Tennant.

I suppose the arguement could be made that the companions once served as a sort of Watson to the Doctor's Holmes insofar as they are the chroniclers of his adventures, but I still think the narrative bends around his voice and not theirs, even in older versions of the program. Perhaps voice is even the wrong word, because it implies too much literal narrative control. Maybe "tone" would be more accurte.

In anycase, I think the reason why the show has become more popular and is slowly starting to make its way into the mainstream is becaues the whole tone of the writing is more consistent. And if I was going to peg that tone to one factor, it would be the energetic voice of the Doctor which I think does pervade the narrative in a way it didn't in old Who.
15. a-j
Just to add a footnote to the discussion about narrative voices, the first (I think) novelisation of a Dr Who story (the sweetly titled Doctor Who in an Exciting Adventure with the Daleks, a novelisation of the first dalek story by David Whitaker) was told with first person narration, provided by Ian Chesterton, one of the Doctor's two human companions.
16. theresa_
Just a quick correction to FSS:

"Also note she was drinking wine with the Doctor at the picnic, and that's a no-no while pregnant"

Despite the common belief in the US that wine is very very bad for pregnant women, an occasional glass is not harmful to the fetus after the first few months, and in the first trimester there is only a slight increase of miscarriage.

That said, I think Ursula's arguement on why she so urgently needed to tell the Doctor about the pregnancy is spot-on.
17. MarkW
Ian "I work in rockets, me. I'm not a secondary school science teacher at all" Chesterton?

Yeah... Some reliable narrator he was :p
Ryan Britt
18. ryancbritt
@Ashley McGee I like the term "our blogger!"

And yes, I think the various paradox-style red herrings are exactly the great subtext that Moffat is playing with right now.

I like what you say about how Moffat is messing with the kwowledge of what is shared between the audience and the characters. This actually articulates some of what I'm getting very clearly. Maybe more clearly than my piece. Thanks!
Tomas Gerst
19. IamnotSpam
As far as babies go I never was quite sure about Roary. Was he still a machine or not. I guess it was the christmas special that messes with me was that before or after everything was fixed by fixing the crack? If so why was he back in his roman gear or would remember that he had worn it before? Certain I missed something or have something out of order. Let me know. Thanks.
20. Lesley A
Rory is no longer plastic. He was back in the Roman gear in the Christmas special because he and Amy were playing games in their cabin on their honeymoon.
21. Judith
Thumbs up to the author of this article for mentioning my favorite author - Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The opening of Season 6 did reming me of "100 Years of Solitutude" and of "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" in that in both works, the main character meets his death and the rest of the story is told out of time sequence.
It also reminded me of my favorite film - "Memento". Christopher Nolan threw out the entire linear story-telling module out the window with that film.
Ryan Britt
22. ryancbritt
@Judith Thanks for the thumbs up! I think it's pretty clear that Moffat and many of the other Who writers are pretty well-read folks. I think it's nice to be able to watch TV that is clearly written with some kind of literary awareness.
23. Speaker To Managers
And just to put one more twist on River Song's worldline, she doesn't actually die all the way in "Forest of the Dead". In fact, the last line of her narration at the end is something like "This is a day when nobody dies." At that point her body is dead, but her mind has been uploaded into the Library's computer. In fact, she may meet the doctor again, if he can find a way to get into the Library without being killed by the Shadows.
Ryan Britt
24. ryancbritt
@Speaker to Managers Nice point. I always like thinking of her death as a finite thing, but it's true, maybe her mind could get out of there at some point.
Ursula L
25. Ursula
Could the future-Doctor have uploaded a copy of himself to The Library, to be with River there, knowing that he was about to die?

That might provide a way to bring him back - use some of his cells to clone a body, and then download a copy of his mind from the Library computer to the new body.

Just as Rose has duplicate-Doctor in the alternate universe, River could have the Doctor with her, forever, in the Library computer.
26. tatere
I would be able to take this a bit more seriously - and enjoy it more - if I hadn't just watched the micro-episode "Space/Time" (done for a Comic Relief benefit show of some kind). In which the solution to the impossible problem is pulled completely out of thin air - or some other more substantial orifice - and it's supposed to be OK because it's "time travel".

They *could* be exploring the ideas you describe, and it would be interesting, but I fear that what we'll find in the end is that it will come to a lazy pseudo-answer. We have evidence of this from last season as well - look at what they did with the stone angels from "Blink".

I did like it when the Munchkin blew up NotRosemary Woods, though.
Ryan Britt
27. ryancbritt
@tatere I'm with you on not being crazy about "Space/Time." I suppose it's possible that not everything will fit perfectly in the literary kind of way I'm hoping for. But at the point at which I'm having these thoughts while watching the new season opener, I sort of feel like Moffat is at the very least, doing this stuff on purpose and with a slightly more sophisticated subtext than a lot of TV writers.

Now, if he was pulling a J Michael Straczynski and writing every single episode of the season, I would be even more inclined to stand by my thesis 100%. As for now, I think Moffat has proven, with this opener at least, that he is still very good and even a little better than I thought.
David Thomson
28. ZetaStriker
This whole concept reminds me a lot of the novel Orion, actually. Not that I'm accusing Moffat of anything, as he is quite sincerely doing his own thing, and Dr. Who is quite enjoyable in any case. But the concept is certainly an intriguing one, and its use in Orion in particular always struck a very powerful cord with me.

The premise in Orion is similar to the premise of the Doctor / River Song relationship. John O'Ryan is a sort of everyman who gets caught up in a genocidal plot hatched by a mysterious stranger. This other man, Ahriman, seems to know John, calling him Orion, and treats him as a most hated enemy despite this being their first encounter.

John stops a nuclear missile launch at the cost of his life, but awakes again regardless, further back in time. Again, he clashes with Ahriman, making his was further and further back towards the origin of their battle as Ahriman works his way towards its inevitable conclusion, and the mystery of why he reincarnates, why Ahriman seems so intent on annhilating humanity, and the identity of the mysterious woman who seem to constitently reincarnate into the same eras as him slowly builds as he continues jumping further and further back in time.

It ended up being a very good story, all things told. Between it and the mystery of River Song, I'd really love to see more storytelling of this type now that my appetite for it has been moistened.
29. Becadroit
The Companions are ways into understanding the Doctor, but they are not the sole narrators, otherwise when they are absent his story would disappear - eg we wouldn't have seen the regeneration from 10-11 or what happens on Gallifrey when he left Sarah Jane on Earth.
We follow the Doctor/s and we follow his Companions following him. Sometime this flows linearly, other times not so much. As story teller, the Doctor sets the pace (a lot of running involved), avoids certain days (Sundays especially) and certain events (the Big Spoilers which he admits he is bad at). He is a narrative device (being a Time Traveller and essentially immortal) furthermore he makes history/future happen in the ways that it must thus he is the very centre and driver of the universe. He is the (Universal) Janitor as Capt Adelaide said, which in a literary sense is true - there is no universe without The Doctor and no story without the Hero.
Ursula L
30. Ursula
Another thought, about the new Scary Aliens. Their property of not being remembered when not seen gives them the power to do harm without it being known. But that property also has the effect of isolating them. Do they control this property turning it on and off as they please, is it something chronic and intrinsic to their nature, or is it something that has been imposed on them? And what would it be like, to exist but have no one remember you or acknowledge your existence?

Could these aliens be not villains, but victims? Lashing out with increasing violence because they can't control or don't understand why others aren't responding to them normally? Causing destruction as a way to try to, quite literally, get attention, the acknowledgement that intelligent beings normally give each other?

And if that is what is going on, what would the Doctor do to solve the problem, to both stop the Scary Aliens from being a threat and to save them from the fate of going through their lives unknown and forgotten? The Doctor has already begun to feel the effect of being the last Time Lord, of having his species seen as a legend or myth rather than being accepted as real, and having his own existence doubted as a consequence. These Scary Aliens suffer the same thing, a hundredfold.
31. Lesley A
Hmm, the alien in the toilet wanted Amy to remember him - and she couldn't. Let's hope she needs to use her phone soon.
32. Madman In the Box
So, Amy was pregnant, and River was the one in the impossible astronaut.
Also, River turned out to be Amy and Rory's daughter.
Who would have thought? LOL

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