TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Extra Post: On Steven Moffat and bad criticism

Steven Moffat is not a perfect writer.

It’s obvious, really – no writer is. And, as an author with a very clear style and strongly delineated themes, of course there are going to be patterns and recurring flaws in his writing, and of course said writing is not going to appeal to everyone. I’m a fan, but that doesn’t mean I can’t turn a critical eye to his era and notice weak episodes, bad runs, and flawed storytelling in places.

But apparently, I missed a memo, because this man is a terrible writer, the devil, and also he shot my dog, ate him, baked him in a pie he then proceeded to serve to a bunch of Satanists in a black mass presided by Richard Spencer, Beelzebub and the ghost of Chairman Mao.

Silly me.

Some context first. A week or so ago, a YouTuber going by the pseudonym of Hbomberguy released a video co-written with Vox columnist Sarah Ghaleb, entitled “Sherlock is Garbage, and here’s why”. It’d be pretty easy to dismiss it as a mere exercise in clickbait, but that would be wrong – as it happens, Hbomberguy happens to be a very talented person, and a very good critic, that tackled with extreme relevance and wit topics such as nationalism, alt-right “thinkers”, or narrative design in video games. He’s a very insightful voice, that I – full disclosure – have been following with interest for quite a while. I was quite excited for the release of that monstruous, almost two-hours long critical exegesis of the show, truth be told – I like Sherlock, but, especially with series 4, it’s a flawed show, and seeing a strong, well-articulated counterpoint to the general “yeah, it’s good” consensus was pretty exciting.

And then I watched the video.

The link is here, because of intellectual honesty, but in fairness, you wouldn’t be missing a lot by not watching it. It’s a very well-put together video with great editing and production values, and it makes some occasional good points (on “Jekyll”, for instance, or on the way some bits of Sherlock tend to be over-directed), but on the whole, it’s nothing but a repetition of the old, old “Sherlock is not a good detective show” argument. It’s a good case for it, but it doesn’t make it land.

Hence, a question. That man is not stupid – in fact, he’s probably much smarter than me -, and, the exact same day he released the video, he talked in a stream (1) about the necessity of not approaching media with pre-set expectations, with a narrative already crafted and ready to go in your head. Then, why does he misconstruct the show so badly? Surely, if you have watched the full runs of Sherlock and Moffat’s Who, you would have realised that Moffat, before even writing stories, writes about stories? His shows revolve entierly around intra-diegetic narratives that the characters battle with, have to grasp and re-write. Sherlock is not a detective show, Sherlock is a show about the Sherlock mythos; and a show about how a person X, that we’ll call Sherlock, fits and doesn’t fit, battles and makes peace, with said mythos. If you take the Eurus reveal as a pure plot twist, it’s goofy and stupid, but it makes perfect sense inside a wider meta-commentary: she embodies pure, mathematical logic, all intellect and no heart; and, because of that, she serves to specifically highlight what’s unique to Sherlock, the character, and what’s the appeal of the Sherlock mythos at large. Characters are not just characters, they are storytelling units in and on themselves. Interpreting the show outside of that framework (which has been repeatedly underlined by the creators of the show – be it only with the “it’s not a detective show, it’s a show about a detective“), makes as much sense as, I don’t know, trying to read Clara Oswald’s character development outside of her relationship with the Doctor and the very concept of “Doctor-ness”.

But – and that’s the worst – he’s not the only one that does it. Not even remotely. There is a worringly high number of really good, competent critics who, when it comes to analysing Moffat’s work, seem to be incapable of producing anything in the way of compelling arguments. Negative criticism has more than its share of virtues, and no media personnality should be exempt from it, but it’s not very useful when it seems to flow entierly from misconstrued second-hand interpretations of said personality’s work. Ergo … Steven Moffat is “arrogant”, “pretentious”, with “no respect for the audience or the show”. He’s “a bad character writer”. He’s (give me strength) “a good writer, but a terrible showrunner” – it’s not like his metafictional streak was something that suddenly popped up with series 5, you know, “Blink” already showcases all his themes … He’s “sexist”, but also sometimes a “man-hater”. And really, “his female characters are all the same”, and have “no personality”. His scripts are just “too complicated”.

Let’s not deconstruct all those points one by one – they’re pretty easily disprovable by looking at the text of the episodes, and really, their actual content matters much less than the overall narrative they shape. The really interesting question is – where does that narrative comes from? Why does Steven Moffat attracts bad criticisms like a very Scottish magnet?

Here are some probably wrong answers.

  • Steven Moffat’s work clearly falls into a weird space. He is definitely, as pointed out in a previous article , an author, someone that does pretty complex intellectual work with the show he supervises. But, at the same time, he is in charge of a crowd-pleasing pop culture juggernaut with a mass appeal – there’s a certain amount of tension there. Of course, the Davies era had both these aspects too, Steven Moffat didn’t invent the concept of “thinking critically about Who”, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the most intellectual aspects of his era were savvily hidden underneath the crowd-pleasing show. It’s not necessarily that you have to look at each episode with a microscope and the complete works of Roland Barthes, mind you, people still have fun with Who today,( I know, wild concept!), and you don’t really even have to share Moffat’s perspective on the show, but you cannot interpret his version of Who without taking into account the fact that the plot has thematic and critical meaning, and that, really, thematic and critical meaning will often dictate the plot – a feature, and not a flaw, of his writing. You cannot take everything at face value: really, you shouldn’t take Who at face value generally speaking, but most eras at least tolerate that kind of reading. Not Moffat’s, though, that’s for sure. But if recent cultural history has told us something, it’s that being this kind of pop culture author is a very high-risk job – take the Wachowski sisters and the “Matrix” sequels, for instance: they’re movies that make perfect sense on their own terms, but that didn’t stop them from being ridiculed as outrageous, pretentious trash for years. Or even Zack Snyder – I’m not going to rush to his defence, because I do find most of his movies rather unpalatable and distasteful, but the problems with his cinema are complex and are linked to a true identity and personality as a filmmaker; he’s not the kind of person you can just dismiss with “he’s a hack”. Those are three cases of people that deliberately expect a critical reading of their work, and just don’t get it.
  • Of course that’s where we touch briefly on the anti-intellectual aspect of the whole “it’s too complicated”, or “it’s pretentious” argument. A lot of the arguments against Moffat seem to be rooted in this “he’s just trying to be clever” mentality – which I will always find more than a little iffy. There seems to be a sort of contempt towards pop culture media at large, a desire for it to stay in its place and keep on being craft while other, high-brow media will be art. But really, it’s in the intermediary, transitory spaces that the best oeuvres are born – pure intellectual works can often be distant, dry and boring; while pop culture for the sake of it can turn vapid and unfulfilling. A mix between the two, now that’s where it’s at. There’s nothing wrong with trying to be clever and pushing boundaries.
  • But at the end of the day, all of this doesn’t justify the sheer scope of bad Moffat criticism. And that’s where context is key – Moffat became showrunner in 2010, right in time for the explosion of social media. The initial excitement he generated, being praised as a super-creative, ruthless mastermind, and then the disappointment that ensued when people realized the fictionalized version of him they had created online wasn’t real, was amplified over and over and over in the echo chambers of Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook, in a way that had spared most of Doctor Who’s previous executives.
  • Even though, and that’s a point in and on itself, there’s a long and proud tradition of tearing down the current head of the show among Whovian, since at the very least John Nathan-Turner.  So of course, combine that with the explosion of social media …
  • Not to forget another key element of context: for many people, the Davies/Moffat transition was the first one they ever knew, so a lot of the changes Moffat brought could very easily be interpreted as betrayals of the show’s ethos. Of course, one of Who’s most endearing aspects is its ability to constantly change, twist and mutate from one era to another, one series to another – and you can’t really say, like Hbomb does in his video, that Who is “supposed” to be this or that – but the refusal to recognize this, aided by a bit of nostalgia and longing for a lost “golden age”, provides a very easy justification for a narrative where Moffat is the bad guy unraveling all that Davies ever did. The critical reception of “Day of the Doctor” is a perfect exemple of just how much that kind of bias has been engrained in the mainstream discourse – several extremly talented reviewers, among which Alyssa Franke from the Whovian Feminism blog (2) or Caroline Siede of Debating Doctor Who & the AV Club fame (3), interpreted the final beat of rescuing Gallifrey as a retcon of the whole Time War arc, ignoring the fact, repeated several times throughout the episode, that the rescue is only made possible through the sacrifice and suffering of the Ninth and Tenth Doctors.
  • But of course, at this point, the real problem with bad Moffat criticism is that, independantly from the context in which it was born, it’s now a self-fulfilling prophecy. The arguments have been repeated so many times that they now constitue a well-oiled machine that is capable of interpreting any work Moffat might produce in the most negative way imaginable. It’s very hard to fight a narrative that has been engrained in popular consciousness – and that’s a narrative we’re dealing with here: “Moffat is just not very good, he’s a one-trick pony that writes clever but empty scripts”. It has no weight, it doesn’t rely in any kind of deep or compelling reading of the text, it’s just parroting the same arguments without ever trying to engage his shows for what they are and try to follow what they want to say. And after all, it’s a compelling narrative. Who doesn’t like a good old “fall from grace” story? You have the golden age brought by Russell T. Davies, a crowd-pleasing, PR-savvy gay man, whose potential is snuffed by an grumpy, arrogant, straight, sexist Scot. It’s perfect for blog posts and headlines and videos, it’s easy and digestible and satisfying. And wrong.

 

And that’s the problem with Moffat criticism, really. It’s mind-numbingly easy. It gives easy answers. Why is Sherlock a flawed show? “Because it’s a bad detective story, like, duh, obviously.” But television and cinema are not simple medium, and, especially when author intention is involved, you can’t just come up with a few magical key words that explain all that is good or bad with a story. Making a strong, negative reading of a story is one of the harshest jobs a critic can be faced with – saying that it’s bad is easy, but saying how and why it is bad, now that can be a true hassle. Nobody has to like anything, but if one is trying to intellectually confront oneself with a piece of fiction and produce objective arguments about its quality, one needs to do better than that – one needs to confront all the complexities of a piece of fiction, and sometimes admit that there’s good in the bad, and bad in the good. And at the end of the day, I think you can make a hell of a case for positive criticism – not because negativity is a bad thing in and on itself, but because it has become so prevalent in our cultural landscape. Who knows, if you try to find the good in something, you might be surprised, and fall onto a trail of breadcrumbs leading you do some riches you would never have found otherwise …

And let’s just conclude with a quote from Phil Sandifer (4):

The underlying logic here is straightforward. Any argument for the worth of art is an affirmative argument, not a negative one. That is to say, on the whole we value art because of what good art does, not because of what bad art does. If you care about art, you care about good art. And thus, all things being equal, an argument that something is good is preferable to an argument that something is bad.

Now, of course, all things are not always equal. The Celestial Toymaker is overtly and destructively racist. There’s no way around that. Arguing that The Celestial Toymaker is good art anyway means that you have to argue that its virtues are sufficient to justify appalling racism, and that’s an essentially impossible lift. (…)

But there are also a vast array of grey areas within aesthetics in which one is left with multiple sets of standards by which one can plausibly judge a work of art. The Chase is a good example. There are many, many sound arguments under which one can conclude that The Chase is rubbish. But there also turns out to be one under which The Chase is a remarkably compelling piece of postmodernism. Given that all of these arguments are plausible, it is my assertion that one ought pick the one that makes The Chase good.

This is what I call a redemptive reading – the active decision to try to like something. The risk here is that one becomes uncritical. And that’s what a redemptive reading always has to fight against. A good redemptive reading should actively attempt to overcome every argument against the quality of a text. This isn’t about blindly liking all art, but rather about sightedly liking as much art as possible – about doggedly arguing on the side of aesthetic quality against all comers. Sometimes you’re defeated – sometimes there’s an argument against a text’s quality that you just can’t refute. But you should try, and I do try in this blog, especially with Doctor Who.


 

(1) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tOwA3Q6R5IE&index=4&list=PLRGz5EMig3r3D0I4nIa-Mrvc24oerQC42 – “June 6th 2017 (Friday the 13th, Dead By Daylight, Don’t Starve Together)”

(2) – http://whovianfeminism.tumblr.com/post/67967701167/whovian-feminism-reviews-the-day-of-the-doctor – “Whovian Feminism Reviews ‘The Day of the Doctor'”

(3) – https://player.fm/series/debating-doctor-who – Debating Doctor Who, episode 41, “The Day of the Doctor”, Alasdair Wilkins & Caroline Siede

(4) – http://www.eruditorumpress.com/blog/our-mode-of-conveyance-is-irrelevant-time-flight/ – “Our Mode of Conveyance is Irrelevant (Time-Flight)” – March 28th, 2012, Phil Sandifer

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