There are two necklaces on the table before you. The first is the one that catches your eye. It's an intricate piece, with chased silver worked into cunning frames for colorful faceted gemstones, gorgeous things that refract and reflect all the available light. The strand holding this confection together is so delicate that it almost seems to disappear when held against that light. You turn your eyes to the other necklace. It is less appealing; several pewter ovals with serviceable engravings of nice images, perhaps flowers or birds, together on a sturdy chain with a solid clasp.
You pick up the first, and the chain breaks. The lovely chased silver settings hit the floor, and you discover their stones were loose to begin with. They are dashed free of the metal and, when some of them shatter against the floor you realize they weren't really stones, at least not all of them. Some were just glass. You sigh, and pick up the pewter necklace, put it around your neck, and are grateful for the sturdy chain and strong clasp, and the pewter? Well, it grows warm against your skin, and the dull gleam of it is somehow homey. It'll do.
Which would you have? The cleverly-made one that falls apart and may not be quite as cleverly-made as you thought at first? Or the sturdy pewter piece that isn't artistry at all, just adequate craft, but which holds together, which will do while you search for something truly beautiful? (Because after all, neither one is really right, eh?)
That's how I've felt about the writing in the first three episodes of Season Now of Doctor Who. (S5, Sdouble-digit, S1, be pleased to call it whatever you want. The one with the new kids.)
"The Eleventh Hour" and "The Beast Below" were Steven Moffat stories. "Victory of the Daleks" is a Mark Gatiss story. Guess which are chased silver foolers, and which one is dull but homey pewter?
I came out of TEH and TBB charmed, and unsatisfied. I came out of VotD unimpressed but pleased. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized what it is - or what several things there are - about Moffat's work that are both eminently admirable, and unhappily disappointing. What makes his stories glittering things that, two thirds of the time, fall from their inadequate chains and shatter in my head, with a hole in the middle of them that leaves me dry-eyed at their destruction.
I also realized how few differences there are between Moffat and the man he succeeded at the helm of Doctor Who.
(Caveat time. I admit that my commentary isn't really about Victory of the Daleks, or about either of the two Moffat stories. I really, really want to comment on all three, but my thought processes are so slow that it's taken me this long to put anything on paper. It's far too late to comment on TEH beyond what I did a couple of weeks ago. It's also too late to comment on TBB, despite all my thoughts about it, and I'm really ticked off at myself for being so slow. I may, if I'm good and disciplined — if I hold my mouth right, as my Nana used to say — get to VotD before Friday, and talk about why Gatiss and his writing of this story is serviceable pewter rather than dodgy brilliance. But this rambling? This is more a contemplation on Moffat and Davies, sparked by VotD. And even then, it's by no means complete. With all that in mind, we return to the world beyond the parentheses.)
Here's the thing. I think Steven Moffat is a gifted writer, a born trickster with just a bit of a nasty edge to him, a good heart in there somewhere, an eye for beauty, a mind for remarkable concepts and no patience whatsoever. In those respects, he resembles Davies. And, like Davies, Moffat's brilliance is matched only by his writing and self-editing faults — which, in both cases, usually devolve into thinking so big, or so cleverly, that the whole thing grows too heavy and unwieldy to work as well as it should. No, really. Davies may work with characters' hearts, and Moffat may delight in putting the hearts away so that he can play with their minds, but both are apt to do far better with those hearts and minds when they think smaller than they want to.
This is why, all their partisans' claims notwithstanding, they are more alike than not. They both love the building of plots, but seem occasionally to get lost in the building and forget the completing. They both love remarkable concepts (grand ones in Davies' case, clever ones in Moffat's) — and they both forget too often to take the concepts out of their heads and put them down on paper in a polished fashion. Or even just a finished fashion.
What else? They both can weave stunning, haunting images with words, beautiful pictures that resonate with something deep inside of us: the turn of the Earth, the little boy who turns into a Doctor who is worth the monsters, a bad wolf self-created, with the power to scatter atoms and end a Time War forever, a whale who comes as a miracle to save crying children, who bears them on her back into the stars. Gorgeous imagery, evocative language, powerful concepts, and when all the concepts work, or at least work well enough, the necklace of story and concept and image and plot and characterization is stunning, and the stories leave their marks on us forever. But too often, the chain that holds them together is too light, and its clasp is apt to come apart; the necklace falls from our hands, the jewels are revealed as glass and the glass splinters into shards.
Which stories are which? Well, this is fandom, and a gathering of fans is a little like a gathering of lawyers. Put a dozen of us into one room and ask us to give our opinion of anything, and we will come up with 13 separate opinions. In the case of these two writers, every fan can hold up at least one Moffat story and one Davies story that reached transcendence. Every fan can hold up one story that collapsed of its own weight and (if we can mix metaphors) became the sodden remains of what had once been a light and airy dramatic souffle.
If all this seems to say that I'd rather leave the glittering necklace on the table every time, and go for the mundane pewter piece, then I've written it wrong. I'd rather pick up the brilliant artistry every time, and hope that it stays together even 5 out of 10 times. But I will acknowledge that the necklace's creator sucks when it comes to consistency. And I will always turn to the pewter necklace when the gorgeous one disintegrates.
And maybe later this week I can talk about VotD, and perhaps a little about TBB. Perhaps, too, I can talk about that hole in the middle of Moffat's jewelry. And yet again, perhaps I can talk about why I intend to continue watching Doctor Who, and loving the writing on it, despite everything I've said here.