Thursday, December 15, 2011

Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel

By Jay Stringer

If this has been the year of anything, it's been the year of Mr Dave White discovering Doctor Who. In many ways, I think that's also led to a new level of enjoyment for Mr Russel D McLean and my own self. It's been an added dimension, not only do we get to look forward to the episodes, to have our own theories, but we also discuss them in some pretty epic chain emails with Dave. The show sometimes ends on cliffhangers, that can last for months, and the three of us get to fill that gap with wild guesses. Increasingly over the last year, there have been 'canon' (a useless term in Who, but bear with me) clips cropping up in other media; Comic Relief, viral marketing, the Who website. The show has been doing what a show of it's kind would appear to need to, it's been throwing a lot of sci fi plates in the air.

Dave sent me an interesting link yesterday. It showed quotes from Moffat, originally from an interview in Doctor Who Magazine, that he's not planning any two-parters next year. Here's one bit; "I want to be able to say, every week, we’ve got a big standalone blockbuster, and then a trailer that makes it look like nothing compared to what’s going to happen next week! That’s the form for next year."

Now, look, I'm not going to get into second guessing Mr Moffat. He's a witty and inventive (if sometimes overly clever and emotionally shallow) writer, and most of the high points of modern who have come from his pen. Fingers. Keyboard. Whatever.

(I should have just gone with 'brain', right?)

He's also known to lie from time to time. In a good way. He lies in a way that sets up the audience for a pleasant surprise. So I'm translating "no two parters next year," into, "let's wait and see how many times he breaks that rule." No big deal.

He's also a bit of a master (heehee) at writing stand alone episodes that feel like two-parters. The Eleventh Hour and The Beast Below were two separate stories, but, connected by the larger story and coming one after the other, they worked very well as a subtle two-parter. So again, no big deal. Chances are he'll come up with something fun.

But it did get my brain whirring about cliffhangers and serialised stories. My first reaction was to think he was off the money. After all, so many of the TV shows we rave about in the staff room here at DSD towers are extremely long form storytelling. Whole seasons that are one long story.

I wonder if genre plays a part in this. For crime, horror or straight up drama, maybe our brains will be patient. For Who -which covers a lot of ground but really belongs in it;s own genre marked 'fun.'- is there a bit of the brain than loses track if it has to wait? I don't know. For me, growing up with old Who and then enjoying some of the modern stuff, the show needs cliffhangers. And more than that, I like stories that have them. I try and throw them in at the end of chapters, whether it's a physical beat or an emotional one.

But sometimes the cliff hanger can get in the way. Think of the old Batman TV show. The fun was in seeing what silly trap he could get into, then tuning in to the next episode to see how he got out of it. The 20-or-so minutes between those sometimes fade into bland memories.

RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is a love letter to an era of cliff-hangers, yet the film doesn't end on one. The story never leaves you guessing for two long about how Indy gets out of the scrape, because there's not week's wait. And that film doesn't exactly suffer for it. And I find that if comic-book writers use the cliff-hanger technique too often, I start to lose interest in the book, it becomes formulaic.

Moffat states that the second instalments present modern problems; the viewing figures go down, the press attention goes down, the 'coming next' trailers are harder to do. I wonder if there's something in that, I wonder if, as with the old Batman show, cliff-hangers create a novelty, but that novelty then gets in the way of story? Shows like THE WIRE were long form story telling, but they actually very rarely used cliff-hangers. Each episode, for the most part, was a self contained chapter in a larger story, with a beginning, middle and end.

So, colour me confused. I'm not too worried about WHO. It's a show that needs to take a look at itself every year and figure out something new, that's how it keeps afloat. But overall I'm wondering about some of these things. I'd been taking it for granted that the jump into new media would create a new golden age of cliff-hangers. But maybe not. Maybe all it means is that people will want more sophisticated self contained stories, bite sized chunks that can either stand alone or work as part of a larger story.

This is exactly the kind of thing that John Mcfet used to speculate about. So he's probably sat somewhere, in his hollowed out Canadian volcano, stroking a white cat and laughing. Maybe you should tune in next week to see if it's true.

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