There’s an enormous list of the changes in television’s ecology and economy since 1963 or 1989. But I want to concentrate on only one this week: the need for story arcs.
Doctor Who began as a serialized anthology show. There wasn’t any connection among the stories other than the characters in them. That variety and discontinuity was built into the fundamental fabric of the show – stories only lasted a few episodes, and were explicitly serialized together. Then the TARDIS moved on to a wholly new story and supporting cast.
Doctor Who had never really worked like that, and never really could. The foundational reason why the show has lasted so long is because it’s never had an endpoint built in. There’s no culmination, no rising action from the beginning of the show to some eventual end.
Yet we’ve become accustomed to thinking about television in this way. The most difficult part of any conversation I’ve had since 2005 trying to get newcomers to the show into Doctor Who always comes back to one declaration.
I have to grab them by the sides of the head, bore holes into their soul with my eyes, and say:
“You do not have to watch the whole thing from the beginning to know what’s going on!”
Unfortunately, Doctor Who is still caught in this quandary. A show whose key premise is that it’s in a totally different story and setting every episode or two has to be jammed into our need for story and character arcs. Different seasons have dealt with this differently.
Russell T Davies did it by planting little easter eggs in all or most of a season’s episodes, which would tease the finale’s story. The Eccleston year’s Bad Wolf was diegetic and metafictional. Tennant’s first season included a reference to Torchwood in most episodes to tease the season finale and Captain Jack’s spinoff show.
|My problem with Davies' first easter egg story arc was that it simply|
felt too contrived to ground an entire season's dramatic climax.
Donna’s story arc in Tennant’s third year was simultaneously Davies’ most subtle and most shoehorned season narrative. Her run-in with the Doctor was both a matter of coincidence and portentous prophecy. It wasn’t mentioned in every episode, but Donna’s relationship with the Doctor was depicted as a potentially universe-shattering event.
But Davies’ arcs all had the same structure – Little clues and key lines scattered through most of the episodes leading up to the big reveal of their nature in the finale. Moffat complicated that structure in Matt Smith’s first year – revealing the nature of the cracks mid-season, complicating their impacts on the leads with Rory’s disappearance, and resolving the mess in the finale.
More than any other part of Doctor Who, the Smith era has to be watched like a conventional prestige television show. So much of the Pond Family story unfolds in small and big reveals in different episodes throughout the whole series. You can easily think of the Smith era as having the overall narrative of the Doctor discovering his role in this family.
Capaldi’s first year saw the most explicit and best season arc of post-comeback Doctor Who – Clara and Danny’s doomed romance.
Clara’s home base at Coal Hill School and her relationship with Danny put her at the forefront of that season. Its dramatic narrative was about her own conflict between her love of intergalactic adventure and her love for the stability and hearth Danny offered. The season also featured a thematic narrative – each story featured a different angle on the ethics and morality of being a soldier.
What are we seeing this year?
• • •
There’s a plot, most definitely. The Doctor and Nardole have a duty to protect a mysterious vault under St Cedd’s University. But I also see a thematic arc taking shape, even just two episodes in.
It’s the farce-turned-deadly-serious I discussed last week in my philosophical review of “The Pilot.” In this case, the interactions between the human colonists and their Vardi droids and swarms provide the catastrophe sitting at the centre of “Smile”s story, which I can’t discuss without warning you how many massive
How does this miscommunication happen? It’s based in the ontology of the Vardi, literally what they are. Thomas Nagel once wrote that we could never understand what it was like to be anything but human, because we were unable to imagine any form of perception other than our own – a human body in the world.
But there’s something Nagel – and the strain of philosophy of mind he inspired – didn’t understand about the power of human imagination. We ourselves can’t experience the world as, to take Nagel’s example, a bat would.
|Despite first appearances, this photo actually includes billions of|
Vardi, not just two. This is a very important point when it comes to
understanding precisely what they are and are becoming.
The Vardi are robots, first of all. Programmed and designed to serve the human colonists. That was their initial programming as human inventions anyway.
This being a science-fiction television show, the original programming of artificial intelligences grows beyond the human designers’ scope of practice. The Vardi were programmed to serve the colonists, specifically to keep them happy. But look at what the Vardi physically are.
They’re the happy little emoji-speaking robots, yes. But they’re also the swarms of robots that perform many of the mechanical functions of the colony infrastructure. More than this, the Vardi swarms actually are the colony’s infrastructure.
The buildings of the colony city itself are composed of Vardi swarms locking themselves together in a massive organic skeleton of bone and glass. Its style is a stark contrast with the industrial pipes and grease-stained corridors of the original human spaceship around which it grew.
So the Vardi begin developing their own intelligence. But it’s an intelligence unique to their own body – not much in the way of individuality or identity, they’re a single mind across trillions of bodies – the grain-sized particles that lock together to constitute the city itself.
So it would think of the humans as squishier droids. They walk around on the ground like the droids do, but ultimately they’re a part of the colony just like them, a constituent of that massive body.
Now, combine this with their original instructions, back when they were just a bunch of robots being built in a factory somewhere on an Earth running short on the ability to support human life. They were designed to serve the humans, to keep them happy.
Happiness, goes the Vardi’s servitude protocols, is the measure of proper human functioning. Their prescribed purpose is to keep the humans happy, keep them as functional constituents of the colony, serving their constituent roles well.
But because they articulate their existence as the whole colony, as a single city-body, they understand the humans as constituents too – as machines who best function when they’re happy. An unhappy human is a malfunctioning human. So they try to restore a human’s happiness when they feel glum or frightened.
The problem is that a self-consciousness that subsumes individual bodies into a whole of literally trillions is that the threshold of switching from repair to disassembly and repurposing is very, very easily crossed.
That’s why the profound but temporary communal grief from one of their leaders' funeral made the Vardi declare pretty much all the human colonists not worth repairing. If everyone seemed so stuck in this sub-optimal space, then such a profoundly holist self-consciousness would seriously conclude that they’d function better as mineral fertilizer.
The Vardi had to forget that the humans were supposed to be constituents of the colony. That way, they’d stop evaluating their happiness as a measure of their functionality in maintaining the whole.
The Vardi will continue in the colony as partners with the humans, as you can see when you watch the droid comforting the child who’d lost his mother at the start of the episode.
But this will come from a benevolence that develops from their holist self-conception – happiness will be, in the minds of the new Vardi, a function of social harmony among the colony’s living architecture and its human inhabitants.
The catastrophic miscommunication between the Vardi and the humans over what exactly each other was, has been repaired. Mostly.
And the story continues.