When Words Become Actions Become Protocols, Doctor Who: The Pilot, Reviews, 16/04/2017

When Steven Moffat was establishing himself as a television writer and producer, he did so in the world of sitcoms. Moffat by default writes farce stories. We throw the term ‘farce’ around to describe any old horrible, ironically comical mess we stumble into.

Bill and Heather are actually the most important relationship in this
episode. It's the best example in Moffat's entire tenure, I think, of
his genuinely progressive perspective. He always tries to learn
from his fans, even his fiercest critics. And it feels good for young
queer women to see characters like them in their favourite shows,
and for concerns like theirs to be the pivotal points of their stories.
But the term has a precise technical meaning in the science of writing. A farce is a narrative based around a miscommunication – different people who are all interacting in a reasonably simple situation have, somewhere early on, misunderstood each other.

A very ordinary thing, slightly misunderstanding what someone else says. We do it all the time. Normally, we know we’re confused and ask for clarification, but sometimes we proceed thinking we know exactly what to do. In most of our lives, it turns out not to be important and everything goes fine anyway.

But when this happens on a sitcom, what’s misunderstood is some critical piece of information that throws everyone’s plans and lives into a total mess. We laugh because of the embarrassment (or failure to be so when you really, really should) of the characters.

Just think of the most intense (and ridiculous) example I can find at short notice in Moffat’s career. “The Girl With Two Breasts” from his biggest hit sitcom Coupling.

Jeff, the socially awkward Kramer of the group, starts up a great conversation with a beautiful woman who think’s he’s very attractive. But they share no common language. So, while they believe they understand what they’re saying to each other, they totally misinterpret everything the other is saying.

Watching someone else dig their own hole is a classic farce
scenario, but a big part of why we laugh is rooted in how horrible
it would be if such a terrible misunderstanding were to happen to
us in real life.
The most juvenile detail being that Jeff thinks her name is the Hebrew word for ‘breasts.’
• • •
The farce narrative is a default for Moffat, having shaped many of his storylines in Doctor Who around misunderstandings over a faulty communication or a difference in knowledge of the situation. It’s to his brilliance that he understands this one structure of plot well enough to craft from it intricate narratives, heart-wrenching drama, and hilarity.

Sometimes all in the same episode, when he’s at his best.

“The Pilot” isn’t nearly so complex or multilayered. But it’s intriguing for the insight this episode’s particular story gives into the nature of language and communication itself.

Let’s look at this situation in detail, understanding that there are going to be massive


involved. We have a fairly ordinary situation. Working-class hipster girl meets cute blonde with confidence issues. Implied to be pretty intense depression, judging from the way Heather seems so tired of life.

Maybe this is just because of my own attitude to stories and fiction that
I love, but I'm not that invested as a viewer in the season arc about
the secret vault under the university where the Doctor's been camped
out like Chronotis for who-knows-how-long. I know we'll find out
later on in the season – probably sooner than later if the cracks back
in 2010 are any sign. I want to see what kinds of stories Bill's
character shapes.
When the liquid spaceship drive activated and read Heather’s thoughts, it read was what most dominant – I just want to get away from here, from everything. That impulse to flee from where she was, was the energy of an engine. Merging with the liquid ship, Heather’s drive to leave became the ship’s own pilot function.

In its purest sense, all semantic content is lost in communication from one medium to another. When I say something, I think of it in a particular way, peculiar to my own perspective.

Now, because humans are social creatures, we learn to think through communication and shared action. So our meanings are all similar enough from building them together all the time. Yet miscommunication is still possible. We’re all individual enough to be uniquely different from each other.

In a farce, there’s one such difference that makes all the difference in the process of the whole story. This episode – perhaps I should call it “The Girl With the Star in Her Eye,” whose tragedy is its true centre – is based on a miscommunication across a huge distance.

Humans think in terms of our personalities and interests. We’re subjects for ourselves, understanding our desires as the constituents of our personalities. So when we think and speak, we think in terms of wants and achievements.

Niklas Luhmann is the theorist who first understood how idiosyncratic
our meanings and thoughts really could be. He was a little too
pessimistic though, actually saying that communication as we
understood it is impossible. He thought so abstractly about systems
and environments that they were literally lines on diagrams. We
don't communicate our meanings like computers, by sending
packets across media. We communicate through affects, literally
prodding each other to respond in a way that's reasonably close to
what we want someone to do.
The liquid ship doesn’t think in this way at all. It has no personality – an artificial intelligence, it thinks only in terms of purpose. That purpose is to repair itself and fly. Thoughts that constitute purposes aren’t wants or achievements. They’re protocols, strategies for action.

So when the liquid ship hears Heather’s profound desire to leave her life, it understands a protocol to pilot itself from place to place. The liquid ship absorbs Heather and remakes her – she's no longer entirely human – her desires and egos are now also mechanical protocols for the functioning of a spaceship.

Just before absorption, one other desire at the forefront of her thoughts – her erotic desire to go with Bill. That’s why, when she becomes part of the ship, Heather essentially stalks Bill throughout the universe. Her desire has been turned into a protocol.

That’s why Bill is able to send Heather-ship on her way so easily. All she does is tell her goodbye. A spaceship – unlike far too many humans – is capable of taking no for an answer. Halt function.
• • •
You can even understand Moffat’s own reputation among Doctor Who fandom today as a farce.

Sci-fi fandom today is riddled with poisonous gender politics. Socially awkward men – radicalized into rabid misogyny in their 4Chan families – have lashed out in resentful rage at women who share their interests.

I will not make a joke about how much Nardole looks like a stereotypical
4Chan shitbag. I will not make a joke about how much Nardole looks
like a stereotypical 4Chan shitbag. I will not make a joke about how much
Nardole looks like a stereotypical 4Chan shitbag. I will not make a . . .
Smart or dorky women who like sci-fi are educated in progressive gender politics better now than ever, whether through school or through support communities after dealing with attacks from radical misogynists.

Politically progressive fans mean well. I can’t think of a nicer direction for society than becoming more equal, fair, and free regarding all kinds of gender power imbalances.

I don’t blame anyone for being quick to anger, given what women have to deal with from intentionally aggressive misogynist pricks. But well-meaning people get caught in the crossfire if they’re out of touch with the communities most on the progressive vanguard.

Steven Moffat was one of the people caught in that crossfire, and he came out looking like Sonny Corleone.

In real life, when farcical misunderstandings happen, the results are terrible and rarely funny at all.

When you're a creative producer Doctor Who, you do it best when you bring a singular creative vision to the show. That’s why we remember Verity Lambert, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, Douglas Adams, Andrew Cartmel, Russell T Davies, and Steven Moffat as the most remarkable.

Poor girl really does look like the monster from The Ring, though.
I'm actually surprised Phil Sandifer didn't mention this in his review.
Having a clear aesthetic vision for Doctor Who doesn’t always mean you’re the best-quality producer. Douglas Adams and Graham Williams’ years on the show were marked by consistent mediocrity, as it was yet impossible to find BBC writers able to match Adams’ skill and talent. The Letts-Dicks-Pertwee era produced some amazing train wrecks.

But they all progressed Doctor Who by adding to the cornucopia of what it could be, the styles and personalities it enfolded in its box. Adventure, camp, existential body horror, meta-fictional parody, punk, melodrama, farce.

Better a flawed but vibrant vision than violent nihilism, reactionary racism, shoving fandom’s head up its arse, or simply not caring about the show you work on.

As much as this was a near-perfectly executed piece of television, it’s mostly old hat. Steven Moffat has been doing this for eight years. Not only is he falling back on his old standard plot scaffold, he’s nicking transformed-girl imagery from The Ring.

I love Moffat’s work. I think he’s one of the best writers Doctor Who has ever had, and I think his vision was unique and fertile, opening up so many more spaces for what Doctor Who could do.

But it will have been eight years. Time to regenerate. What’s next?

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