(I’ve expanded this post from some thoughts I had on Twitter. If you don’t care about Doctor Who, it probably won’t interest you.)
Earlier this month Doctor Who aired an episode called “Can You Hear Me.” Afterwards the BBC thought they had to apologize for it. See, at the end of the episode Graham tells the Doctor he’s scared his cancer might come back, and she replies “I’m quite socially awkward, so I’m just going to subtly walk towards the console and look at something. And then in a minute, I’ll think of something that I should have said that might have been helpful.” And a lot of viewers hated that was the best she could come up with.
I thought this line was inept, but not in the way most fans thought.
Yes, the Doctor’s response is disappointing, but that’s clearly intentional; anyone who thought it was meant to be cute or funny missed some cues. (For instance, look how the episode juxtaposes this scene with Ryan’s fears that traveling with the Doctor means not being there for his friends.) I sometimes feel like modern audiences have trouble interpreting fiction that doesn’t explicitly, unambiguously spell out how they’re meant to feel.
Instead, I was struck by two things. One points to a change in how the writers of post–2005 Doctor Who think about the Doctor. The other points to a weak spot in the show’s writing under the current producer, Chris Chibnall.
First: is the Doctor socially awkward? Most of the time the 13th Doctor’s distinguishing feature is that she’s more in touch with her companions’ feelings than usual. And I think that “usual” is new. The Doctor’s social awkwardness is a creation of the post–2005 series. The original series Doctors were eccentric and alien to ordinary day-to-day life. But they understood emotions, were usually empathetic, and charmed people more often than they offended them. They comforted their friends in times of distress on a regular basis. In the same situation, any classic Doctor–even the often abrasive 3rd or 6th Doctors–would have come up with something helpful to say.
The idea that the Doctor isn’t competent at people skills is new, and, I think, entirely a product of the modern cultural assumption that thought and feeling are opposed, and smart people necessarily bad at emotions and empathy. This assumption makes it hard for contemporary writers to see certain characters clearly. Take modern depictions of Sherlock Holmes, who is not nearly as cold or thoughtless in the original stories.
The other interesting thing about the “socially awkward” line is that it isn’t a line so much as a description of what the line is meant to do. If “Can You Hear Me” had come out under Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffat, the Doctor might have said something that demonstrated she wanted to help but didn’t know how, but without coming out and saying so. By contrast, a fair amount of Chibnall-era dialogue has this… let’s say schematic quality.
For instance, “Praxeus” has its guest character baldly diagnose his own mental hangups to Graham. In a real person this would be a great psychological breakthrough and probably the first step to healing. As drama, it’s perfunctory.
Ryan’s confrontation with his father in “Resolution” is also literal. They don’t reveal their motivations and feelings through their dialogue, they just come right out and lay them on the table. Again, in a real conversation this would be healthy, and I don’t think it’s impossible to make a good story from it. But here it’s all text and no subtext. There’s nothing for the audience to interpret or dig into.
This brings up another point. It’s strange that this subplot is resolved when Ryan rescues his father from a Dalek. The emotional question at the heart of this plot is whether Ryan can trust his father to be there for him; it seems obvious that to really resolve this thread Ryan’s father needs to save Ryan. The emotional closure doesn’t logically follow from the action. There’s a series of exciting action set pieces, and then the resolution you’d conventionally expect at that point in the episode, and it’s sort of implied the latter happened because of the former. But that’s only because they happened in sequence, not due to any actual causality.
This is an occasional problem with the show’s plotting that I think relates to the dialogue problem. Events happen because we’ve reached the part of the episode where they should happen, even if they weren’t properly set up. It feels like they’re nodes in an unfinished plot outline the writers didn’t quite finish connecting, just like the “socially awkward” line feels like a utilitarian placeholder for finished dialogue that was never written.
Relatedly, “Can You Hear Me” is resolved when Tahira, a guest character, learns to “control her fears,” thus controlling the fake monsters the villain had pulled from her nightmares. But we never see how Tahira learns to control her fears–she spends most of the episode standing in the background, until at the right time the Doctor just says she’s learned it. It’s like the writers knew that was how the episode needed to end but weren’t sure how to get there, so they just sort of said that’s what happened. It’s a description of what the plot is meant to be doing.
I hate the common writing-advice doctrine of “show, don’t tell.” It’s badly overused and taken far too literally, especially in written fiction; too many novels drag on longer than they need to because their writers think they’re forbidden to summarize. But I have to admit it has its place. The last couple years of Doctor Who is the rare case where “show, don’t tell” might be good advice.