How Steven Moffat and Christopher Nolan Suffer from the Same Troubling but Non-Fatal Flaw
(Spoilers for both Interstellar and the Doctor Who finale to follow)
I left the screening of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar last week with a strange, almost paradoxical feeling: I loved the movie. Like SLW, I wanted to bathe in it. I wanted to think about it, and toss it over and over in my mind, but also knew that, in doing so, there was a very good chance that it would unravel. It was soaring sci-fi melded with richly drawn characters with compelling motivations steeped in cool concepts involving black holes and quantum physics. But it was also easy to sense that the science was suspect, and you knew that a guy like Neil Degrasse Tyson would probably overly scrutinize it and pull apart its tenuous threads. That bastard and his logic!
In particular, I didn’t want to think too much about the Inception-like ending in the black hole too much because, even though on an emotional level, it worked, it’s hard to wrap one’s mind around a room created by unknown aliens in the center of a black hole from which Matthew McConaughey’s character could see into another room on Earth and manipulate his daughter with messages in Morse code coded into a watch by a robot from the future.
But that’s what I didn’t want to think about too much, because I knew that Interstellar would be an easy movie to nitpick. I didn’t want to nitpick it because I wanted to maintain that emotional high with which I left the screening. I wanted to maintain the illusion that Interstellar had an airtight plot, just as I wanted to bask in the coolness of Inception rather than destroy the shaky dream foundation upon which it was built.
That’s a lot like what it means to be a fan of Doctor Who under Steven Moffat’s reign. Putting aside his problems with female characters, and his occasional tendency toward the obnoxious in interviews, Moffat is a great emotional storyteller: He’s a master manipulator (and I don’t say that in a pejorative sense) who hits all the right emotional beats, but if you make even a cursory attempt to unpack the logic of his storylines, the whole thing collapses.
The second part of the Doctor Who finale aired over the weekend, and on first blush, I thought it was terrific. Jenna Louise Coleman continued her outstanding work in this episode, and ultimately, surpassed Billie Piper in my personal rankings of the Who companions (modern edition). The business with Danny Pink was handled superbly: He got the perfect heroic send off, and I felt like the episode could only work if Moffat didn’t attempt to cheat his way out of Danny’s death. It was a heartbreaking but honest end to Danny and Clara’s relationship, and that heartbreak was only compounded by the lies that Clara and the Doctor told each other to extricate themselves from each other. Even the salute — cheap and telegraphed though it may have been — was bloody effective.
It was strong work by Moffat. I thought he took the characters exactly where they needed to be, and the episode left me feeling both sad, triumphant, and a little misty.
But as is often the case when it comes to Steven Moffat, the character development and the emotional beats were predicated on flimsy plotting. There’s really no way to spell out the plot in print without it looking like mockery, but here goes: When the Doctor saved Gallifrey in the Anniversary special, he somehow saved The Master, who is now the Mistress, who spent all of human time preparing a scheme in which he’d offload the spirits of the dead into “the cloud” and blow up a bunch of Cybermen to form an actual cloud in the sky, from which the plans for creating more cybermen would rain into the graves of the dead, creating an undead Cyberman army that would destroy mankind. That plan, however, backfired when The Mistress gave control over the Cybermen to The Doctor (to prove a point), who in turn gave control to the good soldier Danny, who directed all the Cybermen to blow themselves up in the physical cloud, immediately eradicating the threat.
It was obviously more complex and far more muddled than that, but the point is, Moffat wanted us to see the trees (the characters) through the forest (bad sci fi) and I am personally all too willing to go along as long as the story satisfies my heart, even it comes at the expense of pissing off my brain (this is true not only for this season’s Doctor Who finale, but for many of the episodes over the past three seasons, plus much of Sherlock).
Nolan is not that much different. Obviously, the special effects are much better, the filmmaking is superior, and the scripting is better job at obscuring the plot holes. However, for both men, underneath the heartbreaking dramas that sweep us up into their emotional journeys, there are shaky foundations built on highly susceptible logic. The question is, how much are we willing to overlook the problems with the plot and focus, instead, on the effectiveness of the characters? Personally, I will always choose character over story, but when it comes to two of the best in their respective mediums, sometimes I wish we didn’t have to make that compromise.
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