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Steven Moffat’s Plot Twist Problem

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Poor plot twists are everywhere, and they come in two types: either the plot twist was so cliché and obvious that everyone knew it was happening miles before the book, show, or film decided it was time to reveal it, or else the twist caught everyone so far off guard that it didn’t even seem to be real after it had happened. Authors and screenwriters are always walking a tightrope balance: they must both create a twist that is foreshadowed and explainable, and they must make sure that no one sees it coming. That’s a tough task, and that’s why plot twists are so hard to write.

Let’s take the last few series of Doctor Who as an example. Stephan Moffat is a reigning king of twisty plots. The episodes that he’s personally penned for the earlier series of Nu Who – The “Empty Child” two-parter, “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “Blink,” and “Silence in the Library” – are all stand-out plotty-wotty stories, and his “Scandal in Belgravia episode” of Sherlock is my favorite of that series. Moffat became the Doctor Who show runner in 2009, and, although the show definitely retained its awesomeness under his hand, he finally showed which side of the plot twist problem he stumbles over. His recent Who episodes have all held underdeveloped plot twists.

Spoilers to follow. … Sweetie. Sorry; it’s a dumb joke, but then again, so am I.

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Moffat’s a fast-paced writer with a ton of crazy ideas in every episode, and, while there’s nothing wrong with that, his pace and his ideas works against each other. The revelations that show up every five minutes come too quick to be foreshadowed properly, and therefore don’t sit as well with the audience. In this season’s Asylum of the Daleks, for example: The Daleks convert humans into hybrid slaves! The Daleks have a parliament! The Daleks can’t stand to blow up their own kind! Nanoclouds are also around! The Ponds solve their marital issues by talking about them for two minutes! Now the Daleks are blowing up their own kind!

It all works fine in theory, but in practice needs more set up, so that it isn’t a constant series of surprises. One plot hole in particular leaks through: why can’t the nanocloud convert timelords if the Doctor said it converted “all organic matter, living or dead”? And I still don’t understand the time problems in the last few season finales. Plot twists in which all of time is compressed into just the cool parts, or the universe can be rebooted from a few cells are definitely surprising… but they make so little sense that it’s hardly fulfilling.

Moffat, at least, is more intelligent than plenty of writers who telegraph their plot twists, as in the latest season finale of Supernatural, in which Dean just now realizes that Sam needs to die to fulfill their trials, even though everyone’s known that for like half a season. If you’re going to fall one way or the other, you might as well assume the most out of your audience and hope they can follow a story. Still, the best option is to slow the story down enough that the audience absorbs the tidbits of foreshadowy information you’re feeding them without realizing that that information is setting up a bigger revelation. The big twist in Asylum of the Daleks – what Oswin’s prison is – actually was set up this way, and, in a particularly brilliant move, was bolstered by the informed audience’s knowledge that Jenna-Louise Coleman was going to be the next companion. Keep the plot slow enough to understand. It’s not going to explode if it’s driven under 50 miles per hour.

Doctor Who works best when the plot twists make sense but surprise us. I don’t have high hopes for the Name of the Doctor… we know so little about the fields of Trenzalore or what the “fall of the eleventh” is that any foreshadowing will have to be slipshod. But whatever it is, it’ll definitely be surprising. I’m hoping the Doctor’s name turns out to be the key that unlocks the Time War, but that’s just me.

This post is from my io9 blog.

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