The very partial redemption of Steven Moffat

StevenMoffatBBCinterview

We learned last week that Steven Moffat is stepping down as Dr Who showrunner. Many Whovians couldn’t be happier about this fact. John Elledge in the New Statesman notes that:

In online geekdom, the reaction to Friday’s news that the next series of Doctor Who would be his last was reminiscent of the bit at the end of The Return of the Jedi, where all the Ewoks start dancing. A substantial chunk of the fandom wasn’t just happy Moffat was going, they were crowing: it was less like a TV writer changing jobs and more akin to the fall of a dictatorship.

Cleary the nub of this is that many people think the show has gotten worse since Moffat took over showrunner. But if that was all there was to it then I doubt the criticisms of him would be quite so ardent and personal.

Elledge’s theory appears to be that the problem is that Moffat comes across as prickly and condescending in public appearances. That probably doesn’t help but I think that’s not quite it. Being able to warm to someone who’s prickly and condescending is after all a precondition for being a fan of a show whose central character is an often overbearing god like creature.

More important is probably the sense that Moffat is a mysoginist whose female characters are ill served by his writing. My defence of him on this point is going to be very half hearted indeed.

I’m not prepared to follow Elledge in dismissing Moffat’s habit of making comments about women that are some combination of boorish, demeaning and stupid simply as a communication error. It is that but it’s also a substantive problem. Someone in a position of power both in the workplace and in popular culture should be not be saying things like:

There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married – we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands.

You tend not to find anything that crude in his writing. Nonetheless, a kind of ‘everyday sexism’ permeates his work. Taken individually his female characters are admirably strong and capable. But taken together they start to look like a collection of either fantasies or jokes rather rounded human beings. And it’s rare for them to attain the depth or complexity of their male counterparts.

Compare, for example, Rory and Amy. His character is very well drawn and it’s genuinely moving to see the steal emerge from inside a man who initially seems a bit of a wet blanket. But despite having more screen time and a bigger role in the plot Amy has nothing like that. She’s as generically feisty in her final episode as in her first.

The most credible defence of Moffat that can be offered on this point is that:

…you can genuinely see him responding to his critics. He didn’t cast a female Doctor (and thank god, given how he writes women); but he did cast a female Master, and he’s repeatedly established that a female Doctor would make perfect sense within the fiction.

The change goes broader than that. Writing female characters remains one of Moffat’s weaknesses but he has definitely gotten better of late. Clara’s initial arc was terrible: she was little more than a problem to be solved. But in the next two series she was given space to develop to the point where she was as near to the Doctor’s equal as any human is ever going to be. She can pass for him, call him out when he’s in the wrong, and eventually sets off in a TARDIS for adventures of her own. Most importantly by having Clara’s exit flip the dynamics of Donna’s, Moffat acknowledged that the show has often mistreated its female characters. Sure you can dispute whether Moffat is in any position to lecture Russell T. Davies on feminism, and he still screws ups with things like giving Clara a controlling dick of boyfriend who no one ever seems to notice is a controlling dick. That kind of thing is undoubtedly a step backward but it seems like there have been more steps forward in Moffat’s recent work.

There’s of course, no one individual empowered to forgive sins against women. And if there was it would not be a man. And there’s certainly an argument that he doesn’t deserve it. The women in his stories have gotten better but that doesn’t make them good. He’s arguably only done that under pressure of public slating. And I have no idea whether he’s making the same kind of efforts as an employer and a public figure that he is as a writer. Nonetheless, any evaluation of him does at least need to acknowledge these efforts.

 

Just how did the BBC’s popularity become an argument against it?

The BBC’s popularity, both in the UK and abroad, should be welcomed not disparaged.

The political soundtrack surrounding the BBC has once again turned ominous. John Whittingdale. The Culture Secretary has implied that the Corporation has become too large and has strayed from its core mission. He’s even discussed moving from the licence fee to a subscription model.

Responding to this torrent of depreciation in an article for Den of Geek, Simon Brew skewers the most counter-intuitive argument that’s made against the Corportation:

Yet it seems the popularity of the BBC – certainly in the current political climate – may yet be its Kryptonite. There appears to be a growing feeling amongst the current government that the BBC should be using its substantive receipts from the licence fee to fund more niche programming, rather than chasing ratings. In the last month, we’ve learned that over £600m from the BBC’s coffers is set to fund the licence fee for over 75s, at a time when job cuts at the corporation are already being announced. Yet that’s just the beginning of what most concede to be times of real change for the organisation.

Ultimately, on the surface at least, it’s the high ratings that continue to paint a target on the BBC’s back. The argument runs that the BBC should use the bulk of its money – as it actually does, but let’s go with it for a second – on more niche programming. Why spend the money on shows like Doctor Who and EastEnders, when there’s no commercial organisation that wouldn’t? (overlooking, of course, the fact that the BBC took a gamble on both to start with. And that through its most popular show, EastEnders, it’s given a voice to issues that struggle otherwise to get an airing).

It’s not tricky to see the road ahead with the argument here, and it doesn’t point to a happy future for the corporation. Let’s say the BBC stops mixing in populist output amongst its content. It would be fair to assume that its ratings would drop. When said ratings drop, in comes the next argument: why should everyone have to pay a licence fee, when the programmes just aren’t as popular any more?

I not only wholeheartedly agree with this argument but actually think it can also take on a global dimension. I’ve already blogged this week about how the BBC helps to raise the UK’s prestige and status around the world. We tend to think of this as being about news but it’s much wider than that. Top Gear has/had (?) a larger audience than the entire World Service. Budget cuts may already have forced the BBC to stop broadcasting in Mandarin (because Mandarin speaking people aren’t an important audience right?) and the Communist Party may block its website but there’s still a Sherlock themed café in Shanghai. So even if you think ITV can pick up the slack at home, you should still want the BBC to flex those mass appeal muscles so it can remain popular abroad.

Indeed, this is part of the reason why a subscription model misses the point. Whether or not you watch the programs the BBC makes, you are still benefiting from the work it does as an ambassador for our country.

The real menace to free speech is China not North Korea

The financial clout of the China means that the communist party’s censors now hold sway over much of what you see at the cinema.

A still from the 2012 remake of Red Dawn. The army invading the US was originally intended to be Chinese but became North Korean in the editing room.

 

In a fascinating article for Foreign Policy, Isaac Stone Fish suggests that the sound and fury regarding North Korea’s efforts to have the Interview pulled distract from a bigger problem regarding free speech in Hollywood.

No major studio today would dare greenlight a film that would be that offensive to the Chinese Communist Party: The financial costs could be immense. A film studio that was even known to have publicly floated an idea such as this could expect to be effectively blacklisted from working with Beijing — and China is where Hollywood studios will make an increasingly large percentage of their money in coming years.

China’s box office revenue surged to $3.57 billion in 2013, a 27 percent increase from 2012. The country is already the world’s second-largest film market, and the most important source of growth for Hollywood releases: “Box office receipts in the U.S. are sliding nearly 20 percent compared to last year, while China’s is booming in 2014, up 33 percent in the first quarter alone,” according to Yahoo Finance. “Every mainstream studio is keenly aware of not offending the Chinese market, because it’s become such an important revenue stream,” Tom Nunan, a visiting professor at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Theater, Film and Television, told Bloomberg.

Chinese film studios are increasingly seen as the gatekeepers by which Hollywood can enter this 1.4 billion-person market. Ryan Kavanaugh, the chief executive of the media company Relativity Media, has successfully made co-productions in China. But he noted recently that one of the differences between making films in the United States and China is that, in the latter, films have to be “meaningful both to the government and the Chinese people.” In other words, don’t offend Beijing.

Consider the case of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which several years ago released a remake of Red Dawn, the 1984 cult classic about Soviet, Cuban, and Nicaraguan troops invading the United States. Originally, the script had Chinese soldiers tromping through the United States — but the producers switched them to North Koreans. “The movie was changed because we couldn’t get distribution for the movie from any of the distributors here,” Red Dawn producer Tripp Vinson told USA Today. “They didn’t want to offend the Chinese, I am assuming.”

Or consider The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, which Chinese censors tweaked before release: Producers were reportedly cautioned that the ancient ruler in the film wasn’t allowed to resemble China’s liberator and dictator Mao Zedong. Or Iron Man 3, a film in which Chinese government officials were reportedly allowed onto movie sets to monitor the filming and ensure plot lines wouldn’t offend Beijing. Or World War Z, a 2013 movie based on a popular book of the same name, where a zombie epidemic starts in China and spreads throughout the world. According to the entertainment website The Wrap, the producers dropped the reference to China as the source of the plague.

After Sony cancelled the release of The Interview, U.S. President Barack Obama criticized the studio, saying, “We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States.” Yet in the case of China, this has been happening for years: Hollywood studios have opted to censor their films to appease a foreign political party. Hatred — and North Korea — have nothing to do with it.

This points to an uncomfortable reality about current geopolitical struggles. The Chinese Communist Party is much less ideologically rigid than its fallen Soviet counterpart. That makes life much more bearable for the citizens of China who no longer have to endure the nightmare of being test subjects for an experiment in building utopia. It does, however, allow Beijing to compete in areas Moscow never could. For example, the CCP can make compromises with Hollywood studios which allow it to buy the ability to project soft power using their output. This is I think an indicator that whilst authoritarian capitalism may be a less destructive ideology than communism, it’s also likely to prove a more tenacious adversary for liberal democracy.

The most watched Christmas telly of all time….

…was the 1986 Eastenders Christmas Special which gained over 30 million viewers*:

The episode centred around the aftermath of Den Watts’ discovery that his wife had lied about having a terminal illness. Whilst Albert Square was celebrating, Den made plans to leave his wife. The Fowlers’ Christmas was ruined when Arthur refused to take part in the fesivities. He had become depressed after being arrested and charged for the theft of Walford‘s Christmas Club money. Later in the day Arthur suffered a nervous breakdown, smashing up his living room in a fit of rage.

At the Vic the arrival of Pat Wicks caused rows with her ex-husband Pete Beale. Meanwhile Angie was enjoying Christmas for the first time in years, that was until her husband, Den, served her with divorce papers as a Christmas present.

It’s the most watched non-sport or news program in British history. Its audience was bested only by the 1966 World Cup Final and Princess Diana’s wedding. It comfortably outstripped the opening ceremony of last year’s Olympics.

Even more impressively the 2nd most watched non-sport or news program in British history was the new years day special that followed on from it.

Source: Wikipedia

Hat tip: Big Issue

*this number includes repeats so not all of those thirty million will have been watching on Christmas day and that may – I’m not sure – include some repeat viewings.