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Reset for Adventure: Has Stephen Moffat Salvaged the Reset Button?

Next week sees the season finale of Stephen Moffat’s first season as showrunner on the rather excellent Doctor Who. I have to admit that – with one or two minor misgivings – I’ve had a (space)whale of a time, just we’ll save that for the inevitable review. However, being the sort of meta-textual guy that I am, I love that Moffat has managed to balance both integrating this new iteration of the franchise (created and, despite what some naysayers would have you believe, served very well by Russell T. Davies) and connecting with the established history (note, for example, how many times we have seen flashbacks of the original eight versions of the character in these eleven episodes alone). What, however, has really grabbed me about this run of episodes is that fact that Moffat has seemingly decided to take one of the most common elements of Davies’ season finales – a reset button – and stretch it out over an entire season. In effect, he seems to be attempting to reclaim one the storytelling crutches that his predecessor arguably relied upon too heavily, but use it in an interesting and creative manner.

If the walls had eyes...

For those unfamiliar with what a ‘reset button’ is, it’s a storytelling device used by the writer to restore the status quo after a seemingly seismic shift in the story. If a writer ever does something seemingly impossible in a continuing narrative that would seemingly negate the entire premise of the story (for example, killing the lead or destroying the planet), a ‘reset button’ comes in handy. “It was all a dream!” or “It was a parallel universe!” are text book examples. It’s rather frequently used in shows where the staff aren’t willing to change the status quo on a regular basis, but still like to create the illusion of stuff happening. Perhaps the best example I can think of is Star Trek: Voyager, which would routinely kill off key cast members or destroy the ship – but it was always somehow undone at the end.

Russell T. Davies was quite partial to these in his end-of-year stories. For example, in The Parting of the Ways, he killed off one of his three leads and effectively had the Daleks wipe out the planet, only to have Rose use the power of time itself to undo all that went wrong. In Doomsday, after an army of Cybermen and Daleks took over the world, the Doctor simply vacuumed them all up into “the void”, no serious harm done. In The Last of the Timelords, after the Master took control of humanity, killed one-in-ten of us and ran the world for a year, the Doctor rewound time to just before all this happened (he didn’t, rather pointedly on the part of Davies, manage to save the US President that the Master assassinated).

Such elements were undoubtedly the weakest parts of Davies’ finales, coming from a desire to one-up his previous accomplishments. The stakes must always be great, but it’s hard to get the audience to engage when they know you’re just going to find a way to render it all inconsequential in the last five minutes using some “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey jiggery pokery”.

However, it appears that Moffat has decided to take this one facet of Davies’ finales which everyone dislikes – the reset button – and somehow turn it into the big threat during his first season in charge. Much as the truly superb Amy’s Choice worked as a piece of meta-criticism of the lead character and, by extension, the show, it seems that Moffat is taking the self-criticism even further. This year, it would appear, the Doctor’s arch nemesis is a gigantic ‘reset button’. You don’t get more meta than that.

Across the stars...

Over the course of the series, from The Eleventh Hour through Flesh and Stone through Cold Blood, the Doctor has been pursued by a crack – “two parts of space and time which should never have touched”. In The Victory of the Daleks, it was suggested as the reason that Amy forgot the events of The Stolen Earth. In Flesh and Stone, the Doctor suggest it’s the reason why the giant Cyberking over Victorian London in The Next Doctor didn’t have an impact on history. The crack, the result of an explosion involving the TARDIS, is literally tidying up the loose ends from previous seasons. As explained to Amy (and ultimately demonstrated with Rory), anything that is swollowed by the crack is not only destroyed – but never existed at all. It’s a giant reset button.

As I predicted before the series began, Moffat has been playing with the time travel element of the show and offering us events out of sequence (in fairness, I won’t pretend it was a difficult prediction to make) – which makes this a near perfect fit, time travel being a trope which particularly invites a reset button (why not simply go back and fix everything?). There was much speculation that Moffat would seek to undo a lot of Davies revisions to the series – that isn’t a criticism of Davies’ work on the show, just a concession that, occasonally, the board needs to be cleared (particularly on a show that is pushing fifty years). I just think it’s wonderfully inventive to actually use a meta concept like a reset button as the primary opponent this season.

I’ll be fun to see how this plays out next week when The Pandorica Opens. I have my own crazy theories, particularly when we’re told about the “a goblin, a trickster or a warrior” trapped inside the Pandorica. Given the series has a recurring theme of misunderstood guest stars (be it the truly benign space whale, the blind alien abandoned on Earth, the Silurians or even Van Gogh himself), I wouldn’t be too surprised to find the Doctor (or an iteration of himself) contained inside – the ultimate misunderstood alien. Given the “timey wimey” nature of this season of the show (what with two Doctors supposedly running around during Flesh and Stone, and the Doctor closing a crack he has yet to open and the recurring arc words that “time can be rewritten”), I wouldn’t be surprised to see an alternate version of the character trapped inside.

2 Responses

  1. Oh I’m liking your idea for the ending. Really good piece Darren. While I’m still not sold on the Doctor himself the series has been mostly enjoyable. Last weeks effort was a pure filler though.

    • Thanks Niall. I actually enjoyed last week more than I did with Vincent and the Doctor. But I’ve really loved this season and can’t wait for the DVDs. I wouldn’t be surprised if this makes more sense and fits together even better on the rewatch.

      In fairness, Moffat has been planning this since he was eight years old.

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