When Cohesion Goes Wrong.
In the first part of my look at Doctor Who and storytelling, I discussed the versatility of our favorite TV show. By part two, I looked at the danger of lack of cohesion. But Roger correctly anticipated the flip side of cohesion in his comments on that article. However, I believe that can be viewed as something else. I would say there is a difference between cohesiveness and cementing ideas.
Cohesion is a great tool when working on world-building. It means things will stick together; they will make sense. It’s not the same as what many writers do: they try to cement things. They pull from the past and try to create the future without having the flexibility of a story; thus cementing what they can. But cement cracks and breaks. Something cohesive will withstand stress; it can bend and flex. When we try to cement ideas, there can be pitfalls as it runs a risk of stagnating and eventually breaking altogether. Look at Star Trek. Classic Trek was about exploring the unknown. There was very little to cement because everything was new. By the time of The Next Generation, most of the “alpha quadrant” had been mapped, there were known territories. By trying to make a strong, cohesive universe, some of the magic was lost; we knew more or less what was around each proverbial corner. When we got to Voyager, it should have been so new as to be unrecognizable, but we ended up with “more of the same”. The series could have taken place in the Alpha quadrant with no discernible difference to what happened, with some minor exceptions. This was where we saw the most notable shift from a cohesive, sensible idea to relying too heavily on pre-established material. It started mildly with TNG but escalated horribly with Voyager. They tried cementing those ideas that the writers felt were strong but they got so caught up in the shows own mythology, that by the time of Enterprise they pre-introduced the Borg. How do you pre-introduce something? Exactly! No longer cohesive with the overall story; they attempted making a bible out of the pre-established canon and not trying new things. In that regard, I absolutely agree that stagnation would lead to the eventual fall and let’s face it, it took Trek a long time to come back to television. Cohesion, done well, will help things make sense, not cement things so “that they may neither flux … nor change their state in any measure”. In science fiction especially, we want change and flexibility! But have the writers of Star Trek learned their lessons? Let’s jump over to the latest installment in the Trek universe, Discovery. Taking place 10 years before Kirk’s time, the technology is so far advanced, it doesn’t matter if this took place in the original Trek universe or the Kelvin universe of the J. J. Abram’s movies. The writers wanted to cement the Klingon war but failed to observe cohesiveness in storytelling. How does this make sense in the context of what we know? Maybe there are plans to have it make sense eventually, but right now, there’s no sign of it. At the time of this writing, there are three episodes left to the season; perhaps they have some tricks up their sleeves, but otherwise, there will be a lot of questions in 10 years when Kirk and Spock come on board the Enterprise for the first time!
Jumping now to an entirely different universe, that of Doctor Who, the best we can hope for with the sheer number of writers it has had over its 54 year run is that the stories are well told, but cohesiveness would be nice. What we have going for us is that the nature of Doctor Who is one of versatility. Using the storytelling trope of “time travel” everything can be reinvented as many times as the writers need it to. Don’t like an outcome of one story written a decade ago? Change the history of it so it’s something different now. But then how can there be cohesion? The answer to that question is the most important part. It maintains cohesive stories through the characters that we love. In the case of the Doctor, s/he needs to grow, learn and change in recognizable ways. Tastes change, I get that! If the Doctor doesn’t like apples now and likes them later, that is a load different than being against murder, then murdering a man in cold blood. Talking about being nice and kind should be a consist aspect of the character, even if he likes cricket outfits on one incarnation then hipster attire in another. As for the companion, that companion should grow and change too, but not alter their very basic personality. Their core belief system should remain intact. The stories have flexibility; love them or hate them, they can be undone. They are not etched in stone…. They are not cemented. Those races like Jabe’s or the Moxx of Balhoon (The End of the World) may not exist after the events of the Big Bang 2 for whatever reason, so for them to be absent on Akhaten doesn’t actually matter, nor does it even need explanation. However, Clara being present throughout the Doctor’s timeline, knowing all the incarnations, means her “not seeing” Capaldi’s Doctor because she couldn’t get over the idea of regeneration simply does not work. It makes no sense and just falls apart. Or the Doctor gunning down one of his own in Hell Bent because regeneration is “man flu” doesn’t remain cohesive with the Doctor’s attitude that regeneration is death and “a new man goes sauntering away.” Two different writers, you say, between The End of Time and Hell Bent? Then how do we explain that Capaldi’s Doctor feels the same way at the end of The Doctor Falls and throughout Twice Upon a Time? You can’t blame that on different writers. You can blame that on lazy writing.
And I’m not saying I’m a perfect, non-lazy writer, but I’m not creating a series for fans to watch! There are times even in the writing of this blog that I will write about a character and not bother looking up the name. I found I did that when writing about The Myth Makers; Hector’s opponent was merely that. I also didn’t need it to make the point I was making. Changing the core belief of a main character though, that’s lazy and that lack of a cohesive attitude falls flat on its face. And when that happens, the show runs the risk of not being identifiable, and we don’t want that.
That is why I say cohesion and cementing are so different. We don’t want or even need the Doctor Who universe cemented, because it will become stagnant. Doctor Who is built on change, so the idea of cementing things is a mistake. But maintaining cohesion, particularly with characters, is critical to the believability of what we are experiencing. That was why the fans loved the flashback in The Next Doctor when the info stamp beamed all the Doctor’s faces on the wall: it gave validity to Paul McGann being the 8th Doctor without question. The character is cohesively the same one we have come to know and love and will still be that over the next 50 years of adventure. ML