Paradoxica: An Open Letter to Steven Moffat

Dear Steven,

This wasn’t an easy letter to write. First and foremost you need to understand that it should be impossible for me to be communicating with you now.

One hour ago I was settling down for the evening, having just enjoyed the final episode of your very fine Doctor Who series. I felt like flirting with vice so threw caution at a tornado and popped a bottle of ginger wine. There I was, soiling my throat and chatting to a neighbour who was kindly injecting heroin into the large vein that threads through my Whitfield, when we were disturbed by a rat-a-tat-tat on the ol’ wooden wedge. Mary K, which I imagine to be her name, though I care a lot less than she thinks, answered the knock and a group of men entered the room. They ordered her to leave, which she did, then put a sack over my head. I felt myself manipulated with fingers and my limbs bound with something soft; it might have been underwear. I was then lifted into the air, carried some distance – two, maybe three minutes, and then thrown into some kind of chamber with poor acoustics.

I was frightened Steven, really scared. My Uncle Culver threatened to buy me a copy of Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress, and that turned my blood to tar, but this upset was a different order of magnitude. ‘Please let me go,’ I said, ‘I’m probably more interesting than you and on balance I’m bound to make a fuller and more worthwhile contribution to society, think about your civic duty’ but all they’d say was ‘hush, Fauntleroy,’ and ‘say another word and you’re burnt toast’. This went on for the equivalent of three paragraphs which I’ve cut for space.

Suddenly I heard a commotion – shouting, shoving – I was kicked in the knees, then thuds all around my face. The sack was pulled off my head. A man whom I’d never seen, wearing one of those novelty “There’s always time for Tea” T-shirts, stood before me. My kidnappers were dead. He’d mashed their heads with half a brick in a stocking. I asked him how he’d found me and do you know what he said? He told me that I’d told him where I’d be. A version of me, apparently from the future, had visited him the previous evening and revealed the details of the kidnap, including the location of the van in which I now sat, the number of kidnappers and their allergies to ceramics and silk. How, I asked, did I originally escape from my captivity in order to impart this information to him? He didn’t know. I have to confess, I couldn’t fathom it. I’d need to have escaped without help, or without this young man’s help in order to travel back in time in the first place, surely? It was then he said, and I stress this was him and not me, ‘hey, this is just like tonight’s Doctor Who (My italics), did you see it? I don’t know how the Doctor got out of that one either’.

So that’s why I’m writing to you, Steven, because I want to know. I should say that I’ve enjoyed this series very much. I mean, you’re a talented writer and in the 11th Doctor and Amy, you’ve created two wonderful characters, two and a third if you count Rory. It wasn’t perfect, anyone could have hired Richard Curtis, I mean, we’ve all done it, and it would have been nice to have had some story time between episodes, because that’s the bread and butter of the fan fiction community, but overall, you made good, camp free choices. I enjoyed the wit you’ve reintroduced to the series, the more sober characterisation and the merciful cull of pop culture references. Having the Doctor ignorant of the British zeitgeist and preoccupations of the younger audience, rather than plugged into them, was a welcome side effect of his regeneration.

Any fool, even me, could note and appreciate the degree of planning that went into the Pandorica story. It certainly felt as though it had more weight than Russell Dust’s Bad Wolf arc or his season long Torchwood promotion. You crafted a fine fairytale Steven, and because it’s a fairytale, one can appreciate magical abstractions used as save-the-day devices, like reincarnating the Doctor using the power of a little girl’s memory for example. But the Doctor’s escape from the Pandorica bothered me. My kidnap is a difficult memory, I mean, it’s only an hour old, but this is nearly 4 hours old and I still haven’t got over it.

Attempting to explain the paradox in diagrammatic form was a waste of time

I have no grounding in the Sciences, Steven, not a morsel. Until last Wednesday I thought a test tube was a receptacle for holding substances to ensure they weren’t too heavy and liable to cause cracking, y’know, before the real glassware was taken out. I consulted wikipedia about time paradoxes, because I understand that wikipedia pages are edited by scholars and self-certified geniuses. Unfortunately my three minutes of research brought me no closer to an understanding of how the Doctor could escape from the Pandorica without first escaping from the Pandorica.

In your version of events, which I’ve played in my mind many times, the Doctor’s future self appears and gives RoboRory his sonic screwdriver with instructions to use it in order to open the box and allow his younger self to escape. But how could the Doctor be free to do this, unless he had, first, been released without temporal intervention? I was confused by this, so I asked some experts, namely my friend Scott who is a Doctor Who geek, the cast of Twitter and Terry, the man who rescued me from my kidnappers. Terry had no idea, Twitter told me to go fuck myself and Scott, who doesn’t like to think badly of you, because you create something he loves, did his best, referring to every “moment in time occurring at once” and being possible to manipulate. The Doctor was “a higher being” and could “bend reality to his will”. Yes, I said, but surely, even if time wasn’t linear as we humans supposed and event can proceed cause, which we all accept, because we love the show, it did at least proceed in a linear fashion for The Doctor. If I jump around in time, my own sequence of events occurs one after the other, surely? Ah, Scott said, but what about alternate timelines? I liked this idea but then I felt I had to say that we could only go with what we saw on screen or clues you gave us, and there was no suggestion that the Doctor had appeared from an alternate universe to help himself. Did you cut that bit out for time? Pun intended.

Then, out of the blue, Scott said this: ‘once a living being leaves their designated place in time they are essentially elevated to an alternative plane of existence. That’s how the Doctor can appear in two places at once and facilitate his own escape’. Now I like this, even if I don’t understand it. But I hope you can see what you’ve done here. You’ve reduced poor Scott to making some pretty wild assumptions about the story’s “meta-narrative”, whatever that may be, in order to plug the gaps in your script’s internal logic. When viewers have to speculate about entire lines of action which they cannot see and which have no basis in the detail contained within the transmitted episode, then something has gone wrong…Christopher Eccleston wrong.

I suppose what irritates me Steven, if I can call you Steven, is that this is one of those get outs, of the deus ex machina variety, that may inadvertently accelerate Mr Pratchett’s mental deterioration. I’m annoyed with you because I imagined, when you were at home watching your predecessor’s Who parodies being ejaculated across the Saturday night schedule, that you’d be rolling your eyes with the rest of us with each back of a stamp contrivance. Am I to now infer that you were applauding?

I’m not an expert on writing for the screen you understand, I wrote a screenplay called Gore Whores for fuck’s sake, but I couldn’t escape the conclusion that this was a one scene fix opportunity. The plot didn’t have to be a circle, here recast as an impossible object. Do you remember that bit in Superman II where Lex puts down the green crystal, rather than replacing it, so later when the fortress of solitude is destroyed, the green shard is not, and Clarke has a means to restore his power later on? Or how about that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy looks at that old book and sees the Hebrews shielding their eyes from the power emanating from the Ark, so later, when the Nazis open the thing and look into it, he knows not to and saves his life. If you take those scenes out, you’ve got a situation where Clarke Kent can reverse his human transformation using force of will alone and Indy just happens to have a brainwave which is correct, despite having no logical basis on which to base his judgement.

I suggest that the scene you wanted was one in which the Doctor and his sonic screwdriver became separated, possibly in an earlier tussle. Confiscated by a Roman perhaps? That would have allowed Rory to get his hands on it, and he’d have good reason to want to free the Doctor would he not? After all he’d just been forced to kill his girlfriend. My girlfriend. The nation’s girlfriend. That would be it. As it stands you’ve got a situation where the Doctor could have no warning of his imprisonment because he didn’t believe in the Pandorica, he thought it was a work of fiction. It was designed to exclude him from everything – time, space, any external force – the prison of prisons. So fudging his escape and allowing him to get out of it in just 5 minutes undermined that build up a touch, made a mockery of the Axis of Aliens’ plan and meant that the resolution for the entire series was based on an inciting incident which, and forgive me for this Steven because I love you, looks a mite contrived.

Terry’s left now, so he’s out of it but Scott, because he wants to believe you didn’t write yourself into a corner, has suggested that the Doctor can read the universe. But if that were true, and you and I Steven, you and I know it isn’t, then he’d always know what was coming wouldn’t he? They’d be no jeopardy, no challenge, and the beauty of your story was that for the first time in a long time the Doctor wasn’t a know-it-all, he couldn’t read the runes.

We’ll leave it at that I think. Just to say that I’m looking forward to your Christmas episode, even if it is the Cleopatra on the space Orient Express thing you mentioned at the end of tonight’s show. I hope it contains some further explanations about the events in The Big Bang – a scene where the Doctor explains how he circumvented what appears to be a paradox. It’d be good for Rory and Amy to find out I think, and we could listen in.

Yours in time and cyberspace,


Published in: on June 26, 2010 at 22:42  Comments (22)  
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22 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I started reading this, then realised it wasn’t addressed to me, and ceased immediately.

  2. For some reason (possibly errant episodes of Red Dwarf) I feel quite comfortable with the paradox of someone travelling through time to save themselves. It does rankle that the raggedy Doctor does it though, as it’s been a long-held rule that he shouldn’t. Otherwise, how would he ever be in trouble? He could always rely on himself to nip back and save himself.

    But yes, now that I think on it, the breaking of two Who directives (“Don’t cross your own time line” and “Don’t use the sonic screwdriver except for temporarily delaying enemies and fixing minor breakages – ie as a screwdriver”) is deeply irksome.

    And although you excuse the deus ex machina for fairytale’s sake, I’d hoped that Moffat wouldn’t resort to that this time. The companion induces a miracle of some kind which saves everyone. Doctor marvels at the wonder that is humanity. They go somewhere exotic and forget it all happened. For once, just ONCE, I’d like the doctor to be saved by small furry creatures from outer space. Humans are meant to be a primitive species in the Whoniverse, how come they keep saving his omniscient ass?

    That said, the structure of the episode was lovely. The actual interaction with other episodes (rather than just straight flashbacks) was very engaging.

    I’m hoping against hope that he won’t do a space-set Orient Express story, it’d reek overly of the Kylie Titanic incident.

  3. The only thing I object to the besmirching of Eccelston – the only person who could keep that Bastard Barrowman in his place. Plus, he went bonkers and started waving guns around against the Daleks. I’m not really any wiser about the nature of time paradoxes. However, my understanding is that time paradoxes are possible because there is no absolute time line. There are an infinite number of realities and futures that are created by the tiniest momement, like a butterfly flapping it’s wings. Where it gets confusing is that these timelines do not always exist independent from one another and can sometimes cross over. I.e. The same thing can happen at the same time in different realities.

    • Eccleston looked exactly like what he was – an actor with pretensions to seriousness trying to mug and be eccentric in what he imagined to be a children’s show. He wasn’t right for it and if you need to ask someone to confirm as much, ask Christopher Eccleston, who quit almost as soon as the ink was dry on his contract. His Doctor never fully worked for me, because of the aforementioned awkwardness.

      Man alive, Moffat is lucky to have people like you. I mean that respectfully because I admire your commitment to the cause, but you’re inadvertently acting as an apologist for a lazy piece of writing. Not the entire episode you understand, just that scene – though there is a ripple effect to evoke your butterfly analogy – it makes everything that follows that scene fail in terms of internal logic.

      Rather than talking about what we don’t know – that is to say things we weren’t shown, I’d concentrate on what we did see. As Kat mentioned, I was relaxed about the memory resurrection, because that’s something unknowable, ephemeral – all keeping in tone with the fairytale aspect of the story and the season, and you can’t say “she couldn’t bring him back with thought” because it’s a fictional, magical universe and maybe she could, so we’ll let it go. But time travel in the show is different because it’s a technologically driven process – the TARDIS is a piece of tech, so too the Vortex manipulation, which reminded me of ST:TNG’s dimension jump thing that those space terrorists used – I think it reminded Moffat of it too because he mentioned it was a dangerous way to travel. If your story is reliant on time travel, then certain rules must be observed, it’s not a case of ‘if you wish it, you can have it.’ So this for me, was a lapse – and whether you call it a pre-destination paradox or whatever, it’s a paradox nonetheless and for my money, avoidable. It was a cheat and a bad one at that. Plan the ultimate cliffhanger by all means but work out how you’re going to get out of it first. This looked tacked on because SM had written himself into a corner. Obviously I’ve already forgiven him, because Moffat’s words and my eyes go back a long way, but I hope this is the end of a trend and not the beginning of one, else he’s going to burn up that substantial stock of critical good will which he’s banked over the last few years.

  4. Oh, yes, I forgot to mention Eccleston. I really like him, but that might be because he’s a Northerner with a cute bottom. I did like him as The Doctor though, far more so than Tennant, whose awful-accented craziness drove me spare. I could believe in the sorrow of Eccleston’s Doctor, and really couldn’t care about that of Tennant’s.

    (And if Tennant had been scripted to say “I’m SO sorry” just ONE MORE TIME – in addition to every time someone died, was about to die, fell over, or stubbed a toe – I might have had to have RTD assassinated.)

  5. I didn’t notice his cute bottom but I’ll take it on trust – and yes, there’s your regional bias :-). I was angry when I quit, but only because I felt he jeopardising the programme – i hadn’t warmed to him. I must have watched the scene in Cracker where he’s stabbed over 200 times that weekend.

    I wouldn’t disagree on Tennant, though he was good enough, he just didn’t have the material to work with. Maybe I should give no.9 another go but at the time he didn’t feel like The Doctor to me.

    • I’d agree that he didn’t have long enough on the programme for us to get to know his Doctor properly – but then, I feel that there was a focus on the audience being drawn to perceive him as a mysterious traveller from far away, a lonely man with a sad past. We weren’t necessarily meant to warm to that Doctor, but to see him as alien.

      (I’m still waiting for Adam to turn out to be Davros, but this long after that series, that ship has most likely long since sailed. Pity.)

      I wondered whether CE had been shown some of the prospective scripts for the second series before he quit. The catnuns in one of the early series 2 episodes made me want to kill. No excuse for them. I would have hated to have seen Eccleston trying to look serious during some of those stories.

      • When he quit…I’ve never starred in Doctor Who of course, though let’s not rule it out – we both know I’d be at home in the vortex.

  6. Christopher Eccelston versus a fleet of insane Daleks. Nuff said.

  7. Btw, if you think it was a lazy piece of writing then it is worth considering that it might be explained at a later date – like why nobody in the 20th Century remembered The Cyber King stomping around Victorian London. Also, the scene in Flesh & Stone when the Doctor from the future begged Amy to trust him caused a fuss with the online community. Mainly, because it looked like a wardrobe malfunction and also because the whole exchange looked weird in it’s original context. No doubt if it was a mistake – maybe Moffat forgot – then surely it has been pointed out to him by now and he will rectify it. But if you want a real headfuck of interdimensional timey wimey nonsense then watch the anime, Noein.

    • Yes, but all the examples you’ve mentioned were to be resolved at the end of the series which means that viewers don’t need long memories and it’s all part of the same arc. It’s a hell of a risk planting that seed and waiting 6 months to resolve it. I mean, I’ve fixated on it, but many more might have shrugged their shoulders and said “okay, he cheated – so what?” It’s not a big enough plot point to resolve I don’t think – it was just a device to move the story forward (because he couldn’t think of anything else?). I wish he’d fix it with an explanation but I don’t think one will come. I wouldn’t assume it’s a mistake – it’s a choice he made. A bad one in my view but then if some bastard would like to pay me to write Doctor Who, then people are very welcome to criticise my choices.

      (I’d never cheat).

  8. At last!

    I have it, Holmes!

    Your consternation piqued my interest – what with all my babble and speculation what I was in fact trying to do was jog my memory regarding the nature of time travel. Y’see, I actually have done quite a lot of research on the subject – not that I intend to build a time-machine but because I wanted to write about time travel.

    But the time paradox of which you speak is actually refered to as an ontological paradox – a paradox of time travel that questions the existence and creation of information and objects that travel in time.

    Look it up on wikipedia – somebody has already referenced The Big Ban on the page for Ontological paradox.

    You have no idea how good it is for me to finally remember that bloody word.

    • Yeah, I mean that’s exactly what it is – an ontological paradox, but just because it has a name, doesn’t make it a good story telling device. It also doesn’t mean, as the wikipedia examples make clear, that it makes any sense, which is my problem with it. The information or object can’t exist – in this case, the future Doctor himself can’t exist because he’s locked in an impenetrable box and he had no warning of the same and there’s no possible way for him to escape – so an ontological paradox it may be, but it’s still bollocks. I’m sure Moffat will be pleased that there’s a wiki page that explains what we saw without explaining how it might be possible but that doesn’t get him off the hook. The thing is, it may be a trope of science fiction but then so are lots of lazy cliches, like super computers that go mental and kill people, it doesn’t mean that the use of these ideas is a good thing. He fucked up. It’s not as if he’s got a good excuse either – he didn’t inherit part one from someone else – it was entirely his story and as previously discussed, easily fixed without recourse to non-sensical get outs.

  9. Neat blog. The Doctor’s quick escape from the inescapable prison threw the episode off balance for me. It was just too easy.

    I’ve taken quite an interest in time travel on and off over the years and I can’t for the life of me figure out just what model of time Moffat was using.

    Predestination paradoxes (and ontological paradoxes) exist in stories where there is a single fixed time-line. They are a device to explain why a traveller going back in time does NOT change history. They work only in stories that use a model of time where it’s not possible to change history.

    However Dr Who has a long history of the time traveller’s actions changing history, i.e. time can be rewritten. Moffat shows us clearly that time was rewritten as, at the start of Big Bang, he repeats the scene with Amelia praying to Santa and, unlike in The Eleventh Hour, the Doctor doesn’t turn up. The Big Bang version of Amelia grows up in a world without stars and sees psychiatrists about that. The Eleventh Hour version of Amelia sees psychiatrists about her Raggedy Doctor friend. Moffat leaves us in no doubt time and Amelia’s life has changed.

    I think Moffat should have internal logic to his model of how Who time works but so far I’ve not read of anyone who has figured out waht he’s using. The forums I’ve read seem accepting of labelling it a predestination paradox without being bothered that the story wasn’t written using fixed time. IMO, To use a paradox that requires a single fixed time-line slap bang in the middle of an episode where we see time rewritten is taking the mick.

    I wish you a speedy recovery from your kidnapping 🙂

    • Thanks Amanda, the nightmares have stopped now.

      Thanks for this. Presumably you agree with me then, that Moffat jumped the time shark? Your clarification on how these paradoxes should work, just confirms to me what I felt watching it, namely that it doesn’t make any sense. And to those that say that it makes sense that it shouldn’t make any sense, that makes no sense.

      It’s a shame I think, because it brought down the episode. Scott speculated that we may get an explanation in the episode to come but my personal view is that we’ll never hear of this again and Mr M will hope that a large majority of viewers either didn’t notice or don’t care. Moffat reads this blog religiously as any fule no, so all I’d say to him is avoid any lazy shortcuts in the new series, you’re better than that and half your viewers are over the age of 12 and will almost certainly notice if you don’t.

      • Thanks for your reply, I’m glad to hear your nightmares have stopped.

        Overall I’ve enjoyed this season very much. Big Bang aside, Moffat usually delivers a tight plot and I like the way this series has cut the soap and restored a more alien character to to Doctor. It’s been looking good too, apart from the Smartie coloured Daleks.

        I think the series has somersaulted the time shark, albeit elegantly done it’s still disappointing for me to have a writer I admire so much seem to cheat over resolving the final cliffhanger.

        Surely we should all know the basics of how Who time works and it’s wrong that we don’t so I very much agree with your earlier comment “If your story is reliant on time travel, then certain rules must be observed, it’s not a case of ‘if you wish it, you can have it.’”. Not that I’m saying Moffat should be tied down by every quirk of time that’s happened over the Who years, but there should be internal logic the humble viewer can identify for the rules of time in this story arc, or failing that at least over the The Eleventh Hour/Pandorica Opens/Big Bang episodes.

        I do not think Moffat will revisit this so Scott will probably have to put it down to “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey” or maybe he’ll do what I’ve finally conceded after a few sleepless nights of my own and put it down to plain wibble. Wishing a good nights sleep to one and all 🙂

      • PS: I forgot to compliment you on your diagram (although your Doctor’s hair looks more Tom Baker than Matt Smith, but fair enough Tom Baker did have great hair). Anyway I forgot to point out that my diagram (somewhat more sophisticated than your’s if you don’t mind my saying that having used my very best coloured crayons) only served to give me a tangle that wouldn’t look out of place in the most knitty of knitting circles and a bigger headache than I started with. Oh and my qualifications for thinking I have some modest aptitude at logical reasoning (apart from an interest in time travel stories), a degree in mathematics and a career as a software engineer which I reckon makes me at least as able as the average twelve year old 🙂

  10. I rang Steven and apparently the paradox (and the ones that follow it) was (or were) simply the result of an agreement between him and RTD after the latter read your Torchwood or Torture diatribe and bribed Moffat into writing the paradox just to piss you off.

    • At last, an explanation I can believe in.

  11. Nice post!

    Burn Notice Schedule

  12. Due to the amazing way in which the internet works (both on a physical and abstract level) I’ve ended up finding and reading this letter, plus responses, some 9 months later than would generally be considered to be “good form”.

    However, my reason for posting – unlike the reason for the original letter – is an entirely simple one.

    It is immediately apparent to me that your questions could have been resolved (for any given value of ‘resolved’) if anyone had drawn your attention to a field of Physics called Quantum Superposition and the “Schroedinger’s Cat” principle. Put simply, two seemingly opposed states of being can exist simultaeneously until the point the state of being is observed or measured, at which point one of the states ceases to exist.

    Now, the trick here is not to immediately apply our default 4-dimensional thought processes and arrogantly state that this theory is “impossible” – Science proves humanity arrogant and incorrect time and time again throughout history. Instead, we should turn our attention to the variables of the theory and identify that one constant which is the catalyst for the preposition – the observation.

    Once we realise that it is in the observation that the paradox is resolved – and we can understand that an observation is not fixed in any format or dimension – we can begin to understand that the existence and resolution of a paradox is quite simply driven by the relative variables of whoever is doing the actual observing.

    So, going back to the “Pandorica paradoxica”, we can apply this logic to the Doctors’ situation and all becomes clear…

    To escape the Pandorica, The Doctor first has to escape the Pandorica. It’s all a matter of how, where, when and by whom the observation of the escape is carried out.

    • Well when you put it like that…

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