Doctor Who Series 10 Finale: Not a Deus Ex Machina

Cyber Scarecrow
Image from The Doctor Falls, BBC

Series 10 of Doctor Who recently culminated in a stunningly good two-part story comprised of the episodes World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls. My unreserved enjoyment of these episodes as near perfect television story-telling counts as my full disclosure, as I’m about to defend them and don’t want to give the impression that only logic is in play, here…

Note that here be the dragons of copious spoilers, so stop reading if you’re trying to avoid knowing stuff.

Within minutes of the airing of The Doctor Falls, and since, comments have appeared online that the episode failed and ruined the finale because a significant plot point was resolved by a deus ex machina. Specifically, the Doctor’s assistant, Bill, played by the wonderful Pearl Mackie, has been turned into a Cyberman through the machinations of the Master and suffered horribly, but at the bleakest moment of failure, she is saved by a near-omnipotent character from earlier in the season, the Pilot.

As most everyone knows, by now, deus ex machina is a critical term that literally means “god from the machine,” and refers, to quote the website Literary Devices, to an author’s solving “a seemingly intractable problem in a plot by adding in an unexpected character, object, or situation” in a way that seems contrived, as if “the author must resort to something that he or she did not set up properly plot-wise.”

Superficially, this doesn’t seem a million miles from what happened when the Pilot saves Bill, then, at Bill’s request, removes the Doctor’s body from the battlefield to the safety of the TARDIS, where, unknown to Bill, he will begin to regenerate. I can understand where the criticism is coming from; I just don’t agree with it.

For starters, the Pilot doesn’t actually resolve any intractable plot problems. The story question here is, Will the Doctor defeat the machinations of the Master and the rise of the Cybermen? That question is resolved purely through the actions of the main characters, their struggles and their considerable sacrifices. Missy brings down the Master and seemingly dies for her efforts. The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole save the humans from the Cybermen, and all three understand when they make the necessary choices that the cost will be their lives, or at least their lives as they’ve known them. Not a whisper of deus ex machina there.

Nor does the Pilot resolve Bill’s story question. Bill’s story question is explicitly stated in part one, World Enough and Time. It is: Will Bill survive the Doctor’s rash attempt to test Missy’s newfound goodness? The answer turns out to be: No, and furthermore she will suffer an unfathomably lingering and painful death before sacrificing a tortured half-life in support of the Doctor’s plan to defeat the Cybermen. That is, I would argue that Bill’s story is resolved already by the time the Pilot makes an appearance. She died. In slow, awful stages, her ongoing twilight existence as a cyber-revenant not withstanding. When the Pilot comes, it isn’t to deliver a resolution that Bill is beyond needing, but something else—so still not a deus ex machina.

We’re all critics, these days, and we all have access to a toolkit of critical idiom. Tweet your horror that Steven Moffat committed deus ex machina and very few readers will scratch their head in confusion. But we’re also now inclined to be a culture of hammers who see everything as nails. Working from a checklist of possible literary flaws will guarantee that you often find them, but it will also blind you to the truth that there are other idioms, other toolkits, and I think that’s been the case with The Doctor Falls.

I suspect that an episode which begins with the imagery of crucified cyber-scarecrows, in a story riddled with people sacrificing themselves to redeem others, amid characters who are dying and being reborn through cybernetic intervention or Time Lord regeneration, that the toolkit in play here might be that of religious symbolism.

And at the end, it’s not a deus ex machina that the Pilot brings Bill. It’s grace. It’s the gift of the universe to those who have given their all in pursuit of doing the right thing, and failed because humans are flawed and fail, but sometimes they’re still saved.

There are episodes enough of Doctor Who where the Doctor solves an impossible problem by waving his sonic screwdriver at a contrived Plot Resolution Machine. This isn’t one of them.

This is more like Frodo, who came undone on Mount Doom only to discover that his sacrifices to that point had put in place the elements necessary for providence to finish the job.

It’s a reminder, in dark times that I think could use a few more such reminders, that hope is not foolish because sometimes, however improbably, good things happen.

It’s grace.

Of course, enmeshed as we all are in barbed wire cynicism, this will strike many as far worse than a deus ex machina. It’ll be saccharine or cheesy or whatever curmudgeonly dismissal occurs to them. That’s not my problem. Struck me as joyous and uplifting, and I cheered as soon as I recognised the Pilot on the battlefield and understood how her presence had been set up.

I’m just saying, it wasn’t a literary failing, it wasn’t a deus ex machina and it ruined nothing. It was a feature, not a bug.

Bill simply got the ending she deserved, and I’m glad.

Life in the Old Blog Yet…

Sprout
Photo via VisualHunt

You could be forgiven (are forgiven, I forgive you) for thinking this blog dead, the silence having become both long and deep. It’s not!

Now, I had been trying to put my writing on a more organised footing, integrated with my studies, rah rah life balance. For me, social media was a part of that effort. Alas, after I lost a few work days to Cyclone Debbie just as last semester’s assessment really kicked off, and since last semester was also the final semester of my BA, I was obliged to kick life balance to the curb and go all in to get through. No half-arsing your final semester, because there’s no next semester in which to patch everything up and keep going.

This means, to be clear, I’ve not written anything in ages. My last story is half-done, a lifeless semi-file languishing on Dropbox. And I’ve very much felt the not writing, a piercing ache at the back of everything I’ve done since stopping. But I made the choice and lived with it.

It was the right choice. The semester was a real challenge in more ways than one, and I wanted good results. But the semester is also now over. That’s the reason for this post: to Frankenstein up and declare, “It’s alive!”

Hopefully, the writing will soon follow. I’m mentally tired, I am, and I fear my engine may have stalled. We’ll see. One resurrection at a time…

Now That’s Progress…

geyser
Photo via Visual hunt

Well, after yesterday’s pervading gloomy sense of failure, I put in some serious labour on my university work yesterday afternoon to clear the decks for today. My cunning plan being to spend today writing until my knuckles ached.

So I did.

I scrapped all the work I’d done on the short story so far–figuring some of my difficulty with it was my subconscious telling me I was doing it wrong–and started from scratch.

The new version retained the main character’s voice, but switched from first to third person. Two existing scenes lost an event and I merged them into a single slightly longer scene with a more logical progression.

And, in two long sessions, I managed a total of 2700 words. By my standards, that’s not a small number! I’m very pleased with that progress. Now I have a much clearer idea of how to progress the story from where I am.

Needless to say, it was also marvelous to actually devote a full day to nothing but writing. Feels like Christmas!

Frustrating Week So Far

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Photo via Visual hunt

Five day into having committed to make progress on the SF short story, I’d be inclined to report that the outcome has mainly been frustration.

Technically, I’m now four scenes in, but that represents little real progress. It doesn’t count a first scene written before determining where the story should actually start, then discarded. Monday and Tuesday produced the bulk of this week’s new words, 1500 or so. Yesterday was mostly rewrite of those scenes followed by 230 new words (i.e. barely any at all) and today was rewrite of rewrite ending when I ran out of time with no new words.

To be quite honest, I’ve gone quite flat in general. I’ve not been reading apart from material needed for my study, and study itself is proceeding like a crawl over broken glass. I’ve applied self-discipline to honour my various to-do lists, but it’s all quite joyless.

On top of which, it’s frustrating. If I sacrifice writing time for study, and study doesn’t go well, then what’s the point?

And I really do miss lost writing time. I need the practice. In one of his video tutorials on writing, Brandon Sanderson talks about reaching the point where you’re good enough to realize how bad you are (to paraphrase), and I’d say that’s where I’m at. It’s certainly its own kind of frustration. I feel a strong compulsion to improve, to level up past that point, but it’s not going to happen when my practice consists ten words a day wrenched out between other obligations.

Stupid other obligations.

Sunday Circle

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Photo via Visual Hunt

Peter M. Ball, over on Man Versus Bear,  is hosting The Sunday Circle for followers of his blog—in which people answer three questions about their current creative efforts.

  • What are you working on this week?
  • What is inspiring you at the moment?
  • What part of your project are you trying to avoid?

It seems fun, reflexive, and an interesting means to pin a bit of accountability to what you’re up to, so I’m giving it a try.

What are you working on this week?

In general, I’m currently trying to write a series of different short stories. The goal is to go fairly quickly (by my slow standards) and without necessarily thinking too much about future submission, with a view to improving skills and experimenting with viewpoints, styles, genres, and such. Essentially as discussed on a recent Writing Excuses podcast.

Next week, specifically, I’m hoping to progress a short science fiction story with the working title of Good Wolf Bad Wolf. It’s space colony SF looking at the exact moment someone decides to resist a cosy kind of oppression.

What is inspiring you at the moment?

I’m at the start of my final semester of a BA(sociology/criminology), and that inevitably involves a lot of academic reading on what makes people and societies tick. That’s where a lot of my inspiration is presently coming from. When reading about subjectively strange social phenomena, it’s hard not to stop and think, “Hey… what if you wrapped that behaviour around a world? A person? A well-resourced villain?”

What part of your project are you trying to avoid?

The writing. I am avoiding the writing. The, you know, crucial bit. Well, I’m not avoiding it, really, or even genuinely reluctant to engage with it. But the aforementioned study is requiring a lot of my attention as the first round of assessment approaches, and that creates a powerful pressure to enclose my writing time to the service of my study time.

Yet… I know it’s also excuse making. I know perfectly well I can devote an hour per day to writing without impacting study, and that’s enough for progress. Given that my confidence is a bit low at the moment, and I’m finding writing unfamiliar things a bit difficult and awkward, I suspect my subconscious is trying to nudge me towards easier pastures. And I’m not having it!

7 Visits From the Ghost Of Writing Past

Batman

You can’t swing an antique typewriter on the Internet without hitting a writer giving advice to their younger self.

But it’s not a purely pointless cliche. Writing is a skill-set as much as it is a Mysterious Talent Breathed Into Our Ears By Angels. Stick with it and you learn. What you learn is idiosyncratic but might be of use to younger writers who are stumbling in ways similar to your own hilarious youthful pratfalls.

Heck, reflecting on what you think you might have learned can actually be the moment you learn it.

Writers digest considered it an activity worth putting into a writing exercise.

Dearyoungme.com thinks it merits its own social media site.

And Oneyearnovel.com recently used it explicitly to advise young up-and-comers.

Tl;dr… I’m jumping on that bandwagon.

So, without further ado, seven things I’d tell younger self if I met him and he let me get a word in edgeways…

  1. Don’t wait. Second post on this blog pretty much explains this one. If you love writing, prioritize it. I chose a more “practical” route, and it vanished like a soap bubble.
  2. Write a little every day. Don’t tell yourself you’ll put off writing until you have “enough time” to devote to it. You’ll never have much more time to write than you do right now. And you need the ongoing routine and practice to improve. So write even, a little, as often as you can.
  3. Finish things. Again, it’s how you learn. I used to abandon a story whenever it went awry. Took me ages to learn I was mucking up my starts because I hardly ever saw them in the context of a completed story where it was more obvious that I was generally starting stories too early.
  4. Perfect is for saps. I say “awry,” but I used to abandon stories because I knew I couldn’t make them perfect. I used to not submit stories because I knew they weren’t perfect. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” You’re as good as you are, and you’ll get better if you don’t give up for want of perfection.
  5. Don’t worry about rules. Patricia Wrede says this best on her Six Impossible Things blog.
  6. Realize that doubt is just weather. God I’ve struggled with self doubt. Given up on writing. Given up on individual stories. I’ve gone back to stories that wracked me with so much doubt that I pitched them into the bin, and found stuff in them that was so good it surprised me. Self doubt isn’t truth: it’s weather. It will pass. Wait it out.
  7. Mind your health. I didn’t. But writers aren’t disembodied brains, and you will eventually sabotage everything you do if you neglect your physical well-being.

So, that’s my seven. Happy to hear yours below…

Character Motivation and Identity Theory

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Understanding the motivation of your characters is hugely important to producing an organic plot enacted by people who’ll seem real to your readers.

Over on Writers Helping Writers, the authors of the Descriptive Thesaurus book series tackle the question of character motivation using Maslow’s ubiquitous hierarchy of needs. I’m going to take a sociological crack at it, leaning on the perspective of identity theory.

In an earlier post, I used Goffman’s idea that we present ourselves differently to different audiences to suggest that characters (and people) will have a bunch of different roles and each of those roles make them act in specific ways in specific circumstances. Identity theory takes that a little bit further.

Cooley and the Looking-Glass Self

Before identity theory there was Charles Cooley and his looking-glass self.

Cooley felt that who a person was emerged from a reflective process of imagining how society saw them and feeling good or bad about it (Serpe & Stryker, 2011, p. 227).

How this impacts behaviour can be seen in Shakespeare’s magnificent Shylock, who says to those who have treated him with the contempt due an usurer, “Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause; But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs.” Alternatively, someone who takes pride in thinking they are known for their good works, may often be kind.

Cooley believed that how much a person or group’s perception of us contributed to who we were and how we acted depended on how significant they were to us. If we have no ties to society, if we think society doesn’t want a bar of us, we’re less likely to change our ways to please them. If we believe our wife thinks we’re fat, maybe we’ll cut down on pizza (maybe).

Identity Theory

In identity theory, Sheldon Stryker put forward a way to understand how our relationship to society makes us act differently from the next person (Serpe & Stryker, 2011, p.233).

Why do I malinger in the break room while you do all the work? Why does she fight for worker rights while he fires ten percent of his workforce just before Christmas?

One answer is we’re none of us just a single reflection in Cooley’s looking-glass. Our “self” has as many identities as we have discrete social groups with whom we have a relationship, and each of those social groups sees us in a particular way and has particular expectations which we’ll either comply with or resist (Serpe & Stryker, 2011, p. 233). Depending on who we’re with, our identity might be Parent, Child, Worker, Sibling, Tough Guy, People Pleaser, or countless others. We contain multitudes.

Which identity pops up under what circumstances depends on the identity’s salience—its importance and relevance—in that situation (Serpe & Stryker, 2011, p. 233). It’s a no brainer that at work your Worker identity will have salience. But if you’re unexpectedly bullied at work maybe it will trigger your Tough Guy identity to salience (or your inner Child).

Stryker suggest three related factors shaping identity salience and behaviour(Serpe & Stryker, 2011, p. 234):

  • Commitment
  • Identity
  • Role choice

Commitment describes how powerfully your relationship with a social group compels you to act in a particular identity or role, identity is the pattern of behaviours and expectations making up who you are with a particular group of people, and role choice is a set of relevant behaviours (Serpe & Stryker, 2011, pp. 233-234)

Studies have shown that strong social ties to a group will increase the salience of identities associated with that group and likewise the time and energy spent performing associated roles (Serpe & Stryker, 2011, p.234). That is, we most often behave in ways consistent with the expectations of the people who are most important to us.

TL;DR

Just to quickly summarise:

  • Individuals are a mass of identities shaped by their social relationship.
  • Our identities come with a whole set of expectations about who we are and what we’ll do.
  • Which identity has salience in a particular moment is rooted in how numerous and strong our ties are to the social group associated with that identity.

Writing and Identity Theory

Characterization of Heroes

Your character motivations, then, will come down to the clearly definable groups of social relationships in their lives and the relative strength of their ties to those groups.

As a hero, chances are most of their social groups will have expectations of fairly healthy and positive behaviour from them, and that will inform the range of identities making up the hero’s self, and which of those identities might have the greatest salience in a scene or even across a large part of the plot.

If their identity as Husband, Son, Churchgoer, Citizen, all come with expectations of civic responsibility, then powerful identity salience might motivate the character to fight their city’s corruption throughout a long book. At the same time, maybe their childhood friendship with the chief figures in the corruption makes for scenes in which the identity of Friend gains salience, and motivates them to give someone a second chance who doesn’t deserve one.

From this example it’s clear that conflicting commitments and identities are great drivers of story conflict, internal and external.

Identity theory also provides an approach to plotting out a character arc. Changing your character between the beginning and end of your book can be seen as reducing the salience of one or more of their original identities and increasing the salience of one or more of their other identities. Friend to Cop, say, in the example above.

And that can be achieved by allowing events to weaken or strengthen their ties to the relevant social group. Betrayal by their corrupt friend weakens ties to friendships from the old neighbourhood. The travails of fighting corruption together strengthens ties to honest cop colleagues. Identities shift and propel the character arc with them.

An Example: The West Wing and President Jed Bartlet

My favourite example of all this is probably the character of President Jed Bartlet from television’s The West Wing.

His identities are clearly defined:

  • President, in relation to the people of the United States.
  • Husband and father, in relation to his family.
  • Friend, in relation to a great many people who are dear to him.
  • Good Roman Catholic, in relation to the Church, God, and other Christians.
  • Sufferer of Illness, in relation to, variously, the medical profession, his family and friends, the people, and other politicians.

As great as the salience of the President identity is, we’re shown how utterly it crumbles before the salience of family when his daughter is kidnapped. In the course of the series, we see the slow rise of the salience of his illness, and the pain that comes as it conflicts with many of his other identities.

And we’re given the superb masterwork episode Two Cathedrals, in which his identities combine and clash to create perfection. Death of a close friend brings friendship to the highest salience, and the majesty of his identity as President, his moral authority as Good Roman Catholic, and his knowledge as a Scholar all manifest. In a cathedral, God’s own house, in English and in the old language of priestly authority, the President of the United States berates God as a “feckless thug” and it is unforgettable.

It’s proof that the interplay of commitment, identity, and role choice can breath electric life into a character’s motivations.

Reference

Serpe, R., & Stryker, S. (2011). The symbolic interactionist perspective and identity theory. In S. Schwartz, K. Luyckz, & V. Vignoles (Eds.), Handbook of identity theory and research (pp. 225-248). New York: Springer.