The Curse of the Deus Ex Machina

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Guest contributor Cooper Jennings on ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ endings.

Picture this… Davros has cheated death, escaped the Time War, built an EMPIRE of Daleks, a phenomenal fleet of spaceships, stolen planets from the sky (!!!) and incredibly aligned a Reality Bomb already dissolving stars in galaxies parallel to our own. He has the Doctor imprisoned, he has out-bluffed limp attempts from others to explode themselves (and everyone) in sacrifice, he has the human race outnumbered and enslaved. There is no hope. In fact, to quote the man himself… “AAAAHHHH – HAAAA!! Nothing can stop the detonation. Nothing, and no-one!”… 5 minutes later – Daleks are spinning around like Tea-Cups at the theme park and Flying-Saucers are falling like Space Invaders. HOW?!?! Because the writer used the trump card, the ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’. The miracle cure. The emergency exit. The one-size-fits-all “Deus Ex Machina”, used far too often in Doctor Who.

Doctor Who can be the most thrilling ride! It builds the tension and raises the stakes like little else. What it lacks is the climb down. Too often recently has an episode rushed the denouement. The best example recently being “The Power Of Three” – a fantastic episode, the slow invasion – and ultra-fast solution. Too fast, and to the detriment of the episode. Why is Doctor Who 50 minutes long? Holby City is an hour!! Don’t tell me there isn’t an extra 10 minutes of unused material! Why is Doctor Who not an hour long? This baffles me. An extra 10 minutes might have saved “The Power Of Three” – and made more of the brilliant Steven Berkoff!

The Deus Ex Machina was first used (and criticised) in Ancient Greek drama. It is where a seemingly inescapable scenario is overturned by illogical, last minute new rules and divine intervention. In Ancient Greek this was often at the intervention of a God. Fittingly (or unfittingly), in Doctor Who, the Deus Ex Machina has also often assumed the form of a God (looking at you Rose) – as I will explore in my chosen examples.

I love nothing more than a puzzle – especially in drama! I LOVE Jonathan Creek – it weaves such unexplainable wonders and pulls off logical solutions that surprise, solutions that often seem obvious later – because they usually involve the facts! I love Sherlock Holmes, the mystery, the logical solution based on a series of clues you can rely on, because they are based within a set of rules and facts. I love it when the problem is both impossible and solvable – that is genius! What I don’t love is waiting 7 painful days after the best cliff-hanger of all time to discover that the Doctor has paradoxically teleported from the future and an illogically still standing plastic Rory has opened the Pandorica (the “perfect prison”) with one swish of a second sonic screwdriver.

Doctor Who is magnificent because it makes up its own law/rules/facts – but it AT LEAST needs to remember its own rules – it can’t just keep making up new rules every time a story is backed into a corner. Like the best slapstick comedy, solutions (or punch-lines) must make clever use of the components that built the tension beforehand – otherwise it becomes absurd. Absurdism is great, but it is not intricate or clever, it is the opposite, it is anarchic. This is Doctor Who’s issue, it has become too absurd. In Jonathan Creek, even in Midsomer Murders, half the fun is connecting the clues and guessing the solution. I would hate to stop looking for clues in Doctor Who because I feel it will only use its trump card, ignore the facts, every time making up new rules to escape the problem, just because it can. Just because it’s Doctor Who. The solution to a problem deserves the same time and genius that went into constructing it – and in Doctor Who, the resolution deserves more air-time!

This is my Deus Ex Machina (“Oh…! Is that it…?”) list:

1. The Parting Of Ways

Rose. I don’t have a big problem with this, I thought it was an interesting idea, but it is the most literal example of the Deus Ex Machina, the divine intervention. Everything is over, there is no escape for those lucky to be alive – suddenly – Rose (representing the Deus Ex Machina) has powers that show no limits, she casts magic that solves everything very quickly and without question, because she is a God. End of. It was the first main use of this dramatic device since the revival and as I say, it was an interesting idea. It was a pretty whacky episode so it seemed to fit the tone!

And it should have ended there… But the stakes of “End of Season” episodes kept escalating and it soon became fixture that these episodes feature such an impossible problem, with so little time, that a Deus Ex Machina is the only option to return earth to peace, no matter how much mess is made. The undoing (literally) of the horrific events in Series 3’s finale may have been seen as necessary, but it still annoyed me. As an audience we want to see the time we invest felt in the continuity of the series, by rebooting events (like divine intervention) we feel cheated of a solution worthy of the problem.

2. Journey’s End

The Doctor/Donna. Again, in the original sense of Deus Ex Machina, the Doctor/Donna was Godlike. She appeared at the right time, the right place, with a brand new set of game rules and a solution that saw the impossible laughable. When I watch this episode I feel so sorry for the Daleks! They totally deserved to win that one!

3. Power Of Three

Perfect example of a rushed solution. WHY ISN’T DOCTOR WHO AN HOUR?! 10 minutes would make a lot of difference – what other show is on for 50 minutes?!

4. Closing Time

Cyber-Dad. Actually ridiculous. The Cybermen look like they might win this one! Oh no, LOVE saves the day. WHAT?! SURELY ANY other solution would have been better than this – it is lazy to not invest in a solution that is based in SOME fact.

5. The Angels Take Manhattan

The Paradox.

River: “This whole place would literally un-happen.”
Doctor: “It would be almost impossible.”
River: “Loving the almost.”

As soon as we heard this exchange we knew how the episode would end, and I almost gave up (I’d only just managed to get my head around the Weeping Statue of Liberty, see previous article). Why should the writer pick and choose when a Paradox is possible? That is no solution! That is cheating! No more to it, that is cheating.

6. The Wedding Of River Song

The Teselecta. Talking of cheating… This is the MOST disappointing use of Deus Ex Machina. Probably because of the genius that went into to build up, and all that time, hours of episodes building to this solution… The Teselecta?! How does that even work?! Granted, this solution was based in some previously established fact, GOOD, that is good! But not enough fact, in fact, it was a bit of a contradiction, anti-fact! I didn’t see this one coming, but it didn’t surprise me either. Some people had said “maybe it’s the Teselecta…” to which I always said “yes but that doesn’t really fit with the facts…” Enough said…

Which episodes do you think owe us a more intelligent solution? What solutions don’t meet the intelligence of the problem?

Some may say we are rich to criticise the writing – who are we to judge, like we could do better. Well I say – there are 100+ people who could probably do better – people who have ordinary jobs who haven’t had the opportunity, or the education, or the contacts to write for television. People who may not even believe it is possible!

We know entertainment is a tough, objective and competitive business, and sometimes very talented people, no doubt many people who visit this site, could do a damn good job if they were assigned the chance by producers who have the power to encourage new talent and nurture it. That’s why I don’t buy the criticism that we are not qualified to judge – I’d say there’s probably people reading this who could write something insanely appetising (with credible/clever solutions) and I hope they have the chance to do so – because unfortunately, too often in this business does it come down to chance, unless someone with influence extends an olive branch. The audience own Doctor Who – we have done for 50 years. Not the writers, producers, not the actors. Of course we take it seriously. Writers/producers/actors come and go – but we hold it in our fandom forever (plus we pay for the BBC – so quite literally, it belongs to us!)