Timey-wimey, psychic paper, and Doctor Who’s get-out clauses

Is it a problem for Doctor Who to skate over explanations using Sonic screwdrivers and catchphrases, or just sensible time-saving?

William Goldman, in his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, addressed one of the common cliches of movies. It’s that bit where the hero pulls up next to the place where they need to go, finds a space immediately outside, and gets out of the car without locking it. Goldman acknowledged the nonsense of this, but posed the question: what, in the middle of a movie, would you prefer to watch? Arnold Schwarzenegger spending five minutes looking for a space, then trying to reverse park, then getting a ticket for his car, then sticking a crooklock on, securing his vehicle and then walking to his destination? Or cutting all that out, and accepting that the magical parking space and locking mechanism is unrealistic, and moving straight to the action?

Shortcuts such as these are long established in movies, and inevitably, in television shows too. In Doctor Who, there are a few little ‘cheats’, that if overused can grate from time to time, but also, that shave considerable time that can be and needs to be used elsewhere.

Traditionally, it’s been the sonic screwdriver. Some Doctors barely used the Doctor’s wand of choice, whereas in more recent times, the seemingly infinite settings on the sonic screwdriver seem to exist to taunt the likes of David Blaine, Dynamo and the illusionist of your choice out of existence. An alien piece of technology doesn’t work? Wave the screwdriver. Need some important readings? Whip it back out. A lock that won’t open? Heck, you don’t need us to list all of these. Not for nothing did it raise a titter back in Robot Of Sherwood when Clara uttered the line “can you explain your plan without using the words ‘sonic screwdriver'”. The writers of Doctor Who are as aware of the regular sonic screwdriving (for it is a verb) as the rest of us.

In the era of Russell T Davies, he brought psychic paper to the mix as well. Said paper didn’t always work, but usually did, and meant the Doctor could flash something that looked like his bus pass at someone, and save two minutes of screen time. It came out again over the weekend in Listen, although it’s not been used so much over the past year or two. But when criticism came up about the frequency of its use, Davies made the point too that this was a significant time saving device.

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And Doctor Who, ironically for a show about time, needs as many of those as it can get its hands on. For the programme inherently faces a challenge pretty much every week. That, particularly with standalone episodes, it needs to launch, tell, and conclude a story from start to finish in 45 minutes. The writer, thus, needs as many shortcuts and tricks to make that possible, to keep the focus on the things that matter. There simply isn’t the time to give prolonged explanations that take the focus off the story itself. It’s better to cheat a bit, rather that lose the momentum of a story.

That said, there are moments where it feels like the technique being used might just be covering up something else. In the era of Matt Smith (although it made its debut before), the oft-heard phrase was “timey-wimey”, and this too was a device akin to the paper and the screwdriver. That when it came time to explain something generally involving the kind of time mechanics that’d need a Powerpoint presentation to get to the bottom of, the Doctor would tell us that it was “timey wimey stuff”. In Blink, then, this made sense. It was just about possible, if you sat and thought about it, to string the time mechanics of the episode together with a nice pad of paper and a well-sharpened pencil. The alternative is the moment in Back To The Future Part II, where Doc Brown stands before a blackboard and explains to Marty, and thus us, about parallel timelines. In the case of Blink, it was Sally Sparrow and these new-fangled Angels things that were of far more interest, though.

The problem then is that Doctor Who has faced the need for such explanations nearly every week at times, and “timey wimey” became a useful escapist shorthand for, well, not telling us. But like the sonic screwdriver and the psychic paper, the more it’s used, the more it feels like what it is: a bit of a cheat. The suspicions grows that something like “timey wimey” is being deployed because maybe something can’t be explained.

Personally, though, I’ve no problem with these assorted cheats and shorthands being used. To a degree, they’re part of the fun. But I would observe one thing here. If the initial discussion after an episode is centred on sonic screwdrivers, psychic paper and “timey-wimey stuff”, then something’s not quite worked in the story itself. Appreciating that we tend to analyse Doctor Who to death at this site sometimes, the show’s common speed-up tactics are best when they’re a bit less noticeable. Go back to Blink: I can’t recall anyone giving two hoots about “timey-wimey” then. After last weekend’s Listen, the reappearance of the psychic paper was commented on at best as an aside. That says to me that that the story has worked, and that the side issues that tend to inflame assorted internet debates have remained just that: side issues.

Going back to the Back To The Future Part II example again, director Robert Zemeckis once said when discussing the technicals of the film that he didn’t want people thinking about how everything was done until they were long out of the cinema. That’s how I think of the oft-criticised screwdriver, paper and “timey-wimey”. That when used as a sensible way to keep an episode motoring, it’s hard to grumble with them. When used to paper over a crack? That’s arguably the only point they should become an issue. But even then, they’re often far preferable then an extra three minutes of exposition and explanation…

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