This is the article that got my the job at WhatCulture, for those interested in such things.
So, let's open the vaults...
As Observed by Yours Faithfully, Steven Moffat
To Be is To Be Perceived on BBC1 on Saturday Evenings
It's an interesting truth that the act of writing inevitably causes the writer to reveal information about themselves to the reader. Often information that they themselves may not know. Phrasing, word choice, the way the lines follow one another, all of these inevitably contain a kernel of the writer’s worldview. And so, not unlike those situations where you get halfway through telling a coworker about the dream you had where you were riding a gigantic train through a donut before you realize what the implications of that are, any decently told story (and most indecent ones as well) can tell you more than a little about the teller’s point of view..
Which leads me to the conclusion that there is something working away in Steven Moffat’s subconscious about the relationship of existence and perception.
He may well be aware of it. I couldn’t say for certain that he’s read the work of George Berkely, but I’d probably bet a finger or two that he has. At the very least, we can be certain that he did a little research back in the day to find out what the hell Peter Davison was talking about in Timeflight. But whatever the level of research or even interest he has in the subject, it is demonstrably there in just about all of his work. For the sake of this discussion I’ll keep the examples Who-related, but it’s there in Sherlock as well. Probably also in Coupling and Press Gang, if I had them available to review, but that’s neither here nor there.
Putting it very, very simply- and as Peter mentioned in Timeflight- the basic premise is that To Be is To Be Perceived, i.e. the existence of any being or phenomena is entirely dependent on its being observed by another. This is what all those pale theater undergraduates were talking about when they discussed the play Salome, albeit in far more pretentious terms and with clove cigarettes. Of course, George Berkely squared the circle by bringing God into the issue and thus concluded more or less that since God was perceiving all things we could be reasonably comfortable that we weren’t about to vanish in a puff of universal indifference.
(This is, of course, oversimplifying not just one but several branches of study to the point of nonsense, but I stand behind it on the grounds that:
A: Things are interesting and complicated enough without bringing God into the discussion at this stage, and so for the moment He can happily remain watching the tree on the quad while we get on with things.
B: George Berkely was a student of John Locke, which means that you are totally allowed to throw his name around in online discussions of Lost and then bask in the glow of your superiority)
But to go further than that, it seems that what’s worrying away at Mr. Moffat’s creative processes isn’t so much the fear of things only existing when we perceive them. Indeed, he seems – as I’ll discuss in a bit – to find that the natural order of things. What really seems to worry him is the profound wrongness of things that don’t fit into that category. The things that only exist when we can’t perceive them. The things under the bed. The things that actively keep us from perceiving them. But yet keep existing anyway.
Are You My Mummy?
Back in the Halcyon days of 2005, as we devoured The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, we could have been excused for missing the theme. In fact, there were three very distinct examples of Mr. Moffat working away at the issue in the script, but at that time, in that first series, this looked as much like a theme of the story as it did a recurring hobby horse of the writer.
The Boy – What’s really terrifying about the boy himself is the gasmask, as most of us have observed before. But what is less commonly remarked upon is why the gasmask is terrifying. And the reason why the image of a little boy in a gasmask is terrifying is precisely the point. It’s a little boy, and they’ve removed his face. We can perceive that he’s there, but we can’t really see him. And that’s why gasmasks are unnerving. As the contagion spreads, he takes away the personal identities of everyone he infects. He takes away our ability to see them and in doing so removes the soul of who they are. This is, incidentally, the exact same concern that is at the heart of most of the sci-fi output of the ‘50s and ‘60s; the fear of individuality and personality being stolen or removed. But to top that-
Where is Mummy? – Ask any child and they… well, they won’t actually tell you because they probably wouldn’t be able to verbalize it properly, BUT… any child’s greatest fear is that Mummy will simply disappear. No understanding, no explanation, simply Mummy Is Gone. The real fear for children watching these episodes isn’t based on identifying with the grownups being menaced by this strange figure. It’s that it’s all too easy to associate with the child.
The Nanites- Now, it’s true that it’s possible to trace to one specific day in late autumn in the mid ‘90s the exact moment when ‘nanotechnology is responsible for everything’ became the rule of thumb. And so, true, it would have been remarkable if nanotechnology hadn’t made an appearance in new-Who, even if they were fashionably late. However, the real point is this: the entire twist of the story relies on Captain Jack mistaking a ship to be empty, just because he can’t see anything in it. i.e that he assumed lack of perceiving to automatically mean absence of being. That something can exist without being perceived is what causes the entire situation to occur. And even though the Nanites are benign, and ‘everybody lives’, it is the subversion of the natural order of perception=being that caused the problem.
Hey, isn’t that Madame De Pompedour over there?
In The Girl in the Fireplace, there is an entire spaceship devoted to having windows through which you can watch a young girl live out all the significant events in her life. Seriously, think about that. Even leaving aside the ‘monsters are lurking under your bed where you can’t see them’ scenes, this couldn’t be a clearer example of someone’s existence being defined by being watched by others. They even go whole hog and mention that there’s a ‘fast path’ by which you can jump over the boring, non-perceived bits. Forget Salome, this is the ultimate example of ‘woman only existing by virtue of The Gaze’ (No, I’m sorry, you’re going to have to google it).
The Weeping Angels
It’s not, however, until we get to Blink that Mr. Moffat’s writing seems to address the point directly through the introduction of the Weeping Angels: an enemy entirely defined by their being the opposite of what the author’s assumed natural order should be. Not that I think Stephen Moffat thinks of them that way. I’m quite certain that he merely thinks of them as something that’s really scary to kids, and good on him, because they are, and that is after all at least partly what the show is here for.
But at the end of the day, the Angels’ logline is still this – they exist only when they aren’t being perceived. And that’s terrifying. Because it’s the opposite of how things should be.
When we first meet them in Blink the angels are living in an old forgotten, UNobserved house. Sally Sparrow encounters them specifically because she chooses to go looking at things that other people don’t. In the Blink version, when the Angels get you they throw you back in time, out of sight of all of your friends and family. They essentially remove you from being perceived as well and in doing so use up the rest of your life. Indeed, according to The Doctor, they ‘feed’ on this energy.
Now, there’s a fair bit to say at this juncture about collapsing waveforms, and Heisenberg, and cats in boxes and all that. And that’s all well and good, I hope there’s another essay in here somewhere that goes into that in depth, because it’s a rich field of discussion that I’m going to gloss right over and boil it all down to one word – ‘Potential’.
Before you’ve looked at something, it has the potential to be anything. Once you’ve looked at it, you essentially eliminate all other possibilities except the one that you’re observing. That’s more or less the reality that we’ve all learned to live with. It’s at the heart of what quantum physicists are getting at, and it’s why so many of us don’t open reply letters from colleges we applied to right away. (NOTE: This is an almost unforgivable oversimplification. If you are a theoretical physicist reading this I totally owe you a drink.)
Before you look, the thing you haven’t observed yet could be anything.
But the Angels do it differently. They cheat. They make all the choices when we’re not looking. They steal the potential while our backs are turned, and then they eat all the potential of what our lives could have been. In essence, they get to make the final move before we even open the game. They embody To Be Perceived=To not exist. To that extent they are the embodiment of loneliness simply because they are not defined by their ability to be perceived by others. The Lonely Assassins.
By the Time of Flesh and Stone they’ve upped the ante. We’ve ditched the ‘sending people to the past’ bit and settled for just snapping necks (which I can only assume means that they no longer need to eat the energy of collapsing waveforms what with all that yummy radiation on hand), but that’s not really the important part. The important part is that now, by the very act of perceiving them, you become one of them. This is fundamentally a combination of the angels as the embodiment of unseen loneliness with the primal fear embodied in the contagious gasmask. They only exist when you’re not looking at them, during which time they can be doing anything, and if you do look at them you become like them. “That which holds the image of an angel, becomes an angel.” That might be the most genuinely unsettling concept ever introduced in a children’s television program.
The Vashta Nerada Make Terrible Babysitters
The Vashta Nerada ARE the darkness. Sure, there’s the fig leaf explanation in the dialogue about how they live in shadows, not every shadow, but any shadow, blah blah blah. But at the end of the day its clear; they are the darkness itself. The shadows. The thing that blots out our ability to see. While the Angels represent the opposite of our accepted way of things, the Vashta Nerada represent forces that attempt to prevent us from accomplishing the fairly straightforward task of perceiving things so that they can exist. And indeed, as poor Ms. Evangelista discovered – once you wander into the shadows where you can’t be seen, you do indeed stop existing pretty damn forthwith.
But on top of that, we also get the… oh lets just be bold and actually call it virtual reality (the other great hobby horse of ‘90s science fiction making its guest appearance). A world defined entirely by perception in which there is no reality. So in the real world of the library, we have one half of the equation (existing without perceiving thanks to the animate darkness) while in the non-real world of the virtual reality we have the other half of the equation (perceiving without existing.) And look at what we discover- that there’s no way forward for either world without combining the two so that you have the full equation. Those who exist can only do so in the real world where they can be perceived, and those who have died can only exists in the false world where perceiving doesn’t equal reality. Interestingly enough, Steven Moffat, who doesn’t believe in the afterlife (for the sake of full disclosure, neither do I. ) refers to this existence of being able to be perceived without existing – or perhaps more accurately, existing entirely by being perceived – as being as close to heaven as he can envision. Which is a point worth pondering.
And then there are the children.
‘When you stop looking at us we don’t exist.’
For my money, this is the most heartbreaking scene of the entirety of the new series: Donna, desperately trying to reassure her nonexistent children that she will observe them into reality forever and then failing. And then losing them. And then… ‘Am I real…?” Everything Berkely questioned, wrapped up in one scene.
And then there was River Song. Now, I’m not so concerned with River Song as a character – indeed, it’s an interesting story arc to have a character whose life is running chronologically opposed to the Doctor’s and actually pull it off over the length of time that they have without contradicting themselves or having it run completely off the rails. But that’s really just a matter of craftsmanship and forward planning. Laudable, but not relevant to the discussion at hand.
No, I want to talk about her diary.
Her diary, which sits there as a physical manifestation of one’s personal future – the thing that no one can know until they experience it. It comes to exist as it is perceived. Or does it….? Because clearly it HAS happened from River’s perspective, which means that it exists as she has perceived it. Except that for the Doctor it hasn’t. And round and round in circles.
The important thing to remember here is that it’s all about perception, at some level, in the Moffat brain. River CAN see what’s in the journal. And the Doctor can’t. For her it is perceived and exists. For him it isn’t, and doesn’t. Yet. Again, it’s all back to the collapsing waveforms and potential and those other bits of quantum physics that I chose not to go into earlier. But at its simplest form, it still comes down to what you perceive yourself is real for you, which is an interesting change from the earlier discussion because it defines the act of perception itself as a choice. I can look at the Angels, but you might not. They still won’t move. Whereas you can read the diary and the things in it are fixed, but I choose not to and my future is still unwritten. It’s a far more active and self-directed form of determinism.
And this is why I feel like the issue is something that Mr. Moffat is working out subconsciously in his writing. Because he keeps approaching the same territory from different angles. Looking at it, wrestling with it, making it part of his plot structure, but never actually addressing it directly.
Prisoner Zero Will Vacate the Human Residence
It’s The Eleventh Hour. Look. Where you never want to look. In the corner of your eye. Again, the transgression on Prisoner Zero’s part seems to be not so much that he’s moved into a young girls house and watched the crack in her wall eat her entire family, as much as that he has deliberately removed himself from being perceived and yet still exists. And it’s by The Doctor’s act of making someone actually notice him that he ends up being destroyed. By an enormous eyeball. It would be hard to think of a less subtle visual metaphor than that. Again, a reversal of the To Be Perceived is To Be paradigm, and I think deliberately so.
Silence Will Fall
When we finally do meet the Silence properly, we learn that they are defined by one thing – that you forget them the moment you stop looking at them (which, once you pass the age of 40 and start forgetting things on a daily basis, is a terrifying thought). But the interesting thing about it is that they are also the purest example in the Moffat canon of the rule being completely and utterly adhered to. They exist when you perceive them. And when you stop perceiving them, they don’t. At least not for you.
They are in many ways the mirror image of the Angels in that one stops existing if you perceive them; whereas the other only exists when you perceive them.
Except of course that the Silents do continue existing, and happily wander around doing unspeakable things to otherwise amiable orphanage caretakers while you’ve forgotten about them. Which means we’ve opened up the question – Do things only exist if I perceive them? If I’m unaware of 6 million people in China (for an example) does that mean they don’t exist? Obviously it doesn’t, but the question has now been opened. Whose perception is it that matters? And if my perception can be rewritten as easily as all that, is it really that good a determiner of what’s real?
Again, this feels like someone wrestling with an idea, rather than someone trying to espouse a clear vision of how the world works.
A Few Other Notable Mentions
The titular Beast Below survives in its present (tormented) state specifically because everyone chooses to not see it. The Daleks can’t open their race bank because it doesn’t recognize them. (Yes, I know, not his script, but under his watch so I’m calling it fair game.) The Pandorica is a trap for a wizard or a trickster, who can say which until they see him. The Doctor is dead because They Saw Him Die, except did they see what they thought they saw?
Doors can pretend to be walls. Mirrors can pretend to be windows. Is what we see what is reality? Do we see it because it is reality, or does it become reality because we perceive it to be?
Ultimately, it comes down to River. More specifically it comes down to the End of River. We end where we begin with the River story: with her death and placement in the virtual reality world. And it occurs to me that we’ve had the answer to the question all along, because of one interesting thing
There really, fundamentally, isn’t any difference between a puddle of River-data in the sonic screwdriver and a puddle of River-data in the CAL network. Except for one thing.
Her Friends are there in the CAL network. She wakes up in the virtual world (where existence is entirely a matter of perception), and she is surrounded by her friends. Forever. And maybe that’s the point. We look at the equation of To Be=To Bo Perceived, and we think that it refers to what we perceive and make real. But maybe, perhaps, we’ve got it the wrong way around. Maybe that’s what’s important.
Maybe it’s how we’re perceived by other people that matters. And more than that, maybe it’s simply that we’re perceived by others that, in Moffat’s subconscious worldview, gives our lives shape and meaning, making us real. That puts us as near to Heaven as he can imagine.
Maybe it’s that simple.