Home / General / Just in case you need to bluff your way out of a war.

Just in case you need to bluff your way out of a war.


(This be yet another one of them posts. The direct sequel to this one, in fact.)

In the previous post, we learned that the Doctor can accomplish quite a bit by yelling at things. Admonishment, it could be said, is his only consistent source of power. He has the uncanny ability to be clever at precisely the right moment, and if he lacks the tools required to bring his clever plan to fruition, he possesses an improvisonal knack for making do with whatever’s at hands. As a list of powers go, the Doctor fares quite favorably to no known hero—though he could be compared to a Malthussian Lex Luthor. (He did steal the TARDIS, after all.) Point being, by the time the Doctor regenerates into his Matt Smith incarnation, his reputation is such that he can stand on a rooftop, unkempt and in other people’s clothes, and stare down the very same spaceship that, moments earlier, was going to incinerate the entire planet.

Quite the reputation, that is, but what has he done to deserve it? “Been very clever with stuff on multiple occasions” covers it, but inadequately. Unlike Superman, the Doctor possesses no singular power that would require him to face a particular kind of foe in a particular type of manner. He can stand alone against an alien armada precisely because he lacks any clearly defined (or plausible) method of doing so. To quote the man himself in “The Pandorica Opens,” in which the Doctor finds himself trapped beneath Stonehenge and the Earth surrounded by an alien armada:

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00135

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00141

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00141

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00141

Note how director Toby Haynes monkeys around with the shots in this short sequence. In the first frame, the Doctor is looking out the door, the locked Pandorica behind him, and he looks sheepish not only because of his slumped shoulders and pathetic frown, but because he’s being oppressed by the compositional elements of the frame. Amy Pond and River Song flank him, and even though the shot scale is medium close-up—meaning the camera captures him from the waist to the top of his head—Haynes uses an unusually high level of framing, which creates an awkward amount of space between the top of the Doctor’s head and the upper limit of the frame. This unusual level of framing makes it so the compositional oppressiveness parallels the narrative—or vice versa, as the relation between the narrative and composition is interdependent in film. In other words, it’s as if Haynes squished the Doctor but left the camera in the same position it occupied pre-squishing.

But wait! There is a second frame in which the Doctor has one of his brilliant ideas!

Haynes cuts quickly from the Doctor staring out the door with his back to the Pandorica in a medium close-up to a medium long shot of the Doctor twirling around to address River and Amy. The oppressiveness of the previous frame is lifted by pulling the camera back—the Doctor has been freed by dint of his brilliant idea! Except there’s a third frame, in which the spastic Doctor walks toward the camera, effectively entrapping himself in the very medium close-up from which he’d just escaped. Why is he re-oppressing himself?

Because his brilliant idea is actually a terrible one, so it makes sense that he should be no more free of the oppressive framing than he’d been before he had his terrible idea. But take a look at that fourth frame: something has changed. The camera swung back to keep frontality with the spinning Doctor, but it also zoomed out from the medium close-up of the first frame to the medium long shot of the second. The fourth frame is a combination of the first two: his knowledge that his brilliant idea will result in certain death is reflected in the composition. Before, he had nothing; now, he has something, terrible though it may be, and a terrible something is less oppressive than an empty nothing.

Why am I going on and on about compositional oppressiveness while the Doctor whirls about free as all can-do? Because as I mentioned in my post on “Time of Angels”:

The entire series is predicated on an escapist conceit, which is why “it’s bigger on the inside” is so critical to the show’s appeal—not to mention why a box that isn’t bigger on the inside is such a terrifying concept to this audience.  To return to my point: this is a bad box.  A confining box.  Only bad things can happen in a confining box, and [the director, Adam] Smith is framing these shots in order to heighten the impression of confinement.

That big box behind the Doctor in the first and fourth frames there? Like the shipping container in “Time of Angels,” it’s a bad box. The answer to the Doctor’s own question about it is right there in the composition of the shot in which he first asks it:

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00008

Only the kind of person who can shout down an alien armada can inspire that level of fear, and there’s only one of those kind of people around anymore: the Doctor. Since he’s currently bereft of any idea powerful enough to keep that armada from putting him in that bad box, he does the next best thing: he decides to yell at the people who want to put him in it. He runs out of the cave beneath Stonehenge and into the center of it. The long shot typically suggests a type of freedom:

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00211

It would here, too, if the Doctor didn’t proceed to run directly toward the camera and entrap himself in a medium close-up:

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00215

For those in the audience wondering what a single man about to slug it out with an entire armada looks like, Haynes obliges:

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00219

The low angle of framing makes the armada appear just as impressive as it is, only more so, because making things look impressive is what a low angle of framing always does. (The difference here being that the impressive thing is genuinely impressive.) After some plot machinations that aren’t relevant at the moment, the antsy armada decides to stop whirring and thrumming and start

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00410

Armed with (and emboldened by) another terrible idea—he now plans to defeat the armada with a single Roman legion—the Doctor rushes to the center of the circle, climbs atop a fallen stone and informs the fleet that whoever controls the Pandorica controls the universe, and can you guess who controls the Pandorica?

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00448

The Doctor controls the Pandorica. The low angle of framing indicates his power and importance, but remember, his new terrible idea is no less terrible now than it was ten seconds ago, which means this angle of framing is ironic. The actual odds look something more like this:

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00452

The low angle of framing here makes the Doctor seem imposing, certainly, but it also makes the impressive fleet he’s admonishing appear even more so. Why does the Doctor want them to stop distracting him? He provides an answer in a frame whose angle is doubly ironic:

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00459

The Doctor is big enough to shush an invasion force, but the high angle of framing is literally diminishing him. His words assert his importance at the very moment the camera robs him of having the appearance of any. Except the entire universe is only here in the first place because he actually is as important as he thinks he is—only in this frame, Haynes shoots from the optimistic perspective of how important the universe wants to make him. Ironies within ironies, and all reflective of the Doctor’s only decent plan to date: bluffing. Low angle of framing to indicate feigned importance? Check:

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00466

Blocking that allows the Doctor to dominate the frame by dictating what it can and can’t contain? Check:

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00466

Ironic low angle of framing to increase the Doctor’s importance but also suggests, compositionally speaking, that he’s bluffing? Check:

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00477

Low angle of framing with a shallow focus that wipes the armada from the frame and suggests, against all odds, that the Doctor might not be bluffing? Check:

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00481

Cut to another low angle of framing followed by a sequence which does everything the preceding five frames did, only really quickly and in a way that suggests that the real victim of the Doctor’s bluff is actually the audience? Check check check check check:

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00488

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00488

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00488

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00488

Zoom in from this absurdly high angle of framing to make it appear as if the power of the man the shot actively diminishes is actually increasing? Check:

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00502

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00502

Issue one last threat from this ironic angle? Check:

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00519

What next? Gloat?

Doctor who - the pandorica opens - the big bang00521

Check. I would write “checkmate,” but the Doctor’s idea here is still no different than it was before he put on his little show:

Something something something Romans something something something I win.

Not the sort of reputation-establishing heroism Americans expect from their heroes, but then again, the Doctor’s not exactly an American type of hero.


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  • West of the Cascades

    I’m ashamed to say I’ve never watched Doctor Who, but have gotten hooked on BBC America and their seemingly hourly ads for the full sixth series on DVD have been mighty tempting to check for at the local video store. This post only makes it more likely because I like the notion of a hero who is not an American type hero. Great, interesting, informative post!!

    • SEK

      Thanks for the compliments, and if I’ve converted someone else, well, all the better. I not only agree with the folks below, but I preemptively took their advice — I began with the fifth (rebooted) season, Matt Smith’s first, and then worked my way back to Eccleston. I’ve tried going further back, but to very little avail. The special effects are as corny as advertised, and I just couldn’t do it. I do, however, consider this a personal failing, and flog myself daily for it.

      • Warren Terra

        Some of the old episodes from the Tom Baker / Douglas Adams era are good, but a lot of the old episodes just aren’t that good – and it’s not about the lack of special effects, it’s about the lack of vision.

      • Scott P.

        A friend and I have been working (slowly, irregularly) through the series from the first season — so you can enjoy them vicariously. Take a look:


        • Ian

          Wait till you get to the Second Doctor. He’s the only Doctor who’s thoroughgoingly decent.

          He’s also first Doctor to master the fine art of running away. Quite willing to beg for his life if necessary. To the Cybermen: “You can’t kill me! I’d be useful to you! I’m a genius!”

  • Abby Spice

    I’m too sleepy to say anything profound, but the Doctor didn’t steal the TARDIS. He borrowed her. (Or she stole him. But he didn’t steal her.)

    @West of the Cascades–all of “NuWho” (the 2005-present series) is on Netflix instant. Well, I say all. I mean all except series six. If you’re starting cold, you should at least start with series five (the one talked about in these posts), when a new showrunner (Steven Moffat) and a new Doctor (Eleven/Matt Smith) take over. And once you’ve been properly sucked in, you can go back to Rose, and then find yourself obsessively posting on Gallifrey Base and spending fortunes on DVDs and posting rambling comments on blogs that aren’t actually about Doctor Who but you’re very tired and can’t seem to shut up because that’s what happens when you’re tired.

    • Abby Spice

      I believe it’s on Amazon instant as well, free if you have Amazon Prime.

      • West of the Cascades

        Excellent! Thanks for the suggestions – I’d meant to ask in my earlier post about where I should start. Nice to know there’s good availability (for the 450th time I’m considering dumping my increasingly limited cable subscription for netflix or something similar).

        • Warren Terra

          If you like television dramas, it will take about a lifetime to catch up with those available on Netflix Instant (basically, most everything that’s not from HBO or Showtime). For the HBO and Showtime shows, or most desirable movies, you’d need the discs subscription.

        • Abby Spice

          I did. I have Netflix instant, Amazon Prime, Hulu, iTunes, and in a pinch a few less, ahem, strictly legal sites. I don’t miss cable at all. When something big is going on, c-span.org, cnn.com, etc all stream it.

          If you’re willing to put the effort in, start with Rose (episode one of series one of the 2005 show) and just watch. But The Eleventh Hour is okay. I started with Eleventh Hour because my girlfriend watched it, stuck around for Amy Pond, and somehow became a lunatic madwoman proper Whovian.

          • proverbialleadballoon

            Abby Spice is right, on all counts. Start with the 9th Doctor (Eccleston) and Rose. An excellent one-off reboot season from Eccleston, with some great individual episodes, and for the first time (imo) a worthy companion in Rose for the Doctor. This quickly moves to the 10th Doctor (Tennant), who (imo, again) is so perfectly cast in the role that you will (almost) forget about Eccleston, or any other Doctor, as his Doctor is cheeky and clever with a ruthless streak. With Rose as his badass Robin-sidekick/working girl charming love interest, the 10th Doctor seasons really click.

            And you can stream ’em all on Netflix. Many the bottle of cheap wine was killed in the making of this opinion.

  • I love these posts, and I’ve seen pretty much all the movies/shows you’ve looked at, though I never considered any of the framing nor Batman as horror monster.

    I’m just curious about the creative process, though. Do directors actually consider how to have the Doctor re-oppress himself by walking forward in a scene? Do these thoughts actually go through their heads, or is it just a general, “Well, this will look good on camera”?

    • SEK

      I’ve read numerous books on the art of direction — from the high-brow studies of Italian auteurs to the low-brow “how to make your own film for $40” variety — and they’re all pretty clear on the subject of intention: namely, that all directors have one. Whether I’ve sussed out the one they actually have, well, I can’t know for sure. The most I can hope for is that my educated guess is drawn from a deep enough pool of knowledge — both of the particular film or show and film theory generally — that I’m not making an ass of myself.

      That said, I’ve had actual directors tell me both 1) they were surprised anyone noticed that little detail and 2) they like my account of their work better than their own, so make of that what you will. (John Rogers, I know you’re reading this, so pipe in or I’ll spend the entire Christmas break writing counter-intuitive accounts of episodes of Leverage! Don’t you think I’m bluffing now!)

      • That makes sense. If I ever created anything that people would actually study, I’d probably be in the first camp.

        I suppose it’s like most things – the more exposure you have to something, the more you notice the little things. I watch TV/movies with my brain turned off, so that probably explains a lot too.

        • SEK

          Don’t be getting the wrong idea now: I watch plenty of television with my brain in neutral. The sort of sustained attention to detail I’m working with here is just that: work. These past two posts took me far, far longer to compose than I’ll ever admit. (The fact that they’re adapted lesson-plans has a lot to do with that, as I like to slow-roast my classes. Wait, that came out wrong, but you know what I mean.)

          • Walt

            When my wife watches a show, she always figures out the ending. (She figured out the ending of John Sayles’ Lone Star like half-way through.) It took me a while to figure out how she did it, but it’s because she can’t turn off her brain while watching a show. Every single little detail, she’ll think “Why did they put that in there?” Since scriptwriters and directors aim for a certain level of economy (a la Chekhov’s gun), every single little thing is in there for a reason.

            • Njorl

              I do that. What annoys me is when the write gets it wrong.

      • Walt

        The choices are definitely deliberate, even if directors maybe can’t put them into words as well as Scott can. Editing and shot composition is a big part of what makes a show good or bad.

        • rea

          I write legal briefs for a living. I’m fairly good at it, and of course, it’s rhetoric, although in a very different context than the rhetoric SEK studies. But, my point is, while I can go through my work after the fact and see various little rhetorical tricks I’ve pulled, I don’t think about it in those terms when I’m doing it–I just do it.

          So, when I see SEK’s analysis of the Dr. Who director’s framing shoices, I wonder how much of this is the result of deliberate, conscious choice on the part of the director, and how much of it is done at an almost instinctive level.

          On the other hand, maybe I’d be a lot better at brief writing if I thought more about rhetoric.

          • Njorl

            First you must learn to write rhetoric, then you must forget to write rhetoric. But don’t tell the client you’ve forgotten how to write rhetoric, or the client might forget to write a check.

      • Considering that I just started directing, I would actually be fascinated to see what you made of, say, “The Van Gogh Job”, where I made some very distinct choices — some of the first very distinct directing choices in my tiny career. As opposed to “The Inside Job” where I spent most of the 7 days going “Oh god, oh god, how do I make this day?”

        That said, the only occasional disagreement I’d have with you, as someone who makes television on a weekly basis, is that some of the shot choices you talk about could very easily have been done in post. Shooting digital, you can blow a frame up about 250% now with no discernible image loss. You could, in theory, construct much of that underground sequence you just discussed off of bog-standard coverage. Bog standard coverage with great framing and depth, but standard coverage nonetheless. I’ve literally lost count of the number of times we’ve turned a medium into a close-up in post.

        Now, we’re a little odd in that our entire independent TV studio is in one building, and our studio head is a director who will come down and monkey with the edits himself, so our post is a little more creatively engaged than some TV shows. But it’s worth keeping in mind the famous quote “You have to make a great movie three times. You have to write a great movie. Then shoot a great movie. Then cut a great movie. And if you fail in just one of those three, it won’t be a great movie.”

        • SEK

          Considering that I just started directing, I would actually be fascinated to see what you made of, say, “The Van Gogh Job”, where I made some very distinct choices — some of the first very distinct directing choices in my tiny career.

          Challenge accepted! This is going to be fascinating, especially because I’m setting myself up for some Annie Hall moments, and I’ve always wanted to sorta kinda be in a Woody Allen film.

          You could, in theory, construct much of that underground sequence you just discussed off of bog-standard coverage. Bog standard coverage with great framing and depth, but standard coverage nonetheless. I’ve literally lost count of the number of times we’ve turned a medium into a close-up in post.

          As long as the director’s part of the editing process, this doesn’t necessarily contradict auteur theory — after all, it’s a fiction that effectively denies the significance of collaboration anyway, and works best for me simply as a shorthand for describing the composition of a shot and its effect on an audience. It is something I need to keep in mind, though, as I tend to assume intentionality a little too strongly at times.

          • I tend to look down on auteur theory, but that may well be based on my experience in television rather than movies, where prep is truncated and you rely so heavily on your department heads and DP. On Leverage in particular our A operator, Gary Camp, is one of the strongest creative voices on the show.

            One could argue that auteur theory applies in TV for the showrunner/exec producer, as we have tone meetings with the director before he shoots, and then have final cut.

    • Abby Spice

      The commentary on the DVD of The Big Bang (the second part of The Pandorica Opens) has the director, Toby Haynes, as well as two of the actors, and it really is fascinating what thought he’s put into it. Commentaries in general I find revealing about this stuff, especially when they have an actor and a writer/director. The West Wing has some good ones, too.

  • herr doktor bimler

    Given BBC traditions, I would rate for “half-assed semi-incompetence” for their choice of camera angles and composition rather than “ironic messaging”.

    • Alan Tomlinson

      Upon what do you base your criticism, the BBC is really rather better at television than most anyone else out there, with the possible exception of HBO, and HBO does not produce nearly the volume that the BBC does.


      Alan Tomlinson

      • Murc

        Depends on what you mean by ‘volume.’

        In terms of total hours of television produced, the BBC produces a lot.

        In terms of individual series… well, since we’re talking about Doctor Who, they can’t even get out twelve episodes a year. And that’s a problem that’s hardly unique to Who.

        And traditionally speaking the BBC has not really been all that good at what it does. It’s good NOW. There was sort of a forty-year period where it was really rather bad at things like ‘being organized’ and ‘hiring competent people both on the artistic and business side.’

        • ajay

          Impressive ignorance there, Murc.

          • MPAVictoria

            Yes, Minister looks disapprovingly in your direction Murc.

            • ajay

              As does David Attenborough.

  • mds

    Since he’s currently bereft of any idea powerful enough to keep that armada from putting him in that bad box, he does the next best thing: he decides to yell at the people who want to put him in it.

    Um, first of all,
    <River Song>
    </River Song>

    And second, at the point you indicate, he isn’t yet aware that the armada is there to do that. He thinks they want to possess the mysterious box and whatever dreadful blood-drenched monster is already inside it. The fact that the dreadful blood-drenched monster isn’t inside it yet is part of what makes his Hail-Mary speech scene even more interesting in retrospect, as he’s unconsciously validating the armada participants’ plan. It still manages to be a crowning moment of awesome for him, because (1) in other circumstances it could have worked; and (2) in a double-reverse axle twist, it’s working in these circumstances, as the irrational fear he’s counting on makes them stick with the box plan rather than switch to massive aerial bombardment.

    • SEK


      I think those warnings expired a year or so ago, no? (Seriously, I don’t mean to spoil the experience for anyone, but I think once you start talking about “years ago,” you can comfortably write about a show without worrying about spoiling it.)

      And second, at the point you indicate, he isn’t yet aware that the armada is there to do that.

      My pet theory, which is based on gut instead of evidence, which is why I didn’t put it in the post, is that the Doctor knows who’s bound to be put in that bad box. He’s just hoping that willful ignorance (or outright active denial) will inspire him to find a way to make that not the case. The reason I deem this a “gut” reading is that there’s a sadness, almost a tenderness, to the Doctor’s initial encounter with the Pandorica. He loves that he doesn’t understand it, certainly, but pressing his head against it like a beaten child wishing his mother would stop with the hitting indicates, to me at least, that he knows its purpose.

      • mds

        I think those warnings expired a year or so ago, no?

        Dude …, sorry, Professor Dude, it’s a post on Smith-and-Moffat Doctor Who. How could it not include a “Spoiler” warning? I honestly thought that River Song tags would be a giveaway.

        As to your gut theory, I could almost buy that, were it not for all the private muttering about “What could you possibly be?” What I think might be closer to the meta-mark is my spouse’s own gut reaction to the hyperbolic talk of a warrior, trickster, drenched in the blood of a billion galaxies, which is that there was a Doctor already inside the box. This would allow Eleven to express foreboding, while still being genuinely taken aback when they declare their intention to put him in it. It then makes sense that he’d want to be on hand to see what they intend for a future version of him; whereas if he knows it’s a trap for himself, why does he willingly stick around to get trapped in it? (Yes, yes, he always knowingly takes the bait. But still.)

  • Woodrowfan

    Try “Talons of Weng-Chiang” or “Genesis of the Daleks” to see if you like Doc #4. “Carnival of Monsters” is good for #3.

  • eccleston was great. i understand why he didn’t want to play, but he was fantastic as an unhinged time lord with no fixed allegiances any longer. the next guy stayed way to long. the current guy is way to weightless. i liked many of moffat’s stories, especially the u-boat captain 2-parter, but as a show-runner, heblowsalot.

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