Will we ever run out of ideas for film and television?
Viewed from a certain angle, the 3 series of Doctor Who with Peter Capaldi in its titular lead role are all pointing towards one question: what happens when a character, and by extension an entire TV show, is incapable of dying? These final years of the Steven Moffat era eventually provide us an answer in the form of broad-tent feminism. Reinvent yourself in the image of aspirational womanhood and things will probably turn out alright. “The future is female”. Really, the Doctor’s death drive might just be a bout of gender dysphoria.
But there is something to be said for Doctor Who as a microcosm of TV and film at-large; a (mostly) un-cancellable show that demands movie-sized pitches for each 45 minute episode. Speaking generally, audiences will never stop demanding new ideas, but will probably reject anything that departs too much from time honoured, culturally salient narrative forms like the hero’s journey. If that weird sociocultural nightmare where everyone pretended Marvel movies were good or worthwhile is anything to go by, then easy entertainment is probably a must-have. You can do easy entertainment while reaching for something more profound, but your options are limited by the slow-moving, zero-sum nature of populism. Doctor Who keeps going because it will always be stuck halfway; the fans want the happy ending, the hero saves the day, and who can blame them, but they also crave something new and subversive.
The fact is that on the fringes literally anything is possible. Right now, there are so many people making films with limited budgets (Scrapper, Aftersun, We’re All Going To The World’s Fair) that are stranger and cooler than anything you’ve seen before. It’s already been happening for years as well (check out Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color or Peter Greenaway’s The Falls), so there’s a decent backlog in case we run out of really good stuff for the next 10 years for some reason. At a baseline, technology has made genuinely adventurous creativity more accessible to more people. The problem is that our tastes are slow to catch up.
What happens in the centre matters for the fringes because people don’t start out watching the fringes. They get their tastes from Spielberg and the Coen brothers and the Wachowski sisters and then go mental with a camcorder as an act of teenage rebellion. But those filmmakers aren’t really being replaced. Spielberg gets his legacy film but where is the next Spielberg? In the UK alone, someone like Joe Cornish, the director of 2011 electric lo-fi sci-fi Attack The Block, probably should be on his third Matrix-esque blockbuster smash right now. Instead he’s made one movie since, in 2019, that almost no one saw.This all goes to say that the amount of money, the limitation of risk and at least in my opinion, the profound stagnation of audience imagination and willingness to be uncomfortable or confused (yes, I do blame CinemaSins), is going to hurt not just blockbuster filmmaking, but as a consequence, all filmmaking. We get our ideas at a young age from what’s simple, what’s direct, what works; the archetype of the Spielberg film. I don’t think that Avengers: Endgame is inspiring in quite the same way. The maddest and best of us make wonderfully inspiring and vivid things on the periphery, and the luckiest take their talents to Hollywood. This is how it used to function, and plenty of good movies got made. I just don’t know if it’s still functioning. Doctor Who got worse after the Capaldi years; the good ideas were palpably starting to run thin. Let’s just hope audiences remember what a really special movie looks like when one comes around.