Friday, 18 November 2011

How Steven Moffat ruined Doctor Who

(update here: )

River Song is right: this is the Doctor's darkest hour. Doctor Who has been many things in its 48 years - including terrible - but now under Steven Moffat it is suffering the worst fate of all: it's become static. Moffat, having already written for all four seasons of the Russell T Davies-led version of the show, has discovered what the public, TV critics and Doctor Who fandom will accept, and unlike the show's 1980s producer John Nathan-Turner, who sporadically tried to do the same thing, he's competent enough to get away with it. You won't find any episodes that will embarrass some viewers or unsettle fandom, but neither will you be confounded, disturbed or challenged.

This version, week after week, is exactly what we expect from Doctor Who: darkly-lit "spooky" sets, monsters, hurried technobabble, the claim that the whole universe will be destroyed, and the cutest, safest, most unsurprising and least interesting Doctor ever devised, with his zany hats, his adorable little bowtie, his comedy catchphrases and his funny little stories about all the famous historical people he's met. Congratulations are due to all those fans who complained that 2006's Love and Monsters was too silly (and perhaps too idiosyncratic, too different, too affecting, too interesting?) and that Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor took it too seriously and didn't look right: you've won, and those of us who like intelligent tv have lost.

Almost everything that went wrong with Doctor Who in 2010 was detectable in the 2005-2009 version. Some weren't necessarily bad things to begin with, but have merely atrophied through lack of movement, and an unwillingness to bring things forward. There is perhaps one difference. A strength and also a weakness of Russell T Davies's version was his lack of interest in science fiction. Guest star Timothy Dalton described his aesthetic particularly well as 2001 one moment, Coronation Street the next. Scenes of alien invasion and monsters would be countered by nicely-observed details about mothers who check you've got the receipt when thanking you for a Christmas present. At its best, this technique adds verisimilitude, increases our affection for these characters and helps with the suspension of disbelief. At its worst, it can result in sloppy plotting. Stories like The Parting of the Ways and The End of Time felt right emotionally, with the characters, sacrifices and departures well-handled, but on a second viewing it is hard to tolerate the contemptuous way Davies handles the unconvincing McGuffins and the Doctor's breezy way of explaining how they work. For better and for worse, Davies was more interested in people than in science fiction. Moffat, on the other hand, is a geek. Let's clarify these terms. A major disservice done to SF/Fantasy is the way it is frequently confused with its duller brother, Geekery. SF/Fantasy is about the universe, the human race's responsibilities, morality, life, death, fear, wonder, (proper) science and different ways of seeing things. Geekery is about things which not only don't exist literally, but have no metaphorical value: bullshit science, people who come back to life after being killed off, different versions of time-travellers bumping into each other in different timelines and CGI "energy" emanating from people when the plot requires it.

In a work of Geekery, the text itself is fetishised: it might not raise any questions, tax the intellect or interest anyone other than fans, but at least geeks can watch it, and discuss who River Song really is, whether Batman and the Joker are mirror opposites of one another, what would happen if the Enterprise's transporters malfunctioned and what Yoda's midichlorian count is. It's a lovely way for nice, often wonderful people to meet, but that's that's the sole value. Few could argue convincingly that The Impossible Astronaut/The Day of the Moon or The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang have anything to stimulate the intellect, anything in the way of coherent, structured narrative, or a smidgeon of originality, but fans can enjoy debating who River Song is, whether the dead future Doctor can be saved, what caused the cracks in time, and why Amy's pregnancy is in a state of temporal flux.

These questions have nothing to do with drama. Let's not delude ourselves that we're talking about complexity here, either: admitting "I had no idea what was going on" carries an implication that this is because the scriptwriter was cleverer than than you, but as Chris Weston pointed out in Emine Saner's fine discussion of the show in The Guardian recently, a child's scribble may be hard to decode, but hardly complex. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Mulholland Drive, Memento and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian are difficult because they're rich: there's more going on aesthetically than can be understood literally, hence the rewards gained by subsequent viewings or readings. The Big Bang, The Day of the Moon and The Wedding of River Song may be hard to follow, but they are also predictable, contrived, vacuous and full of plot holes. Guy Ritchie's notorious film Revolver is pretty hard to follow too, but that's hardly a case of more things going on in Ritchie's head than one can take in on the first viewing.

If Moffat has another idea, it's his wearisome take on Doctor Who as a fairy tale. He argues that Doctor Who isn't really science fiction, but a story that takes place "under children's beds". The supposedly subversive juxtaposition of fairy tales and modernity, and all those cute little truisms about how children prefer fairy tales dark, because it's the parents that want them expurgated, has been around for long enough now. In the years since Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber, Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment and the ascension of writers of "dark fairy tales" like Neil Gaiman into the mainstream, this has changed from a juxtaposition to a given. Is it really subversive to put monsters in a child's bedroom any more? Otherwise, Moffat has kept everything from Russell T Davies's version that so desperately needed to be jettisoned. . Let's look past the music that drowns out the dialogue, the desperate reliance on the sonic screwdriver as a magic wand, the need for triumphant endings in which the monster is humilated as the music swells (The Day of the Moon was a big offender here) the rushed nature of the 45-minute format, the constant claim the whole universe will be destroyed only for a reset button to put if off until the next series and the dependence on monsters. Its biggest hindrance is the reliance on arc plotting. In the first Russell T Davies series, the words “Bad Wolf” were hidden in several episodes. This wasn't intrusive, even if it did hamper the end of the series with too much expectation upon one phrase. By the time of Davies's final full season this had grown out of control. Each episode would contain references to the fact that "all the bees have disappeared", disappearing planets and something called the "Medusa Cascade", and in the season finale the lucky viewers were told what these things meant. This "Sesame Street was brought to you today by the letter A" style of television is a serious menace to quality drama, and the art of fiction itself. It's flourished in America, with shows like Desperate Housewives, Flashforward, Heroes, Lost and 24 teaching viewers to judge tv in terms of how good the thing they think might happen in the next episode will be, rather than how good the episode they just watched was. Obviously, we are setting ourselves up for a fall by convincing ourselves that these questions will be answered satisfactorily, but more worrying is the way that we tolerate mediocrity because we convince ourselves the finale will be triumphant.

It breaks my heart to think that while viewers of such 1970s season-closing Doctor Who stories like Inferno or The Talons of Weng-Chiang would be saying to one another excitedly "wasn't that good?", the current generation say to one another "what have we learnt so far?". Moffat has gone a step further than Davies by giving this arc fetish a face, in the form of River Song. River exists to tell us something more exciting will happen later on. She even uses "Spoilers!" as an intolerably smug catchphrase. When we first meet her, she is at the end of her life (though Moffat even fudges that by having the Doctor 'save' her consciousness and upload it to a virtual reality world where she can live forever - how did that get past the first draft?). The Doctor subsequently meets her at earlier and earlier points in her life. There's much emphasis on who she is, how often she's met the Doctor, what role she will play in his future, but is there really a character there?

Instead we get a lot of adolescent scenes of a vaguely vampish woman with a laser gun shooting people while exchanging cutesy flirtatious banter (her other catchphrase is the truly vile "Hello sweetie!"). Is there a single reason to care about her? What has she done except shoot people, flirt in a way that Moffat seems to think evokes Lauren Bacall but comes across like someone's drunken aunt at a wedding, and occasionally claim to be an archaeologist? It builds up to the single most disastrous plot twist ever devised: the revelation that River is Amy Pond's baby daughter grown up. Its meaningless is spectacular: it's too remote to make any emotional or metaphorical impact, and it doesn't actually alter this drab character or raise any questions. Even Amy's loss of the baby, abducted not long after birth, turns out to carry no emotional weight. Amy and her husband Rory go through whole episodes barely mentioning it, including the episode The Girl Who Waited where we meet a future Amy abandoned for 36 years: clearly post-natal depression isn't a factor in Moffat's universe. That this is supposedly because they've met River as a grown-up and know she'll survive is an extraordinary indictment of just how little interest in character motivation Moffat has, making a nonsense of the recent defence by one of his writers, Gareth Roberts, that the show was only a challenge for viewers to follow because of its "emotional complexity". Moffatt warned that this would be a "game-changing" cliffhanger, splitting the season into two while we supposedly waited in suspense, but what kind of game was this before, and how is this any different now?

When Moffat isn't focusing on what will happen at the end of the series, he's relying on cliches to sustain stand-alone episodes by other writers. Let's have a pirate episode. Let's have a vampire episode. Let's have a spooky hotel like in The Shining. Let's meet Churchill. This is the now rather congealed template laid down by Davies, who would present his writers with what he called a "Shopping list", believing that a cliche can sustain the atmosphere, characters and plot of a whole episode. The Lazarus Experiment in series three is the result of Davies specifying "Marvel comics" and "mad scientist" (the best of Davies's and Moffat's own earlier episodes, by contrast, delighted by creating their own tropes: rhino police on the Moon, clockwork robots obsessed with Madame De Pompadour, people whose faces turn into gasmasks, Ardal O'Hanlon as a catperson in flying goggles stuck in a traffic jam of flying cars. You've never seen any of those things before).By the time of The Rebel Flesh/The Almost People on Moffat's watch, we've reached the stage where the show is too cliche-encrusted to have anything to say. This episode tackles cloning. A group of cloned "flesh avatars" of factory workers - used like fork-lift trucks for hazardous work - are inadvertently rendered sentient. Consider this heartfelt monologue by one of them:

My name is Jennifer Lucas. I'm not a factory part. I had toast for my breakfast, I wrote a letter to my mum [...] I am Jennifer Lucas. I remember everything that happened in her entire life. Every birthday, every childhood illness. I feel everything she's ever felt, and more. I'm not a monster! I am me!Me! Me! Me!

There's little verisimilitude here: The obvious points that any piece of science fiction on the subject of cloning have had to deal with are regurgitated. Blade Runner and Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go found more provocative, moving and artistically innovative ways of exploring this (even the trashy film Total Recall did far more interesting things with the concept of memories as the source of identity), but in MoffatWorld these films and books are as good as unread and unwatched. Without any interest in what has been done in this field before, or any desire to tackle it from a fresh perspective, all the show can do is run through a series of stock questions, supposed dilemmas and would-be surprise revelations for each subgenre - in this case, that a clone would have the same memories, that a clone would regard themselves as the same person , and a twist regarding who is the clone and who is the original. One can predict the same plodding results for any 'issue' the show tackles.

As for Vampires of Venice and The Curse of the Black Spot, what could one possibly find to say about them? These are episodes forged from solid cliche. Regarding the former, the first misgivings I experienced about Moffat's tenure were upon seeing a clip from it on a chatshow. We see standard Hammer-Horror vampire babes in the white night-dresses we all know they have to wear (because they're vampires, right?) , and the Doctor notices they have no reflection. Amazingly this is strung out, with the Doctor checking the mirror several times, as if it were genuinely shocking and dramatic, rather than a given. The latter is a pirate story. We know this because it's got pirate hats, and cutlass fights, and treasure, and a enchanting sea-siren, and pirates doing evil laughs, and a scene where the characters have to walk the plank. And the Doctor gets to say "Yo-ho-ho!". As for the tired "revelations"' in both these episodes that they're not really vampires or sirens after all, but aliens and a spacecraft's malfunctioning Medical computer respectively, one wonders how much longer series is going to rely on that cyber-Scooby Doo routine, done brilliantly in The Empty Child and The Girl In the Fireplace - Moffat's excellent first two stories for Davies's version - but now so predictable.

Why, then, are we hearing so little about this desecration, as one of the greatest tv series ever devised is reduced to something so snarmy, battery-farmed and philistine? Firstly, it's because there's a common assumption throughout all media that popular culture, unlike literature, is not worth intelligent critique - a problem exacerbated by the death of tv criticism. When Philip Roth publishes a novel, it's subjected to a plethora of reviews of widely varying opinions, and despite Roth's reputation few critics seem afraid to voice dissent. Mark Kermode and Kim Newman recently made the same point about this within days of each other. Newman observed on Twitter that when he expressed disappointment with the latest Conan the Barbarian movie, he was met with admonishments of the familiar "what were you expecting, Citizen Kane?" variety, while Kermode, promoting his book on the declining quality of Hollywood blockbusters, also observed that this excuse is used for the era of Michael Bay. Doctor Who fans face the same quandary: if we point out the script's limitations, the stock response is that it's only for children, it's only a bit of fun, what did we expect? The Wire? Dennis Potter? Stephen Fry, a fan of modern Who, unintentionally demonstrated this with his comments in the Q and A following his delivery of the 2010 BAFTA Annual Television Lecture:

The only drama the BBC will boast about are Merlin and Doctor Who, which are fine, but they're children's programmes. They're not for adults.[...] like a chicken nugget. Every now and again we all like it … But if you are an adult you want something surprising, savoury, sharp, unusual, cosmopolitan, alien, challenging, complex, ambiguous, possibly even slightly disturbing and wrong.

What's interesting is not merely that Fry sees no gulf between Doctor Who and Merlin, but that even a fan of the show is under no illusions as to how far it is from intelligent drama. It's curious that it doesn't seem to strike him that Doctor Who might be surprising, savoury, sharp, unusual, cosmopolitan, alien, challenging, complex, ambiguous, possibly even slightly disturbing and wrong if it were better-written. The myth that you can't have ambiguity, depth and decent plotting because it might put off the kiddies should surely have been disproved after decades of the extraordinary work of Lewis Carroll, Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett and Alan Garner.

The second reason is that Moffat is a cynic rather than an incompetent. Nathan-Turner's worst decisions: putting question marks on the Doctor's clothes to denote mystery, giving Colin Baker's Doctor a multicoloured costume, casting Dolores Gray as a 'celebrity' cameo for the 25th anniversary, bringing back a Cyberleader from a 1960s story with an unrecognisable costume and an unrecognisable voice but the same actor squeezed inside - alienated the public as much as the fans, hence the three seasons from 1986 to 1988 that saw the the entire show retooled and reformatted three times to try and counter the unpopularity of the previous season.

Moffat, however, knows how to push buttons. His Doctor is so carefully, almost admirably, tailor-made, it could be a brand name. Following the David Tennant model, it's the same mixture of cute good looks, with a patina of geek chic, vaguely professorish but not so much it would alienate the girls and still with the hint of an action hero beneath the foppish lock of hair (looking at Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock in Moffat's other "take a tried-and-tested character and do it safely and cutely" show, one wonders if Moffat is growing thousands of these guys in a vat somewhere), the costume with its reassuring resemblance to Tennant's, the bowtie to remind us that he's eccentric without rendering him unattractive or unusual.

The Hartnell-to Eccleston Doctor (perhaps with the exception of Paul McGann in the 1996 American tv movie, a forerunner of Matt Smith's focus-group Doctor, both of them personifying the vaguest Platonic conception of Doctorishness) was a figure who embraced, represented and investigated the different. He wasn't always comforting, didn't always win everyone around, and wasn't a galactic celebrity. There's a terrific moment in 1970's Inferno when, during an ever-mounting crisis, someone says "That's not what the Doctor says", to which another character sneers "who cares what he thinks?", and the first speaker roars "I do: he talks a lot of good sense!" This moment is exciting and emotionally involving precisely because the audience has not been sated with details of the Doctor's nobility, and not that many of the cast have had kind words for the Doctor: the viewer feels an emotional pull as something important but largely ignored is acknowledged.

From Tennant onwards, the Doctor became a much more conventional, sanitised figure: an action hero, and a pin-up. When Moffat cast the 11th Doctor, after publicly hinting he would cast an older actor, he cast a younger version of Tennant, and built the the whole programme around the Doctor's ability to kick arse and monsters' realisations that they'd messed with the wrong guy. "If you value your continued existence, if you have any plans about seeing tomorrow, there's one thing you never, ever put in a trap... ME!!" he sneers at one point. It sounds like the Incredible Hulk (you won't like the Doctor when he's angry) and Liam Neeson in Taken, but not much like a non-violent, xenophiliac Timelord who regards fighting fire with fire as a contemptible human delusion.

The very first episode of Moffat's reign, The Eleventh Hour, ended with the Doctor defeating alien opponents by reminding them who he was, a bizarre moment of creative hubris Moffat previously succumbed to in Forest of the Dead, his last episode for Davies's version. And yet turning the Doctor into a cute but macho figure who might as well flash a badge to scare all disagreeables away makes a horrible kind of sense. When producer Piers Wenger, promoting the 2011 season, named Twilight as an influence, he knew what he was doing. It may have made your teeth grind if you cared about quality tv, but by God he knew what he was doing. The original Doctor Who was the show that tried. With no CGI, little time for reshoots and largely studio-bound resources, it attempted to create worlds inside your living room. It wanted its viewers to use their imaginations, not only to improve on the variable special effects illustrating compelling concepts (Robert Shearman, who wrote for the show in 2005, commented on a DVD feature for 1981's Kinda that it wasn't let down for him as a child viewer by the extremely poor giant snake because he could see that it represented a much more powerful concept of Evil. I prefer that to a piece of CGI that represents nothing, like Prisoner Zero in The Eleventh Hour) but to extend their empathy, to embrace the alien and reject the parochial. After making you believe that the secrets of the universe could be concealed in a police box in a junkyard, it tried to convince you that a race of intelligent reptiles found hibernating in a cave in Derbyshire were no more aliens than the human race were, that patriotism can blind as well as strengthen, that the world is more important than a country, that science beats superstition and that you should never be afraid of changing, learning, disobeying and growing. That's the little show that tried. Moffat's Doctor Who is the big show that doesn't need to try. If you don't believe me, get hold of a DVD of Carnival of Monsters, a Doctor Who story from 1973, and see how writer Robert Holmes relies on a protagonist and an audience with enquiring minds, rather than a macho action hero who scares away anything uncozy and an audience the writer is frightened of boring. Instead of reassuring pop-culture jokes every five minutes, loud incidental music to tell us what to feel and action-movie setpieces to keep the audience from watching ITV1, this story cares about atmosphere.

First the Doctor and his companion Jo arrive onboard the SS Bernice in the early 20th Century, only to find the crew's memory is affected and they are repeating the same actions Groundhog Day-style, while on an alien planet we a see a bunch of bureaucratic aliens bicker with a couple of travelling carnival performers as they attempt to bring a "miniscope", which miniaturises lifeforms and displays them in a zoological peepshow, through customs. The SS Bernice is attacked by a dinosaur. After escaping through a hatch in the ship, the Doctor and Jo find themselves in open marshland surrounded by ferocious wild alien beasts known as Drashigs, and realise they are in the Miniscope. The bureaucratic aliens squabble about the threat of infection posed by the lifeforms in the miniscope, only for one of one of the little creatures (the Doctor, of course) to break free from it, grow to full-size and berate them. This imperishable story creates worlds within worlds inside the viewer's head which will always be with them. It uses a child viewer's imaginative potential to question what's outside - not merely regarding Drashigs, but what's outside the realms of bureaucracy, xenophobia and cruelty to what seem to blinkered minds smaller creatures.

Try also 1977's The Talons of Weng-Chiang, a story which should, by rights, be disposable, being a mixture of every Victorian pulp cliche imaginable: a Fu Manchu style villain, a phantom beneath the opera (or theatre on this occasion) an evil ventrioquist's dummy, a killer praying on ladies of the night, a giant Rat, the Doctor in a deerstalker, a pathologist acting as an amiable Watson figure, a music-hall proprieter with a love of alliterative vernacular. Instead, our affection for the latter two characters - Litefoot and Jago - is allowed to increase, so that the story takes on a new dimension when they finally meet, and the explanation of who the shadowy Weng-Chiang really is (Magnus Greel, 51st Century war criminal, failed time traveller and "The Butcher of Brisbane") is allowed to let the story glide into a genuinely evocative and solidly imagined vision of the future. Magnus Greel, Jago and Litefoot are the heart and soul of the story, not the rat or the running around, and the sonic screwdriver is nowhere to be seen. One of the greatest scenes in Talons is the scene where Litefoot has been left alone with the Doctor's companion Leela, a savage from another world. The two have supper. Leela hurls herself upon the cold collation left out by Litefoot's housekeeper with the ferocity of her tribe. Litefoot stares, stunned but too polite to complain. Leela notices: "aren't you going to eat?" Smiling nervously, Litefoot delicately copies her eating habits, and attempts to offer her cutlery. Leela takes only the knife: "It's a good knife". No loud music is used to tell us this is funny and charming because it clearly is. Actors Louise Jameson and Trevor Baxter underplay the comedy, and the dialogue doesn't need to spell out the parallels with Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle. We're in the quiet atmosphere of a Victorian drawing room getting to know these characters. If The Talons of Weng-Chiang had been done by Moffat and his team, none of these things would be so, but the giant rat would look better.

A third recommendation would be 1979's City of Death by Douglas Adams, possibly the greatest Doctor Who story: watch it and experience how a piece of writing so frothy and unashamedly light and funny is plotted, structured, acted, designed and directed with such attention, intelligence and respect, and how a frivolous little comedy can be so nuanced, so aesthetically rich and so full of ideas, patterns and rhythms that it never fades no matter how often you see it. This most tongue-In-cheek of all Doctor Who stories (though Douglas Adams hated that phrase: he worked at his comedy) seals off the excuse so commonly used for The Curse of the Black Spot and Vampires of Venice: "but it's only a bit of fun." That didn't stop Douglas Adams and Robert Holmes from writing brilliantly.

But while Adams and Holmes obviously outstrip anything from the Moffat era, let's remember something more surprising: Nathan-Turner trumps him too. Oh, his reign saw far more laughable stories than Moffat's, I admit, but, to adapt another piece of trailerspeak from River Song, he fell so much further and rose so much higher. His Doctor Who was brilliant one week, terrible the next, and I prefer that to the consistent standard of inoffensive, solidly-made mediocrity which distinguishes the current version. Nathan-Turner is best seen as the crazy old uncle who bequeathed you some wonderful stuff up in the attic - it hardly matters there's a load of broken coat-hangers up there as well. Years later, the best stories of Nathan-Turner's era - Ghost Light, The Caves of Androzani, Kinda, Remembrance Of the Daleks, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Survival, Revelation of the Daleks, The Curse of Fenric - continue to delight and surprise in fresh ways, whilst we're forgotting about Vampires Of Venice and Night Terrors as we speak (and who remembers the plot of The Eleventh Hour?)

Should Doctor Who be scrapped? Never: what's the point of replacing it with any other science fiction or fantasy series when it has the most versatile format imaginable: no fixed cast, a craft small enough to fit anywhere that can travel in space and time, and no limitations on genre. Its one recurring theme is the power of the imagination, both in its potential for creating new worlds in the head that linger, and for creating new ways of empathising, understanding and seeing. Doctor Who at is best was an anthology show: a gritty thriller about petty warfare and gunrunning (Caves of Androzani), a complex Buddhist parable on colonialism and evil with feminist undertones (Kinda), a blackly comic story about evolution and late Victorian Britain (Ghost Light), a witty tale of two conmen who pretend to sell people planets (The Ribos Operation): this show could give us everything. People often love their country the most when they're struggling under the dictator. One day, when Moffat's gone, a new version of Doctor Who will be made. It will be the best tv show of all time. It was before.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Some Objections to The Big Bang Theory

It's a cause for concern that SF writers are beginning to talk approvingly about The Big Bang Theory as a show that indicates how SF culture has become hegemonic. I noticed Kari Sperring suggest this during a panel at The British Library during the recent "Out of this World: Science Fiction but not as we know it" exhibit, while Paul Cornell suggested the same thing on his blog, and Iain Banks has admitted to identifying with Sheldon. Personally, I think the idea that this show represents a breakthrough for acceptance of fan culture - let alone SF or science - makes about as much sense as the idea that The Black And White Minstrel Show was a great moment in the history of race relations.

First of all, The Big Bang Theory is a thoroughly illiterate little show. There are references to Klingon Boggle, Green Lantern, the Incredible Hulk, HALO and Battlestar Galactica and cameos by Kevin Smith, Levar Burton, Will Wheaton and Stan Lee, but no references to JG Ballard, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe or Ursula Le Guin. The characters are supposed to be geniuses, and yet there's never any indication that they, or the scriptwriters, have read a book. The characterisation is inconsistent: anything that gets a laugh will do. Wouldn't someone of Sheldon's scientific ability be sceptical of the bogus science in Star Trek? One moment he's complaining that Babylon 5 "fails as science fiction", the next he's bemoaning the cancellation of Firefly, which has a good deal less science, and is a people-based drama of the kind of which Sheldon should have no understanding. Similarly, if he has no sense of humour, why does he say "What's not to love?" when someone mentions the sitcom Scrubs? The show confuses science geeks with SF fans (Even The Simpsons managed it a little better with its stereotypical and often problematic creation Comic Book Guy: he's no scientist, but a collector and consumer, with an MA in Folklore and Mythology).

This is because the writers are neither interested in science fiction nor in science: they like the contrast between a bunch of guys playing Klingon Boggle or playing with toy Incredible Hulk hands and girls putting on trendy outfits and going dancing. The people that write this show are the same kind of materialistic cynics that gave us Friends: indeed, The Big Bang Theory inherits that show's mantle as the most gender-essentialist thing on television. "This is what men are like," it tells its audience, "they like nothing other than computer games, comics and mainstream SF, which they discuss in an obsessive ritualistic way rather than holding interesting conversations about them, otherwise they talk in scientific jargon that girls can't understand, they're terrified of human contact and socially inept, they have no knowledge of the outside world, and the only other type of men out there are good-looking but untrustworthy, dumb or unattainable".

"This is what women are like," it tells its audience, "they are attractive, and wear nice, revealing outfits; they love shopping and going dancing; They've never seen Raiders of the Lost Ark or Buffy The Vampire Slayer but have read Eat, Pray, Love; they paint their toenails; they believe in astrology and psychics; they keep falling in love with Mr Wrong and fall back on ice cream when things fall through with him; they don't know anything about science, Maths or SF but can 'name all the Kardashians'; on the other hand, the girls that are into science, who wear glasses, couldn't get a date at the Prom, were bullied at school, are comically sexually frustrated and aren't really feminine, are a different matter of course." Indeed, it's depressing how much Amy resembles Olive from On the Buses: the focus is either on her 'hilarious' bodily details (body hair, etc) or on her expressing  sexual desire and of course it being thwarted (with Sheldon in the role of Arthur.) If Raj is the most racist character on tv - part of a horrible tradition stretching from Hurree Ramset Jam Singh to Mind Your Language - then Amy is the most misogynistic. What makes Mayim Balik's performance and that of Johnny Galecki as Leonard increasingly hard to watch is the sheer contempt they exude towards the type of people they are supposedly playing, their mugging growing more concentrated and frantic as they make their characters apologise more and more for the failings of women and geeks as far as the writers are concerned.

Many people expressing dislike for The Big Bang Theory's UK equivalent, The Inbetweeners, have been met by the response "you've sooooo never been a teenage boy." Both shows colonise, insisting that there is no-one out there other than these archetypes. The world - not a secondary world created by the writers, mind, but the real world as far as the writers are concerned - consists of only these types and no-one else. A typical example of this occurs when Sheldon bemoans the choice of a motorised dirtbike as his childhood birthday present: "What 12-year-old boy wants a motorised dirtbike?" "er...all of them?" replies Penny. Whenever the possibility of a stereotype being untrue is raised, the script crushes it hungrily.

In the 1990s, there was a Channel 4 documentary on Terry Pratchett in which a fan tried to make the reasonable point that Pratchett readers "are not all 14-year-old Boys and they are not all called Kevin." Whoever made the programme then abruptly cut to one of the numerous fans at a book-signing. "For?" asked Pratchett as he took a book from him. "Kevin" replied the youth. It's identical to a moment in The Big Bang Theory set in the local comic-book store in which Leonard suggests: "Just because people are into comics doesn't make them weirdos." "What about the guy over there with the superhero t-shirt tucked into his sweatpants?" replies Penny. "Oh yeah, that's Captain Sweatpants: He doesn't really help the point I'm trying to make," concedes Leonard.

In The Inbetweeners, when the characters visit an old people's home, and one character instantly comments that old people smell, the other chastises him, there's a comic beat, and then he acknowledges that there is indeed an old people smell in the room. The same "denial of cliche/beat/reaffirmation of cliche" rhythm is then used to morally repugnant effect when he tries to engage one of the residents in conversation, urging his companions that there is nothing depressing about old people: "I think I've done a poo" says the elderly woman, the actress delivering her line in as dehumanised and sepulchral a manner possible. In this show, all cliches are truth. When characters in The Inbetweeners crack jokes about a teacher being a paedophile, you can bet that it will turn out he actually is one by the end.

The Big Bang Theory isn't as bad-natured as that, but it shares with its nastier brother a rule that any attempt to challenge a cliche will be brought back down to Earth, and it too is a show that reduces the world. Its opening title sequence tells us everything: we see a montage of the world's scientific history - the most interesting thing we ever see in this show - which zooms into an image of the five characters sitting in an apartment eating take-away food. The take-away food carton, like that vilely cute mirror-frame with the glass missing that hangs over the peephole in Friends, or the gigantic coffee mugs in the same show, is the perfect synecdoche for materialistic, flat-sharing, twentysomething values.

A genuine marriage of science fiction and comedy - as we find in the immortal The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or the comparatively underrated and delightful Red Dwarf - enjoys playing with ideas. Regarding the latter, a beautifully orchestrated scenario in the episode Cassandra saw the Dwarf crew confronted with a computer that could predict the future in its entirety, leading not only to some delightful gags, but to questions on the nature of free will, and allowing the writers to once again construct their own narrative shape for a whole episode (as seen in Backwards, in which time runs in reverse, and Demons and Angels, in which the goodness and evil are extrapolated from Red Dwarf and personified).

Red Dwarf also demonstrates how a science fiction element can be used to explore the characters' personalities in interesting ways. The episode Terrorform saw the crew trapped inside Rimmer's mind, having to quite literally conquer his personal demons by telling him they really care about him, only to cheerfully admit lying once they've got out. Dimension-Jump saw Rimmer confronted with the nauseatingly heroic Ace Rimmer, a version of himself from a parallel universe with one difference (one of them was kept back a year at school). Incensed by the others' admiration for him, Rimmer clings to the assumption that Ace got all the breaks he never got, but before leaving Ace reveals to Lister that he was the one who was kept back a year.

Not only is this far more interesting than anything in The Big Bang Theory - raising questions such as whether choice rather than fortune is the cause of decency, and whether we can shape our own personality - but it demonstrates that such enthusiasm for ideas can make for far more affecting characterisation. The relationship between the members of the Dwarf crew is probed in Quarantine, in which Rimmer takes revenge for his shipmates' contempt by keeping them in a spurious period of quarantine, resulting in cabin fever, while the question of whether their lives aboard Red Dwarf as the fag-end of the human race are worth living is raised in The Inquisitor, in which a mysterious droid tries to fix the meaningless of the universe by deleting those he deems to have had worthless lives from reality, spelling bad news for two of the Dwarfers, and Back to Reality, in which the characters are told that 'Red Dwarf' was a total-immersion video-game and their actual lives are much worse. This is a genuinely existential show, interested in the plight of four losers In a cruel universe, struggling to avoid getting on one another's nerves while finding their search for aliens rewarded only by the detritus of Mankind's intergalactic ventures.

Hitchhiker's, too, is a meal of endless ideas: a device that kills you by showing you infinity and an arrow saying "you are here", a planet with a dust-cloud covering the sky whose inhabitants are so terrified by the revelation that there are stars concealed behind it that they are driven to multi-galactic genocide, and a ship powered by Bistromatics: the principle that numbers behave differently in restaurants to anywhere else (inspired by the discrepancy between the amount pooled and the amount billed at the end of a meal).

By contrast, the writers for The Big Bang Theory prefer to have their characters discuss if Mrs Incredible from The Incredibles would need birth control or could use her elastic powers to form a diaphragm, or if Dick Grayson should take over from Bruce Wayne as Batman.

Provided you have no Seinfeld DVDs in the house, I see why so many find The Big Bang Theory a sunny enough way to spend 25 minutes (though less so when Howard, Raj, Bernadette or Amy are the only ones on screen), but its reputation as a show with the slightest interest in SF is ludicrous. It's well-made trash.