Hey deus, have you seen my machina? A look at the real meaning of ‘deus ex machina’.
If there’s one technical drama phrase that people struggle to understand, it’s Deus Ex Machina.
Most people get that it’s Classical Greek for ‘god from the machine’, many can tell you that it derives from Greek drama. Some can even explain that, originally, the gods in Ancient Greek drama were lowered down onto the stage by a sort of crane contraption – the god in the machine.
Then things get a bit confused.
Confusion No. 1: The solution needed the intervention of enormously powerful beings. It was a Deus Ex Machina!
Confusion No. 2: I didn’t see the solution coming! It was a Deus Ex Machina!
Confusion No. 3: The resolution was rushed! It was a Deus Ex Machina!
No, no and no.
A genuine Deus ex Machina (D.E.M.) needs all of the following:
1. A seemingly unsolvable problem WHICH HAS
2. A sudden and abrupt resolution BY
3. A previously unknown character, character ability, object or event.
In the beginning… (or, Quick – a Serpent!): Confusion No. 1
The first two surviving commentaries on the use of the D.E.M. were made by Aristotle (384-322 BCE) and Horace (65 BCE – 8 BCE). Aristotle was a philosopher and teacher, whose commentary is a surviving set of his lecture notes on poetry and drama.
Horace was a practising poet. His advice on the D.E.M. is remarkably brief:
Neither let a god interfere, unless a difficulty worthy a god’s unraveling should happen…
The intervention of the Bad Wolf, in Parting of the Ways, is an example of a problem that really does need a god to unravel it. The Dalek Emperor has declared itself a god, the Doctor’s about to be exterminated, and he can’t bring himself to press the button that will kill half Earth. The only possible solution to unravel this mess is for The Machine (the TARDIS) to create a temporary ‘Dea’ and hoist her down into the middle of the action.
Just in case you hadn’t got that Bad Wolf is a Dea Ex Machina, she reappears in The Day of The Doctor – this time as the persona of The Moment. Again, she’s a god-like conscience from the machine. However, in The Day of The Doctor she isn’t a D.E.M. in the dramatic sense. Not because she isn’t a previously unknown character providing an unexpected resolution to the Doctor’s dilemma about burning Gallifrey by means of her god-like powers, but because her intervention is the inciting incident for the plot.
Why? Aristotle has this to say about the Deus Ex Machina:
… the unravelling of the plot … must arise out of the plot itself, it must not be brought about by the Deus Ex Machina…
However, he then (and remember, these were his lecture notes) goes on to give two examples of what he actually means. One is a play called Medea (Euripides), the other is a scene in the Iliad (Homer).
For those of you unfamiliar with several thousand year old works of literature, the climax to the play Medea involves her making a sudden soaring getaway in the supernatural chariot of the god Helios. Admittedly, Helios has been mentioned in the play as Medea’s grandfather – but the chariot is, to say the least, a bit unexpected. Okay, a lot unexpected. Never even mentioned until it appears, in fact. Medea takes rides in her Granddad’s flying chariot? Since when?
The reference to the Iliad is more interesting from our point of view. In an epic poem of considerable length – in which gods are intervening (with extreme prejudice) right, left and centre – Aristotle only thinks one scene contains an actual D.E.M. It’s not having gods in the plot that he objects to. It’s using the power of the gods/enormously powerful beings to 1) send two serpents to 2) strangle the old bloke who’s 3) just about to figure out that the Greeks are inside the Horse!
So what does this mean for Doctor Who? Well, as both Horace and Aristotle agree, enormously powerful beings are fine, especially if you happen to be nicking, sorry, adapting a story that already has them in. Time Lords are fine – which is good, because the Doctor is himself an enormously powerful being who drops down out of the sky and tears down your world. There is no problem in Doctor Who with the inciting incident being a Time Lord (especially if they’re called The Doctor and their Machine is a TARDIS that looks like a police box). There is, equally, no problem in Doctor Who with the solution to the problem being a Time Lord (especially if they’re called The Doctor and their Machine is a TARDIS that looks like a police box).
What is needed is for the solution to the plot to arise naturally out of the plot. In the Day of The Doctor, the solution – while manipulated by The Moment – arises naturally from the Zygon sub-plot. It comes out of the Doctor’s moment of self-realisation – ‘The Doctor’ would never destroy Gallifrey; to be ‘The Doctor’ he has to find another way. The ‘other way’ comes out of his observing and using the stasis cubes. The Dea from the Machina may have intervened – but we don’t need to worry about it. The intervention is an integral part of the story.
I didn’t see that one coming: Confusion No. 2
That the solution to the plot should arise naturally out of the plot doesn’t mean you should be able to work out the finale in advance. Let’s go back to Aristotle again:
Two parts, then, of the Plot – Reversal of the Situation and Recognition – turn upon surprises…
Reversal of the Situation (Peripeteia) and Recognition (Anagnorisis) are both something Steven Moffat is exceptionally fond of. Reversal is what it sounds like: a sudden change in the action which reverses the situation. The Doctor and Amy are having a nice chat with that crewman from the Alaska – and discover in the middle of the conversation that he’s a Dalek zombie. You, the audience, are supposed to be surprised.
If you look at the script of Asylum you’ll see that the surprise was set up – the confusion with dates, the previous use of Dalek zombies – but a Reversal is still supposed to be surprising.
Reversals don’t have to be from Good Situation to Bad Situation (though, strangely, we’re generally more willing to accept a sudden Reversal to Bad). Later on in Asylum, we discover that the Doctor’s secretly given Amy his nanobracelet – reversing her situation. This situation arises out of plot and character (Amy needs a nanobracelet, the Doctor has one, he’s alien so probably less affected by the nanobots – and he’s that type of heroic geek anyway). It is, however, still a surprise. Did anyone see it coming?
Because a Reversal is supposed to be surprising, it – like Recognition – often gets the minimum amount of build-up. This can be a problem if you miss the relevant dialogue, let it float past you as seemingly unimportant, or even missed the episode in which the Teselecta played a starring role. 😉
Recognition (Anagnorisis) is another plot device which is supposed to be a surprise – either for the characters, the audience, or both. Basically, it’s a change from ‘ignorance’ to ‘knowledge’. Aristotle again:
The best form of Recognition is coincident with a Reversal of the Situation…
The revelation that Oswin is a Dalek is ‘recognition’. Moffat’s very fond of placing his ‘recognition’ at the end of an episode or at the end of the series. How did the Doctor know about the events in Blink? Because Sally Sparrow met him after it had all happened for her – but before it had happened for the Doctor.
Again, the fact that you didn’t know a vital piece of information doesn’t make something a Deus Ex Machina. Provided, that is, the lack of that information is an equally vital part of the plot. In Blink, part of the plot is that Sally doesn’t know where this information is coming from. In Series 6, it’s deeply important that nobody knows that the Teselecta was used until afterwards. [See wibbley-wobbley, timey-wimey for an explanation of why River must shoot the Doctor].
Two minutes to go and no solution: Confusion No. 3
The most popular cry of all. But a rushed solution – considerably more common now that stories last 42 minutes instead of 88 – doesn’t a D.E.M. make.
The Reversal at the climax of Power of Three, for example, isn’t a Deus Ex Machina. Rushed, yes. But that’s not enough. We’ve already seen the cubes’ ability to stop hearts reversed by a defibrillator. We know the Doctor’s screwdriver can reprogram computers. It may be a seemingly insoluble problem with a rushed solution by our favourite Lonely God, but condition 3 doesn’t apply – the solution comes from pre-revealed abilities.
The Big Friendly Button at the climax of Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS isn’t a Deus Ex Machina. This time it’s a pre-revealed object. Firstly, we see it roll across the exploding TARDIS control room and see Clara try and pick it up. Secondly, we see it as the Remote for the Magno-Grab. Then the Doctor pick-pockets it from Van Balen…
There’s also the problem that one audience member’s ‘rushed solution’ is another’s ‘sudden Recognition and Reversal’. These are not only fine – Aristotle thought you couldn’t have a really good, complex drama without them.
Peering through a crack in the sky – the Time Lords strike back
There’s a major Recognition and Reversal in The Time of The Doctor, at the climax of the episode. The Doctor is dying – a predestined death that he hasn’t the power to change. He can’t change his own future. Of course, he mentions sadly and almost casually, he could have changed it once. When there were Time Lords.
This is Clara’s change from ignorance to knowledge, her Recognition. She now knows that there are people who can change the future – and they’re on the other side of the Crack in the wall. So she does the sensible, logical thing. She asks them to change it. Since she doesn’t remember the Doctor’s real name, she can’t use it as a password – but she can tell them why she thinks his original, Gallifreyan name doesn’t really matter.
Whereupon we get the Reversal: the Time Lords reappear as a big crack in the sky, sending down a metaphorical bolt of lightning that gives the Doctor an entire new regeneration cycle.
Despite the big light in the sky and the shiny golden glow, this still isn’t a Deus Ex Machina. As in the Iliad, where we have the gods intervening every five minutes but only one actual D.E.M., the Time Lords are a long standing bunch of intervention experts (even in the post 2005 series).
That they can send a message through the crack is known (“Doctor Who?”). That speech can get from this side of the crack to them is known – how else can they tell when the Doctor’s said his Gallifreyan name, to let them know the situation’s safe? That they can send energy fields through the crack is known – they created the truth field around Christmas. Finally, that they can grant another cycle of regenerations, in exceptional circumstances, is also known.
That they choose to intervene isn’t surprising; the Doctor represents their one vaguely reliable contact in their home universe. Sheer self-interest means they’d save his life, even if they’re not grateful for his efforts in saving Gallifrey. 🙂
So: Condition 1 (seemingly insoluble problem) met. Condition 2 (extremely sudden reversal/resolution) met. But not Condition 3 – the plot has developed the Time Lords’ opportunity and motivation, and the ability displayed was previously known. They may be acting like gods from the sky, but they ain’t acting like gods from the machine. 😉
It’s the real thing
We’ve already examined one genuine Deus Ex Machina (actually a Dea Ex Machina) which corresponded to Horace’s maxim of ‘only when you have to’ – Rose as Bad Wolf. That Russell T. knew perfectly well what he was doing is demonstrated by his having her effectively winched into the action via the TARDIS.
Another perfectly formed D.E.M. can be seen in The Bells of St. John. It’s very obviously a little joke, a ‘this is what a D.E.M. really looks like’. In The Bells of St. John the Doctor suddenly announces that his motorbike – which up to this point has been a perfectly ordinary motorbike – took part in the anti-grav Olympics. Then he rides straight up the Shard.
It’s a D.E.M. – Condition 1? Check – the Shard is in lockdown, so he can’t solve the problem of getting into Miss Kizlet’s office by anything but ‘divine intervention’. Condition 2? Check. There’s no discussion, puzzlement, planning – just a simple announcement. Condition 3? Check. The bike looks like a bike, has never done anything but act like a bike, and the Anti-grav Olympics aren’t mentioned at any previous point in the episode.
To add to the joke, we then discover that the ‘Doctor’ is in fact a Spoonhead being remotely operated by the real Doctor. The ‘Lonely God’ is indeed coming ‘from the machine’.
A Deus Ex Machina needs more than a god, a Time Lord, or even a machine. It is not the use of ‘divine intervention’. If your fictional hero spends an entire episode refusing to answer a question from the ‘gods’, don’t be terribly surprised if the ‘gods’ intervene by the end of Act Three…
A D.E.M. needs more than a surprising solution. Surprising solutions are an expected part of drama. In fact, they’re considered to be a sign of a good, complex drama.
A D.E.M. even needs more than a rushed resolution.
What a D.E.M needs is a problem solved by pulling a solution out of nowhere (‘nowhere’ in the sense of ‘and I rewatched it twice on iPlayer, and I still can’t spot the set-up’).
I can use my Granddad’s flying chariot. My motorbike has anti-grav. Looking in the TARDIS gave me glowy eyes with Mad God-skillz.
That’s Deus Ex Machina.
There’s another little D.E.M. joke in The Time of the Doctor. Again, there’s an insoluble problem which gets solved abruptly by ‘divine intervention’ and the use of a previously un-revealed … well, that would give too many clues.
But as in Bells of St John, there are clues.
So – can you spot the real thing?