DOCTOR WHO: Spoiled Rotten - In Defence of STEVEN MOFFAT

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Tony Fyler says Moffat’s showrunning skills are only declining if you don’t understand what he’s actually doing.


I recently wrote a piece explaining that the urge to fall out of fandom with the arrival of a new Doctor was neither new nor particularly meaningful, and while many people were kind enough to agree with my assessment that those who find themselves unable to embrace the new Doctor and the new tone of the show would either fall out of fandom and be replaced, or would stick with it and find occasional delights, many of the comments I received were along the lines of “It’s not Capaldi that’s turning us off – it’s Moffat’s showrunning  and bad writing.” (you can read them here)

So let’s see.

First, it’s important that I put this on record – I agree with the fundamental idea that Steven Moffat is a better writer than he is a showrunner. The evidence of the episodes he wrote when Russell T Davies was showrunner seems incontrovertible. Beyond a shadow of doubt, Moffat’s episodes were some of the highlights of the Ninth and Tenth Doctor’s era. He’s the man who gave us the first real creeps of New Who – “Are You My Mummy?” – the man who gave us, if we’re absolutely honest with ourselves, the only new monster capable of standing alongside the great inventions like Daleks, Cybermen, Silurians and Sontarans – the Weeping Angels – and the man who gave us one of the most barkingly elegant, sweeping, romantic scripts of David Tennant’s time – The Girl In The Fireplace. So much then for Moffat the writer. All hail, Creepmeister-General, all hail.

But let’s talk about his showrunning, and his goals for the show during his tenure.


Coming after Davies, the chief requirement of the second showrunner in New Who was to be different, and to be coherent. Moffat’s choice of Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor was perverse – it was brave only by virtue of the fundamental lack of difference it embodied: here, to follow the young, white, demented-haired sexy Doctor was… another, even younger, white, demented-haired sexy Doctor. There were flutters of disgruntlement in fandom as the relatively untested young man with the Easter Island chin introduced himself, and a few more when shots of his costume were revealed and he appeared to be playing against his strengths, as a professorial type. The bowtie made some fans cringe – as it had Moffat when he first saw it – with the idea of a parody-Doctor. But whether you liked it or not, the two key jobs of that season were more than done: when Smith came in, Moffat gave him a season-opener where (cricket bats notwithstanding) he barely stopped moving for a second, and established his idea of Doctor Who as a ‘fairy tale’ with everything from the cloudy re-vamp of the title sequence to the twinkly incidental music, to (just in case you really weren’t getting it) explicit referencing – “Amelia Pond…like a name in a fairy tale”, Amy running away, like Wendy, with the Impossible, ageless boy, while still dressed in her nightie, the Pandorica being expanded from the tale of Pandora’s Box, and so on.

He also tapped into fundamental children’s fears in a way which few other Who writers have managed in a generation – just as the gas-mask people were an evolution of the game of ‘Touch’ and the Weeping Angels were an evolution of the game of ‘Look Behind You, Mr Wolf’ (or whatever you used to call it), so Moffat in his first season as showrunner exploited the primal fear of his son, and turned a crack in the wall into something that could swallow the universe – because that’s how children think in the dark. Did this influence ruin Davies’s fairly smart, 7+-branded Doctor Who? No – it achieved its third, less-often-spoken objective and opened up the show even further to family viewing, with concepts that would appeal to younger viewers, turned into things for which, just possibly, having a parent’s hand to hold would be useful, not to say required.

His next series reined in the fairy tale, because the fairy tale was no longer new and headline-worthy. This, perhaps, is the true mark of Moffat’s time so far in the showrunner’s seat – his ability to look at what’s been done and consciously not do it again (pause, while those who have accused him of plagiarism or repeating themes in Series 8 punch their computer screens). It pushed the idea of complex story-arcs and the life of a time traveller right to the edge of credibility – and arguably, sometimes, over it. There are, perhaps, the beginnings of a case to be made here that while Moffat himself still wrote some of the best Who available anywhere, his role as showrunner spread him a little thin on creative decision-making, and perhaps some of the scripts he allowed to go out were less rigorously edited than might have been hoped – The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood was a bit beige, and did The Almost People need a second episode? The overall quality of the story-arc in this season is also perhaps questionable, but what you can’t escape is the magnificent scope of its intention – or the fact that it succeeded in its show-goal. Moffat was trying to launch Doctor Who properly in the States, and for that, the series needed to be complex, with more mysteries a series like Lost. It’s undeniable that Series 6 delivered that and again, he got the job done. Just because fandom sometimes doesn’t appreciate what the job actually is doesn’t detract from that success.


Series 7 was all about lengthening shadows – the Amy and Rory arc was coming to an end, and so, ultimately was Matt Smith’s time as the Doctor. And yet the year also had to include a bright new companion and, just to add to the pressure, the 50th anniversary episode, which had to be so many things to so many people, it’s arguable that no-one but Mr Timey-Wimey could have pulled it off. If you want to criticise Moffat’s showrunning, shut up for an hour and watch The Day of the Doctor again, because you’re clearly not getting the point. Yes, the Zygons are a bit thrown away, but ultimately the story’s not about them. Watch that episode, with its story, its cameos, the Time War Davies said would be unfilmable and its punch-the-air solution, and then, to quote the Twelfth Doctor, “Shush”.

Now, in Series 8, the challenge was to be different again – once you’ve captured a younger audience, what’s left? To grow up the stories a little, and ensure the audience stays with the series longer. An older Doctor is risky, but actually perfect at this point – you want someone who’s not a threat to the teenage boys, and who they don’t feel threatened in their sexuality by supporting enthusiastically as they supported earlier Doctors with a more childlike devotion. You might lose some teen fangirls, this way, granted, but not that many. The writing so far this series has been criticised as poor, but again, watch the sleight-of-hand - it’s possible you’re misunderstanding the mission of this series, or mistakenly thinking it’s aimed at you, when it chiefly isn’t. Stories so far have involved the fallacy of religious zealotry, the foolishness of machismo (a Dalek has a repository of the memories that can make it experience childlike wonder, but it suppresses them – like a teenage boy, trying to be cool), for balance, the foolishness of rigid rationality (the Doctor channels Grumpy Dawkins in Sherwood), and the dangers of overthinking things and the perils of dating in Listen. These are lessons not necessarily for the 8-year-old audience Doctor Who has, or the new audience of women that it has acquired. These are lessons for the teenaged audience it is now chasing, to add them to the fold and make the Doctor a hero who can stay with the children he entrances, even when the distractions of girls, boys and dating come along. If you haven’t caught on to that idea, then feeling let down by some of the stories might be understandable. Learn the lesson of Listen and stop over-analysing – be young again, in the company of an older Doctor, for 45 minutes a week, and go with it.


And as a final thought, let’s remember something. We are not the same audience we were. Doctor Who has been back now for nearly ten years, and in the hands of both Russell T Davies and of Steven Moffat, we have been spoiled absolutely rotten.  Not every episode was great – it never was. But in terms of the general ratio of great stories, the last ten years have been one golden age after another. Remember to check your own expectational greed levels (bigger, better, faster, more THE WAY I LIKE!), and perhaps Moffat’s skills as the showrunner who has assured Doctor Who’s previously unprecedented future on a global stage will speak louder than the disaffections of a relative few.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk
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