What legacy has Steven Moffat left on Doctor Who?
I’ve not been the biggest fan of Steven Moffat’s tenure on Doctor Who, and I’ve made no secret of it. But with the announcement that he is stepping down as showrunner after 2017 and handing over to Chris ‘I’ve done things other than Broadchurch’ Chibnall, I decided to try and present a more balanced look back at his legacy.
In 2010, Moffat took over from Russell T Davies, who brought the show back out of the wilderness after a sixteen-year hiatus. Davies had given the show a new image, a new look, and a pair of new Doctors. He had also given the show something of a formula – a formula that seemed to work for the most part. The stories tended to be fairly straightforward, while the characters developed complexities and for many viewers became almost real.
Davies treated the show as a science fiction drama, and given his history of writing drama, that makes sense. So, when Moffat took over with a very different vision, a very different style, and ultimately a very different ethos, some people were put off.
What Davies lacked in complexity he made up for in coherence and consistency, in my opinion. The story could be followed, and indeed the audience was often invited to feel as though they were following the characters. Few gaps were left between episodes and one adventure would lead more or less into the next. It was easy to keep track of where the characters were, what was motivating them, and where they were heading.
Where Davies’ stories had been more or less straightforward, Moffat was ambitious, complex, and daring. He took risks, setting up plot points that would span multiple years, stories that would be told out of order, back to front, and upside down. Moffat’s vision seemed to be that Doctor Who was a science fiction adventure/comedy, more than a drama. For those of us who had grown used to the character focus and often character driven plots of the Davies era, this shift knocked us back a bit.
Moffat had what was perhaps a curse in disguise – he had already penned a wildly successful episode of Doctor Who, Blink (2007). This was an episode that subverted the formula of the show, and challenged the way we thought about how time travel worked in this universe (though lifting a bit from Back to the Future). Moreover, he had also written The Empty Child (2005), which had provided New-Who with one of its first ‘iconic’ moments. The child with a gas mask asking ‘Are you my mummy?’ has, to this day, stuck with audiences.
With that, one can imagine that Moffat felt obligated to this image that had built up around him. To take the success of Blink and the Weeping Angels, and turn them into the norm, rather than the subversion they once were. He started early, planting what would become one of his most contentious characters into his final story under Davies’ reign. River Song in Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead (2008).
I was intrigued by River and the story implied behind her. There was mystery and potential; she was coy, she was cagey, she was full of surprises. She wasn’t thrown in the audience’s face at first, just there to whet our appetites. But as her story unfolded in a weird and disjointed manner, many viewers became disillusioned. Catchphrases and some clunky ‘flirting’ made many of her appearances cringe-worthy, and by the time Let’s Kill Hitler (2011) and The Wedding of River Song (2011) came along, a chorus of people were expressing exacerbation with her.
What annoyed me was that River Song felt like a waste. Here was a story ripe for exploring on the nature of time travel and how it could affect a relationship. Here was a story with a strong female character that could rival the Doctor and could be something of a mirror image. Some of these themes were touched on, but all too often the focus was elsewhere. It was all snarky comments, sassy comebacks, the word ‘spoilers’ being said so often it lost all meaning. A story that could have been quintessentially Doctor Who felt like a Carry On film.
That being said, I do admire Moffat’s audacity, especially where River Song is concerned. It was an ambitious story to try and tell to a broad Saturday evening audience over the course of six years. I don’t know a lot of writers who could have pulled that off.
Where Moffat lost a lot of people was in his treatment of his characters, especially the female characters. Early on, people pointed out the slightly creepy way in which he romanticised stalking – briefly in Blink (2007) and later in The Doctor The Widow and the Wardrobe (2011) to name but two. Then there was the worrying trope of having the Doctor meet a young girl, making her obsess over him, and then meet again when she was a grown up who would (even briefly) fall in love with him. The Girl in the Fireplace (2006) had this happen to Madame de Pompadour, and then both Amy Pond and River Song had the same treatment.
Suddenly the Doctor was hiding up women’s skirts, snogging his way through the universe, and getting married every other century. The Eleventh Doctor seemed to have transformed from an awkwardly dorky young adventurer, into a ‘lad’. I remember wondering if this was some sort of attempt to appeal to the overly masculine stereotype of the people who would bully Doctor Who fans in the 80s and 90s. Toby Hadoke in his ‘Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf’ show seemed to hint as this being a common occurrence.
It wasn’t just in front of the camera that there were worrying issues. In the words of critic Alyssa Franke;
Before Series 9 started, Steven Moffat had hired absolutely no women writers for the show. That’s four seasons and two specials, for a total of 56 episodes. After Series 9, we’ll have had two women write an episode during the 69 episodes he’s overseen during his tenure as showrunner.
The numbers are slightly better for directors. In total, four women have directed nine episodes. But there were a few Series where there weren’t any women directors at all. When I started focusing on this issue (around the time they were announcing the Series 8 directors) there had only been one woman who had directed two episodes back in Series 5. -Alyssa Franke, Whovian Feminism
Many of us felt like the Doctor wasn’t the Doctor anymore. It’s hard to pin down one thing that tipped me over into this feeling, but the show almost felt like it wasn’t for me anymore. Which is fine; people grow up and move on, shows change and sometimes they change into things we don’t like. For me, Doctor Who was a show that had captivated my imagination, had been encouraging and uplifting, the characters had been intriguing and the fandom had been exciting. To see that slipping away was not fun.
Other issues plagued the show during the mid-Moffat era. The time-slot changed, and the budget shrank, leaving the show split over the year in both 2012 and 2013. People seemed to forget that Doctor Who was even on at times, and the split seemed to serve only to stretch the show out, leaving audiences fatigued.
That wasn’t necessarily Moffat’s doing, but it is good to keep it in mind as part of the context of everything that was going on. They knew the 50th Anniversary was coming, they knew they needed to save money, and they knew they needed to make it a big event.
Making Doctor Who into an event was something Moffat tried to do a number of times. This is possibly why big plot twists and shocker have become something of a staple of his tenure. He made it something that got people to speculate over, and debate about, keeping the chatter about the show alive.
The big twist at the end of The Name of the Doctor (2013), revealing a brand new secret Doctor in the form of John Hurt, was a big risk. But it also made the 50th Anniversary that much more of an event. Here was a big name star, a new Doctor that was a shock to viewers both old and new. Nobody knew for certain what was going to happen, nobody knew who this Doctor was, or what he meant. People were curious, and people came out to watch.
Much as I would personally have adored seeing Paul McGann in the War Doctor’s role – and most of us had pretty much accepted that he had been ever since 2005 – I can see that Hurt’s Doctor was a successful marketing ploy. And that seems to be the point about a lot of Moffat-Who. The big events, big ideas and the big conventions to promote it gave the show a sense of grandeur and were meant to act as a pull to audiences. It was all part of Moffat’s tradition of taking a gamble and seeing if it would work.
Casting the mostly unknown Matt Smith in 2010 was another risk; he was the youngest actor to take on the role, and had to fill the large shoes left by David Tennant. I tried to be optimistic about Matt Smith for a long time. I thought he had a lot of potential and as a young actor; he could have been moulded into a very good Doctor. But with only a handful of good stories across his run, and a character that descended into clichés and catchphrases, he fell short. His lack of experience and gravitas more than likely contributed to this and I genuinely feel sorry for the bloke.
Casting the widely known and loved Peter Capaldi was also a risk; nobody knew if audiences would accept a 55-year-old man in the role after a succession of youthful Doctors. But, the past two years have seen Capaldi rejuvenate the character again and in my opinion the scripts have also improved. Clara Oswald turned into a much more interesting character, with a home life, and real world commitments to go alongside her adventures with the Doctor. This gave the show a grounding it hadn’t had since Donna left. Series 8 had a subtle arc that was intriguing and not overbearing, while series 9 gave us some of the most well-written episodes since 2005 – especially the now infamous Heaven Sent (2015).
While I had my issues with the series arc for series 9, I felt like the show was finding its feet again. It seems odd, then, that it is now of all times that Moffat decides to announce his imminent departure. But after the debacle that was The Husbands of River Song (2015), I am starting to think that maybe it is indeed time for him to move on.
As a quick aside, it should also be pointed out that back in 1999, Steven Moffat penned a Comic Relief parody of Doctor Who, The Curse of Fatal Death, starring Rowan Atkinson as the Doctor. Watching this will reveal a lot of Moffat’s later plans for the series, surprisingly. There are a lot of time travel based jokes, there are a lot of meetings-of-villains, there is even the line “never cruel or cowardly”, which would later become a central theme of The Day of the Doctor (2013). There are other parallels to be drawn, and it begs the question, did Moffat have this plan for Doctor Who all along? Was that his template for what he would do with it once he got hold of it?
So those are my thoughts on Steven Moffat’s reign as showrunner of Doctor Who. I hope I have been somewhat balanced in my approach, tackling the major issues that have plagued him and the show along the way.
The concerns and criticisms stand on their own merits, as does his writing, and in a show that has such a wide reach, and such a wide influence, it only makes sense that it would be held to a high standard. Let us hope that Chris Chibnall can take on the mantle and continue the legacy of the 50+-year-old show for as long as he can.