The Steven Moffat Era: Experimental, or Unfocused?

One thing that certainly sets the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who apart from the Davies’, is how varied it is. In tone, content, and direction, Moffat’s series’ plucked at multiple ideas over its run rather than sticking to a regular formula. This variety and disparate nature of the show has been a source of criticism from some areas of the fandom, and praise from others.

So, does the variety and sometimes disjointed nature of Moffat-Who show that the head writer was experimental, or simply unfocused?

A Fairy Tale Beginning

Coming off the back of the Davies era, Matt Smith’s first series echoes the Tennant series in a lot of ways. That’s not to say there aren’t a whole bunch of new Moffat elements in there, but of the six series we’ve had from him, it is perhaps the most formulaic.

It’s somewhat probable that there were scripts for Smith’s first series that had begun their life as Tennant stories. This happens a lot in Doctor Who, when a new Doctor takes over they may inherit their predecessor’s stories from time to time.

Moffat set out to bring a theme to his Doctor Who, and for series 5 it was fairy tales. The idea that the Doctor is like something out of a fairy story is nothing new, but Moffat was perhaps more explicit about it. Amy Pond was given a name that, according to the Doctor, “sounds like a name out of a fairy tale!” and the series resolution was, basically, the power of make believe.

This became even more of a theme as the Christmas special rolled around and we saw a Doctor Who version of A Christmas Carol. Perhaps more of a ghost story than a fairy tale, but the particular spin Moffat gave it resulted in more of a fairy tale atmosphere.

The Arc of River Song

When series six came along, there was a shift towards the River Song arc. With questions about whether Amy was pregnant, a new monster in The Silence, and a mystery surrounding the Doctor’s supposed death, it had all the makings of an interesting story. A Good Man Goes to War – the mid-series finale had an ensemble of new and larger than life characters that only added to the strangeness and fairy-tale feel of the whole thing.

The second half of series six got even stranger culminating in what is still one of the most bizarre episodes of Doctor Who – The Wedding of River Song. Moffat throws a lot of concepts at the screen very quickly and it’s hard to know what to focus on.

I liked the ‘Doctor-Fakes-His-Death’ angle and really wish they’d played on that more. River Song was a character with a lot of potential that very quickly became a caricature. This was quite sad as Alex Kingston is a superb actor and the concept behind the character is so ripe for interesting stories. I worry that Moffat got scared of writing her too complex or interesting and instead fell back into his female character stereotype.

Making Movies

With series seven Steven Moffat said he wanted Doctor Who to feel like it was tackling big budget Hollywood ideas. Each episode came with its own movie-style poster and for the most part they were all stand alone stories with little to no arc pulling it all together. For many this felt more like a nod to the classic series where each story was more or less its own thing.

When the second half of series seven began we all knew what was coming. The 50th Anniversary was just around the corner and so Moffat had to build up the tension and set the tone. This half series is much darker (in terms of actual colours on screen if nothing else) and also sees the full introduction of Clara.

Again, there wasn’t much of a series arc, very little other than Clara to tie it together. When The Name of the Doctor came along, once again promising to tease the Doctor’s death, as well as his forbidden name, I found it hard to get excited.

Special Occasions

With the 50th Anniversary there came the big special. A big star name was brought in – John Hurt – as well as the previous Doctor, David Tennant. Again, it was a huge, cinematic event and a lot of hype built up around it – rightly so. It was something of a tonal shift for Moffat, but generally well received.

Unlike Time of the Doctor, Matt Smith’s final episode, which was not critically acclaimed. While it has its fans, it’s easy to see a production that was full of exhausted people. The attempt to bring together the loose plot threads was a brave effort, but could probably have been done better if Moffat had had more time for it. It brings back the fairy tale atmosphere, a planet called Christmas (for seemingly no reason other than this is a Christmas special), the Doctor trapped there for a thousand years, wooden cybermen, it had a lot of elements.

Malcolm Tucker in Space

When Peter Capaldi took over there was another shift in tone. The Doctor was characterised as much grumpier, angry and bitter at times. A new story arc began with Missy and Paradice, giving the eighth series an echo of the Russell T Davies era.

Capaldi put out some stellar performances, but I always got the impression he was uncomfortable playing, essentially, Malcolm Tucker in space. Peter had been a fan since the show began and so had deep, emotional ties to the character. As series nine rolled around, we saw a marked change in the Twelfth Doctor’s persona. Less angry, less shouty, and the kinder side of him was really starting to come out.

By series nine, Capaldi’s Doctor had transformed into a much more likable character. He was kind, he was good, and he was reliable. This build up, more than anything in my opinion, is what makes Heaven Sent such a good episode. If it had happened in series eight I don’t think it would have been as powerful, but the fact that we had spent the last year getting to know the good side of this Doctor makes the audience care when he suffers.

With series ten a new companion and yet another new feel for the show. It was brighter, full of life and colour, and Bill was a breath of much needed fresh air. While there wasn’t really a series arc to speak of beyond the mystery box with Missy in it, the series had many more strong episodes that stood alone. It was tonally more upbeat than the show had been for a while, and there were plenty of outstanding performances from both Capaldi and Mackie.

Changing Styles

So, with the series shifting its styles and tone from year to year, it does beg the question; was this experimentation, or simply a lack of focus?

Russell T Davies era was somewhat formulaic. There was a predictability about it, and once the show had found its feet, it just ran with it for four years. Moffat’s era, however, has been very different every year. It almost seems like he was indecisive and didn’t feel able to comit to one idea and let it play out.

How much of this was an attempt to keep the show fresh and ever changing? It’s hard to say. Doctor Who thrives on change. But, at the same time, does it put audiences off when the show is almost unrecognisable from series to series?

I may be overstating it somewhat. On the one hand, I appreciate what is being attempted; seeking to make something new, trying new ideas, throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks. But it has also lead to interesting ideas being abandoned in favour of new ones.

Inside Story

Now, it must be pointed out that some of the changes may have been a result of people higher up in the BBC. Budget cuts here, marketing decisions there, and meddling have all been hinted out behind the scenes. How much of it actually bleeds through is a tough thing to get a certain answer for.

The split series was almost deffinately a decision from on high. A way to spread the budget over a longer period while keeping the show on the air and saving some funds for the big 50th anniversary.

It must also be noted that Moffat’s time was incredibly split between Sherlock and Doctor Who, resulting in both shows suffering a little.

Ultimately, it’s hard to really pin down what defined the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who.

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Joel Cornah
Joel Cornah is an author, journalist, and blogger. He is the author of a number of novels and novellas including; The Sea-Stone Sword, The Spire of Frozen Fire and The Silent Helm, with the upcoming novel The Sky Slayer, expected some time in 2016. He is an editor for The Science-Fiction and Fantasy Network, head of the Doctor Who department, and member of the Tolkien Society. He is a frequent blogger for the Pack of Aces blog, focussing on issues of Asexuality in media, specialising in sci-fi and fantasy.