My take on Moffat

Benedict Cumberbatch, Steven Moffat, and Matt Smith

Benedict Cumberbatch, Steven Moffat, and Matt Smith

I’ve spent the morning doing a bit of thought about Steven Moffat as the showrunner of Doctor Who, and it’s been somewhat disturbing. This was sparked by a blog post a friend of mine shared on Facebook, about sexism in Doctor Who and Sherlock. The post links to a couple of other interesting articles, so I’ve linked them below.

Now, I’m not going to address the question of sexism in Doctor Who. I think that accusing anyone of sexism – or any other form of discrimination – is a very serious charge and requires a lot of research and analysis that I have not done, and so I don’t feel qualified to make any such judgment. However, these authors make very good cases for their accusations and these articles are food for thought.

The thing that is bothering me are the mentions in these articles that people are starting to dislike the show, and I look back on my thoughts in this blog and have to agree, in a way. If you’re familiar at all with what I’ve written, you’ll see that I’m very entranced by the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, and I’m having a blast watching the classic Doctors. My history with the Eleventh Doctor is far shakier. I started out disliking him, but my last post about my feelings towards him stated that I like the Eleventh Doctor, but I don’t like his stories. I’ve seen most of his stories once only, and I find it difficult to watch them again. The ones I remember liking (for example, “The Eleventh Hour,” “Vincent and the Doctor,” “The Doctor’s Wife,” “The Lodger”) I’ve seen multiple times, but it’s hard to convince myself to watch the ones I didn’t like the first time. I watched “Time of the Angels” this weekend and have yet to feel compelled to watch the second episode in that story (“Flesh and Stone”). And so many episodes in the second half of season seven (Clara’s season) was so horrible, it so felt like a waste of time the first time, that I’m not sure I’ll ever watch them again.

Why is this? Mr. Moffat has proven himself to be a good writer: the episodes that are generally considered to be the best in the modern show are predominantly his. Here’s an article that ranks all 83 of the modern episodes from worst to best, and while this list is simply one man’s opinion, we can use it as a guide. Four of the top 10, and eight of the top 20, are written by Mr. Moffat. Russell T. Davies, the previous showrunner and the other most prolific episode writer, doesn’t have as good a track record, with only six in the top 20. However, I think it’s important to look at exactly which of Mr. Moffat’s episodes are highly regarded.

  • “Blink”
  • “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances”
  • “The Girl in the Fireplace”
  • “The Time of the Angels” / “Flesh and Stone”
  • “The Pandorica Opens” / “Big Bang”
  • “The Impossible Astronaut” / “Day of the Moon”
  • “Silence in the Library” / “Forest of the Dead”
  • “Eleventh Hour”

Four of the episodes are from the Ninth and Tenth Doctor’s time, and the top three of those are usually considered among the best five episodes of the modern show. Of the rest, one is the Eleventh Doctor’s introduction episode, and two are timey-wimey episodes that either open or close their season’s story arc. The last one, well, I can’t really comment on because, as I noted above, I don’t like it, but the list author notes that it’s heavily marred by its destruction of what made the Weeping Angels so terrifying in the first place and its preoccupation with the crack.

Looking at this list, it’s very clear to me why series 5 through 7 are nowhere near as interesting to me as series 1-4 or the classic series. First, I think that Mr. Moffat excels at constructing plots that involve complicated time-travel and universal concepts, but when he applies them to season-long story arcs, they don’t translate well and the individual episodes suffer from having to keep the arc going while also dealing with their own stories. His best episodes tend to be season openers or enders, and not the ones in-between. He has stated before that the idea of the cracks being something introduced in the Eleventh Doctor’s very first episode and resolved in the very last episode, with story arcs for each season tying into that, was pretty much an experiment. If that’s true, then I have hope for series 8 to not be so epic and, well, confusing. (It might also be that he’s best when he’s writing for only one episode, when his scope is very constrained.)

Second, I think that Mr. Moffat is a fantastic writer when he’s using someone else’s characters and are constrained by the world they’ve already built, but he is weak when having to create his own characters and his own rules. His first four episodes written for Doctor Who were with Mr. Davies’ Doctors and companions, who had defined personalities, strengths, and weaknesses, and all of those episodes are excellent. The last one of those, “Silence in the Library” / “Forest of the Dead,” introduced his own recurring character, and while River was strong and interesting in that episode, there has been plenty of debate about the merits of the character in her subsequent appearances. When he became the showrunner, he had to create the Eleventh Doctor and all of the companions, and suddenly the episodes are not nearly as good. I’m not going to comment on Amy, because I don’t feel like I have enough of a feel for her to make any argument for or against her, but Clara is a simply walking plot point, with little personality or purpose other than to exist. Except in her origin episode (“The Bells of St. John”), she seems to follow the Doctor around like a puppy and then suddenly save the day or prompt the Doctor to try again when the Doctor’s best attempts fail (especially in “The Rings of Akhaten,” “The Name of the Doctor,” and “The Day of the Doctor”).

I do have hope for the next season, reasoning that if the Twelfth Doctor is going to be more dynamic and less personable and considerate than his predecessors, Clara will have to develop into a stronger character to realistically be able to stay with him (or, perhaps, she won’t work out with him and be replaced), and it looks like they won’t be doing such convoluted story arcs. And meanwhile, I’m going to try to keep an open mind while rewatching the Eleventh Doctor’s seasons, to find the good stuff, because I know they’re there.