Why the Moffat Era Works
Guest contributors Michael Coats and James Blanchard give their thoughts.
NOTE: This article is a long-overdue response to the article, “Why the Russell T Davies Era Worked.“
We would like to begin by congratulating our opponents; Messrs David Selby and Max Jelbart on a writing a real corker of an article. We hope to do you justice with our response. As you predicted, the Moffateers (a rather cool sounding word which Michael is using discarding all negative connotations, as it it reminds him of the word privateer, an old fashioned word for a government sanctioned pirate) have prepared a riposte, better late than never. As you might expect, this article is going to explain how we think the Moffat Era is the dog’s proverbials and why he is a superior showrunner. This article is not intended as an attack on RTD, whose services to the show are appreciated by both the Moff and ourselves, and should not be forgotten.
Whilst it would be churlish to disagree that Midnight was indeed a masterclass in characterisation, in general I feel that Moffat’s characters are a lot more complex and interesting to explore. Amy is arguably the most three-dimensional character the revived series has produced apart from the Doctor (Donna comes close) and has a fantastic character arc. Moffat has a constant theme with Amy her outcomes are bittersweet and she’s maturing all the time, and nowhere is this better showcased than in The Angels Take Manhattan. When forced into a decision between her best friend and her husband, Amy chooses to stay with her husband and leave the Doctor forever. To paraphrase the Doctor in The Big Bang, she doesn’t need her imaginary friend any more, she’s grown up. Moffat’s villains too seem much more complex: while conquering/destroying the universe/Earth (delete as appropriate) seemed high on most villains Christmas lists in RTD’s day, under Moffat’s reign (ooh, I see what you meant) we have The Alliance, who wanted to avert universal destruction, the Dream Lord, a manifestation of the Doctor’s selfhatred turned inward, as well as Madame Kovarian and the Order of the Silence, and their allies, the Church, whose sole goal of eliminating the Doctor (as we now know, to prevent the universe being destroyed) was something very different. We also have the Great Intelligence, whose bitterness at the Doctor’s perpetual thwarting of his schemes led him to seek revenge by undoing every one of the Doctor’s past victories.
Our opposition discussed how Moffat’s seemingly only has one style of dialogue for female characters, namely ‘witty flirtatious banter’. To accept this would be to discard the fact that this is a trait that fades from Amy as she develops as a character (it’s gone by the second half of Series 6), as well as to discard characters such as the simply spoken and to-the-point Lorna Bucket, the wise and forthright Madame Vastra, the cold, detached words of Madame Kovarian and Darla, the callous Miss Kizlet (while under the control of the Great Intelligence, anyway) and the down-to-Sol 3 Madge Arwell and Jenny Flint. It doesn’t seem to be a trait Clara exhibits for all that long, either, she seems to use it as a facade as she’s wary of getting close to people at first. I particularly find Amy’s words to Kovarian in The Wedding of River Song and Clara’s ‘Spoken like a man!’ rant from The Snowmen very realistic, as well as the Doctor’s wistful statement wishing he was more like Clara as regards running out on the people he cares about in The Bells of Saint John. I also liked Clara’s late mother’s assertion that ‘The soufflé isn’t the soufflé, the soufflé is the recipe.’ It was the kind of idiosyncratic statement I can relate to my own mother.
The claim also implies that Davies did not write female characters this way himself; Jabe, Series 2 Rose, Series 3 Martha and Lady Christina can all attest otherwise. I would also dispute that Davies’ dialogue was always real I am incredibly grateful not to hear anything like ‘Victory… should be naked!’ or indeed, any of the Abzorbaloff’s lines ever again, because I cringe at the thought. Moffat’s marked reduction of technobabble is also much appreciated. This is all to say nothing of the brilliant monologues he has given the Doctor, like the Pandorica speech, which is sublime.
For all my disagreements with the original article, it did get the definition of what to look for in a showrunner pretty much spot on. I certainly see Moffat’s look and feel in nearly every episode under his tenure. However, this is where our agreement ends. The original article asserts that ‘one thing that you can certainly not dispute is that Davies made sure that every episode went out as good as could be’. I regret to say that I was shaking my head when I first read this sentence and I still am now. The truth of the matter is that there are some very quick fixes to the worst of the problems I have with episodes such as Love and Monsters and Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks to give the most egregious examples.
As for the split series approach, how much is actually a creative decision and how much is being forced upon Moffat is something I am suspicious of. It’s not necessarily been all bad for the show though the mid-series finales of both Series 6 and 7 have been excellent. We also had the show returning to its traditional autumn start for the first time in 7 years after the show came back (incidentally the number of years out of 26 Classic Who wasn’t on on a Saturday, to address a slight error in the original article).
When I think of the Moffat era compared to the RTD era, I have a different parallel in mind. I see RTD’s approach as akin to the Pertwee era: a heavily present day Earth-based run, with a Doctor (if you’ll forgive the pun) who is quite human in his behaviour and characteristics; a trio of main companions that are fairly ordinary females from this era and an assortment of recurring characters. Don’t get me wrong, I still love it (I would not be talking to you today if I didn’t) but while it has a few gems, it is not my favourite era of the show because it’s too constrained and too predictable (though at the end, the Pertwee era is less so than the RTD era). Then everything changes as in both worlds, we get a significantly younger and more ‘alien’ Doctor, much more unique companions and much less recurring characters. It’s also much less modern day Earth based, with stories that can be basically anywhere in space and time. The ‘of the times’ approach does date, but I always thought that of the two eras, RTD’s was always much more that. I think with Moffat’s reign (oh yeah, that sounds go… stop it!) the consistency is very much in the inconsistency every week you can get any story, set anywhere in space and time, and that for me is quintessentially Doctor Who.
In addition, Moffat’s resolutions are almost always consistent. Instead of reaching for the nearest deus ex machina, be it a substance that makes you conveniently magnetic to the void, a network of satellites designed for hypnosis suddenly giving you superpowers when used a certain way, or a blow-up-the-Daleks button, Moffat will very often either establish something before the episode, or find a solution in what is at first a problem. In Flesh and Stone, the triple problems of the Weeping Angels, the Crack in Time and the failing gravity combine together to resolve themselves in one fell swoop. In The Big Bang, Moffat uses the light from the Pandorica which originally restores a Stone Dalek in conjunction with the TARDIS exploding at every moment in history to reboot the universe, and then used the fact Amy grew up next to a time crack to restore the Doctor, her parents and Rory. In The Name of the Doctor, he uses the fact that Clara remembered a conversation that told her the Doctor had met her before and the Doctor’s open time tunnel to save the day. He is a master of clever, sensemaking resolutions.
It would not provoke much controversy to say that Matt Smith’s Doctor as written by Moffat is considerably different to his immediate predecessors. It would also be fair to say that Moffat’s Doctor is effectively a deconstruction of what he’s expected to be. We see what other civilisations who’ve suffered at the hands of the Doctor see. We have a man who carries the self hatred and guilt of Nine and Ten, hidden underneath the eccentricity of Two and Four, and it is quite heartbreaking when this is stripped away.
Regarding criticisms of The Big Bang, I can’t help but feel I watched a different episode. It is an episode where the Doctor formulates the plan to restore the universe very early on and is aware of the consequences of it. I can understand him wearing the fez (he only picks up the mop to barricade the door and briefly travels back in time with it on Rory’s instruction and it’s not like he was intending to use the satellite dish as a shield in the first place), as if his plan involving Amy fails, he knows it’s the last chance at fun he’ll ever have. As Mrs. Finnigan/The Plasmavore of Smith and Jones would put it, he’s laughing on purpose at the dark.
We can get much closer to the Doctor because villains are out for him, as opposed to him just getting caught up in the action. Our faith in the Doctor is tested much more; he makes promises to save people (The God Complex et al) and doesn’t deliver, he asks people to trust him (The Eleventh Hour et al) and lets them down. Amy even asks what the point of him is after Rory’s first death. We know why the Daleks, Cybermen etc. want to kill the Doctor, because he gets in their way. But then you have the Doctor being portrayed as the villain by the real villains. This is relatively easy to ignore when the villains have been presented as monsters in the past (The Pandorica Opens, but when they’re humans with normal lives, essentially normal people, you know something has gone very wrong somewhere.
Something I get from Eleven is that he’s learned his lessons from his previous two incarnations. He’s learned that Daleks, as a race with a propensity for genocide, cannot generally be trusted. He’s learned that untrustworthy races like the Sycorax and the Silence, cannot just be let off with a warning (the Sycorax leader had already lied, and as soon as the Doctor looked away from the Silence, he’d have lost all power over them). He’s accepted death and erasure from the universe, despite finding a way around them. He’s also aware, despite being attracted on some level to Amy (as evidenced by the Dream Lord’s behaviour) that romancing a companion with a partner who loves them is not a good idea as it can damage them severely, and he tries very hard to stop Rory becoming Mickey 2.0 as a result of that.
At the same time, a lot of the problems the Doctor faces are (at least partly) caused by him. He caused Amy’s mental health issues by accidentally abandoning her and as a result of the cracks in time. He caused Amy to be kidnapped and River to be raised as a weapon because of his use of intimidation (and Trenzalore). He caused Rory to become a self-fulfilling prophecy: “You know what’s dangerous about you? It’s not that you make people take risks. It’s that you make them want to impress you.” Rory then proceeded to prove his point by taking a bullet for the Doctor in Cold Blood. Rory also realises what it is truly like to be the Doctor in The Girl Who Waited, when he sees how horrible the moral dilemmas the Doctor has to deal with. In The God Complex, the Doctor not only breaks Amy’s faith in him, but leaves her and Rory behind, recognising that he was dangerous to them. Unable to stay away, The Angels Take Manhattan ends with an ironic echo of his ‘alternative’ of not doing so: the Doctor, standing over the graves of Amy and Rory, over their broken bodies; despairing. The Great Intelligence is led to seek revenge by the Doctor undoing his actions at every turn, and the spite engendered by the Doctor’s actions proves almost deadly to the universe and causes Clara to sacrifice herself (though the Doctor rescues her).
He’s Taken It Forward
I am eternally grateful to The Giant Welshman for bringing the show back and for it being kept on until he handed it over to Moffat. Moffat though, emboldened by the stability RTD introduced, brought more Classic series elements back. The stories for the first time in the revived series focused much more on time travel and other sci-fi aspects, rather than just having it be a means to an end. He’s also reintroduced the Silurians and the Great Intelligence and applied new ideas to the Daleks (no, not the disastrous paint job) after 49 years, as well as writing finales with unique concepts.
In addition, he has introduced the Forgotten Doctor, as played by John Hurt in the gobsmacking cliffhanger that leads us into the anniversary special. As good as they sometimes were, you could pull out a list of things which would always happen in an RTD finale (Daleks or Master, Earth invasion etc.), while Moffat’s finales (including 6A and 7A) have always been far more unpredictable, and could be carried solely by his own creations in a way that Davies’ weren’t.
Another aspect of this is the number of household names in writing and acting that Moffat has managed to attract. From the writing world, we’ve had (or will have had) such luminaries as Simon Nye, Richard Curtis, Neil Cross, and Neil Gaiman. Neil Gaiman! Probably the series’ biggest coup writing wise since Douglas Adams. Moffat has also overseen a dramatic increase in overseas viewing figures while keeping those at home stable, an impressive feat.
While it is true that what people find sad is indeed subjective and it depends on emotional investment in characters, RTD wasn’t always the best at this in my opinion. This might have something to do with the fact I find the Davies era became oversaturated with melodrama post Doomsday. Another problem I had was that he also undermined the genuine sadness of Rose and Donna’s departures by bringing them back and giving them a happy ending instead, using all manner of plot contrivances and deus ex machinas to do so. This does not sit well with me, as it makes the reasons for the departures ring hollow.
By comparison, while Moffat has said outright that he prefers not to kill characters, I would dispute that he has a fear of making an ending too dark. We see Lorna Bucket shot and killed in battle because she wanted to help people she barely knew. We see a Weeping Angel reanimating the consciousness of a dead man to tell the Doctor he died afraid, in pain and alone. We see Oswin converted into a Dalek. Regarding Amy and Rory, the emotion lies in the separation from the Doctor and from their families more than anything else as far as I’m concerned, them committing suicide doesn’t change any of that and adds a large plothole to the mix. (also, TATM is not a noir pastiche, that is a myth).
I can’t say I remember a character of ‘importance to the show’ ever being killed off under RTD, but regarding the protagonists of particular stories, I can cite Father Octavian, Lorna Bucket, Oswin and Victorian Clara as perfect examples. And when characters are saved, I’d rather see a character seem to die and be saved by the writer remembering their characters are trained in medicine (for example, Jenny being saved by Strax’s futuristic defibrillator in The Name of the Doctor) than a character be alive and death seem inescapable and be saved via some form of deus ex machina (for example, pretty much everyone at some point during The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End).
Whilst the Doctor is indeed an anti-hero, I struggle to see what relevance Adric’s death has. Regardless, I find the statement that companions in particular haven’t been killed off a bit rich when used in defence of RTD, with him having prophesied the deaths of companions twice and not followed through (the first one is true by technicality, the second one not even that).
The Doctor isn’t a god. Despite his best efforts; he couldn’t help abandoning Amelia, he couldn’t stop River being stolen away or interfere with her timeline, he couldn’t rescue Old Amy in The Girl Who Waited. He couldn’t stop Amy and Rory from being trapped in the past, and he couldn’t prevent the death of Victorian Clara. Doctor Who for us is at its saddest when you know that the Doctor desperately wants to save someone, but he can’t.
Both eras of the show get far too much criticism. While we personally happen to prefer the ‘next stop: everywhere’ motif at the heart of Steven Moffat’s era, we recognise that there are lessons that can (and are) being learned from the Davies era, and can see why other fans prefer it. Steven Moffat and Russell T Davies, both take a bow.