The Curious Case of Moffat Revisiting the Past
Guest contributor Sam White examines Moffat’s penchant for revisiting past concepts.
I have found that Moffat’s greatest strength as a writer comes from his ingenious ability to transmogrify seemingly ordinary elements into horrific and at times sickening constituents. How do you translate an innocent enquiry like “Are you my Mummy?” into a spine chilling and at the same time extremely evocative affair? Of course, Moffat achieved this way back in The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, his first televised story of New Who. Since then he has often revisited this schematic for storytelling, so much so that expressions like “Don’t blink”, “Don’t breathe”, “Stay away from the cracks in the wall” have become commonplace for the fans.
In fact if one simply digs a little deeper, they will find that apart from his indulgent and blatant amplification of typical day-to day forces into something much more sinister and nefarious, there also exists a trend of revisiting and reusing older stories, plot devices and narrative structures for the sake of fabricating entirely new fables. A recent article by Kevin Burnard elaborated on Moffat’s penchant for subverting expectations in his finales; another recognizable pattern in his storytelling. In fact, I think that at this point it’s safe to say that Moffat possesses a very distinctive and unique writing style, one that has become more and more apparent to the fans through his decade long history with this show. Let’s take a deeper look.
Moffat started his tenure as showrunner with The Eleventh Hour, in which we saw the Doctor capering about Amy Pond’s timeline, originally meeting her as a little girl, then accidentally jumping twelve years into her future and finally hopping an additional two years, again accidentally, before taking her on as a proper companion. Now, while the idea of a little girl completely enamoured of a stranger who hops into her life at various points in her timeline and influences her in numerous ways, might seem like a new one, it is one which Moffat had himself used in The Girl in The Fireplace with Ten and Reinette, much before The Eleventh Hour. On further critical inspection, I have found that a similar framework lies at the heart of A Christmas Carol, only this time with Eleven and Kazran Sardick.
Another curious case is that of the Clockwork Droids and the Weeping Angels, both monsters originally created by Moffat. After their universally acclaimed debut in Blink, Moffat decided to use the Weeping Angels once again, to the same effect in The Angels Take Manhattan. The employment of Angels as atmospheric agents of dread and horror, and the ceremonial usage of different time zones for the progression of the narrative feels much like Blink. The scene where Amy finds an old dying Rory in bed is also reminding of the one Sally had with old Billy. As for the Clockwork Droids, instead of a completely different take on them in Deep Breath, Moffat decided to expand on what he had already established in The Girl in the Fireplace, again pointing to a case of reuse.
Fans may also remember Oswin Oswald from Asylum of the Daleks, the first Clara echo to appear on Doctor Who. Admittedly, I found the episode to be quite unsettling, not because of Oswin’s unfortunate fate but because Moffat chose to portray her inner turmoil initially through denial and finally through tragic acceptance that eventually culminated into a poignant, moving and frankly distressing revelation. Interestingly, Moffat tried to engender similar feelings in the hearts of fans when he sentenced Danny Pink to an almost identical fate in Death in Heaven. A striking similarity in both these cases is that both Oswin and Danny are successfully able to retain their humanity even after full conversion owing to their strong will and capacity to love, and consequently prove to be vital to the resolution of the conflicts introduced in their respective stories.
Another fascinating case is that of Moffat’s obsession with human consciousness and its preservation through digital means, an idea which he has used not twice but thrice in his storytelling endeavors. The first use of this idea can be observed in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead through CAL – a centralized management system for the Library, which saved Donna and thousands of other people in the Library to the core hard drive, when its attempt to safely teleport them out backfired. Moffat revisited this idea, but from a different standpoint in The Bells of Saint John, which entailed harvesting of living human minds through the Wi-Fi, integrating them permanently into the data cloud for later consumption by the Great Intelligence. The more recent usage of this idea came in the form of Nethersphere in Series 8. Cloaked in the myth of an actual paradise after death, the Nethersphere was in reality shown to be a Matrix data slice that Missy was using to upload dying minds.
I am sure that many fans have found the concept of questioning the Doctor’s moral viewpoint as a “good man” in Series 8 to be extremely intriguing and enthralling, but even this seemingly new facet had been previously touched upon by Moffat in Series 6’s A Good Man Goes to War. The idea of viewing the Doctor as an officer or a General who can summon an army at one call, who can command and lead the said army into battle and who is himself no less a soldier and a warrior, forms the crux of the aforementioned story, and so, many parallels can be in fact be drawn to the Doctor’s overall Series 8 character arc. In the same story, Moffat also hinted at the power of a mother’s instincts and concern for her children through Amy, an idea which eventually formed the essence of The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe.
And for those not paying attention, I would like to point out just how structurally similar Blink and Listen are, in that both the episodes unravel as a sequence of bizarre events held together by an idea presented to the audience at the start, but which makes no sense until you get to the very end, at which point the story comes full circle and the events depicted at the beginning of the episode become much more coherent.
Apart from this Moffat has also shown a tendency of using repeated imagery in his stories, especially in Christmas specials, like the touching image of a lonely old man who needs saving in A Christmas Carol and The Time of the Doctor, or the extremely memorable and stirring image of Clara and the Doctor tugging at a Christmas cracker in The Time of the Doctor and Last Christmas, or the mesmerizing and breathtaking image of the Doctor riding a sleigh (well almost) in A Christmas Carol and Last Christmas.
So what does all this exactly mean? Throughout the article I have listed various accounts in which Moffat has taken inspiration from his earlier works (and there may be more) to fashion something new out of them, but I have refrained from giving any verdicts as to when or whether his attempts misfired. This is because issuing judgement was not the objective of this discourse (of course, you are free to do so in the comments sections), but rather to provide a scrutiny of how Moffat generally approaches new stories. In light of Series 9 I think a general understanding of his ways may help the fans with their expectations, because being too formulaic may make his stories predictable and excessive reuse of old themes and elements may rob his stories of novelty. Fortunately, despite of a few hiccups here and there, I have found the journey to be quite exciting and satisfying so far. Here’s hoping it will remain to be so.