The Rise and Fall of Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat

Steven Moffat, Doctor Who showrunner

Image by Gage Skidmore

It was announced last week that Steven Moffat, Doctor Who showrunner since season 5, would be leaving after season 10 to be replaced by Chris Chibnall.  A great chorus erupted from many fans:  good riddance.

How did we come to this?

It’s not that Moffat’s a bad writer.  Far from it.  Put together a top 10 story list and no fewer than three Moffat stories are almost guaranteed to be present:  “Silence in the Library” / ”Forest of the Dead,” “The Empty Child” / ”The Doctor Dances,” and, of course, “Blink,” considered by many to be the best episode ever made.  You can probably throw the 50th anniversary special, “Day of the Doctor,” in there as well.  Possibly “The Girl in the Fireplace.”  And that’s just counting the very best.  He’s written several more very solid stories.

The problem is Moffat seems to have gotten a wee bit drunk with power.  No longer limited by a supervising showrunner, he never quite got that you can have too much of a good thing.  River Song, as presented in “Silence in the Library,” was a tremendous and instantly popular character.  Devoting an entire season to her increasingly convoluted story, which stretched across all of time and space, however, left many baffled and frustrated.

Likewise, Moffat related that all of the villains coming together in the “Pandorica Opens” fulfilled a wish he has had since he was 12.  The problem is 12-year-olds are terrible writers.  The scenario made no sense.  And then the Doctor rebooted the universe, which potentially made even less sense.

Villains assemble in the Pandorica Opens

Afterward, I’m sure they all had tea and biscuits.

The Character Driven Plot

Moffat wants to threaten the universe and pull the strings of the most powerful villains.  What he’s good at, and I mean very good at, however, is personal pieces focused on limited characters.  The Weeping Angels are terrifying, yes.  But they aren’t trying to take over the world in “Blink.”  They aren’t relocating entire populations to the past.  “Blink” is about the adventures of Sally Sparrow.  Along the way, she meets a handful of other ordinary people who have gotten caught up in things one way or another.

The Angels are the kind of villain that probably should have only been used once.  But they became so popular Moffat couldn’t help but bring them back in bigger numbers with even more powers.  The result, “The Time of Angels” / “Flesh and Stone,” is an unsatisfying mess.  Among other things, there’s no reason anyone should have survived it.

Angel Statue of Liberty at Winter Quay.

And there’s this, which makes less and less sense the more you try thinking about it.

But Angels are cooooool.  When done right, absolutely.  When simply used because they’re popular, not so much.

“The Empty Child” / ”The Doctor Dances” is another story that is very much character based.  While there was a threat to the entire earth (if the “contagion” was able to spread), that really wasn’t the point.  It was about the young woman caring for a gang of orphans and shouldering more responsibility than she could bear.  It was also about the brash con man Jack Harkness, who debuts in this story.  And it’s a great piece on the Doctor himself.

And we can’t forget “Heaven Sent,” an entire episode featuring a  lone man in a lone building. That’s all it is, and it’s stunning.  That is Moffat’s strength.  As showrunner, he’s forgotten that, and there’s been no one to stop him from going off the deep-end with plots that are over-dramatic, over-complicated, poorly organized and, as a result, not terribly coherent.

The Exit of Peter Capaldi

This week, we also got the news that season 10 would be Peter Capaldi’s last as the Doctor.  It sounds as if Capaldi was considering an exit regardless, but it was ultimately decided that Chibnall should have a clean slate from which to work, just as Moffat did (he took over for Matt Smith’s first season).

That may not be the best idea.  Since the early days of Doctor Who, it’s been understood that the Doctor needs a companion around when he regenerates.  The point is to provide some measure of continuity for viewers.  I think this might also apply to showrunners.  Chibnall will have enough on his plate as it is, and now he as to create a new Doctor from scratch as well.

There’s another tradition at play here as well:  Doctors tend to stick around for three seasons.  Out of the 11 Doctors with multiple episodes (it’s not really fair to count Paul McGann or the War Doctor), Capaldi will be the seventh to follow this trend.  (Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Colin Baker and Christopher Eccleston all break the pattern.)

With all of the character development now involved in the show, breaking in a new Doctor takes time for both actor and writers.  Capaldi’s first season was a bit of a mess, finally coming together only at the very end.  His second season was far more coherent.  We’re hoping get one more good season out of him (to air in 2017, because they’re skipping 2016), and then it’s back to the drawing board.


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