Dr Who has never been better than it is now.
This is my second post this week about Steven Moffat’s tenure as Dr Who showrunner and the controversy that surrounds it. The first dealt with the charge of sexism both in his writing and in his public comments and mounted a defence of him that conceded his critics were mostly correct.
Today I’m moving from this moral argument to discussing the merits of his run on Doctor Who as art and entertainment. Here I feel able to offer a far more fulsome defence.
I realise that puts me in a minority and the weight of opinion among viewers is that the show got worse when Moffat replaced Russell T. Davies. Before I unfurl my argument against that position, please allow me to acknowledge it has points in its favour.
The Davies era has a lot to commend it. For starters, it brought the Dr Who back. It has some indisputably great episodes like Blink and Midnight. It also had a vibrancy that the show’s struggled to regain since. And Tennant’s charisma allowed the show to blast past points where the writing and directing were rather weak.*
Conversely, what has come since has had its flaws. Moffat’s difficulty writing convincing female characters is lamentable not only in and of itself but because it prevented him nailing certain arcs, in particular River Song’s. And while Smith is an impressive actor and a capable Doctor, he wasn’t the right muse for Moffat. This may be why the show felt very tired by the time Smith’s final series ended. Fortunately, the 50th anniversary and Capaldi’s arrival rejuvenated it.
Nonetheless, for my money Moffat’s tenure – and especially the two series with Capaldi in the lead – are Who at its best. They represent the show rising to the challenge of existing during ‘the golden age of television’. It became bolder, darker and more ambitious. That arguably made it a worse fit for casual family viewing on a Saturday evening – which may partially explain falling domestic audiences. But the swing to that roundabout was that it became a true global hit. And the two most recent series are the first time one could objectively argue the show matched up to the best Sci-fi and fantasy TV produced in the US.
The most obvious sign of this was Moffat allowing story arcs to become more complicated. Indeed, it’s arguable that the Davies era series did not have proper plot arcs at all. Character arcs yes; the Doctor and the companions evolve in ways that can only be fully perceived when one views a series as a whole. But there’s little sense of a plot growing across multiple episodes. True there would often be some hint as to the two-part finale written into earlier episodes. But oblique mentions of ‘Torchwood’ or ‘Harold Saxon’ are foreshadowing rather than narrative developments for the simple reason that they don’t actually develop.
Moffat’s decision to move away from that approach and embrace more densely textured arcs is the most frequently criticised aspect of his work. It is probably true that it alienates occasional viewers. But if a writer assumes that their viewers are invested in the show – watching it regularly and paying attention – then they can repay that investment. The arcs allowed for mysteries that had time to mature and could be mulled over between episodes. There’s also the gratifying moment when – like a gymnast landing gracefully after an impossible pirouette – Moffat ties what look like a mess of random threads into a convincing and surprisingly neat bow. That was true even of the otherwise disappointing series 7. The finale on Trenzalore brought together the ‘impossible girl’, ‘great intelligence’ and ‘name of the Doctor’ storylines in a surprisingly natural, economic and affecting way. And then on top of all of it provided a cliffhanger to lure us into the 50th anniversary.
That hints at another strength of the Moffat era: reliability. While Smith was the Doctor there were a fair number of bad episodes – indeed the one with the pirates is arguably the worst of all – but when it really counted the episodes would be good. The first one would start as you hoped it would go on, mid-season cliffhangers left you intrigued, and finales ended on a high note. Contrast that with, say, a muddled load of nonsense about the Daleks dragging planets through space in order to power a bomb that destroys the universe. And in the Capaldi era things have gotten better still: they’ve stopped making bad episodes. Sure there are mediocre ones like Kill the Moon but they all have something to like about them.
And that’s not the only way the show has improved recently. It’s become more experimental, trying out everything from one handers to episodes that play in cinemas. Not only is this ability to regenerate itself – geddit! – essential for a show going into its tenth season but these high concept episodes are often the most impressive. OK, Sleep No More didn’t really work but look back to Blink or Midnight, or more recently Heaven Sent. I look forward to seeing how the status quo is upended in Moffat’s final series.
Equally important has been the shift in tone. For all their success, Davies’s series often mistook goofiness for charm, and melodrama for emotion. Moffat’s Who has a more otherwordly feel: more like rich, resonant and dark fairytales than anything else. Sadder and scarier, with a more elusive appeal that was all the greater when you found it. Which, if you ask me, is what the tales of travellers through space and time should be like.
*It’s not really a point that needs making for the argument I’m making here but Davies was commendably committed to equal on-screen representation. The show has become lamentably whiter, straighter and more male since Moffat took over.