Mon, Mar
29
2010

What to Expect when the Doctor Comes Back
(Moffat Who Previewed)

Matt Smith's Doctor

Unlike the previous three articles that debuted under this title, I don’t have the benefit of a long lead time, here. The new season of Doctor Who (officially referred to as “season one of Matt Smith’s Doctor” or “Season 31”) debuts in the United Kingdom this Saturday, and comes to Canada two weeks later on Space, showing Saturdays at 9 p.m. starting April 17 (also showing on BBC America at the same date and time, I believe). I’ll be holding off on my reviews until the individual episodes come out in Canada but for now, right now, I’m just as much in the dark as you are about how the new series will be.

There have, however been hints and there have been samples and, I’ve got to tell you, I’m excited. I’ve been excited for a while, and the clips are bearing my first impressions out. This show is now in the capable hands of Steven Moffat, who wrote four of the best stories of the Doctor Who revival — Russell T. Davies himself said he “didn’t touch a word” of any of Moffat’s scripts; they were just that good. Moffat has considerable experience as a showrunner, masterminding such gems of British television as Coupling and the mini-series Jeckyll. And while on paper Matt Smith seems an odd choice to play the Doctor (he’s so very young!), it’s worth noting that Tom Baker was an unknown actor when he took the role.

But in anticipating what’s to come over the next thirteen weeks, I think it’s important that we as fans dampen down our expectations. What we are not going to get is a steady diet of Empty Children and the Doctor Dancing. Steven Moffat is a brilliant writer and a capable showrunner, but when he gave us The Girl in the Fireplace or Blink, he was writing one episode, and not thirteen. Simply stated, it’s physically impossible to give us your a-game every single week.

Take a good look at Steven Moffat’s most recent offerings for Doctor Who: Blink and the two-parter Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. The two-parter in particular shows Moffat’s mortality. As good as the story is, the plot almost comes apart in the last half. Moffat doesn’t have enough time to give every element the attention it deserves and the previously implacable force of nature is negotiated with and relents rather than being defeated. It’s still a good story but, as I noted in my review, Moffat had to make compromises to get the finished product on screen. And even Blink — considered by many to be the best Doctor Who story ever — has the weeping angels moving at the speed of plot. Again, compromises are made so that a happy ending could be achieved. And these were the only episodes Moffat had to write in their particular season. In this season, Moffat has six episodes to pen, and another seven to script edit. So, rather than the nearly perfect Empty Child, Forest of the Dead is likely to be more indicative of the quality we’re likely to get from Steven this year.

Of course, if that’s the case, the future of the program seems pretty secure, in my opinion.

It’s also worth noting that not only is it extremely difficult to sustain the perfect pace, the perfect dialogue and the perfect plot through thirteen hours of television, the story of the season requires changes in direction, shifts in intensity, as well as diversions of character, in order for the season to work as a coherent whole. Macbeth has comic relief even though it’s a tragedy, because if you don’t let up on the intensity occasionally, the high notes just don’t sound so high in comparison. The stand out moments don’t stand out, unless other moments pull back.

But how will Steven Moffat approach Doctor Who? Do we get hints from the previous episodes he wrote? Will his style be much different from that of Russell T. Davies? Are we going to be watching a different show?

Like Davies, Moffat is a long-time fan of Doctor Who. He undoubtedly cares passionately about the program and has great incentive to (in his own words) “not mess it up”. And while Moffat’s episodes stand out among the other offerings of the Davies era, they don’t clash. Indeed, intriguingly, Moffat ended up echoing and emphasizing Davies’ season-long plot thread through The Girl in the Fireplace. Remember, this is the story of the Doctor falling in love with a mortal girl, even though a life together for them is a tragic impossibility — episode or season, it doesn’t matter; they’re both the same. Moffat and Davies also seem to love the same monsters and they were able to work with the style of the ninth and tenth Doctor’s equally well. This tells me that Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who isn’t far off that of Davies, and so the first season of the eleventh Doctor will feel familiar enough that it won’t alienate the fans.

But Moffat definitely has a different approach to his writing than Davies’ does. You’ve read in my previous posts my criticisms of Davies’ style of writing, which places an appeal to emotions above providing a plot that flows logically. Whatever you say about Davies, he knows how to make the audience react on a visceral level, and his approach has succeeded in taking Doctor Who to number one in the ratings. Moffat’s stories are more tightly plotted, featuring dialogue that sparkes, but which requires a little more thought on the part of the audience to truly appreciate. Moffat’s stories remain the most popular with fans among the revival, but tellingly it’s not these stories which top the season’s ratings.

A good summary of the differences between Moffat and Davies’ styles of writing is that Moffat writes from the inside out, while Davies writes from the outside in. Davies’ threats are overt. His finales are grand affairs, laden with special effects, and full of elements that resonate with old time fans. Moffat gets inside your head. Although he too has plenty of references to elements of the original series in his episodes, he has yet to write an episode where old monsters feature. The Dalek story and the Silurian story coming up in the next season aren’t his. And his tales’ scariest moments come not from the flash of a laser or the roar of a monster, but the creep of something very small, or very stealthy sneaking up behind you.

Compare Steven Moffat’s Blink to Russell T. Davies Midnight. These episodes are very similar in that they were the budget-savers of the season. Both tales relied on a minimum of special effects, and were deemed to be very claustrophobic. But now compare the weeping angels to the monster of Midnight. The angels sneak up on you. They attack when you aren’t looking. You don’t know you’re dead until they kill you. The monster of Midnight, however, comes knocking, watches you with baleful eyes and attacks with the ferocity of a frightened mob. There’s a lot more shouting in Midnight than in Blink.

So, this may be the big difference between Moffat Who and Davies’ Who. It may be that the threats are more internalized, the menace more implied than overt. It’s worth looking at Matt Smith’s approach to the role, which is very Troughtonesque. Physically, the actor is bigger than David Tennant (Matt Smith was a footballer until injuries ended any possibility of a career), but he looks so much smaller. And for those who are worried that we’re going to get another companion falling in love with the Doctor again, take heart (spoiler warning!). Early reports indicate that Amy Pond has a fiance named Rory, and that he’ll be travelling on board the TARDIS as well. But don’t discount the possibility that Moffat might milk the romantic drama that might be inherent in this triangle. Also note that Alex Kingston is reprising her role as River Song for four of the episodes this season (all written by Steven Moffat), so the Doctor is likely to be kept busy in this department.

Moffat’s real test comes with the two-part season finale. In the previous four seasons, these episodes have been when all of the hints dropped throughout the season come together in a spectacular finish. Davies, to his credit and his shame, kept on trying to top himself season after season, until we ended up with an almost incoherent mess in The Stolen Earth (but, gosh-darn, didn’t it look good?). Here, Moffat will be going up against considerable audience expectations for a splashy finish. Can he deliver it while maintaining his inside-out approach to writing? Will the audience accept something more cerebral than what came before?

Only time will tell. And that’s been true with all of the questions raised by this article. I’m talking through my hat here, clutching at straws and trying to build a preview from them. But I’m still excited about what’s to come. I expect you are too. Tune in three weeks from now for my review of The Eleventh Hour when some of these questions will be answered.


The Season Lineup So Far

  1. The Eleventh Hour, by Steven Moffat, directed by Adam Smith.
  2. The Beast Below, by Steven Moffat, directed by Andrew Gunn.
  3. Victory of the Daleks, by Mark Gatiss, directed by Andrew Gunn
  4. Time of the Angels, by Steven Moffat, directed by Adam Smith (part 1)
  5. Flesh and Stone, by Steven Moffat, directed by Adam Smith (part 2)
  6. Vampires of Venice, by Toby Whithouse, directed by Jonny Campbell
  7. Amy’s Choice, by Simon Nye, directed by Catherine Morshead
  8. Title TBA, by Chris Chibnall, directed by Ashley Way (part 1)
  9. Title TBA, by Chris Chibnall, directed by Ashley Way (part 2)
  10. Title TBA, by Richard Curtis, directed by Jonny Campbell
  11. Title TBA, by Gareth Roberts, directed by Catherine Morshead
  12. Title TBA, by Steven Moffat, directed by Toby Haynes
  13. Title TBA, by Steven Moffat, directed by Toby Haynes

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