Assessing Moffat Who, Three Years In

Asylum of the Daleks

It has now been nearly three years since Steven Moffat and Matt Smith took the helm of Doctor Who from Russell T. Davies and David Tennant. With the series now halfway through the eleventh Doctor’s third season after this sea change, it’s worth looking back at our expectations, and seeing if they were fulfilled, or if we were overly optimistic.

I have to say that I am as much of a fan of this series as I’ve ever been. I love Matt Smith’s portrayal of the Doctor. I love Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill, and I think the relationship between the Doctor and his two companions was something fresh and new (though it did recall previous team-ups like the fourth Doctor, Sarah and Harry, or the second Doctor, Jamie and Victoria). And I can list many stories that I would happily watch again on my TV right now, including The Eleventh Hour, Time of the Angels/Flesh and Stone, Amy’s Choice, The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon, The Doctor’s Wife, The Almost People/The Rebel Flesh, Let’s Kill Hitler, The Girl Who Waited, The God Complex, Asylum of the Daleks and The Angels Take Manhanttan. And that is, by no means, a complete list.

But I have to acknowledge two things. One: Steven Moffat has yet to hit the highs of Blink and The Girl in the Fireplace. And two: Moffat’s attempts to build season-spanning arcs — and even possibly a Doctor-spanning arc, have proven as problematic as seen when Russell T. Davies was doing something similar.

I would point out that we were warned on the first front. Others have said that it’s one thing to write spectacular puzzle boxes of episodes when you only have to write one or two per year. It’s another matter entirely when you are essentially responsible for all thirteen episodes of a season. And we got hints of this from the start: Moffat did well rebooting the series with The Eleventh Hour. The episode that followed, entitled The Beast Below, fell far short of his previous efforts.

But then, The Beast Below was attempting something completely different than The Girl in the Fireplace. It was attempting to be average. I also warned of this here.

That said, Moffat’s attempts so far to create season spanning arcs concerns me. The fifth season arc was probably the most successful of the lot. We were shown cracks through time, which were being manipulated by a being that said “silence will fall”. The Doctor figured out what the cracks were and stopped them, but what was the silence? To be continued next season.

Next season, we were introduced to a religious order called “The Silence”. But how did they cause the TARDIS to explode? Why were they trying to build their own TARDIS? Why were they trying to build their own Time Lord? Yes, River Song was a weapon to be used against the Doctor, but did she have to be a Time Lord in order to shoot him in the chest? And was that the extent of the Silence’s weaponry? Create a girl, brainwash her through her childhood, set her loose on the Doctor to shoot him, and then do absolutely nothing when she completely fails to do so?

The sixth season arc had some interesting points to make about the Doctor’s reputation getting too big for the universe. I did appreciate how Moffat addressed Russell T. Davies’ excesses in this respect, but the pile of questions that were being left unanswered was getting bigger and bigger. And it has to be said that the sixth season was probably challenging for non-fans to watch if they wanted to figure out what the season arc was.

The complexity of the sixth season arc may or may not have been the reason Moffat decided to do a series of stand-alone episodes for the first five episodes of season seven. If there was an arc, it was focused on the end of the Doctor’s relationship with two longstanding companions, and on the success of the Doctor’s attempt to reduce the size of his reputation. However, I am concerned that the arc plots of seasons five and six have been abandoned completely. That’s a lot of material to ask your fan base to invest time and energy following, only to just dump and ignore.

I will give credit to Moffat for at least trying, though I’m wondering if his desire to do season-spanning arcs was a good idea in the first place. The fans seem to demand it, not just in Doctor Who but in other series as well. And it hardly ever seems to go well.

It seems we want our television series to function more in the model of novels (and why not? Novels are cool!). Fans invest years following the characters in a series. Now more than ever, people tune in to watch characters change and grow because, instinctively, we know that these people have to change and grow given all of the stuff that has happened to them. When characters don’t change and grow (see House), fans become frustrated and drift away. We want to see lives develop. We love it when plots come back to haunt us. We look for the lead characters to fall in love at that critical pace of “the anticipation is killing us, I hope it lasts!” (How many people think Moonlighting collapsed when the lead characters finally kissed? Strangely enough Kim Possible managed to pull this off).

But the serial medium isn’t suited to novels. You need a phenomenal amount of control over your product in order to keep the story going at the pace that keeps an audience going. You have to deal with network interference, concerns (as Star Trek: Voyager found) that any major plot arc would make it more difficult for the series to be syndicated. You are asking fans to make a multi-year commitment to a show when you yourself haven’t yet written the ending. You don’t know how many fans will drift away, or how many will come in late.

Time after time, I’ve seen television serials broken by attempts to create series arcs. The X-Files collapsed after the resolution of its conspiracy storyline was stretched out way too long. Babylon 5 had some semblance of the total control required to pull this off, with J. Michael Strazynski going on an insane run of 52 consecutive episodes to tell his series arc, only to have his pacing thwarted because his network, Warner Brothers, couldn’t confirm the commissioning of a fifth season until the last possible minute.

The new Battlestar Galactica came close to maintaining a coherent narrative throughout the series, but the opinion of some fans appears to be that the series came close to losing its way in places, and the final part of the fourth season makes little sense. Even The Prisoner has filler, and its final episode succeeds because it drops whatever semblance it had of being just a weird spy show, and going a little hallucinogenic in its evisceration of the paradox of the individual within society.

Series television is far more suited to the anthology than the novel. That’s the way it has been for decades. But as television series and the fans that support them seem to want to go for bigger and better things, it’s no surprise that more and more tv shows try to follow the challenging model of the novel.

By the standards of any other television show, the Doctor Who revival is a success. Through its seven seasons, it has reached the age where the longest-lived Star Trek shows were cancelled. It’s well past the age of Babylon 5 and Battlestar Galactica. The ratings are still higher (in terms of position) than the original series ever achieved, and there is no sign that the show risks cancellation in the foreseeable future, especially with the fiftieth anniversary around the corner.

It helps that Doctor Who is the most flexible format in fiction. Because the Doctor is a wizard with a magical cabinet able to drop him into any story situation anywhere in the universe, regardless of genre, the series can and has upped sticks when the continuity gets too heavy, and reboot itself to attract new audiences, without changing the central nature of the program — or indeed giving any explicit indication that the show has been rebooted.

It’s probably for this reason that I’m able to re-watch episodes like The Doctor’s Wife or The Girl Who Waited without caring strongly over the fact that the season arcs sometimes fail. I try to ignore The Stolen Earth, but I celebrate the existence of Midnight just a few episodes before it. That the revival had season-spanning arcs was more gravy than anything else. The meat of the individual episodes was still there.

I would hate to say that Moffat has disappointed me because, personally, he hasn’t. I’ve enjoyed the episodes, and they’ve been consistently of high calibre in the acting and directing department. With few exceptions (The Doctor’s Daughter and, maybe, Vincent and the Doctor), I’ve been happy to show the episode to others. This is a far cry from the original series, where many episodes have to be seen as somewhat guilty pleasures. It’s this quality that allows me to get up to my elbows in reviews about Moffat’s plot structure rather than talking about shaky performances from guest stars or wobbly sets.

But Moffat is being held up to a higher standard for good reason, and it’s a similar reason to why I criticized Russell T. Davies’ theatrical excesses: we know that Moffat can do better, even though we ourselves could hardly hope to do half as well as him given the workload he’s under. Even if producing thirteen episodes is worlds different from writing one or two, he has shown a remarkable mastery of plot before, and if subsequent episodes don’t meet up to that quality, well, we can’t pretend that it didn’t happen.

And perhaps that mention alone is worthwhile, to remind us that while the show is made by human beings and currently has some human foibles mucking up its season spanning plots, those same humans can deliver much more. And maybe they will tomorrow. I personally do not feel that the show has disgraced itself in any way. In the past season, only The Curse of the Black Spot and Night Terrors bored me. The rest did not feel like wastes of my time when I watched them; it’s just that some weren’t as good as I think they could have been.

And that allows me to remain optimistic about the future of the series.

There is a separate concern, here, about some of the lazy plotting that has infiltrated some of the episodes recently, especially The Angels Take Manhattan. I should note that I enjoyed the episode, and will happily watch it again, but I have to admit that it made far less sense, and far less of its own logic than, say, Blink. I’ve criticized Davies for putting the visceral reaction ahead of the logical one, so I can’t let Moffat off the hook here.

And, indeed, looking at Moffat’s record compared to Davies, I see that the two are not as different as we initially expected them to be. Indeed, their differences are complimentary, but rooted in the same core, in some ways making them two sides of the same coin.

But this post has gotten too long, and I’ve not thought through the implications of this second train of thought. I’ll come back to this soon. I hope you’ll be patient with me until then.

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