Steven Moffat’s era, taking over from Davies in 2010, improved on it in many ways. Doctor Who by then was so closely identified with RTD that the BBC considered resting the program after he left. Perhaps for another generation or more. But RTD found a successor in Moffat, and we could continue after the departures of all the stars and production leaders.
Moffat’s Doctor Who suffered from not having a Julie Gardner of his own. Having to do what should be the work of two people on Doctor Who, plus share creative producer duties on Sherlock with Mark Gatiss, ultimately caused a lot of cut corners on Smith’s second season and production slowdowns that spread Matt Smith’s three seasons over four years.
|Steven Moffat is the second-longest running, and the most
successful creative producer of Doctor Who. Popularly,
as a writer, and ethically.
This is why I consider Moffat’s era of Doctor Who to be really two eras. It’s not just because they’re split between the Matt Smith years and the Peter Capaldi years. It’s also the fact that the chaotic production of Smith’s era finally smoothed out once Moffat had Brian Minchin as co-producer starting in 2014.
Moffat’s message was more optimistic than the nihilist Davies could ever have been. Where RTD’s aesthetic was ultimately about the absolute necessity of maintaining history’s course, Moffat’s story arcs saw history itself overthrown multiple times.
He embraced the vision of the Doctor as the revolutionary – the Doctor must change history because his ethics won’t let him not do so somehow. Laws and necessity be damned if they stand against what’s right. The Doctor wasn’t just a charismatic adventurer. Moffat’s Doctor is a dedicated idealist.
This is most evident in Day of the Doctor, the anniversary special which changed the most important history in Doctor Who, that of Doctor Who. In erasing the final genocide of his own people that ended the Time War, Moffat and Smith’s Doctor overcame the last element of Davies’ nihilism to sit in Doctor Who.
The Doctor as a character no longer lived with the destructive contradiction of being a hero who had purposely murdered billions of people. He simply found a cheat within the possibilities of the moment, and changed the reality of history while deceptively keeping appearances just as they were.
|John Hurt's Doctor redeemed the ethical wound that
Russell T Davies' core tragic concept in Doctor Who,
the Time War, left on the show.
The anguish of the Davies era was now not a real, inescapable tragedy at the core of the character. It was a penance for having abandoned his idealism at considering genocide as the only solution to the Time War in the first place. The ethical idealism of Doctor Who was fully restored.
Most of the descriptions of Moffat’s aesthetic stick to describing the complex nature of his season plots – farcical puzzle boxes. River Song’s arc is the core example. She’s a beautifully paradoxical character.
The mystery of her identity and story is at the forefront of the Smith era. Even so, Doctor Who tells (and the Doctor experiences) her story out of chronological order, and many key scenes are in marginal places like episode previews and DVD extras.
Her marginal place makes it seem as though her story and character is defined solely through her relationship with the Doctor. This was a key element of the popular feminist critique of Moffat – his apparently strongest female character was nothing but a cipher of worship for a man.
But that’s only because we saw her large, complex narrative when it intersected with Doctor Who. River unfolded on the margins, so however much she loved the Doctor and the Doctor was part of her early life, she had a long, full life of centuries where she and Smith’s Doctor were only passing partners. They may have been married, but she treated their relationship as open and on-off most of the time.
|From the first time we saw River Song in Silence in the
Library, her story was one of tragedy and loss. But her
story on Doctor Who ended with redemption and love.
And Moffat himself made Doctor Who a thoroughly feminist show in the Smith years. Amy Pond is fundamentally shaped by her own desires and loves, and her own character arc is literally about growing into herself in overcoming trauma and tragedy.
That storyline of the Pond family – overcoming the trauma of violence with love and friendship – so defined the fabric of the Smith years that it limited a lot of the potential of the character. I think that’s why, however much I enjoyed the interpersonal dynamic between Clara Oswald and Matt Smith’s Doctor, their time together felt like an afterthought.
The Smith era had been defined by the need for mystery – for whole season arcs and characters to be shaped by an investigation. Piece the clues together. Find the reality behind the disconnected appearances.
With Amy and Rory gone from his life and (as The Name of the Doctor implied) the Doctor having caught up to River’s death in both their timelines, Clara – with the strange phenomenon of her fracture in time – appeared to be a cosmic-scale mystery. The Doctor treated her as one on the show, and we did as viewers.
But this was Moffat pulling our leg. He knew, after the four-year unravelling mystery of the River Song arc, that this technique could go no further. So while he figured out where to go next after replacing Matt Smith, he played a joke on us. Clara's mystery was no conspiracy, but her own affirmative act of risking her life to save her friend the Doctor.
|Much as I love Matt Smith's portrayal of Doctor Who,
his performance was eventually limited by his
character's deep links to the arc of the Pond family.
Once that was complete, the character had little else
to do but show what a rut he was stuck in.
Peter Capaldi’s time on Doctor Who saw a turn away from these mysteries and complex narrative puzzles toward a focus on simplicity. Capaldi’s first season as Doctor Who was defined through the tragic arc of Clara and Danny Pink’s love.
It’s a simple, beautiful story told in farce, drama, and tragedy. Farce because of the hilarious personality conflicts of the Doctor and Danny, and as Clara tries to hide her other life as a time travelling adventurer from Danny.
Drama because Clara and Danny are really falling in love. Complicating that love, Clara finds herself conflicted between a life of variety, adventure, and empowerment, and the comfortable hearth of life with Danny. Danny who has some masculinist tendencies that Capaldi’s more openly gay* Doctor undercuts. Danny talks about protecting Clara, when we know that Clara needs no one to protect her.
* I say this only in terms of Capaldi’s mannerisms in his first season, with the physical and speaking style that reminds me of some of the elderly gay men of my own family. As well, he’s an older, flamboyant man who thinks nothing sexually of the quite beautiful Clara.
Clara’s remains a deeply feminist story because she is always more than the choice between life with Danny and life with the Doctor. Or as a mid-1990s Quentin Tarantino might have said, between an old-fashioned heterosexuality and an embrace of the gay way.
It’s a storyline fitting for Davies, given his long-running interest in gay people's stories. A few key comments in her second year with Capaldi established Clara as bisexual. As Jenna Coleman left Doctor Who, Clara leaves the Doctor as an immortal in a lesbian life partnership with Maisie Williams’ Ashildir.
Moffat’s era saw Doctor Who expand to become a truly global brand, rooted in the sci-fi fandom and popular culture of nearly 100 countries. Its deep links with television markets all over the world essentially prevents the BBC from cancelling Doctor Who in all but the most catastrophic circumstances.
It’s all the greater achievement for Moffat to have universalized the popular love of Doctor Who while preserving its spirit as a fundamentally idealistic, forward-thinking, weird program with a heart of progressivism and revolutionary spirit.
Even Moffat’s most notable haters, the feminist sections of online sci-fi fandom, embrace the same idealism that Doctor Who as a program does. Feminist Moffat-haters are Doctor Who’s equivalent of the Bernie Sanders campaign (and Occupy, where those values came from).
His Doctor Who had made more progress for feminism in the program than any other production leader. Yet he was still reviled by feminist activists, latching onto his laddish sense of humour and laying missteps of his writers** at Moffat's own intentions.
** Toby Whithouse’s “Mrs Williams” line in The God Complex and Smith’s own kiss-without-consent of The Crimson Horror. Matt Smith – however much I love his performance as the Doctor, once a footballer always a footballer.
|Still one of my favourite moments of Peter Capaldi's Doctor.
River Song was a major recurring character who subverts the one-dimensionality of loving the Doctor (which wrecked Davies’ companion with the most disappointed promise, Martha Jones) with a full, complex, centuries-long life that unfolds totally separately from the Doctor as a character and Doctor Who as a television show.
River and Amy’s character arcs in their focal seasons of Moffat’s era were stories of overcoming violence and trauma through love and friendship. Clara’s tragedy of love and loss led to an embrace of a gay lifestyle, all of which unfolded entirely on her terms.
Throughout, the Doctor was a visionary idealist and revolutionary. To me, there’s no sense in which the Moffat years haven’t been a time of progress for Doctor Who.
But his progress enabled a fanbase to demand more progress. That’s what a lot of people don’t understand about the nature of idealism. It never stops pushing, the world is never as good as it could be, and it will never be satisfied.
Complete, absolute justice is an asymptote. Impossible to achieve, but we must keep pressing toward it and getting closer to it. I don’t know if we’ll get closer than this for a long time. So thank you, Steven Moffat.