How Steven Moffat is Ruining Doctor Who


Yea, yea, another non-movie related post, to which I say, “Oi, this is Doctor Who talk so shut up and listen!” The next season premiers this Saturday, and while I’m looking forward to it, I’ve got a bone to pick with the last couple of seasons of the show. If you haven’t seen the show, none of this will make any sense to you, so you probably shouldn’t read it. Also, Spoilers!

If you’re involved in the television scene, you’ve probably heard of Steven Moffat. He’s that guy who’s making Sherlock cool and modern with Bilbo and that one guy called Cucumber or some such thing. But, of course, the big thing that everyone is talking about is how he made Doctor Who gleeful, exciting, smart and epic. What they’re not talking about is how he made Doctor Who worse.

Yes, yes, he’s done a better job at telling expansive, overarching stories—and he is weaving a clever ongoing subplot with his River Song character—but he’s also made Doctor Who a depreciably less interesting show since taking over with the transition to the 11th Doctor (played by Matt Smith). He’s done this by throwing consequences out the window.

Previous lead writer Russell T. Davies, while not as proficient at telling a tight, smart story, imbued the stories with a heavy sense of consequence. While The Doctor is this fun, adventure-seeking wanderer through time and space, his adventures often come at a cost, some of them at a desperately high cost. Sometimes it affects The Doctor himself, other times it inflicts itself on those he loves. And the ramifications of his actions are felt as the series moves forward.

Stephen Moffat, on the other hand, may write overarching narratives, but when it comes down to it, the Doctor is always gonna be on top and everything will be alright because The Doctor is cool so who cares about consequences and paying for your actions when you’ve got all of space and time as your sandbox. Time and time again, The Doctor weasels his way out of situations with no real impact. He can wage war on races, bring civilizations to the brink of nonexistence and it’s all to prove that he’s The Doctor and can do whatever he wants.

Both season finales are excellent examples of how The Doctor has everything to lose but always comes out with not so much as a scratch. And the problem is that if there are consistently no consequences, if there’s nothing lost, victory is cheap and easy. It’s why Return of the Jedi is a terrible ending to the Star Wars trilogy: there’s no sacrifice. Without sacrifice, the stakes feel artificial and superfluous, simply stacks of cardboard boxes for the characters to topple with ease.

And without this, there’s no room for the characters to grow. Russell T. Davies took The Doctor to some dark places and also showed how he put the lives of his companions at risk. By the end of David Tennant’s stint as The Doctor, there was a real sense that he lost something. His friends are all gone, some possibly worse off because of the time they spent with him, and in his final moment he’s left alone and afraid, uncertain and vulnerable.

But Stephen Moffat’s lack of consequences goes beyond The Doctor: it reaches out to his companions. Rory, the consistently underused and marginalized companion, the show’s third wheel, goes through a powerful transformation in the finale of Smith’s first season finale. He spends over a thousand years waiting, making him older than The Doctor himself. He becomes a character worthy to challenge The Doctor’s conduct and how he treats time and space, but instead, the show resets him to how he was at the beginning of the season, an unsure, fumbling twenty-something, only bringing his age again whenever it’s convenient for a cool line or a coy reference.

Likewise, Amy Pond experiences two incidents that should change her as a character and they don’t. The first is an incident in the last season where she’s unsure whether or not she’s pregnant. The show never explores how this might affect Amy and her relationship with Rory and The Doctor, it finds a neat way to circumvent actually having Amy be physically pregnant for a season as they go on all of their adventures, but in the process makes for a pregnancy that doesn’t really mean anything to Amy.

Instead of exploring how this might affect her as a character, the physiological and emotional changes a woman would go through when pregnant, her pregnancy is all in the service of the plot and doesn’t change her as a character. Furthermore, because of her pregnancy, things happen that launch The Doctor and Rory to wage a brutal war on a number of races and Amy doesn’t seem to phased that her men have slaughtered thousands of sentient beings because of her.

In “The Girl Who Waited,” Amy gets separated from Rory and The Doctor and essentially lives in an intergalactic resort with hostile robots alone for decades. When The Doctor and Rory find her again, she’s a brutal, hardened woman who has come to resent The Doctor. It’s a moment to explore what could happen if the Doctor ended up playing in time with such a way that it forever alters one of his companions. For a moment, the show teases the possibility of continuing on with this harsh, future Amy, but the show decides to maintain the status quo and brings back the young, sexy Amy.

For all the complex narrative arcs and smart writing Moffat pours into his overarching story in these two seasons, nothing changes considerably. The Doctor, Amy and Rory haven’t learned a single thing in two seasons. They’re still the happy-go-lucky gang of space/time travelers romping through the universe, able to fulfill every whim of adventure without any ramifications.

Of course, a lot of what I am complaining about Moffat actually is able to incorporate to an extent with the River Song character, and she certainly is the best part of the show right now.  She does make some sacrifices, and what makes them even sadder is that The Doctor doesn’t realize how massive those sacrifices are. The problem is Moffat can’t seem to extend that same sense of weight and pain of consequences to the main trio of the show.

Hearing the next season is a series of episodic genre pieces makes me worry this will continue to be the trend. Will I still watch the show? Sure. It’s a fun sci-fi romp, with a lot of smart dialogue and fun stories, but the show hasn’t progressed in two seasons and I have a feeling that will be the case going forward. I can’t help but view this era of Doctor Who as frivolous, especially when compared to Russell T. Davies’ work. So here’s to another season of Moffat’s Doctor Who, where the conflicts are inconsequential.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing