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

  • While I agree with a large portion of what you’ve stated, I think that a big part of it is a buildup to the end. We all know that Amy and Rory are leaving The Doctor this season and Moffat has stating it will be absolutely heart-wrenching. I think that the fact this Doctor and co. have gotten out of so many situations has built us up to believe that everyone is safe, thus when someone is actually lost, it’s going to be even more powerful. I could be completely wrong, but I really have faith that Moffat will turn the tables this season and give us that ‘loss’ the doctor is tragically known for having around him.

    • James Blake Ewing

      I hope so, too, but I found Russel T. Davies was able to make The Doctor lose something important with each season and I think Moffat should be doing the same thing.

      • R Story

        Oh yes, RTD was perfect. Fear Her was worse than the worst Tom Baker episode. The idea was dumb. The execution was tragically bad. The Slitheen, farting aliens, what a great invention! Queen Victoria and a werewolf and the creation of Torchwood. It was great the first time, but does not stand up to repeated viewings. Rise of the Cybermen / Age of Steel is everything that is wrong with the Cybermen from the classic series magnified X 1000. This should not have been a two part story. It is overly convoluted and the Cybermen are totall y tiresome. Journey’s End. Towing the Earth with a rope was the height of stupidity.

        I could keep going, but why? The era of Rusty Davies is not the perfect place you think it is. There were good episodes to be sure, but Series 1-4 were not the height of perfection that everyone thinks. Anyone who says some of the nasty things he said about Doctor Who while still in the showrunner position make him someone who should be vilified not escalated to godhood.

        As for Moffat, he’s just as egotistical as RTD. Looking back, Series 5 (his first) was probably the best, in spite of the fire it has drawn. The Silence is just a variant ripoff of the Weeping Angels. I suspect its time for him to leave as well. It might have been better if Doctor Who had stayed dead after 1987. What ever 2005+ has brought us, it seems that there are more duds than diamonds.

        • James Blake Ewing

          RTD isn’t perfect, but his version of The Doctor and its universe was a lot more complex and engaging than Moffat’s super happy fun-time space romps.

        • Tommy

          “As for Moffat, he’s just as egotistical as RTD. Looking back, Series 5 (his first) was probably the best, in spite of the fire it has drawn. The Silence is just a variant ripoff of the Weeping Angels. I suspect its time for him to leave as well.”

          Series 5 almost made the trash we had to sit through with RTD as showrunner, worth it to get to this. However I think most of the strengths of Series 5 were down to the Gap year allowing it a longer period of production and gestation, and frankly even the season finale showed signs of flippant self-indulgence and blunted focus.

          Since then I think Moffat has let himself become rather overworked and has been seriously losing his focus or reusing reliable old ideas and characters too much- I got so sick of River Song in Series 6, and I used to really like her.

          I actually thought the Silents were a cool and effective villain, but again they really should have appeared only as a one off villain rather than being the main arc villain.

          I keep thinking what maybe Moffat needs is to step back or to remould the Doctor Who seasons into something more manageable- having inherited such a demanding format from RTD. I’m not clamouring to see him leave, but I’m not particularly keen for him to stay either, and after a while of being impressed with his clever storytelling I’ve found my interest in the show seriously waneing.

          “It might have been better if Doctor Who had stayed dead after 1987.”

          I’ve always felt it’d have been better if the classic show had ended in 1981, right when Tom Baker left.

  • Long time reader, commenting for the first time.

    I agree with just about everyone of your points, and your comments on Rory having been made older than the Doctor at one point, but reverted to his normal self, is true and something I never quite thought about. Moffat’s created a bunch of interesting characters, but doesn’t ever do much with them.

    I recently wrote a similar article, though mine is more of a prolonged rant that goes over specific plot elements. However, in many parts, I do discuss why I believe Moffat’s writing has become so weak. Perhaps you’d be interested in reading it:

    • James Blake Ewing

      Thanks for commenting!

      I do think that Moffat’s characters have a lot of potential, but it seems like he never wants to push them into those interesting places. I much prefer the TV work of someone like Whedon who isn’t afraid to take the characters in places everyone may not like, but at least he’s evolving those characters over time instead of keeping them in perpetual stasis.

  • sassy3000

    I agree and disagree with this write up. I don’t believe Steven Moffat is capable of writing expansive storylines. They always have these massive build ups followed by these HUGE let-downs. Well if your physically and mentally over the age of 8!
    River is just a gross sociopath who should have been kept to that two part library story and nothing more! the more we learn about her the sicker and more obnoxious she becomes! She is NOT A HERO! Except maybe to some very sick and disturbed minds. She is a cold blooded killer. She is not a hero nor an anti-hero! she is a villain! And the Doctor should throw her in a straight-jacket and leave her in a mental institution for the rest of her life! There is ZERO CHEMISTRY between Matt Smith and Alex Kingston! Nothing personal against Alex but she looks like his mother! Not to mention she isn’t even close to being a True time Lord! Again, Steven Moffat shows how incompetent he is by changing (or trying to) what a Time Lord even is! And NO! they weren’t created by the time vortex! Give me a Break! What kind of idiots for fans, does he have?! They are soooooo lazy!!!!! they absolutely refuse to go back and learn and ACCEPT the history of the show! Sorry neither but what older writers wrote first takes precedent over any of the garbage Moffat writes!
    His stories also lack credibility! Even in the world of Science Fiction! Such as the recent BS of River being freed because there were no longer any records of the Dr?! WTF?! Are you kidding me?! Just how insane is Moffat?! I’ve got news for that imbecile! 20th Century Jailers (apparently) are far more advanced then ones in the 51st century!!! Shouldn’t that be the other way around?!
    My Father worked at a jail for 30 yrs! They knew about computer hackers and computers crashing even back in the 80’s!!! So they kept paper copies of every criminal that ever walked through the doors to the jail! And before some half-wit starts babbling that “Maybe they don’t have paper in the 51st century” I’m sure by then they will have found a nice sustainable organic material that could be used instead of paper.
    And also their computers are on dedicated lines! So NO ONE (not even a Dalek LOL) could hack into their computers from the outside!!!! Not Possible! One would have to access the ACTUAL computer in person! And even if someone managed to erase all the other computers and broke in and erased all records of a victim called John Smith, THERE WOULD STILL BE those who remember the VICTIM!!! The Jailers, The Judge, The Jurors, The families and friends of John Smith!!!! Hellllooo!!!!
    So BS to the whole Oswin erased ALL memories of the Dr! What a load of CRAP! And yet these easy to please idiots just mindlessly accept it and as a result Dr Who looks like an OUT OF DATE PIECE OF CRAP STRAIGHT OUT OF THE 1950’S!!!

    • James Blake Ewing

      Interesting that you don’t like River given that I think she’s the only part of Moffat’s writing that breaks out of his inconsequential, episodic happy-fun-time recklessness.

      And yea, this latest season feels like it’s rewriting a lot of Dr. Who history for the worse. I’m really, really, really not liking it so far. I think it affirms a lot of my problems with Moffat as lead writer.

      Let’s just get RTD back, please!

      • sassy3000

        So she doesn’t conform to some stereotype. She’s a cold-blooded killer and as such, she’s ugly as Hell! She’s also obnoxious. And I’m sorry for those who have no idea what Real Healthy love looks like but it sure as hell isn’t what the Dr and River has. That just looks sick.
        The Doctor should treat her with contempt. She is not fascinating. She is repulsive.
        And have you seen Series 7? It’s even worse! A double WTF?! Is he TRYING to destroy the show or is he really this inept.
        And while he ties up one or two loose ends he IGNORES the other 12 loose ends all together and has never answered them.
        Like what caused the Crack in the first place. Why did the Daleks go from trying to destroy the universe ‘The stolen Earth’ to trying to save it? Why would traveling through a Time Vortex imbue a baby with Time Lord capabilities. And besides a Time Lord is NOT a Race but a Rank! Gallifreyan is The Doctor’s Race, and Time Lord is his rank.
        I have given up on Dr Who UNTIL Moffat the Moron is gone! RME