The Central Problem With Steven Moffat's Doctor Who

Illustration for article titled The Central Problem With Steven Moffats emDoctor Who/em

This Saturday, we witness the end of Steven Moffat's third season as Doctor Who showrunner. And what an ambitious run thus far: a single story, starting with the crack and leading up to the Doctor's greatest mystery. You have to admire the boldness and cleverness of Moffat's plan. There's just one huge problem with all of it.

We've seen "The Name of the Doctor," the episode that airs in a couple days (except for the last scene, which was left off for mega-spoiler reasons, I guess.) And... it's not going to change anybody's mind about Moffat's Who. If you've been enjoying this season, you'll probably enjoy "Name of the Doctor," and if you've found the direction of the series a bit frustrating, then this episode, too, will frustrate you. The most surprising thing about "The Name of the Doctor" is how unsurprising it all feels — it's exactly what you expect from Moffat, at this point.

But watching "The Name of the Doctor" also cements how much Moffat has made Doctor Who his own, at this point, redefining the show even more than Russell T. Davies had. Moffat is remaking Doctor Who's mythos along his own lines, and even though fans are polarized by the results, there's something brilliant about seeing a talented writer take a classic story and rebuild it from the ground up.

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We wondered before whether Moffat has a "master plan" for Doctor Who — and by now, it's clear he doesn't. He does, however, have themes and preoccupations that he keeps coming back to, over and over. (The Doctor's fame, people becoming stories, memory and forgetting, monsters that gain power from not being seen, and so on.)

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And there's one huge, glaring problem with Moffat's approach, that makes Doctor Who smaller and less amazing. A problem, in fact, that's endemic in a lot of heroic stories these days.

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It's all about the Doctor

Moffat's Doctor Who is all about the Doctor and his impact on the universe. His story arcs are all about how the Doctor affects people, and the endless debate over whether his crusade to save the universe has gone too far, or turned him into an egomaniac. (And maybe, whether the Doctor has created his opponents, the same way Christopher Nolan's Batman creates the Joker.)

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Every important character in Moffat's Who, both heroes and villains, is obsessed with, and shaped by, the Doctor. In particular, the over-arching plot of all three seasons of Moffat's Who has been about whether the Doctor will speak his name, and different villains who want to prevent him doing that. (And at the basis of that plot is the idea that the Doctor's name, in itself, is of massive significance to the entire cosmos.)

Illustration for article titled The Central Problem With Steven Moffats emDoctor Who/em
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Notably, Moffat seldom writes confrontations with thoroughly evil villains — either his baddies are misguided, or his villains drop out of the story long before the climax of the narrative. (The one exception I can think of is "Bells of St. John.") When Moffat does include a major showdown with a villain, it's still incidental to his real story, which is the constant reassessment of the Doctor's importance in the universe.

The process of moving the Doctor to the center of the universe began under Russell T. Davies, who destroyed Gallifrey and turned the Doctor into the "Last of the Time Lords," and thus incidentally into "the lonely god." But the Doctor still met megalomaniacs with their own goals, and Davies' finales tended to be about things like "Davros wants to wipe out the universe" or "the Master wants to turn Earth into a twisted new Gallifrey," not so much "the Doctor's death or lack thereof shatters the universe."

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In a sense, Moffat is creating a metafictional narrative about growing up as a Doctor Who fan, and imagining a universe where absolutely everybody is as obsessed with the Doctor as his biggest fans. And viewed in that light, all of the weaknesses people point out in Moffat's Who writing — the wafer-thin characters, the one-dimensional women, the twitchy sleight-of-hand — are irrelevant, because those things are only there to service the larger story about the Doctor.

Making the Doctor big ends up making him small

So what's the problem with this? After watching Doctor Who for years, most of us probably wonder why he's not more famous, and whether his constant saving of planets and occasionally universes isn't causing a lot of weird consequences down the line. Why aren't more people obsessed with this guy, and isn't he basically the most important person in existence at this point?

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But those are exactly the sort of questions that would occur to someone after consuming hundreds of hours of Doctor Who, or any other media. They're the sort of things a slightly jaded fan thinks of. Part of the suspension of disbelief of an open-ended heroic story, meanwhile, is that you accept that the hero can just keep having larger-than-life adventures forever. You're not supposed to think about the fact that Batman should have had career-ending injuries after just a few weeks patrolling GothamCity, or that the crew of the Enterprise all should have had a nervous breakdown after their first 20 psychedelic encounters.

There are many different types of realism, and some of them still require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief because otherwise the premise breaks.

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But there's also a larger problem: the more you put a hero at the center of the universe, the smaller that hero paradoxically becomes. A larger than life hero has larger than life adventures, encounters huge and unknowable things, and battles foes so great, you can hardly imagine how the hero could win. In fact, what makes heroes epic is how small and insignificant they are — and yet, how much of a difference they're able to make.

This is someone who has access to countless billions of galaxies, across the entire sweep of history from beginning to end — and he faces threats that are basically the Nazis writ large, or technology taken to its most awful extreme. Huge, malevolent forces that would crush everyone in sight if the Doctor wasn't throwing a spanner into their works.

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There's also the problem that the more you put your heroes at the center of the story, the more moral ambiguity you're tempted to introduce. If your hero is so important that all events in the universe seem to bend around him, then all the terrible stuff must be his fault — again, this is something Nolan plays with in The Dark Knight,and it's a bit of a trope in recent superhero comics: the hero creates his or her own villains. And the law of unintended consequences strikes again, and again. As John Ostrander explains here, this risks cheapening the Doctor's heroism, or possibly suggests that trying to help people is a waste of time.

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And then, there's the increased power level that comes with being the person that all of time and fate seem to wrap around — Nolan is able to play with Batman's culpability in creating the Joker, in part because he pairs that with a sense of Batman's frailty and inability to make his problems go away. But as part of Moffat's attempt to build the Doctor's legend to universe-shattering proportions, he's also vastly increased how much time travel makes the Doctor a quasi-god. The Doctor can escape from escape-proof prisons because of time travel, and he can also wrap people's entire lives around his little finger — instead of a limited power that creates more problems for the Doctor than it solves, time travel has come to seem astounding and boundless. And yet, weirdly arbitrary.

It's as if in the middle of The Dark Knight, Batman suddenly turns out to be able to melt people with his brain.

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At the same time, people who want the Doctor dead can't just walk up to him on the street and shoot him, which ought to work perfectly well. Instead, they have to build massive Rube Goldberg devices out of time and space.

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Again, this is something that happens to superheroes a lot — power inflation, where Superman starts out being able to lift heavy things and jump high and winds up being able to tow planets.

Moffat's Doctor is the epitome of the "cleverest man in the room," a character type that Moffat is obviously fond of, and to his credit over time Moffat has surrounded the Doctor with more colorful and larger-than-life characters (most recently, the delightful Victorian trio of Jenny, Strax and Madame Vastra.) At times, Moffat seems to want to tell the same stories Davies did — about how the Doctor's influence makes people into heroes, or turns them into weapons.

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But when he strays into treating the Doctor as not just a great hero, but as the absolute dead center of his own universe, he actually cheapens the Doctor as a hero. And that's rather a shame.

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DISCUSSION

I always wonder why Moffat gets such a hard time when RTD is usually looked at through such rose-tinted glasses. Maybe it's because Moffat is the new guy and has to live up to his predecessor, but RTD had no immediate predecessor so anything he did (good or bad) was a good thing because it meant new Who. Maybe it's because (and I think we can all agree) Moffat's episodes were almost always by-and-far the best of the RTD series, so we expected Moffat's run to be miles ahead of RTD. Maybe it's just because we complain about what we are given, not what we were given. Or maybe it's because I wasn't really around during RTD's run, so I wasn't seeing complaints about his work on a weekly basis but they still happened.

There's a large section of argument on how Moffat's stories are about how The Doctor shapes and creates his villains, the implication being that RTD didn't do this. He did, and while you do acknowledge that in a sentence, it seems not only unfair but untrue to place all the blame for that on Moffat. Davros and the Time Lords returned with a vengeance, shaped by The Doctor's previous actions. The Master and The Doctor and ying and yang dancing back and forth. Martha had to get the whole planet to know all the things The Doctor had done for them (or whatever, it's been a while). Davros (I believe) had that whole thing about how The Doctor turns people into murderers to do his killing for him... or gets people killed, again, it's been a while. Not to mention all of The Doctor's non-Davros interactions with The Doctor. Moffat may have turned this aspect up a bit, but RTD absolutely started the ball rolling.

And come now, let's not forget that as frustrating as certain aspects of more recent Moffat episodes have been, they have very rarely every been bad. There's been episodes I'd describe as "not part of the main plot, so a bit of a pit-stop along the way", there have been "fun, I guess, but probably forgettable" episodes, there have been the "not a terrible episode, I guess, but god dammit, the Angels can't move if someone is looking at them, that includes other Angels, did Moffat completely forget the rules for these things he made up himself in the first place?!?" episodes, but there haven't been episodes as bad as some of RTD's early run. Good god, the less said about the Slitheen, the better... space-pig, really?! That was as stupid for the audience as it was for The Doctor. Moffat's recent era has been frustrating because there's been this lingering sense of "I feel like this could be better, I feel like there should be more, I feel like I should be feeling more... but I'm just not, why is that?", but none of it has been as bad as "haha, they're aliens who dress like humans, but can't stop farting, let's play this up for three episodes this series!" or "god dammit, Rose, god dammit, all you had to do was not touch the chained up killer alien robot, but you couldn't do that, could you, noooooo, you thought 'it was in pain' so sure, you just had to touch it, and now look what's happened, how many low-paid security guards have been murdered because you couldn't help yourself to stay away from the killer robot I'm pretty sure The Doctor explicitly told you to stay away from, no amount of cute little tight-white-shirts are going to save you from my anger" (I did like the episode, but the entire thing could have been prevented by Rose not being stupid). Just for Moffat to drop down below RTD on overage quality, he'd have to have an entire 45 minute episode of nothing but The Doctor taking a big graphic dump on the TARDIS control panel (metaphorically... I think), until then, be as frustrated as you want with recent stuff, it's still better than what we once were given. There's nothing wrong with wanting better, there is something wrong with wanting to go back to when things were worse.

Didn't manage to squeeze it into those previous paragraphs: Did you just praise RTD's season finales? I'm pretty sure those have always been criticized as being repetitive and trope-heavy. Say what you will about Moffat's finales being a bit bonkers and Doctor-focused, at least they're interesting and inventive.

"You're not supposed to think about the fact that Batman should have had career-ending injuries after just a few weeks patrolling GothamCity..."
Isn't that exactly what we did in The Dark Knight Rises, and wasn't that a good movie?
"...or that the crew of the Enterprise all should have had a nervous breakdown after their first 20 psychedelic encounters."
Isn't that a big part of what made Battlestar Galactica's characters better and more real than Star Trek Voyager's characters?

"It's as if in the middle of The Dark Knight, Batman suddenly turns out to be able to melt people with his brain."
Now, now, The Doctor didn't discover he could travel through time halfway through the show's run.