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Steven Moffat: The Man With the Plan

Since the show returned in 2005, Steven Moffat has been one of Doctor Who’s most celebrated writers.  His stories were routinely some of the most inventive and memorable of the new series and, Russell T. Davies notwithstanding, Moffat has written more “New Who” stories than anyone.  Not only that, but every time he writes a story, it immediately becomes a fan favorite, with the exception of “The Beast Below,” which is pants.  The more he wrote, the more fans began to pick up on some of his quirks and tropes that seem to crop up in all of his stories, despite the wildly differing plots.  Now, a mere TWO DAYS before series 6 begins, I’m going to take a quick look at Steven Moffat’s work in Doctor Who proper (i.e. I’m not going to talk about the Comic Relief Specials, even though those could arguably be “canon.” [There is no canon, everybody, other than the one you personally believe]).

No, okay? I’m not your friggin mummy!

In 2005, Steven Moffat wrote that year’s non-Davies two-parter, “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.”  In it, the Ninth Doctor and Rose are chasing a dangerous metal cylinder through the time vortex when it crashes, conveniently, in London. But London when? It’s soon learned that they’ve landed during WWII and The Blitz is upon them.  Rose runs off after a small boy in a gas mask looking for his “mummy” and gets herself into a pretty precarious predicament while the Doctor gets a strange call on the TARDIS’ decorative exterior phone, a child’s voice asking for its mummy.  Seems to be a running theme. He follows a young woman who feeds the orphaned neighborhood children off the table of families in their bomb shelters, where he learns that the little boy in the gas mask is not one of them, and is in fact something much different and sinister.  Rose, meanwhile, has taken up with Captain Jack Harkness, a renegade time agent from the 51st Century posing as a 1940s American on loan to the RAF.  He offers to sell Rose the metal cylinder, which he says is a Chula Warship, and the two go off to find the Doctor. They all converge at a hospital where a sickly physician shows the Doctor others like the boy, with gas masks INSTEAD of faces, all zombie-like and asking for their mothers.

When I first started watching Doctor Who a few years back, I was already a big fan of Coupling but hadn’t seen anything else by Moffat, so when the title of The Empty Child came up, I said “Whoa, the Coupling guy wrote a sci-fi story?” It happens to be, still, one of the best stories since the series came back, if not in total. Right from the start, we get Moffat-isms that would carry over into his other stories. It’s very dark in tone and the “monsters” he creates are very iconic and frightening. There is also the Doctor interacting with children, or children being very integral to the story.  You also have the Doctor doing things you don’t normally think of the Doctor doing, in this case, dancing. It introduces the now-quite popular character of Captain Jack Harkness, and while I’m pretty sure Russell T. Davies is the one who created him, Jack does play to Moffat’s penchant for time travelers in general.  At the end of the story, not to spoil anything, but everybody lives. The Doctor is able to save every person, something that NEVER happens in a Who story — often, just the opposite.  Moffat, by and large, does not like to kill off characters and will usually find inventive ways to save them. More on that later.

“Repent, Time Lord,” said the Ticktockman

The following series, Moffat wrote “The Girl in the Fireplace,” in which the Tenth Doctor, Rose, and Mickey land on a strange, abandoned space craft with a fireplace in it that just so happens to look into 18th Century France — not only that, but into the specific room of a little girl named Reinette who would grow up to be Madame de Pompadour.  She is being menaced by clockwork robot men disguised in period masquerade outfits, just to be scary.  Each time the Doctor goes from the ship to France, even though only minutes will have gone by in his point of view, years will have gone by in Reinette’s.  The Doctor has to stop the clockwork people from harvesting parts of Reinette to fix their ship. Natch.

Again here, Moffat gives us creepy and ingenious monsters and again we see how those monsters affect children.  In this story, the monster is, in fact, under Reinette’s bed, a very common fear of children who didn’t have waterbeds (my parents weren’t hippies, they just thought waterbeds were comfortable). We also get Moffat’s first instance of playing with time and the Doctor not being in absolute control of it. He makes Reinette wait years for him, something he’d bring in again when he took over the show.  The Doctor is seen coming back from a party, drunk on banana daiquiri with his tie around his head, something VERY out of character. Granted, it was a ruse to confuse the clockwork men and free Rose and Mickey, but it’s still something more “human” than the Doctor is generally allowed.

Series 3 gave us what most people consider arguably the best Doctor Who episode ever, and the Doctor ain’t even in it that much. “Blink” tells the time-jumbled story of Sally Sparrow who, while investigating a creepy old house, sees a message scrawled on the wall to HER from someone called The Doctor. He warns her to beware of the Weeping Angels.  It is from these mysterious beginnings that Moffat delivers his most ambitious and plot-heavy story to date.  Sally has only the image of the Doctor on a DVD and incredibly vague hints to try to solve the mystery and defeat the terrifying creatures.

Talk about scary creatures. Moffat’s prize creations, the Weeping Angels, are the stuff nightmares are made of.  They’re statues that come to life when you’re not looking only to turn to stone again when you are; there’s nothing scarier than that. This story also introduced Moffat’s buzzword, “Timey-Wimey,” meaning anything time travel-related that can’t really be explained away by science. They often involve causal loops, meaning A leads to B leads to C leads back to A and so on and so on.  Bill and Ted did the same stuff. This episode is mind-bendy but is somehow completely coherent, owed entirely to Moffat’s brilliance.  For an episode where the Doctor barely features, it’s one of the best examples of Doctor Who that exists.

This guy needs to eat a sandwich or something.

For the next series, Moffat knew he’d be taking over for RTD as showrunner and as such, his series 4 story, “Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead,” while being a self-contained story, introduces a lot of future-backstory.  The Doctor and Donna land on the largest library in the universe, so big it IS the entire planet. The weird thing: there’s nobody there. It is entirely silent. Soon, an archaeological expedition arrives to ascertain where everybody went. Among them is Professor River Song, a woman who knows quite a lot about the Doctor, though he’s never seen her before.  Making the mysteries evermore mysterious, the shadows in the library contain the Vashta Nerada, tiny insects that, like piranha, devour flesh to the bone. Oh, and the entire thing may or may not all be happening within the mind of a little girl.

Confused? Don’t be. This story was like Moffat’s greatest hits. It featured, scary monsters (embodied by skeletons in space suits walking around), people running from something, a little kid having nightmares, and some added timey-wimey stuff.  This introduces the now pivotal character of River Song, who meets the Doctor in the wrong order in their lives. Her identity and the nature of her relationship to the Doctor is has become a main story arc of Moffat’s tenure as head writer.  This story is also the first time we get a reference to “Silence.” Whether it is “THE Silence” or just a super quiet area has yet to be seen, but given Moffat’s love for dropping tiny hints that later pay off, I wouldn’t put it past him.

He blends right in.

Steven Moffat’s first episode as head writer was “The Eleventh Hour,” an episode that had to properly introduce a new Doctor and new companions, set the tone and story arcs for the new regime, and manage to tell a decent story too.  I’ve already spoken at length about this episode in my Doctor Who for Newbies: The Eleventh Doctor post, so I won’t go into too much detail, but as far as Moffat-isms go, the Series 5 premiere is rife with them.  We have the bulk of the action, and the season arc at large, being based off of a little girl’s fear of a crack in her wall.  The Eleventh Doctor is definitely not in control of his TARDIS as he inadvertently makes little Amelia Pond wait 12 years before he returns, then another two after that. The monster in this, Prisoner Zero, isn’t as iconic as his other creations, but Moffat gives it a very specific talent that fits the story’s purposes perfectly.  He also ups the snappy, witty banter, something of a strong suit of Moffat’s since his Coupling days.  This episode is a rollicking good time and, while the eventual dénouement is a bit convenient and contrived, it’s so fun the whole time, it’s almost negligible.

Believe it or not, he’s smiling.

Next we have “The Beast Below.” I nearly went directly onto the Angels two-parter because I frankly just forget this was a Moffat story.  I don’t like this story particularly and I think that’s mostly because there really isn’t any conflict. The rhyme at the beginning doesn’t mean anything once the end is reached, and the Smilers and Winders (two of the dumbest names for “monsters” ever) don’t serve much of a purpose besides just looking creeping and making the characters run.  The entire story is about learning the “secret” of Starship UK, but it doesn’t have the impact it was probably meant to have.  That being said, the episode does feature little kids being scared, and scary-looking things for them to fear. Also, the IDEA behind the episode’s plot is rather ingenious, even if the execution of it doesn’t quite work.

No pictures, please!

From there, Moffat delivered tenfold with “Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone.” I contend these episodes could have made an excellent feature film and are shot so beautifully that they almost are.  These episodes see the return of both the Weeping Angels and River Song, bringing together Moffat-worlds into a nifty little package.  Moffat must enjoy zombie movies because “Empty Child,” “Silence in the Library,” and these all feature the small group of heroes running from a horrible threat and barricading themselves in various rooms while the baddies try to break in.  While the Weeping Angels’ methods are inconsistent here from “Blink,” they are nonetheless incredibly menacing and effective.  The second episode becomes much more about the crack, but the Angels remain a strong presence.  We learn a little more about River here, now that she is in prison for killing “a good man. A hero to some.” This puzzle continues to perplex, but it stands to be answered very soon.

No really, Vincent, it looks great…

Moffat ended Series 5 with a two-parter in which the separate episodes could not be more different in tone and scope.  “The Pandorica Opens” is an Indiana Jones movie; “The Big Bang” is a timey-wimey slapstick comedy. Mostly. All the threads from the season come to a head with “Pandorica” and it culminates at Stonehenge with all of the Doctor’s worst enemies teaming up to defeat him, this causing the extinction of the universe. And the very next episode is four characters jumping around in time and space trying to solve a big problem. It was very refreshing to have a finale with such a small cast of characters but without diminishing the level of the threat.

The final Moffat episode (until Saturday) is “A Christmas Carol.”  In order to save Amy, Rory, and a ship full of vacationers from plummeting to their death, the Doctor spends decades teaching a grouchy old man the meaning of Christmas and human decency.  In many ways, the Doctor is reckless here, as he wantonly changes the personal history of Kazran, thus making him a different person. However, he seems to come at it from a place of fun that somehow makes it all okay.  The balls-crazy idea of having fish and sharks swimming around in this planet’s atmosphere could only come from Moffat, as could the inventive methods for making the story fit the Christmas Carol motif. The Doctor spends a great deal of time with a child again, making him the most child-friendly Doctor since Four with Adric. I’m kidding.

With only one false step, and even that not THAT terrible, Steven Moffat has proven himself to be the most consistent writer of Doctor Who.  Ever the writer’s show runner, Moffat is actually writing one fewer episode in Series 6 than he did in Series 5.  He doesn’t need to compete with himself for Hugo Awards anymore. “The Impossible Astronaut,” the first time the series has been filmed in the USA, airs Saturday night at 9 on BBC America. But you already knew that.

Kanderson comes in peace

Images: BBC

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  1. Paul says:

    Moffat is an awful showrunner, and writer. His story arcs make no sense, and he re-writes his own rules all the time. Stone Angels, okay, but the Statue of Liberty isn’t made of stone!!!

  2. Gift of the Magi says:

    Moffet is a decent writer. Not great but decent. While he can construct a good narrative, he does have issues writing decent female characters as fully-fledged people. The rise and fall of River Song comes to mind: an intriguing female lead that got worse and worse with every episode she was in, ending with the Top Ten Worst Episode nominee “The Name Of The Doctor”. He does a great job fleshing out male characters though and salvaging Old Who episodes for new material.

    He is however an utter failure as a showrunner. The Matt Smith run was by and far the worst constructed run of the show to date, beating even poor Colin Baker’s run. Badly made episodes, constant retcons, massive plot holes and heaps of self-pandering. Just the episode “A Good Man Goes To War” is proof enough…talking about how it was his greatest triumph and greatest failure, you know because beating the Devil TWICE, saving reality, two alternate dimentions, failing to save Adric or Gallifrey and literally saving TIME ITSELF was nothing compared to him spinning around as his friends blew away about 40 guys but failed to rescue a baby.

    Smith’s run is embarrassing, and Smith is my least favorite Doctor thanks to it. I mentally deduct IQ points from people that claim to be fans of him, because honestly if you think THIS is good Doctor Who, you have not watched anything prior to 2005.

  3. Adi says:

    Nice introductory write-up but a little incomplete that you didn’t talk about the first DOCTOR WHO story Moffat scripted for the BBC, THE CURE OF FATAL DEATh, as part of the 1999 Comic Relief Red Nose Day charity telethon, which was non-canonical but a spoof that deconstructed, spoofed and homaged the entire WHO mythos with Rowan Atkinson playing The Doctor, ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS’ Julia Sawalha as his companion and Jonathan Pryce as The Master. It also spoofs the regeneration cycle when The Doctor keeps getting killed and regenerating into Jim Broadbent, Richard E. Grant and finally Joanna Lumley.

    You can find it on youtube.

  4. Wil says:

    Steve Moffat is a brilliant writer in his way of finding the fear in the common place. There has been mention of his other projects that set the standard very high eg Sherlock and Coupling, but I first came across his clever and rapid fire dialogue in an eighties kid show called Press Gang. Steven wrote every episode of this quick fire relationship based story of a group of teens running a “kiddie” newspaper. I recommend this show to anybody in the work of “The Moff”.

    Matt Smith is my favorite Doctor after Patrick Troughton, I can see Troughton’s mannerisms in Matt’s performance of the Doctor.

  5. Marcelof says:

    You must see Jekyll, the most scary thing that Moffat has written.

  6. nicole says:

    i thought that “The Beast Below” was a really good episode…

  7. MarkiMark says:

    Jademarisa, Although I do agree it would be rather odd to set doctor who in America, It is of great silliness that you think the show is “losing it’s ways”. Just look back at the original doctor who and look at the incredible changes they had to make in order to deal with their A) Low budget and B) The greatest, out of this world stories. Doctor Who is definitely a series of unfathomable story archs and structure. Like it is for most people, just give Matt Smith a chance and I guarantee if you’re not trying to act like a pompous connoisseur of Doctor Who, than you’ll be in love with him by the end of the 6th series. When I first saw Tennant I laughed. Now do I feel like an asshole, he was fucking brilliant. But it’s Matt’s time so let it be.

  8. Liz says:

    Honestly, I think Moffat is one of my favorite writers. Though I like RTD’s Doctor Who, most of it was fairly stupid and lacked in plot. I re-watched 2005-onwards again and REALLY noticed it. There were just so many ridiculous things that really seemed to hold the show back. Plus Moffat did Sherlock, which I really love.

    And as for the show “moving to America” I’m really excited for it. I hope they move around the world a bit more- a disproportionate number of stories are in Britain, and it’d just be nice to show a lot of other places that aren’t in the U.K. But it’d be nice if they’d show Doctor Who on, like, NBC or something. They did that with Merlin for a while.

  9. Christine says:

    I’m glad to see some love for the reappearance of the Weeping Angels last season. I saw a lot of hating for that episode on the interwebs, but I personally loved it. Also, I agree with a previous comment that while Beast Below wasn’t fantastic, it had some great moments. I actually really liked it overall.

    Now in regards to River Song, I definitely remember getting into a conversation about how much was planned ahead with that story (I think it was on the Node). There was some question as to whether Moffat knew there would be more to that story that we would see in later seasons or if it just seemed like a good idea to bring the character back after the fact. You point out here that Moffat would have known at this point that he would be taking over the show, so in my mind that strengthens my position that he knew he would be continuing her story at a later date.

    Thanks for the article here, Can’t wait till this weekend and the season premiere!

  10. Daniel S says:

    I actually love the beast below, its not my favorite but I think it is a great story and one that I have re-watched repeatedly, as for the show turning American, as an American I can tell you that if they tried to take the British out of Doctor Who it would ruin it, I think they are expanding the show a little by setting it in America in order to bring in more international viewers and the extension of that was they had the budget to shoot part of the episode in America so they did. I have a friend who has been throwing a fit since Moffat took over, she keeps whining about some ambiguous shift in the writing that has ruined the show somehow, I love the new Doctor and have seen no drop in the quality of the show since the transition from RTD to Moffat, and I am completely behind Matt Smith as the Doctor, he is the best so far at portraying an ancient alien in the body of a young guy…..well that’s my two cents

  11. Jeff says:

    Was anybody else disappointed in “Flesh and Stone” to actually see the Weeping Angels move? I remember watching “Blink” and thinking, “I really hope they don’t show them move. They’re much creepier if you don’t actually see them move.” I was pleased when they didn’t. But the, in “Flesh and Stone” they actually showed them move. It’s minor, but I wish they hadn’t done that.
    I also didn’t mind “The Beast Below”. Not the best episode, but I liked it.

  12. three toes of fury says:

    Wonderful write up on an AMAZING and incredibly original and fresh writer. THANKS!

    Lisa G: by all means check out Sherlock! its incredible. And…as is SO often the case with the brilliant limited-episode BBC programs…it leaves you wanting for more!

  13. Jon says:

    i think i enjoyed “the beast below” more than the 2 parter finale of Season 5, but I’m probably in the minority here…

    also, Sherlock is quite good, especially the 1st part of the miniseries. And it feels very like a Moffet episode.

  14. Jademarisa says: You may or not agree with this ranking, but I thought it was interesting. What do you think of it?

  15. Lisa G says:

    Stephen Moffat is the writer I wish I could be. Shakespeare, Dickens, Moffat — the best storytellers that scepter’d isle ever produced. In both Coupling and Doctor Who (I haven’t seen Sherlock yet), he wraps iconic imagery in such a love of language that it taps into the most primal and exciting emotions in the viewer. And he does it in scripts which are crafted so tightly you could bounce a quarter off of them.

    “The Girl In The Fireplace” is one of the greatest hours of storytelling TV has ever seen. I’ve deconstructed that script and it just gets more and more brilliant the more I study it. It broke my heart that I couldn’t get into the S6 premier screening in NYC to see him.

    So, yeah. Doctor Who could move production and change casts a dozen times, and I’ll go right along with it as long as Moffat’s at the helm.

  16. Brian e. says:

    great summary Kyle! And yes any fears of the show being Americanized are just silly. The USA-filmed eps are just a fun change of pace for the show and a way to appeal to Americans who might want to check out something that seems closer to home.

    Us Canadians don’t need such placating of course. 😉 Though by all means come over here and film if you want. We’ve got the Queen on our money too!

    And Matt Msith is my favourite Doctor! He’s brilliant. Funny, charming and has an air of wisdom in those eyes that makes him playing a 900+ year-old very believable. Davison and Troughton are my next 2 faves fwiw.

  17. Art says:

    Once again, Kyle, great article! Although I actually enjoyed the Beast Below. It was a good way to show us Amy in a “Doctor” situation. Its not the best episode, but it had a lot of good moments (“This isn’t going to be big on dignity” still cracks me up every time)

  18. Henrik says:

    They shot two episodes of series 5 in Croatia, and yet never moved the show there on any sort of permanent basis.
    It’s probably a good thing that they seem more open to filming outside of Wales, I think a lot of us could do without seeing the same quarries or the same corridor or the same civic centre again and again.

  19. Kyle Anderson says:

    I don’t think there’s any way the BBC would allow Moffat to take one of its flagship shows out of Britain. They shot in America this series mostly so average Americans could feel connected to it somehow. BBC America, I think, is doing a great job promoting British programming to a non-British audience. They’ve said from the beginning that one of Doctor Who’s biggest strengths is its inherent Britishness and that won’t change. Torchwood is being co-produced by Starz but it’s basically a new show, despite being a continuation. I do not forsee the same thing happening with Doctor Who, aside from perhaps being co-produced by BBC America, which is still the same parent company.

    Also, I think Matt Smith is doing an amazing job, but that’s neither here nor there.

  20. Jademarisa says:

    I hope Mr Moffat’s plan isn’t moving Doctor Who to America. This would result in a total identity loss for the show. In fact, I’m currently battling a nasty feeling of rejection towards the new season because of this fact. First, there was having Matt Smith cast as The Doctor, what I consider an error, I don’t quite get to like him, and now this! What next, selling the show’s production to Starz? Can’t help but feeling that one of my favourite shows is losing its way, losing the basic characteristics that make it unique: being British, one of them. Don’t know yet if I want to watch this season.