Steven Moffat's legacy: How the last seven years reshaped Doctor Who

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Dec 25, 2017

Another era in the Whoniverse ends on Christmas Day. Not only will we wave goodbye the 12th Doctor, Peter Capaldi, but it's also time to bid farewell to the current showrunner, Steven Moffat. Moffat’s six-season tenure (over eight years) has not been controversy-free. But while fans have ragged on him regularly for his unfortunately obvious insecurities, his cringe-worthy self-owns, and his inability to write women very well, he’s done a lot for the series. He’s created characters and villains who were instant classics. His willingness to play around with timelines pushed a show that claims to be about time travel into places it had somehow avoided going in the previous decades. When Moffat fired on all cylinders, he made the show soar, both as showrunner and as a writer.

Consider his first episode, Season 2’s “The Girl in the Fireplace.” Inspired by the novel The Time Traveler’s Wife, this story of the stalking of Madame de Pompadour by futuristic robots introduced the concept of “the slow path” into the lexicon of the show. It had visually striking bad guys, the “clockwork androids” who were trying to get hold of Pompadour’s brain because they had mistaken it for how to repair their ship’s computer. (The ship is named the “Madame de Pompadour.”) They only showed up in that one episode, but to this day, you still see them cosplayed.

Speaking of memorable villains, this is where Moffat shines. When it comes to listing off “classic” Whovian villains, fans namecheck the Daleks and the Cybermen. But these villains aren’t scary. The only thing that’s remotely scary about the famous 1960s pepper-pots-with-eggbeater-and-plunger-arms is how much Williams Sonoma would charge for one. Cybermen were frightening in the 1960s, but by the 1990s Star Trek had co-opted the concept, with more futuristic costumes and a better catchphrase. Since the 2005 reboot, the Cybermen have been left looking silly in their tin cans, struggling to say anything other than “You will be assimilated.”

The scariest of the modern Doctor Who villains belong to Moffat: The Silence of “The Impossible Astronaut” and the Weeping Angels of “Blink.” They’re predicated on the same primal fear: what happens when you’re not looking.

“Blink” also introduced the term that’s become the hallmark of the Whovian reboot: “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey.” The phrase was so catchy and encapsulated the show’s dynamic so well that even those who have never seen a single episode of the series know it. You can thank Moffat for that.

Moffat loved playing with time. Prior to him, Doctor Who was a time-travel show, where the only thing that moved through time was the TARDIS, and time loops were studiously avoided whenever possible. (Heck, the Third Doctor barely moved through time at all, happily James Bonding it up in perfectly linear fashion.) Moffat challenged that, not only within episodes but also with entire characters, like River Song.

I’m not going to say what happened to River during the Amy years wasn’t problematic. But her first introduction in “Silence in the Library” was a thunderclap. Here was a character whose final days had just played out before us, with the promise that all the adventures within her TARDIS book were still to come. She wasn’t a full-on Time Lady, but she was “Time Sensitive,” as it were. (Sort of like the difference between Luke as a Jedi and Leia as “Force sensitive.”) Moffat’s attempt to explain her later on sadly only reduced her. But in the period before Melody Pond, River Song was an older woman as a romantic lead to a younger-looking man, and a fabulous character. (As soon as the show untethered her from Amy, she got a better again, especially in her final episode, ”The Husbands of River Song.”)

This brings us to the ultimate complaint against Moffat, which is how he wrote and treated women characters. I can’t defend the former, especially when it came to his original over-clever concept for Clara. (“I flew in on a leaf,” indeed!) But consider the growing mess he inherited when he arrived.

During the first run of Doctor Who, the Doctor was never a “romantic” figure. The First Doctor (William Hartnell) wasn’t even conceived as the “hero” at all. He was merely the mechanism for the far more dashing teacher, Ian Chesterton, to get from here to there with fellow teacher Barbara, and student Susan, for educational TV purposes. It wasn’t until Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor that our Time Lord became the genius we think of today. Even then, he was still the clown figure. When female companions like Victoria and Zoe needed a man to faint into, it was his broad-shouldered, Scottish companion Jamie who caught them.

Even later Doctors were never the boyfriend types. Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor was downright abusive to Peri, and McCoy’s Seventh Doctor treated Ace like a child who couldn’t be trusted to learn her own family history. It was Davies who first made the rebooted Doctor a boyfriend figure to Rose. (One of the many reasons Ninth Doctor Eccleston quit.)

So here’s Moffat, five years later, taking over a show where the last Doctor was literally just given a double so he could be paired off with his companion. The “Romantic Doctor” concept is a ratings bonanza. What can he do but hire another handsome young thing and pair him with a pretty girl or two? One might argue all Moffat did was take the concept to the logical, and heebiejeebies-level conclusion, with the Doctor, now veering into his early 1100s, leering over 20-year-old companions who, to quote Dazed and Confused, “stay the same age.”

Moffat may have dug that idea all the way to the bottom, but it was also under his watch that the course correction happened. Rumors insist it was Capaldi who put a hard stop to the “Romantic Doctor” nonsense with Clara. But Moffat *cast* Capaldi and is ultimately the man who the buck stops with. After all, it was not Capaldi who wrote that scene where Vastra scolded the audience for wanting a romantic Doctor.

Moffat defended the Capaldi casting recently, but while his comments about a female Doctor were tone-deaf, what was most striking is how unnecessary it all was. Capaldi is not a Doctor anyone should apologize for. Yes, ratings went down. But his ability to deliver monologues was bar none, and he inspired some of Moffat’s best writing of the decade, including Season 8’s “Listen,” Season 9’s one-man show “Heaven Sent,” and Season 10’s multiple lecture hall openings on the nature of time, space, life, and death.

Moffat’s final years at the helm stepped up what the Doctor could be, instead of just the imaginary boyfriend of every fangirl sitting at home. He made all the major moves needed for the BBC to accept the 13th Doctor being cast as a woman, by giving the now desexualized Doctor female foils in Missy, as well as friends like Bill. Moffat also took advantage of the paradigm by creating the first openly LGBT companion in the history of the series, opening the show to a brand-new audience it hadn’t been working to appeal to before.

Moffat wasn’t perfect, far from it. (Season 7 will always be a testament to that.) For a long time, I thought I would never be able to forgive him for how he reduced River Song to nothing but an obsession, or Plot-Device Clara and the “flew in on a leaf” nonsense. But looking back over his time on the show, in the end, the good outweighs the bad. Moffat leaves behind an enormous legacy, one that incoming showrunner Chris Chibnall will have to work hard to live up to.