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The Moffat Moment: The Lasting Legacy of Steven Moffat’s “Doctor Who” and “Sherlock”…

Hindsight is a powerful tool.

It’s hard to recognise patterns in the moment, to understand how a larger design is unfolding as it actually unspools. It’s a lot easier to process the larger context once the work is complete. Many important works only reveal themselves in retrospect, once they can be properly contextualised as part of broader cultural movements and placed within the larger popular consciousness. By this measure, Steven Moffat’s run on Doctor Who is a particularly fascinating piece of work.

Moffat’s Doctor Who is an interesting piece of work, in large part due to the sheer volume of venom that it generates online. This is to be expected with any writer working on a major geek-friendly property. Fandoms are inherently protective of what they deem to belong to them, and this can lead to excessive and aggressive campaigns of hatred against those writers and directors they believe to be betraying the object of their affection. This is most obvious in terms of the response to Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, with harassment campaigns against actors and insane petitions and misogynist edits.

Moffat was subject to that sort of online hatred to the point that he was chased off Twitter, but the most interesting thing about the hatred of his tenure was that it seeped into professional journalism. Professional websites like The Daily Dot were so aggressively critical of Steven Moffat that they even made a point to blame him for decisions made by his direct predecessor; even when issuing a correction of that simple fact-checking oversight, they made a point to leave his sarcastic commentary on that narrative choice within the article without any context so that it might look like an endorsement.

There was an interesting dishonesty in the criticism of Moffat’s tenure. The most obvious example might be Rebecca A. Moore’s infamous study that argued that women’s speaking roles actually decreased under Moffat’s tenure, which was circulated in mainstream media and press. While it’s possible to have subjective arguments about the content of such dialogue and characterisation, the study itself was easily demonstrably inaccurate and read very much as an attempt to manipulate the numbers in service of a predetermined editorial perspective.

It is, of course, perfectly reasonable to dislike the work of a particular writer or to dislike the direction of a particular show. Life would be boring if everybody liked the same things. However, a large part of the fan-press coverage of the Moffat era seemed dedicated to arguing that the series was objectively awful with little room for debate. This resulted in a very heightened tone in online discourse around it in which the producer had to give interviews to the mainstream press insisting that he was not a misogynist. This critical environment was less than healthy, and its spread to professional outlets was regrettable.

As with most things, including the tenure of Russell T. Davies and Andrew Cartmel, the reality of the Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner was complicated. It is, for example, true that the overnight ratings did drop during the final years of his tenure. It is also true that the manner in which people were consuming television changed as well, making overnights less important. It is similarly true that Moffat’s tenure saw the series breaking into America; synchronising broadcast on BBC America, record high ratings and shooting episodes like The Impossible Astronaut, Day of the Moon and The Angels Take Manhattan there.

More to the point, it was the Moffat era that saw the series’ impact on American popular culture increase dramatically. To be fair, at least some of this was a delayed reaction to the hard work done by Russell T. Davies who had made smaller-scale efforts at outreach such as second-unit shooting in Daleks in Manhattan and Evolution of the Daleks. Nevertheless, the impact was felt. For example, Christopher Eccleston showed up on The Sarah Silverman Program playing “Doctor Lazer Rage.” Similarly, Community featured “Inspector Spacetime”, with a superfan played by future Moffat-era co-star Matt Lucas.

Whatever the precise cause of this increasingly mainstream interest in the show in American popular culture, and it seems fair to credit at least some of that to the increased access that American audiences had to the show during Moffat’s tenure as showrunner, it gets at one of the larger and stranger overlaps between Moffat’s work on the series and broader cultural trends. Moffat’s Doctor Who often seems like a template for certain strands of contemporary popular culture, whether through coincidence or design.

Rewatching Moffat’s Doctor Who, removed from its original context, it often seems like Moffat had a much stronger understanding of the direction of contemporary culture than many of his critics would allow.

Moffat’s Doctor Who prefigured a lot of modern mainstream geek culture in a number of ways, some very obvious and some more structural. Most obviously, Moffat’s Doctor Who was fascinated with literalising and deconstructing the process of watching a scary story through the kinds of monsters that he created. Moffat’s most iconic creations are probably the Weeping Angels, introduced in Blink and recurring in episodes like Time of the Angels, Flesh and Stone and The Angels Take Manhattan; they also made cameos in stories like The God Complex and The Time of the Doctor.

The most striking aspect of the Weeping Angels was the manner in which they weaponised the process of watching something scary on television. They were monsters that could only move when they were unseen, which meant that the audience (theoretically) should never see them move. In practice, this meant that the Weeping Angels moved between cuts. In effect, the Weeping Angels exploited the medium in which they existed, turning the camera and edit against the audience. More to the point, they were a monster that weaponised the audience’s desire to look away; hiding “behind the sofa” was a useless defense.

Moffat returned time and again to monsters that literalised and weaponised the act of watching a scary television show. In The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon, the Silence existed in the edits, erasing themselves from history. Their only mark is a distorted continuity between cuts within the scene. (Characters often wonder how they got where they were or why they did what they did, when the audience just sees a cut.) More to the point, as with the Weeping Angels, the Silence forced the audience to look at them. If the characters looked away from the Silence, they immediately forgot the monster.

More than that, the Moffat era suggested that the monsters had power outside of the regular mechanics of science-fiction storytelling. In The Time of the Angels, the Doctor asserted that whatever held the image of a Weeping Angel would itself become a Weeping Angel; Amy witnessed this terror first-hand while watching a Weeping Angel on a television monitor, mirroring how the audience sees such creatures. In The Snowmen, the eponymous snowmen stalk their prey by thought; thinking about the snowmen summons the snowmen. They are a dangerous idea.

The Time of the Angels articulated this recurring preoccupation of the Moffat era, with the Eleventh Doctor musing, “What if our thoughts could think for themselves? What if our dreams no longer needed us?” During the Moffat era, it frequently seemed as though the idea of the monster was as dangerous as the monster itself. The big bad of his fifth season as showrunner was “the Hybrid”, a metaphorical creation. Repeatedly during Moffat’s tenure, in Dark WaterDeath in HeavenWorld Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls, the Cybermen seemed to manifest as an idea rather than as a distinct race.

Of course, these ideas are not unique to Moffat. They have a long and distinguished history in fiction, especially horror fiction. The most obvious examples are the works of writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Chambers, about ideas that were fundamentally dangerous and infectious. These ideas are quite common in other fringe media such as comic books, especially in the work of British writers like Grant Morrison, Alan Moore and Warren Ellis. More to the point, they could be seen flitting around the edge of the zeitgeist at the same time in shows like True Detective, but Moffat hit these ideas consistently and intensely.

In the years following Moffat’s work on Doctor Who, these sorts of ideas crept into mainstream cinematic horror. Horror movies became increasingly engaged with the act of watching horror movies. It Follows was a horror movie which hinged on the central characters codifying the rules of the eponymous and unknowable “it” and navigating those structures. Don’t Breathe was an instruction to the audience, a horror movie very much built around remaining silent while being stalked by a monster, suggesting screaming would lead to an untimely end. Lights Out featured a monster that could only hunt in darkness.

The past year has seen an explosion in these sorts of horror films. A Quiet Place was the surprise smash of the year, rooted in the threat posed by monsters that hunted based on sound; a scream, a gasp, a loud bite of something. Watching A Quiet Place with an audience is to watch them almost become characters in the film, noticeably keeping quiet and stifling surprise. Similarly, Bird Box reverses the premise of Blink, by creating a monster that can only hurt the characters if they look at it. As such, it plays into the twin “look at it” and “look away” impulses of horror cinema like the Weeping Angels and the Silence.

Perhaps most indicative of this cultural trend, the monster in Slender Man stalked its prey through their thoughts; watching the video summoned the creature, allowing it to hunt them down based upon their thoughts about it. Slender Man was an adaptation of an internet myth which would have developed around the same time as the Moffat era, and the influence of the creature might be seen in the design of the Silence. Nevertheless, the fact that this aspect of the creature carried over to an otherwise painfully “unhip” reworking of the concept speaks to how pervasive metafictional horror had become.

These monsters were each explicitly less metatextual than those featured in Doctor Who, with the films in question less likely to meditate upon the existential implications of the threat posed by such threats. However, they were all designed to literalise the act of watching a horror film, to make the very act of watching a movie scary. If the audience screamed, they were breaking the “rules” of Don’t Breathe and A Quiet Place. If they looked away, they broke the rules of Lights Out, but if they looked at it they broke the rules of Bird Box.

This is perhaps best illustrated in the surprise release of Bandersnatch towards the end of 2018, a “choose-your-own-adventure” horror story in which the audience is cast in the role of the monster. As with the other examples listed, it is a literalisation of the process of watching a horror film. It is a narrative built around the audience’s complicity in watching horror movie characters suffer. Bandersnatch positions the audience as the monster in the horror film, forcing them to actively acknowledge an otherwise passive aspect of horror movie consumption; like A Quiet Place does with screaming or Bird Box looking away.

In its own weird way, this suggests the horror of living through the later years of the second decade of the twentieth century, even beyond the fear that the audience has become trapped inside a horror movie or some deranged rogue simulation. The past few years have seen the weaponisation of ideas and beliefs, the erosion of consensus reality through mass delusion. The President of the United States can argue that a picture does not depict what it clearly depicts, that he never said words that he has been recorded saying, that reality is not as it appears.

More than that, the past decade has seen a number of increasingly dangerous ideas creep back into political and social conversation, the stretching of the Overton window to normalise horrific concepts. The President of the United States has the endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan and has argued for an equivalence between white supremacists and those protesting white supremacists. In the United Kingdom, anti-immigrant paranoia has taken control of the national consciousness to the point that the nation is facing food and medicine shortages. Monstrous ideas run amok.

However, this is perhaps the most superficial example of how Moffat’s work seems to influence popular culture. There are more broader illustrations of how his style has seeped into the mainstream. Conceptually, Moffat is very interested in the way that information flows. Indeed, a large portion of Sherlock is given over to literalising the flow of information through the world. This is obvious from the earliest scenes in A Study in Pink, which offered a very early example of what has become cinematic shorthand for portraying text messages on film.

(This interest in the flow of information through the world is reflected in a variety of ways; most obviously, in the way the show literalises Sherlock’s deductive process, but also in the manner in which the act of storing and recalling information is visualised as a “mind palace” in His Last Vow. It is also reflected in how much of the show is navigated through screens and monitors, such as Sherlock’s use of London’s CCTV system in order to deliver a stinging message to his brother in The Lying Detective. The series frequently suggests that Sherlock is simply better attuned to the flow of information than other people.)

Moffat also has a fascination with using the medium as a criticism of itself. A lot of Moffat’s run on Doctor Who is quite heavily about the process of watching Doctor Who. In Moffat’s first scripts for the revived series, The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, the lead character observes, “I’d rather have Doctor Who than Star Trek.” In Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead, a large part of the plot is devoted to a young child watching the adventures of the Doctor on a television sit. Bill gets to watch black-and-white slow-moving photo recreations of the Twelfth Doctor’s adventures in World Enough and Time.

This metaphor plays throughout Moffat’s tenure. The “girl who waited” arc in Moffat’s first season is very much a love letter to fandom. Amy is a young child who has a chance encounter with the Doctor, who promptly disappears. Later, he reenters her life when she is an adult. At the end of the story, Amy uses her memory and imagination to bring the Doctor back to life. This is an allegory for how fans like Moffat brought Doctor Who back from cancellation; fans who fell in love with the show, only to have it disappear from their lives, and whose memory and imagination brought it back to life.

However, at the core of Moffat’s tenure was a willingness to engage in criticism and analysis of Doctor Who, some of which is only healthy after a series has spent fifty years on television. A lot of this centred around the relationship between the Doctor and the companion, the often-male-female pairing at the heart of the show. Moffat was willing to play with these ideas in a way that challenged some of the core working assumptions of the series, and his willingness to do so might explain a lot of the backlash that he experienced from fans.

One of the recurring arguments about Moffat’s tenure as showrunner of Doctor Who is that he is inherently sexist and misogynist. This rooted in a number of factors. Most superficially, and perhaps most convincingly, it is rooted in Moffat’s history as a sit-com writer. Like a lot of sit-com writers, Moffat’s scripts play on the idea of gender archetypes and stereotypes. From a distance, the portrayal of the marriage between Amy Pond and Rory Williams looks like something from a sit-com; the aggressive assertive woman and the quiet timid man. Similarly, the recurring description of Clara Oswald as “a bossy control freak.”

However, any actual analysis or understanding of these characters reveals a variety of moving parts beneath the surface. Rory Williams might be portrayed as an emasculated and unconventionally attractive man, but Doctor Who repeatedly suggests that his gentleness and his compassion are much better markers of a good man than conventionally masculine traits like aggressiveness or assertiveness. Similarly, Amy Pond might get married, but the show repeatedly asserts in episodes like Amy’s Choice that choosing between marriage and adventure is a false dichotomy for her, a loaded gendered assertion.

There are occasional missteps along the way, such as the strange decision to characterise Amy’s ideal career as a model in Closing Time. However, the show repeatedly and consciously stresses that Amy has agency and autonomy in her choices. The couple are known as “the Ponds.” Even the departure of Amy and Rory in The Angels Take Manhattan consciously frame Rory’s departure as a secondary concern. Rory is a credited lead, and one half of the first married couple to travel in the TARDIS, but he is secondary to Amy. (Indeed, for all the criticism that Moffat’s women orbit his men, Rory very clearly orbits Amy.)

Similarly, Clara Oswald remains a controversial character among fandom. Most obviously, the fact that certain reactionary quarters in fandom sarcastically refer to her tenure of the series as “Clara Who” would seem to discount the argument that Clara is a secondary or shallow character. More to the point, Moffat repeatedly makes a point to characterise Clara’s flaws as the kind of flaws that male characters are typically allowed within fiction; Clara lies to the people around her, Clara acts like she belongs where she doesn’t, Clara takes control of situations. In other words, Clara’s flaws are those of the Doctor.

That said, there are a few points when Moffat goes a little too broad. His recurring engagement with the role of women as mothers during his second season, obvious in A Good Man Goes to War and culminating in The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, is reductive and gender-essentialist. It is somewhat offset by the fact that the season also stresses the role of men as fathers in episodes like The Curse of the Black Spot and Closing Time. However, the issue is weighted both by the increased prevalence of stereotyping women and by the positioning of motherhood themes in “important” episodes like finales and specials.

Nevertheless, in spite of these missteps, Moffat engages with a number of the core assumptions underlying Doctor Who in a number of interesting ways. Most obviously, Moffat completely redefines the role of the companion in Doctor Who. Historically, Doctor Who has been the story of women who give up their everyday lives in order to run off with a mysterious stranger in a blue box. This is an over-simplification, of course, but it is broadly true. Doctor Who has long been structured around supporting characters for whom the Doctor is the most important person in their lives.

This is, of course, a result of the show’s format. It is a story about a person with a magic box that travels in all of time and space, and it requires the audience to see that as wonderful and magical. When the Doctor offers that to a companion, the show demands that the companion jump on wholeheartedly and unquestioningly. The Russell T. Davies era doubled down on this. Rose Tyler and Martha Jones both fell in love with the Doctor, while Donna Noble seemed incapable of imagining a time when she wouldn’t travel in the TARDIS. There is something uncomfortable with the dynamics at play here.

The Moffat era plays with this and picks it apart, wondering if there might be a healthier way for the relationship to work so that all the power didn’t lie with the handsome man who had the keys to all of time and space. Amy’s arc began with a heightened variant on this set up. At the end of The Eleventh Hour, the Doctor whisked her away, not knowing that her wedding was the very next day. In Flesh and Stone, Amy attempted to seduce the Doctor, acting on the attraction that had become a staple of the dynamic since Rose Tyler and Martha Jones.

However, Moffat spends the rest of his tenure picking this idea apart. Amy eventually marries Rory, her best friend since childhood. More than that, the Doctor comes to realise that he cannot be the entirety of Amy’s existence. He makes a point to have Amy and Rory spend time together in Vampires in Venice. When he witnesses the harm that he has caused to Amy over the years in The God Complex, he makes a point to provide Amy and Rory with a house to call their own. The Doctor spends the first half of the seventh season dropping in on Amy and Rory over years, allowing them to live a normal life around him.

Noticeably, this approach becomes the norm for the companions that follow. Neither of the two companions that follow live full-time in the TARDIS. In The Bells of St. John, Clara very clearly sets her own boundaries on the relationship that she has with the Doctor, insisting that he come to her to ask her to travel. She also enjoys a full-time job outside the TARDIS, first as a nanny and then as a teacher. In all of these cases, her trips with the Doctor are presented as recreational adventures rather then the sum total of her life.

The same is true of Bill Potts. Bill is invited to become the Doctor’s student in The Pilot, and it is implied that the pair have been interacting for months before Bill sets foot in the TARDIS. More than that, Bill’s life continues around the show, with the Doctor often wading into her life rather than demanding that she surrender it to him. He investigates her house share in Knock, Knock and interrupts her date in Extremis. The whole point of the Moffat era is that the Doctor is not the sum total of his companions’ lives, affording these women agency and autonomy.

There are other ways in which Moffat reconfigures the role of the companion, most obviously with Clara. The format of Doctor Who demands that the companion remain in a secondary role, relative to the Doctor. The Doctor has a unique narrative function, and so cannot be challenged or replaced. The closest that the series has ever come to offering a companion who can equal the Doctor is the character of Romana, a Time Lady who is assigned to him as a student. Even then, Romana was an exception rather than the rule. She did not shift the paradigm.

During Russell T. Davies’ tenure on the series, companions were routinely punished for presuming to consider themselves equals to the Doctor. Rose Tyler was exiled to an alternate world in Doomsday and Army of Ghosts. When she clawed her way back to the Doctor’s reality in The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End, the Doctor brought her right back to that alternate universe with a close of himself, a science-fiction consolation prize. When Donna blended with the Doctor in The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End, she had to have her mind wiped afterwards, all of her experiences taken from her.

The companion role is largely defined by female. There are exceptions, of course, over the long history of the show; Ian, Steven, Ben, Jamie, the Brigadier, Adric, Turlough, Captain Jack, Mickey, Rory, Nardole. However, these represent a minority. The companion role defaults to female. Since the Doctor was always male before the Thirteenth Doctor, this genders the dynamic in a manner that can be deeply uncomfortable. The narrative logic of Doctor Who often appears to be framed in terms of a man who knows everything and a woman who needs to remember her place in the dynamic lest she become irrelevant.

Clara exists as a counterpoint to this dynamic. Most obviously, Clara is repeatedly introduced in the role that Davies had codified as the “almost-companion”, the female supporting character who attracts the Doctor’s interest only to die tragically. This archetype was defined early in Davies’ tenure, with Jade in The End of the World, Gwyneth in The Unquiet Dead and Lynda-with-a-y in Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways. Clara’s first two appearances cast her in this role, in both Asylum of the Daleks and The Snowman, in which she was introduced and killed off.

However, Clara refused to stay dead. In fact, her appearance in Asylum of the Daleks was framed in this way from the outset, coming immediately after Jenna Louise Coleman had been announced as the next companion. The audience understood that Clara could not be killed off in this way, even as both Asylum of the Daleks and The Snowman did so. From her first two appearances, when she refused to be the “almost-companion”, Clara was marked as a character engaged with the manner in which Doctor Who treated its female supporting characters.

During her introductory half-season, the Doctor became obsessed with Clara because she defied this narrative convention. He defined her as “the Impossible Girl.” Again, this was very much in keeping with the structure of past seasons of Doctor Who that were built around character-centric mysteries; Davies’ first season hinged on the idea of Rose as the “Bad Wolf” who left messages scattered across space and time, and his third hinged on the Master disguising himself as Harold Saxon. Doctor Who had trained viewers to see characters as mysteries to be solved and unravelled.

In The Name of the Doctor, Moffat revealed that Clara was never a mystery. She was never a puzzle to be solved. She was not a plot object. She was a person, and it was a problem that neither the Doctor nor the audience of Doctor Who had been willing to see her in that way, that instead of recognising Clara as a person they treated her as a riddle. There is something to be said for the argument about how Moffat skilfully wrongfooted the audience by playing off their expectations. Is it fair to treat an audience in this way, particularly if past media has conditioned them to expect these things? It’s an interesting argument.

Moffat’s work returns to this idea repeatedly. Sherlock is predicated on the idea that it is more important for Sherlock to be emotionally aware of the people around him than it is for him to prove his own intelligence. Much of The Empty Hearse is spent with Sherlock openly boasting about how he faked his own death, only for John to spend the entire episode insisting that the bigger question is why Sherlock lied to the people around him. It comes up again in The Lying Detective, with John repeatedly reminding his partner that “why” is more important than the “how.”

Inherent in all of this is a critique of the sort of “puzzlebox” storytelling and story consuming that has become the norm for modern audiences. This is popularised by concepts such as J.J. Abrams’ “mystery box”, but is also reflected in the way that films are sold to audiences today. The internet has turned fandom into vast farms of processing power, trying to crack the riddles of shows like Lost or Westworld. Moffat is very good at that sort of story, which is why so many fans assume that he is that sort of storyteller, but his stories continuously and consistently resist the pull of the puzzlebox.

Even beyond this, the central thesis of Clara’s arc was that it was not unreasonable for a female character to assert agency within the narrative, that it was not necessary to punish a supporting female character for engaging in activities that that male lead took for granted. Clara is explicitly identified as manipulative and self-assured, over-confident and incredibly assertive. These are character traits that attracted a great deal of hatred from online fans. They are also personality traits that have long-defined the Doctor. As a character, Clara seemed to ask why the Doctor could get away with it, and a woman could not.

Over her two-and-a-half seasons with the show, Clara moved into a role very much equivalent to the Doctor. In Flatline, she played the narrative role of the Doctor. In Death in Heaven, Jenna Louise Coleman became the first woman to be title-billed on an episode of Doctor Who and had her face positioned in the opening credits. In Face the Raven, Clara stepped most overtly into the narrative role of the Doctor and was punished for her hubris. She was killed off. However, Hell Bent critiqued this crass ending for the character, asking why Clara should be punished for doing what the Doctor does everyday.

Clara’s arc ended in Hell Bent as an explicit criticism of the treatment of Rose and Donna in stories like Journey’s End. Most obviously, the episode rejected the notion that Clara needed to be exiled or consigned to a mundane life after her time with the Doctor, that she must surrender time and space like Rose had in both Doomsday and later Journey’s End. Indeed, Hell Bent ends with Clara in her own TARDIS with her own companion, an equal to the Doctor. More than that, Hell Bent had the Doctor erasing his own memories rather than those of his companion, critiquing Donna’s fate in Journey’s End.

Indeed, the Moffat era showed a commendable refusal to punish characters for their desire to see more of the universe. World Enough and Time and The Doctor Falls both threatened to kill off the supporting character of Bill Potts, the first full-time lesbian companion. This would have been less than ideal, but very much in keeping with the Davies’ era’s tendency to punish companions for assuming that they had some right to travel with the Doctor. Instead, Moffat allowed Bill the opportunity to continue travelling through time and space even without the Doctor.

The fact that the series is called Doctor Who means that the Doctor will always be the focal character, and that events will always be framed as they relate to him. However, the Moffat era made a point to stress that characters had lives and agency outside of the Doctor. This was most obvious in The Husbands of River Song, which effectively cast the Doctor as a companion in an adventure with his own time-travelling archeologist wife. While Hell Bent and The Doctor Falls allowed Clara and Bill to become their own version of the Doctor, The Husbands of River Song cast the Doctor as companion on his wife’s adventures.

This tendency to deconstruct and criticise familiar narrative templates was a recurring motif of the Moffat era. Sometimes this was playful and lighthearted, such as the delight with which Dark Water spoofed the inevitability of a late-season appearance from an iconic monster by turning the Doctor’s obliviousness into a wry punchline. Sometimes this was more earnest and necessary, such as the brutality with which Moffat deconstructed popular culture’s fixation on “rape revenge” narratives in A Good Man Goes to War, bitterly arguing that this was the kind of story that Doctor Who could and should never tell.

There were times when Moffat’s ambition admittedly exceeded his reach. Let’s Kill Hitler and The Wedding of River Song suffer from being among both the most important scripts of Moffat’s tenure and the most obviously rushed, feeling like first drafts that made it through production untouched. It’s fair to criticise the failings of these episodes, the manner in which they might be clearer or tighter. Even then, Moffat’s intention is always clear. The point of the exercise is never obscured.

Moffat’s use of Doctor Who as a vehicle for extended criticisms and dissections of both Doctor Who itself and also wider popular culture undoubtedly prefigured a widespread adoption of this approach in popular media. As long-running franchises came to dominate the cultural landscape, it was increasingly common for installments to engage in criticism and discussions of the property itself. The most high-profile example might be The Last Jedi, a film that wryly examined and explored the tropes and conventions of the traditional Star Wars narrative.

While the Marvel Cinematic Universe has largely steered clear of this short of approach, outside of the occasional wry and knowing one-liner in the style of Joss Whedon, other properties have expressed a willingness to talk about themselves in these terms. The Deadpool films are rather superficial in their commentary on superhero films, but Once Upon a Deadpool still finds time to discuss the concept of “fridging.” Similarly, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies has a great deal of fun riffing off the larger superhero boom.

Moffat’s most frequent narrative technique for making these sorts of criticisms is what Doctor Elizabeth Sandifer has described as “narrative substitution.” Put simply, Moffat tends to set up a fairly standard story, and then makes a late swerve into a different type of story in a manner that serves to challenge the audience and ask them why they thought they wanted the first story in the first place. The most obvious example might be the loose two-parter A Good Man Goes to War and Let’s Kill Hitler, which begins as a gritty rape revenge narrative that goes horribly wrong before turning into a farce about healing.

As with a lot of Moffat’s work on Doctor Who, this approach is carried over from his early work on sitcoms. The idea of starting at one point and ending in something completely different that plays against the expectations of the set-up is essentially the structure of a joke; the punchline changes the entire context of the lead-in and plays skillfully off what the audience thinks they are getting to surprise and challenge them. Moffat’s work on Doctor Who just takes that template and applies for dramatic rather than comedic ends. So the Moffat era constantly plays with the audience’s expectations of what Doctor Who can be.

As with the other techniques and tropes employed by Moffat, this sort of technique is not unique to his work. There is a long history of stories that hinge on twists based on genre as much as plot. To pick a relatively recent example, the beauty of Unbreakable lies in the realisation that what initially appeared to be an intense psychological drama was, in all earnestness, a superhero story. However, Moffat’s work approached narratives from this angle on a consistent basis, treating it as an essential aspect of twenty-first century storytelling.

A Good Man Goes to War sets up the idea of the Doctor single-handedly reuniting Amy with her stolen child, only to fail spectacularly; Let’s Kill Hitler sidelines the Doctor so that Amy can reconcile with her daughter on her own terms. Hide opens as a standard gothic horror story about a haunted house, only for the Doctor to realise, “This isn’t a ghost story, it’s a love story!” Later stories like Listen and Twice Upon a Time imagine Doctor Who without a monster. “It’s not an evil plan,” the Doctor complains. “I don’t really know what to do when it isn’t an evil plan.”

Again, this approach has begun to creep out into the mainstream. David Gordon Green’s Halloween hinges on a last-act twist in which the characters conspire to use the internal logic of a slasher movie against Michael Myers, a sharp dramatic reversal and a reveal the entire movie has been something of a trap for the monster. You Were Never Really Here teases its audience with cathartic violence against people who deserve it, only to deny the audience that release in a way that challenges their expectations. Even Tully begins by hinting at an unsettling premise before reaching a gentle, sweet conclusion.

Blade Runner 2049 spends a significant amount of its runtime hinting at an epic plot about a robot messiah and a replicant revolution, the sort of clichés that audiences are accustomed to seeing in their big-budget blockbusters. However, at its climax, Blade Runner 2049 comes down to nothing more important than the reunion of a father and his daughter, suggesting what is really important in the messed-up world of the film. Blockers sets itself up as a regressive sex-negative comedy before revealing itself to be much more open-minded and humanist than the introductory premise had suggested.

(There are other, broader examples of how contemporary culture is becoming increasingly comfortable with genre shifting and experimentation. Even something is big and dumb as Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom feels comfortable pulling a weird genre shift at the half-way point, transitioning from the standard “dinosaurs-on-an-island” set-up to an admittedly more bizarre Nosferatu-but-with-dinosaurs” climax. Even a film like Second Act starts out using the narrative base of the romantic comedy, but decides it is uninterested in the idea of a male co-star to share the screen.)

The other major formal feature of Moffat’s writing is a tendency towards what might be described as “narrative velocity”, a willingness to trust that the audience is familiar enough the the rhythms and structures of particular types of stories that unnecessary exposition and detail can be stripped out. This is quite apparent in a number of Moffat’s Doctor Who scripts like The Time of the Doctor or Hell Bent, which burn through big ideas at a tremendous rate. The idea was that the audience understood the structure of these stories well enough that Moffat could shift the emphasis within them.

The Time of the Doctor sets up the idea of the sort of epic “the Doctor has run out of regenerations” narrative that fandom had been anticipating since The Deadly Assassin set the regeneration limit at an arbitrary thirteen. However, The Time of the Doctor is more interested in the question of what the Doctor might do with his last life than his quest to prolong it. Similarly, Hell Bent breezes through the epic “the Doctor returns to Gallifrey” story in order to get to the more important question of what could be important enough to the Doctor that he would return to Gallifrey.

This approach was more obvious in Sherlock, which would similarly accelerate its narratives by stripping out unnecessary or superfluous elements. Mark Gatiss’ script for The Great Game might be the best example of this approach, structured to run through what amounts to six episode-long mysteries in the space on a single ninety-minute film. The Great Game is effectively a hyper-condensed half-season of television, packaged and broadcast as a season finale. It is exciting and exhilarating, and anchored in the idea that the audience is televisually literate enough to understand the mechanics of these stories.

Again, this reflects Moffat’s fascination with both structures and information, which play throughout his work on both Doctor Who and Sherlock. The entire premise hinges on the idea that the audience interprets a lot of the information about a story from how its told, negating the need to reiterate such information through exposition. The audience will understand the mode in which the story is pitched, which allows the creative team to cover more ground more effectively instead of getting bogged down in repetitive dialogue communicating what the audience already intrinsically understands.

This approach is interesting, in large part because it consciously brushes against certain trends in contemporary storytelling. The internet has created a minor cottage industry in criticism built around perceived “plot holes” in media, such as Cinema Sins or Everything Wrong With… This approach to criticism often assumes that works exist in a vacuum and are consumed by individuals who have never seen a similar piece of work. Perhaps the best example of this is the criticism of Bruce Wayne getting across the globe in The Dark Knight Rises, ignoring that he did the same in Batman Begins and also that he is Batman.

Nevertheless, this sort of approach to narrative has gained some traction in recent years. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a movie built around similar concepts as Moffat’s work on Doctor Who and Sherlock, assuming the audience’s familiarity with the sort of superhero stories that have become a fixture of the pop cultural landscape. Into the Spider-Verse is able to offer the audience no fewer than six different Spider-Man origins, three of them simultaneously, all riffing on the audience’s understanding of the logic that drives a Spider-Man story.

This allows the movie to cover a staggering amount of ground in a relatively compressed runtime. Wilson Fisk gets a tragic back story that is communicated in about thirty seconds, because the film understands that audiences understand the narrative logic of tragic villain back stories. Miles’ relationship with his uncle Aaron takes up only a handful of scenes in the film, but those scenes are effective enough and the film is shrewd enough that the audience can fill in the missing pieces of information to allow the movie to spend times on other concepts.

It would be too much to credit Moffat with the manner in which these ideas seem to have permeated popular culture. It seems fairer to acknowledge that Moffat was simply ahead of the curve, that he understood how film and television were moving. Moffat’s work on Doctor Who and Sherlock has aged remarkably well, prefiguring a lot of the modern film and television landscape. (This is to say nothing, for example, of the suggestion that the basic plot of Avengers: Endgame will borrow heavily from his plot for The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang.)

It’s a reminder of how far ahead of the curve both Moffat’s Doctor Who and Sherlock were in terms of how popular culture tells stories in the twenty-first century, and to how deeply they understood the nature of the stories that we tell.

14 Responses

  1. Great analysis, maybe I’m one of the few, but I really enjoyed the Moffat run on Who, especially in the Capaldi era.
    He was ambitious, silly and fun, all at the same time.

    • I don’t think you’re one of the few. Critics, both in the states and in the UK, basically loved the Capaldi era. Series 9 in particular was acclaimed, but Series 8 and 10 received very positive reviews, from what I’ve read. I agree with those critics and you. The Capaldi era was fantastic. I’m not sure how this catch phrase of “the writing for Capaldi let him down!” caught on. His era had, from my view, the most consistently strong writing in any era since the Hinchcliffe/Baker paring. If anything, I’d say the 10th and 13th Doctors fit that description more (though 13’s writing could improve).

      • The catchphrase caught on, I suspect, because the show became a lot more consistent in the Capaldi era (I love season six, but it is bumpy) and the online “Moffat hate” crowd likely wanted a way to acknowledge this without acknowledging that the writing was pretty good. So you got the logic derived from that; Capaldi was good, but the writing wasn’t.

        And I’d agree. Seasons eight and nine are the two best consecutive seasons of Doctor Who since Tom Baker’s second and third seasons. (Although we can also count McCoy’s last and Eccleston’s season, but I consider that cheating.)

    • I adore it. It has its bumps, but that’s part of the thrill. You can’t swing consistently for the fences without missing every once in a while. But when it hits (and it hits pretty often), it is phenomenal.

    • I think a lot of people loved the Moffat era. I did, and so did a lot of people I’ve talked to. The Doctor Who subreddits are overall very positive about it. I think the negative voices are the loudest in any fandom. I don’t think that means they are the majority.

  2. I agree with everything you’ve said here. I acknowledge that Moffat has his flaws, but the problem with online discourse surrounding him is how inherently venomous and toxic it is. Nuanced discussions are not possible because one has to jump through hoops just to make the case that Moffat’s work isn’t a complete garbage fire (and personally, I love early Sherlock and think his run on Doctor Who is easily one of the strongest in the show’s history, and certainly in the modern era).

    • Yep, that’s it. It’s exhausting there’s this weird “everyone knows Moffat is awful!” vibe that permeates the internet, and I’ve had that interaction with people in real life as well. People who haven’t actually watched any of the stuff that he’s made. That’s not a healthy environment.

      • Exactly. When all you (general term) do is use hyperbole, the person you’re criticizing is more likely to brush off the criticism. Healthy criticism leads to positive change. There’s a fine line between that and the venomous bile that’s spewed on many places online, particularly with Moffat (but it’s definitely not limited to him).

      • Yep. It reminds me of the perpetual outrage over the Oscars. When you direct as much anger as you do at something like La La Land, it makes it much harder to distinguish signal-to-noise on something like the horrific cavalcade of controversies around Green Book.

  3. Fascinating article. I really appreciate your laying out what Moffat was trying to accomplish. I’m not a fan of puzzlebox storytelling in general, but I found myself frustrated that in Moffat’s “puzzlebox” stories usually there was nothing at all in the box. I had assumed Moffat’s efforts at this were inept puzzlebox stories rather than attempts to critique puzzlebox storytelling.

    I didn’t think Clara was some plot mystery to be solved because of the expectations I brought to the table, but rather because that’s what the show kept saying over and over (“I’m the impossible girl”, etc). I came to adore Clara once the show stopped treating her like a riddle and started treating her like a character.

    Ultimately, I’m not a fan of Moffat’s work, but I think I see what he was trying to do. For me, shifting genres or major plot twists often come across as too contrived. It’s trivially easy for a writer to hide off camera some information the audience might need to put the puzzle together. You mentioned The Last Jedi, which I think suffered from the same problem (why didn’t Holdo tell Poe there was a plan?). There’s a fine line between plot twist and contrivance. Personally, I prefer when the writer just skips any attempt at trying to “shock” the audience and instead focus on the reactions and the emotions of the characters when they are surprised by the plot twist.

    But again, great article. I appreciate the way Moffat’s tenure at Doctor Who was in part an intellectual exercise in deconstructing storytelling. It’s probably not TV I’ll go back and watch anytime soon, but I can appreciate the intent.

    • Not to reopen the “Last Jedi” debate, Holdo didn’t tell Poe the details of her plan (or even that there was a plan) because he was unreliable and untrustworthy. Indeed, he demonstrates this by creating a set of circumstances that leads to the First Order identifying the flying ships and gunning them down. The point is to critique the audience’s assumption that Poe has a right to be told because we’re so used to identifying with mavericks who play by their own rules when compartmentalisation and chains of command exist for a reason. (Also, the assumption in some quarters that a woman with pink hair and a gown doesn’t know what she’s doing, despite outranking the hotshot pilot with the stubble and the attitude.)

      I think there’s value in challenging these assumptions. If anything, the volume of criticism of Holdo for her hairstyle and fashion choices demonstrates how widespread they are.

  4. Congratulations The M0vie Blog. I have nominated you for the Geek Hut Doctor Who Blogger Award.

    This award is for the best blogs created by fans of Doctor Who. Please visit the webpage to get your award badge.


    We only request that you nominate 3-5 Doctor Who blogs that you think deserve to be added to the list of bloggers worthy of attention.

    Add these to a blog post with a link to the awards page and some information about your blog. We will then link to the nominated blogs from our site.

    Thank you for your work offering great Doctor Who content over the years.

  5. Really interesting and great analysis of all the interesting things Moffat brought to the show!

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