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The Unlikely Validation of Steven Moffat’s “Doctor Who” by Chris Chibnall…

To be entirely fair, the twelfth season of Doctor Who offers a marked improvement over the eleventh. It has a lot more enthusiasm and ambition, a stronger sense of ownership, and a higher baseline of competence.

Still, watching the twelfth season is a surreal experience. On the most basic of levels, the season does not contain a single episode as good as either of the eleventh season’s standouts, Demons of the Punjab or It Takes You Away. The best episode of the season is Fugitive of the Judoon, which is not so much an episode as a forty-odd minute teaser. The second best episode of the season hinges its climax on the moral argument that Percy Shelley’s life is worth more than millions in the future because he’s a “great man of history.” As such, it is a fundamentally flawed season.

At the same time, there is something interesting in the season’s relationship to the Moffat era. Every era of Doctor Who has an interesting relationship with the one that preceded it. The Third Doctor’s status as an establishment figure was best read as a reaction against the Second Doctor as a wandering hobo, with the Fourth Doctor’s bohemian sensibilities itself a reaction against that. Indeed, specific stories with the Hinchcliffe era seem to exist as plays upon (or critiques of) the Letts era, most notably Terror of the Zygons.

The Moffat era was no stranger to this, involving itself in an evolving conversation with the Davies era. The fifth season adhered religiously to the structure that Davies had employed for each of his four seasons, while later seasons would become structurally ambitious. The entirety of the ninth season seemed to be built outwards from Journey’s End, from the return of Davros and resurrection of Skaro in The Magician’s Apprentice to the reframing of the Doctor’s memory wipe of companion in Hell Bent. Moffat even affectionately named the “good Dalek” in Into the Dalek as “Rusty” in honour of Russell T. Davies.

As such, it is no surprise that the Chibnall era should have something to say about the Moffat era. To be fair, historical episodes like Nikola Tesla’s Night of Terror or The Witchfinders, along with attempts to ground the series in the companions’ domestic lives in Arachnids in the U.K. and Can You Hear Me?, suggest a stronger affinity for the Davies era. Still, the decision to open the twelfth season with a two-parter globe-trotting adventure (that morphs into a time-hopping adventure) in Spyfall, Part I and Spyfall, Part II feels consciously indebted to Moffat’s sixth season opener The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon.

The most striking aspect of the twelfth season’s relationship to the work of Steven Moffat is how its season premiere and finale feel like long-delayed set-ups to punchlines that Moffat delivered years ago. In particular, Spyfall, Part II feels like the premise of Let’s Kill Hitler played depressingly straight, and The Timeless Children is essentially the sort of notionally “epic” continuity-fest that Hell Bent so studiously avoided. There’s something incredibly depressing in this, a sense that the Chibnall era not only missed the point of Let’s Kill Hitler and Hell Bent, but is committed to being the kind of stories that they so roundly mocked.

It is worth conceding that Moffat is a controversial figure to certain sections of Doctor Who fans. The controversy around Moffat stems from a variety of sources, but at least some of it is rooted in the way that Moffat approaches storytelling. Moffat is a writer who assumes a certain televisual literacy of his audience, expecting that they understand the basic mechanics of how stories work, so that he might have a bit of fun playing with their expectations. Moffat’s big innovations around Doctor Who hinge on challenging the audience’s assumptions about the stories they want and how those stories are supposed to work.

This isn’t hugely radical. Writer and director Paul Schrader has talked about this increased media literacy a few months before Moffat took over Doctor Who. This approach to storytelling has become mainstream enough that it underpins a variety of breakout hits. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse assumes that audiences understand how superhero stories work, so it can breeze through six superhero origins and a tragic villain back story in under two hours. Knives Out expects that audiences understand the rhythms and flows of the standard “whodunnit” formula, and so constructs a narrative that plays with that formula.

This approach can be controversial to fans, because it often hinges on a sort of misdirection. Fans expect a certain kind of story adhering to a certain formula, and when writers or directors start playing with those formulas, fans get upset. This is part of the reason that Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi was so controversial to certain sections of Star Wars fandom. Fans have certain appetites and desires concerning how stories are told, any attempt to interrogate or explore that is perceived as a criticism. Moffat’s approach is particularly controversial to certain fans, because he actively rejects certain types of stories.

It is perhaps easiest to pick an example. A Good Man Goes to War is as effective an example as any. The basic structure of the episode resembles a classic “rape revenge” narrative; the Doctor’s companion has been taken and violated, and he is embarking on a mission to recover her. In order to rescue her from the evil forces that have kidnapped her and are conducting experiments on her pregnant body, the Doctor amasses an army. Using that army, he takes control of the base. He humiliates his enemies. He destroys entire fleets. He is a force of nature.

Of course, Doctor Who is not designed to be a vehicle for “rape revenge” stories, even if certain elements of the show’s history have pushed it towards darker and edgier storytelling – these include the manipulative protagonist of the Cartmel era, the excesses of the Virgin New Adventures, and even the brooding genocidal hero of the Davies era. Doctor Who is a children’s television show. A Good Man Goes to War is built around driving that point home. The Doctor does not belong in a story like this one, and the narrative is hostile to him.

A Good Man Goes to War reinforces this in a number of ways. Most obviously, it reveals that the Doctor can “speak baby”, understanding and communicating with Amy’s newborn baby. It’s a ridiculous idea, but underscores the Doctor as a character who belongs to children, much like the idea that “children can hear [his name] sometimes” in Twice Upon a Time. There are other elements, such as Vastra’s insistence on being “delicate” when broaching the subject of Amy and Rory’s sex life with him or his bullying of Colonel Manton, imagining “children laughing outside [his] door, because they’ve found the house of Colonel Run Away.”

However, the most damning criticism of the “rape revenge” narrative in A Good Man Goes to War is the simple reality that the Doctor fails. The Doctor turns himself into a monster in order to rescue Amy and her child, but he fails completely. Madame Kovarian escapes with Melodi Pond in the chaos. Amy is separated from her daughter. Even the episode’s would-be companion character, Lorna, ends up dead. All the Doctor can do in her final moments is to extend her a comforting lie. “All this was for nothing,” Amy neatly summarises of the episode’s sound and fury.

This is what the rejection of the epic looks like, setting a firm boundary on what Doctor Who can be or do. Indeed, the episode ends with River Song delivering a stern lecture on what the Doctor should be, and why this mission failed as spectacularly as it did. “You think I wanted this?” the Doctor demands. “I didn’t do this. This, this wasn’t me!” River replies, “This was exactly you. All this. All of it. You make them so afraid. When you began, all those years ago, sailing off to see the universe, did you ever think you’d become this? The man who can turn an army around at the mention of his name.” It’s a stern corrective.

Moffat adopts a similar approach a number of times over the course of his run, setting up particular types of stories, only to sharply swerve away from them and offer a much more satisfying narrative in their place. There is a sense in which the Moffat era is about rejecting certain types of stories and embracing others. In the seventh season, the “Impossible Girl” arc consciously rejects the Doctor’s (and the audience’s) efforts to read Clara Oswald as a mystery to be solved rather than a person to be seen. The Doctor himself makes this explicit in Hide, realising, “This isn’t a ghost story, it’s a love story!”

What’s interesting about Chris Chibnall’s work on the twelfth season of Doctor Who is the extent to which it appears to completely miss the point of this sort of structure. The twelfth season takes several major cues from the Moffat era – the revelation of a previously hidden regeneration in Fugitive of the Judoon, a climactic team-up between the Master and the Cybermen in Ascension of the Cybermen and The Timeless Child. However, its readings are almost deliberately shallow. The twelfth season specifically embraces the sorts of stories that the Moffat era pointedly rejected.

Spyfall, Part II is an obvious example. The episode features the Doctor traveling through history, chased by the Master. She winds up in the Second World War, crossing paths with Noor Inayat Khan as the Master disguises himself as a member of the SS. At one point, the Doctor assures Khan that everything will work itself out in the end. “The fascists, do they win?” Khan asks. The Doctor responds, “Never. Not while there’s people like you.” She then wipes Khan’s memory, and silently consigns that heroic woman to her death in a concentration camp. At another, the Doctor turns the Master over to the Nazis, weaponising their racism.

It is all shockingly tasteless. It’s a prime illustration of why the Doctor should probably steer clear of these sorts of stories, even if episodes like The Curse of Fenric, The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances and Victory of the Daleks skirt along the British cultural memory of the conflict. Putting the Doctor into contact with actual Nazis breaks the show in a very fundamental way, just like Rosa did when it required that the Doctor and her companions make themselves actively complicit in systemic racism rather than actually responding to historic injustice. The character is just not build to function like that.

Moffat understood this. Let’s Kill Hitler is an episode explicitly about that. It is premised around the idea of throwing the Doctor into the most cliché time travel plot imaginable. He is kidnapped at gunpoint and forced to take Mels back to Germany in the late thirties. As Mels summarises, “You’ve got a time machine, I’ve got a gun. What the hell. Let’s Kill Hitler.” It’s a cliché idea, but it is actually surprising that it took Doctor Who almost fifty years to play out that sort of plot on screen. Of course, like A Good Man Goes to War critiques the “rape revenge” template, Let’s Kill Hitler critiques this approach to time travel fiction.

It should be acknowledged that Let’s Kill Hitler is comfortably one of Moffat’s weakest three scripts for Doctor Who, along with the two other scripts in the second half of the sixth season. Moffat was never the efficient production machine that Davies was, and struggling under the weight of producing thirteen episodes of Doctor Who a year alongside his other commitments. (Mainly Sherlock, the BBC’s other flagship.) The chaos of the sixth season introduced longer delays into the production of the revival. Both the sixth and seventh seasons are split in half, while there were gap years between a few of the later seasons.

Let’s Kill Hitler has a number key problems. Most obviously, it struggles to properly tether its plot to its emotional arc. The episode is about the pointlessness of trying to kill Hitler, because Hitler is a real person and the Doctor is a fictional character. Again, this is a theme strong enough that Moffat would return to it in Extremis. However, that pointlessness is more than just a broad point about the clichés of time travel fiction. The episode is actually about Amy and Rory coming to terms with the trauma inflicted on them, which the Doctor is also unable to do. After all, the Doctor is really Amy’s imaginary friend.

Let’s Kill Hitler needs to be able to tie these two themes together – the epic and the intimate. The Doctor cannot defeat Hitler, but he can defeat the Daleks. The Doctor cannot reverse the traumas inflicted on the Pond family, but he can facilitate their healing. These are big, weighty ideas and Let’s Kill Hitler struggles to properly play them off one another. The episode also struggles a little bit too much with tone, pivoting too sharply from its Nazi premise towards its screwball comedy stylings. Then again, that’s the point. Let’s Kill Hitler is about rejecting the idea of “a Nazi episode”, and embracing a screwball comedy instead.

After all, Let’s Kill Hitler makes the point that this set-up is literally toxic to the Doctor. When the TARDIS lands in Berlin, it is leaking toxic gas. When Mels regenerates into River Song, she poisons the Doctor. The Doctor spends the bulk of the episode flailing around, flopping like a fish out of water. This makes sense, because this is an environment that is actively toxic to him. It is revealing that the first thing that the Doctor does on landing in Berlin is to lock Adolf Hitler in a closet and get on with having a zany comedy adventure. After all, the Doctor cannot defeat Hitler. He cannot undo the horrible things Hitler did.

Let’s Kill Hitler voices its disdain for the idea of throwing the Doctor into a gritty time travel story about the atrocities of the Nazi regime through the character of the Tesselecta. The Tesselecta is a vehicle that travels through time, passing judgment of historical war criminals. Obviously, it can’t actually change history either, because this is a television series. “We don’t kill them,” explains Captain Carter. “We extract them near the end of their established timelines.” When the Doctor asks what they do after that, Carter clarifies that they “give them hell.”

There are several interesting things about this. Most obviously, the Tesselecta is transparently a broken version of Doctor Who. It is a device that can travel anywhere in time and space, but uses that ability to do the most mundane and boring things imaginable. It is very earnest and very serious business, with none of the sense of fun and adventure associated with Doctor Who. “Time travel has responsibilities,” Carter grimly states. “What?” the Doctor gasps. “You got yourselves time travel, so you decided to punish dead people?” It is a concept worthy of derision.

The Tesselecta is designed as a dysfunctional TARDIS, albeit one with “tessellation” rather than a “chameleon circuit.” While the TARDIS is stuck as a phone box, the Tesselecta can still change its shape. Inside, Moffat signals the ship’s dysfunction by having the ship operate more like something from Star Trek, replicating a trick he employed with the luxury liner in A Christmas Carol. However, the biggest difference between the Tesselecta and the TARDIS is that while the TARDIS is famously “bigger on the inside”, the Tesselecta works by the opposite principle. It is “a time travelling shape shifting robot operated by miniaturised cross people.” It’s smaller on the inside.

The Tesselecta represents an alternative to Doctor Who, a show that takes itself entirely too seriously and which uses the potential to explore all of time and space as nothing more than an excuse to go back and wallow in real human suffering that it cannot change anyway. It feels entirely appropriate that the culmination of the sixth season, building outwards from that rejection of the “rape revenge” subplot in A Good Man Goes to War is a rejection of the Tesselecta version of Doctor Who. The Doctor turns Let’s Kill Hitler into a farce, and the Tesselecta burns at Lake Silencio in The Wedding of River Song.

Moffat pushed Doctor Who away from the celebrity historical after Victory of the Daleks teamed up Winston Churchill with the Daleks. The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon play Richard Nixon as joke, riffing on Moffat’s realisation that “the rubbish one” was president during the moon landings. Nixon wanders through The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon as a get out of jail free card for the TARDIS crew, each absurd and unlikely appearance marked with ridiculous fanfare. It’s notable that the only real celebrity historical of the Capaldi era was Robot of Sherwood, built around a fictional character.

In many ways, the Chibnall era feels like a retroactive vindication of Let’s Kill Hitler. Let’s Kill Hitler was an implied criticism of a certain brand of time travel story, about those tales that would use time travel to wallow in injustices that could never be changed rather than embracing the wonder and whimsy of Doctor Who. The Chibnall era has embraced the celebrity historical, albeit with a greater emphasis on historical injustice. Rosa is about the early days of the Civil Rights movement, while Spyfall, Part II features a character who will be shot through the head in Dachau.

This is all grim and serious stuff, and it pushes up against the limits of Doctor Who. After all, within the world of the show, there is no real reason why the Doctor can consistently trounce the Daleks but cannot intervene against the Nazis. If the Doctor can help dismantle the systems of capitalist oppression in Planet of the Ood or Oxygen, why shouldn’t she be able to hold a racist institution to account in fifties Alabama? The answer, of course, is because Daleks are fictional characters, but Nazis really existed; that the show’s futures are imaginary, but its past is real.

Doctor Who can never offer a satisfying in-universe explanation for this disconnect. Davies leaned heavily on the idea of “fixed points in time” in stories like The Fires of Pompeii, but equally insisted that the past could be rewritten in stories like The Unquiet Dead. It is entirely arbitrary that certain (relatively minor in the cosmic scheme of things) events are fixed while others are in flux. The only possible way to account for this disconnect is by acknowledging that Doctor Who is not a documentary about imaginary people, but instead a fictional show operating by that logic.

The Moffat era is built around that understanding. Indeed, it is largely predicated on the idea that the Doctor is an imaginary construct. The Doctor’s relationship with Amy Pond is largely built around his status as her “imaginary friend.” The climax of their first season together hinges on Amy using her memory and imagination to bring the Doctor back to life in The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, a literalisation of how Doctor Who fandom managed to keep the show alive during its cancellation. Extremis grappled with the show’s powerlessness in the face of events like the election of Donald Trump or the Brexit vote.

In contrast, the Chibnall era plays it all entirely seriously. It treats the idea of the Doctor crossing paths with Rosa Parks or Noor Inayat Khan as an opportunity for high dramatic stakes, ignoring how tasteless it is to make the real-life stories of people like Rosa Parks or Noor Inayat Khan subject to the emotional angst of a fictional character and how uncomfortable it is to have that heroic fictional character stand back and passively watch the injustices heaped upon Parks or Khan because of some arbitrary rules about the show’s internal mechanics of time travel. Spyfall, Part II is the kind of story that Let’s Kill Hitler was mocking.

This becomes even more obvious at the other end of the season, with The Timeless Children. The season finale is a controversial and divisive episode, because it makes several seismic changes to the internal continuity of Doctor Who. It is a story set largely on Gallifrey, in the ruins of the Doctor’s home world. Held hostage by the Master, the Doctor is confronted by the fact that “everything is about to change… forever.” The episode then goes on to have the Doctor trapped within a “paralysis field” as the Master delivers reams of exposition to her.

Doctor Who has always had a complicated relationship with Gallifrey. The biggest problem with the setting is that most stories about Gallifrey are not very good. Expanding the category of “Gallifrey stories” to a more generic “Time Lord mythology stories”, the subgenre has featured some real stinkers. The anniversary stories The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors get a nostalgic pass, while The Deadly Assassin is legitimately great. However, the Time Lords have driven stories like The Invasion of Time, The Arc of Infinity and The Trial of a Time Lord.

There is a very obvious reason why the Time Lords don’t really lend themselves to compelling narratives within Doctor Who. They are largely inessential to it. The Time Lords represent a society that the Doctor abandoned. The Time Lords represent an order on the universe, something that Doctor Who reacts against. The Time Lords are stoic and regal, but they are also staid. They are the living embodiment of a central mythology, which makes them inherently hostile to a television series that is constantly and continuously reinventing itself.

Doctor Who is not a show with a vast and sprawling mythology, and has actively resisted efforts to impose one. During the late eighties, script editor Andrew Cartmel began hinting that the Doctor was “more than just another Time Lord.” Although that implication was explored in tie-in media during the cancellation era, it was largely brushed aside by Davies and Moffat. The television movie suggested that the Doctor was “half-human on [his] mother’s side”, a potentially universe-shattering revelation that has largely been ignored by everything that followed.

However, there is a push and pull with this sort of thing. Despite the fact that Doctor Who is actively hostile to the kind of mythos that the Time Lords represent, certain fans are inexorably drawn towards it. This is how you end up with horrific fan-servicing continuity fests like Warriors of the Deep or Attack of the Cybermen, stories that seem to assume that Doctor Who continuity is something worth celebrating as an end unto itself. There are stories within the history of Doctor Who that push towards the idea of the grand and sweeping mythology-altering epic.

The Moffat era largely rejects these sorts of stories. This is most obvious with something like The Time of the Doctor, which is the episode in which the Doctor reaches the end of his original thirteen-regeneration cycle, a limit imposed by The Deadly Assassin. Certain fans were braced for an epic story about how the Doctor would confront his mortality and inevitably earn more regenerations. Instead, Moffat opted to tell a quieter story that used the reaching of that limit to tell a more personal story. The Time of the Doctor uses the idea of the regeneration limit to make the Doctor’s decision to “stay for Christmas” mean something.

It is also evident in how the Moffat era approached Gallifrey. The Davies era shrewdly jettisoned Gallifrey from the show, revealing in The End of the World that the Doctor had watched the planet burn and in Dalek that he had destroyed it himself. Indeed, Gallifrey would not be mentioned by name until The Runaway Bride and not discussed properly until Gridlock at the start of the third season. There was a sense in which Davies was wary of the gravity that Gallifrey exerted on the mythology of the series, and so having the Doctor destroy Gallifrey was an effective way to give the revival a clean slate.

However, Moffat was decidedly uneasy with the idea of the Doctor as a man responsible for genocide, especially as that genocide would have involved the mass murder of children. (The second episode of his tenure, The Beast Below, is built around using the suffering of children as a measure of a society’ brutality.) With The Day of the Doctor, Moffat reversed the destruction of Gallifrey. The narrative impetus behind that choice was not to restore Gallifrey to the larger narrative, but to wipe away the original sin of the revival. It erased the horror of the Time War as a metaphor for the cancellation trauma.

The Day of the Doctor hedged slightly; while the War Doctor mused that they might never know if they “actually succeeded”, the Eleventh Doctor openly teases the idea that Gallifrey was “still out there.” Nevertheless, the restoration of Gallifrey teased the idea of an epic narrative, even if it was not one with which Moffat was particularly taken. Much like certain segments of fandom wanted an epic “quest for regeneration” narrative, some also clearly wanted an epic “search for Gallifrey” story. After all, a lot of modern television – a lot of modern science-fiction – was built around the idea of epic season-long narratives.

Moffat made it quite clear that he had no interest in such a narrative. In The Time of the Doctor, the episode directly following The Day of the Doctor, it was made explicit that they could not just return to the universe of Doctor Who. Tasha Lem explains the stakes to the Doctor, “They will be met with a war that will never end. The Time War will begin anew. You know that, Doctor.” Given that “the Time War” is the show’s long-standing metaphor for the trauma of the cancellation, that seems like a pretty stark insistence that Gallifrey was never going to be an important part of Moffat’s vision of Doctor Who.

Indeed, the Doctor himself is pointedly distinterested in searching for Gallifrey. In Death in Heaven, Missy taunts the Doctor with the possible location of Gallifrey. “It’s returned to it’s original location,” Missy goads. “Didn’t you ever think to look?” Of course, the end of the episode reveals that Missy is lying, but the Doctor still has to check. This demonstrates how little the Doctor has actually invested in the search; he didn’t even bother to visit the planet’s original location until it was pointed out to him.

However, the Doctor does eventually return to Gallifrey at the end of the ninth season. Indeed, it even looks like Moffat is lining up the sort of epic “homecoming” story that certain types of fans want. The ninth season is populated with references to “the hybrid.” It is a mythic creature born of “two great warrior races forced together to create a warrior greater than either” which “will one day stand in the ruins of Gallifrey” and “unravel the Web of Time and destroy a billion billion hearts to heal its own.” That suggests a narrative with a grand and epic sweep that will match “the Last Great Time War.”

As the ninth season reaches its climax, it builds inescapably towards an epic story. In Face the Raven, the Doctor and Clara find themselves drawn to a murder mystery in an alien refugee camp that is being protected by mysterious patrons. The Doctor is ensnared in a trap, while Clara dies horrifically in the middle of the street. It is a sharp and dramatic escalation, with the Doctor then transported away at the behest of the mysterious patrons of this marginalised community. Heaven Sent finds the Doctor trapped by these unseen forces in his own “bespoke torture chamber.” They are trying to extract information about the hybrid.

The Doctor struggles through that torture for millions of years. At the end, he escapes. He finds himself on a strange world. “Go to the city,” he instructs a young child. “Find somebody important. Tell them I’m back. Tell them, I know what they did, and I’m on my way. And if they ask you who I am, tell them I came the long way round.” As the child flees, the camera pans over to reveal that the Doctor is back on Gallifrey. He has returned home. There will be a reckoning. For the first time in the revival, the Doctor is confronting the Time Lords on their own planet, with the weight of prophecy behind him.

The ninth season concludes in Hell Bent. Hell Bent is a divisive episode. One of the reasons that Hell Bent is so divisive is because of how thoroughly and completely it rejects the idea of the Doctor’s epic “homecoming” story. The first fifteen minutes or so deliver what one might expect from that sort of narrative. The Doctor vanquishes “Rassilon the Redeemer” and takes control of the planet. He sits down with senior officials and ruminates on the prophecy of the hybrid. Then things take a very sharp turn.

Much like Let’s Kill Hitler is about rejecting the gritty “Doctor in the Second World War” story in favour of an affectionate thirties farce, Hell Bent is about rejecting the idea of an epic mythology-driven story in favour of something smaller and more intimate. The mythology stuff is just a shell game played by the Doctor. He hasn’t returned to reclaim his planet. He hasn’t returned to confront the hybrid. Instead, this is all a manipulation on the part of the Doctor to allow him to save Clara from her death in Face the Raven. That is the point of the episode. That is the beating heart of the story.

The return to Gallifrey is not the point of Hell Bent. It is ultimately a narrative red herring. It does not exist in the story because it has value of itself. It exists in the story in order to illustrate how far the Doctor will go to reunite with Clara. Everything else is just noise; the mythology, the origin story, the continuity. The central point of Hell Bent is the Doctor’s understanding of his “duty of care” towards Clara and the pushing of that beyond all reason or logic. Gallifrey is toxic to Doctor Who, its own hellscape, but the Doctor will brave that if it allows him to reunite with Clara. That’s the importance of Gallifrey to Hell Bent.

Indeed, Hell Bent is pointedly a rejection of the show’s internal mythology. Hell Bent is critical of the internal logic that had taken root over the course of Doctor Who, by virtue of its existence as a show about the Doctor. The Doctor is, logically, the most important character in Doctor Who, as he is the one character who remains constant across its fifty-odd year history. By way of contrast, the companions are ephemeral. They drift into and out of the show’s narrative universe. As a result of this logic, the Doctor has always taken priority of the companion. The Doctor (and his world) must be more important. His name is on the show.

During the Davies era, there was a recurring tendency to punish companions for the hubris of considering themselves true narrative equals to the Doctor. Army of Ghosts and Doomsday were built around reinforcing how naive it was for Rose to assume she would travel in the TARDIS forever. In The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End, both Rose and Donna turn themselves into slightly dysfunctional versions of the Doctor, but that cannot be allowed to stand. Rose is exiled back to another dimension, while Donna has her memories wiped and is exiled back to her mundane life.

Hell Bent firmly rejects this assumption. Notably, in a direct reversal of Journey’s End, the Doctor has his memories of Clara wiped. Clara is not punished for the arrogance of stepping into the role of the Doctor in stories like Flatline. Instead, she is rewarded. She is given her own TARDIS and allowed to embark on adventures with her own companion. Hell Bent subsumes the mythology of the Doctor (including that of the Time Lords and Gallifrey) into the story of his companion. It’s notable that Moffat followed Hell Bent with The Husbands of River Song, an episode in which the Doctor is rendered as companion to River.

As such, Hell Bent is a pointed reversal of many of the assumptions of Doctor Who. It rejects the idea that the Doctor’s mythology is inherently more valuable than the life of his companion, and firmly rejects the idea that “the epic” is a form inherently worthy of celebration just because it plays to the established continuity of Doctor Who. Indeed, it’s notable that “the Cloisters” beneath Gallifrey are stuffed with continuity driftwood; trapped Weeping Angels, screaming Daleks, lost Cybermen adrift in “the biggest database in history.” Gallifrey is built atop continuity, but the type of hollow continuity that becomes a tomb.

Hell Bent reinforces this idea with “the hybrid.” The ninth season is deliberately vague and ambiguous on what “the hybrid” actually is. “The friend inside the enemy, the enemy inside the friend,” Missy taunts in The Witch’s Familiar. “Everyone’s a bit of both. Everyone’s a hybrid.” In Hell Bent, the Doctor laments, “Prophecies, they never tell you anything useful, do they?” There is an intentional vagueness to the concept of “the hybrid” that is very conscious and deliberate. It isn’t an accident.

The ninth season seeds any number of possible candidates for “the hybrid” – the Doctor giving his energy to Davros in The Witch’s Familiar, the merging of human and Mire in Ashildr in The Girl Who Died, Osgood as both human and Zygon in The Zygon Invasion. These are all credible possibilities, and the season has a great deal of fun out of having characters ask, “like a hybrid?” Again, Moffat seems to be having fun with a classic Doctor Who trope, alluding to Davies’ fascination with the idea of an “arc word” like “Bad Wolf” or “Torchwood” or “Mister Saxon.”

To be clear, Hell Bent is explicit that “the hybrid” doesn’t actually matter. “The hybrid, what is it?” Clara asks. “What’s so important you would fight so long?” The Doctor responds, “It doesn’t matter what the hybrid is. It only matters that I convinced them that I knew. Otherwise they’d have kicked me out, I’d have had nothing left to bargain with.” When Clara asks what the Doctor was bargaining for, he responds, “What do you think? You. I had to find a way to save you. I knew it had to be the Time Lords. They cost you your life on Trap Street, Clara, and I was going to make them bring you back. I just had to hang on in there for a bit.”

That said, “the hybrid” is not a complete red herring. For those fans fixated on explanations, Hell Bent suggests perhaps the most plausible account of “the hybrid”, when the Doctor finds the woman formerly known as Aschildr sitting in the ruins of Gallifrey. “What if the hybrid wasn’t one person, but two?” she asks. “A dangerous combination of a passionate and powerful Time Lord and a young woman so very similar to him. Companions who are willing to push each other to extremes.” In other words, “the hybrid” is the combination of the Doctor and Clara.

Hell Bent stops short of explicitly confirming this reading, a shrewd move. It allows the prophecy to remain vague and subjective, while also offering closure to the narrative arc. It’s a canny piece of writing from Moffat, allowing the show to have its cake and eat it. “The hybrid” isn’t actually important as anything more than a bit of leverage and misdirection, but if the audience absolutely has to know what “the hyrbid” is, it is the only possible conclusion to the character arcs running through the ninth season as a whole. It takes the epic and makes it personal, reducing the mythic power of Gallifrey to a secondary concern.

In this sense, the Chibnall era defines itself largely in opposition to this idea. The Chibnall era repeatedly seems to argue that lives are only truly important if they are epic. “Do you know, in nine hundred years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before?” the Eleventh Doctor muses in A Christmas Carol. In contrast, the Thirteenth Doctor demonstrates that Rosa Parks is important by visiting an asteroid named in her honour at the end of Rosa. “She changed the world,” the Doctor explains. “In fact, she changed the universe. Look at this Asteroid 284996. Also known as Rosaparks.”

This is the approach of the Chibnall era, where the personal becomes important only when it is presented in the most epic of terms. It doesn’t matter that Rosa Parks did something brave and important and worth doing, her true worth is measured in the fact that there’s a rock floating in space that has been named after her. In The Haunting of the Villa Diodati, the Doctor refuses to sacrifice Percy Shelley not because a life has intrinsic value, but because “his thoughts, his words inspire and influence thousands for centuries.” Shelley only matters because he makes the story “epic.”

The Timeless Children plays very much like the kind of clichéd story that Hell Bent was very cleverly subverting, the sort of epic quest lined up by Face the Raven and Heaven Sent, but played entirely straight and to disastrous effect. Indeed, it’s notable that The Timeless Children is also the culmination of a three-episode arc at the end of a lead actor’s second season. Some fans who missed the point of Hell Bent have even argued that the union of the Master and the Cybermen in the ruins of Gallifrey are paying off the prophecy of “the hybrid” from the ninth season, completely missing the point.

At every point where Hell Bent zagged, The Timeless Children studiously zigs. The Doctor returns to Gallifrey. There are plenty of references to “the Matrix” and “the Panopticon.” There are mountains of exposition. There are shocking revelations that had been carefully seeded throughout the season. The show’s mythology is uprooted in a self-consciously epic manner. Indeed, while Hell Bent seemed to argue that the Doctor’s companion was the most important person in the universe because of the “duty of care” owed to them, The Timeless Children reframes the show’s mythology so it is even more centred on the Doctor.

As with the historical earnestness and tastelessness of Spyfall, Part II, the results are underwhelming. The Timeless Children is about an hour of exposition, occasionally broken up with action sequences involving the Cybermen. The Doctor is stripped of any agency in the plot, as continuity weighs down upon her. The Timeless Children offers exactly the sort of epic mythology-driven story that Hell Bent teased, and it is mostly as dull as The Arc of Infinity or The Ultimate Foe. For all that the episode changes carious underlying assumptions of Doctor Who, it is surprisingly lifeless and dull.

This gets at the truly strange relationship between the Moffat era and the Chibnall era. The Moffat era was often built around arguments about the kind of stories that were worth telling, taking familiar narratives and rejecting them in favour of better alteratives. Let’s Kill Hitler rejected the pseudo-maturity of dropping the Doctor into Nazi-occupied Europe in favour of a story about trauma and healing. Hell Bent rejected the idea that the show’s internal mythology was more interesting or compelling than the story of a young woman finally becoming a true equal to the Doctor.

The most surprising thing about Spyfall, Part II and The Timeless Children is that their first impulse seems to be to tell the sort of stories that Let’s Kill Hitler and Hell Bent were explicitly rejecting, and to play them entirely straight. In doing so, they ultimately vindicate Let’s Kill Hitler and Hell Bent, two of the more divisive stories of the Moffat era. They demonstrate why the Moffat era made a point to reject those kinds of stories, because the end results are dull and predictable. They are largely unsatisfying as drama.

This gets ane interesting and key differencs between the work of Chris Chibnall and his two predecessors. Both Davies and Moffat understood Doctor Who as part of the larger pop culture, aimed at a hyper-literate generation of media-consumers who had been raised to understand the language and logic of television storytelling. The Davies and Moffat eras often crashed Doctor Who into other genres of television. Davies’ characterisation of Rose, Martha and Donna drew heavily from soap operas, while Moffat’s scripting leaned towards farce and comedy – notably in scripts like Listen or The Husbands of River Song.

Under Davies and Moffat, these points of intersection enhanced Doctor Who. They provided context for it, and enriched it. It’s notable that the first season of Doctor Who climaxes with the Doctor and Rose effectively navigating contemporary television in Bad Wolf – hopping from Big Brother to The Weakest Link. There is a sense of Davies trying to contextualise Doctor Who as part of that landscape, down to recruiting actual talent and props from those shows. Moffat also enjoyed tilting the series towards screwball comedy, favouring it over time travel angst in Let’s Kill Hitler.

This is particularly obvious with the holiday specials. In Voyage of the Damned, Davies dropped the Doctor into The Poseiden Adventure as a Christmas movie. In The Next Doctor, Davies riffed on Victoriana. In A Christmas Carol and The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe, Moffat crashed the Doctor into classics of seasonal literature. In The Return of Doctor Mysterio, he wrote the Doctor into the kind of superhero movie that populates the airwaves at the holidays. It’s notable that Chibnall’s New-Year’s-centric stories like Resolution and Spyfall, Part I are less obvious in their experiments with holiday television as a genre.

However, there is also a clear tension between the Chibnall era and the rest of television. The Davies and Moffat eras seemed openly curious and enthusiastic about the rest of the television landscape, seeing Doctor Who as something that belonged in a larger conversation about the kind of stories that people watch and enjoy. In contrast, the Chibnall era seems more openly hostile and anxious about the rest of the media landscape. There is a sense in which the Chibnall era believes that Doctor Who is not worthwhile as part of a larger conversation, but simply as an end unto itself.

This is most obvious with Ascension of the Cybermen, a story which keeps cutting from its Cybermen-related action to a more relaxed story in twentieth century Ireland. The aesthetic and tone of these sequences exists very much at odds with the escalating threat of “the Cyber Empire.” It is also very clearly meant to evoke the experience of channel hopping. The Irish sequences look and feel a lot a like the kind of television that is broadcast around Doctor Who on Sunday evenings, shows like Call the Midwife and Poldark, or even (historically) Heartbeat and Downton Abbey. It is a gentle and affectionate period piece.

Ascension of the Cybermen clearly wants to say something about the juxtaposition of “stereotypical Doctor Who stuff” with “stereotypical period drama stuff”, and how they relate to one another. This seems to be setting up something close to a Moffat era twist, in which the key to defeating the Cybermen will come from the gentler period drama, that Doctor Who will always choose the more accessible context of Sunday evening television over the grim and gritty science-fiction trappings. It looks like it might, like Let’s Kill Hitler or Hell Bent, be positioning itself to reject one story for another.

Instead, it becomes clear that Ascension of the Cybermen is explicitly a rejection of everything that isn’t Doctor Who. Explaining those sequences, the Master tells the Doctor, “Those glitches of Ireland you keep seeing. Those images, they were buried deep in the Matrix. Tecteun put a visual filter over it so that no one who watched it would find it remarkable.” It is a shockingly cynical dismissal of the shows around Doctor Who, of the rest of television, as “unremarkable.” Ultimately, Ascension of the Cybermen argues that Doctor Who is more “remarkable” than Call the Midwife because it features Cybermen and Time Lords.

Indeed, rewatching the revival of Doctor Who in chronological order will be an interesting experience, not least because Let’s Kill Hitler and Hell Bent will appear to be deconstructing and parodying two episodes that would not air for several seasons. It will feel like the set-up being delivered several years after the punchline already landed. It will be as though Ghost Light had been broadcast years before The Talons of Weng-Chiang or The Curse of Fenric had been broadcast before Genesis of the Daleks.

Then again, perhaps this is its own vindication of the Moffat era. The Moffat era was defined by its “timey wimey” approach to continuity and storytelling, its tendency to play with the idea of causation and set-up. Delivering a stinging criticism of two episodes half a decade before they aired feels like a suitable grace note for his tenure.

14 Responses

  1. I can see similarities with Gallifrey/The Doctor and Krypton/Superman. Both are there to provide quick and easy answers to backstories (“How can Superman fly/How can the Doctor change their appearance at death?” “They’re an alien “) and then they should get out of the way so that we can have exciting adventures. However, fans and writers keep going back to them, tweeting the mythology and adding stuff as if that’s end in itself.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this. I agree with what you say and am so grateful not to be the only one with the feeling that Chibnalls storytelling is completely at odds with Moffats (though I would not have been able to analyse it the way you did).
    Regards from Germany.

  3. It’s deeply gratifying to see more writers digging into this. I can’t help but love Series 9 more in light of it inadvertently taking the mick out of Series 12, years in advance.

    The “Chibnall solved the hybrid mystery!” rhetoric really illustrates the ideological chasm in the fanbase. Manifestly, a combination of Cybermen with Time Lords (or the Master and the Cyberium) in Series 12 does not illuminate anything about Series 9 whatsoever; it doesn’t add to our understanding of Moffat’s story about the Doctor and Clara, which already ended in a decisive manner.
    But to a certain kind of fan, that is less important than this illusory sense that it fills in a gap where a missing “fact” should be. People who were soured by Moffat having the gall to introduce ambiguity on the topic of big scary Time Lord prophecies, and who saw no value in using them as a poetic technique to tell a tale of a destructive relationship.

    I think it’s this uncomfortably consumerist mode that people have gradually been trained to read SF/F stories in; not as fictional constructs operating on multiple levels of artistic expression, but as infodumps about imaginary universes, where internal consistency is ideal and the sole pleasure is in devouring lore for its own sake. You can see this ethos underpinning all of The Timeless Children, from the larger premise of spamming extra Doctors at the start of the timeline all the way to smaller details like “solving” the Morbius Doctors (as if anyone asked). Seeing Doctor Who give in to these impulses is deeply dispiriting.

  4. Maybe it’s not that Chibs doesn’t undertand what Moffatt was doing, but that he disagrees. “Kill Hitler” and “Hell Bent” were the worst of the Moffatt era for me … and yes, I *got* what he was doing. I just don’t like watching whole episodes that don’t really work, only to have the ending say, “Ha! This is why it doesn’t work.” It’s self-indulgent. Moffatt wrote some of my all-time favorite DW episodes, and some of my all-time least favorites, the latter being the “gotcha” ones. Moffatt didn’t think big epic episodes worked well, but Chibs clearly disagrees. I really liked episodes 8-10 of season 12, including the the exposition. I mean, exposition is more interesting than constant running.

    That said, I like your points about how DW doesn’t work as well with actual historical figures and events. I think that’s true. “Rosa” didn’t work for me because of that, and parts of “Spyfall” had the same problems. Like you, I thought “Demons of the Punjab” and “It Takes You Away” were the best of series 11.

    Thanks for writing such a thorough take.

    • I don’t think Chibnall is thoughtful enough to be engaged in a conversation with previous eras of the show.

  5. This badly needs an editor. Repetition is not elaboration.

    • Where’s the repetition? (Well, except for “fans who missed the point of Hell Bent … completely missing the point.”)

  6. Had it with Who!☹

  7. I think there’s interesting arguments in this article, but they’re strongly undermined by the value judgements laid over them. Rather than looking at how Chibnall’s rejection of Moffat’s values is part of the natural ebb and flow of values driving the show as different people take control of it, that idea is only briefly hinted at in the start. The rest of the article uses compelling and convincing arguments about the writers’ differing priorities, but draws value judgements that the arguments don’t actually support. It’s a shame, because the article comes so close to making an interesting observation about how each writer alters the show and rejects parts of their predecessors’ philosophies, but went down the less original and interesting route of claiming one set of ideas was better than the other.

    • That’s the entire point of this article. He’s giving his opinion as to why the Chibnall era doesn’t connect with him. He’s not an Auton.

      And if you read his reviews for each episode, you will realize it’s not just the philosophy that bothers him–it’s the plodding exposition, it’s the flat, poorly written non-characters, the sluggish pacing, the blandness, the nebulously defined protagonist, the limp villains, the nihilism–it’s all of it.

  8. Fantastic piece, what a lovely biting ending.
    Do you see much intentionality in this era’s responses to the Moffat era, the playing straight of the narratives Let’s Kill Hitler and Hell Bent rejected? Spyfall played oddly off series 9 in mentioning Gallifrey as still being in a bubble universe, something explicitly confirmed as not the case in that series, yet later episodes seem like pointed response to series 9 episodes in a way. So it’s rather confusing.
    It’s disheartening to see so much discourse around this era take it at such an in-universe level (‘of course 13 would do that!’, ‘what else could 13 do?’, ‘there was no other way!’), when the whole question of why these stories have been written this way in the first place hangs over everything. Perhaps that locked-into-the-interior-of-the-show approach is to be expected from those that find the anti-Hell-Bent storytelling of the series 12 finale righteous and scintillating?

  9. Thanks so much for writing this. It’s so encouraging seeing well written, evidence-based defence of the moffat era. It warms my heart seeing how well history is treating moffat after the way he was treated by certain subsects of the fandom during his run.

  10. This was amazing. Thank you.

  11. Great write up and I do pretty much agree with everything you say (it is interesting looking at mortars inversions which some of I really didn’t like at the time like let’s kill hitler and compare it to chibnalls straight up serious storytelling with no punchline) and I really don’t like Chibnalls writing for the most part but I will say that I don’t think that doctor who can’t do episodes based on historically racial inequality. I actually really liked the Rosa parks episode and believe that was written not by chibnall, the whole episode feels like a historical education episode with the doctor in the background and I thought it was kind of excusable for them to do that though I see what you mean about the characters only being important if they’re historically important (the space rock thing was stupid). And yes I agree with your central thesis that certain ideas like the nazis or playing the doctor in a certain way can be toxic. Spyfall part 2 just really bothered me (I actually like part 1) because to make the master a nazi is just so fucking unsubtle and the whole two parter seemed like it was written just to get to that point. Also wasn’t happy with them screwing around with the regeneration cycle this season and adding like what 3 more doctors? The black girl is kind of understandable but I still feel like it’s lazy because you’re getting the advantage/praise for having a black woman doctor without yknow actually doing the work and making her the main character. But whatever, that’s understandable I think but adding two more incarnations, add the war doctor and that would make Jodie, unofficially what the 16th doctor? And the only branch they have to run the whole thing is oh there was one episode from like 76 where you saw three production staff people in black and white next to Tom baker? Terrible, chibnall is really draining the fun or excitement from the show for me.

    Oh also I didn’t know enough about the girl who was helping the Jews in spyfall to know what happened to her, I kind of figured they ended up ok but the doctor jus fleshing when you know how it’s going to end up is fucking weird and you would think it’s at least something that she’d have to grapple with. Idk I love Jodie but this season the doctor feels really disconnected from her companions and the new people she meets and that could be intentional but I just think like, idk she’s got way too big of a tardis crew for short 45 minute episodes so a lot of them get shorted each episode and they were trying to build up yaz this season and it didn’t even end up mattering. I could never imagine a story like hell bent happening to Jodie simply because I don’t think she cares about her companions that much.

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