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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.

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New Escapist Column! On the Franchise Revanchism in “Star Wars”, “Doctor Who” and “Star Trek”…

I published an In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine on Friday, looking at one of the more interesting (and frustrating) trends in modern franchise storytelling.

New ideas in existing franchises have always been controversial. After all, fans were taken aback by the changes made to existing properties in films like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back. So the controversy around things like the first season of Star Trek: Discovery or Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi are nothing new. What is new, however, is the way in which these properties now seem to be swayed by fan anxieties, retreating from bold ideas into the safety of familiarity. This leads an emptiness, and runs the risk of letting these properties stagnate.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

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.

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Doctor Who: Twice Upon a Time (Review)

“What was that?”

“To be fair, they cut out all the jokes.”

– the First Doctor and the Twelfth Doctor discuss the power of editting

Snow escape.

Twice Upon a Time bids farewell to Peter Capaldi, perhaps to Murray Gold, and to Steven Moffat.

It does all of this within the context of a holiday special, much like The End of Time, Part I and The End of Time, Part II bid farewell to David Tennant and Russell T. Davies with a two-part bonanza split across Christmas and New Year’s. In a way, this makes sense. Christmas is a time for indulgence, and these sorts of grand farewells lend themselves to a certain sense of self-congratulations and celebration. Davies went bigger and bolder for The End of Time, Part I and The End of Time, Part II, opting for a cameo-stuffed blockbuster affair, his style turned to eleven.

Cooler heads prevail.

Twice Upon a Time does something similar, albeit in the style of Steven Moffat. Davies tended to jump from set piece to set piece with his bombastic Christmas specials like The Runaway Bride and Voyage of the Damned, with only the thinnest of plots holding them together. Moffat’s Christmas specials like A Christmas Carol or The Husbands of River Song have set pieces, but they often feel incidental to the characters and dialogue. Twice Upon a Time is a collection of witty banter and wry observations held together by a plot that even the Doctor has to admit does not exist.

In some ways, this feels like an appropriate way to bid farewell to Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner on Doctor Who, to draw down the curtain on an impressive and momentous six seasons (and almost eight years) that radically redefined what the programme could (and even should) be. Twice Upon a Time is a Christmas indulgence, but one that feels earned. It is an adventure that doesn’t really need to exist, and one which accepts that premise as its starting point. It is an episode dancing around the inevitable. It is not especially graceful, but is charming nevertheless.

The Twelfth Day of Christmas.

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Doctor Who: The Doctor Falls (Review)

In many ways, World Enough and Time felt like a nostalgic return to classic Doctor Who.

The first part of the season premiere luxuriated in its relaxed pacing, as Bill watched grainy black-and-white footage that moved at a glacial pace. When the Cybermen appeared, they were explicitly classified as “the Mondasian Cybermen” and designed to evoke their earliest appearance in The Tenth Planet. When John Simm revealed himself, he was wearing a “rubbish beard” under an overly-elaborate disguise. There was a sense that Steven Moffat was bidding farewell to Doctor Who with a celebration of the classic series’ eccentricities.

March of the Cybermen.

In contrast, The Doctor Falls is much more of an encapsulation of Moffat’s themes and ideas during his time on the show. Even the title of The Doctor Falls evokes the Moffat era; The Doctor Dances was the first episode to include the words “the Doctor” since Holiday for the Doctor, the first part of the First Doctor serial The Gunfighters. Moffat’s fascination with the Doctor as a character and concept is born out with his repeated reference to the character in the titles of his era; Vincent and the Doctor, The Doctor’s Wife, The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe.

More to the point, The Doctor Falls returns to the idea of Moffat’s “Doctor trilogy” as the heart of his tenure as executive producer, the narrative running through The Name of the Doctor, The Night of the Doctor, The Day of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor. Positioned roughly half-way through his run in terms of seasons and episodes, those stories encapsulated a lot of what Moffat felt about the character and the concept. It makes sense that The Doctor Falls should return to those ideas.

Masters of the Universe.

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Doctor Who: World Enough and Time (Review)

The Moffat era will likely be remembered for its “wibbly wobbly, timey wimey” plotting, so perhaps World Enough and Time is an appropriate end point.

World Enough and Time begins what will be Steven Moffat’s last season finale, and what will be his last run as both writer and showrunner on Doctor Who. It is the beginning of the end. It is in some ways a less dramatic farewell than that overseen by his predecessor, with a year of specials meaning that Russell T. Davies was credited on the last nine episodes of his tenure. Instead, World Enough and Time is the first of Steven Moffat’s last three scripts for Doctor Who.

Heart-to-heart-implant.

World Enough and Time is bookended by these references, reminding the audience that time is running out for the Doctor. The teaser suggests an inevitable regeneration, as the Doctor stumbles out of the TARDIS burning with energy. The closing shot of the “Next Time” trailer at the end of the episode is the Doctor digging his hand into the soil as the energy flows through his body. There is a definite sense that the Twelfth Doctor is (a lot) closer to his end than two his beginning.

Indeed, even the inclusion of the Cybermen in World Enough and Time plays into this idea. The Daleks have arguably always functioned as the death drive within Doctor Who, the Last Great Time War serving as a metaphor for the traumatic cancellation. The Cybermen provide an interesting inversion. They represent the continuation of life through grotesque means. The Cybermen are monsters that sacrificed their humanity to survive. While the only answer to the Daleks is life, the only answer to the Cybermen is death. Death comes to time.

No time for Missy-ing.

There are several interesting aspects of World Enough and Time, from the decision to build the two-parter around the Cybermen rather than the Daleks through to the decision to include two versions of the Master. However, the most strikingly “Moffat-y” aspect of the episode is how it approaches the question of time itself. The central hook of World Enough and Time is a colony ship where time has been dialated by a black hole, but that is not the most interesting “timey wimey” element of the series.

Instead, World Enough and Time is notable as a surprisingly nostalgic indulgence. It is an episode seems to bring the show back to its earliest days, from the Master’s campy disguise to his rubbish beard to the quite pointedly “Mondasian Cybermen” to the time spent watching a black-and-white show waiting a week to see what would happen next. World Enough and Time is a surreal curiousity, rather than a bombastic event. There is something very surreal in that.

Doctor Who watches Doctor Who.

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Doctor Who – Knock, Knock (Review)

“That’s what they’re called, Driads?”

“That’s what I’m calling them, yes.”

“You’ve gone crazy.”

“Well, I can’t just call them lice, can I?”

Performance is a bit wooden.

Knock Knock is a solid, if unexceptional, episode of Doctor Who. It occasionally feels more like a grab bag of idea welded together, more than a single cohesive story.

Knock Knock is essentially three very different episodes sutured together in a decidedly haphazard fashion. Knock Knock is, in quick succession: an episode focusing on Bill’s life outside the TARDIS, an old-school haunted house adventure, an intense familial psychodrama with a powerhouse guest performance. There is a strong sense that Knock Knock would work better if it chose to be any two of those three episodes, but that it simply cannot hold itself together trying to satisfy all three masters.

Dial it back, there.

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