Moffat vs. Davies

September 1st, 2014
Warning! This article and its comments may contain spoilers...

If you spend more than ten minutes on any Doctor Who forum (or the comments section of any Whovian’s facebook status) it usually degenerates—like the age-old ‘that’s what Hitler did’ devolution—to a slanging match about the merits of Steven Moffat. The basic opinion being that he’s not much good, and bring back Russell T. Davies before the whole show goes down the toilet.

Firstly, arguments like that are usually exceptionally whiney, being mostly perpetrated by the guys who made it through the wilderness years with no show at all, but now seem to be arguing they’d rather now watch every week than have the show as Moffat is running it. Which it patently totally rubbish. It’s just that Who fans like to argue.

The basic firing line up against Moffat is a combination of over-complicated plots, ‘clever-clever’ dialogue, thinly written supporting characters, misogyny and turning the Doctor into a giggling child. Go through those one by one, and you might have an example for each, but that doesn’t really mean that it’s a statement that can be made about the whole of Moffat’s era at once.

I’m a huge prior fan of both Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat. Queer as Folk was a defining part of my TV adolescence, and Davies’ The Writer’s Tale is one of the most fascinating books I’ve ever read. As it happens, I saw him in the crowd at a very large public event this weekend and experienced a ridiculous burst of hero worship, and am kicking myself for not having the nerve to approach him. What Davies brought to Doctor Who was the same thing he’s brought to everything else he’s written—a human connection that completely refuses to deal in archetypes. Only Davies would ever have though to slam Doctor Who into the genre of British council estate soap so thoroughly as to create something like Rose and her family, but its undoubtedly that aspect of the rebooted Who that bought it the love it achieved from the mainstream and turned it back into an unassailable institution. Davies’ stories were powered by sentiment and emotion, and it’s never cleared in the finales of his era’s various major characters: Nine’s jubilant regeneration, Rose’s tearful departure, Ten’s sorrowful tour of those he loved.

And in the middle of Davies’ series of human ties and the rise of the underdogs, Stephen Moffat turned up to give us four gems of twisty-turny plotting, slick scares and iconic soundbites. The episodes were uniformly considered highlights of their series, and given his success with previous shows Coupling and Jekyll I couldn’t have been more excited that he was taking over. He was the natural choice.

The problem comes with an audience that seemed to expect that Moffat was going to carry on the series in exactly the way that Davies has. Which ignores a few patently obvious facts: firstly, that any showrunner is naturally going to make their mark on the show, and secondly that Classic Who itself was a show defined by very obvious eras of storytelling. Is it any surprise that Moffat turned out as series that turns on his original calling cards?

Where Davies’ Doctor Who powered on humanity, Moffat’s powers on mythology, hanging itself on the feeling that the Doctor has lives for ages upon ages, seen many wonders, building every character into something significant: The Madmen with a Box, The Girl Who Waited, The Impossible Girl. With that kind of framework, he infused his iteration of the Doctor with the feeling of a dark fairytale, fed from the stories that infest our childhood. If you want to see it done well, look at A Christmas Carol. If you want to see it down half-well, look at The Doctor, The Widow and the Wardrobe.

And he did it really well, for the most part. Individually, on an episode by episode basis. The difference is, unlike Davies’ series which had Moffat’s clock-puzzle episodes to vary its tone, Moffat doesn’t swing some of his off-episodes into that sort of salt-of-the-earth drama that Davies’ excelled at. Instead we get weak episodes like The Rings of Akhaten and Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS. As Moffat said himself, they got really good at doing something at failed to notice we’ve got tired of it.

And he does seem to have learned from it, if our Capaldi Doctor and freshly-rewritten Clara seems to be anything to go by—shedding the trappings that were both his signature and a thorn in the side of fans, and moving into something a bit different. Of course, it’s Into The Dalek that’ll give us a sense of where the whole series is going, which by the time you read this, you’ll already have seen. Fingers crossed, eh?

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