News has now broke that long time Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat will be stepping down after series 10 of the show and handing the reigns over to Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall, who has also penned Doctor Who episodes such as “42,” “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” and “The Power of Three.”
While Moffat has been a controversial showrunner and often times divided fan opinions, it cannot be argued that he has had an incredible impact on the show during, what will be by the time of leaving, a six season run. Today I’d like to acknowledge some of the absolute best things Moffat has done with the show that will be remembered long after we’ve gone on to hating Chris Chibnall and demand he return.
Bringing the show to a larger audience
“Americans with time travel, have you seen their films?”
While many may correctly attribute praise to Russell T Davies for his revival of the show in 2005, I feel it’s Moffat’s tenure that really brought Dr. Who to a worldwide audience and made it a cultural phenomenon outside of the UK.
There are many contributing factors to this, which some might claim to be luck; however, I feel Moffat has definitely had a hand here. Much like how Jon Pertwee was the UK’s household doctor and Tom Baker became the famous face worldwide, a similar jump was made between David Tennant and Matt Smith when Moffat began his tenure. With Smith, Moffat created a wonderfully accessible doctor to any sort of fan, able to both capture the youthful joy and fun of the show, as well as the ancient wisdom of the mysterious character. His doctor has gone on to be a recognizable figure the world over, ensuring that conventions all over the globe will be packed with people wearing tweed jackets, bow ties, and fezzes (unfortunate for anyone trying to cosplay as Grunkle Stan though).
The show also started catering more to its new found American audience, with the season 6 opening two parter being filmed in Utah for a spectacular looking story. Visiting the states after this huge boom shows just how much the show has caught on; every shop even tangentially related to television or geek culture seemed stocked with more Daleks and Tardises than you can shake a plunger at. I even remember wearing a Doctor Who shirt to Universal and spent a whole day getting seals of approval from stateside Who fans.
This burst of popularity under Moffat’s hand has turned the show into a worldwide juggernaut rather than just a British cultural icon, ensuring the show will be around long after he has departed.
The Night of the Doctor
“Charley, C’rizz, Lucie, Tamsin, Molly, friends, companions I’ve known, I salute you”
I’ll admit, this one is on here purely for the pedantic continuity nut in me. Paul McGann is one of my absolute favorite doctors. While many only know him from his brief appearance in the… interesting 1996 TV movie (which coincidentally turns 20 this year), he has taken on a life of his own as a dashing and romantic doctor in the Big Finish audio plays. Therefore, I was incredibly pleased when Moffat not only brought Paul back for a special regeneration webisode, but also made his audio stories canon in one fell swoop.
The episode itself was a brilliant way to give McGann’s doctor the ending he deserved, with McGann himself slipping back into his persona on screen with no trouble at all. In a few scant minutes he reminds us what could’ve been done on screen if given the chance (and hopefully will have encouraged a few of you to check out what he’s doing in his audio plays). These plays of course did also get a mention with the above quote in which he lists off a few of his companions from the stories, effectively making them canon in the television universe.
What makes this truly remarkable is how quickly the whole thing came together. At a Q&A with McGann at a convention shortly after the special, he told us that he was phoned up a week before it was filmed by Moffat asking if it like to come back for a special episode, but he had no script yet and still had no idea what it’d be about. While Moffat has often been criticized for his improvisational writing style, The Night of the Doctor definitely stands as one of his stand out achievements, and also set the scene of the next entry in the list.
The War Doctor
“For now, in this moment, I am the doctor again”
You could almost include the number of fan pleasing achievements Moffat penned in the The Day of the Doctor in a list of their own, from bringing back Gallifrey to uniting all the doctors in a single story (including the 12th doctor, who’d yet to debut at the time), but for me, the most notable was the creation of a new doctor played by John Hurt who fought in the Time War.
For a fan base so devoted to lists and head canons and having everything line up with what they know to be true, the potentially controversial insertion of a new doctor in the middle of these lists has been met with surprisingly positive feedback and little backlash. Perhaps it’s because Hurt sold the role brilliantly in the special, being perfectly suited to play the doctor who refuses to be acknowledged as such. For most modern fans having only witnessed the younger end of the doctor spectrum, having a much older actor in the role brought a sense of gravitas to the performance, and Hurt gives it his all, never feeling like he’s phoning it in and obviously having a great time while he’s there. It also finally allowed us to close the regeneration gap which, as you can tell from my previous point, is something that helps me sleep far easier at night.
The War Doctor has gone on to appear in many other Doctor Who related material, including the novel Engines of War by George Mann, the Doctor Who series by Titan Comics, and has even had a spin-off series courtesy of Big Finish in the form of Only The Monstrous. There’s no doubt that Hurt’s doctor is here to stay, and seems to be one of the riskiest yet most rewarding stunts Moffat has ever pulled. It’s even managed to bridge the gap between the classic show and the modern run, with no regeneration gaps and references to older stories. Hurt and the 50th provide a stronger link than ever before to what came before which, personally, is one of my favorite Moffat additions.
(fun fact: the inclusion of the war doctor and the previous Paul McGann point means that Moffat has written six different incarnations of the time lord on television, more than any other writer).
Placing time travel at the center of the stories
I’d be tempted to leave that link here and move on if I wasn’t being paid by the word (baddum tsch). While Doctor Who usually uses time travel as a means to place the story anywhere the writers want, Moffat has managed to link it to the very stories themselves with his “timey whimey” trickery. Probably the most controversial element of this list, many people find the stories hard to follow or feel they’ve been rushed out and made up on the spot, but I can’t hide a big foolish grin when seemingly disparate story threads begin to weave together out of order.
Some of Moffat’s most beloved episodes deal heavily with concepts of mind boggling time travel, from his magnum opus of “Blink,” an episode that’s transcended the show and has become famous in his own right, to my personal favourite and most recent delight “Heaven Sent.” You have to hand it to Moffat for his ability to keep such non-linear stories in his head and to make them enjoyable to watch on screen. I remember the excitement of watching his mad ideas unfold while watching “The Big Bang” way back in his first season finale, and moments like that are to me what really makes Doctor Who special.
His story telling methods have even influenced other Doctor Who stories including, yep, you guessed it, Big Finish, with episodes like “A Life in a Day,” “Eyes of Darkness” and “The Light at the End” borrowing heavily from this timey whimey form of twists and conclusions. It’s a very marmite situation; however, I’m definitely in the camp of people that love this element of Moffat’s scripts and find that it’s like most things in Doctor Who. Just go along for the ride and have some fun; it’s really not worth worrying over.
Monsters that’ll forever give us nightmares
“It’s just a nightmare, Reinette, don’t worry, everyone has nightmares. Even monsters under the bed have nightmares!”
Of course, the key to Moffat’s continued success, and the one element most people agree on and remember, is the amount of terrifying creations he’s brought to light in his time on the program. I can still remember the terror brought by the gas mask zombies in “The Empty Child,” an episode that made even the young me take notice of Moffat as a writer. And of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the breakout stars, The Weeping Angels. Moffat’s scary episodes were always an absolute treat to look forward to during the RTD era, and while this changed during Moffat’s own tenure as he focused on longer story arcs, there was still always at least one episode per season that introduced some brilliant new nightmare fuel.
Doctor Who is, of course, a family show, so there are limits to what Moffat can do in terms of horror. This hasn’t stopped him so far, however, as his creations have brought terror and delight to children and adults all over the world. It’s this that I feel makes his episodes, and his run as a whole, so special. While mostly a family show, Doctor Who should always have an element of horror to it. It’s what made the 70s gothic era of Phillip Hinchcliff and Robert Holmes such a success, pushing the boundaries of the show into strange and surreal environments, taking total advantage of the show’s ability to tell whatever kind of stories the imaginative mind can provide.
Moffat’s quality episodes are most likely going to be the strongest and most fondly remembered elements of his legacy. While there may be critique leveled at his longer term story arcs, it can’t be denied that episodes like “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “The Eleventh Hour,” and “Silence in the Library,” as well as the other episodes mentioned are some of the strongest in the show’s history. While RTD definitely had his masterpiece episode in “Midnight,” Moffat seemed to have a new masterpiece ready every season, always pulling out some new brilliant episode to reassure fans that he wasn’t ready to leave just yet.
The time however has come at last when Moffat finally is ready to leave. While the time has certainly come for some new blood, I can’t help but feel a little sad at such a massive era of the show coming to an end. Moffat’s writing is what got me back into this show, and his episodes were always something I looked forward to. It’ll feel odd to have a new voice after so long, but here’s hoping Chris Chibnall can keep the thrills going for many more years to come. And here’s to Moffat for catapulting Dr. Who to new levels of success. I’ll end with a picture of the Moff in his natural habitat, in the pose I’ll choose to remember him by.