The Ninjabot

Has Stephen Moffat Ruined Doctor Who?

Posted on January 10, 2014 at 10:00 am by Amanda Andonian


A couple weeks ago, Ted B. Kissel wrote an amazing editorial over at The Atlantic that breaks down exactly how Stephen Moffat’s penchant for writing glorified fan-fic may have very well wasted Matt Smith’s talents on mediocre material during his run as the Eleventh Doctor. Although my initial reaction to Smith’s send off in “The Time of the Doctor” was positive, Kissel’s piece points out some glaring problems and inconsistencies that forced me to realize that the Christmas special was a bloated mess. Capitalizing on warm fuzzy feelings towards Smith, it was really a terrible episode, and he deserved a better goodbye than what he received.

Unless you’ve followed the past three seasons closely, “The Time of the Doctor” really was an incomprehensible tangle of plot lines and “revelations.” Upon reading my review of the episode, Justin told me, “It was total Pokemon talk for me. I had no idea what you were saying,” to which I replied, “It’s not FOR you!” But wait a second, why isn’t it? Granted there are a number of people who lamented that the past few years of Doctor Who have felt lackluster and dumbed down for American audiences, but why shouldn’t this show be something that everyone can enjoy and understand? It can be that, and still be good, as evidenced by the fact that David Tennant’s tenure is still held dear over Matt Smith’s. According to Kissel, though, Doctor Who is just Stephen Moffat’s fantasy land.

From 10 to 11

When Tennant’s era gave way to Smith’s, the shift was jarring and ushered in a completely new kind of Doctor Who. Just compare the production values alone between “The End of Time” and “The Eleventh Hour.” It’s a huge change that not only affected the tone of the show, but also how audiences would interpret this new version of the Doctor. Everything was slick and fancy and up-to-date. While that doesn’t mean there weren’t some badly rendered special effects, much of the campiness associated with Nine and Ten was gone.

For those who were unfamiliar with previous incarnations of the Doctor (yours truly included), it was amazing. Here was this young, spry, charismatic alien first helping a little girl break out of her shell, then sweeping a gorgeous young woman off her feet; but he was also completely chaste with her while still exuding power and intrigue. There was no basis of comparison for those of us who hadn’t watched Doctor Who before. We didn’t know “the man who regrets,” whose compassion and pain were born out of guilt and suffering for past mistakes. Instead, we got “the man who forgets,” and we fell in love with this dashing and eccentric—but ultimately empty—character.

Getting the Doctor’s Swagger On

“The Pandorica Opens” seems to be a particular fan favorite in terms of Matt Smith-era Doctor Who, and part of the reason for that is the Doctor’s impassioned speech, screaming at his assembled enemies to “just remember who’s standing in your way!” It’s thrilling and powerful because we know he’s the Doctor and he’s about to lay down the law and show these dummies “who’s the man.”

However, the Eleventh Doctor does this literally all of the time. From Kissel’s article:

All incarnations of the Doctor have been at least a little bit arrogant, but they’ve also tempered that arrogance with varying degrees of humility, selflessness, and a sense of wonder. But if Moffat were running things, the Doctor would swagger, dammit.

Once Moffat took the reins, swagger he did—looking pretty sexy doing so, thanks to Smith’s performance. The first season rings with the sound of the Doctor telling people how awesome he is, and how scared they should be, because he’s awesome.

In each new encounter with an old (sometimes even new) enemy, the Doctor swaggers in with all the bravado of a bully, as Kissel goes on to say. He declares, “Come along Pond!” grabbing his companion’s hand and pulling her towards the next big adventure in which he swoops in just in time to the save the day, not necessarily to show her the universe as he’d originally implied. It ends up working because Matt Smith is an amazing talent, but he’s also given such terrible material that the Doctor is often reduced to an arm-flailing caricature.

Moreover, there are almost zero consequences for Moffat’s Doctor. He can swagger around all he likes, consequences be damned, because there aren’t any. The Doctor is meant to die on June 26th, and the date is completely time locked, so there’s no getting out of it? Wait a second! He actually outsmarted everyone and they only thought that he died. Amy’s newborn baby is kidnapped from her, never to be seen again, and Amy must live with the painful void that was her child rather than have the Doctor rescue the baby? Oh no, no, no, no. Actually, her daughter Melanie was her childhood best friend Melanie gone back in time, so if you think about it, Amy really did raise her daughter. What. Ever.

The Writing Problem

On more than one occasion, I lamented that the writing wasn’t doing the story and the companions justice, but it was primarily doing a disservice to the Doctor. When something in a story doesn’t feel right, you can usually look to the writing for clues as to why. Throughout the past two seasons of Doctor Who, I was consistently grappling with the nagging feeling that I actually didn’t like this show, which I professed to love. I tried to find the positive in terrible episodes like “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” and “The Angels Take Manhattan,” avoiding the sinking suspicion that it actually wasn’t very good.

What exactly is the writing problem, though? The root of it lies, I think, in Moffat’s desire to weave an epic, mysterious narrative that only he will reveal at a time he deems fit. To be fair, this is a problem with many science fiction and fantasy series on TV today. Shows like Lost created an environment where studios and writers believe that a drama needs to have a multi-episode arc wherein the characters are driven to solve a big mystery that’s looming behind the scenes. Whether he does this because “everyone’s doing it” or because he just enjoys over-complicating things, Moffat has fallen squarely into this trap.

Case in point: River Song. When she was introduced in “Silence in the Library,” she represented something intriguing—the Doctor actually falling in love with someone. Yes, Ten did experience romantic love for people in the past, but it always ended with the conclusion of the episode, and it only ever lived in the past. When River Song appeared, we wondered, “Who is this woman who knows the Doctor so well, who says that their love spans ages, who apparently he hasn’t even met yet?” It was sentimental to be sure, but also had an irresistible allure because the Doctor had been lonely for so long, and we wanted him to have a true love.

Rather than just writing River as another time traveller who managed to woo the Doctor, Moffat crafted an elaborate and ridiculous story that she was in fact part Time Lord, as well as [Spoiler Alert] Amy and Rory’s daughter. Instead of just leaving their relationship as a poignant and heartbreaking reminder that not even a Time Lord can truly conquer time itself, Moffat had to turn River into a brainwashed psychopath created to kill the Doctor (but who ultimately saved his life by giving him her remaining regeneration energy). Never has the cliché “less is more” ever rung so true. What’s worse is that he might even bring her back again, despite the fact that we very clearly said goodbye to her in “The Name of the Doctor.” Nothing is sacred, there are no consequences, and nothing in Moffat’s world stays dead for long.

And It’s the Companions Who Suffer

The Eleventh Doctor chased after adventure, pulling his companions along within the vortex. Fortunately for Amy and Rory, they had each other, and so much of their characters’ personalities eventually stemmed from their deep and abiding love for each other. However, that didn’t stop Moffat et al from constantly bringing up—almost until the very end—that maybe Amy really loved the Doctor instead of Rory. Despite the fact that such suppositions were always quickly dispelled after “Amy’s Choice,” it was a persistent writing crutch that only served to force needless conflict between the Doctor and Rory. Their eventual send off in “The Angels Take Manhattan” was a terrible end to their story, and both companions deserved more.

Clara, unfortunately, is going to suffer even worse at Moffat’s hands. In spite of efforts to justify her presence in episodes like “The Rings of Akhaten” and “The Name of the Doctor” beyond her role as “merely” a companion, Clara is consistently relegated to the status of a spectator. Her bubbly personality only serves to lighten the Doctor’s mood, and his interest in her stems only from the mystery that her very existence presents. He wants to solve who she is, and so she just ends up being Moffat’s mouthpiece to coo adoringly and exclaim over the Doctor’s greatness. Never is she a real person with actual wants and needs. Even her family members (introduced in “The Time of the Doctor”) are lifeless cardboard cutouts.

Amy, Rory, and Clara have all suffered ill-treatment, and not just in terms of their character development. Moffat also turned the Doctor into a patronizing caretaker who doesn’t offer his companions the courtesy of the truth. He keeps incredibly important, life-altering information from all three of them, then brushes it off as, “I was protecting you.” He may be nearly 1000 years old, but he apparently hasn’t learned anything about human beings and being a friend, instead taking away their choices because, like some overbearing father figure, only he knows “best.” As far as Moffat is concerned, however, the Doctor can do no wrong, even going so far as to suggest that he actually never does wrong (thus the retconning apparent in “The Day of the Doctor”).

Onward to 12

Moffat said recently in an interview with Doctor Who Magazine that Peter Capaldi’s Doctor will be “mad and dangerous and difficult” in the way that Tom Baker and Christopher Eccleston’s Doctors were. Moreover, he’s going to be a Doctor who’s a “less reliable Doctor, who leads her a merry dance.” If the Eleventh Doctor was considered reliable, I can’t imagine how much worse the Twelfth will be. It seems that we’ll no doubt get more of the same in Capaldi’s era, but he’ll squeak by because he’s an established and incomparable actor who can no doubt turn crap into gold. Smith managed to turn the terrible into the bearable, and I can only imagine that Capaldi will do the same. In any case, that’s the best we can hope for as long as Moffat’s at the helm.

UPDATE: Here’s more reading on why Moffat is awful, not just as a writer, but as a human being:

You can follow Amanda on Twitter at @reiko516 for the latest in geek news.

    • Jennifer

      I started watching Doctor Who in January 2011. I powered through the 9th and 10th and one season of the 11th doctor all in a matter of weeks. I fell in LOVE with the 10th. I boohooed when Tennant uttered, “I don’t want to go” and still tear up every time I see it again. When I got to Smith’s Doctor I wasn’t that impressed. I remember our many text messages talking about it! Ha!
      I have since re-watched many of the Smith episodes trying to fall in love with the 11th Doctor the way I fell for the 10th, but it didn’t work. I think you nailed it though. I think that when the 11th came in and everything changed, it didn’t change for the better. Like you said, not because of Smith, he’s charming and delightful, but because of the writing. I’ve remained a fan, but with each new season, its becoming more difficult.

      • the only sarah

        I agree completely. Matt Smith’s character could have been wonderful, but Moffats writing failed him. I loved David Tennant as the doctor because of the wonderful personalities and companions that Russel T Davies gave him. I feel like I would have loved the 11th doctor almost as much as I loved the 10th if the writing was better.

    • the only sarah

      Moffat really disapointed me. I came into Doctor Who ready to love Matt Smith as the doctor, but I found his character to be unbearable! Moffat had the 11th doctor as an arrogent swaggering ass. He ruined Doctor Who for me. What I liked about the Russel T Davies era was that all of the companions were fully developed. They all had lives that they left behind, they weren’t obsessed with the doctor (donna noble), and most importantly, they were brave. Moffats companions are only there to remind the doctor how amazing he is. Also, RTD’s doctors were not arrogent. Sure, they had egos, but they put the companions feelings before theirs. Moffats doctor wants whats best for him, not whats best for the companions. Even more, Moffat acts like the RTD era didn’t happen. The 9th Doctor tells Rose that he killed all of the Time Lords, but Moffat rewrites this key fact with the 11th doctor and says that he just hid the Time Lords. I regret to say that I will not be tuning in to watch the 12th doctor. Although I love Peter Cappaldi and Jenna Louise Coleman, I can not handle Moffats writing.

    • Frederick Johnsen

      In addition to the shallow, swaggering, arrogant dolt Moffat created his story lines became too absolutely ridiculous and complicated – one might even say contradictory and, yes, cheap and easy. Come on, the Doctor must die for time to run again and then (SPOILER) it only looks like the Doctor died – it was really a space ship that looked like the doctor. Good Sci-Fi still needs an element of believability and consistency to its elements. Things can evolve and new elements can be added but when they are done at the expense of good writing to get the protagonist out of a situation (or more likely to get the writer out of a corner in to which he has written himself) its cheapness shows. Moffat is the king of cheap and easy. Please someone get him off of Sherlock before he does any more damage.

    • Ambrose Howard

      It seems Moffat is a sick bastard who like lesbian bestiality….he really has screwed upmthe show

    • Paul Chach Mcarthy

      Thank god Moffat is finally leaving. I knew from Matt’s first season Moffat was rubbish. In fact I knew it from his early work during RTD era. I always found his episodes to be boring and pretentious, the highest rated Dr Who ep of all time was Blink, an episode that barely had the Dr in it. but apparently I was wrong because everyone else loved them and though Moff was the best thing since sliced bread. I knew from the moment it was first announced that Moffat was taking over that his whole time as show runner would just be one gigantic episode of Blink, a show that became Dr Who lite (Dr Who in name only). Sure it still had the Dr and the tardis, but they were just symbols from that point on.

      The fact Moffat relegated the most infamous and fearful foes of the Dr, the daleks, to cameos in Dr Who was bad enough. After RTD had done such an amazing job of bringing them back and making them a credible threat again. Moffat turned them into a joke. Then at the end of S5 when the wibbly wobbly plot that was built up all season to epic proportions led nowhere. It struck home Moffat was all social justice style over substance.

      It truly became unwatchable when he introduced the very bizarre and almost creepily incestual/perverse pregnancy plot arc in S6. Even now I still can’t work that atrocious piece of writing out. But I stuck with it because it was my fave show.

      Then when the Ponds left I was hoping it would get back to being Dr Who but he wrote in the insufferable Clara who stayed two seasons, past her sell by date and turned it into the “All About Clara And Her Artificial Importance Show” Amy was bad enough but Clara was every excess of Amy, taken to the uber extreme.

      Then when he made The Master a woman, that was the final straw. Moff could have brought back the Rani. He could have invented a new TL. But nope, he destroyed the Master by taking that amazing character and turning it into huffy snobby woman played by a terrible actress. A lot of people look down on Simm’s Master but that guy had the energy and charisma that made the character the larger than life villain he should always have been. Moffat’s version of the Master had one character trait, she was female. That was it. No manic energy. No menace. No depth. Nothing.

      Moffat destroyed the Master He destroyed the daleks. He even managed to ruin the cybermen by turning them into a joke head the Dr carried around with him, called “Handles”. He destroyed the character of the Dr. Basically, he ruined everything that had been good about the show since it started in 1963 and replaced it with a load of ham fisted feminist pro marxist nonsense nobody but him and his bosses at the BBC think is great.

      I stayed on for the first year of Capaldi, hoping it might get better with a new Dr but nope, the writing for Peters Dr was identical to the MS Dr character. The character hadn’t changed, just his face. It was still the same empty, lacklustre, energy free character Moffat had introduced in the 11th Dr.

      I stopped watching 4 eps into season 9.

      A lot happened at the BBC when RTD and DT left, a lot of it to do with massive budget cuts at the BBC due to the 2008 recession. (I dont understand why people say the production values are high when they are a clear step down from S1-4) In fact, the reason DT left was because the BBC could no longer afford him. And that i why RD stepped down too, the BBC could no longer afford his scripts that got bigger each season and more extravagant, each season.

      It was supposed to be that DT would stay on for the first season of Moff to help bed in the new production team and writers but the beeb refused the money he wanted so he was replaced by the much cheaper, and far more awful, Matt Smith.

      The BBC clearly still hate this show, just look at how they treat it, keeping it off air, for over a year, the constant change in the format to the show. The ever changing time slot etc. But I could have put up with all that. Yet the BBC had to put the worst writer from RTD era, a guy who has no understanding of what makes Dr Who work, or how to write for it, in charge,

      11’s speech from the end of S5 sums up the whole Moff era, he made a big but ultimately hollow speech that actually said very little. It had no emotional resonance. No value outside of it sounded good at the time but is instant;y forgettable.. Like that “amazing” speech, the show became very noisy and busy, but ultimately hollow and empty, under the steerage of SM.

      Talk about the show getting dumbed down? That moment right there was when it truly sunk in just how dumbed down it had gotten.

      The best thing Chibnal can do when he takes over is completely dismiss everything from the awful, Moff era and start from scratch. Pretend the Moff era didn’t happen. The show ratings (S10) are at the lowest they have ever been since 2005, Moffat has screwed the show into ground, jumped the tardis over a dozen sharks, and absolutely destroyed the concept and character of Dr Who, and now when ratings are at rock bottom, he decides to leave and let the incoming new guy take all the flack for it. I’d be willing to bet that Chibnal is remembered by the Moff faboys has the guy who finished Dr Who but it was their own messiah, Moff, who ruined everything the show ever stood for or was about. Which the rest of us acknowledge.

      Sherlock is the same. The last season of it, ratings were at rock bottom. It seems the Moff novelty and false praise has finally worn off for most people and now everyone can see the emperor has no clothes.

      Steven Moffat, the JJ Abrams of Britain. He ruins everything he touches but is monumentally praised as the best thing there ever woz/iz/or will be by the corporations that own him.

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