Tuesday, 11 June 2013

DOCTOR WHO showrunner Steven Moffat: should he stay, or should he go?

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Steven Moffat took over the running of Doctor Who from Russell T. Davies in 2010, and will have executive-produced approximately the same number of episodes by the end of series 8 next year. My guess is he'll vacate the 'throne' next year, with a successor taking up residence 2015's ninth series. But will the show miss him when he goes, or does it need a fresh creative direction pronto? Below are 5 reasons Steven Moffat's tenure has been a fantastic thing for Who over the past few years, but also 5 reasons it'll be a relief when he calls time on himself.


1. Complex puzzles

Steven Moffat loves puzzles. He's one of those gifted writers who can think laterally, and has the power as showrunner to take this to fanciful extremes in his plots. His single episodes "The Girl in the Fireplace" and "Blink" were complex gems, but they're laughably simplistic compared to some of the acrobatic stories he's been telling since becoming showrunner. Now able to indulge himself over the course of many episodes, nay series, Moffat's tenure is characterised by their puzzle-box nature; from the true identity of bisexual adventurer River Song (whose story's also told out of order from our perspective), to this year's mystery with companion Clara seemingly reborn throughout time, Moffat is one of the few writers with the ambition and talent to tackle such things. Many writers would have a brain aneurysm coming up with a single amazing twist to a single episode. Doctor Who would be a great deal less interesting without him around.

2. Imagination

I don't think there are many writers more imaginative working on Doctor Who (apart from whenever Neil Gaiman submits a script). Moffat's given us a smorgasbord of amazing villains and memorable visuals over the years; which have amazed, delighted, and scared us in equal measure. Even the sillier ones elicit a grin for their sheer audacity and cheesiness (the Statue of Liberty becoming a fanged monster). The show would be a less interesting place without him, which means a less interesting universe for The Doctor to explore.

3. Scope & Ambition

Series 5 saw a reduction in budget from the Russell T Davies yeas, but you'd never have guessed that was the case. It looked instantly better and less like a glorified kid's show. While there are obviously many factors involved in getting the look of a show right, and spending the money efficiently, it can't be a total coincidence that Doctor Who now looks world-class under Moffat's stewardship. Sure, it still has some naff moments and occasionally unconvincing special effects, but in general the whole look and tone of the show is immeasurably better and the CGI's reached a very acceptable standard. It's often the most impressive-looking space-based sci-fi show around, in my opinion.

Part of this is down to how the show travels overseas more often; a treat used sparingly in Davies' era, but now very much the norm. Moffat's overseen the show filming in America a few times (Utah, New York City), Italy, and most recently Spain (standing in for the Old West). That can't be cheap and logistically easy, but it definitely gives the show a feeling of scope and importance it never had before. Even when it returned in 2005, it always had a "cottage industry" vibe thanks to most episodes being filmed in and around Cardiff or London, but now it's truly international. A trip to New Zealand for an episode directed by Lord of the Rings' Peter Jackson would have sounded laughable just five years ago, but it now seems almost inevitable!

4. Fanboy's heart

Like Russell T. Davies before him, part of what makes the show work for Moffat is the fact he's a super-fan. He knows Who inside-out, probably better than most of the scarf-wearing super-nerds fawning over all the episodes he writes. I'm not saying previous Who executive-producers weren't fans (you sort of have to be), but it's more noticeable with nu-Who that the people running it love and respect the classic series. It's not guaranteed that any successor would bring the same level of exacting fandom to the show, so we have to cherish how this has been the norm since 2005.

5. Haha! Comedy

Moffat cut his teeth in comedy throughout the '90s and early-'00s (achieving highs like Coupling and lows like Chalk), but this background has done him the world of good on Doctor Who. Comedy is all about timing and surprise, which are two important ingredients for a light-hearted sci-fi caper like Who. The Doctor's nutty personality is a comedy writer's dream, and the entire show keeps a foot firmly in humorous territory. Little wonder one of its classic era showrunners was Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame. Russell T. Davies had written some funny things, too, but his background was more in the wheelhouse of children's drama and soaps. I do prefer Doctor Who with that comedic element, if only for the sparkling dialogue and repartee that tends to lead to (a real saving grace of Moffat's era, if you ever get exasperated by the serpentine plots).


1. Women are from Venus

It's strange Steven Moffat's female characters aren't better, because pre-Doctor Who he created a fantastic one in Press Gang's Linda Day. His Sally Sparrow from "Blink" also became a fan-favourite based just on one episode (although kudos to future Oscar-nominee Carey Mulligan for helping with that).

I was giddy with expectations when Amy Pond came into the picture (succeeding Catherine Tate), despite the odd decision to introduced her as a leggy police kissogram. This was just a cheeky bit of fun for the dad's watching, we told ourselves. But then Amy quickly went from being feisty, determined and curious in the first few episodes to... well, a stereotypical "bossy wife" and eventual mother (but only really in service of a tangled plot-device, not in any lasting and emotional way). Amy was less a rounded individual, more a pretty face to sell the show to teenage boys and middle-aged men.

Maybe Amy was a character that somehow got away from Moffat when his plotting took over in series 6, but now Clara also feels cut from the same cloth. The only obvious differences are noticing Clara's less enamoured with The Doctor (having never met him first as an impressionable kid) and she's a shorter brunette. More important than her personality was her nature as someone being 'resurrected', bumping into The Doctor with no memory of their previous encounters. This was all very intriguing, but why couldn't we be excited by Clara because of her personality and talents? Even her amazing computer skills were given to her as a consequence of her first adventure, not through anything she learned herself. Oh, and what does Clara do for a living? She's a family's nanny. It's almost as if Moffat can't see young women as anything other than sex symbols, wives, mothers or child-carers. Is it any wonder Rory was arguably more popular than Amy when he was accompanying his wife in the TARDIS?

2. Puzzling complexity

I know complexity was stated as a positive when it comes to Moffat's dexterous writing, but it's sadly a double-edged sword. There are frequent claims Doctor Who's become too complicated for its own good (which Moffat laughs off, as any protective showrunner would), and even fans of his style have been left scratching their heads over unexplained or ill-explained events. We still don't know why the TARDIS was frozen in time at the end of series 5, seconds from solar destruction; nor whose sonorous voice proclaimed "silence will fall". Maybe Moffat has a grand scheme that will pay-off this and other dangling threads, which is certainly possible, but how are casual viewers expected to keep a track of things? Sometimes you find yourself missing the comparative clarity of Russell T. Davies' era.

3. Re-re-recycling

It's understandable that every writer has a certain perspective they keep bringing to their work. You can't escape that. In fact, it's only right that a writer has a particular style that people respond to and want more of. However, Doctor Who is defined by change and freshness (the adventures are new every week and the actors change regularly), so you have to start worrying when any showrunner's 'bag of tricks' start to become predictable or fail to surprise. Moffat loves villains that rely on a quirk of perception (the Angels don't move if you're looking at them, the Silence can't be remembered if you stop looking at them), and he only recently had The Doctor meeting a young Clara (much as he once met a young Amy). You can only go back to the same well a few times, before audiences start anticipating things based on a writers' history and foibles. This makes it much tougher for Moffat to surprise his audience now, although I don't yet doubt his ability to. It just means that the longer he's writing for Doctor Who, the easier it will be to predict what's next--and that won't do, especially for a writer whose stories rely so heavily on wrong-footing audiences.

4. Emotion... less?

I'm not saying every Moffat script is utterly devoid of emotion, that would be silly, but his scripts do tend to favour intellectual trickery over simple humanity. I can recall many tear-jerking moments from the post-2005 Doctor Who, but few come from Moffat's era. Villains even stole Amy and Rory's baby in series 6 and the loss wasn't very upsetting. This is a particular shame because Matt Smith is an actor who's largely gets stuck in one gear as a result. We need more scenes like the brilliant one in "The Doctor's Wife" where The Doctor got misty-eyed when his TARDIS (in human form) bid him farewell.

5. Stewardship

Russell T. Davies felt like the puppet-master pulling all the strings of Doctor Who over his 5 years (for better or worse), but Steven Moffat is more like the big brain indulging his own whims. It's noticeable that the episodes he doesn't write are often the weakest, whereas there seemed to be more cohesion in RTD's years.

This is possibly because RTD would notoriously rewrite every script, to ensure everything had the feel of coming from a single voice. I get the impression Moffat's too busy to be extensively rewriting other people, because episodes that slip by without his writing credit feel a few drafts short of greatness. You'd think things would get better after the series started getting split into two, affording the production more time, but that doesn't appear to have happened.


Mark Gatiss: the ideal successor?
The show will likely miss Steven Moffat when he's gone, and his toughest critics will soften their opinion in hindsight. The show has never been more epic and ambitious than now, thanks to what Moffat helps bring to the table. But he's definitely reaching the end of his time as showrunner, simply because some of his ideas are being repeated and he's failed to come up with a companion sufficiently different to what's come before (Clara's an amalgam of Rose and Amy). There's also more of a feeling he bites off more than he can chew, with several unexplained elements to old mysteries and a feeling of disappointment when long-standing explanations fall flat after so much hype.

However, I'm reticent about calling for Moffat to stand down sooner rather than later, because it's hard to imagine anyone else doing a better job. It was a no-brainer for Russell T. Davies to hand the reigns over to Moffat (whose occasional stories were always series highlights and won prestigious awards), but where is the new Moffat? The closest we have is either Toby Whithouse (who has mixed success on the show as a writer, but does have experience running a TV drama after Being Human), and Mark Gatiss (a Whovian like Moffat who's perhaps undergoing a form of "apprenticeship" as co-creator of Sherlock with Moffat).

If a suitable replacement can't be found (someone who can not only write around five episodes every year, but also guide the show creatively), then maybe Doctor Who would benefit from becoming more collaborative. How would things work if BBC Wales implemented a US-style writers' room, paying for full-time writers to hammer out an entire series and break each script down by committee? That way has some obvious merits, but also some pitfalls, but it would perhaps be too expensive... especially when it's been proven Who can work if you find ONE person with the knowledge, passion and skills required.