‘Steven Moffat is not a perfect writer. I will have to admit that right off the top. My perspective is not the final word on Steven Moffat as a writer. I acknowledge that my privileges give me blind spots in recognizing content that may be considered offensive. With this in mind, I come here to bury and praise Moffat as the head writer on DOCTOR WHO. For all of his faults and bad habits as a writer, I genuinely believe Moffat’s tenure on the series has allowed DOCTOR WHO the space (and time) to grow into an even better show in the future. 

How was this done? How could a man who has inspired such vitriol from DOCTOR WHO fans actually have made the show better? Ironically, Moffat succeeds by being the thing that he has often has been accused of not being: by deconstructing gender. Before we go any further, I’m going to acknowledge this: Moffat is imperfect. But his shortcomings as writer don’t erase his deconstruction of masculinity and gender constructs in science fiction action shows.

The Companion Problem

To begin, lets discuss the sometimes complicated role of the companion on DOCTOR WHO. These characters in the original series are sometimes dismissed by fans as two-dimensional and only exist for the Doctor to deliver exposition to or rescue over the course of the episode. I cannot agree with this analysis.

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The presentation of the female companions in the original series could often be progressive for the time period. There’s the brilliant Barbara and Zoe who are highly intelligent and capable companions during the early days of the series. Later came the tenacious Sarah Jane, essentially the Lois Lane of the DOCTOR WHO universe and the only companion popular and well-rounded enough to get a spin-off.

Then along came my personal favorite Ace. The only thing that can describe how awesome Ace is would be this clip. These companions were all compelling, but we never saw their lives outside of travelling with the Doctor.

Back to the Future

When the show was rebooted in 2005, show runner Russel T. Davies took a greater interest in exploring the inner lives of the companions. We met the family of companions and saw the effect traveling with the Doctor could have on interpersonal relationships. For example, Rose’s relationship with both her mother and boyfriend was often just as important to the plot as whatever alien species was taking over the planet that day.

For Davies, a companion would often have grand realizations about their personal lives or change in dramatic ways. These self-realizations would always come because of the time with the Doctor. During her time on the TARDIS, we saw Donna Noble grow from an insecure temp to a take-no-prisoners boss.

When Moffat took over, he returned the status of the companions back to the more traditional relationship seen in the original series. Under Moffat’s tenure, the companions were rarely shown to have life outside of the Doctor. Any friends or relationships that the characters had were practically nonexistent. This felt like something of a step back from the more modern storytelling that Davies was doing. Moffat was much more interested in the way a life could be changed from a sci-fi angle. Because of this, the companions were no longer motivated to change their personal lives, but instead, had their lives changed by dramatic, and extraordinary, circumstances.

The Boy and Girl Who Waited

Moffat’s first companion was Amy Pond, a character who the Doctor first meets when she is a little girl. Due to the Doctor’s ineptitude with TARDIS operation, he inadvertently abandoned the young Amy for years only to find her again as an adult. Right away, Moffat is making it clear that these new companions will have their normal lives impacted by the Doctor in a very different way.

Following the Doctor’s appearance in Amy’s life, she becomes obsessed with him and his magical box. Who could blame her? In fact, Amy Pond is in many ways a stand in for DOCTOR WHO fans in general. It’s not a coincidence that the Doctor first meets Amy in 1996 (the same year as the DOCTOR WHO TV movie featuring Paul McGann as the 8th Doctor), then jumps ahead to 2005 (the year the Doctor returned).

Amy’s waiting for the Doctor represents the DOCTOR WHO fans who spent years hoping their hero would return. What’s unfortunate is that by choosing to make his WHO fandom surrogate character female, Moffat made it seem like Amy was simply “boy crazy.”

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Introduced alongside Amy is her hapless fiance Rory Williams. At first, Rory seems like he’ll simply play the doting boyfriend role. As the fifth season rolls on, however, Rory actually becomes a perfect example of Moffat’s thesis on male characters.

Doctor and Nurse

Moffat does express feminist ideas in his writing, but ironically, he does it best through his male characters. His characters, including his portrayal of the Doctor, don’t conform to patriarchal ideals of manliness. In fact, they often deconstruct toxic masculine concepts and are heroic because of their hearts and their intellect, not because of their physical strength.

What Moffat often does with many of his male characters is put them in positions that are coded (negatively) as “unmasculine” only to later reveal those traits to be the very things that make these characters heroic. Many people (wrongly) see being a nurse as being merely an “assistant” to a more respected and powerful doctor. These two jobs are also often stereotypically coded as feminine (nurse) and masculine (doctor). Rory’s occupation as a nurse also reinforces the idea that he might only be a “consolation prize” for Amy who really wants the Doctor.

Moffat subverts this sexist idea by showing that Rory is never humiliated by his job, and the Doctor never insults him for having it. Rory sees the Doctor as a threat to his relationship, but the Doctor often brushes Rory’s concerns aside. Ultimately, Rory becomes the best part of himself not by shedding his basic traits to behave in a more “manly” fashion.

Instead, Rory’s compassion and capacity for love give him the strength to stay by Amy’s side as the Last Centurion and protect her. Rory the nurse refuses to abandon his patient, Amy. Moffat may not always get his writing of female characters perfectly, but he does push forward interesting portrayals of characters that deconstruct typical gender conventions, even if only through male characters.

No Flirting in the TARDIS

Let’s address the biggest criticism of Moffat’s DOCTOR WHO: Everybody loves the Doctor. Part of the reason for this is because Steven Moffat loves the Doctor. The other reason for this brings us to one of Moffat’s weaknesses as a writer.

As discussed, Moffat manages to deconstruct typical male stereotypes in his characters. However, Moffat often attempts this with his female characters as well. He tries to give them the types of personalities that are coded as “masculine” to make them defy gender conventions. Inadvertently, this often leads to his female characters seeming interchangeable. Granted, two of his major creations, Amy Pond and River Song, are mother and daughter. Their shared brash, forward, and hard nosed personalities can be written off as an indication of their familial relationship.

Where he runs into problems primarily comes from the way Amy, River, and Clara all interact with the Doctor. Moffat clearly gets a thrill out of writing flirtatious dialogue like he’s doing a sci-fi reboot of THE THIN MAN. Who could blame him? He worked with actors who had the chemistry to deliver that dialogue extremely well. Even still, this dialogue would get away from him. His constant need to have characters flirt with the Doctor went from fun to grating fast.

The Strange Saga of Song

Moffat should not be accused of active misogyny, but for being a male writer who had trouble finding a female voice. If anything, Moffat serves as a perfect model for why writers need more female creative voices working behind the scenes.

For example, one season 6 plot thread is how Rory and Amy’s marriage is affected by the travelling with the Doctor. While travelling with a character like Rose put a strain on her relationship with her boyfriend, for Rory and Amy travelling with the Doctor caused the circumstances under which their child was conceived to give her the powers of a Time Lord.

That’s right, you do the nasty in the past-y (and the future-y) and your baby will be given the god-like power to regenerate their bodies. (No matter how many times I type that sentence it still sounds ridiculous.)

Moffat often put the development of the companions behind the machinations of the plot. This often meant his writing can easily be seen as dismissive towards women. This is especially true when the driving force behind some of these plots (in the case of Amy Pond) centers entirely around these characters defining themselves through motherhood.

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It was in this story that the accusations of Moffat’s misogyny became the most heated. After being an independent and outspoken character, Amy is sidelined when she is captured by the Doctor’s enemies who want her child. This was certainly a moment where Moffat could have used more female voices to recognize blind spots he had in his writing.

Impossible Girl

So did Moffat learn his lesson from the mistakes of season 6? Well, he did, but it took a little while to get there.

Following the show’s byzantine plot surrounding River Song, Moffat introduced the mystery of Clara Oswald, “The Impossible Girl.” In this arc, the Doctor’s obsession with unravelling the “mystery” of Clara Oswald led to the conclusion that she was ultimately just an ordinary woman who, in another time travel twist, had encountered the Doctor earlier in his time line due to interference he would experience later in his timeline.

Moffat’s massive story arc with the 11th Doctor was certainly ambitious, and it revealed new insights into the character. These elements came together spectacularly in the 50th Anniversary special “The Day of the Doctor.”

It’s almost unfair to judge Moffat for trying to amp up the plot leading into the show’s milestone year. However, his focus on plots made his characterization of Clara Oswald suffer.

Substance Over Style

The Impossible Girl arc almost feels like Moffat satirizing himself. The Doctor is convinced there is some cosmic mystery behind Clara, who he keeps encountering different versions of in different time periods. The twist at the end of all of this is that there was no mystery. Clara was an ordinary woman willing to sacrifice herself for the Doctor. But in trying to parody himself, Moffat wrote himself into a corner. He couldn’t reveal anything about Clara for a whole season. She became more of a plot device rather than an actual character.

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Following the introduction of the 12th Doctor, Moffat has scaled back on overwhelming plotting to hone in on the characters. Moffat went back to the RTD style with episodes focusing on the everyday life of Clara. Clara’s job as a teacher at the Coal Hill School made her feel more authentic than she had previously.

He also managed to provide a fascinating characterization of the 12th incarnation Doctor. This Doctor is a bit more weary and cynical, but still dedicated to justice. By scaling back, Moffat rediscovered what made his work so initially beloved.

Behind the Scenes

What also helped Moffat in these later seasons is hiring female talent behind the scenes. Some of the episodes that best portrayed Clara were written by a woman and directed by a woman. The episode “Face the Raven” was written by Sarah Dollard, who gave Clara a memorable send-off from the series. This episode provided that character with a level of agency that had been denied from her when she was merely an object of the Doctor’s mystery.

Dollard also wrote the recent episode “Thin Ice,” one of the few episodes of DOCTOR WHO to directly confront the racism of the past. DOCTOR WHO has been a show with noticeably color blind casting. Yet it rarely shows that Euro-centric societies were filled with racism. It’s refreshing to see the show finally acknowledge these imperfections in human history.

Director Rachel Talalay directed the season finale for seasons 8 and 9, both of which gave focus to Clara outside of her relationship with the Doctor. Talalay’s work has been consistently excellent. She will likely bring the same level of care for character to the season 10 finale which she is also directing. By giving more power to female creatives, Moffat has managed to repair many of the flaws his previous works had.

It was also in these later seasons where Moffat constructed one of his finest characters: the sorely underrated Danny Pink.

Steven Moffat Masculinity

 

One of Moffat’s go-to antagonists for the Doctor is military organizations. These military archetypes’ machismo are inevitably outdone by the Doctor’s intellect and compassion. Moffat subverts this trope through the introduction of Clara’s romantic interest Danny Pink. Danny is a fellow teacher at the Coal Hill School and a veteran from the British Army. Danny’s charming and affable nature hides a dark secret from his time in the army. 

Moffat portrays Danny as a man who has been scarred by his experiences in war. As a result, he has difficulty processing his emotional reactions to his trauma. Whenever his colleagues at Coal Hill make a reference to his “killer” nature as a soldier, he has an emotional breakdown. For him, his time at war was a violent mistake rather than an act of heroism. PTSD is never explicitly mentioned, but it’s easy to connect the dots between Danny’s symptoms and the disorder. 

The Doctor sees Danny as nothing more than a killing machine. He stubbornly believes members of the military can only create violence and not peace. Danny’s peaceful nature is tested when he is turned into a Cyberman. In this form, he literally becomes the murderous robot that the Doctor believes him to be.

Before his transition into becoming a Cyberman, we learn the secret that has haunted Danny. In the middle of combat, he accidentally shot a young boy. That trauma has stayed with Danny, but it’s his ability to express and feel these emotions that ultimately free him from the control of Cybermen.

Pink vs. Williams

Danny was a fascinating foil to Rory because he was the exact opposite in personality and outward appearance. Danny was handsome and confident, but he too functioned as a deconstruction of repressed male behaviors. It is well documented that due to social norms men will rarely seek mental health treatment. Danny’s refusal to discuss his inner emotional turmoil made him ideal to become a Cyberman.

Danny’s emotional arc also acts as an inversion to Rory’s arc in the 5th and 6th season. Rory goes from a milquetoast man in a cozy village to the bad ass Last Centurion. Danny Pink on the other hand embraces pacifism and rejects being made into a weapon.

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The Cybermen are the ideal man according to patriarchal structures: cold, strong, and emotionless. And note that no matter the gender identity, a person will always become a CyberMAN. By rejecting his Cyberman programming, Danny rejects the harmful patriarchal ideals. Moffat’s portrayal of Danny shows that he is not weak for talking about his emotions. Rather, it’s his emotions that free him from the control of the Cybermen. Danny proves the Doctor wrong. He was not a product of his military training. He was still an individual, and it was his emotions that made him that way.

With his final season as showrunner underway, one major question still remains: did Moffat learn anything from his critics?

Bill and the Big Progress

Many claim that Moffat never listens to his critics. However, the latest season opener showed significant growth in Moffat as a writer. Bill Potts, the newest companion, has managed to avoid many of Moffat’s major flaws as a writer. Bill’s sexuality as a lesbian is never exploited or dramatized for the purposes of the show. She is a normal woman and not a massive mystery or player in the Doctor’s world. It’s hard not to see the character of Bill as Moffat’s attempt to fix the major flaws in his writing.

Bill’s presentation as gay is especially refreshing when compared to other attempts at writing gay characters in the series. One particular example would be Lady Vastra and her wife Jenny. These are two characters who I adore (Lady Vastra is a samurai reptile detective in Victorian England and if that’s not the best thing you’ve ever read stop reading this article now).

While I enjoy the idea of the characters and the episodes they appear in, Jenny and Vastra occasionally fall into the same trap as River Song. Moffat certainly has good intentions with his attempts at progressive representation, but they come across as a straight man trying to write gay characters (Vastra uses the phrase “my wife” more often than Borat) rather than writing characters who happen to also be gay.

Ch-Ch-Changes

Moffat’s nature as a progressive writer is often questionable, but it can’t be denied that he has made creative choices that carry on the inclusive nature of the series that Davies started. For instance, Moffat has made it canon that Time Lords can change both gender and race in regenerations.

This is a debate that has raged in DOCTOR WHO fandom for quite some time, but Moffat is the first to make this explicit by showing it happen in the television series, most significantly with the Master’s latest regeneration into Missy (aka The Mistress) and with River’s regeneration from Mels to River Song. This opens up the possibility of the next Doctor to be a person of color or the first female Doctor.

While his experiments in gender deconstruction were certainly more successful for his male characters, Moffat has open the doors for future writers to push boundaries, especially with the possibility of the Doctor’s future casting.

Good Things and Bad Things

For all of his faults, I believe that Steven Moffat will leave DOCTOR WHO having made it a better show. He found a way to tell fresh stories and provide new wrinkles to its already dense 50-year mythology. Despite the valid criticisms of Moffat as the lead writer, his tenure as captain of the TARDIS will undoubtedly be remember by fans as a vital moment in the direction of the series. He will also serve as an example to other male creators in another major way: inclusivity of race, gender, and sexuality is valuable to both the quality and success of a show with fans.

There’s a line from one of the most beloved episodes of the Moffat era “Vincent and the Doctor” where the Doctor describes every life as “a pile of good things and bad things.” While this episode wasn’t written by Moffat, it certainly is an apt way to describe his run on the series.

The Doctor explains “good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things and make them unimportant.” Moffat was a flawed writer who made mistakes in his time as the DOCTOR WHO show runner. However, fans should not let the bad spoil the good, and the positives of his time on the series should not be ignored.

2 Comments

  1. Brian Long

    August 16, 2017 at 2:06 pm

    Agreed completely!

    Reply

  2. CunningSmile

    August 15, 2017 at 5:32 am

    Doctor Who is an odd beast. Purely by being around so long it’s fans all joined at different points and along with the concept of “my Doctor” comes the baggage that whatever you view as your era is the way it should be. When the show changes and evolves you are therefore left with a lot of fans who think it’s wrong or bad. However for all the people saying Moffat was the worse thing to ever happen to the show there are an equal number who in 15 years time will be complaining just as loudly that the show isn’t as good as when Moffat was in charge.

    The whole show is about change and regeneration. If you don’t enjoy it right now than just wait a few years and a new Doctor and a new showrunner will change it once more, maybe for the better (in your eyes) or worse (again in your eyes)

    Reply

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