Fish fingers, custard & kindness — Looking back at the Steven Moffat era

This has been a blog I’ve been intending to post all summer but with one thing or another, have never quite managed it. But as we’re on the verge of Chris Chibnall taking the reins of the show, it’s now become very much a now-or-never moment. My intention here is not to take the attention from Chibnall’s big moment and we have, let’s face it, spent rather a lot of time already dissecting Moffat’s work. Rather my thinking is that this is the first time this forum has seen a ‘regime change’ on the show and it might be interesting to mark that, as well as provide a baseline for us to work from as we watch the Chibnall era unfold.

And, of course, while we’ve already discussed Moffat a lot (it was, after all, one of the reasons the forum was set up in the first place), this will be the first time we can look at it as something finished, an era in and of itself. It’s still way too early to determine his actual legacy to the show but we can perhaps lay some groundwork here. (At the moment, he seems to be undergoing the same barrage of criticism that RTD faced immediately after his departure but that, I suspect, will pass and for my money Moffat’s era will ultimately end up being remembered on the same level as other golden eras like the Hinchcliffe/Holmes, Letts/Dicks ones.

There’s an element of fashion to all this. Doctors and production eras come and go out of fashion and there’s an element of quixotic personal and cultural taste to this. It’s now a source of regret to me that I was so down on the Pertwee era during discussions when @HTPBDET was still with us as, thanks to the recent Twitch marathon, I’ve come to a new appreciation of them in terms of the strength of the stories and what Pertwee actually brought to the role. Similarly, two of ‘my’ eras — the Tom Baker and Peter Davison ones — have seen significant downgrading in my eyes as ‘good doctors with a surprisingly high amount of bad to middling stories in their run’.

Moffat began on something of a high and he certainly took the job amidst high expectations. His contributions to the show under RTD had been uniformly popular and excellent and there seemed to be something of an assumption amongst fans that what they would be getting would be Blink or The Girl In The Fireplace times 12. They didn’t get this and while he did inject a more mythic, even Tim Burton-esque fairy tale quality into the show, tonally it still wasn’t that far different from RTD.

But if s5 wasn’t quite what was initially expected, it was still a triumph and I’d put it at the single best unbroken run of Who stories since the early Baker years. It contains some of the best stories ever — The Eleventh Hour, Vincent and the Doctor, The Pandorica Opens — and even its weakest entries — The Beast Below, Vampires in Venice — are still relatively entertaining, thanks in no small part to one of the strongest TARDIS ensembles in years. If Chibnall’s s11 even halfway approaches the quality of this series then we’re in for something of a treat.

Series 6 is perhaps something more of a mixed bag. However, this is around the time of this forum’s inception so I still hold it with some affection and surmise that it must have been doing something right. It’s largely criticised for being too complex plot-wise but this is a view I’ve never particularly subscribed to, although in hindsight the resolution of the ‘death of the Doctor’ arc was ultimately not as satisfying as it could have been. Part of the problem is something that would dog the Moffat years from here on it — scheduling nightmares. The series was divided into two, with the first half being far stronger than the second. Part Two of s6 just seems to have too many forgettable episodes to really stand on its own as a mini-series in its own right, including some of the weakest of Moffat’s entire run, in Night Terrors and Closing Time.

However, something I’ve always felt that Moffat never got enough credit for was his willingness to return to criticism and to act upon it. Despite being hounded off social media, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that he took concerns on board and modified his approach. Thus, in s7 the complexity issue seemed to be addressed and we were given the ‘movie of the week’ format. This was something of a mixed blessing with the series again split into two, producing a run of largely middling stories. Part of the problem seemed to be that as great as Smith’s performance was, his Doctor didn’t seem to particularly grow or develop (as Eccleston’s, Tennant’s and Capaldi’s did) and at this point the character just seemed to be treading water. And the ‘impossible girl’ arc didn’t seem to do enough to distract us from that.

And despite the fact that we were fast approaching the landmark 50th anniversary of the show, momentum was becoming an increasingly apparent problem. This, I’d argue, wasn’t Moffat’s fault but rather a symptom of the BBC beginning to take the show for granted once more. In the anniversary year, all fans really got, aside from various lovely web one-offs and so on, were two new stories, the excellent anniversary Day of the Doctor and the decidedly less excellent Time of the Doctor. And then we had to wait almost a year for the first stories of the Capaldi era.

There’s a particularly persistent narrative developing in certain around the Capaldi era, that he was a good Doctor poorly served by the quality of his stories. This for my money is absolutely bollocks and that s8 onwards saw a significant improvement in the show from the rather fallow middle period of the Smith era. Aside from In The Forest of the Night, I’d argue that s8 is a particularly strong set of stories, and is perhaps marred by a muddled conception of just who or what the 12th Doctor actually is and a finale in which Moffat tried a little too hard to emulate the spectacle and bombast of an RTD-era one. However, it certainly did benefit from learning the lessons of the past few years and not splitting up the series into two halves.

Series 9 continued this good work, starting off with Last Christmas (it’s worth noting just how strong all the Capaldi-era Christmas specials are, something that you would perhaps think wouldn’t sit well with his particular Doctor). Like its predecessor, Series 9 only has one real clunker in Sleep No More but does contain the incredible Heaven Sent (and also the endlessly controversial Hell Bent).

However, the narrative of decline persisted and while the lesson had been learned against not dividing up the series into two, the Capaldi years were marred by a continued cavalier attitude to scheduling. It’s to the Beeb’s and Chibnall’s credit that they’ve tackled this problem head on by removing Who from the light entertainment battleground of Saturday nights, a decision that I rather wish had been taken earlier.

Moffat (and Capaldi) bowed out in s10 and on something of a high. Series 10 is the consistently strongest set of episodes since s5 and helps to nicely bookend Moffat’s contribution to the show in an emphatically positive light. This was helped by shot in the arm by the arrival of Bill Potts as the companion and the settled-upon characterisation of the Doctor. It’s only the dip in the Empress of Mars and Eaters of Light stories that prevent s10 from pipping s5 to the mantle of strongest series in the show’s history.

Aside from the continued scheduling controversies, the other (no doubt perennial) issue to dog Moffat’s era were some poor decisions taken out of necessity rather than creativity. Clara, I felt, stayed on for too long and should really have been written out, as intended, at the end of Last Christmas. This is no reflection on Jemma Coleman who put in a great performance, but the Clara arc had just run its course by then and the last-minute reverse-ferret not only weakened the story but her ultimate departure in Face the Raven. Shona from Last Christmas is the best companion we never had and would have been a great addition to s8, and there’s also no reason why Zygon Osgood wouldn’t have worked nicely either.

Another such decision was borne from Chibnall’s reluctance to kick off Whittaker’s run with the Christmas special. I completely understand his reasons for this but it did rather undermine Capaldi’s regeneration, which really should have taken place in The Doctor Falls where it would have been the perfect ending for a searing, impactful season finale. Having it not do so, having him refuse to change, seemed out of character for his Doctor and diminished what would have been probably the best regeneration story since Caves of Androzani. Twice Upon A Time is lots of fun but Capaldi’s regeneration does seem rather tacked on and rather undoes the impact of the struggles of The Doctor Falls. Perhaps a better solution would have been a ‘tale from the archives) Christmas special with Bradley’s Doctor alone or coupled with another Doctor. Wouldn’t it have been nice to see, say, Paul McGann given one more moment to shine?

The current narrative seems to be that Chibnall is coming in to ‘fix’ Who but I don’t really think that’s the case. Despite some missteps, the Moffat era will hopefully be remembered as one of the best in the show’s history. He’s given us two terrific Doctors and some of the most adult, sophisticated and nuanced stories in the programme’s 50-year run. He also gave us far fewer outright failed stories than any producer, with the possible exception of Verity Lambert. He’s also streamlined what was becoming an increasingly unruly canon and left it fit for another fit years of adventures. That’s a hell of a legacy and one which, I think, should be applauded.


6 comments

  1. Thanks for the timely post @JimtheFish Have to say that I pretty much agree with all of it, particularly with how the Moffat era is likely to be re-evaluated in the future. As is probably obvious from most of my posts, I loved the complexity and the timeywimeyness stuff. You can’t be great all the time, but when Moffat era Who really hit the marks they knocked it totally out the park and set the benchmark of what Dr Who can be at a ridiculously high level. Not least in Heaven Sent and World Enough and Time/ The Doctor Falls. And The Eleventh Hour and The Doctor’s Wife.  I particularly loved how, as you say, he straightened up the canon, while allowing for infinite new possibilities, not least the setting up of Doctor’s new incarnation as female.

    Under Moffat’s tenure the production values were ambitious, and what they achieved was remarkable, particularly given the relatively small budgets they were working with. Especially when working with the wonderful Rachel Tallalay. I’m still gobsmacked when I compare modern Who with the decidedly low tech b/w show I fell in love with in Nov 1963. Mostly I think he deserves enormous credit for his willingness to take risks with the show. Not always successful, and sometimes controversial, but our favourite show hasn’t lasted 55(!) years by playing it safe.

  2. @jimthefish

    Well written and thoughtful piece, thank you

    Who has always had stories that hit and those that missed and even if we differ on those hit and misses (each to their own and tbh we probably don’t differ that much) Steven Moffat has given us a seires of episodes and arcs that will be returned to time and time again. That is the proof that his tenure as show runner was excellent.

  3. Even though we don’t always agree on which are the best episodes, I agree with almost everything and I really enjoyed reading this.  (:

  4. @jimthefish

    An excellent assessment of the Moffat years. I agree wholeheartedly with your interpretation of the strengths and weaknesses of each season, although, like others before me, we might disagree on certain episodes. Personally, I loved Empress of Mars, but that’s just me!

    I also think the very things Moffat was often criticized for (the complexity of the stories/arcs, his knowledge of, and call back to, BG Who was, for me, part of the pleasure of the Moffat years.

    It is inevitable, of course, that in amongst the many strengths and delights of his tenure, there would be the occasional wrong turn. For me, the principal one was the introduction of the large United Colours of Benetton Daleks.

    But all in all I agree with your assessment that his tenure will come to be ranked on the level of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes and Letts/Dicks years.

    It is, perhaps, ironic that during the years of a showrunner, the finest stories are penned by someone else. For me, it was  Vincent and the Doctor by Richard Curtis during the Moffat years, and Moffat’s Blink during the RTD years.

    Thanks again for a great blog.

  5. Thanks to all. It struck me recently that something else Moffat should be praised for was the extent to which he seemed to listened to fans. Each tone of each series was no doubt determined by internal notes to the previous but there seemed to be some indication that Moffat took on board fan criticism and tailored subsequent episodes accordingly. Plus things like taking fan-created titles as the basis of the ones of the Capaldi years. All this despite one of the constant criticisms of him was that he was too high-handed to listen to fan concerns (a criticism I note that the broflakes are now levelling at Chibnall). But it’s clearly never been the case.

    @blenkinsopthebrave

    I found that I’ve come around to the New Paradigm Daleks these days. I rewatched Victory of the Daleks recently and thought they were quite striking, especially the voices. I think they ultimately would have worked and all it would have taken would have been a toning down of the colour schemes. I kind of wish Moffat and co had stuck to their guns and kept with them for a couple of more stories and I think they might have taken. (I also suspect that introducing them was not something Moffat wanted to do under his own steam and was probably instructed to by more marketing-inclined aspects of the production infrastructure.)

  6. Great insights!

    I’ve been aware of Doctor Who since I discovered fandom in the late 70s, but was unable to watch it on a regular basis until Capaldi (my TV provider is a thirty foot antenna, and the BBC is across the Atlantic over the curve of the earth…).

    It’s great to see an analysis of the show as a whole (“but our favourite show hasn’t lasted 55(!) years by playing it safe” as ScaryB said), and of Moffat’s contribution in particular. I’ve enjoyed some other Moffat, notably Sherlock and … hey, wow, I forgot this one…TinTin.

    Enjoying the Chibnall/Whitaker season so far too!

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