Why I’m Down on Moffat

Doctor Who titlecardI love Doctor Who, but I’ve soured on Steven Moffat.

Steven Moffat (at Comic-Con 2008)I really didn’t want to write this, because I’ve really enjoyed Moffat’s Doctor Who. But I’ve long had deep reservations about it. I’ve kept these thoughts to myself, although I kept feeling them bubble up, wanting to get out. I resisted and resisted, and now I can’t anymore.

Moffat’s an incredibly clever and entertaining writer. I have a great deal of admiration for much of what he’s done. So the last thing I wanted to do was demolish everything he’s done on Doctor Who. Yet once the floodgates opened, the river came crashing out.

The length of what follows is a testament to how much I’ve thought about this, as well as to how disappointed I am. And that disappointment is a testament to how much good there is in Moffat’s work, despite everything I’m going to say.

I’ll explain, but first a warning: as River Song would put it, “Spoilers!”

Season Five

When Russell T. Davies stepped down as showrunner of the revived Doctor Who, after four seasons (or series, though I’ll stick with “seasons” here) and several specials, he had no doubt as to who should replace him: Steven Moffat, who’d written one or two episodes during each of the four seasons. These episodes include “Blink,” which introduced the Weeping Angels, and “Silence in the Library,” which introduced River Song — both classics of the Davies era.

In fact, Moffat’s association with Doctor Who goes back to 1999′s wonderful 20-minute parody, “Doctor Who and the Curse of the Fatal Death.” It’s wonderfully fun, undeniably smart, and delights in paradox — all traits Moffat brought to his work on the serious show, once it was revived under Davies.

Moffat’s reign on the series, beginning with the 2010 fifth season, was marked by the introduction of a new Doctor — the 11th, played by Matt Smith. Moffat’s first episode, “The Eleventh Hour,” also introduced Amy Pond, the so-called “girl who waited” for the Doctor from childhood. The episode has a pretty convenient conclusion, but Amy Pond’s story is so unique and emotionally resonant that she saves the episode. Her story is a perfect example of how time travel can be used cleverly, in ways that embrace rather than avoid its implications, in order to produce moving entertainment. And her story rooted the new Doctor in childhood imagination and wish-fulfillment in a way that ought to resonate in even the most bitter heart.

Amy PondFor my money, Matt Smith took some time to adjust to the role. He looks awkward in his early episodes, like he’s still feeling the character out — especially after David Tennant’s Doctor. Moffat’s quick humor feels a bit off, as if Smith’s struggling to adjust to it. The real standout is Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, who not only grounds the new Doctor’s stories emotionally but who instantly takes her place as one of the most memorable companions. Davies had focused much more on the companions’ perspective than the old Doctor Who show ever had, but Moffat’s Amy Pond did Davies one better — and seemed to do so effortlessly. This was special stuff.

Moffat’s first season had high notes — here, I’d mention his own two-parter, “The Time of Angels” / “Flesh and Stone.” It also had low notes — for example, “The Vampires of Venice.” Like Davies, Moffat chose to unite the season with a loose storyline, culminating in the season finale. (For me, “Vincent and the Doctor” was a mixed bag: nothing short of terrific for Vincent’s arc, but really silly for its monster-based plot and for the way everyone seems to agree he was the best artist of all time.) This season’s time rift, tied to the phrase “Silence will fall,” was adequate, and Moffat had this plot actually develop during the season (with Rory’s erasure from history and foreshadowing of the TARDIS’s destruction) in a way Davies hadn’t.

And then came Moffat’s two-part season finale — indisputably packed with drama. Almost all of time and space were destroyed, after all. It featured almost all of the Doctor’s enemies, united against him. And an appearance by the still-ambiguous River Song. And a really cool idea, in the Pandorica, a cube-shaped super-prison constructed for the Doctor. Here, too, were time paradoxes and surprises, producing a great deal of fun.

It was clever. It was dramatic. And it was ultimately a mess.

screenshot from "The Pandorica Opens"

Personally, I’m always annoyed by stories that seem to make Earth the center of the universe — a more egregious violation of the pathetic fallacy, it’s hard to imagine. I think this has real psychological implications for viewers, all of which are very bad indeed. Season 5′s conclusion unmakes the entire universe, outside of Earth, and you can guess how that rubs me. But let’s ignore that, assuming it’s just my own personal bugbear.

But how was Rory, after being erased from time, displaced into the Roman era with evil cyborg modifications? Because he loved Amy so much? When did he get those cyborg modifications removed? Were we supposed not to care about any of this, or supposed to be satisfied that these major plot elements were “explained” by a silly line or two?

Rory protecting Amy for two thousand years was a cool twist. But wouldn’t living two thousand years this way affect his personality? Nope. Later episodes would establish that he barely remembers it all. Cyborg modifications, living two thousand years — it was all erased, or wasn’t (because it happened and everyone remembers it, at least vaguely). Either way, don’t pay too much attention to it.

And how is the exploding TARDIS and the recreation of the universe accomplished? None of it makes any sense. Officially, the energy of the TARDIS explosion is harnessed to use the Pandorica to recreate the universe, causing a new Big Bang. Everything’s back to how it was before, although maybe with differences. Maybe this explains why Earth no longer seems to know about extraterrestrials, which Davies had established. But when did that effect start again? At the beginning of the season, or now? Does this mean the TARDIS never exploded, creating a Paradox in which all of this never happened? What the hell does any of this mean? We’re not supposed to care about any of this — the plot’s resolved; move on.

To be sure, the season’s final episode has a great ending, tying into the emotion of Amy’s debut. The way Amy remembers the Doctor and summons him back into existence is very clever and cool, even if it doesn’t really make sense.

At the end, the Doctor acknowledges that questions remain about the destruction of the TARDIS. And that the phrase “Silence will fall” has never been explained. These suggest that Moffat’s loose, season-long storylines won’t be like those of Davies: they’ll continue, Lost-style, over multiple seasons, perhaps uniting Moffat’s entire era in a kind of meta-storyline.

Of course, this requires a great deal of faith in Moffat. One has to believe that he knows the truth about the destruction of the TARDIS, or what “Silence will fall” actually means and why it was tied to the unraveling of time in this season. It’s hard to believe that’s the case, given the sloppiness of this season’s resolution. But perhaps Moffat’s still learning on the job, and it’s all so clever and so fun that we’re inclined to continue.

The Lost Dynamic

Anyone has to acknowledge that a series written in this fashion hangs on a careful dance with the audience. The audience is asked to have faith that everything will be resolved satisfactorily. All of the cleverness in the writing, and in the elements that are satisfactorily resolved, argue for this faith. On the other hand, each time a paradox is set up (such as the destruction of the TARDIS or the entire universe) that isn’t adequately resolved argues that the audience is really being hoodwinked.

A show such is a kind of tight-rope walk. It’s a risky bet, with huge payoffs and huge downsides. And it tends to fall one way or another. Even if the show wants viewers to just go along for the ride, its structure implicitly tells viewers, “Don’t worry; we know what we’re doing; it’ll all be resolved and work out.” If it becomes clear that this isn’t the case, that the show doesn’t know where it’s going or can’t adequately resolve everything on the fly, the entire structure falls apart.

After all, anyone can destroy the universe for dramatic effect. It could happen on the next episode of any given show, even ones that aren’t sci-fi, and it’ll be dramatic. Do this on a cop show, and you’ve hooked people for the entire episode. But there’s a reason shows don’t do this, despite it being a phenomenally easy way of generating drama. How the hell are you going to explain it? And if you don’t explain it adequately, you’ve alienated your viewers in a pretty remarkable way.

If it’s all a dream, or if it’s the result of some wizard who appears near the ending to reverse everything, the viewer feels cheated. And this means that every single later dramatic development has less weight. Once you’ve told viewers that major dramatic plot points can be undone, without satisfactory explanation (or even an adequate attempt at this), you’ve told viewers not to care about any plot development, no matter how dramatic.

This is why writers don’t kill off the main character in the pre-credits teaser, or reveal that he’s got two penises, or reveal that he’s an alien, or anything else that might pop into their creative minds. Those are cool ideas, and they’ll get attention. But the rest of the show has to explain and resolve that in a way that makes sense. The piper must be paid. And this isn’t anything new; it’s how narrative works, and every writer knows it.

If the universe can be destroyed, only to be recreated in the most convenient of ways, almost as if an explanation doesn’t matter, what does anything mean anymore? Isn’t such a show really communicating contempt for its audience? Such a show tells viewers, “Look, all you want is drama, so here’s some great drama. We both know you don’t really care about the resolution or the explanation, so much as the drama itself. So let’s cut the pretense.”

Other shows have gone down this road. Lost is the prime example, with its meandering plots being made up on the fly, several of which were never resolved. While a commercial success, Lost is a contemptuous mess. It’s also a great litmus test, in that critics who praise its drama despite its obvious lack of any plan invalidate themselves as critics in a stroke. Once you’ve established that drama’s all that matters, explanations and logic be damned, you’re pretty much asking for shows with nothing but entertaining deaths and explosions and “clever” developments, without any of them requiring explanation or even internal consistency. That’s not narrative. It’s Faces of Death with a title track and a little less blood.

The other great example is the revived Battlestar Galactica. To be sure, it’s got some great heights (“Pegasus” being my personal favorite). But here we have a show consciously conceived to take outer space drama seriously, including an in-fighting cast (consciously in contrast to the happy crews of Star Trek) and real concerns over resources (again, consciously in contrast to the convenient endless fuel, shuttlecrafts, and the like of Star Trek: Voyager, where the drama of a ship lost in space was reduced of all meaning). Yet this same, hard-bitten, realistic show gets mired in fantasy metaphysics about God, which are somehow used to justify characters jumping through space without coordinates and winding up “where they were meant to go.” To call this silly is an insult to Porky Pig.

Here too, we have the problem that the show asks us to have faith in its management of its mythology, especially of the Cylons and the “Final Five,” only to switch courses and resolve these plots, without any foreshadowing, in ways that tell viewers as loudly as possible that their faith was misplaced.

So by the time Moffat started down this road, everyone knew perfectly well how this dynamic worked, what the stakes involved were, what the risks were, and what to avoid at any cost. In deciding to do this kind of show, Moffat had to know, as any writer would, that his negotiation of this particular dynamic would be the criterion by which his work would be judged.

One has to presume Moffat, like any intelligent writer, sought to improve upon his predecessors. The only alternative is that he looked at Lost and Battlestar Galactica and wanted only to repeat their commercial success. Fuck it, right? Emphasizing the mythology works, and the viewers will buy the DVDs whether it all ultimately makes sense or not. It’s the mystery that matters, and by the time you have to solve it, no one will care if you blame it on the butler with no whiff of foreshadowing. And if they do, fuck them; you’ve sold the DVDs already, right? Of course, such a cynical calculation might work, but it isn’t forgivable. It ought to demolish reputations.

It’s important to understand that this isn’t me imposing my own standard of judgement on Moffat’s work. This is how shows of sprawling mythology work. The pay-off is that those mysteries and dramatic developments create immense viewer interest. They work. But they’re like borrowing money, from a narrative standpoint. The bill for all that easily-generated mystery and drama has to be paid, and you have to pay it by tying everything together so that point A meets point B, in a way that feels like it makes sense and creates a coherent narrative whole. That’s hard to do, which is why it’s traditionally been avoided as a model. But it’s a model Moffat chose, and it’s his responsibility to understand how it works.

By the end of his first season, it was clear that Moffat had chosen this model, and this was how his tenure on Doctor Who would be judged. So let’s see how this plays out, over the course of his next season and a half.

Season Six

“The Impossible Astronaut,” Moffat’s sixth-season debut, begins with the Doctor’s death.

It’s a huge gamble and one that’s a perfect illustration of the dynamic described above. Killing off your show’s protagonist is an easy way to generate excitement. And Moffat does it brilliantly, with TARDIS-colored envelopes and time paradoxes and River Song. Again, he uses Amy Pond brilliantly to generate emotion. There’s even some unknown person in a space suit, walking out of a lake, which is a cool visual. From the Doctor referencing his age to his Viking funeral, all the elements are here. If he’s going to use this kind of easy device to generate excitement, Moffat could hardly do it better.

But now he’s got to pay the piper. He’s got to kill the Doctor. Or get out of it in a way that feels like it’s been carefully set up along, so we don’t feel cheated.

Ironically, this situation perfectly mirrors the Doctor’s own. The Doctor’s death is fixed, so that it’s supposed to operate within a time loop that can’t be undone. Here, time can’t be changed — although the show changes time all the time, if you’ll forgive the expression. Thus, we know that this future day is coming because we’ve already seen it. All that happens now must lead up to this future point, in what’s got to feel like a single coherent line.

What Moffat’s done is materialize drama from the future. But that comes with a price, and the price is that all season, he’s got to work carefully to lead up to that future point and resolve it in a way that feels satisfactory. He’s borrowed energy from the future, and it must be repaid. There’s no getting out of it for Moffat, any more than there is for the Doctor.

“The Impossible Astronaut” also introduced the Silence — an alien species that you forget as soon as you look away. They’re brilliant, and Moffat plays them for all they’re worth. Some truly horrifying moments result. There’s also the brilliant idea that they’re not trying to conquer Earth, like typical Doctor Who aliens. They already have; we just don’t remember them.

Yes, the concept is a little close to Moffat’s Weeping Angels, who freeze in statue form when looked at. And no, neither species really makes much sense. The Weeping Angels freeze, we’re told, as a defensive tactic. But while this does seem to make them invulnerable (Or does it? Can’t something break these statues?), it doesn’t hide the Angels’ presence, despite their preference for subterfuge. Seeing a scowling, teeth-baring statue next to you would be scary, but how does that help the Angels again? Also, why do the Angels, even when encountered on other planets, look like humans’ conception of angels from its late second millennium? Never mind, both are indisputably highly entertaining, and Moffat will explain these things later… probably. If it even matters…

Similarly, despite all the brilliance and horror of the Silence, they too have big problems. How does their power work again, on the brains of different species which might have profoundly different structures of memory? And if the Silence have conquered Earth, does that mean that they were operating behind the scenes, through the entire history of Doctor Who? What actions did they take, as Earth was threatened with invasion after invasion? How will they affect all subsequent appearances of Earth in the series?

The Silence are intended to begin resolving what was meant by “Silence will fall” in the previous season, which ended up not being tied to that season’s conclusion at all. So what’s meant by their “fall” and how does this tie to the time rift of the previous season? No answer has been forthcoming, nor have there been any real hints.

“The Impossible Astronaut” ends with Amy Pond shooting at someone in an astronaut’s suit, believing that she’s saving the Doctor’s life, since whoever’s in the suit will go on to kill the Doctor, as seen in the episode’s opening. The person in the suit ends up being the little girl, seen throughout the episode. It’s a dramatic ending, less because of the little girl than because it shows what Amy’s willing to do to save the Doctor, for whom she cares so much.

This episode continues into the next one, “Day of the Moon.” Or rather, the plot elements continue, but the episode doesn’t. The cliffhanger ending of “The Impossible Astronaut” is simply dropped, and “Day of the Moon” begins three months later, during which the cast has been running around, supposedly trying to track the Silence. How were they trying to do this? It’s never discussed. We’re just supposed to imagine that our beloved characters spent three months running around America, encountering the Silence with no real consequences. But never mind that, the episode’s about to begin.

Like the previous episode, it’s fun, horrific stuff. But it doesn’t resolve anything. The Silence are left ruling Earth, although humans who watched the moon landing now have negative feelings towards the Silence imprinted in their unconscious. The identity of the young girl isn’t resolved — although she’s shown regenerating like a Time Lord, at the end of the episode. And instead of resolving anything, the episode adds a new wrinkle: Amy Pond, who thought she was pregnant, now seems not to be, and the Doctor sees on a TARDIS screen that she’s alternating between pregnant and not pregnant, as if that’s some kind of quantum fluctuation.

It’s a clever little idea, given the way people say someone can’t be “a little bit pregnant”; pregnancy is supposed to be a binary proposition, so it’s especially funny to see this turned into something that, like Schrödinger’s cat, both is and isn’t.

But instead of resolving anything, Moffat’s Who was adding mysteries. If there was any doubt that it was fully committed to the Lost model, “Day of the Moon” made things clear enough.

A few episodes later, “The Rebel Flesh” and “The Almost People” introduced the concept of a Ganger, a doppelganger used to replace someone to enable them to do deadly tasks. At the end of the episode, Doctor Who apologizes and turns his sonic screwdriver on Amy Pond, who disintegrates just like the Gangers in the episode.

It’s a wonderfully dramatic conclusion, and it’s cool that this seemingly inconsequential two-parter suddenly has major importance. But it certainly feels convenient. If Amy Pond is a Ganger, wouldn’t a writer want to foreshadow the Ganger concept earlier in the series? (We’re later told that the Doctor’s suspicions that Amy was a Ganger caused him to land where we see him in “The Rebel Flesh,” but it’s still hard not to feel like there’s no master plan at work.)

Season 6 was the first to be split into two halves, and the following episode, “A Good Man Goes to War,” acts as the conclusion to the first half. It reveals that a cabal, led by previously unseen villains, sought to kill the Doctor, who they see as a warrior — echoing the idea, which goes back to Davies’s tenure, that the Doctor’s villains see him as a far less positive character than he does (and we do). This cabal, which receives remarkably little motivation or screen time, kidnapped a pregnant Amy (which is never seen or explained) and replaced her with a Ganger (between this season and last). The child, conceived on the TARDIS, somehow has the TARDIS’s “time energy” in it, essentially making it a Time Lord. (Talk about hazardous work environments! You’d think the Doctor would have warned them…) The evil cabal wants to use the child to kill the Doctor, and it brainwashes the child to this effect. The child is the little girl, seen in the two-part season opener. At the end of the episode, we learn that it will grow up to be none of than River Song — finally revealing her ambiguous identity.

That’s a particularly clever twist, and like most in Moffat’s tenure, it’s done remarkably well. Most of the episode is focused on how awesome the Doctor and crew are, as they storm the base (called “Demon’s Run”) on which Amy is being held. The episode has plenty of good and exciting moments. What’s most telling, however, is that River Song’s identity has been properly foreshadowed. One of the major clues is Amy Pond’s name, given that both “pond” and “river” are bodies of water. This is certainly a nice change, for a show that doesn’t seem to foreshadow anything, or that asks you to believe that the Silence whose fall is tied to a season-long time rift wasn’t tied to that time rift at all but is actually a new alien species already in control of Earth, though no one remembers it and it doesn’t seem to have any consequence and no one knows what its “fall” represents or why this would be mentioned in conjunction with a time rift that ended the universe.

But hey, maybe Moffat will figure this all out. If he could resolve Amy’s quantum pregnancy and River Song’s long-mysterious identity, maybe he could also resolve the Doctor’s death, the Silence plot, and what “Silence will fall” actually meant. Maybe he hadn’t simply painted himself into a corner, due to lack of planning. Maybe he had some idea of the answers all along.

Any hope of this was pretty much dashed with the next episode. “Let’s Kill Hitler” is incredibly fun. It’s got lots of action and tons of cleverness. Unfortunately, it makes all of Moffat’s Doctor Who collapse upon the slightest bit of examination.

The episode begins by retroactively introducing Mels, a childhood friend of Amy and Rory, whose childhood has already been seen without Mels. Guess what? Mels is a wild girl, who immediately commandeers the TARDIS. She’s also, we soon find out, Amy’s daughter. Yes, Amy grew up as friends with her own daughter, who all along knew the Doctor of Amy’s stories was real. Mels soon regenerates, becoming River Song — and trying to kill the Doctor, in a series of very fun and clever scenes. She actually succeeds but repents and — conveniently — uses “the last” of her time energy to save the Doctor she poisoned, thereby making her human and no longer a demi-Time Lord.

Again, the episode’s an incredible amount of fun. It’s ridiculously clever. It’s brilliantly acted. And it’s logically a disaster.

First, there’s the retroactive insert of Mels. Why wasn’t this set up as early as “The Eleventh Hour?” Hell, why wasn’t she even mentioned in the first half of this season? Instead, she’s retroactively inserted into continuity, only to be revealed as River Song mere minutes later. It’s hard to imagine any clearer indication that Steven Moffat simply had no idea where anything was going, and thus what he was doing as a writer.

It’s so strange, to have an episode like this that completely jumps the shark, yet is simultaneously so entertaining.

Then there’s the problem of Doctor Who‘s selective cosmology. Sometimes, time can be altered. Other times, it can’t, and characters have to deal with the consequences and the paradoxes. This is typical of most TV science-fiction, including Star Trek, though it’s a sign of very bad writing in science-fiction prose. Within Doctor Who, going back to Davies, this is justified by the idea of “fixed points in time.” Conveniently, famous points in Earth’s history just happen to be the most common “fixed points,” and this lets the series explain why the Doctor can’t keep Pompeii from being destroyed (for example). Moffat’s Doctor Who has used this concept even more arbitrarily, to tag certain events of his own invention (frequently of even lesser cosmic consequence, nor even known to the wider world) as “fixed points,” signalling to viewers that they can’t be magically erased through time travel. The Doctor’s death is one of them. Why? No reason, except that otherwise it wouldn’t be a problem — to make this mean anything, you’ve got to tell viewers that it can’t simply be erased through the Doctor’s magic blue box.

Okay, so far so good. Typically, episodic shows like Star Trek and Doctor Who may make time malleable and unchangeable from episode to episode. A convenient conceit or line of dialogue might explain why one model of time is being evoked and not the other. But at least each episode is consistent within itself. Yeah, this still sucks. It’s still stupid. But at least it’s limited to a given episode.

It’s worth mentioning that the regular episode right before the Doctor was killed in a “fixed point in time” (not counting that year’s Christmas special) was one that used altering time to literally destroy and remake the entire universe. So we’ve seen how radically alterable time is. Now, we’re being told time isn’t alterable — at least when it comes to something the writers need to be fixed.

But then we have River Song. She and the Doctor meet, often in reverse order relative to one another. So now we don’t have one time traveler; we have two, their histories interlocking in a complex web. It’s a very cool idea. But here’s the thing: all those points need to be, essentially, fixed. Because if you unravel one point, the whole web starts to collapse.

So now we’ve seen the birth of River Song. What this means is that, if this moment in history is altered, all those stories with River Song never happened. Moffat’s Doctor Who collapses. So the birth of River Song has to be fixed too. And so does everything that happened to her, from her birth in this episode until the adult River Song we know. In a series full of radical alterations of time, none of this can be altered, or the entire series comes crashing down.

This means that the Doctor has to fail to save Amy’s baby. To his credit, Moffat realizes this, and “Let’s Kill Hitler” has the Doctor, early on, explaining this to Amy and Rory. Shame he didn’t do so, at the end of “A Good Man Goes to War.” Months have passed for Amy and Rory, between the two episodes, during which the Doctor’s left them under the illusion that he’s out trying to rescue their baby. That’s shockingly cruel, but it’s waved away with a line of dialogue — and on to the show!

It’s important to keep in mind that the Doctor’s found ways around plenty of impossible spots. Yet when it comes to the child of his companions, he just gives up. After all, if he somehow found some way around this, Moffat’s Doctor Who would be unravel. So we have to go along with this terrible course of events, and the sudden retroactive insert of Mel into Amy and Rory’s childhood, and suddenly thinking of Amy and Rory as parents, and with the idea that the Doctor’s death can’t be altered any more than this baby can be saved — in a series that frequently and cavalierly alters time, including in Moffat’s own scripts.

“Let’s Kill Hitler” also introduces the Teselecta — an android operated by a miniaturized crew. It can take the form of anyone. It’s great fun in the episode. But it’s strange, you might think, that the show introduces yet another concept involving assuming someone else’s form so soon after the Gangers.

In the season finale, “The Wedding of River Song,” the series finally has to resolve the Doctor’s death. Although she’s fated to dress in an astronaut suit and emerge from a lake and kill the Doctor, River Song refuses to go through with it. So much for her brainwashing. Time then collapses under the weight of the paradox, and the bulk of the episode is spent in a bizarre mishmash of timelines. As a depiction of what might happen, were time to collapse, it’s all incredibly silly and illogical. In this bizarre world, the Doctor convinces River to go ahead and kill him, in order to restore the timeline. But first, they get married.

River’s long hinted that she’s had a relationship with the Doctor in the future, and she’s often been seen in prison for killing the best man she knew, someone very famous. Both of these get fulfilled here, which is well and good.

But if you can avoid a fixed point, even at the cost of time collapsing, is it really a fixed point? None of this makes any sense, really, and it only highlights the absurdity of how many times time itself has collapsed, only to preserve the characters of the story. That’s a very silly trope, in time travel tales, and it’s stretched incredibly thin here.

At the end of the episode, River Song visits Amy and Rory, revealing that the Doctor she killed wasn’t the Doctor at all. It was the Teselecta, which had assumed the Doctor’s form.

Yep, that’s all it took to get out of the foretold death of the Doctor: have someone replace him. Hell, Moffat could have used a Ganger — yet again.

Except the Doctor’s death is recorded in records across the universe. That’s part of why it’s a “fixed point.” River Song’s sent to prison for it — which means that the Doctor, in addition to not trying to rescue Amy’s baby, let his wife serve an extended prison sentence for a crime she didn’t commit.

So how does Moffat get around the fact that these records exist? He says that the Doctor’s going underground. He’s made too many enemies, as we’ve seen this season, and it’s better if they think he’s dead.

Now, keep in mind that the Doctor is a Time Lord who pops around all of space and time, often affecting the course of events dramatically. What Moffat’s committing to, as part of getting out of killing the Doctor, is that the Doctor will never, for the remainder of his life, pop up on anyone’s radar. The Doctor could live, from his point of view, a thousand more years, but none of his adventures will ever be noticed by anyone important, nor will word of him get around in any significant way.

This is a radical change to the show’s format, necessitating a different kind of story. In the original series, the Doctor was once stationed on Earth (to save the BBC money), and the show changed the type of stories it told as a result. Now, if anything Moffat had done meant anything, Doctor Who was shifting radically again. Whether Moffat could pull this off remained to be seen.

“The Wedding of River Song” also teased at the show’s continuing mysteries. In the opening, Moffat has a character say that “Silence must fall when the question is asked.” This will happen “at the fall of the eleventh” — a reference, perhaps, to how Matt Smith plays the Eleventh Doctor. Moffat’s changing the “Silence will fall” formulation, and it’s still unclear how this prophecy about the Silence (who have since been revealed to be a religious order headed by the memory-erasing species, not that species itself) had anything to Moffat’s first season. As to which question the prophecy refers to, it’s not hard for viewers to guess. The revived show has played frequently with its title, “Doctor Who,” in dialogue. And at the end of the episode, we learn that’s the mysterious question.

It’s a let-down. More importantly, it’s a wrong turn.

The original series once deliberately tried to make the Doctor more mysterious again, because it felt that too much had been revealed about him. Now, Moffat was promising to reveal the Doctor’s identity, in some way that hadn’t been revealed previously. That doesn’t seem like a very good idea, because the answers are likely only to disappoint.

And it really ought to be said that Moffat is the last person, at this point, that one would trust to reveal the Doctor’s identity. He’s indisputably a very, very clever writer. But he’s consistently shown an inability to steer the series properly, beyond these clever. On the level of elements within stories, he’s brilliant. On the level of long-term planning, his Doctor Who has been a disaster. He repeatedly sets up interesting challenges for himself, then fails to deliver. Now, this man was announcing his intentions to set his sights on revealing the Doctor’s origins or identity, in some meaningful way.

Sure, Moffat could dodge this too — as he had so much already. But if he did go forward, the odds of success are not good.

The First Half of Season Seven

Moffat’s next season was similarly split into two halves. To date, only the first half (and not the Christmas special, set between the two halves) have aired.

The first half begins with “Asylum of the Daleks,” for which some time has passed again for our characters, and now Amy and Rory are divorcing. This recalls the inexplicably poorly-judged gaps between “The Impossible Astronaut” and “Day of the Moon,” or between “A Good Man Goes to War” and “Let’s Kill Hitler.” It’s very hard to imagine Amy and Rory’s relationship deteriorating so badly, and one gets the feeling of a movie sequel, in which the writers make things happen between movies that don’t really make sense, in terms of character, but which provide fuel for the sequel’s plot. It’s even harder to imagine Amy and Rory divorcing once the episode, in its climax, reveals why: Amy can’t have another child, due to her imprisonment as shown in “A Good Man goes to War,” and she knows Rory wanted them. So she apparently tossed aside the man who stood guard over her for two millennia, without so much as telling him the reason why, let alone talking it out.

This isn’t to say that the episode isn’t clever or fun. It is. But it doesn’t make sense, and at some point, the contrivances build up in the viewer’s mind, so that the clever resolution — such as Amy and Rory reconciling — feels hollow and loses its emotional weight.

Then there’s the conclusion, after the climax, in which we realize that the Daleks no longer know who the Doctor is. That’s a result of a girl who’d been transformed into a Dalek deleting this information. It’s a clever way of the Doctor escaping in this episode.

But it only applies to the Daleks present there. It certainly doesn’t apply to all Daleks throughout history. After all, if it did, the history of Doctor Who would unravel completely. All those episodes, in which the Daleks sought revenge on the Doctor or cowered when he mentioned his name? Yeah, none of would have happened. So Moffat can’t intend some kind of universal, cross-time forgetting contrivance?

Yes, he can. In the finale of the season’s first half, “The Angels Take Manhattan,” River tells the Doctor that there’s no record of him anywhere. In fact, she’s been paroled from prison for killing him, because there’s no record of whom she killed.

To be fair, the implication is that, between “Asylum of the Daleks” and “The Angels Take Manhattan,” the Doctor’s been going around and erasing himself from data banks — and perhaps memories as well. Still, it’s hard to describe exactly how idiotic this is. The Doctor travels through time, after all. He’s even encountered his own previous incarnations on multiple occasions. He encounters River Song out of sequence. So when has the Doctor erased memory of himself? It can’t be of everyone, throughout history, or many previous Doctor Who episodes simply couldn’t have happened anymore. Those include episodes featuring River Song, whose stories must remain “fixed” or Doctor Who unravels. If all records of the Doctor have been erased, how did the previous season, in which the time of the Doctor’s death is well-known, happen at all? Never mind that River would have been released — how would River have been imprisoned at all?

And if the Doctor could get River — his wife, remember — released simply by erasing his own record, why didn’t he do so earlier?

This also invalidates the entire previous season. If the Doctor can erase himself from history, why would he have to go underground? That was premised upon the idea that no records exist of the Doctor, following his “death” — thus, he couldn’t create any. If all records of him could be wiped out, why bother with this?

Also, so much for that promise to alter the kinds of stories Doctor Who could tell, based around the fact that he couldn’t be noticed after this point in his own lifetime. Why, in “Asylum of the Daleks,” before any memories of him have been erased, the Daleks track him down and he interacts with their leaders. In the next episode, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship,” the Doctor’s freely interacting with the future Indian Space Agency (of Earth). And two episodes later, “The Power of Three,” he’s interacting with UNIT in the near future. Do these events not get recorded or remembered by anyone, so that they’re not known to the time travelers in the previous season, who can’t find any record of the Doctor after his death date? Or has the Doctor erased all records of himself, in which case, why do these Earth-bound characters know him?

None of this makes any sense at all. It simply feels like Moffat wanted to keep telling the kinds of stories Doctor Who always did, so there’s a couple gestures to memories of the Doctor being erased, and we’re not supposed to want more than that, nor to think about it at all. Because hey, dinosaurs on a spaceship!

To make matters worse, “The Angels Take Manhattan” is the swan song for Amy and Rory’s characters. It’s set in Manhattan, and it introduces baby Weeping Angels, or cherubs. It also opens with the revelation that the Statue of Liberty itself is actually a Weeping Angel, and she returns — with ominous sound, then in cold stony flesh — at the climax. This is a cool visual and a cool idea, which is presumably why Moffat included it. But it doesn’t make any sense at all. The Angels freeze when someone looks at them. Are we supposed to believe that no one noticed, in New York City at night, a giant statue walking through the streets? It makes a lot of sound as it moves — which is ominous to the characters, who are inside. Doesn’t anyone in the city hear this and look out their window? And when exactly did the Weeping Angels replace the freaking Statue of Liberty? Are there Weeping Angels this big? What does any of this mean?

We’re not supposed to think about it.

This kind of thing wouldn’t get past an intro-level creative writing course. How in the world it got on television, on one of the world’s most successful TV programs, is utterly beyond me.

Typical of Moffat’s Doctor Who, we’re supposed to be distracted by thinking about any of this because of clever and emotionally gripping elements. In this case, the send-off for Amy and Rory.

Which doesn’t make any sense either.

In the episode, we see the death of an aged Rory, after being sent back in time by the Angels. We’re familiar with this plot element from previous episodes, and we’re told that it’s “fixed” — it can’t be changed.

Then Amy and Rory jump off a roof, committing suicide, in order to create a time paradox. Somehow, this makes the building they were in, occupied by the Angels, never exist.

That’s right: another story in which suicide is used to solve someone’s problems.

Now, if it’s this easy to get around a “fixed” point in time, why did we spend an entire season trying to do so? The Doctor’s death was predestined, and everyone struggles to find a way around it. How silly of them. All they had to do was kill the Doctor themselves, at any given point, and the world would magically go back to how it was.

At the end of the story, Amy and Rory then get sent back in time anyway. This seems a shame, since the story just depicted suicide as a positive, in order to get around this.

So why can’t the Doctor just go back in time and save them? New York City is supposed to be hard to land the TARDIS in anyway, for reasons passing serious understanding. But the real reason is because of the time paradox Amy and Rory created. Yet that undid things, so there’s no “time paradox” sitting out there, shielding some portion of time from the TARDIS. It’s just a stupid line of dialogue. And that’s why Amy and Rory are stuck in the past, cut off from the Doctor. The stakes of their departure rest upon a line of dialogue that doesn’t make sense.

How are we supposed to care again? At this major emotional point in the series? Oh, that’s right: by not thinking too hard, and focusing on the sad farewell — never mind why it has to happen at all.

At least when Davies ditched Rose Tyler, it was to an alternate universe, the pathways to which were deteriorating. That’s a bit of sci-fi mumbo jumbo, to be sure, but it makes more sense than this.

What a mess.

Conclusion

What’s so infuriating about Moffat’s Doctor Who is that it’s so very, very good — so frequently clever and entertaining — yet so very, very bad in ways that invalidate everything.

It’s like a beautiful castle intricately constructed out colored sand. But the moment you touch it, it collapses.

What makes this even more infuriating is that Moffat’s Doctor Who encourages speculation. All those mysteries, such as River Song’s identity or how the Doctor’s going to avoid his death, inevitably get the audience thinking. There are puzzles with mysterious phrases that encourage speculation. Hell, even all those clever elements and plot devices get you thinking.

Only once you start thinking, it doesn’t take long for everything to unravel.

This is a show that invites you to chart the Doctor’s meetings with River Song, in order to see how they occur, relative to both characters’ perspectives. That’s awesome. It’s so intricate. Except that once you do, you start noticing ambiguities. Worse, you realize these all of these meetings have to be fixed points, yet time’s been undone and recreated with differences, or memories erased, over and over again, between these meetings.

Moffat’s Who feels wonderful for how it encourages you to use your brain. But all its cleverness in just brain candy. It’s momentarily delightful. But if you actually engage the organ, you see this candy for the junk food it is.

That’s probably true of a lot of TV, especially aimed even in part at kids. But usually, such shows don’t delight in paradoxes and cleverness that get the brain humming. With Moffat’s Who, the brain’s only supposed to get a quick buzz. If it’s a brain that’s too smart, or if it doesn’t shut down after that buzz and instead keeps going, the whole show unravels with phenomenal speed.

One has to wonder, if one knows this to be the case, whether it’s wise to get people’s brains engaged at all.

If Moffat’s adopted the Lost model to his own writing, it’s by using it to infuse his stories with clever and entertaining paradoxes. We’ve seen Moffat’s ability to do this since “The Curse of the Fatal Death.” And there’s no denying that Moffat’s incredibly clever. As showrunner, he’s displayed this since his first episode and Amy Pond’s introduction. Steven Moffat is a clever, clever man.

But cleverness isn’t anything. And it’s not the same thing as being smart.

Clever twists or story elements are just that. They’re clever and entertaining. Smartness is displayed over time. It’s a higher bar. A smart story isn’t merely clever. It’s a careful whole, constructed in such a way that, if the butler’s revealed as the killer, the revelation crashes down on you, and you say, “Of course!” A smart plot holds together with a feeling of unity and inevitability.

You can be smart without being clever, or vice versa. Lots of stories are smart and come together perfectly but aren’t particularly clever. And lots of stories have clever ideas but collapse underneath their own weight.

To use an analogy, a story’s structure is like a physical structure. Plot points have to connect, if the structure is to hold together. When you realize that something was foreshadowed all along, you’re realizing that the structure was well-built, so that the beautiful top of a column extends all the way to the floor. There’s plenty of room for flourishes and filigree, but it’s got to be placed onto a proper structure — and ideally, it’s got to work with all the other designs, to that there’s a unified aesthetic at least to that portion of the building, whether you see that as a part of the larger story or as all of a certain character’s appearances. When we realize that a development wasn’t inevitable, or that someone is acting out of character, we’re noticing flaws in the structure. If those flaws are severe enough, the story may superficially resemble a cathedral, but its construction is so fundamentally unsound that it collapses — especially if you examine or touch it.

A cool and clever twist is like a stained-glass window. You look at it and say that it’s awesome. It may even be beautiful and move you to tears. But if you put it in a ramshackle structure, and who gives a shit? A beautiful stained-glass window is remarkable by itself. But if the building in which it’s embedded is a mess of wooden boards at odd angles and majestic columns that are warped and don’t actually support the structure, that building’s still a self-destructive failure, stained-glass window and all.

Moffat’s work is fun and clever. There’s no denying that. Those traits define his work. I admire those traits immensely, and his Doctor Who work can be incredibly fun to watch.

But that work isn’t necessarily smart. It doesn’t necessarily work. It’s filled with beautiful stained-glass windows, but they don’t necessarily do anything. They can be awe-inspiring, but then you notice there’s a wall behind it so no light can ever get in, invalidating all that now-useless beauty.

Moffat seems to have adopted the high-mythology model of Lost as a way to insert any number of clever elements, all of which can be cool or even stunning in themselves. Instead of looking at the abject creative failure of Lost and making sure he improved upon it, he seems to have realized that the Lost model means nothing ultimately has to be explained. Audiences will go with it anyway. And if this is the case, Moffat could turn his creative energies loose, infusing his stories will all his clever ideas, explanations be damned.

After all, this is Doctor Who. It’s a sci-fi show, in which anything can be explained by altering time, or with the deus ex machina wave of a sonic screwdriver. It’s a show that’s traditionally been for kids, or adults who like kid-friendly entertainment, and this audience doesn’t give a shit if anything really, ultimately makes sense. It’s all about the coolness of the Daleks, or the Cybermen, and narrative logic be damned.

Maybe that’s a wise calculation. Maybe Moffat’s figured out how to use the limits of Doctor Who to play to his own strengths. Rather than improve the Doctor Who model, fixing these limitations, or improve the Lost model, making it actually pay off, he’s fused the two. And he’s found that the two model’s limitations are remarkably compatible. If you never have to make anything pay off or make sense, except in the most superficial of ways, you can make every minute of Doctor Who as cool and fun as those Dalek designs.

Moffat’s done that to a remarkable extent. It’s commendable, really. It’s just that it’s cynical, is all. And Moffat’s Who is so good at what it does, so clever and so tantalizing with its long-term teases, that it’s hard not to wish it actually knew what it was doing.

But really, I’m part of the problem. Because I’ll keep watching, even knowing this. Maybe I won’t see the episodes when their first air, but I’ll stay relatively caught up. It’s too well-done, too clever, too emotionally entertaining, not to.

It’s just that I know I shouldn’t.

And I wish the show lived up to its promise. Because it’s so ridiculously promising.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

In 1996, while still an undergraduate, Dr. Julian Darius founded what would become Sequart Organization. After graduating magna cum laude from Lawrence University (Appleton, Wisconsin), he obtained his M.A. in English, authoring a thesis on John Milton and utopianism. In 2002, he moved to Waikiki, teaching college while obtaining an M.A. in French (high honors) and a Ph.D. in English. In 2011, he founded Martian Lit, which publishes creative work, including his comic book Martian Comics. He currently lives in Illinois.

See more, including free online content, on .

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1 Comment

  1. Well. That just about explains why I watched Dr Who religiously until midway through season five. I stopped at that point and have only returned intermittently, and never with the excitement of anticipating the next episode. You’ve voiced here what my brain already knew, but couldn’t articulate.

    The big problem, though, is that this show has more American fans now than I’ve ever seen before. You’ve cited Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and Family Guy all as shows that are logically inconsistent. All of these shows have been massively successful (although Family Guy sputtered and died a few times before it found an audience). Does this mean that pop culture as a whole in America is headed in this direction? I hope to God it isn’t although I deeply fear otherwise.

    I see a prevalence of this phenomenon in my entertainment medium of choice: superhero comics. DC seems to be particularly guilty of this sin. There’s a “How cool is THAT?” kind of mentality that runs through many stories, where the writer pauses his or her own story to ask the reader (sometimes literally asking “how cool is that?” in text) to marvel at the writer’s cleverness. Maybe this is why I’ve been tuning out lately. I watch less new TV shows. I don’t go to the movies as often. I don’t buy new comics as much. When I do consume entertainment media, which I still do frequently, it tends to be of an earlier generation.

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