Stephen Moffat finally, thankfully announced his departure from Doctor Who following next year’s ‘Series 10’. That’s right: We have to wait until 2017 to see the next full series. Apparently the 2016 Summer Olympics is taking precedence on the BBC’s programming schedule and they don’t want to make the show have to compete against coverage of the games. Okay, fair enough, but it’s still an excruciatingly long wait. There will, however, be a Christmas Special this year. Whew! Replacing Moffat is Broadchurch’s Chris Chibnall, whose style of writing involves more character-driven stories than epic ones. I think that's actually a good thing, as I’ll write in just a bit.
Peter Capaldi, recovering from surgery to repair injuries sustained on set (running and jumping around so much does takes its toll even on healthy young actors), sat down for interviews to give his thoughts on the show and the direction it's taking, and how the BBC has been treating it. For one thing, he thinks that with regards to diversity, the show really does need to reflect the times in which it is broadcast. He feels that the next Doctor should be portrayed by a non-white actor or even a woman. I'm still not entirely sold on the idea of Time Lords being naturally capable of switching sexes during regeneration, nor am I sure viewers would take as kindly to such an abrupt change in the show’s title character as Capaldi seems to think, but I could be wrong.
As for how the BBC is treating Doctor Who, Capaldi did express his concern, arguing that the network is too complacent about it. Last year the show's time slot kept changing, throwing off what the actor says has become a sort of family television viewing ritual for the long-running and still highly popular program. I happen to concur. Over the show’s history, various producers have held varying degrees of respect—or lack thereof—for Doctor Who. This was most visibly seen during the mid- and late-1980s when BBC heads kept trying to sabotage the show and finally deprived it of funding so that it went on what proved to be a sixteen year hiatus. Wiser heads have since prevailed, but now the opposite trend of too much love for the show as a cultural phenomenon has led, in Capaldi's opinion, to BBC schedulers taking it for granted that they can play such games as making viewers wait a year or more between seasons and shuffling it around the Saturday night schedule. This can actually hurt the show as it risks losing audience members. Long periods between seasons can, as well, lead to viewer complacency, which is often taken as a lack of interest, further undermining the popularity of Doctor Who and putting its continuation in jeopardy.
In other news, Moffat did talk about how John Hurt came to be the thought-up-at-the-last-minute incarnation of the Doctor for the 50th anniversary special in 2013. According to him, talks with Christopher Eccleston to return to play Nine failed, forcing Moffat to rewrite the season-ender as well as the 50th anniversary episode.
Speaking of Hurt, he's coming back to portray the War Doctor for Big Finish Audio in a story that includes the voice talents of actor David Warner, a fitting casting decision to match the distinguished style Hurt’s incarnation brings to the role.
And now to my thoughts on Moffat’s tenure as Doctor Who head writer...
I can best sum up my opinion of him by saying that while he has had some very good and lofty ideas—the Weeping Angels, I think, are one of the better and more original monsters ever created for fiction—Moffat simply isn't talented enough a writer to properly realize those ideas. With a budget that is much smaller than what episode airings would have us believe, is is unable to bring his ideas to the screen in a compelling way that does justice to them.
A good example is the 50th Anniversary special. We've all been told for years now how great and terribly destructive the Time War was to the universe within the context of Doctor Who, but not once have we ever actually seen how this was so, to the point that the Doctor, having joined the fray with everyone else and realizing the Time Lords were planning to end it in a manner even worse than anything he could perceive the Daleks doing, chose to destroy his own world and everyone on it. What we ultimately saw on screen was a conventional war that only threatened Gallifrey, but nothing that indicates how and why the whole of creation was in danger. it was only talked of.
When I was taking screenwriting courses, one of the big things my instructor hammered home was that it’s always better to show something in a film rather than have the character(s) talk about it. And it’s true. Film and television are visual media, and as such, what the audience sees has a much bigger emotional impact than what it hears. Aside from the cracks in reality that have marked the entirety of the Moffat era and which ultimately had nothing to do with the Time War, we haven’t actually been given a visual idea of how such catastrophic events might affect reality itself within the continuity of the show. So we as the audience cannot take seriously the concept that the Time War was so devastating because we only ever hear about it but never get to see it.
Then there is Moffat’s inability to sit down and actually watch the show. It was already established by then-head writer Russell T. Davies in The End of Time that the reason the Doctor destroyed Gallifrey was to stop Rassilon and the High Council of Time lords from destroying the whole of Creation in order to win the Time War. But Moffat decided that the Doctor, war-weary, simply recognized the damage the war itself was doing to the universe and put an end to it the only way he thought he could until intervention from two of his future incarnations and the very weapon he was to use changed the course of history. This is an obvious storytelling retcon, one of many Moffat has committed thinking audience would be too stupid to notice.
There is also the problem Moffat intimated in his telling of how the 50th Anniversary special came about: rushed and last minute decisions, panicked action trying to make everything come together. This seems to have been an ongoing problem with Moffat. It’s a sign of disorganization and chaos. When Eleventh Doctor actor Matt Smith announced his departure from Doctor Who at the end of ‘Series 7’, that meant Moffat had to wrap up Eleven’s storyline in a hurry, and it really shows in the rushed, shortcut feeling you get watching the 2013 episodes. So much time is spent on the buildup that there is very little remaining to fully and properly develop the finish, which is supposed to be the big payoff. This is why the supposedly epic ideas Moffat has ultimately end up feeling anti-climactic when put into production. The wrap-up feels more like an afterthought than the gripping climax it was intended to be.
Throwing gasoline on those three concurrent fires is Moffat’s massive ego, which prevents him from taking any time to sit down and think things through, question his own judgment, or ask for help from more talented writers than himself. He was a poor choice to take over as head writer because he simply was never talented enough a writer to carry the weight of an entire show, let alone the two he currently runs (Sherlock being the other one besides Doctor Who). But Russell T. Davies wanted someone who would continue his legacy of having killed off the Time Lords, something Moffat showed he was keen to do at the time until he realized how infeasible that was, and so we ended up with what will ultimately be seven long years of writing mediocrity.
If you’re a writer and you have big ideas, you need both the budget and the talent to bring those ideas to fruition. Stephen Moffat had neither of those crucial elements. Sure, his dialog is excellent—I will give him full credit for his tear-jerker scenes—but his execution of ideas is highly lacking. Doctor Who doesn't need epic stories. It needs consistently well written ones that don’t insult the intelligence of the audience.
I hope Chris Chibnall can restore the show to what made the original so endearing and long-lasting, and go a step further by incorporating the social-political commentary that made Star Trek and The Twilight Zone so popular as science fiction. Sure, therein lies a danger in making Doctor Who too preachy, but in science fiction, more often than not preachy just works because then you’re challenging viewers to question their own opinions and beliefs, and in so doing elevate our consciousness. That is the very defining characteristic of science fiction more than any other aspect. I won’t hold my breath for seeing this under Chibnall, but a man can dream.