The Autumning Empire

Culture, Politics, Etc.

Smaller On The Inside: Steven Moffat And The Incredible Shrinking Whoniverse


I’m pitching a script idea for Doctor Who. This mind-bending tale will be the first full episode starring Peter Capaldi’s newly minted 12th Doctor. Episode One has him kidnapping Doctor Who’s head writer/show runner Steven Moffat from the BBC, and bringing him back to ancient Greece, where the two men meet Aristotle. There, the great philosopher and author of Poetics teaches Steven Moffat how to construct a plot.

Blink_(Doctor_Who)Stay with me now, because it doesn’t stop there: get ready for the paradoxical, timey wimey twist. Unfortunately, the trip to antiquity leaves Doctor Who‘s head writer un-persuaded. Apparently, Steven Moffat isn’t impressed by the idea that a character’s actions should be logical, and follow naturally from the actions that precede them. And so the Doctor – in a desperate bid to save his own creative master (and indeed, himself) – travels forward to the BBC studios of 2007. And that’s where Steven Moffat meets a younger version of…himself. Forty-five seconds of light-hearted comic relief ensue as the two of them realize: “Whoa! This is really happening!” Then Moffat 07 shows Moffat 13 some of the best Doctor Who episodes ever written: “The Empty Child,” “The Doctor Dances,” “The Girl in the Fireplace,” and of course “Blink.” It’s a poignant moment. After all, Moffat is (or was) the author of all of these wonderful stories. But before this episode swells to its paradoxical, sentimental climax, the Doctor forces both Moffats to do the same thing I had the misfortune of doing last night: watch the worst Doctor Who Christmas special ever made. “The Time of the Doctor.” God bless us. Everyone.

14609“But wait!” you may reasonably interject. “The worst ever? How is that possible? Haven’t we already seen the worst Doctor Who Christmas special? Wasn’t that ‘Voyage of the Damned’? Or was it ‘Runaway Bride’? Or maybe it was that very special Doctor Who ‘Christmas Carol.’” Ah Jesus, why pick favorites? Aren’t all Doctor Who Christmas specials terrible?* Doesn’t each inhabit its own special Whoniverse of never ending awfulness? Why not be generous? After all, it’s the holiday season.

But no. No no no no no no no. This is different. And it’s bad. Very bad. “The Time of the Doctor” is awful in ways that the others just can’t match. See, it’s not only that the show’s content is exceptionally poor. No, what is so deeply troubling about this story – if you can even call this thing a story – is that it seems to be not an aberration, but a new standard, an ominous harbinger of the terrible stuff to come.

Many years ago, in the middle of viewing an unforgivably bad film, my date turned to me and said, “Some movies you forget after you see them. This is a movie that you forget while you’re watching it.” So it is with “The Time of the Doctor.” I pity the professional TV critic whose job it is to write plot summaries scotch taped to opinion. It’s telling that in this case, many reviewers didn’t even bother with the plot. Tim Martin of The Telegraph simply threw up his hands, and tried instead to figure out what the hell the Doctor Who people were thinking:

I imagine Steven Moffat and co frantically entering text into a huge and messy Word document marked “Later”. Every time a narrative lapse gets handwaved away, every time an episode thunks to a halt with its story strands waggling, every time the Gordian plot-knot gets sonic-screwdrivered into submission for the 60-minute limit, the writers just tap the remnants into Later. What’s the deal with the creepy brain-wiping creatures known as The Silence? Later. The name of the Doctor? Later. The Catholic Church as intergalactic paramilitaries? Later. The 13-regeneration limit hanging over the series since the Sixties? Yup, stick it in Later.

A writer’s job is to tell a story. Once upon a time, Steven Moffat did this brilliantly. It’s hard to imagine Aristotle finding fault with any of the aforementioned ground breaking Moffat episodes. Indeed, the world’s first drama critic probably would have delighted in these dark and imaginative morality tales; Aristotle would have suspended disbelief.

But lowering the “threshold of acceptability” does not mean throwing it out altogether. Yet this is precisely what Moffat did when he crossed his own threshold from an occasional Doctor Who scriptwriter to the man in charge of the show. Moffat’s deal with the devil appears to have been made on the installment plan: “The Eleventh Hour” – Matt Smith’s first full episode as the 11th Doctor – is a beautiful piece of writing. But the seed of perdition had already been sewn: the so-called  “Crack in the Universe,” the first of Moffat’s incomprehensible story arcs, eventually severed disbelief’s suspension cords, and brought the whole thing crashing to the ground with an overhyped, sickening thud.

And then came the Murder of the Doctor. And the Impossible Girl. And the endless barrage of mind bending paradoxes that turned the rule of the Blue Box completely upside down. For all of its bells and whistles, a typical Doctor Who episode is now smaller on the inside than it is on the out.

Nowhere is this more depressingly clear than in “The Time of the Doctor.” Moffat appears to have abandoned the bloated ambition of his doctor-who-giftsoverarching story lines – which on some level, you have to sort of admire for their Gen X brand of Dickensian hubris. In their place he’s put a checklist. Weeping Angels? Check. Daleks? Check. Small spark of sexual tension with slender twenty-something companion that won’t ever go anywhere? Check. Because Steven Moffat’s not just the Doctor Who head writer and show runner. He’s the driving force behind a multi-million dollar entertainment juggernaut. And the business of show business is business. You don’t believe me? Check out the presents under my family Christmas tree: Doctor Who t-shirts. Doctor Who key chains. Doctor Who 50th anniversary encyclopedia retrospective 270 page book things. Doctor Who Christmas ornaments. Man, no wonder these guys are so big on Christmas specials; what better time to push all that profitable promotional merchandise? I guess taking charge of a business means you itemize, prioritize, and list, list, list – even when it comes to the sacred art of story making.

Don’t get me wrong. I like BBC One as much as the next guy, and if I’m doing my part to keep them afloat, who am I to feel guilty? But the sun must eventually set on the Whovian Empire, and that day may come sooner than we think. Every show has its worst episode. But this one should – and could – have been better. Come on! Didn’t Matt Smith deserve a better send off? And to the man’s credit, he all but saved the sinking ship with his heartfelt, odd ball, son-of-Crispin-Glover antics that have made him so beloved of fans and newcomers alike. “Matt Smith – he is astonishing!” cried the 7th Doctor, Sylvester McCoy. “His face has so much experience in it, and his performance is just excellent in how you feel how ancient he is.”** Too bad Moffat couldn’t give Smith a better script when he said his bon voyage.


So goodbye Doctor Eleven. Hello Doctor Twelve. Is it just me, or is the midnight hour for this franchise beginning to feel a little bit ominous? Peter Capaldi has all the talent, humor, skill, and gravitas to make this Doctor work. Too bad that Moffat doesn’t appear to share that confidence. Capaldi’s first appearance felt…well, a little frenzied. A quick fix it to be discarded in that ever growing “Later” file. Perhaps Moffat has finally become lost in the Byzantine labyrinth he’s been constructing since 2010.

Peter-Capaldi-Doctor-Who-Time-of-the-DoctorThe most telling line of dialogue in this special comes from Capaldi himself: “Just one question. Do you know how to fly this thing?” This is literally the Doctor referring to his TARDIS, but it might as well be Steven Moffat inquiring about the overall direction of the show. Jesus Christ, does anyone know how to fly this thing anymore? If not, we can only hope that the TARDIS crash lands in Greece, 335 BCE. There, while the Doctor repairs his time machine, Aristotle can repair Steven Moffat by teaching him what he used to know so well: how to write a good story. If and when that happens, perhaps Moffat can tend to that ever hemorrhaging and ever shrinking Whoniverse by finally closing up the crack.

David Berkson

December 27, 2013

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*Oh, alright. Most are terrible. A friend pointed out to me that “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe,” is not in fact terrible, and after a another look, I’m inclined to agree that it is indeed quite charming. But does one good deed justify a legion of atrocities? You be the judge.

**Kistler, Alan. Doctor Who: A History. Guilford, Connecticut. Lyons Press, 2013.

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