The End of An Era -- Again

Only the late John-Nathan Turner ran Doctor Who longer than Steven Moffat; and for my money no one — not even the great Phillip Hinchcliffe, whose hand is still being felt on the show forty years later — ran it better.

Granted that we wouldn’t be talking about Doctor Who today without the efforts of Russell T. Davies (who with Julie Gardner successfully revived the show in a modern mode, for modern audiences, fifteen years after it had been declared dead), it was Moffat — first in the brilliant scripts that he wrote during Davies’s tenure, and then as the inheritor of the showrunner title — who made it worth watching again. 

The show’s long history has necessitated many lifetimes — not just in the form of the persona-regenerating main character, but in direction and style. This is the show that taught me in no uncertain terms what a producer / showrunner contributes to the life of a program. Tom Baker played The Doctor for seven whole series, and not even his dominant personality could prevent the show from making notable shifts in tone and style under the three different producers that he worked with. 

And so it’s possible to love Doctor Who unreservedly, while still loving some segments of its 50-year-long history better than others. Invariably, your favorite Doctor will be the one who brought you in to the show. Just as invariably, your second-favorite will be the one who brought you back.

Moffat’s tenure, especially his first three series featuring Matt Smith as The Doctor, holds that important second-place for me.

It came to me at the perfect time, in a new town, in a new house, in a new life. Bang in the middle of my own problematic regeneration, a technological door opened for me, and Doctor Who re-entered my life. At first, watching re-runs of the last Davies episodes featuring David Tennant, I was less than favorably impressed. The show certainly looked great — gone were the days of cheesy papier mache monsters and sets that wobbled. It had a significantly larger budget. It was feature-film-quality work. But Davies’s idea of a “big” story was to have literally hundreds of Daleks flying around, shifting whole planets out of their orbit. Spectacular, yes — engaging, no. 

So my expectations were low when I tuned in to the re-run of the 2010 Christmas Special which had capped off Steven Moffat’s first series. 

I was immediately enchanted. It was a little story, but the stakes seemed that much higher as a result. Matt Smith’s Doctor literally came tumbling down the chimney. He was young, he was manic, he talked too fast — but he got it, that conflicted sense of an old man with the heart of a child. 

And then, about seven minutes into the show, the most wonderful thing happened.

The villain of the piece, a bitter, mean old man (played beautifully by Michael Gambon), who had established that he was perfectly willing to let several hundred innocent people die just to assert his right of ownership over the weather, settled down to watch (possibly for the hundredth time) some depressing home movies of his own past as an abused child.

The Doctor, unable to get through to him, appeared to give up. He disappeared into his TARDIS, which then de-materialized…

… only to re-appear a moment later inside the old movie scene being projected. Out popped The Doctor, waving at the camera. 

The old man started up in his chair. “But — that didn’t happen!” he cried. “It didn’t happen!! But it — it did…

The Doctor, looking directly into the camera, stated simply, “I’m re-writing your life. I’m making you into a better person. You’ll find it a little bit uncomfortable at first.”

I literally shouted “Oh my god!” and much like the old man, practically leapt out of my chair. This was unlike anything I’d ever seen on Doctor Who. Someone finally taking the show up on its own terms. Over the course of the episode, The Doctor leaped ahead in time from Christmas to Christmas, molding a good boy into a decent young man and so injecting Hope into the old man’s life — and that night Steven Moffat’s iteration of the series started to re-write Hope back into mine. 

I’ve followed it diligently ever since. I’ve also gone back and found everything Moffat did on the show prior to that, and most everything he did prior to Doctor Who. And if he’s not always the best writer on TV today, he’s always one of the best.

It’s true that Moffat has had his detractors, but if you read the criticisms, they almost universally boil down to the inability of the people making them to keep up with Moffat’s dark imaginings. At his best, Moffatt always challenged the viewer — and some folks simply don’t like to be challenged. 

Steven Moffat’s tenure on Doctor Who has consistently gone down with me as one of the best reasons Why It’s Good To be Alive. And now, like all good things, it’s about to pass. With just one last Christmas Special coming up (in which Moffat will audaciously bring together the current Doctor, the first Doctor, and the next Doctor), the clock on the known universe is actively ticking down. It’s a milepost: a specific era of time in the life of the show, and in my life, that won’t be seen again except in re-run.

The show will go on and re-invent itself as it always has. It’s already begun. Chris Chibnall, creator / writer of the hit mystery series Broadchurch and himself an avowed fan of Doctor Who, having written for the show several times already, is taking over as showrunner. Jodie Whittaker, who worked with Chibnall on Broadchurch, has been cast as the next Doctor — the first time that the character has been played by a woman. So, Chibnall has already shown that he can make bold moves. I’m certain his Doctor Who will be worth watching. But the personal connection that we sometimes form with art that particularly touches our lives… even if it continues, it won’t be the same. 

Such is Life and Art and the Timestream. 

-- Thorn.

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