So long Steven Moffat, the psychedelic romantic of Doctor Who

Moffat is leaving Doctor Who after eight years at the helm, having earned plaudits and brickbats alike for his intricate, passionate storylines. So where will he, and the show, go next?

It feels faintly ridiculous that a television producer should be almost as famous as the star of the show. But then, Doctor Who thrives off the ridiculous. When Russell T Davies brought the show back in 2005, he brought with him the then-American notion of the “showrunner”: a creative lead, head writer and producer rolled into one. The news that his successor, Steven Moffat, will be stepping down after eight years, made the same kind of headlines as might meet the departure of a Doctor.

Davies’s masterstroke was to bring back Doctor Who in a human, urban, relatable form; Moffat then had to bring a different approach. Where Davies’s take was emotional, Moffat tended toward the romantic. Davies opened with the rite-of-passage story of Rose Tyler fulfilling her potential; Moffat chose to tell the fairytale of Amy Pond running away with her imaginary friend on the night before her wedding. Davies worked from research that showed only about 10% of viewers would return every week, so stories tended to be “of the week”; Moffat threw away those assumptions, moving towards more intricate, serialised story arcs. That earned him critics of his own, usually among older viewers who didn’t keep up quite as keenly as kids. But in taking the show closer in style to the US serials, Moffat’s tenure saw the show explode globally. International viewing figures are now recorded at 70 million.

Moffat was also audacious in spinning his own take on the show’s mythology. The 2005 reboot saw the Timelord’s home planet of Gallifrey destroyed in the cataclysmic Time War with the Daleks, with the Doctor having made the ultimate sacrifice to end it. Yet the events of 2013’s 50th anniversary special saw John Hurt’s War Doctor helped out by all his other selves to find another way. Moffat’s eventual rationale was that the Doctor would simply have found a way to avoid genocide, and that twist sent the saga in a new direction that would pay off in last year’s series finale. Such audacity as adding an extra, non-canonical Doctor was just one example of Moffat’s bold determination to find new things to do with the show.

Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi in Doctor Who.
Jenna Coleman and Peter Capaldi in Doctor Who. Photograph: Simon Ridgway/BBC

Just last year he pulled off the heroically risky manoeuvre of giving Peter Capaldi a single-hander in the mind-bogglingly sublime Heaven Sent. Which, of course, would put him at odds with certain corners of fandom who would prefer to keep Doctor Who as a mausoleum. Some people complained about what they saw as a “soapy” direction, and about the Doctor getting a “wife” in River Song. It matters little that Moffat’s most vociferous critics tended to be the same people who were scathing about Russell T Davies a few years before.

Running Doctor Who is the sort of dream job that clearly requires an exceptionally thick skin – it’s inevitable that fans will feel particularly emotional response to whoever is in charge. As a lifelong Who nut who, quite unrelatedly, was inspired to be a journalist by Moffat’s Press Gang and then eased through the coming out process by Davies’s Queer As Folk, I know that as keenly as anybody. And that’s something that the new guy, Chris Chibnall, is sure to discover in two years’ time.

Chibnall is certainly qualified. The clip of him lambasting the show’s writers on the BBC’s Open Air viewer feedback show in 1986, now sure to haunt him until the end of time, is testament to that.

Matt Smith and David Tennant in The Day of the Doctor – one of Moffat’s classic episodes.
Matt Smith and David Tennant in The Day of the Doctor – one of Moffat’s classic episodes. Photograph: Adrian Rogers/BBC/PA

And he’s got the production credentials. He already served as showrunner for the first two years of Torchwood, and helmed Law and Order: UK and the short-lived Camelot in the US. Most recently he became UK television’s most wanted in creating Broadchurch. Plus, he already has a significant record on Who; it might even work to his advantage that his episodes – 42, The Hungry Earth, Cold Blood, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship and The Power of Three – aren’t on many people’s favourite lists. While it was a lovely problem to have, there were also people who never forgave Moffat for not delivering Blink every single week. My suspicion is that Chibnall’s Doctor Who is likely to be less psychedelic and a little grittier.

Further questions will follow. There’s been no announcement and won’t be for a while, but logic suggests that, by then having done the now-standard three-series-over-four-years, Peter Capaldi will depart along with his showrunner, allowing Chibnall to create his own Doctor. An early name thrown around has been Tom Weston-Jones. Personally, if I was casting No 13, top of my wish list would be Aziz Ansari, who has a bit of that impish Sylvester McCoy thing to him, and deeper waters than his (incredible) comedy work has dived into.

But for now, it’s just left to salute Mr Moffat for his heroic services to our favourite programme. We thankfully still have his final series to look forward to in 2017 – then perhaps a Press Gang reunion?


Dan Martin

The GuardianTramp

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