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Steven Moffat and the Doctor Who fans: their messy relationship

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 15/04/2017 By Stephen Kelly
© Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

It's said that when Steven Moffat first took over Doctor Who, in 2009, the BBC assumed that his first series would be the show's last.

“They thought it was nice that we were trying,” he once told Doctor Who Magazine, “but that it was going to be a train wreck. Imagine working on a show where David Tennant and Catherine Tate had just left. And [showrunner] Russell T Davies had left... everyone had left. It was like trying to keep the party going in the aftermath of a suicide pact.”

Eight years later, and Moffat will step down as showrunner at the end of series 10, starting tonight on BBC One. He leaves as one of the biggest names in television: a writer whose exit, headlines-wise, rivalled that of the Doctor himself, Peter Capaldi; an auteur whose time on Doctor Who was praised as much as it was criticised. In years to come his era will become a pop-culture artefact, its merits studied and debated – most likely by angry people on the internet. His legacy will undoubtably be complicated.

When Doctor Who returned in 2005, it was Steven Moffat's episodes that stood out. As seen in stories like Blink, he possessed an unnerving talent for terror; for taking the ordinary – a gas mask, a statue, a shadow – and turning it into something perverse. Under Russell T Davies, Doctor Who had become a family-friendly tea-time hit. But, as showrunner, Moffat honed Davies' broader, more sentimental tone into something sexier, edgier, stylish; shifting the show from its 'monster of the week' format to more intricate, serialised story arcs. Davies once quoted audience research that only about 10 per cent of viewers tuned in every week. Moffat said: "It's time we stopped pretending that people don't watch the show."

His debut series was fresh, it was bold, it was exciting. Matt Smith, with his boyish face and ancient eyes, was mesmerising as the Doctor; while his companions, Karen Gillan's Amy Pond, and Arthur Darvill's Rory Williams, soon became fan-favourites. The larger mysteries, too, were intriguing. Why was the universe cracked? What is the Silence? Who blew up the TARDIS? If you put in the time – with series five, at least – you were rewarded with the fantastic two-part finale The Pandorica Opens / The Big Bang; full of shocking revelations and twists.

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It's difficult to pin-point exactly when, for some fans, the arcs became convoluted and alienating; when they started making hashtags like #Moffatmustgo. Conventional wisdom places it towards the end of series six (part two), in 2011: the year in which Amy Pond was revealed to be pregnant with the Doctor's future wife, River Song; a baby that was then stolen and raised to kill him – which she did, and didn't. Summing up the criticism, Joanna Robinson wrote in Vanity Fair : 'Before he took over... Moffat was a brilliant Doctor Who writer, cracking out some of the best single or two-part episodes on the show’s history. But when given full rein over a whole season, Moffat’s Whoverse started to crack... under the weight of too much tangled mythology.' Moffat typically defended the plots by citing 1979 script editor Douglas Adams: that the challenge of Doctor Who was to make it simple enough for adults, and complicated enough for children.

It's probably Matt Smith's final series, series seven, that will haunt Moffat the most. Described by sci-fi magazine SFX as, 'the creakiest run of episodes since 1988', this was the 'movie of the week' series, which was split between the disappointing departure of the Ponds, and the introduction of new companion Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), who many fans found it difficult to connect with. Moffat has described that year, 2013, as his 'darkest hour on Who'; the year where the 50th anniversary special, combined with Sherlock series three, made his workload 'miserable.'

Series seven represented a wider criticism of Moffat's work: his portrayal of women. Clara, in particular, became an example of how the show's companions had gone from Donna Noble's 'the most important woman in all of creation' to 'girls who waited'; 'impossible girls' who were – to quote Matt Smith's Doctor – “a mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt just a little bit too... tight.” The issue was seen as symbolic of Moffat's writing, which – unlike Davies' grounded realism – tends to be quippy and conceited. As feminist website Jezebel put it, Moffat's women, 'outwardly appear feisty, sarcastic and clever, [but] tend towards being shallow, unambitious and dependent at their cores'.

“It’s a big and complicated issue and I never quite know how to respond to it,” Moffat told Radio Times in 2015 . “The general point being made by these people is correct. We need better female role models and representation on screen. We need all of that. Maybe this is my dimwittery but I do not understand why Doctor Who of all shows is singled out as a misogynist show. And I’m really not like that. I’m sure I’m to the left of a lot of my detractors, but I don’t want to argue with them because I think generally they’re right. We do need to do better. It’s important to me that the little girls watching see Amy or Clara or Rose and want to be like them."

Perhaps conscious of the criticism, Doctor Who returned in 2014 with a new Doctor (Peter Capaldi), a seemingly new Clara – one that was warmer, funnier, more sketched-out – and a gender-swapped Master, played by Michelle Gomez. The problem this time, however – and with Doctor Who, there is always a problem – was ratings, which were said to be falling. Ratings have dogged Moffat ever since he took over; the charge being that while Davies made Doctor Who for the masses, Moffat made it for a hardcore minority.

Cherry-pick overnight figures and this appears to be true. At its height, David Tennant's episodes were commanding live audiences of 10 million viewers. By comparison, Peter Capaldi's first episode, Deep Breath, was watched live by 6.8 million; followed the year after by The Magician's Apprentice, with overnights of 4.5 million – the show's lowest opener since Doctor Who returned in 2005. But context is key. For one thing, the way we’ve watched television – especially shows like Doctor Who – has changed, with catch-up services like iPlayer making overnight figures a flawed way to take the show’s pulse. The Magician’s Apprentice, for example, got a near-on 2 million bump when consolidated ratings were factored in.

In reality, the decline has been modest. David Tennant's run averages out at 7.77 million viewers; Matt Smith at 7.55 million; and Peter Capaldi, so far, at 7.1 million – although 2015's series 9 did see a big drop from series 8's 7.4 million to 6.71 million; one defended by post-8pm scheduling, poor promotion and the fact that, after 12 years, Doctor Who is no longer event television. Whatever the case, it's strange that Moffat is so synonymous with tanking the show when, under his watch, it has become such an international hit, with global viewing figures now recorded at around 70 million.

If anything, the remarkable thing about Steven Moffat is that he has been able to keep the quality as high as it is, for as long as he has. The job of Doctor Who showrunner is a tough, all-consuming one; a role that tends to creatively burn out anyone who does it. Ideas are exhausted. Work gets stale. Even great episodes – such as 2015's Listen – begin to feel familiar. This is natural.

What is not natural, however, is how, after eight years, Moffat can still write something like Heaven's Sent: the 2015 one-hander about fear, loss, loneliness and grief; the episode in which the Doctor, over the course of four and half billion years, punches through a wall of pure diamond. It's one of the best Doctor Who stories ever written – and, according to Moffat, a pretty good allegory for what it's been like to run the show. “You kill yourself every time,” he once said, “and then you get up and do it again.”

Will Moffat be missed? That depends on who you ask. But what is certain is that he has become one of the most distinctive voices in television; a writer who made Doctor Who his own – whose episodes can be picked easily out of a crowd. Whether the same will be said about the next showrunner, Broadchurch creator Chris Chibnall, is to be seen. None of the Doctor Who episodes he has written so far (The Hungry Earth / Cold Blood, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, The Power of Three) have particularly stood out. And reports that, for some instalments, the show could be shifting to an American-style writer’s room does suggest a step-back from a cult of personality. But maybe that’s for the best. Maybe it’s time for a change; for a regeneration. Or maybe, in a few years time, fans will begin to miss that voice; to complain that Doctor Who isn’t as good as it used to be. Either way, for better or worse, Moffat must go.

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