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Was Steven Moffat’s time on Doctor Who a golden era?

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After Russell T. Davies gave up the position of showrunner all the way back in 2010, Steven Moffat was a clear standout choice to replace him. After arguably going without a dud episode in the first four series and creating the hugely popular Weeping Angels, his ascension surely spelled a bright future for the iconic BBC series. And as Moffat prepares to depart after eight years the New Statesman have gone further and declared his run a ‘golden age’ which has left ‘an indelible mark on the show’.  A bold statement, and certainly not one without merit, but as much as I admire much of Moffat’s work a ‘golden age’ seems perhaps too lofty a compliment.

If there’s one thing Moffat should be praised for, it’s pushing boundaries in Dr Who. Whether it’s revealing a secret war doctor, bringing back the Master as a woman or a single-hander episode featuring only the Doctor, Moffat has never been afraid to experiment and spice things up a bit despite a somewhat prickly fanbase. As The New Statesman notes it was under Moffat that the narrative potential of a time-travel show was used to its fullest through the Doctor’s backward interactions with River Song.  This has naturally had some backlash – Moffat’s scripts being needlessly over-complicated being a key one – but for a 50+ year old show such experimentation is badly needed if the show is to remain relevant and Moffat deserves commendation for his efforts, even if some have backfired.

As exasperating as Moffat’s failings were, his highs have been dizzying

The New Statesman certainly brings up a key point all too easily forgotten – that the Doctor is an unconventional hero. The New Statesman summed it up best when they remarked that previous Doctor David Tenant could easily pass as James Bond. Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi on the other hand were perfectly adept at saving planets but sometimes struggled to keep up a normal conversation (Clara’s cue cards for the Doctor are a particularly amusing example). This highlighted the Doctor’s vulnerabilities and, for the lack of a better word, humanised him, making the relationship with his companions all the more touching and necessary. Indeed, the Doctor-companion dynamic has been much improved and consistent under Moffat, mostly ditching the romance angle for one of friendship, or indeed a student-teacher accord. This move away from the swashbuckling action hero, and a new dependence on his companions, has given us a side of the Doctor and the show rarely seen before.

But Moffat’s run has been far from smooth. The New Statesman lists many of his failings well – twisting existing continuity to his own liking, overly complex or overstuffed plot lines (I’m looking at you, ‘The Time of the Doctor’), and dabbling with the structure by splitting up series or doing away with two-parters. Many of these criticisms were present in series 7, arguably the weakest run since the revival, and why I am ambivalent to much of Smith’s run. Thankfully, as exasperating as Moffat’s failings were, his highs have been dizzying. ‘Heaven Sent,’ the single-hander featuring only Capaldi, will go down as one of the single greatest Doctor Who episodes and is a masterclass in storytelling. Moffat’s crowning achievement however, will always be the 50th anniversary –  celebrating a show half a decade old as well as advancing the narrative and appeasing a notoriously hard-to-please fanbase is no small achievement.

The run that gave us fish fingers and custard, bow ties and attack eyebrows will be one fondly remembered

If Moffat’s run is to have a single greatest weakness, it’s that his tenure had to follow the extraordinary success of original showrunner Russell T. Davies. While his run wasn’t exactly perfect either, the extreme success of both the show and star David Tennant in the late 2000s meant that the odds were stacked against Moffat from the start. Moffat had the unenviable job of carrying the show forward after the particularly heart-wrenching goodbye of fan favourite Tennant, and anyone who can convince millions of heartbroken Whovians to move on following that goodbye deserves serious respect.

If we are to choose a recent golden age for the show, the general consensus among most fans is that this praise goes to the Tennant era. Not that Moffat has done badly – particularly under Capaldi, the show has reached levels of style and ambition rarely seen before. The run that gave us fish fingers and custard, bow ties and attack eyebrows will be one fondly remembered, and a particularly memorable eight years for the show.  Let’s hope new showrunner Chris Chibnall and Doctor Jodie Whittaker can reach similar standards if not better!

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