Words are Cool: The Magic of Moffat’s Doctor Who

July 26, 2010
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Now that series five has drawn to a close, how did Steven Moffat’s first year as showrunner acquit itself? Billed as a ‘dark fairytale’, the series ended up edging closer to a version of stage magic. Surely it was no accident that Matt Smith donned a Tommy Cooper-style fez in “The Big Bang,” for here more than ever before the Doctor was rendered as a magician. Young Amelia even asks “how can he do that, is he magic?” This was time travel as a brand of illusionism, less concerned with logic and rules of the ongoing series, and more concerned with creating moments of shock for viewers.

Along with representing time travel as a kind of parlour trick, Moffat repeatedly pulls one particular trick on viewers. His screenplays show us something we assume we understand, and then point out we’ve misinterpreted. That sun in the sky – it’s not the sun. River Song saying the same thing over and over again – not a recording. Statues in “The Time of Angels” – not statues.  Even the series finale title, “The Big Bang,” tells you the reset-button plot twist, you just don’t twig it’s been staring you in the face. Then there’s Moffat’s sly seeding of something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue into the Doctor’s dialogue. Only when Amy intones the wedding ritual do we realise how the Doctor coded himself into her memories. The wedding day’s been there all series, narratively flagged up, yet who had guessed the importance of that ritual phrase? It seems inevitable, yet simultaneously startling: a narrative event embedded in timey-wimey audience interpretation as ‘of course!’ collides with ‘I didn’t see that coming!’

That’s Moffat’s favourite trick: the detail already there, right in front of you, only you’re misdirected by a conventional interpretation. It’s a great trick too, sustaining an aesthetics of shock – not just the surprise of an unexpected reveal, but the jolting shock of “how could I not have spotted that?” Forget retconning; Moffat majors in retro-active re-interpretation as his narrative machineries snap into place with a telling phrase.

Words can save. Words matter. Series five is in love with magic, but with the magic of words especially. Ironically, its big buck, big bang visuals and CGI special effects are trumped by the most startling special effect of all: a blank, black screen then carrying a single inter-title caption: “1,894 years later…”. Here is Moffat’s mission statement boiled down to essentials: Words are cool.

Series five’s treatment of the series-long arc has also emerged as different from Russell T. Davies’s approach. Moffat refuses to give away all his narrative’s secrets, creating a multi-series arc. Davies’s work was haunted by excessively (or insufficiently) meaningful words; will we ever learn what The Moment was? These words implied whole tantalising worlds. Moffat’s cause-and-effect arc works more directly: it has an absent cause. We don’t yet understand what caused the TARDIS to explode, nor whose voice invaded the console room to announce “silence will fall.” There’s something behind the Alliance’s plan; the Doctor’s been framed, manipulated.

This new showrunner manipulates narrative complexity in a showy way – like a stage magician expecting his audience to gasp – and he’s written a shadowy, manipulative force into Doctor Who. The unseen, unknown Big Bad of series one is perhaps a reflexive shadow of Moffat himself: the consciousness behind the story, plotting everything out. Some have speculated that Rose Tyler was Russell T. Davies’s Mary Sue, wanting to run off with the Doctor. By contrast, it would seem that the unknown multi-series villain, intently pulling narrative levers behind the scenes, is Moffat’s Mary Sue. We may all be stories in the end, but if that’s true then the ultimate magician’s power lies in who gets to construct those stories. Perhaps the force narrating the Doctor’s universe isn’t Omega or the Master. Perhaps the clues are staring us in the face… it’s been the Showrunner all along.


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7 Responses to “ Words are Cool: The Magic of Moffat’s Doctor Who

  1. Sean Duncan on July 26, 2010 at 12:30 PM

    A wonderful post, Matt. Here are a few ideas that occured to me after reading —

    I love the idea of this multi-series villain being Moffat’s “Mary Sue” — it’s an apt description for the way Moffat likes to structure this series, and hopefully the next. I’m also with you re: the major letdowns of the Davies era. While Davies initially brought a delightful sense of realism to the series (a companion with a family, an ex-boyfriend, etc.), the realities of the series’ success seems to have made it so Davies delved deeper and deeper into Doctor Who’s history to draw out villains, as well as raise the stakes for each series-ender in increasingly ludicrous ways. I can’t say I really need explanation of what “The Moment” was (it was something that ended the Time War, that’s good enough for me), but other elements of the late Davies era still irritate me — what in the world was “The Book of Saxon”?

    All of this is to say that I agree that the framing of Doctor Who as a fairytale makes Moffat’s machinations really *work*. Fairytales are fundamentally simplistic and moralistic, which fits the tone of Doctor Who quite well; they also don’t seem to jibe with either the realism that Davies initially was striving for, nor a ludicrous “the entire Universe is about to be destroyed by a hammy Time Lord/a Dalek super-sect/Cybermen/etc.” style plot. Perhaps it will turn out that one of these villains was behind the explosion of the TARDIS, but the emphasis was properly on the cracks, Amy’s confusing life, and the wedding. Even with all of the major stakes present in the plot, as it was framed as a fairytale, the series had to return to the story about the little girl with the fairytale name and her magic friend with the mysterious box. I adored it.

    Overall, even with a few missteps (“Victory of the Daleks,” the Siluran two-parter), this is my favorite Doctor Who series, perhaps of all of them, old and new. Matt Smith’s performance was pitch perfect (evoking Troughton and McCoy more than I had ever expected). In one short season, he has actually eclipsed both Eccleston and Tennant in my estimation. A year and a half ago, I would have never expected myself to write that, but here we are.

    • Matt Hills on July 28, 2010 at 6:07 PM

      For me, the cleverness of Moffat’s finale, and its revisiting of earlier eps, worked to bind the series together as a successful whole. Like you, I had my misgivings about a number of stories along the way, however.

      The early sense of realism that Davies brought to the table was, I also agree, one of his key strengths. Davies’s Who had a strong sense of emotional realism (I refer to this in ‘Triumph of a Time Lord’ in more detail), and this was a crucial part of its successful mainstreaming.

      Moffat does occasionally seem in danger of losing the thread of this emotional realism among his plotting. Though the repeated series five device of Amy crying or smiling without knowing why was a clever plot iteration, I found it difficult to empathise with or relate to: it was emotion, yes, but fantastical, science-fictionalised feeling rather than an emotional beat that felt true-to-life. (See also the emotions of Moffat’s Jekyll, which are integrated with the series’ fantastical premise). Davies layered ‘ordinary’ feeling into the telefantasy mix, whereas Moffat seems prone to integrate it *into* the fantastical rather more, making it seem more artificial or forced. Having said that, series six and its newlyweds may offer greater opportunities for emotional realism than did the ‘crack’ arc of series five!

  2. Kristina Busse on July 26, 2010 at 2:03 PM

    Oh, I like this author/authority/god/the word musing about this season. And unlike Supernatural (sorry, still sore here and have to being it up whenever I can : ), the author as God is not literalized but alluded to/hinted at, framed within words but also hidden by them and the actual story.

    I think i need to rewatch in a couple of sittings to get a stronger sense of the story arc and the crossassociations and foreshadowings, but that’s the joy of a complex and clever text as well, isn’t it? Rereading allows for more depth and exposes new layers.

    I think you may also hit upon one reason why fans seem to have embraced Moffat’s doctor even in the face of youth/RTD discontent/and a host of other things. we love words. we do think words are cool!

    Given the truism by now that Davis’s the fanboy who made it, I now wonder whether the spirit of the fan might be more accurately represented by Moffat. And if we can’t make that argument fully with DW, we just have to look at Sherlock!!! (Seriously, I’m listening to a present-day SH fanfic AU, and when I started watching the first ep, I kinda got whiplash from how much this looked like the story I’m still listening to!)

    • Matt Hills on July 28, 2010 at 5:56 PM

      Sherlock would be a whole other story, though yes, there’s clearly a fan sensibility there. And Moffat’s love of words is represented again too, via the text messages and Holmesian observations that appear on-screen. It’s a striking visual conceit, to integrate text into and over the televisual image.

      As for Moffat and Davies, I think they each represent a spirit of fandom in similar ways; though Davies penned ‘Love & Monsters’, I’m pretty sure Moffat’s on record as having said he would have written something very much along those lines, had Davies not pre-empted him.

      The biggest difference between Davies and Moffat’s approach to (and expression of) fandom at the moment would seem to be extra-textual: Davies has always resisted having an online presence, but Moffat has newly taken to Twitter (linked to Sherlock promotion, in part) and is interacting in that venue with fans and audiences. The irony is that although Moffat seems symbolically ‘closer’ to fandom through this activity, he’s also used the text of Who to discipline ‘good’ fandom more strongly than Davies ever did, e.g. warning against “spoilers!” in River Song’s catchphrase.

      • Kristina Busse on July 28, 2010 at 9:38 PM

        I like the idea of them representing different sides, though I’m surprised that Moffat comes down on the disciplining side.

        The twitter phenomenon has me puzzled for all celebs. I kinda don’t want to be near them…I think I like the pretense of a fully developed world a bit too much.

  3. Derek Kompare on July 30, 2010 at 1:33 PM

    I love the idea of Moffat as the string-puller, not only a magician but an all-out entertainer, enticing us along with some sleight-of-hand, a few puns, gratuitous absurdity, a bit of salty innuendo, until WHAM: the Big Trick Revealed! As the Doctor told Amy with a wink, “Gotcha!”

    This series was the perfect antidote to the joyless slog of the specials in 2009 (despite the occasional moment that clicked: Davies+Tennant were still potent here and there), and the enjoyable-but-already-rehashed feel of much of the 2008 series. Here we had the audacity of launching a new Doctor in a new way, with a new kind of narrative arc, and a few new surprises.

    Words, indeed, are cool. And here I think Moffat clearly excels over Davies. While Davies could certainly craft scenes with a hefty, affecting emotional punch (my favorites are in The End of the World, The Parting of the Ways, Doomsday, Midnight, and Turn Left), they were often surrounded by plots and characters that didn’t quite work as well. By comparison, yes, Moffat’s dialogue sparkles throughout his stories, but more importantly, he’s really, really clever at a larger level, crafting surprisingly intricate unfolding plots and populating them with rich characters. As a result, the stories themselves, as a whole, are what we remember and cherish: we don’t love Blink only because of “timey-wimey, wibbly wobbly” or The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances only for “Everybody lives!” but for their intricate and passionate construction and execution.

    In addition, it wasn’t only in Moffat’s scripts that words (particularly those coming from Matt Smith’s mouth) created magic in 2010. Although Gatiss and Chibnall did disappoint in this regard, Curtis, Nye, and Roberts all delivered frankly astonishingly great scripts that worked wonders despite their seemingly dubious premises. While I’ll most remember this series for the cleverness of the crack and (of course) the mad energy of the Eleventh Doctor, I’ll also love it for the bold surrealism of Amy’s Choice, the slapstick of The Lodger, and the sheer heartburst of Vincent and the Doctor. I’m very optimistic that we’ll see more of this in 2011, with the likes of Neil Gaiman and (rumor has it) Paul Cornell in the fold.

    • Matt Hills on July 30, 2010 at 7:55 PM

      Yes, I must admit to a dose of scepticism when I first heard that Simon Nye and Richard Curtis were contributing to series five, but both their scripts *sang*.

      I particularly loved ‘Vincent and the Doctor’ for doing something that you felt sure Who must have done before, yet breaking entirely new ground. And not being afraid to play down the monster-fighting aspect of the affair in favour of character. All that, and astoundingly good art-direction and design work too; ironic that in some quarters fans seized on poor CGI or monster design when the art-direction was probably among Who’s finest ever hours.

      ‘Amy’s Choice’ was also excellent, though seemed to lose sight of emotional realism again when Amy came out of the dream-world; shouldn’t there have been a beat dealing with her loss of the dream-world baby? I can’t imagine RTD or Julie Gardner missing that in their notes, but plot ran away with emotional realism slightly here. Or the emotion didn’t quite ring true for me as a result of how it was integrated with the situation’s science-fictionality. A minor quibble in another excellent story, mind you.

      Another trick that the series repeatedly played — in both Moffat and others’ screenplays, as you highlight — was matching narrative events with real-life contexts: electioneering in ‘The Beast Below’, but then football in Roberts’ ‘The Lodger’, as well as Stonehenge featuring just prior to the Solstice. Moffat et al seemed to always be in tune with the times; this was literally Doctor Who’s most timely run of stories, culminating in the gimmick of identical transmission date and end-of-universe date, of course. Proper TV magic!