Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who: Challenging the Format Theorem?

May 2, 2011
By | 11 Comments

Just so you know, and to avoid any ambiguity, today’s blog entry ends with this concluding sentence: “Yes, Steven Moffat’s work on Doctor Who is becoming ever more repetitive.” Jump ahead and check, if you like. There, see.

Because the opening two-parter of series six, ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ and ‘Day of the Moon’, has been accused in certain sectors of online fandom and in some newspaper reviews of rehashing past successes. The Doctor is killed, but time travel shenanigans mean that the show can go on (or has gone on); monsters have a sight-related gimmick; the Doctor is placed in something of a rom-com context; and River Song cautions against spoilers and appears with her customary introductory line, as well as (literally, this time) diving into the TARDIS. Non-linear storytelling, plot mechanics, and brisk dialogue all tussle for dominance. Now with added ‘perfect prison’ motif.

And as Moffat’s vision for Who moves further out of the long shadow cast by the Russell T. Davies era, contrasts between the two showrunners come into sharper focus. Davies’s authorship twisted industry common-sense into art; he turned down the sci-fi, upped emotional realism, and avoided scaring off the mass audience. He also coded his own voice into a range of tightly restricted formats; the light season-opening romp; the quirky, experimental story; the big, brash finale; the mid-series filler. But whereas Davies’s masterstroke was to write with the restrictions of industry common-sense, Moffat often writes against industrial norms for ‘mainstream’ TV. His authorship is more combative, more assertive, restlessly looking to think the unthinkable and so write what Doctor Who‘s format theorem tells him cannot be written.

To wit – kill the Doctor in the first ten minutes or so of the series, but structure narrative gaps into the event that can be revisited later (what do the astronaut and the Doctor discuss before his death?). Casually throw ontological puzzles into the mix: was it really pre-1967 at Graystark Hall Orphanage? What was the hatch all about? (There might almost have been a Lost reference or gag lurking there). Oh, and end episode one of a family show with the Doctor’s companion shooting a child asking for help. As Paul Kirkley has pointed out, this hardly presses the right demographic buttons or readily hails a target audience. Unlike Davies, who was the consummate integrationist, pulling together storytelling needs and industry contexts and pressures, Moffat pits his wordy cleverness and narrative complexity against forms of ‘mainstream’ industry wisdom. Not wholly, of course; the gambit of a series opener working like a finale does have a certain industrial logic to it, as well as creatively playing with established ways of doing Who. But Moffat challenges the TV industry establishment far more notably than did series one through four. He’s the Tom Baker to Russell T. Davies’s Jon Pertwee.

Just so you know, this blogged argument doesn’t really begin with the sentence “Just so you know” above. Its discussion has a prequel; a response to last year’s season finale for Antenna, where I argued that Moffat’s skill as a writer is to misdirect, and to separate moments of seeing and understanding such that the audience typically experiences a feeling of ‘ah! How could I not have spotted that!’ But the difficulty for fan audiences is that favoured tricks used by a writer can become familiar, anticipated, and rapidly recognised. Ironically, when the Silence are revealed here, after a season-long wait recapped in flashback, they represent the monster as ultimate anti-spoiler; nobody can remember them a moment after they’ve been seen. Though this feels vaguely reminiscent of the Weeping Angels, it is a repetition of authorial vision and distinction; authorship itself as a brand of the uncanny – indeed, as the ultimate anti-spoiler – where the longed-for “reveal” proves to be startling… yet in a somehow familiar, already-known guise.

For, NuWho has been distinguished from its classic predecessor, above all else, by virtue of becoming ‘authored’ television. And authored TV implies – in fact, requires – markers of its vision; iterations of its distinctiveness; variations on its authorial themes. Time travel is the perfect metaphor for auteurism; each involves going back over old ground and making it surprising, showing the work of the world in a new light. Equally, auteurism is the perfect metaphor for time travel, always starting with a new chance, a blank page, and yet finding that history can’t be entirely rewritten nor its patterns of meaning wholly resisted. Moffat, of course, exploits and mines the metaphor until it collapses altogether: this version of Doctor Who gives us time travel as auteurism. And a story arc that seems to be shaping up into a ‘story ellipse’, as Moffat’s nuWho explores new ground by doubling back over Freud’s “family romance”, as per pop time travel staples like Terminator, or Back to the Future. Author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger, even includes an intertextual shout out to Moffat’s ‘Girl in the Fireplace’ in Her Fearful Symmetry, acknowledging their twinned authorial territories.

Rather than indicating creative exhaustion, or narrative fixation, repetition has always been essential to NuWho, not just to convey its nature as genre TV, but more than that, as a sign of its ‘quality’, and its status as TV art, even. Impure repetition, like a subtly shifting time loop or a family resemblance, is the sine qua non of any identifiable authorial vision. Becoming repetitive means just this: articulating auteurism and creating ‘quality TV’ within and against the confines of a tightly-formatted, popular series.

Yes, Steven Moffat’s work on Doctor Who is becoming ever more repetitive.


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11 Responses to “ Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who: Challenging the Format Theorem? ”

  1. Myles McNutt on May 2, 2011 at 1:27 AM

    Tremendous analysis, Matt.

    As what I guess one could call a fairweather Who fan, a recent convert who started watching in Series 5 and whose experience with the subsequent series is limited to Moffat-scripted episodes (and the Tennant specials), I have only vague notions of how his approach might differ from Davies’. I was introduced to Who through his specific auteur perspective, and thus have not necessarily been surprised by the direction the show has taken under his perspective. I *expected* this level of challenge, the inherent timey-wimeyness, because that was the context in which I came to the series.

    I’m curious how Moffat’s perspective plays differently to different levels of Who fans. For example, while I was told to catch up on “Blink” and “Silence/Forest” ahead of Series 5 because of the recurring monsters/characters which would appear, I didn’t watch “Girl in the Fireplace” before watching “The Eleventh Hour” – it was only when I went back to the earlier Moffat episodes that I realized how much of Amy Pond he drew from that story. Even the small child trapped and scared by an alien force we see in “The Impossible Astronaut” hearkens back to “The Empty Child”/”The Doctor Dances.”

    I think you’re spot-on that repetition doubles here as a sense of authorship, of Moffat exploring themes and images that are particularly fascinating for him and which we can see evidence of in past episodes, but I’d be intrigued to see how fans with different experience levels with the text perceive this repetition.

    • Sean Duncan on May 2, 2011 at 6:56 AM

      Great comments, Matt, and a great follow-up by Myles. But, I hope you’ll both pardon me reversing the polarity here for a rel to challenge the central thesis. I’m not completely sold that repetition works as a mark of quality, nor that it’s anything new to nuWho. In fact, I’d argue that Moffat’s key contribution has to play off the apparent repetition in his storylines while taking some of the themes he’s explored into new territory.

      As a fan, I see Russell T Davies’ era to be significantly more repetitive, similarly flagging authorship, albeit with the different goals you state above. A short litany: The wink-wink acknowledgment that the Doctor & his companions are always running; the reliance on the Doctor’s catch-phrases; “HUMANS, YOU’RE SO AMAZING”; the revival, over and over again, of classic series villains as the “big bad” (Daleks, Cybermen, the Master, Davros, Rassilon), etc. In RTD’s era, these marked something else other than “quality” I think — it feels more like it was the construction of a template to manage viewers’ expectations, to restart the series as something that could be easily digested and easily understood by children and fans of the old series alike. I think this is corroborated by the violent reaction that some casual fans have had to Moffat’s challenges to RTD’s template.

      To wit, I think the 6th series’ most significant *non*-repetition so far is the way that Moffat’s finally broken free from the structure of an RTD series. Every series from 1-5 began with some crisis on Earth introducing a new companion (or Doctor, in the case of “The Christmas Invasion), then quickly hopped to the far-flung future, then back in time to encounter a British (and often literary) historical figure. Then there was the obligatory 2-parter, then a cost-saving episode, another two-parter, and eventually building up to the final two-parter that would first riff on some current British television series/celebrity (Big Brother, Sharon Osbourne, whatshername from EastEnders, Richard Dawkins) then introduce some classic series villain after months of (mostly) inconsequential hinting. Moffat broke with that template even last series (the cracks become a persistent plotline starting in episode 4), and has further broken from that model with a modern day/historical two-parter that leaves more questions than answers.

      As a fan, I have no idea what the overarching narrative structure of this 6th series will be, and that has me giddy. I also see Moffat repeating himself by upping both the consequence and the *scale* of the timey-wimeyness — in “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink,” time was immutable and ultimately brief, the Doctor & his companions simply along for the ride, then back to normal afterwards. “The Pandorica Opens”/”The Big Bang” and “A Christmas Carol” threw that out of the proverbial window, and given the death of a future Doctor in “The Impossible Astronaut,” I can’t imagine that Moffat won’t be exploring the immutability of this timey-wimeyness over the course of the entire series.

      So, I suppose that’s the one thing that needs addressing re: repetition — that “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink” were self-contained, while the timey-wimeyness is now an ongoing, important plot thread. Moffat’s innovation has been to take these themes and truly explore them over the span of two (perhaps three) connected series. Sure, he’s repeating himself in one sense, but perhaps it’s more properly thought of as unleashing his desire to play with time from RTD’s restrictive template. Other than a few arcs (Key to Time, the Mara stories, Trial of a Timelord, E-Space, etc.), the original series shied away from arcs at all, and Davies’s era bracketed storytelling arcs by series/companion. Moffat has carefully connected his two series (via River, the Silence, the ship from “The Lodger,” the pregnancy in “Amy’s Choice,” etc.) into one long story, parceled out much more like contemporary American television, and told in multiple time periods. That’s not repeating anything in Doctor Who that I know of — that’s something no one’s done in any series of Doctor Who, classic or new.

      Really looking forward to more of your ongoing thoughts on this series of Doctor Who, Matt!

      • Matt Hills on May 2, 2011 at 7:02 PM

        There’s a lot here to respond to, Sean, so if I miss any of your points feel free to call me on it, and I’ll have another crack (appropriately) at responding. I agree that Moffat is escalating the scale of timey-wimey content — though of course he only had single stories to work with in the RTD era, so was contrained to *have* to work at this level (as a story contributor rather than showrunner). So yes, there are definitely differences in the scope and scale of Moffat’s repetitions.

        I’m not sure I’d say this has never been done before in nuWho though. It’s just that RTD did it in the margins of the show rather than front-and-centre; surely the Face of Boe/Captain Jack implication at the end of S3 causes events spanning series one-to-three to be re-read (or re-readable) with whole new significance, as well as being very timey-wimey indeed. But this game isn’t the *point* of series one-three, it’s just a bit of business, a bit of showrunner cheek! And like Moffat, RTD also did episode-level timey wimey, e.g. in ‘New Earth’, and series-level paradoxes (Bad Wolf) before graduating to multi-series time-travel games.

        RTD’s work was strongly marked by repetition in the ways you indicate — and it was exactly these sorts of templates, carefully structured to guide the new/mass audience, that I was referring to in my original post when I contrasted RTD and Moffat — noting that RTD writes *with* these industry requirements in mind more of the time, whereas Moffat seems to write wilfully *against* certain industry logics.

        I’m not sure how you can conclude that there is no sense of ‘quality’ in RTD’s authorial repetitions and Henriks riffs etc — are you sure you’re not shaping an argument in line with your fan sentiments and evaluations here? (I.e. valuing Moffat over RTD?) RTD won the Dennis Potter BAFTA award for TV writing after series one; in industry terms, RTD’s nuWho was *absolutely* positioned as ‘authored’ and as quality TV, at least in the UK context. Also, is there not a danger of overstating the extent to which Moffat’s work is now unfettered? For example, it seems highly likely to me that the series will end by returning to events of ep 1 (the same pattern as S5!), which is why I playfully refer to a ‘story ellipse’ rather than a ‘story arc’ in my post. Though the mid-series split (which I’ll be back to blog about) does complicate this narrative circling — I’d hazard that Moffat will return to events of ep 1 in ep 7 (perhaps via the eye-patch lady) and *again* in ep 13, circling back twice rather than iterating the single loop of S5. In other words, there are emergent templates in Moffat’s writing, as there were in RTD’s, but they may require a greater level of ludic reading — and a greater toleration for the spaces of speculation and guessing — than RTD’s more incidental enigmatic signifiers. Time will tell. Eventually. Probably. If it’s not constantly rewritten, that is!

    • Matt Hills on May 2, 2011 at 5:54 PM

      Myles, I think you make an important point here — directing us to think about levels of fan knowledge. It’s something that Rick and Derek touch on below as well; how might long(er)-term fandom prepare audiences to tolerate (or expect) loose ends in Moffat’s story arc?

      Anecdotally, unanswered questions at the end of ep 2 didn’t concern me at all (like Derek, I fully expect Moffat to address deliberate narrative gaps and ontological puzzles). But I know other viewers — less focused on nuWho — who found all the dangling narrative threads to be distracting and unsatisfying. I’d hypothesise that increased fan knowledge typically facilitates an increased ludic engagement with nuWho, and a reading-through or intratextual response that tracks authorial patterns further and further back. In this case, it could even mean harking back to before nuWho altogether, and Moffat’s short story ‘Continuity Errors’ in Decalog 3 which prefigures many elements of his TV Who.

      However, we also need to complicate any possible correlation of fandom and ludic reading — Moffat’s writing style so clearly hails this form of response (he did the same thing in ‘Chalk’, ‘Press Gang’ and ‘Coupling’, in fact) that somebody reading his work on the show, but without being a longer-term Who fan, could still align themselves with such a mode of reading, as you’ve done.

      Rather than saying that Moffat’s work is “too complicated” for casual or mainstream audiences, perhaps the real issue is whether these audiences want to play the game that Moffat’s work incites and invites?

  2. Rick Wallace on May 2, 2011 at 6:27 AM

    This is a really interesting piece. I would like to add one point to your ideas of repetition. It goes without saying that repetition increases familiarness and I like your suggestion that this is indeed a calculated way of indicating/establishing authorship. I think that tied into all this is the idea of ‘preparation’. I think that these opening two episodes are quite complicated, more-so because of the unanswered questions / open endedness of the narrative, however it is precisely because of Moffat’s repetition of various ideas / narrative structures in the previous season, and in his writing for RTD, that as an audience we are now prepared to accept what might currently appear to be plot holes, because we know from previous experience that in all likelihood these holes are not holes at all and will be revisited / filled at a later date. The repetition therefore is central to Moffat’s ability to tell a long-form narrative – as he seems to be doing this season – as it prepares the audience to expect that not everything will be resolved in each episode.

    • Matt Hills on May 2, 2011 at 6:10 PM

      Thanks, Rick, I absolutely agree with this. Moffat has spoken in paratextual material about wanting to make the arc more central and more important this year, and as such his episodes immediately set up far more open-ended content. There’s still a lot of authorially-marked repetition, but there’s also a self-conscious escalation in the text’s ludic construction. Whereas the “Silence” last year approximated to one of RTD’s enigmatic signifers iterated across episodes, this year’s Who has immediately announced its intent to scale-up all the timey-wimey game playing.

      So, yes, I’d argue that Moffat is quite precisely stepping up his ‘default’ style, having deliberately sought to bridge the transition between RTD’s Who and his own, and so prepare audiences for the latest game. Viewed from today’s perspective, Series 5 looks more and more like a long transition between the differing approaches of the two showrunners.

      • Sean Duncan on May 2, 2011 at 9:19 PM

        Moffat’s saying the same thing, quite openly these days:

        “How has this series evolved from last year?

        Steven Moffat: Well we’ve moved through the funfair a bit – we’ve done the rollercoaster, now we’re on the ghost train. Last year, in a way, was all about saying, don’t worry, it’s still him, it’s still the same show, nothing’s really been lost. Losing a leading man like David Tennant is seismic – unless you gain a leading man like Matt Smith. It’s been the biggest joy to see him stride in and just claim that TARDIS for his own. But now he’s really here, and the part is his, and the bow tie is cool, he’s ready to lead us places we didn’t know existed. Last year we reassured you – this year, to hell with that, we’re going to worry the hell out of you. How well do we really know that man, or what he’s capable of? We’re putting the Who? back in the Doctor.”


        • Matt Hills on May 2, 2011 at 10:15 PM

          Indeed, although I’d still want to qualify any reading of a promotional paratext by looking for what it doesn’t say, as well as for the discursive framing that’s enacted. What’s intriguing about this great quote is that it’s a showrunner talking about “evolution”, but the central concern isn’t the writing, or the arc — it’s the loss of a star actor, and his replacement. And while this may have reflected a real anxiety on the part of the BBC, what remains structurally absent is a discussion of the replacement of RTD by the Moff. (Dis)continuity is centred on Tennant/Smith and the Doctor. Does Moffat speak about “reassurance” in terms of emulating the RTD template for much of S5?

          Also, pre-season paratexts tend to cue inflationary or superlative readings: bigger, better, scarier, scariest (The Silence). Hence those fan jokes about how many times Phil Collinson could say “we’re raising the bar” or somesuch. And these promotional discourses of inflation also prime audiences to look for, and expect, difference — the ghost train, hurrah, not the boring old funfair from last time. This may, in part, explain why critics and sections of fandom have particularly picked up on eps 1 and 2 as being somehow negatively “repetitive”, precisely because paratexts have (exaggeratedly) stressed difference, leaving some audiences and journos feeling at odds with the official line?

          And in terms of structuring absences, I can’t recall any promotional paratexts discussing BBC America co-funding the show in any detail, can you? The US filming has been repeatedly positioned as about “ambition/scope/scale/cinematic quality” (stressing difference again; a US shoot as USP). But discussion of BBC America funding has been minimal at best, I’d say (again, speaking in the UK context).

  3. Derek Kompare on May 2, 2011 at 9:45 AM

    Excellent analysis, Matt, and a great update on the Davies vs. Moffat comparison (which, as it turns out, one season was not enough to explain!).

    We’ve just seen arguably the two most challenging episodes since the series’ return. More than repetition, Moffat’s storytelling is subdividing and retracing like a baroque fugue. That is, themes and variations, cascading, looping back, counterpointing, etc. To carry on the musical metaphor, it’s as if Davies was crafting each series like a standard rock or pop album in the 70s and 80s, while Moffat is instead conceptualizing his entire output (between individual stories and entire seasons) as an abstract sonic array. He’s DJ Shadow to Davies’ Michael Jackson.

    I’d add that for us old school fans he’s delivering the goods as vague references and callbacks (i.e., “sampling” bits of the original series, to stick with the metaphor). Every previous regeneration story was quoted in “The Eleventh Hour.” The long shot of the Doctor and the Astronaut in this season’s opener screamed “Logopolis,” etc. Moreover, while Sean is absolutely right that narrative arcs were very rare in the original series (and on most TV of its time, for that matter), the narrative pacing of individual stories, in multiple parts, drew out questions on a smaller scale. By sheer coincidence, I watched the first two episodes of “The Pirate Planet” (a Tom Baker story from 1978) with my kids yesterday, and was struck by just how much is unexplained in the first half of the story (e.g., Who are the Mentiads?) and wouldn’t be fully answered until episode four. 30+ years later, Moffat’s more or less doing the same thing, just juiced with denser, timey-wimeyer questions for an era of constant rewatching, discussion, and theorizing.

    So even as a (very) long-time fan, I’m confused by a lot of what I saw in “The Impossible Astronaut” and “Day of the Moon.” (tops being the woman with the eyepatch and, of course, the jaw-dropping final scene). But that’s just how I want it, knowing that the journey will be exciting and the payoff will be tremendous.

    • Matt Hills on May 2, 2011 at 6:30 PM

      The musical or sampling metaphor works very well! By referring to impure repetition and family resemblance in my original post, I certainly meant to indicate that Moffat’s work isn’t outright repetition pure-and-simple; it could just as well be symphonic in tone, or contrapuntal.

      To take one instance; River Song’s dive into the TARDIS doesn’t just reference ‘The Time of Angels’, of course, it fuses this reference with a previous swimming pool gag from ‘The Eleventh Hour’ if I remember rightly. And it also works for the first-time viewer, who is simply reading the text rather than intratextually reading-through a knowledge of other eps. So Moffat’s repetition can be multiple; working his motifs into new combinations and rhythms as he iterates.

      And like Myles and Rick, your comment also raises the issue of how, and whether, we can tolerate confusion in response to a story arc/ellipse. This strikes me as a really important area for research, both on fandom and outside of fan studies. Because to partly repeat myself — and as I noted in response to Myles — I think it’s all too easy to create a false binary of knowledgeable fans who can tackle narrative complexity versus ‘mainstream’ audiences who don’t favour ‘complexity’. This apparent binary seems, instead, to mask a more complex question of reception where certain audiences like to read-for-game-elements in the narrative (who’s in the spacesuit when it kills the Doctor?; what do they say to one another in the ‘Logopolis’ long shot? etc) whilst other audiences are keener on reading-for-closure. So perhaps it isn’t that Who is getting “too complicated”, but it may be that some audiences don’t want to read ludically (whilst this is something that online fandom usually revels in!). I’d be tempted to open up a sociological theorisation of just who reads Who playfully.

      • Rick Wallace on May 3, 2011 at 8:31 AM

        That is a very interesting argument. The sense that the question isn’t just ‘do people understand what is happening?’ but also ‘are people enjoying the ride?’ is fundamental here, and as you suggest Matt, this could well be divided along line to do with viewing modes, rather than knowledge/understanding of the show itself.

        There are several things in play here then. There’s the sophistication of the show and the increased knowledge on the part of the programme-makers that they are dealing with a programme that has a large and regular viewership. This is evinced by Moffat’s extra-textual addresses as noted above, and interestingly in an interview for the last issue of Doctor Who Magazine he very tellingly writes: ‘It’s time we stopped pretending that people don’t watch the show […] Everybody knows that Alex Kingston [River Song] plays someone who might be the Doctor’s wife – do we really have to explain it every time she turn up? We’ve developed a weird humility where we say, “We’d better remind everybody of what’s going on.” Around eight million people watch this show every week! […] Everybody knows. I wanted to exploit that this year.’ The reason why these first two episodes seem (are?) more complicated is that Moffat seems to have dispensed with the re-introductions and the groundwork, by assuming that we already know this stuff. The question I suppose is, who ‘we’ are; is it the fans, or as the interview suggests, the general television audience? Also do the viewers understand, and does it really matter for the way in which they view the show? I think he’s probably right with his suggestion that most viewers know what is going on, but not necessarily with the impact that this has on viewers who aren’t interested in ‘playing the game’.

        It’s interesting that the split is often down lines of fan / non-fan – on one Doctor Who forum there is a weekly thread accompanying each episode entitled ‘What did the kids and the “Not We” think?’ as if somehow the collective fan viewer watches the show in a significantly different way to the casual viewer. It is interesting then, that there is such division within fandom about how ‘good’ particular episodes are, with some calling the plot holes lazy and unsatisfying, whilst, conversely, others gain pleasure specifically from anticipating what the implications of the unanswered questions are for the rest of the series. It seems like it’s the typical fan relationship with the open text (as Fiske etc. call it), but is more problematic that that because not all fans engage in the same way, and I’m sure a significant number of non-fan viewers will find the playful elements of the show more appealing than episodes which result in definitive closure each week. It will therefore be very interesting to see how this series is received both critically (by viewers who watch either for closure or for play) and in terms of viewing figures / share, as it is entirely possible that the shift towards the more challenging format will lose regular viewers who are not interested in ‘playing along’, even if the ambition and overall quality of the show might getting even better.