Last week I ended up breaking up a post about the fan-favorite episode Blink, and about how its writer, Steven Moffat, doesn’t know why it’s such a favorite. You can read that post here. But to jump back into it, here’s the episode rating graph from Graph TV for Doctor Who:
That’s a big mix, episodes all over, generally some loved more than others every season. And that one, lonely outlier at the top, over 9.5. That episode is Blink.
One of the points in the original Mary Sue article that got me thinking about this was about Moffat trying to re-create the magic of this episode now that he’s the showrunner, and failing. But I think it’s more than just trying to make an episode that good again – but to get through the rest of my thought, let’s take a moment with the graph.
In season 1, there are three episodes higher than the others: the season finale, and then the two-parter of The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances. The two parter was written by Steven Moffat. In season 2, there are again two top dots: the season finale, and you guessed it, another Moffat: The Girl in the Fireplace. Then season 3 with Blink. Then season 4, with the top two being Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead by yet again, Steven Moffat.
We talked before about how it’s pretty clear why Moffat became showrunner. But I would also argue it’s more than Blink that he’s trying to recreate. Instead, I think he has some story ideas, monster ideas, that he is trying to perfect. That he keeps coming back to. So let’s look at a few of these story ideas!
One of the great elements of Blink is the Weeping Angels. That scary, scary simple item in the world that can kill you when you look away. Kill you with time. The thing that not only the characters, but the audience never see moving. (Until they did in a later episode, which I am still bummed about).
Similar to another Moffat monster you never see coming – the Vashta Nerada, living in not every, but any shadow. The creeping dread of the Library two-parter. They are what we’re scared of in the dark.
What I’m getting at here is actually what Moffat was getting at as well when he wrote the episode Listen in season 8. The Doctor literally opens by exploring the concept of evolution perfecting certain traits – hunting, for instance. But the Doctor decides to pursue the idea of perfect hiding. Something that the Angels and the Vashta Nerada are both very good at. Also the Silents from another Moffat 2-parter.
But even more than just Moffat using this sort of type to try and create a perfect monster, it’s that basic idea: about pursuing the idea of perfection of a form itself. I think he pushes his monsters in that direction, makes them personify some aspect of fear. Such that tick marks all over your arms can be terrifying. And this pursuit got us to the point that in Listen we never do see the creature. Assuming there even is one…
The Girl Who Waited
This became the definition of Amy Pond’s character, “the girl who waited.” Indeed, it ends up an episode name. It defines the decade plus that she waits for him in the season 5 opener. And it then leaches over and defines her relationship with Rory Williams, making him the boy who waited – 2000 years, with her in the Pandorica.
However, Amy was not Moffat’s first “girl who waited.” That would be the Madame de Pompadour in The Girl in the Fireplace, who spends her whole life waiting for the Doctor to come back and travel with her. But he never gets to her in time – though he saves her a bunch.
Clearly Moffat thought this concept needed more time, needed to breathe a little, and it came back in long-form as Amy Pond.
Of course, Moffat’s description of time travel is most famously stated in Blink, and we love it. Another part of that episode that is so good. However, it’s by no means the only time-travel-heavy episode by Moffat. Indeed, he seems to love these.
The best example of this is of course River Song, the woman who is living her life backwards to the Doctor, and yet somehow making a relationship work with him… A character we are excited to see returning in this year’s Christmas special. I am fairly certain that every episode with her in it is written by Moffat, starting from the Library 2-parter where she is introduced, and of course dies. Because backwards.
However, crazy time-travel shenanigans can also be seen in episodes like The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, and how that storyline resolves. Or in a similarly universe-breaking episode like The Wedding of River Song. Or in the title-idea of The Angels Take Manhattan, where there’s so much timey-wimey-ness now to Manhattan that the Doctor cannot return there. And also apparently Amy and Rory can’t leave so they’re gone? Because reasons.
Time Travel reasons.
Moffat seems to write some of (all of?) his time travel plots as being so large that we can’t understand them. That they’re so large that only the Doctor seems to understand them. Which can also be seen as them not being written with enough explanation. Indeed, an episode like The Wedding of River Song could easily have been a two-parter and wasn’t.
“You’ve got a time machine, I’ve got a gun. Let’s kill Hitler.”
The Creeping Dread
Okay, one more repeated element. And that is just that Moffat’s monsters aren’t necessarily fast, or particularly intelligent. They’re rarely ones that the Doctor can debate with or negotiate with. Nor are they an immediate threat. Instead, they’re the sort that can be in the room with you and you have time for a conversation, to come up with a plan.
So like, in The Empty Child, with the slow-moving children in gas masks… or the Weeping Angels, or the Vashta Nerada, or the Silents… the hidden monster in Listen…
There’s a good side to this, however, and this is an element worth keeping up. Because these monsters are something of an unstoppable force, they just keep coming. They create a ton of tension. Meanwhile, they require thinking and plans and discussion, all things the Doctor is good at and that make for a good episode with the Doctor (or without him, like in Blink!).
He made standing in a room talking about shadows incredibly creepy and scary – it’s an impressive thing.
“Hey, who turned out the lights?”
A lot of people are down on Steven Moffat, and it has gotten to him in the past – for instance, when he shut down his Twitter account. I think, looking at the repeated themes above, that Moffat is a perfectionist. Like, a self-aware one, literally working on exploring the idea of perfection. In a science-fiction space where you really can.
Can returning to these themes and tropes get old? Sure, and at some point it will be time for a new showrunner. At the moment, I’m probably more interested in a new companion… how long can they try to come up with how to write Clara’s character?
While I don’t think I can do a lot to influence things one way or another – either with the show or your opinions – I do think at least that Moffat makes sense in the stories he’s been telling, in his pursuit of perfecting these forms. What do you think?