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Moffat’s Doctor Who (or how I stopped worrying and learned to love the (Dalek) bomb)

June 27, 2010

You know, Steven Moffat had a bloody hard job. He had to reinvent Doctor Who.

Russell T Davies gets a lot of praise (rightly so, I think) for the way in which he took this old, much loved television program and made it relevant again for a modern audience. He took something that was fondly remembered by the many and loved by the few, and turned it into a national institution. That in and of itself is a triumph. I don’t think there’s any arguing with that.

But Moffat had to do the same. Only, I think he had an even harder job. He had to reinvent a recent program, one that was massively successful. He had to make it new and different, but familiar too. He didn’t have the same options as RTD to recreate it from the bottom up, or to decide what he wanted to carry over from the past. For Moffat, there was a recent legacy to uphold, and that must have been a pretty terrifying prospect. He HAD to make his new version of the show move seamlessly from the RTD one, still fresh in people’s minds. He had to be subtle, at least at first. He couldn’t just throw everything out and start again. He had to do it while we were watching, slowly bring us over to his way of thinking, slowly move us away from what we’d grown used to and make us comfortable with what he wanted his version of the show to be. Any of us can sit there and argue about how we would have done it, what our version of Doctor Who would have looked like. But Moffat actually did it. He took RTD’s show and turned it into something new, whilst holding on to the audience.

And you know what? For me, he’s delivered. More than that. He’s delivered what I think is probably one of the best series of Doctor Who we’ve ever had. And this from a hardcore fan, one of those few I mentioned earlier who’s always loved the show.

I think what Moffat has done beyond all else is finally decide what Doctor Who is.

There was lots of talk early on about how Moffat considered Doctor Who to be a fairytale. I liked this idea. In fact, I was hugely enamoured with it. Having recently read Paul Magrs’s The Scarlet Empress, I was ready for a different sort of Doctor Who. And then the first few episodes aired, and I didn’t see it. I didn’t see that magic on screen. Don’t get me wrong – I loved what I saw. But I loved it in the same way I’ve always loved Doctor Who, and in the same way I’d enjoyed the RTD era. I couldn’t see the fairytale on screen. I couldn’t see the magic. But now I realize it was there all along, and Moffat was playing a subtle game. He was luring us in. He was bridging the gap between one era and the next.

Now, having seen the finale and understood (I think!) what Moffat was doing, I’m hugely impressed. This WAS the Doctor Who I was hoping for. It respected the audience without alienating the kids. It gave us logical plots that were well thought out. And importantly – most importantly of all – he told us the rules of engagement. He was clear from the outset.

This is a fairytale, he said. A fairytale in which magic works and mad things happen. A fairytale in which dreams come true and love conquers all. He set out his rules and he stuck to them. Or rather, he threw out the rules and told us that anything goes. Yes, there was lots of technological hand waving, but Moffat knows we’ll forgive him for that because of the story, and the scope, and the vision. He told us outright that this was a version of Doctor Who in which magic works. And I applaud that. This WAS a fairytale. And just like Paul Magrs’s with The Scarlet Empress, Moffat had the balls to see it through.

When the Doctor towed the Earth at the end of the fourth series, or when he was rejuvenated by the ‘faith of the people’ at the end of the third, I baulked. I baulked because it seemed so ludicrous, so outlandish, so out of step with what I expected of Doctor Who. And looking back, I think that’s because I didn’t see Doctor Who as a fairytale. I saw it as a science fiction show. And I think, for the most part, I was right. I think it was a science fiction show. Or at least that’s what we’d been led to believe. And I couldn’t help judging it by those standards. (And don’t get me wrong here, I loved a lot of what we saw in the last five years).

But I think one of Moffat’s greatest achievements this year has been his clarity of purpose, his intent to prove to us that what we’ve been watching was a fairytale. He hammered it home every week. He told us this Doctor, his Doctor, is a magician, a strange, powerful alien who bumbles around the universe in his magic box. Not a human being at all, but a genie from another realm.

I’ve always been a fan of Finn Clark and his superlative reviews of Doctor Who novels. When he originally reviewed The Scarlet Empress (and I keep coming back to this book, because I think it’s a book that’s entirely in tune with what Moffat is doing), he predicted a sea change, a new way of reading the Doctor. That sea change didn’t come at the time, but I think that prediction is finally starting to come true now.

With Moffat we have someone who understands what Doctor Who really is: a fantasy. The sort of lucid dream that you’re desperate to remember in the morning. And as Magrs told us all those years ago, it’s the Arabian nights, a mythological epic filled with genies and magicians, robots and starships, peril and love. The only logic needed is that of a fairytale.

This is what Moffat’s been telling us, I think. This is what his version of Doctor Who is all about. And looking back, it all makes sense. Even that third episode with the dayglo Daleks and the talking bomb, an episode I really struggled with at the time. Because in a fantasy version if the universe, in a fairytale, of course you could persuade a bomb not to explode. Just like you could fly anywhere in time inside a magic box that was bigger on the inside than the outside and contained a lonely genie looking for a friend. I don’t really care whether it’s adolescent or not, or whether it’s not ‘realistic’, or whether people never really die. I don’t. I don’t think that’s what it’s about. I don’t mind the happy endings where everybody lives. I do mind if they haven’t learned anything, or if we, as the audience, haven’t learned anything about those characters.

That’s how I stopped worrying and learned to love the Dalek bomb. Because I realised the rules of engagement. I realised how refreshing it was to stop worrying about whether I was watching good science fiction and concentrating on whether it was a good story. A good fairytale. Moffat’s Doctor Who is closer to Alice in Wonderland than it is to Battlestar Galactica. And realising that has allowed me to enjoy it all the more. To revel in it.

I love the direction Moffat has taken this year. It’s mature and funny and mythic and bold. It’s a big, baroque fantasy story and it’s finally stopped being self conscious and decided what it is.

I can’t wait for Christmas!

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. jameswhitworth permalink
    July 10, 2010 1:43 pm

    Nice post. It’s interesting what we won’t accept (towing the Earth) and what we will (Time Lord in a police box). It is, of course, all a matter of perception; that is, what we expect the show to be. I think you have hit the nail on the head: once we understand what the writer(s) is aiming for, we can better judge its success.

  2. December 31, 2010 8:47 pm

    I can’t wait to see the new Doctor! I enjoyed your comments here and look forward to seeing the reality. ;D

  3. Marcia Morrison permalink
    February 2, 2011 12:22 am

    This would, maybe, be the *second* time someone has tried to persuade a bomb to not explode. The first one I know of was in the amazing, loopy 1974 movie “Dark Star”, where one of the characters is encouraged to “talk phenomonology to the bomb”. (It didn’t work.)

  4. Agent Robin permalink
    November 19, 2011 2:30 am

    I just started watching this, in fact, I am watching Episode One now, and I just *love* it!

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