AT THE time of writing, the biggest current news in pop-cultural circles is Steven Moffat’s imminent departure from Doctor Who. Well, I say “imminent”; in truth, there’s going to be a two-year wait, with a 2016 devoid of Doctor Who save for one Christmas special, then in 2017 Moffat promises his most blockbustery season ever. But then, after all of that’s over, the showrunner position will be taken over by Chris Chibnall, best known for his series Broadchurch, starring former Doctor Who David Tennant, though he’s also written a series of basically-alright to pretty-good episodes for Doctor Who & its anagrammatic spinoff Torchwood.
So, it’s basically good news for the show; or, rather, it might well be good news for the show two-&-a-half years down the line from now. It isn’t that Moffat is a bad writer so much as that he’s a writer who cannot help but believe his own hype. Back in the olden days, the Moffat episode used to be the highlight of the season. As showrunner he was overly reliant on big concepts, shocking reveals, & twisty little twists, at the cost of any sense of character or consistency. Even his comparitively reined-in moments as showrunner were still full of absurd theatrics; Series 9 was some of his strongest work since Series 5 which, although it isn’t saying that much, is saying something at least, & I hope he continues to contribute excellent, sculpted episodes to the series; ones that have had time to be polished & revised & hopefully passed through a script editor &, most of all, episodes which will have a direction, because the show as a whole will have a direction, & episodes flatly out of character will be rejected, or polished up until they’re in character.
Character was his big problem. When he first took over, introducing a new Doctor (Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith) & new companion (Amy Pond), the issue wasn’t glaringly obvious. They were extremely grating personalities, the both of them; Eleven a big show-offy baby, the sort of dullard who gurns “I’m mad, me!”, while Amy was tiresomely selfcentred & plainly an object of worship for Moffat, about whom it would be putting it lightly to say has issues writing women. But they were consistent. It was at least possible for me to write this paragraph on them. Their respective replacements, Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor & Clara Oswald, are, the pair of them, enormous voids where character ought to go. She’s probably the most likeable female character he’s ever written, which translates as her not being some sort of perma-quipping shrew whose main trait is reminding you she’s female eight times per sentence. Clara’s just a nothing, marginally preferable, & Jenna Coleman deserves much praise for her hard work in making the character so charming, so memorable. Twelve, meanwhile, is like a random Doctor machine: he might waves his arms & babble like Eleven, or he might turn around all no-nonsense & arrogant, like Jon Pertwee’s Three, or he might be obnoxious to the point of genuine cruelty like Colin Baker’s Six. He might do anything in the world except, possibly, to resemble Peter Davison’s shy, kind Five, but time will tell on that one too.
It’s particularly irritating since, whether by design or fortune, there was a pretty clear progression from Christopher Eccleston’s shellshocked Nine, through David Tennant’s arrogant-but-cool Ten, to Matt Smith’s enthusiastic-to-the-point-of irritation Eleven. When Moffat added John Hurt’s scary, dogmatic War Doctor to the mix the progression made even more sense (we previously assumed Nine had fought the Time War), & allowed us to trace that character arc back even to Paul McGann’s lovely-but-underused Eighth Doctor. It was the story of a man destroyed by the horrors of war, & eventually redeemed by the power of kindness. You can call that trite if you like but the series never spelled it out or dwelt on it. It was just there if you looked for it. Then after Eleven’s long life & somewhat affecting death on Trenzalore, Twelve popped up &, despite a telephone cameo by Matt Smith in Twelve’s first episode assuring Clara he was still the same man, he proceeded to unlearn every lesson he’d learned. It wasn’t so much that his indifference to his friends, his petulance, or his intolerant attitude to soldiers (didn’t Eleven mourn The Brigadier, one of the best friends he’d ever had?) were traits difficult to swallow in an alien, but that they were traits difficult to swallow in this alien, the one we’d supposedly got to know.
Twelve’s characterisation, while unstable at the best of times, seemed to be intended to hark back to William Hartnell’s First Doctor, a big old space grouch who wouldn’t listen to you. But, regenerating into Patrick Troughton, then Jon Pertwee then Tom Baker, his haughty attitude to humans seemed to get chipped away at the more time he spent among them, culminating in Five who was just a lovely bloke & clearly the one you’d most want to be friends with of them all. It was the same process; “Alien becomes human”, & while I’m even less convinced it was intentional back then it was no less satisfying or heartwarming. With Colin Baker’s Six & Sylvester McCoy’s Seven I don’t think there’s any in-story rationale for their personalities; they were just directions the producers wanted to try out. But that’s more to be expected back then; continuity was just a suggestion & there weren’t any DVD box sets or marathons, so who cared if your dad told you some bloke from ten years ago was ten times better?
Nowadays we like our shows as Dickensian mammoths, please, with plotlines that take years to build & sets of characters who are really just one hundred tragic heroes, with their tragedies all interlaced. Or at the very least we like to get to know our characters, which demands that they not walk all over the life lessons we’ve watched them go through. It’s why Russel T. Davies made up the Time War as a backstory for quite why Nine was so brusque; he didn’t just regenerate on the wrong side of bed like Six did. So, where does that leave Doctor Number Twelve? Chibnall can retire him & start afresh if he likes, like RTD & Moffat before him, or he can nobly inherit that mess & try to make something of it. He can turn Twelve from a wasted opportunity into the classic character Capaldi deserved, maybe, if he just works hard at giving him a bit of consistency. But there’s two & a half years to go, & anything could happen, more or less.