TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – The Moffat Era and three-dimensional screenwriting

Opening cliché statement: the Moffat era of Doctor Who is one hell of a marmite.

It goes beyond the simple outraged and simultaneous cries of “He’s a misogynist!” and “He’s a Social Justice Warrior!” of “He’s repeating himself!” and of “He’s changing the very fabric of the show, the gall!” – the very way he approaches storytelling is divisive. Intentionally so – he’s a media-savvy master ès trolling, that will never hesitate to purposefully provoke and antagonize. Which is why he’s also the best writer Who ever had (sorry, not sorry!) – because that’s what the show is about. Being chaotic and confusing and throwing the whole scope of the time vortex at the flabbergasted viewer. Sure, not everyone has to like it, and sometimes one can rightfully wish for a more subdued vision of the show. Still, he does “get” it; he taps into something that’s deeply, primarily tied to the essence and ethos of Who.

But let’s try a change of perspective, for once. Let’s try not to talk about themes – really, dressing a complete and accurate portrait of the man and his writing style is a bit of an impossible task anyway. There’s way too much to say – you could write books about it, and indeed, books were and will be written about it. Keeping things at a purely structural level: what does Steven Moffat adds to the show? What are the core ideas he brings to its basic skeleton – not the themes, not the writing mannerisms, but the pure, structural ideas – ?

Well, proposition: Steven Moffat has changed, and continues to change, the status of the Doctor Who writer.

That complex and elusive figure, the Doctor Who writer, is kind of fascinating. Take a show, any show, and then try to pinpoint exactly who wrote a given episode. It’s hard, isn’t it? I know that The Wire was written by David Simon and that he showran the ship, but which episodes did he write, precisely, and which ones were the work of George Pelecanos or other contributors, I can’t say on top of my head. Same thing with, I don’t know, Hannibal. You remember the name of the showrunner, but not the individual writers’. Hell, consider the most obvious counterpart for Doctor WhoStar Trek, another pop culture sci-fi juggernaut with dozens of seasons under its belt. Now, certainly there will be some big names that emerge here and there: Gene Roddenberry, obviously, Ron Moore, Ira Steven Behr, Jeri Taylor, Melinda Snodgrass … But take a random episode, outside of the classics (and even including the classics! “Chain of Command” is a co-write; “Yesterday’s Enterprise” a collective effort where half the writing staff got a credit …) – even when patterns emerge, you certainly won’t have this sense of all-powerful association of an author with the content, maybe simply because when you need to put out more than twenty stories a year, the writing takes place in very different conditions.

You don’t see many televised productions, outside of Who, where such a great deal of importance is placed on the sole pen-holder: his name, after all, is always the fourth thing you see in an the opening credits of an episode, in big bold letters, after those of the stars and the title. Hell, in the Classics, it was the only name you’d see in the credits.

Which has lead as a sort of weird relationship between the Doctor Who fan and the concept of “story” – there’s a whole, strange, lovely menagerie out there: the continuity-obsessive hyperfans! the observers of plot holes! the Keepers of the Holy Canon! the arena fighters that pit the merits of one author against another! There’s this really strange, but surprisingly widespread idea that “The Story” is this abstract, supreme entity that rules all things Who – the actors, the production values, all that jazz, yes, it matters, to an extent, but it’s dwarfed by the all-powerful enormity of the Story. That’s exactly the kind of mindframe behind these comments that plague social media, about Capaldi being “a great Doctor plagued by awful scripts” – if the scripts are awful, then why is the character any good? It’s a convenient way to think, really: placing the success or failure of the story in the hand of an abstract instance is a really good idea to avoid having to engage critically with what the episodes and stories actually offer – limiting Who to a pure and abstract efficiency test, and ignoring the complexity of its storytelling nexus.

(let’s conveniently ignore the fact that kind of generalist approach also generates the widespread  and utterly nonsensical belief that all Who is somehow the same and can be judged by the same criteria no matter the era – because that would lead us to hard questions such as “are New Who and the Classics even the same show”, and let’s just not open that can of worms)

Thing is –  while the “Story” has inherited this strange, unique position …. “Authors” …  Not so much. Oh, of course, there has always been Who authors,  from David Whitaker to Robert Holmes, but it’s difficult to truly apply the moniker of an “author” show to Doctor Who – it’s much more a wild, sprawling adventure show irrigated by the sensibilities of its writers, who craft new conceptual spaces for the adventures to take place: “intelligent entertainment” at its finest. Not so much a single, unified conceptual take. Let’s take Russell T. Davies’ era as a reference point – it was arguably the more author-driven era of the show at this point (Big Finish and the various lines of books that spawned during the Wilderness Years being a different beast, giving birth, as Scribbles pointed out in his fantastic essay on the evolution of the Who ethos, to an entire generation of writers much more focused on author-driven storytelling, and with critical takes on the very universe they are writing for). It is undeniably marked by the tastes and peculiar writing patterns of its showrunner, but Davies always positioned himself as a servant of said show – not an unreasonable position when you’re the one that has to re-introduce it to the public eyes and the public consciousness. “Story” first, the themes of the author only afterwards. You can feel Davies’ eagerness to please, his constant efforts not to alienate the audience – also obvious in the care he and executive producer Julie Gardner put into the PR and the promotion of the show, a department in which Steven Moffat has undeniably been lacking, especially these past few years –. As an approach, it’s perfectly justifiable and full of qualities. But …

Let’s play a game. What are your favourite Davies stories?

It’s almost certain that among the panel you have selected will figure all or part of the following: “Utopia”, “Turn Left”, “Midnight” and “The Waters of Mars”. Maybe, if you’re extending your selection to the spin-offs, “Children of Earth”.  See the common point? All those stories are dark. Very dark, even – in a way that doesn’t exactly characterizes most of Davies’ episodes. One can’t exactly escape the feeling that Davies sometimes stopped its writing to reach its logical conclusion, going towards grim, dark, challenging stories that put the main characters into position of moral ambiguity – the kind that marked his first contribution to the Whoniverse, “Damaged Goods“. It’s not a qualitative judgement, really: that tension, in and on itself, is fascinating. But it does provide an interesting contrast with Moffat’s approach to storytelling. The Scottish showrunner is not one to meet fans halfway; he is the kind of writer that will always bring his thematic throughlines and weird concepts to completion. For the best – that would be Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor –, and, sometimes, for the worst. The central point is this, though – forgetting the whole debate about whether this state of affairs is good or bad, Moffat proved it could be done; he proved that a model based on the pure exegesis of the showrunner’s aesthetics and theoretical interpretations of the cultural institution he is tasked to curate could be sustained in a prolonged fashion. Like them or not, but his six series as showrunners are there, and they are full, largely functioning units of storytelling – he pushed the boundaries of a TV show in a way that’s uniquely compelling and doesn’t get nearly enough credit. And the wonderful thing is – the writers that will come after him, the showrunners that will succeed him, will benefit from this immensely, will inheritate a show that’s, more than ever, able to carry powerful and strong voices and shape them into wonderfully escapist, poetic storytelling. And when Who will finally catch back its regrettable delay in hiring divergent voices – female, non-cis, LGBT and POC -, the newcoming authors will find themselves with what might be the most formidable, powerful structure a fictional show has ever seen; a structure they can fill with their dreams, and, after all, “very clever people can hear dreams” …

That’s the big point. Moffat, whether he wanted it or not, also changed the way Doctor Who is told. His writing has introduced some absolutely fundamental concepts that will shape the show for years and years, first things first. A full list would be pointless (and hard to compile), but still, let’s hit some major beats – once again, staying on a purely structural level.

  • Blink” pretty much singlehandedly vulgarized the convoluted arcana of time-travelling shenanigans; it created an ensemble of writing tools and concepts that can be used again and again to condensate extremly complex storytelling movements into a simple, but elegant form. That’s really one of Moffat’s greatest talents: an incredible ability to make the most complex of plot beats simple, and the way to make the most simple of them feel incredibly, complex and layered (“Heaven Sent“, when you get down to it, is a very simple, almost obvious screenwriting idea, except it’s pushed and amplified to a point where it becomes something else entierly, and an unique, almost metaphysical experience).
  • the famous “time can be rewritten” law, which is both in total coherency with the diegesis of the universe and the best solution ever devised to not have to give a shit anymore about the monstruous, mutant beast that is Who canon.
  • the definition of the word “Doctor” not just as a qualifier, but as a performative, an ideal that must be achieved.

But – his most remarkable accomplishment might simply be the way he has successfully extended storytelling beyond the sole writer’s room.

Indeed, throughout the Classics, there is a supremacy of the “Story” (still here, our old friend …) over any other aspect of the production. It started out of necessity, really – an ambitious sci-fi show with meagre means must logically valorize its writing. But I think that pretty early in the show’s run – I leave the exact dating process to wiser men and women than me –, the “mind over matter” approach became an integral part of Doctor Who’s identity, not only in its themes, but also in its structure and tone. It became a show that faced dire material restraints, and existed not in spite of those, but like they didn’t even exist. A show that embraced a camp, over-the-top sensibility, that reconciled weird, crazy, auteuristic syncretism and the most cheesy pulpy aspects of the low-budget B-Movies of the 40’s and 50’s, a la Roger Corman and company. A show that didn’t just shot a metric ton of episodes in rock quarries, but which enjoyed having 10-seconds long still shots focusing on the rocks. The Doctor, in a metatextual way, was just that – this omnipotent piece of writing, this Greatest Story Ever Told, finding its way into pre-conceived, former narratives and subverting them, watching them through the lenses of its own peculiar sensibilities, until the whole show finally bloomed into its own genre, not quite fantasy, or sci-fi, or anything, but just pure “Doctor Who”. But still, even with all these evolutions, the show is still haunted by the spectre of the omnipotent story; what is interesting is that the eras that arguably marked this transition into Who as a genre of its own (a not-so-smooth transition, due to John Nathan-Turner’s well-documented love of continuity porn as the be all of storytelling, and what Phil Sandifer calls the “fan-industrial complex”, but still, a notable one), in the 80’s, were marked by the show actively reflecting to its own approach of the images and of their transmission, and of the media at large – it is a motive of the Colin Baker era, for instance. These two seasons are haunted by images being misused, their original purpose corrupted: think the snuff movie industry that booms on Varos, in “Vengeance on Varos”, or the footage manipulated by the Valeyard to incriminate the Doctor in “The Trial of a Time Lord”. Or hell, even the surveillance cameras in “Resurrection of the Daleks”. A mistrust of the images, of the visual styling that is associated with the mainstream (a mainstream culture dominated at the time by the conservative swing of Reagan and Thatcher, one might add …), whereas DW always enjoys being the underdog, the controversial little thing crawling at the margins, the chemical that disturbs the equilibrium of the solution. But the show wasn’t being reactionary either: the McCoy era did a lot of work to question and subvert the aesthetics and visual principles of the show, from shots and props of “An Unearthly Child” finding a new and renewed meaning in “Remembrance of the Daleks”, to the critique that “The Happiness Patrol” makes of the very concept of over-the-top camp DW so often indulges in.

And then, the Davies era. And, well, the revolution was not televised.

When you look at the 2005-2009 era from a purely visual standpoint, well, it didn’t change much. It was one of the Welsh showrunner’s most successful gambits – since he was going to alter radically some of the fundamental storytelling bricks and patterns of this universe, well, he was going to use that same matter-of-fact camp, that same sense of simultaneous sublime and ridiculous that came to define the Classics. And it worked – the show was relaunched brilliantly, with an absolutely fantastic (see what I did there?) first season.

Except that TV directing in the 2000’s was a radically different beast. For the longest time, the directors working on television were largely considered to be the subordinates of the writers and showrunners, having simply to execute whatever was asked of them – but, as television started to earn a real artistic credibility, that started to change. There’s this great anecdote the magazine “So Film” reported a couple years back, in a cover story about TV directors (cf. So Film #31) – one of those working with David Lynch on “Twin Peaks” absolutely wanted to have, in the background of one scene he had to shoot, a man dragging a blue suitcase. Except he hadn’t any of those on hand, so he asked the props department. Who were outraged that a simple director could have the gall to ask them for props, and shut him down. That probably wouldn’t happen, nowadays – the lines between TV and cinema have become blurry, the roles of filmmaker and showrunner too (at a time where Joss Whedon presides over a Marvel Cinematic Universe that is, in a way, nothing more than a huge, huge show ; and where popular mainstream directors like Steven Soderbergh or Guillermo Del Toro produce and direct shows). Mostly because most writers did what Moffat did – they understood that television is, and needs to be, a fully visual medium to work at full potential. That the way of the future is three-dimensional scriptwriting. Moffat wasn’t the first to come to that conclusion – but he managed to carry that transition successfully, while the weight of a show with a complex and difficult relationship to images laid on his shoulders.

Now, let’s not jump ahead. I am not saying that the Davies’ era is badly directed. But it is awfully clear that the direction, good or bad, is subordinate to the story there. When you speak about the directorial highlights of those five years, the episodes you’ll quote will probably be “Blink” (which is, oooh, a Moffat script) and “Midnight”. And you’d be right: those are amazingly-well directed – but they’re amazingly-well directed because the story could not work without that amazing direction. The Weeping Angels or the Midnight Entity are high concept creatures that demand first-class filmmaking: if the director fails there, the episode fails – so of course the women in charge (for those two episodes are directed by women, let’s not forget that), get the opportunity to bring some stylistical flourishes to the scene. But the quality of the directing there is born of that same original need – illustrating the story, showing what was written. It does not IMPROVE what was written.

(To cover myself even more, I’ll add a couple caveats:

  • Yes, I’m aware that “Warrior’s Gate” exists. All rules need an exception!
  • If we extend our field of study to the spin-offs, here, then the work of Andy Goddard on the second series of Torchwood might definitely qualify as an early foray – that’s what the spin-offs are good for, really, trying different, experimental modes of storytelling. It’s not a surprise that the most audacious director the Whoniverse has seen in the last two years, Wayne Che Yip, started on Class before working on series 10. Anyway – Moffat gets credit for bringing the innovation to the flagship and normalizing it.

And now, back to the point.)

The episode one needs to look at to understand the transition between Moffat and Davies is “Silence in the Library” / “Forest of the Dead”. Because of course it is. Moffat makes a statement about directing, there, among the three thousand different ones that bounce and wander around this incredibly crowded script. You still get that old Who fascination for the images: a young girl, watching a Doctor Who episode on television – there’s this great play on the music of the show being extra-diegetic (played by the Orchestra of the BBC Wales Cymru) in the library and intra-diegetic (played by the speakers of Cal’s telly) in the computer simulation. But it’s more complicated: you’ll notice that Cal, when she initially appears before the Doctor and Donna in the pre-credits scene and a bit later on, is using a camera to project her image – the constant game of interaction between the “real world” and the “world of Who”, the library and the simulation (which constantly trade places throughout the story), becomes this sort of complex reflection on how reality alters images and images alter reality – a sort of weird, paradoxical praise of directing and image manipulation.

And then, from 2010 onwards, it’s on. Oh, not instantly. The process is gradual. “The Eleventh Hour”, for instance, is not an extremely visually complex episode. It’s well directed, sure, but, above all, it’s very … directed. The direction shows itself, makes itself known, becomes evident, as a part of the show people have to accept from this point onwards – which is pretty much the ethos of that episode anyways: a gigantic, epic, sale pitch. For instance, take the scene where the Doctor determines that Rory holds the pictures of the Prisoner Zero in his phone. Now, that is an orgy of special effects and overwrought camera moves for, well, not much really. But it leaves a mark, an impression – it looks impressive and pretty and you want to see more of this. And you are going to.

Series 6 is probably the moment where the direction becomes an absolutely essential part of the storytelling. Call it the American effect, maybe. It’s a season about narrative expansion, about going bigger and more blockbuster-esque and impressive – and also about the downsides of that, about the tropes and the dangers that Who going all Hollywood entails: see “A Good Man Goes to War”, and the entire arc of Eleven, who has to learn that he has become this impossibly huge and terrible legend, and must go back to the shadows, to its discrete, subversive self that is at the core of the show. That arc simply couldn’t work if the direction wasn’t able to sell the grandeur and tragedy of the Mad Man with a Box’s Legend.

And from that point on, the storytelling can start gaining new ground – it’s not just contained to the “Story”, but expands! Hence the proeminence of visual leitmotivs in his era, especially under Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor. Series 8, his absolute masterpiece, is teeming with those – being focused on a double change of prospect (the Doctor changing, and changing his relationship to the world around him ; and the show generally changing its meta-perspective on itself), you keep getting eyes and mirrors popping everywhere. The Clockwork Droids pluck out eyes and search for a dinosaur’s optic nerve; the Doctor sees his face in a barrel of water and in the mirror he gives to the Half-Faced Man; we enter in a Dalek’s eyestalk and are tracked by small eye-shaped robots; “Listen” ends on a shot of the young Doctor’s eye; “Time Heist” features a woman the mirrors everything she touches; the Skovox Blitzer has glowing eyes; Clara records a message for the Earth face camera and ends up looking at the Moon; the Cybermen eyes are the logo of the 3W Institute, and so on …

That’s the thing Moffat has. His greatest gift as a writer. He is one of the absolute masters of three-dimensional screenwriting, a term I absolutely pulled off my backside, but which I’m quite fond of, defining the abilty one has to write not only for the actors and the viewers, but also for every single crew member working on the execution of a script. There’s the director, of course; it’s not surprising he has formed some close writer/director partnerships over the years, considering how vital visual elements are to his scripts – Nick Hurran and Rachel Talalay come obviously to mind. You can see Sherlock as a gigantic experimental laboratory in visual storytelling before even seeing it as a show, really.

But that’s not all. He writes for the editor. He can tell stories with the very pacing of his scripts. The absolute best example of this is “Hell Bent” – which, whatever you think about it, is an impeccably constructed piece of writing, at every level –. The scenes that follow the murder of the Eleventh General by the Doctor are incredibly fast-paced, the explanations about what we just saw almost inexistent: by pressing the gas pedal, Moffat places us in a state of confusion and uncertainty that almost echoes Clara’s, in a very neat touch. And then, and only then, after a sequence we might have found thrilling, that the episode stops, pauses, lets us think, and allows us to realize that, yes, the Doctor has just killed a man, and has been pushed far past his breaking point. It’s genius. For a more showy example, the final montage of “Heaven Sent” is just that: a scene that relies entierly on the editor to work and carry its meaning.

And he writes for the composer. It’s not that I think Murray Gold did better work under Moffat than under Davies – actually, I may be tempted to say the opposite – : but he is able to use music to score ideological points. See “Death in Heaven“: the completion of Twelve’s arc, the end of his self-doubt, is signified by the symbolical mix of Eleven and Twelve’s musical leitmotivs on the track “(The Majestic Tale of) An Idiot With A Box”. Or take “The Pilot“: no need to mention Clara in any way, shape or form, just have her theme pop up at a key moment for maximum emotional effect.

And see, all of that is why Doctor Who, in 2017, is at the peak of its power. It’s not at the peak of its popularity. Whether it is at the peak of its quality is up to debate – I would pinpoint Capaldi’s era as an all-time high, but at the end of the day, that is kind of subjective (kind of – I have arguments, and lots of them). But when it comes to conveying messages, to create a world full of meaning, a forest of intricate symbols in which you can escape? It has never been better – its toolbox is more sophisticated than ever before. The only question that needs answering is: what to do with this toolbox? If Chibnall and his successors’ answer is any good, happy days are ahead.

8 thoughts on “TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – The Moffat Era and three-dimensional screenwriting

  1. I agree with most of what you have written.
    Moffs stories are in many ways much better that RTD who in the end turned the Doc into some sort of Space Jesus complete with flying Angels…ala Voyage of the Damned, but I think while his stories were everything you need from DW proper mind bending stuff, he lost a little when it came to characters.
    Massive things like River Song’s birth & what that would do to Amy & Rory were just jumped over. Plus I would say that he’s only just now found how to write 12. That just my opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really quite like Davies’ era as well, even if I probably prefer Moffat at the end of the day, by a fair margin – I just think Moffat’s more badly in need of a defence, really, considering how much flack he gets.

      The article’s specifically looking at what he brought at a structural level to the show, so I didn’t mention much in the way of characters and themes – but I would definitely say that some of his character stuff can get a bit iffy here and there, that’s a definitely fair critique. I’m myself not a big fan of the way 6B handles Amy and Rory; Clara’s introduction in 7B is pretty problematic as well. I do really, really love the way he writes Twelve and have done so since the start, though.

      But I think what a lot of people do is that they take his occasional flaws as a character writer and 1) forget that Davies, and the Classic executives, could fuck up just as badly, and 2) craft a narrative that makes him into, like, just a bad character writer. Which he isn’t – he does have a lot of quirks that can be a little bit annoying for certain people, no doubt, but he’s generally quite good at it. I’ve actually a piece in the work about the criticism he gets on that front.

      Thanks for the comment!

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      • I think the main problem with Moff and to a smaller extend Capaldi, is that there were sort of put on pedestals.
        I really like the RTD era to, it had it’s faults and in the end it became a bit repetitive, but so does everything.
        When Moff was announced much was made of the change he would bring, I think The 11th Hour is probably the best regeneration story of the modern era, if not all of them, although Power of the Daleks is pretty amazing.
        Anyway, Moff has produced some great stories during his run, but people measured him up against his previous hits like Blink, which was not only great DW, but could stand alone as a truly scary story.
        Capaldi is a great actor, and I love The Thick of It, he’s so good in fact, that’s he’s actually too good, if that makes any sense.
        I put the character stuff in myself, I know you didn’t mention it, but for me the story arcs which RTD so well, Moff has never really nailed IMO, and well his characterisation can be patchy.
        Lets face it though the classic series also had some serious patchy character writing, and no development really, the companions, the girls and the boy ones were just a series of pretty props. You get the odd stand out like Jamie, Zoe, Ian, Barbara, Liz, Jo, Sarah-Jane & Ace, but the 80’s was pretty bad in terms of character writing.

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        • Definitely.
          At the same time, I think there’s good to be said about putting Moffat (and in a lesser extent, Davies – not that he’s less important, or less of a writer, but his identity doesn’t necessarily manifest itself as strongly in all his scripts) on a pedestal – because in a way, that’s indissociable with the author status Moffat has successfully claimed. And I think that’s a pretty good thing, for the reasons detailed in the article – at the same time, it also makes the show more difficult to engage with, in a way, in that you’ve got to be attuned to the writer’s sensibilities to truly, 100% enjoy it – or at the very least, try to engage with those sensibilities and try to see what the writer means.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Apologies for going off topic again, but I would also say I am a bit concerned about that press release that was leaked ages ago from the BBC, which claimed they wanted a return to the ‘Dashing handsome hero/young female companion dynamic’ it just shows how little interest the BBC still takes in the series, because it’s not really ever been like that, and Moff has done a lot to push the whole Doctor/Companions dynamic and relationship forward.

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            • I think that said press release is to be taken with a grain of salt, really – as long as we don’t have any kind of concrete, rock-solid information, speculation is going to create more stress than actual useful debate and stuff.
              I think it’s not impossible that there’s a desire to go back to the Davies/Tennant days, but at the same time I do regard Chibnall and the BBC as being pretty smart people, so while they might inject a bit of that energy in the proceedings, it’s also very possible that they’ll put some of Moffat’s very laudable progressivism.in the mix. And of course, I don’t think (and neither do they, I’d wager) that the ratings problem and the feel of “glory days lost” that plagued the Moffat era are only down to the man. Maybe his style did turn some people away, but I think the larger issue here, if it’s even an issue, is simply that people consume television and media in general in a very different fashion during the 2010s. I do trust them to come up with a sound diagnostic, and Chibnall to do something interesting with the show, even if I can’t deny I’m a little bit worried about that transition – Moffat is my favourite Who writer, and will definitely be a tough act to follow.

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  2. Pingback: TIBERIAN THOUGHTS – Extra Post: Steven Moffat and bad criticism | DoWntime

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