Contains spoilers for the last two years of Doctor Who episodes.
In 2005, Russell T. Davies brought the venerable Doctor Who franchise back from the dead, and in 2010 Steven Moffat took over the reigns – but who is the better Who showrunner?
The biggest difference between the two writer-producers lies in the period of Doctor Who that influences their work. Davies, raised on the horror-influenced Philip Hinchcliffe-Tom Baker era, has always been drawn to science fiction in the style of Dalek-creator Terry Nation. Davies-era Who was built on 1970s style sci-fi with its emphasis on space-faring far future settings, accompanied by generous body counts and monsters that cannot be reasoned with that are unleashed by lunatics who bring about their own doom. Drawing influence from the original serials that had enjoyed the greatest popularity was a sound way to rejuvenate the show, and Davies novel trick was to wed these kind of stories with a very British kind of soap opera – urban family melodrama in the style of Eastenders or Coronation Street. This helped secure the regenerated show with a wider audience of adults, while vintage monster romps with Daleks and Cybermen helped bring in the audience of young boys the series was always intended to attract.
Moffat, on the other hand, was a child of the Peter Davison era Doctor Who, a circumstance alluded to in his charity special Time Crash, in which the David Tennant Doctor – acting as a direct mouthpiece for Moffat – admits to the Peter Davison Doctor that he was “always his Doctor”. (That Tennant too had great fondness for Peterson’s performance helped make this mini-episode payoff so successfully). 'The Davison serials were markedly lighter in tone than their precursors, while still possessing a darker edge, and saw a return to the “Tardis family” format that had been the hallmark of the show’s early days, with William Hartnell holding the keys to the little blue box – back before the Sonic Screwdriver had even been conceived. (Speaking of the Doctor’s ultimate plot device, the Davison Who also saw an editorial directive to eliminate the lazy use of the Sonic Screwdriver by writers as a one-size-fits-all deus ex machina – quite the opposite of its contemporary deployment as a gizmo-slash-tricorder-slash-technotaser.)
Despite the change of influences, Moffat has been reluctant to tinker too greatly with Davies’ formula and has kept the family melodrama, while moving its terrestrial base of operations out of the city for the first time in the show’s history. The transplant from London to village was pronounced during Moffat’s first year, but has faded into insignificance during Moffat’s second term for one simple reason: without the family-waiting-at-home structure of Davies’ soap stories, the melodrama has moved into the Tardis itself, with the dead-again, alive-again romance between Amy and Rory becoming supplemented with the kill-me or kiss-me relationship between the Doctor and River Song. The “Tardis family” format that inspired this approach was never quite as over-the-top as it is now, however. The original “family” were the Doctor’s granddaughter (a character now sadly forgotten by both Davies and Moffat) and her terrestrial school teachers, who happened to be a married couple. The new “family” uses a mighty dollop of time-travel nonsense to contrive River as both the Doctor’s lover and the daughter of Amy and Rory. The payoff of this thread would perhaps have been more satisfying if it did not feel so uncomfortably pulled from thin air.
Indeed, pulling plot elements from nowhere seems to be the hallmark of Moffat’s tenure as showrunner. The episodes he wrote under Davies leadership were pleasingly tight in their construction, and far and away the best of the rather uneven stories during the first few years of the revitalised show. Yet in “A Good Man Goes to War”, Moffat invents a Magnificent Seven-style entourage for the Doctor without any of that troublesome foreshadowing or continuity that would usually be required. This is a stark contrast from Davies more laborious approach to climaxes, which followed in the tradition of long builds pioneered by X-Men comic writer Chris Claremont (and most recently championed on TV by hero-slaying geek favourite Joss Whedon). Davies seasonal arcs simmered slowly (and occasionally tediously) towards an over-the-top finale. Moffat seems more willing to quickly microwave his long-term plots and throw in some fireworks to compensate for the half-baked preperations. The 2011 season in particular suffered from the strain of a premise delivered solely in the bookends of each half-season, and conspicuously absent in between.
Against the Terry Nation style of science fiction storytelling so prevalent during Davies’ tenure, Moffat has largely eschewed the conventional Doctor Who settings of moonbase or future city in favour of bait-and-switch stories that seem to offer the ordinary or historical, but have techno-nonsense thrown in at last minute. You might think you’re watching a pirate adventure/horror story, but by the end it’s about a malfunctioning medical hologram (alas, not played by Robert Picardo). Although it seems to be a creepy hotel, it’s really a prison satellite for a rubber monster with a lip-service connection to the classic Who monster, the Nimon. I suspect this shift from space opera to something closer in style to Sapphire and Steel is a double-edged sword, less pleasing to the sci-fi faithful, but perfectly palatable to the wider audience for the show.
Perhaps the most surprising element of the Moffat-era Who isn’t what’s changed but what’s stayed the same, specifically the expression of contemporary hostility to religion in general, and faith traditions in particular. Davies, as I’ve discussed before in the Religion in Science Fiction serial, was always hostile to traditional belief, and got away with his boot-in-the-balls approach to people of faith by painting in the broadest strokes (“religion is bad”, a view that even practitioners of religion are sadly open to) while bizarely maintaining an ethical stance so incredibly close to Christian morality that on the whole everyone but myself was perfectly satisfied. Since most viewers in the UK shared Davies hostility to organised religion, it didn’t present any problems at all to the majority of viewers.
Expecting this religion-bashing to end when Davies left the show, I was shocked at Moffat’s creedist racism in the aforementioned “A Good Man Goes to War”, which suggested via the Headless Monks metaphor and ‘Papal Mainframe’ quip that Catholic Christianity makes a virtue of naive stupidity, and (equally insultingly) that Protestantism is envious of any faith that denies reason. People laugh when Catholics in the US suggest that the last respectable bigotry is against them, but stories like this demonstrate how little non-religious people understand about the complex relationship between Catholics and the Vatican. While there certainly are criticisms that could be levelled at the various elements of the Catholic tradition, the belief that its laity simply do what they are told by the clergy is a wild fantasy. The kind of prejudice Moffat expresses in this episode yet another example of how a dogmatic faith in reason has fuelled an enthusiastic positivism that inherits many of the flaws of the religious institutions its most vocal practitioners despise.
The brief nod of sympathy to Muslims in “The God Complex” did little to offset the weird conflation of faith with superstition and thus irrationality that underpins this antipathy in contemporary Doctor Who. Rory is ceremoniously blessed by the Doctor as being free of faith – apparently neither his faith in his wife nor his faith in medicine qualify, for reasons that are never explored. This episode rests on the assumption that we can reliably divide our beliefs into the reasonable and the unreasonable – Saint Rory is absolved of guilt because his faiths (we are told) are justified and thus non-existent. Everyone else, however, holds beliefs that exceed what is (it is implied) acceptable, and therefore must suffer. It’s a more sophisticated kind of prejudice than Davies offered, but its roots are the same.
It's extremely disappointing when this kind of cartoon caricature of religious belief is offered as entertainment, especially alongside an uncritically professed faith in science and reason. Frankly, I find it utterly implausible that a Time Lord would believe in the kind of gene-supremacy Matt Smith is made to utter near the end of “Closing Time”, as if gene-centric perspectives were factual rather than rhetorical in nature. It is not that faith should be immune from critique, but rather that the forms of faith present in the world today are routinely divided into the good and the bad along lines that originate in ideology. Science fiction is a mirror we hold up to ourselves, and what this show is currently reflecting is our tremendous capacity to absolve our own beliefs while condemning those who believe differently. The Doctor’s other-worldly perspective in classic Who was always rooted in a steadfast rebelliousness against all kinds of dogma, irrespective of its source – there was a sound reason why the presumed impossibility of the bumblebee’s flight was offered by the fourth Doctor as emblematic of his view of the universe.
The biggest problem that Doctor Who suffers under Moffat’s rule, however, is not ideological but pragmatic. While Davies occasionally green lit some very poor stories for development, you could always rely on the Steven Moffat episode to really come through. From the eerie charms of “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” to the quirky inventiveness of “Blink”, not to mention the sublime “The Girl in the Fireplace” (quite possibly the best Doctor Who episode ever written) Moffat was always Davies’ secret weapon, able to assuage any doubt about the quality of the show with blisteringly original tales. But who do you turn to for a dynamite episode when you are Steven Moffat? While there have been fewer dreadful stories under his watch, there have been very few truly great stories, with the possible exceptions of Richard Curtis’ “Vincent and the Doctor” and perhaps (for the fans, at least) Neil Gaiman’s “The Doctor’s Wife”. Moffat’s episodes under his own leadership have been terribly indulgent (although perhaps not as indulgent as Davies' own), and so far we have yet to see the emergence of any great writing talent to replace him.
In all honesty, I can’t say I miss Russell T. Davies – his melodrama was overly laboured and his builds better than his payoffs – but I do miss the Terry Nation-Philip Hinchcliffe-Tom Baker influences that held the Who balloon aloft during his tenure as showrunner. Equivalently, while I can’t say I’m not enjoying the show with Steven Moffat at the helm, I can’t help but feel that Moffat’s best work required someone to tell him ‘no’ from time to time. With the impunity of power has come some sloppy excesses, and it rather seems that the extra demands of producing the show leave him less time to construct his stories as robustly as he did in the past. Regardless, Doctor Who remains one of the few television shows I can actually manage to be excited about watching – even if the recent episodes, more often as not, have left me with a little too much disappointment and not quite enough pride in this, the longest running science fiction series in the world.