It was the summer of 1966. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass won Record of the Year that year with “A Taste of Honey”. Audiences flocked to the movies to see Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Batman: The Movie. In a couple of months Star Trek would make its television debut.
I was a kid that summer and it was my first trip to England. As we crowded around the black and white TV set in my aunt and uncle’s living room, with it’s scratchy, fuzzy picture and tinny sound, the TARDIS materialized in a desert. A man and woman exited the TARDIS, followed by the Doctor. William Hartnell, the first Doctor. My first Doctor.
Taking the woman by the hand, the man said, “Come on, we’ll find our own way back to London.”
“Fools!” said the Doctor, and went back inside.
That’s the only scene I remember from that episode. Maybe that’s all I saw. But I was hooked. This was very cool stuff. The Doctor scared the hell out of me, even though I gathered he was the good guy.
The Peter Cushing movie, Dalek’s Invasion Earth 2150 AD, was playing in England that summer. It was in colour and included Daleks of every colour of the rainbow. Not only did I love the Daleks in and of themselves, but they flew in flying saucers! I was too young to realize just how profoundly stupid the movie was. (A greater sin by far is it’s unbearable soundtrack.) At the time it just seemed very cool, and I have fond memories of it to this day.
This was actually the second Doctor Who feature film. Later, my family caught the first one, also starring Peter Cushing as “Doctor Who”, at a drive-in sometime later. And, for me, that was about it for the good Doctor until TV Ontario acquired the rights in the early ‘70’s. The first episode of Doctor Who to air was the first of the multi-Doctor episodes, “The Three Doctors”. TVO had a guy, Doctor Dator (real name), who introduced the episodes, provided background we might be missing, and gave us some food for thought.
But with “The Three Doctors”, we come to the crux of the problem with classic Doctor Who. It was profoundly unwatchable by anyone over, say, eleven years old. Why? It might have something to do with the scripts, the acting, the sets and the special effects, but to name but a few things. You can find fan videos on YouTube of higher quality than many episodes of classic Who.
To be fair, Doctor Who was produced with little budget and probably less time. I recall an interview with John Cleese who said something like, “British television is terrible. If you finish, [your production] that’s cause for celebration. If it’s good, well that’s something else altogether.” Still, one can only go by the end product, and the end product was not good.
Nevertheless, I continued to watch it. Why? For me, it was the rich backstory. Time Lords, an ancient race whose citizens could regenerate a new body. The TARDIS, with a small exterior and an essentially infinite interior that existed in a different dimension. That darned chameleon circuit that got stuck in the shape of a police box. The Daleks. The Cybermen. All of that.
I was fond of the first four actors to play the Doctor and the unique, perfect personalities they brought to the part. But then, for me, things started to go from bad to worse. Peter Davison came along and although I’d loved his work on All Creatures Great and Small, I thought he was miscast here. The 6th and 7th Doctors, I felt at the time, were simply embarrassments. I could scarcely bear to watch them. In retrospect, I came to realize that this was unfair. They were fine actors; the problem was with the source material. I stopped watching regularly sometime during Peter Davison’s reign. Sporadically I’d tune in, but was always disappointed. And it seems that the public agreed, because the ratings slid to the point where the BBC finally cancelled the show in 1989.
I read a fair number of Doctor Who books in the years that followed. Some of them were surprisingly well written and complex. I remember being blown away by “The Infinity Doctors” in particular.
The good Doctor sputtered to life briefly in 1996 in a one-shot made-for-TV movie. This was a British-American collaboration that just didn’t work. Unfortunate because Paul McGann was a great Doctor and he was very popular. Can anyone count how many times he’s reprised the role in Big Finish audio dramas? Do you remember how the Internet melted down following his surprise appearance in “The Night of the Doctor”?
Then we come to 2005, and the rebirth of the series. Russell T. Davies brought to the screen an invigorated Doctor Who that was good in every respect. Good scripts, good acting, interesting stories, and arcs that spanned the whole of a series. Are you afraid of the big Bad Wolf? My favourite scene in the ten plus years since Doctor Who’s return is when Rose looks into the heart of the TARDIS, into the Time Vortex itself, and returns the TARDIS to the future to rescue the Doctor.
Davies gave us the Time War and introduced us to Rose Tyler and Captain Jack Harkness, two of the most beloved characters in the series. And he reintroduced a new, young, sharp-tongued Master. Most of all, he saved Doctor Who from oblivion. So, when Steven Moffat was announced as the new showrunner, he had big shoes to fill.
But fill them he did, bringing us to what I would argue is the golden age of Doctor Who. How did he do that? I think there are three dimensions to his success: the stories, the characters, and the dialog.
Let’s consider these in order, starting with stories.
Moffat had already penned two of the most beloved Doctor Who episodes: “The Girl in the Fireplace” and “Blink”. Just a few years ago, FilmCritHulk wrote an essay, WHY YOU SHOULD WATCH DR. WHO, in which he said of “Blink”, “ONE OF THE BEST HOURS OF TELEVISION. PERIOD.” (FilmCritHulk writes in all caps, because, well, HULK.) Like much of his writing, this essay is literate, insightful, and entertaining. Stop and read it if you haven’t.
Moffat brought us the brilliantly conceived, multi-series spanning River Song story arc. It all began with the Davies-era episodes “The Silence of the Library” and “Forest of the Dead”. Here the Doctor meets River for the first time. For River, it’s the last time. As she’s about to sacrifice herself, she realizes that, through the whole of her relationship with the Doctor, he’s known how she’s going to die. What a moment.
And then there’s the two-parter that kicked off Series 6: “The Impossible Astronaut” and “Day of the Moon”. Here Moffat raised the show to new heights with a complex, dense story, the likes of which Doctor Who had never seen. Steven Moffat clearly isn’t one to underestimate the audience. And what can you say about the Silence, the scariest things we’d seen since, well, that other Moffat creation, the Weeping Angels. At the end of the two-parter, we were left with our jaws dropping as a young child begins to regenerate.
In “Name of the Doctor”, we were floored again when we learned that there was a previously unmentioned incarnation of the Doctor in between the 8th and the 9th. Then there was the seven minutes of sheer genius that was “Night of the Doctor”, in which Paul McGann reprised the role of the 8th Doctor. But “Name of the Doctor” and “Night of the Doctor” were just the buildup to the already classic 50th anniversary special, “The Day of the Doctor”. The War Doctor, along with the 10th and 11th Doctors, come together, and in saving Earth from the Zygons, they discover the key to saving Gallifrey from the Daleks.
What about characters? Steven Moffat has given us some wonderful, fleshed out characters. Let’s start with River Song, Amy & Rory, and their complex relationship. River, the daughter of Amy and Rory, grew up with them. They were all children together (time travel — you’ve got to love it). And then there’s everyone’s favourite Victorian trinity, Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax. The hilarious thing is, among the other hilarious things, that Victorian Londoners are more concerned with the fact that Vastra is a woman than that she’s a Silurian.
And what about Clara? Yes, well… Clara’s not so clear cut. I think the “impossible girl” arc was a bit forced. Possibly Moffat was under some pressure to follow up on the highly successful River Song arc. But still, Clara turned out be the companion most able to play doctor about as well as the Doctor himself. That was her arc, bringing her from babysitter to time traveller in her own stolen TARDIS with an immortal companion.
Let’s not forget Missy, without a doubt the most delightful incarnation of the Master in the history of the show. In this incarnation, she seems to characterize herself as a mischievous close friend to the Doctor rather than his arch enemy, and she brings out some of Moffat’s most witty writing.
Which is a nice segway to the third dimension of Doctor Who’s current success: dialog.
It’s well worth watching Moffat-written episodes a second time as brilliant lines are tossed about so quickly it’s easy to miss them the first time. Consider this bit from “The Witch’s Familiar” in which Clara and Missy discuss the problem of rescuing the Doctor. It might not be the most ingenious bit of dialog he’s written, but it’s the tone and wit that sticks with me (see what I did there?).
“He’s trapped at the heart of the Dalek empire,” said Missy. “He’s a prisoner of the creatures who hate him most in the universe. Between us and him is everything the deadliest race in all of history can throw at us. We, on the other hand, have a pointy stick. How do we start?”
“We assume we’re going to win,” said Clara.
“Oh. Pity, really. I was actually quite peckish.”
“Can I have a stick too?” Clara asked.
“Make your own stick.”
What else was it that FilmCritHulk said about Steven Moffat? Oh yes: “STEVEN MOFFAT IS A GENIUS — SOMETIMES IT IS THAT SIMPLE.”
There are other factors in Doctor Who’s current success, of course. Success, it became quickly apparent, breeds success. As the newfound quality of the show became apparent, they were able to attract A-tier talent. Neil Gaiman was brought on board to pen “The Doctor’s Wife”, an episode that was an immediate classic. Carey Mulligan was the lead actor in “Blink”. Game of Throne’s Maisie Williams played Ashildr for several episodes of series 9. David Tennant, an actor with the chops to play a critically acclaimed Hamlet, was hired to play the Doctor.
Even if Steven Moffat is a genius, genius isn’t constant. Not everything under Moffat’s watch has been golden. Series 8 was weak all around in my opinion, though the show rebounded strongly in series 9. The episode “Journey to the Centre of the TARDIS” wasn’t penned by Moffat but was produced on his watch. I thought this episode was ridiculous. So, Clara is lost in the TARDIS and the Doctor can’t just ask the TARDIS where she is? The TARDIS is essentially infinite in size, so what exactly is gained by having a couple more people look for her. And scavengers at that. Seriously? Of course they’re going to misbehave.
Doctor Who has never enjoyed such storytelling, characterization, acting, sparkling dialog, and all around fun. Steven Moffat has one series left, then its up to Chris Chibnall.
He’s going to have some big shoes to fill.