This week there were three important things going on. Two of them were important mainly to Americans while the other is an occasion which is often under-celebrated but is still dear to the hearts of all British Sci Fi geeks (and geeks worldwide, of course).
I speak, of course, of Thanksgiving, the anniversary of the Assassination of JFK and the anniversary of the first ever broadcast of Doctor Who. The last two are inextricably linked because, as legend has it, the BBC had to delay the broadcast of An Unearthly Child (episode one of the first series of Doctor Who) when the news of the Presidential assassination broke. Also, there was a photograph of the Doctor in Dallas at the time of the assassination shown in an episode of the new series, which ties the two together even closer*. As far as I am aware, Thanksgiving has nothing whatsoever to do with Doctor Who, though I can imagine at some point in the future there could potentially be a Pilgrim/Turkey/Superbowl themed episode in which the Doctor faces an alien horde of American Football players. Well, it could happen.**
So, to celebrate the anniversary, I decided to re-watch ‘A Good Man Goes to War’, the mid series climax of series six which set things up for the second half of series six. It was while watching this that I began to have some ponderings.
Now, I am aware that Stephen Moffat’s take on Who has not been as popular with some as it might have been. There has been a lot of noise on the internets about how Matt Smith is not as good as David Tennant (almost as much as there was about David Tennant not being as good as Christopher Ecclestone… and frankly, every Doctor and companion since William Hartnell has had their supporters and decriers) and I can imagine that some of the weirder elements of Moffat’s stories to date might confuse and annoy some viewers. However, I am personally of the opinion that he is the best man for the job of showrunner on this franchise. I shall explain why.
Moffat has an almost unique skill with storytelling. It is obvious in almost everything he does. I would almost hazard a guess that he sees the structure of story in a different way to the majority of writers and uses this to his advantage. Even as far back as Coupling, the quirky sitcom he wrote way back in 2000 and which ran for 4 years, he was showing a strange way of plotting and presenting his stories for television. Coupling showcased stories running in parallel on split screens, real time progression similar to that seen on 24 and other little touches such as replaying scenes from the PoV of different characters. There were in this mix some elements of non-linear storytelling too – touches which might not have seemed relevant on initial glance by the viewer but which later, when other elements are brought to light, take on a whole new meaning. Moffat would sometimes spend an entire episode building up to a joke, taking a throwaway comment from the start of the story and imbuing it with comedic meaning later. Not all of these touches were unique – some of them were seen in other comedy shows such as Father Ted and the IT Crowd – however, Moffat made good use of them. He also demonstrated in Coupling an ability to really understand human relationships and write a damned good romance plot without mawkish sentimentalism or over the top drama. Whether it was the occasionally rocky long term relationship between Susan and Steve (a couple with names frighteningly similar to him and his wife…), the doomed and often unrequited affairs of ubergeek, Jeff, or the ‘we’re just friends, honest’ romance between Patrick and Sally he managed to make the viewers feel connected to the people involved. It hurts when Jeff got rebuffed because he said something inappropriate and you felt sorry for Steve when he gets dumped (again) for something he said or did.
These are the skills that Moffat brought to the episodes he wrote during Russel T Davies’s reign as showrunner of Doctor Who. The benefit of those skills is quite clear in episodes like The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink, both considered to be among the best episodes of any Doctor Who series ever. He pulls out all the stops in those skills in series 5 and series 6 when he pulls together an elaborate pair of series long stories in which elements seemingly appear randomly but are, in fact, important parts of an overall scheme which does not make sense until the final episodes. Some think that it was ambitious of Russel T Davies to run storylines that ran entire series instead of sticking to standalones, Moffat has gone one better and threaded a single story (the mystery of River Song – warning, SPOILERS) through not only two series he has managed himself but also at least two episodes (Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead) in a series he was not in charge of. Some of that story is running in reverse and there are bits of it scattered all over the place in little clues and tid bits. That level of plotting takes, I think, an exceptional mind capable of managing to organise many different threads under what is almost certainly a very high pressure circumstance.
Now, not to say there are no faults to be seen here. Sometimes he goes too far with the silliness (though even the most ludicrous of his plots, such as ‘A good man goes to war‘ and ‘The Big Bang‘ where incredibly silly things are done to time and space, he seems to pull it off with panache and have us believing it is all possible). Some of his elements are overused, such as the Weeping Angels (a great idea but better in small doses) and I do worry that someday he may try to be too clever and lose all his audience. However, overall, everything he has written so far for the series has not suffered for these flaws and I hope that this continues to be the case.
So, say what you like about Matt Smith as the Doctor. I personally like him and think he does a great job but I know some don’t. He, however, is not entirely to blame for the success of the current run of Doctor Who. I lay that fault entirely at the feet of a man who clearly sees the patterns of time and space in much the same way as The Doctor does, especially where they relate to storylines and plot and bizarre surprises.
* Series 1, episode One – Rose. The conspiracy theorist has a photo which places Christopher Ecclestone in the crowd at Dallas.
** If anyone in the BBC wants me to write this episode, you may contact me through this blog. I am always willing to oblige in these matters 🙂