Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Is Moffat Really "Behind the Best Dr. Who"?

Steven Moffat & Matt Smith (7606550818)Not too long ago, the second season of Sherlock, the modern adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes character by Stephen Moffat, was made available for free streaming on pbs.org. I confess that I haven't yet gotten around to watching those episodes, but having thoroughly enjoyed the first season, I'm looking forward to doing so. A friend of mine, helping to spread the word about this development on Facebook, recognized that Moffat has also been responsible for the most recent couple of seasons of Doctor Who. I'm not sure I can quite agree with my friend when he asserts, however, that Moffat is "the mind behind the best Dr. Who."

Now, I agree that Stephen Moffat has done some amazing work, both on Sherlock and on Doctor Who. But I'm hesitant to agree that his couple of years on Doctor Who represent the "best" of its nearly 50-year history. Maybe it's just that I was a fan of Doctor Who before it was "cool" (that is, before the series was revived in 2005), but I just can't help but wonder if my friend is unaware of some of the amazing work that was done in the "Classic" era. Moffat's walking in some very well-worn shoes, and although his work is easily worthy of the role he's taken on, I think it does a disservice to many of the men and women who carried the torch before him (by the way, did you notice that current Doctor Matt Smith carried the literal Olympic torch this past weekend?).

I also feel that "new Who" has some significant faults. Nothing that makes me not want to watch the show, mind you, but things that I wish they could move past. To be fair, much this can be blamed not on Stephen Moffat, but rather on his predecessor, Russell T. Davies (and I will be the first to suggest that Moffat is a far superior show-runner to Davies). However, to the extent that Moffat has continued these trends (which weren't in evidence so much during the "Classic" era), he could do more to stop doing that. For example, there shouldn't be a year-long story arc every year. When this happened in the "Classic" era (the 16th season, "The Key to Time" and the 23rd season, The Trial of a Time Lord), it was the exception. Now it has become the rule. Story lines should be able to stand entirely on their own, without any need to drop in a few random code words ("Bad Wolf"), or wondering about who this "Mr. Saxon" is, or some hint about bees going missing, or why cracks in the space-time continuum keep showing up, or... well, you get the point (I recognize that only that last example is really Moffat's, but the arc for the season after that is so intense that I don't dare mention it in case it would spoil it for someone who hasn't seen it yet)... in some effort to build toward a cataclysmic season-ending event.

Actually, having cataclysmic season-ending events, itself, was pretty unusual in "Classic" Who. For the most part, there was little reason to make a season finale any more "special" than any other episode. Again, there were exceptions of greater or lesser importance throughout the "Classic" show's run (The Evil of the Daleks, closing out Season Four, was supposed to be the final end of the Daleks — although things didn't quite work out that way — and The War Games ended both the Sixth Season and the Second Doctor's tenure. Indeed, most regenerations after that tended to be at the end of the season — although the Sixth Doctor broke that mold on both ends of his tenure, taking the reigns a full story-arc early in Season 21, and leaving at the beginning of Season 24). That's fine. Doing special things once in a while is a very good thing. Just mix it up a bit.

When New Who started up, I was especially annoyed at Davies' over-insistence on sexualizing Doctor Who. It seemed like every companion for a while was in love with the Doctor (not just the women, either! And the main exception, Donna Noble, was so explicitly an exception that they had to remind us of the fact every other episode, somewhat proving the point), and Moffat sadly seems to have continued the trend with current companion Amy Pond (the fact that she loves her husband Rory even more than the Doctor is noteworthy, but not enough to ignore the time she tried to get the Doctor to sleep with her — and she was already engaged to Rory at the time — early in her tenure). I'm not saying the show's suddenly become unsafe for kids (although I know of some who do think so), but rather that I often feel like I'm being hit over the head with New Who's need to promote modern (secular) sexual values.

I'm not saying that I dislike New Who at all. Indeed, a lot of the changes made to the show when it came back in 2005 did more than just "bring the show back from the dead," but breathed new life into the entire franchise, demonstrated by the fact that it is going strong again today, after an absence from television screens for nearly two decades. I'm just saying that I'm of the opinion that not all of the changes have been good ones, and that I'm not ready to say that the Who of today is categorically the "best" Who we have ever seen. There are some pretty enormous shoes the show still has to fill.

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