When I was twelve or so, I moved schools. New friends, new opportunities, but most importantly, a new teacher. At my previous school I flew under the radar - I was smart enough to ace most tests without trying, and when my attention drifted and a teacher caught me out, I could pick up enough conversation cues to get by. But I was insecure, especially moving into this new space. My old toolset quickly failed me. My new teacher (we’ll call him Mr Jones to protect the innocent) didn’t just ask a question and move on, he drilled into me with follow ups.
“Okay,” said Mr Jones, after catching me disengaged during a discussion of Rowan of Rin, “but why do you think Strong Jonn is the last one left? What’s the author trying to tell us?”
“I guess he’s the backbone of the village, the brave one, right?” I offered.
“Sure, but Rowan is the brave one. Jonn folds when it matters, so what does that tell us?”
I had nothing. I hadn’t even read the book, and he knew it. I went home that night and cover to covered the novel. It’s a short book after all. The next day I came, mind loaded with great rejoiners, insightful analysis, and for the entirety of the English lesson, Mr Smith ignored me. I hated Mr Jones after that. He made us line up outside the classroom in dead silence like the military. He barked orders. He undermined every assumption I had about myself, and made me feel as if my intelligence and quickness weren’t enough.
As media critics, we often find ourselves complicit in litigating an author of a text for the behaviour of their characters. That character flaws or world view somehow reflect a true belief of the creator. This is not how fiction, or storytelling works: I’ve written dozens of characters who hold beliefs and prejudice I not only disagree with, but actively fight against in this very publication.
That being said, Steven Moffat has a habit of writing really smart, anti-social bullies who are supposed to be hot. And it confuses and fascinates the hell out of me. Rewatching Matt Smith’s run on Doctor Who all these years later, The Eleventh Doctor’s characterisation caught me off guard. I’ve seen the show dozens of times all the way through, but this time I noted the huge tonal swing across season five and six. Until mid-way through six, I really didn’t like The Doctor this time round.
When he first arrives on scene, Smith’s characterisation is aloof, weird, his regeneration played up way too hard while the show finds its new tone. Even in the first episode, despite the almost cartoonish start, The Doctor manages to be dismissive to almost everyone he interacts with. He badgers Rory. He bullies Amy. The constant putting others down generates momentum to his actions: in an attempt to save the world from ending, his urgency and consequent poor behaviour feel perfectly justified within the rules of the text. I didn’t mind it too much in the first episode, it felt like a fitting bridge between Tennant’s arrogant Doctor and Smith’s confident, child-like energy. You can see both Smith and Moffat trying to find the show’s new voice, but it’s an intelligent, unself-aware mean voice.
I disliked Mr Jones so much that my first week of his classes saw me curled up in bed, sobbing. I told my mother I hated the school, I didn’t want to go back in the serious way only children can. Mr Jones was stern. Militaristic. That’s no way to treat children, he doesn’t know what he’s doing and so on. She listened with sympathy, and told me to give it another week, early days yet.
The following Monday, I turned up to school determined to hate whatever Mr Jones taught us, absolutely hate it. I wasn’t going to respect him, hell with him. I sat at my desk, arms crossed, and Mr Jones called me up to the whiteboard. I said I wasn’t feeling well. He shrugged, explaining it wouldn’t take long. I hunched awkwardly in front of the class of kids I didn’t know. The clammy, dense Brisbane summer settled around me. Sweating in equal parts from frustration and the knee high cotton socks we were forced to wear.
“Same question as last time,” Mr Jones said. “About Strong Jonn, now that you’ve spent more time with the book.”
“I don’t know,” I managed.
“Well, fine, but tell us about it. You can sit down when you have.”
And I started talking. About the Strong Jonn. About Rowan, about how Rowan was shy about getting undressed, but unflinching when he needs to save his friend. That the moral is simple, a little juvenile. And that Rowan is the good guy because he cares about the animals he shepherds is the author’s way of identifying virtues of this world. Strength and wisdom are found through this goodness, the book suggests.
The other cast of characters are selected for the journey up the mountain because they are considered the strongest, or the smartest, or the wisest. But they each fall by the wayside as their fears overcome them. The story does not suggest the other heroes are wrong to do so. In fact, their reasons for turning back and stopping are all completely valid. As a result, Rowan succeeds where all the adults failed to, not because he isn’t scared, but because he persists despite the fear. His ability to overcome discomfort and danger is bravery. To stand before the dragon despite knowing it might be his end, not because he knows he will win.
Before we get into how Smith’s Doctor evolves, it’s important to chart where this narrative arrives in Moffat’s career. After working on a handful of Who scripts under Russel T Davies, Moffat pursued a few episodes of Jekyll, a modern-day retelling of Jekyll and Hyde that spun the story into a science fiction thriller. Off the back of Jekyll’s commercial failure, Moffat took over as showrunner of Doctor Who, completing season five while simultaneously writing the pilot for Sherlock. Knowing this history and having watched each show, the line from Jekyll to weird-space-bully Doctor is easy to trace.
Jekyll’s titular character struggles with split personalities (caused by some sci fi BS, it doesn’t matter), wielding great intelligence and instincts, but is prone to fits of violence when the alternative persona takes over. This works rather well, performing an interesting reinterpretation of the source material. Not by coincidence, The Eleventh Doctor and Sherlock Holmes are brilliantly intelligent, and prone to fits of violence and anger. But unlike Jekyll where his dissociation from society was a result of science fiction mechanics, The Doctor and Sherlock actively detach themselves from society in order to “get the job done” as it were.
Both characters are incredibly intelligent, socially isolated, and care little for social moraes. Sherlock constantly rejects social norms, or pretends they do not exist. The implication is that these rules of ‘polite’ society are a hindrance for the smart people who get shit done. The mythology of this outsider agent perveys Moffat’s work. Indeed, Jekyll, Sherlock, Chalk: all centre a brilliant, tactless, men who are imbued with some special talent for solving problems and creating chaos. Chalk focuses on Eric Slatt, the deputy headmaster of a school who gets himself into as many problems as he solves. He’s periodically aggressive, always sarcastic, and prone to lapses in judgement when his ego gets the better of him. Moffat’s approach differs somewhat from the CBS procedural police-consultant-with-a-special-gift trend in that often Moffat’s protagonists rarely find redemption. Where Elementary and The Mentalist are intensely interested in seeing their protagonists grow and become active participants in society, Moffat has little interest in rehabilitation. In fact, his texts often indicate that these protagonists are right to remain outside of polite society for this is where they are most effective.
It’s hard to tell if this is a self-conscious criticism. That perhaps Moffat is reflecting on his own behaviours as a brilliant-but-rude screenwriter who struggles to care about fitting in. Whatever the case, the first season of Moffat’s Who is full of Matt Smith yelling at other characters. Often.
He dismisses Churchill’s opinions out of hand immediately. This doesn’t matter, The Doctor is right in the end, and bullying Amy pushes her to empathise with the Dalek’s plant which saves the day. In the following two stories, The Doctor actively mocks the religious faith of the Church to the point where his dismissal of their belief is more than rude, it’s almost out of character. A generous reading here is that The Doctor is so on-edge with River Song’s presence and the threat of the Weeping Angels, but this feels like a weak justification for a character who has never hated religion. Needless to say that the Doctor continually treats Rory like a man who was born yesterday, and even in the one episode that challenges his behaviour, Amy’s Choice, The Doctor wins out by relying on everyone else acting like a person with feelings so he doesn’t have to.
The consequent sequels to Rowan of Rin dote on Rowan’s willingness to remain open-minded and fair when those around him do not. The second story dwells on xenophobia. The other stories diverge into far grander fantasy, but centre Rowan’s kindness and bravery as his most admirable traits. While this grows weary by the fourth book, where racism is solved by Rowan and co learning that their ancestors were brainwashed and we’re all one people now.
Rowan grows and matures, but does not really change. His character in book one is the same by the series’ conclusion. He is a protagonist who alters the world and people around him while remaining interially the same.
In this way, Matt Smith’s Doctor follows the same writing approach in season five. The Doctor starts as a self-important, universe altering force of intelligence, and almost ends the season the same way. Rather than Davies’ approach where individual episodes presented a problem that the Doctor and his companion had to work through, and change because of, Moffat’s first season waits until its tenth episode to remember that the Doctor has to like… change as a result of his adventures.
I think this is why more so than any other showrunner, Moffat relied on two-parters. Doing three of these a season means you need less ideas and less arcs that risk hampering whatever big flashy finale you have planned. And you can see this slip into The Hungry Earth two-parter. The show has to enforce an emotion so large and unavoidable that it actively changes the dynamic of the show. Rory dies and is erased from history: Amy forgets him entirely, but The Doctor does not.
This is an inspired twist despite the way it gets unwound later. The Doctor has to bear the burden of this guilt entirely on his own and conceal his behavioural change from Amy. The result is four richly emotional episodes that wrap up the season. Vincent and The Doctor places our hero in front of a man tortured by genius: a mirror of the senseless cruelty and pain it conceals. And in spending time with Vincent, the Doctor fails to save him. Some things are inevitable and no amount of intelligence or blind problem-solving can replace true compassion. The last moments of the episode are some of the best screenwriting in the show, period.
Moffat’s focus on penning the finale seemingly allowed Richard Curtis and Gareth Roberts to quietly unlock The Doctor from Moffat’s typecasting. After The Lodger, The Doctor is suddenly empathetic and emotional. He still doesn’t always read social cues correctly and he can still be rude, but he’s no longer cruel for the sake of it. He changes, and begins a journey of growth that carries through into season six, coming full circle with The Doctor’s Wife and Closing Time.
We eventually end up with one of the best conflicts burning at the heart of the show in season seven, all stemming from this turning point in season five. The Doctor from then on is forced to confront his own brutality and callousness in the name of saving others or protecting his friends. Fitting, that his eventual death and regeneration is caused by his stubbornness not to allow a planet to perish, knowing he may die protecting it, expending his final regeneration to do one last act of kindness.
After departing Who, Moffat’s Sherlock failed to learn this lesson and drove itself into the ground by tripling down on the super-special-smart-bully-who-doesn’t-need-to-change, eventually becoming a parody of its own virtues.
My criticism of Moffat’s run of Doctor Who is wide and varied, but frequently redeemed by individual, contained episodes penned by other writers that change the central character irreversibly, forcing the story to continue growing more and more interesting as The Doctor grows more and more relatable. The show’s glimpses of brilliance under Moffat’s reign are almost despite his writing philosophy, not because of. And that’s the worst thing of all: Moffat is capable of brilliance when contained within someone else’s show, but suffocates his own success without ever really meaning to.