In 2010, Steven Moffat’s reign of terror in the BBC began in earnest. RTD’s run of Doctor Who had ended on the 1st of January, introducing Matt Smith as the eleventh incarnation of the Doctor, who would have his first episode on the 4th of April. Sherlock’s first episode aired on the 25th of July, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and that other bastard. Both shows started on shaky grounds due to his poor writing and then got markedly worse as they went on. As you can tell from my introduction, this essay is going to be opinion-based, so I shan’t take it personally if you disagree with me.
In general, a lot of what Moffat wanted to do with both shows were theoretically okay but quickly hamstrung by his own self-obsession and tendency to jack himself off all over his own scripts. Nothing and nobody reads Moffat as accurately and lethally as Hbomberguy’s Sherlock Is Garbage, And Here’s Why, which is a masterpiece of video essay. At two hours long, it’s a little bit longer than an episode of Sherlock, but infinitely more rewarding. I’ve got my own hot takes to deliver, hence why I’m making my own essay instead of just sending you there.
I sound like I’ve come here purely to spew vitriol, and I have come here to do that, but in all honesty my anger comes from a sense of betrayal or disappointment. Doctor Who was my life from when it started in 2005 to when I stopped caring around 2013 or so, at age fifteen, and even after that my brother and I would watch the classic series. I’ve watched multiple serials from all the doctors and even went through a phase of being obsessed with the 1996 direct-to-television film featuring Paul McGann. Similarly, in 2012 I went through a phase of being obsessed with the Sherlock Holmes stories and books and read literally every one of them, determined to become a detective when I grew up. I don’t dislike Moffat’s attempt at either of these beloved staples of British media because I’m a bitter and vindictive person (which I am). It’s because I tried so hard to love them and at every turn Moffat made me hate trying.
Recently, out of nostalgia and because my boyfriend hadn’t seen them, he and I sat down to watch all of the RTD era of Doctor Who. I was hoping that rewatching them as an adult with some more understanding of how to criticise media would be enriching, and it was. I have a whole other essay I’m working on about why this era of Doctor Who appealed so strongly to LGBT fans. The reason I’m writing this essay is because we just finished watching the 2009 specials that ended RTD’s run, and the whole time I was thinking incessantly about how much of it Moffat ripped off for his own shows that were starting soon.
The first actual example I’ll give of this is Simm’s portrayal of the Master compared to Scott’s portrayal of Moriarty. Behaviourally, aesthetically, and emotionally, the characters have a lot in common. Both characters have an obsessive grudge against the main character, a seemingly inexplicable madness that drives them to commit erratic acts of evil, and an over-the-top, morally bankrupt, and erratic pattern of behaviour that makes them entertaining and unpredictable as a villain. The problem I have is the depth of the characters. Knowing all we do about the Master’s history, and seeing how the Doctor treats him with love and desperation despite how many times they have fought, his horrifying behaviour and eventual death have emotional significance. He’s a survivor of the Time War, a victim, like the Doctor, of the Time Lords’ actions, and all he wants is to be free of the shit situation he arose from.
Moriarty is a similar character, and like the Master, obsesses over the main character, messes with his life, and is willing to fucking die just to spite him. But with Moriarty, it comes from nothing. He seems to have picked Sherlock as an enemy because Sherlock is a smart guy, and at no point is Sherlock urged to engage with Moriarty on an emotional level, since the main connection between them is that they’re Very Smart™. Moriarty’s death is only really significant because it comes out of nowhere and forces Sherlock to fake his own death. His reappearances, laughing and bothering Sherlock, come across as a way of keeping the audience strung along rather than as a way of exploring the depth of Sherlock’s character. When the Doctor thinks the Master is alive, he’s desperate to find him so that there’s a single other member of his own culture still alive. When Sherlock thinks Moriarty is alive, what we get from that is an air of ‘this cunt again?’. Moriarty and the Master both cackle maniacally, but for what? Why? What’s the point of Moriarty?
The events of The End of Time were effective to me because the entirety of RTD’s reign had been about the emotional and universal consequences for the Doctor as a result of being the sole survivor of the Time War. He and the Master had escaped the Time Lock for long enough to run around the universe for a while more, but it caught up with them eventually; the Master heads back into hell, and the tenth Doctor dies and regenerates into a character who’s not too concerned with the events of the Time War anymore. It works because the 2009 specials were a climax to this character, and that’s why the tone of these stories is so intense and fucked up, most notably The Waters of Mars, which is one of the most depressing stories from RTD’s era. But instead of taking from the earlier RTD seasons, in which most episodes were unconnected, interesting adventures in their own right with subtle hints of something bigger and nastier happening, Moffat instead modeled his seasons of Doctor Who on these last specials, where everything ties into the Doctor, everything is connected to each other, and everything needs to be about the fate of the universe.
One thing I genuinely enjoyed about rewatching RTD’s era is that while each episode within a series will build, in some way, towards the season finale, almost every episode can be viewed on its own (barring two-parters) and the overarching plot doesn’t interfere with the storytelling and world of each individual episode. In Moffat’s very first season running the show, he introduces the cracks in the universe, which are important in most episodes and tie directly into the climax. It’s exhausting, because it doesn’t let the individual writers flex their skills and create their own stakes. In contrast, in RTD’s last season, the vanishing of planets is important to the series in that it causes individual conflicts within some episodes (e.g. the Adipose breeding planet vanishing, prompting them to come to Earth) but doesn’t interfere with the autonomy of each episode. It’s like Moffat watched the 2009 specials and thought that they comprised the majority of the show, which they did not. He commits the same egregious and boring sin in Sherlock, where the episodes just can’t be autonomous. The first episode can’t just be about a cab driver murdering people, it has to be about Moriarty. The second episode can’t just be a horribly racist Yellow Peril story; it has to be about Moriarty. And after he’s gone, the plot about Sherlock’s sister (also very stupid), is also about Moriarty.
Steven Moffat saw the beloved canon of Sherlock Holmes, a series of unrelated detective mysteries that are some of the best known examples of that genre, and decided to indulge his ego and make them stupider. Love that for him.
This brings me to my final example: Moffat’s narcissism. I’m not the first person to discuss how in his versions of Sherlock and Doctor Who, the story ends up revolving around the main characters a little too much. It’s about them, how smart they are, how unique they and their history are, and how everyone is beneath them. This is a left turn from RTD’s era in which the Doctor only positions himself above others in a joking sense or when he’s very angry, and from the original Sherlock Holmes stories, which are about the actual mystery and not so much about any of the people solving it. Both characters are a vehicle for the viewer/reader to explore a world and the situation found within. The main time, in fact, that the Doctor deviates from this is during the 2009 specials. In The Next Doctor, some attention is paid to the Doctor’s legacy and role in the universe, strictly due to the fact that some other person has accidentally absorbed all of it. In The Waters of Mars the Doctor’s role as a bystander in history, and what would happen if he had poorer self-control, is extensively explored in order to show that the Doctor is going too far; it’s not typical behaviour of him and it’s a sign that maybe it really is time for him to die.
Moffat seems to have watched those episodes and decided that this is how the Doctor is and should be during his run. His first episode, The Eleventh Hour, ends with the Doctor being like “ohoho I’m the Doctor. And that’s why you lost. Just because I’m the sickest dude in the universe”, and his run continues from there. The final episode of that season involves him being attacked by everyone who’s ever hated him and he again gives a narcissistic speech. I wouldn’t mind this so much if it were depicted as an intentional character trait that would develop over time and cause problems, but instead Moffat treats it like it’s a normal thing for him to do, since he really is so great. Moffat’s obsession with the ‘true name’ and backstory of the Doctor seems to spring forth from a similar narcissistic desire, and the mythologising of Sherlock’s backstory and home life in Sherlock give off a similar feel.
Hbomberguy correctly points out in his video that these writing problems of Moffat’s are older than the 2009 specials, and on top of that, it’s worth me pointing out that villains in the style of the Master and Moriarty were pretty popular at the time due in part to Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight. Looking back on Moffat’s other episodes in the series, especially Silence in the Library and Forest of the Dead (which are the first appearances of River Song and the subsequent interest in the Doctor’s ‘true name’) and The Girl in the Fireplace (which shows the Doctor as a more arrogant heart-breaker than usual) we do see his style starting to emerge. I actually left The Girl in the Fireplace out of my rewatch because I find the Doctor romancing a woman he met as a child not long ago to be deeply disturbing, and the fact that Moffat pulls this same trick of having the Doctor meet people when they are young children and then have them become obsessed with him as an adult in his own seasons is another essay’s worth of Freudian material.
I don’t think that Moffat sat down to watch the 2009 Doctor Who specials and used them as templates for everything he’s ever done since then. However, I did think it was worth pointing out that these well-received and well-remembered specials contained a whole lot of elements that Moffat would later use much more poorly, like he was copying RTD’s homework answers without knowing how RTD got those answers in the first place. I think it’s the common elements between RTD and Moffat’s eras that kept me watching Moffat’s shows for so long after I started hating them. They felt a little bit like the old series, like the show I loved so dearly, enough so that I kept watching in case Moffat ever figured out to actually write well. I don’t think that RTD’s run was perfect, far from it, but it’s the reason I fell in love with the show and watched so much of the classic series, so clearly it had some kind of magic that Moffat could not replicate.
Also, fucking love Martha.