Time can be rewritten: reflecting on Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who
I’m pretty new to Doctor Who; I jumped on board with the well-publicized “soft reboot” of the 11th Doctor and the fifth season (sorry, “series”). Like many an American viewer, I initially found the campy style and entry-level effects a bit off-putting (my wife never made it back), but I was struck right away by three things. First was frenetic, explosive energy of the story and Matt Smith’s acting, which was matched by the irresistible chemistry of Smith and Karen Gillan, and the out-of-the-gate mythos that “The 11th Hour” gave Amy Pond. But more than anything, I was struck by the awareness that here was an entirely different kind of hero: unabashedly intellectual, deeply eccentric (not, God help us, “quirky,” but really and genuinely…alien), and most of all, totally unrelatable. I mean that, not in the sense that Matt Smith’s Doctor isn’t sympathetic, because Smith is a profoundly good actor whose emotional register can turn on a dime; but rather, that “Who” is premised on the idea that the Doctor is not like us – which of course is the reason the Doctor always has a companion (or two), to provide that place of both identification and disorientation that allows us to be swept off our feet by the adventures of the man from Gallifrey.
Naturally, I’ve since gone back and watched the Eccleston and Tennant eras, and while I love the tragedy of Rose Tyler, and David Tennant’s Shakespearian construction of the 10th Doctor, as much as any right-thinking human being, the administration of the 11th Doctor – Moffat as showrunner, Smith as Doctor, Gillan (and Arthur Darvill) as companion(s) – remains my favorite. The things I’ve come to love about the Doctor, like his avid curiosity, his immense infatuation with humanity’s contradictions and possibilities, his “let’s go and poke it with a stick” attraction to danger, all these have characterized the 9th and 10th Doctors as well. But Smith dropped to earth with an energy, pathos, and comic sensibility that built on both Eccleston and Tennant’s versions, while planting them with a deep sense of the Doctor’s alienness. He is a madman in a box; but he’s also someone that can wear a bowtie or a fez and make them seem, well, cool.
Ok, enough gushing. Let’s talk about what Moffat’s handling of the last couple of seasons have done well. Moffat came to the show on the strength of amazing episodes like “The Girl in the Fireplace,” “Silence in the Library,” and obviously, “Blink” – still the episode we all turn to when we’re trying to win over unbelievers (ironic, since it’s so uncharacteristic of Doctor Who). Davies’ Who was beginning to run out of ideas, and his dramatic shortcomings were becoming obvious, such as his reliance upon deus ex machina resolutions, bombastic emotions, over-the-top finales, or outright corniness. Don’t get me wrong – I love Davies-era Who, and he made some genius moves, like the last Time War, that give the show much of its dramatic drive. But Davies also can indulge in an uncomfortable nihilism, showcased in the brilliant “Midnight” bottle episode, and wallowed in in the first season of Torchwood. It’s a difficult note to sustain, given the inveterate optimism and avowed pacificism of the character of the Doctor; it did, on the other hand, give Who some of its greatest moments. One of those was the idea of a “fixed point in time,” a device that effectively entraps the Doctor in certain situations and makes his moral situations crushingly difficult. This was used to best effect in “The Fires of Pompeii” and “The Waters of Mars,” both times when the Doctor, whether through hubris or sympathy (or both, since they’re both central to who the Doctor is), dared to violate a fixed point in time, only to find that he made himself responsible for extraordinary tragedies.
One of the great geniuses of Moffat’s writing has been to take that idea and turn it inward, to explore the inherent danger of time travel through the idea of the Doctor himself becoming a fixed point in time. This had a way of taking the inherent moral dilemma of time travel, which was in many ways the 10th Doctor’s downfall, and turning it into a starkly personal question. To quote the closing lines of “The Wedding of River Song,” Doctor who?
Even with all that I said above about the Doctor being so alien, Smith’s Doctor has still emerged as the most fully rounded Doctor as a character, at least for me. While Davies’ penchant for overstatement had Tennant raging against the dying of the light in “The End of Time,” in the back half of this season Smith’s Doctor has shown an extraordinary range of emotion as Lake Silencio drew ever closer, from anger to exhaustion to determination to ecstatic evasion. More interestingly, though, it has allowed Moffat to explore a range of emotional themes hitherto untapped in Who‘s tenure. While Moffat has been praised for his ability to summon impressive levels of creepiness and terror (the Weeping Angels and the Silence are by far some of the best tv/movie monsters ever conceived, in my book), and for his mind-bending “timey-wimey” plots, he also has a great ear for both comedy (“The Lodger”!) and emotionally resonant relationships.
When I think of my favorite scenes of the last two seasons, they’re the little character moments that stand out on the strength of this writing and the superb acting of Gillan, Darvill, Smith, and Kingston. Amy Pond lost in the woods like Little Red Riding Hood, guided only by her trust in the Doctor, in “Flesh and Stone.” Rory’s two thousand year wait for Amy in “The Big Bang.” Pretty much all of “Amy’s Choice” and “The Doctor’s Wife.” The Doctor’s refusal of weapons in “The Hungry Earth.” The Doctor’s defense of the ones he loves in “A Good Man Goes to War.” Amy and River in “The Wedding of River Song.” And while I think they got a bit overlooked because of the meta-arc of this season, the second part of this season has featured two of the best episodes Moffat, Smith and co. have yet done: “The Girl Who Waited” and “The God Complex.” One takes the great childhood story of Amy and explores its dark side, her abandonment issues and the limits of the patience, and peril, the companion of the Doctor can be expected to abide; the other took up Davies’ challenge to the mythology of the Doctor – his unavoidable collusion with the blood and tragedy of history – and spun a brilliant allegory out of the paradox of the companions’ faith in him.
So when “The Wedding of River Song” ends with a reaffirmation of the central conceit of the series – the core reality of the Doctor is the one who has helped millions throughout space and time – that feels true to the heart of what Moffat has done with the show. I wasn’t initially sold on the finale;* the action was even more rushed than usual, the long-awaited union of River and the Doctor was surprisingly muted, and the resolution to the death of the Doctor seemed a bit of a cheat. This last bit was even more frustrating, given the promise of the outright brilliant season opening two-parter of ”The Impossible Astronaut” and “Day of the Moon,” the latter one of the best X-Files homages I’ve seen in a long time.
Indeed, I think this season has shown some of the weaknesses of Moffat’s storytelling – his tendency to rely on the ” timey-wimey” paradox approach to timetravel as a crutch, and the danger of his new emphasis on serialization of succumbing to what I think of as “the LOST effect” (otherwise known as, “Who needs answers when you can just redirect the audience to more questions?”). The finale made more sense on a second viewing – the use of the Tesselector seemed less like an elaborate ruse than a kind of Hail Mary on the part of the Doctor, a last-minute decision to evade the inevitable. And those character moments emerged more clearly, especially in the reunion with Amy and the chemistry between her and Rory in the weird alterna-world created by River’s refusal to kill the Doctor. Still, I think the holes in this season’s story showcase the need for Moffat to back off from his restless drive to pile on the questions and complications, something I’m hoping the suggestion of a lower profile, behind-the-scenes Doctor gestured at in the closing moments of the episode might promise for the next series.
In bringing this far too long reflection to a close: here’s what I think I’m trying to get at in all of this. If we wanted to ask the question about the religious symbolism or theo-logic of Doctor Who, there are a number of ways we could go. Calling him a Christ-figure would be an easy out, and one I’m not inclined to, although moments like this (one of my favorite scenes in Who ever) practically beg for it:
Instead, I’m fascinated by the possibilities that time travel poses for thinking about the Doctor and his companions as ethical and emotional characters, especially in Moffat’s Who, in particular. Take the famous scene from “Blink”:
What’s so interesting about time being a “big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey…stuff” is that, for me at least, it’s a great way of thinking about eternity. The really interesting idea at the heart of LOST’s mess was that time was something other than the linear series of cause and effect, as we see it, but rather something more inchoate and unruly, something constituted by our relationships, memories, and hopes. That eternity is something more like the eschatological recapitulation of our characters and how those characters come embedded in a whole history of other characters. That’s the idea that’s sitting at the heart of Moffat’s exploration of the paradox of time travel, I think, and is so fruitful with him turning the idea inward, into an exploration of the ultimate limitations of a time traveler running out of…time. It’s allowed him to turn the story of the Doctor and River and Amy and Rory into this amazing, centuries-spanning romance, to pose both new ethical questions of the Doctor who destroyed two races and see new possibilities in that Doctor’s quest for redemption, and shot through it all, held on to the amazing sense of adventure inherent in the fact that, with him, you can go anywhere in the universe and any time in its history. Allons-y!
I’m sorry it’s taken me a while to reply, but you’ve given me a lot to think about. Like you, having grown up in the United States, my childhood was deprived of Doctor Who. I first encountered him while in graduate school in New York City, when PBS affiliate WNED was broadcasting some of the 1960s episodes. I think my first Doctor was the fourth (played by Tom Baker), and I’m pretty sure that he and his companion were being threatened by Daleks. It’s a safe guess, anyway. That was about twenty years before the series reboot, which, unlike you, I watched from the beginning. Perhaps it was more accessible from the start here in Canada, being broadcast (at least initially) on CBC. In any case, being a sci-fi geek longing for good sci-fi on TV (to my everlasting shame, I entirely missed the reboot of Battlestar Galactica), and knowing a bit about the Doctor from my first encounter and from a few other bits of information I’d picked up over the years, I was anxious to see the revived series. And having liked Christopher Eccleston in other roles, too, I was keen to see what he’d do as the Doctor.
I was hooked from the start. I take the campiness and cheesy effects to be as much a nod to the original series as a creative choice in the reboot, and have greatly enjoyed the humour (both visual and verbal). The character of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) worked, as did her relationship with the Doctor as his companion, and amid frenetic energy and levity there were genuinely moving moments in the stories. The tragedy of Rose Tyler, as you mention, certainly included such moments, but I’d also note the moments that reveal the Doctor’s own angst and self-doubt, especially for me in “The Doctor Dances” (the tenth episode in the Eccleston/Piper series, also written by Steven Moffat), where he pleads “Oh, come on, give me a day like this. Give me this one,” and, after he indeed gets that kind of day, exults “Everybody lives, Rose. Just this once, everybody lives.”
I was disappointed, then, when Eccleston left the series so soon, but David Tennant’s Doctor quickly grew on me, as did his relationship with Rose, and I found most of the stories of their travels and those of this Doctor with his subsequent companions, Martha Jones (Freema Agyeman) and Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), were immensely satisfying. (I completely agree with you about the atypical “Blink,” aired during Tennant/Agyeman period, and now that you have me thinking about that episode again I wonder if Sally Sparrow and her dull-but-devoted friend Larry Nightingale weren’t a proto-Amy Pond/Rory Williams.) I was saddened once again when Tennant left, and was initially skeptical of Matt Smith’s Doctor. But I came to appreciate his portrayal much more quickly than I expected, for many of the reasons you note, as well as for the mythos of Amy Pond, the relationship of the Doctor, Amy, and Rory, and the non-sequential (in our time-line, at least) narrative of River Song (Alex Kingston).
I confess that trying to keep up with the time jumps often has me feeling exactly like what Natalie says in her initial post about Season 5 of Lost: “when it comes to fictional time travel you aren’t supposed to think too hard about it, otherwise your head just explodes.” I agree with you that the idea of time travel is central to conceiving the Doctor and his companions as ethical and emotional persons. I’d add, by extension from your comment about the role of the companion as providing a point for viewer identification, that time travel also functions to help us conceive ourselves as ethical and emotional persons. I’d add further that time travel is central to, in your words, “the religious symbolism and theo-logic of Doctor Who,” especially to the link between ethics and eschatology. For at least some religious eschatologies a fundamental question is whether our action in the present makes any difference to the future. Doctor Who and other pop culture artifacts like Lost, Twelve Monkeys, and the Terminator films and TV series (to name a few) use the device of time travel to explore this perennial question. The answers they present vary, and the ways in which they explore the question don’t necessarily involve religious symbolism (but is it a coincidence that the The Terminator’s John Connor’s initials are J.C.?). Nevertheless, I’m convinced that time travel in pop culture fundamentally reflects this connection between ethics and eschatology, albeit variously focused on a near or a distant future and in more or less secularized forms.
I’m also convinced that Doctor Who is among the less secularized forms. One clue is the recurrence of explicit “end of the world” scenarios (2005’s “The End of the World,” 2006’s “Doomsday,” and 2009’s “The End of Time”). That alone wouldn’t be enough, because the “end of the world” has been everywhere in pop culture for the last twenty years. Another clue, though, is Doctor Who’s periodic use of explicit, especially Christian religious imagery (e.g., the overt reference to Revelation 20 in 2006’s two-part “The Impossible Planet” and “The Satan Pit”).
And I think there’s more. I understand what you mean about calling the Doctor a Christ-figure being an easy way out and one you’re not inclined to take. Certainly, he’s not a conventional Christ-figure, and reading him that way would lead to the kind of interpretive knots that some viewers of The Matrix got tied up in, especially following the release of the next two Matrix movies. Nevertheless, I think that such a reading of the rebooted Doctor is unavoidable. Any lingering doubts I might have had about reading the Doctor this way were demolished by the depiction of him in “The Wedding of River Song,” in the segment where all history is happening at once, as a robed, bearded, long-haired and imprisoned “soothsayer” called to appear before the Roman Emperor. (There may have been some gag involved in having Winston Churchill as Caesar, but I might have to be British to get it.)
More subtle, but for me also more compelling and important, is the theme of how once the Doctor has shown you the universe, you can’t ever live the same way again. In the 2005 finale, “The Parting of the Ways,” after the Doctor has returned Rose home to protect her from a threat tens of thousands of years in the future that he returns to face, she explains her predicament to her mother and boyfriend: “Two hundred thousand years in the future he’s dying and there’s nothing I can do. . . . It’s now. That fight, it’s happening right now. And he’s fighting for us. For the whole planet, and I’m just sitting here eating chips. . . . But what do I do everyday, mom? What do I do? Get up, catch the bus, go to work and come back home? Eat chips? Is that it? . . . The Doctor showed me a better way of living your life. You know, he showed you, too. That you don’t just give up. You don’t just let things happen. You make a stand. You say no. You have the guts to do what’s right when everyone else just runs away.” And Rose does just that, and in the process mobilizes her mother and boyfriend to help her return to the future to join the Doctor in his fight. This episode, then, reflects not only the preoccupation with eschatology and ethics (i.e., knowing what’s happening in the future has implications for what one does now), but also the connection with the one who struggles against evil for our sake and requires our participation in that struggle.
One of the reasons it’s difficult to read the Doctor as a straightforward Christ-figure, then, is because the Doctor is actually a God-figure. For me, the role of Amy and Rory’s “faith” in the Doctor in 2011’s episode “The God Complex” tends to bear out that view. So does the recurring idea in the rebooted series, to which you call attention, of the Doctor’s responsibility for “extraordinary tragedies.” In other words, Moffat’s Doctor Who seems to be wrestling with the perennial problem of a good God’s responsibility for suffering and evil and, through the Doctor’s own angst (to the point of self-loathing, as in 2010’s “The Dream Lord”), portraying God as haunted by that responsibility.
The Doctor, however, remains driven by the desire to prevent suffering and tragedy. The hope for a day when “everybody lives” is another recurring them, and not, I think, because the writers have run out of ideas. It’s entirely consistent with the theme of death and resurrection implicit not only in the Doctor’s own successive regenerations, but also in the ways in which the living are sometimes reunited with the dead (e.g., as with Rose Tyler and her father, in a parallel universe). “Everybody lives” reappears at the conclusion of the 2008 episode “Forest of the Dead” (for which Moffat is credited as writer), this time spoken by River Song over scenes that include River herself being reunited with dead colleagues.
The Doctor’s quest for redemption, then, is the quest for the day when everybody lives, for nothing less than the quest for the redemption of all of time and space.