Before the 50-year anniversary of “Doctor Who” on Nov. 23, Christ and Pop Culture is exploring the sci-fi series in Doctor Who’s Doctrine.
Part 1: Mad Man with a Box
Part 2: Genre Roots
Part 3: Exterminating Evil
Part 4: The Trip of a Lifetime
Part 5: Music for a Mad Man
Part 6: Those Complicated Companions
Part 7: The Episode I Never Want to See Again
Part 8: Christianity and “Whomanism”
Rush through Doctor Who’s opening sequences to follow the TARDIS through the spinning time vortex and you’ll notice that up comes credits for the Doctor, his companion, then the episode title — and directly under, the name of the story’s writer.
As a writer I feel a little victory, for a film’s or TV program’s writer deserves at least as much credit as actors who repeat (or are at least inspired by) the writer’s lines. Some shows’ creators get more recognition, but for years I’ve thought phrases such as “[Actor X’s character] said this” or “that new [Actor X]’s show” should carry the quiet disclaimer: “Actually written by someone you may not have heard of and should recognize more.”
Doctor Who does recognize them, and so fans react to episodes’ writers much like they would popular novelists. You pick up a story, see the author, and know what kind of story you’re likely getting — especially if the writer’s name is Russell T. Davies or Steven Moffat.
Fans take sides with these two Who showrunners, who also write most of their series’ episodes. Some hearken to Davies’s time from 2005–2009 as truly great storytelling, and others point to Moffat’s 2010–present work as much finer fiction. Others, like me, find strengths and a few weaknesses in either, especially given (with some exceptions) Davies’s emphasis on dystopia and classic-humanist science fiction, and Moffat’s love for fairy tales.
Davies: ‘Everything has its time and everything dies’
From the series 5 openers “Rose” and the obviously titled “The End of the World,” most of Davies’s stories take a leap down, down that spinning vortex. Five minutes into “Rose” the Doctor has announced one death and blown up a department store; next episode he’s taken Rose to witness planet Earth’s final destruction, where many other characters also die.
Creeping doom and deaths continue aplenty, especially for each of Davies’s four series finales. Daleks invade a future world and exterminate minor and major characters alike; fatalities include Captain Jack Harkness, though he returns to life, and the Doctor, who is forced to regenerate. Daleks and Cybermen invade and slay thousands on Earth, separating the Doctor and Rose (almost) forever. The Master, an evil Time Lord, takes over the globe and sends hordes of flying creatures to enforce his will; victory is total and almost all the consequences magically rolled back, except for poor Martha Jones’s family. Finally the evil Daleks return to destroy the entire universe, with many more deaths, and this time there’s no magic rollback for anyone — including the Doctor, who later learns his own inevitable regeneration is next. When that happens, he’s in anguish. He doesn’t want to go, but must.
Dark matters. This may be why some viewers just can’t get into new Doctor Who — its first eight episodes are either Davies’s stories or reflect his darker imprint. Yes, each story offers some hope, but usually a shrugged, dark-humor hope. Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. The Doctor may as well quote this directly at the end of “The End of the World.”
Moffat: ‘Everybody lives!’
Yet when non-fans see a few Davies episodes and want to sue the Doctor for malpractice, fans know what to say: Keep watching until you get to “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances,” or skip to those stories, or try the series-3 classic “Blink” — all written by Moffat.
If Davies shows that there’s a time to mourn and a time to die, Moffat more often shows that we also have a time to dance and a time to live. His lines for the Ninth Doctor, uttered at the end of a true eucatastrophe to “The Doctor Dances,” echo not with reluctant hope but robust joy: “Everybody lives, Rose!” the Doctor exults. “Just this once — everybody lives!”
Fans noted quickly that Moffat’s early stories seemed more interested in saving lives. Moffat himself contested that, such as in a 2010 io9 interview. “It’s not a deliberate decision on my part or on Russell’s, that he should have slaughtered millions and I shouldn’t,” Moffat said.
Yet it needn’t be deliberate; surely this occurred merely because of storytelling differences. Casually compare the two showrunners’ Christmas specials to see what I mean. Davies’s “The Christmas Invasion” features aliens invading and even subverts its own happy end, “The Runaway Bride” is less Christmas and more giant spider, and “Voyage of the Damned” does what it says on the tin — and all three, tellingly, feature “snow” made only of alien ash. After Davies exits, Moffat scripts the best new-Who Christmas special, “A Christmas Carol,” the weaker but still happy “The Doctor, the Widow and the Wardrobe,” and only one darker entry, last year’s “The Snowmen” — and each one of those stories has actual, proper snow.
In the main series arcs, Davies features divorced or unhappy marriages. Moffat rescues Amy’s parents from time-erasure and sends Rory and Amy into a tragic departure from the Doctor yet a blissful, till-death-do-them-part union. Davies threw hordes of invading aliens at the Doctor. Moffat uses smaller cadres as more personal threats. Davies follows a lonely Doctor who reluctantly recruits his friends. Moffat explores a love story in which the tragic ending came first — yet even in that River Song still “lives” — and gets the Doctor married.
Next, I wouldn’t be surprised if, when Eleventh Doctor Matt Smith is ready to explode into Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi, Moffat answers Tenth Doctor David Tennant’s anguished cry “I don’t want to go” with a quietly resigned admission from Smith such as, “I’m ready to go.”
Do I conclude that Moffat’s work tops Davies’s? Not at all. Moffat’s stories shine brighter in contrast with Davies’s equally truthful darker tones. The Who-verse needs both great evils and great goodness, both sci-fi dystopias and eucatastrophic fairy tales, to balance its stories. If I had to choose, however, I’d have to pick Moffat. Fairy-tale endings more closely reflect the greatest Story in which everybody — all the heroes, anyway — truly lives.