Nothing’s sad until it ends: Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who

❉ “Under Moffat, in so many ways, Doctor Who came of age”, writes Gareth Kearns.

It’s a show about time travel. With a time machine. A time machine piloted… um, heartily coaxed by a Time Lord.

And yet it would take nearly 50 years and the arrival of Steven Moffat before the necessary implications would be really investigated. Indeed, back at its instigation the show explicitly closed down any possibility of that investigation, for, as it was stated in The Aztecs, it was a maxim of The Doctor’s (and, it is implied, a fundamental of the universe) that you can’t rewrite history, not one line. That stance would soften to a caution regarding interfering, the Time Lords as academics wary of interference in the affairs of others lest there be such disasters as The Minyans. The implications of foreknowledge was a narrative quandary pointedly avoided by a show about time travel, and the couple of exceptions you might name in the first 47 years of the show all were fumbled, sometimes spectacularly (Mawdryn Undead, I’m looking at you!)

With three exceptions, and they were all written by Steven Moffat – the skit The Curse of Fatal Death, and The Girl in the Fireplace, and Blink.

Now, obviously, Curse is a bit of fun. But it is a bit of fun that builds a sustained joke upon implications that are the narrative elephants in the room of a show about time travel, as The Doctor and The Master compete to outdo each other flitting back in time to charm the architect into aiding them in the now. Moffat would play with similar ideas again, most notably in The Husbands of River Song and Time Heist. Indeed, one can read Curse as something of a Moffat manifesto for his own Who.

But Curse is a bit of fun after all so let’s not get too bogged down on that one. If we turn instead to The Girl in the Fireplace we have what is almost a blueprint for the whole Amy Pond story – the impact of an encounter with time travel upon a mere mortal time travelling through time in the normal way (also touched upon in Blink, you’ll recall). Madame De Pompadour can but travel through time growing older, which The Doctor, effectively at least, declines to do, ducking in and out of her life. The impact of that is explored – only lightly, Moffat’s only got 45 minutes, but he’s going to spend two years on those themes soon enough. Here they are but barely broached. Time is not merely the medium in which the characters live – time is always that in all drama – but it here becomes a player, almost the antagonist. And the lesson here (as, again, touched on in Blink) is that time will win.

For a given value of “winning”, at least.

Amy’s story of impact and memory through time is the fullest addressing there has yet been of what Time is – and it is in a Romantic conception where time grinds and we are all but its grist.

The classical notion of time accepts that time is there, but insists upon ideals intended to stand outside time as somehow indicative of a transcendent truth. Time is mere corrosion of reality in the classical model. It is the tension between these Romantic and Classical world views that is what Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn is all about. And like Keats, Moffat finds the classical model unsatisfactory. For sure – Time will win. It will. But before it wins you can use it to all hell to glorious ends. And that’s all about will and identity, and thus does Amy’s story end with her electing to be exiled back in time for love. Time may have won on Time’s terms, but perhaps Time’s terms are not the terms that really matter. Which, incidentally, is also Keats’ take on the matter.

With that chapter in the Doctor’s odyssey closed, after a little meandering (I trust I need not stress gentle echoes of the same themes to be found in the likes of The Bells of St John?) we then hit Day of the Doctor in which The Doctor elects to alter the timelines of both himself and the entire bloody universe. Time is a resource that may be harnessed (same software, 400 years), and then in Time of The Doctor, just for a change, The Doctor himself gets the chance to bear the ravages of time and grow old, this time having Clara dip in and out of his going “the long way round”.

That phrase – “the long way round” – turns up in both Deep Breath and Heaven Sent. An analogue of it is given to Billy Shipton in Blink – “I’m sorry, it’s gonna take you a while”.  It’s key to the Moffat conception of time: in the first instance, we are all of us time travellers. It’s just the pace is steady and set forward and we don’t get to go backward. But the moment you can go backwards, time becomes a resource you may harness. Time is big, time is powerful, and it will, ultimately, win. But time in Moffat’s Doctor Who is no longer merely the maguffin that allows you to meet up with Aztecs or Leonardo Da Vinci. It can in itself now be the story. Which is as well because that’s where it hits home as to the fundamental facts of the human condition – time is our story, not merely an incident, an unfortunate obligation, a mere corrosion of reality.  Time makes us what we are.

Which is the great Romantic lesson.

And that, as we approach Moffat’s last, which will feature the first Doctor meeting his future when “time has gone wrong” is the point of the Moffat era. It’s the first era of Doctor Who to fully embrace the innate implications of the precepts set down in 1963.

Under Moffat, in so many ways, Doctor Who came of age….

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