Like many modern Doctor Who fans, I got into the show because of Steven Moffat. I may have first checked it out because of a friend’s kid’s birthday party, which was partially set in a homemade re-creation of the TARDIS, (bigger on the) inside and out, but Moffat is the real reason I became hooked.
For one thing, he gave us Amy Pond, whose first episode was also my introduction just before attending the birthday party. I admit I was initially interested because I had an immediate crush on Karen Gillan, but I can’t credit her – or more correctly her character – for why I got on board completely, either.
After starting off with that introductory episode, 2010’s “The Eleventh Hour,” which was also Moffat’s debut as showrunner, I went back and properly began an ongoing investment with the new-era Doctor Who run. I thought it just okay. Neither Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor nor Billie Piper as his companion did much for me compared to my first impression, which had been with the more charming duo of Pond and the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith).
Then, just as I was getting slightly bored and wanting to skip ahead, along came “The Empty Child.”
That was Moffat’s first real episode as a writer for Doctor Who, and it demonstrated that the show wasn’t all goofy sci-fi with cheesy special effects. “The Empty Child,” which began a two-part story concluding in “The Doctor Dances,” was darker, creepier and didn’t fit any of the formulas I’d witnessed so far. The episode is so haunting that I still think about it constantly. Every time I see a gas mask, in fact, I hear in my mind the voice of a small child asking, “Are you my mummy?”
From there, Moffat was the only person I paid notice to in the credits – and mind you, I wasn’t aware this guy had been promoted down the line. And his name didn’t appear on screen often enough, so it was a special occasion when it did. He had one episode in Series 2, and then another in Series 3. The latter, “Blink,” which stars a then-unknown Carey Mulligan, remains one of my favorites. It honestly made me dubious of all statues for a while.
Once Moffat was in charge, his name gradually brought me less and less excitement. His reputation was diluted. In the long run he’s given us many great characters and plot lines, but he also permitted some of the worst of both. I had expected that he’d have done away with some of the more formulaic plots that he’d stood out from. He himself wrote good episodes and bad episodes, yet none were ever singularly as brilliant as the scripts from his pre-showrunner days. He’s been a good producer for the most part, but his best work, which I consider the best work of the last decade of the show, was during Russell T. Davies’ reign.
When Moffat steps down from the gig following the completion of Series 10 in 2017, the big loss for me and likely others will be that he’ll never write anything for the show again, not even a one-off. It’d be great if he could still do an occasional script, particularly something like his earlier episodes. And in spite of my criticisms, I’d still rather have lesser Moffat Doctor Who than no Moffat Doctor Who at all. Especially since nobody knows for certain what the show will be like without him. Even if at first it was only in small doses, he’s been a part of this incarnation since year one.
Taking over as showrunner is Chris Chibnall, who like Moffat grew up a fan of Doctor Who and who similarly first contributed to the current run of the show before his promotion. Unlike with Moffat, though, none of his episodes are classics – however, “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” is classically ridiculous. He currently heads the popular British drama Broadchurch and previously ran the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood, so he’s hardly green at this sort of gig, but he’s not a Whovian favorite the way Moffat had been.
Part of me is hopeful that Chibnall’s individual episode quality – which is far from the worst stuff we’ve seen on Doctor Who but not that great – means he’ll be a better showrunner, as in his advancement will somehow have the reverse effect of Moffat’s promotion. Of course, it’s more likely to take him in the same direction and he too will be worse when stretched thinner.
Doctor Who has lasted as a property for half a century because of its changing nature, and just as the Doctor is regularly reborn and recast, those creatively responsible for the show also ought to be switched up now and again. Eventually they need to have another female showrunner, for example, in part because its very first producer was a woman. And also try out a female lead, too. There are many ways the show can go in its next 50 years, on and off screen.
Change is scary, though, and just as Peter Capaldi took some getting used to as the Twelfth Doctor, Chibnall (and whomever he casts as the title character for his first season in charge) will take getting used to, as well. The thing to remember is that changes probably won’t ever be too dramatic, and no new Doctor nor showrunner will ruin the show entirely for good. It’s now more of an institution than ever. During the Moffat era, Doctor Who increased its fanbase by a huge margin, and merchandise sales have surely increased as a result. The BBC certainly won’t let Chibnall mess that up for them.
In any event, we’ve got a long time to wonder and worry or just ignore what’s coming since it’s so far off. We’ve got almost a whole year without any new Doctor Who episodes ahead of us, and then we’ve got another full series shepherded by Moffat in 2017. Chibnall’s debut as showrunner won’t be for another two and a half years at minimum.