Sunday, 24 August 2014

Steven Moffat doesn't kill people

Warning: This post contains SPOILERS for Doctor Who Series 1-7. There are NO spoilers for Series 8 as I have not seen any of it yet :P

The current executive producer and lead show-runner of Doctor Who, Steven Moffat, is constantly accused of being a heartless, cruel writer who spends all his time ruthlessly killing off characters, especially main characters. I'd like to argue that whatever else you might say about Moffat, this particular accusation is unwarranted and in fact quite far from the truth.

Although he only took over the helm of Doctor Who in 2010, Moffat had been writing stories for the show from the start of its revival in 2005. For the first four seasons of what's become known as NuWho (during which Russel T Davies was running the show) Steven Moffat wrote one story for each series.

Characters dying in a show like Doctor Who is nothing unexpected. It's full of danger and aliens and monsters and fighting, so it's inevitable that characters will die. More often than not, these characters are unnamed bystanders, extras, but in Doctor Who they are frequently characters whose names we do learn and who do play a significant, though short-lived, role in the story (like the infamous Star Trek "red shirts"). If we go through the episodes of Series 1, we can see how this plays out.

In the first episode, after her initial encounter with the Doctor, Rose Tyler meets up with a conspiracy theorist called Clive Finch, who seems to know a whole lot about the Doctor and runs a website documenting various sightings of him that have been reported. Rewatching this episode on one occasion, I wondered what ever became of Clive; why he never showed up in any later episodes. As I kept watching, the question was shortly answered: he is among various unknown and unnamed characters who are killed by the auton invasion at a shopping mall. In the second episode, Rose and the Doctor meet a sentient tree alien, Jabe, who becomes very friendly with the Doctor. She sacrifices herself in order to help the Doctor save all the other people on board the satellite. In the third episode, a young serving girl with psychic powers named Gwyneth also sacrifices herself, this time to save the world. In other episodes we see the British Prime Minister and various government officials brutally killed by the Slitheen, Suki from Satellite Five among various employees who are frozen to death and turned into flesh machines, and, in the closing episodes, "Lynda with a Y" is among other characters who die defending themselves against the Daleks. There is one set of episodes, a two-parter, that are an exception to this pattern of tragic deaths of minor characters. In Steven Moffat's The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances, although it appears that characters are turned into monstrous zombie creatures with gas masks, the Doctor manages to save them all from this terrible fate by using nanogenes to renew their DNA. Towards the end of the second episode the Doctor makes his famous exclamation: "Just this once, everybody lives! Everybody lives!" And it seems that this statement is truer than he realises. This is the only episodes in Series 1 and arguably the only episode of the entire Davies-era in which nobody dies at all.

But if we look at the other episodes that Moffat wrote for Davies, we see a distinct pattern emerging. In the episode he wrote for Series 2, The Girl in the Fireplace, the doctor successfully saves Madame Le Pompadour from manic maintenance droids who want to use her brain to fix their broken spaceship. He even succeeds in preventing them from killing anyone else in the process. This episode does have death but this is only because, when the Doctor returns to fetch Reinette so she can accompany them on the TARDIS, he arrives too late (some years later) and she has already died from illness. This scene is necessary to the plot since it would not have suited the overall storyline to have an 18th century French noblewoman join the TARDIS crew. It is therefore not an unnecessary tragic death like so many inthe other episodes. I should also note that before the Doctor arrives on the scene, various crew members of the space ship had already been killed by the manic droids, but both instances of death in this episode happen outside of the Doctor's (and audience's) immediate experience.

For Series 3, Moffat wrote perhaps his most famous episode, Blink, in which he introduced one of the most terrifying Doctor Who monsters, the Weeping Angels. It seems that here at last we start to see the heartless Moffat that he is reputed to be. This episode is a thriller that has you at the edge of your seat throughout because all it takes is one blink for these monsters to claim their victims. At least that's how it comes across when watching. But when you think about it, it's not all quite so bad as it seems. One could almost argue that nobody dies in this episode at all. Or more accurately no one is killed in this episode. We do see the sad death of Inspector Shipton, but he dies of old age after the angels sent him back in time. He was still able to live a full life, just not at the right time. The same happens with Sally Sparrow's friend Kathy who is sent back to the 1920s and falls in love with the first guy she meets. Moffat actually hasn't created the worst monster of Doctor Who, he's created the one monster that doesn't kill its victims at all, and he admits this himself through the words he penned for the Doctor: "they are the only psychopaths in the universe to kill you nicely". Moffat has in fact invented a killer that doesn't kill. It just displaces you from your current life and lets you "live to death" in an earlier time. Not so heartless after all?

Moffat's final episodes for the Davies-era see a continuation of this pattern. For Series 4 he wrote the two-parter Silence in the Library and The Forest of the Dead. This story bears a resemblance to many of the other non-Moffat ones in which a crew of characters is slowly killed off one-by-one (in this case, by a flesh eating swarm of darkness), until almost none are left. And then the episode ends with the most tragic death (by self sacrifice) of a mysterious woman named River Song, who seems to know a lot about the Doctor from his future and to have been very close to him. You think the episode is going to end on this sad note and that yet another potential companion and friend of the Doctor is lost forever (like Jabe and Reinette and Lynda with a Y) but this time the Doctor realises that because he had known in his future that River would die, he had had time to come up with a plan to save her. He isn't able to bring her back physically, but he can upload her conscious into the library's massive computer database. And apparently, in the process, all the other crew members who were killed off throughout the episode have also been uploaded to the computer's dream world. So not only is River alive, but so are her friends; and they are together. We get a lovely monologue from River at this point in the episode:

"Everybody knows that everybody dies and nobody knows it like the Doctor. But I do think that all the skies of all the worlds might just turn dark if he ever for one moment, accepts it. Everybody knows that everybody dies. But not every day. Not today. Some days are special. Some days are so, so blessed. Some days, nobody dies at all. Now and then, every once in a very long while, every day in a million days, when the wind stands fair, and the Doctor comes to call... everybody lives."

It looks to me that rather than exulting in killing off characters, Steven Moffat is constantly trying to find ways for his characters to escape death. If these examples aren't convincing enough, consider this: There is another episode in Series 4 which was not written by Moffat, but which he did influence. It is The Doctor's Daughter written by Steven Greenhorn. In this episode, the Doctor's DNA is used to create a sort of clone of the doctor (though with the DNA altered in such a way to create a "daughter" rather than a duplicate copy). The episode ends with his genetically created daughter tragically dying (again mostly for plot reasons, because they did not at this point want to introduce a new character, especially one with Time Lord DNA). Originally that was to be it; Jenny was to die and for whatever reason, not regenerate. But apparently Steven Moffat on hearing about this, intervened and insisted that they bring her back to life (but without the Doctor's knowledge), leaving it open for her to return one day. She has not yet returned, mainly because that was never the intention. But is that enough to convince you that Moffat doesn't like characters dying?

I haven't even gotten to the point where Moffat took over the show and I shan't go into detail for all these episodes. But his tendency to avoid or overcome death, rather than actually kill off characters, continues to be a theme throughout. Although he is famous for killing off Rory Williams numerous times, only one, (perhaps two), of them are actually "real" deaths (not dreams or someone messing with Amy's head), and even after those, Moffat finds ways of bringing him back. Amy and Rory's exit of the show in Angels Take Manhattan does not see them dying as such (although we do see their gravestone), but once again Moffat uses his kindly psychopaths, the Weeping Angels, to send them back in time; away from the Doctor but with each other and able to live out their lives till old age.

In Moffat's second series, Series 6, he begins the opening scene by killing off none other than the Doctor himself - completely dead; so that he cannot even regenerate. But this is immediately followed by a discovery that it is the Doctor in the future whose death we have witnessed and the remainder of the series is an exercise in showing how it is that in fact the Doctor did not die (which includes him being murdered again at the midpoint in the series - this time with poison and no ability to regenerate; but River Song steps in at the last moment and saves him. Again). In Series 7, the new companion Clara Oswin Oswald is the latest supposed target of Moffat's killing sprees. She manages to die twice in her first two episodes. But by now it's becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to believe that someone who dies will genuinely stay dead. And the speculations are all about how he's going to explain her not being dead.

Moffat isn't a murderer. He doesn't like killing characters. Sure, he likes to make us think that characters are dead, but far from the heartless person he is made out to be, it seems rather that he doesn't have the heart to let anyone stay dead. Of course, this is an oversimplification of matters and there are exceptions (note: Lorna from A Good Man Goes to War). Of course he is also not the only writer of Doctor Who stories to make us think a character (especially a companion or the Doctor himself) has died only to bring them back again (see: Jack Harkness, who as character may have been Moffat's creation, but whose immortality probably only came later; also see the partial regeneration of Ten in Journey's End). But I think there is enough evidence to argue that Moffat is not really the cruel-hearted killer of characters he is made out to be. On the contrary, he is constantly on the search for ways to ensure that "Everybody Lives!"

Post script: You will notice that I haven't mentioned Moffat's other television series, Sherlock. I originally planned to include it, but I thought there was enough to talk about in Doctor Who and I haven't yet seen Sherlock Series 3. So I decided to leave it out. Maybe one day I'll write a follow-up.

The illustrations are just for fun - I am aware that they contradict the point of the article. But they do illustrate the kind of reputation I am disputing.