Why Steven Moffat Isn't All That

Despite the fact that his hair is dark brown, Steven Moffat is everybody's favorite golden-boy Doctor Who writer. He's won two Hugo Awards so far for his episodes, and been nominated for two more Nebulas and another Hugo as well. With current showrunner Russell T. Davies's blessing, Moffat is all set to take over Doctor Who in 2010. But color me skeptical - I'm not sure we should be as happy and excited about this as everyone thinks.

Don't get me wrong. There was a time when I, too, thought Steven Moffat was one of the greatest television writers in the world. I watched all the seasons of Coupling - even the one without Richard Coyle! - and I adored his brilliant World War II two-parter in the first season of Doctor Who. Clearly Davies did, too, according to his March 2008 interview with Digital Spy:

I'll rewrite 100% if I have to. With Steven Moffat's scripts, I don't touch a word, but anyone else's I do.

Not one word, Russell? Seriously? Trust me - if you really can't find a single problem with Moffat's work, I don't think that you're doing your job as showrunner. Sure, Moffat kicked ass with "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances," but his episode contributions have been going steadily downhill from there. Let's look at the evidence:

"The Girl In The Fireplace"

Why Steven Moffat Isn't All ThatS

This was a clever story, at the beginning - it's one of those historical episodes that lets the Doctor Who producers clap themselves on the back for being educational guides to hordes of British schoolchildren (and adults). The Doctor, Rose, and Mickey discover a drifting spaceship in the 51st century (Moffat's "futuristic era" of choice, apparently - he's used it before and he'll use it again) and, as it turns out, the spaceship is attempting to repair itself by harvesting human organs from its visitors. To make matters worse, bits of pre-revolutionary France keep popping through time pockets on the ship, and sucking the Doctor back.

What then develops is a random, thoughtless romance between the Doctor and famous courtesan Madame de Pompadour, who was the most famous mistress of King Louis XV of France. Apparently the Doctor's always had a crush on her; with the whole universe at his disposal, naturally the most impressive, alluring woman he can think of is a professional sex buddy from the 17th century. And after a short acquaintance, aided by the vagaries of spaceship time pockets, he's ready to settle down and give up everything for her: not only his life, but Rose's and Mickey's as well. It's pretty jarring, if you're used to watching a show about a time-travelling maverick who values his companions above all else, who never has sex, and whose one prized possession is his TARDIS. And who, a single episode before, promised his longtime friend Rose that he'd never leave her - especially not to be mutilated alive by robots on a deserted spaceship.

It's sinister. And it belies far too much of what Steven Moffat really thinks of women like Rose and Madame de Pompadour:

There's this issue you're not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That's the truth. We don't, as little boys, play at being married - we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands.

Whatever your opinion of his none-too-thinly veiled misogyny, it's clear from that comment that Moffat views people only in terms of vast generalizations (Actually, Steven, what you seem to misunderstand is that not all women are hunting for husbands - some of us are scheming to take over Doctor Who so we can make it cohesive and thoughtful, instead.)

It should come as no surprise, then, that he has more trouble with characterization than any Doctor Who showrunner should.

"Blink"

Nowhere are his characterization troubles more evident than in "Blink," Moffat's much-hailed Season 3 episode about statues that come to life when no one's looking. The idea of super-deadly aliens hiding out as gargoyles is certainly a tantalizing one, but the real scare in this episode is not those famous Weeping Angels. It's not even Moffat's embarrassingly flat narrator, Sally Sparrow, whose lack of complexity has earned her a place of honor in the annals of Mary Sue. It's the way women are written as if they have absolutely no control over what happens in their life at all - and they're fine with that.

Why Steven Moffat Isn't All ThatS

"Blink" is a Doctor-lite episode, so we don't see him much and Martha appears even less. One might at least expect a solid presence, though, from his educated companion: She's most of the way to becoming a medical doctor, and, having grown up in a large and wild family, doesn't take shit from anyone. When she and the Doctor get trapped in 1969 with a broken TARDIS, though, it's Martha who's saddled with the consequences - and when she complains about working in a shop to support his doing who-knows-what, the Doctor shushes her away. Not now, Martha, men are talking.

To be fair, the woman with the most screen time, Sally Sparrow, does experience a tiny bit of development... if you could call it that. Throughout the course of the episode, while remaining quite superhuman in the way she deals with every obstacle, she's firm about her disinterest in her unwitting sidekick Larry. And yet, once the adventure's over, she loops her arm through his, all done with saving the world and ready to run a shop. No explanation.

Her friend Kathy makes a similarly nonsensical choice, when the Weeping Angels toss her back to 19th-century Hull and she finds herself alone in a field with a boy named Ben:

KATHY: Are you following me?

BEN: Yeah.

KATHY: Are you gonna stop following me?

BEN: No, I don't think so.

And then - marriage. Just like that.

It must make sense to some viewers and writers, that a happily single woman with her head screwed on straight could suddenly turn a corner and be ready to submit to previously unworthy suitors. The "no-means-yes" romance plotline is a convenient and popular one in television; hell, it's even been in Buffy. But as any dictionary will tell you, "no" is the opposite of "yes" - and the more television writers like Moffat push that dangerous fallacy, the more girls and women will find themselves victims of sci-fi fans who don't understand the rules of consent. Or, at the very least, they'll find themselves working in a shop to support a boyfriend's useless tinkering.

"Time Crash"

Why Steven Moffat Isn't All ThatS

Okay, I'll admit it: this was a wickedly entertaining eight minutes. And yet, think about it: It's the Fifth Doctor and the Tenth Doctor, together. All one really needed to do was have them declare mutual respect using their trademark catchphrases, and possibly mock each other's costumes - both of which Moffat did, like the experienced audience manipulator he is. This doesn't mean he has any great genius to impart, or that "Time Crash" actually provided anything for anybody beyond fanboy glee for the Doctor Who faithful who remember Peter Davison's first time in the outfit. How fabulous for them; how utterly boring for the rest of the world, who deserve a part of Doctor Who as much as anyone.

"Silence in the Library" / "The Forest of the Dead"

If you're unconvinced by what I've said so far, I promise you that this baby is the clincher. Perhaps "The Girl in the Fireplace," "Blink," and "Time Crash" had enough cleverness and nerd-nip in them to blot out the Moffat misogyny, but his Season 4 two-parter established without a doubt that this guy has jumped the shark.

These episodes are peppered with problems. First of all, the main danger is a roving hive of flesh-eaters that exist in every shadow - which means, yes, keep in the light and... don't blink. Wow, that sounds familiar. And a (you guessed it) 51st-century archaeological research team has special technology that captures brainwaves in telecommunications devices, making it possible for people to literally speak from the dead. It's disturbing, especially when the team forces everyone to sit through someone's dying thoughts for several minutes … before they realize, oops, they could have turned it off all along. Moffat's estimate that only a few thousand visitors would come to the largest library in the universe is pretty sobering. His irritating repetition of successful tricks from his previous episodes is even more sobering. The worst, however, is yet to come.

To add to his litany of badly drawn, disappointing female characters, Moffat gave us River Song, an archaeologist from the Doctor's future who not only knows everything about him, but to whom he's also entrusted his precious sonic screwdriver. I'll say one thing for ol' Steven - apparently, he's a great wingman. He loves to set the Doctor up with every eligible, eternally willing female who comes along. Song's maddening smugness about her foreknowledge goes hand-in-hand with Moffat's, whose script is blasting love and admiration for Song before the audience has even accepted her existence. She's got no character; all we know is that someday she's important to the Doctor and that she loves him to pieces - so much that she's kept a detailed diary of every minute they've spent together. The idea that someone as empty as Song could actually be a romantic foil for the Doctor goes way beyond distasteful. I mean, once, we had Romana.

The next secondary character we get is Miss Evangelista, a personal assistant to the expedition head who's breathtakingly beautiful - but also breathtakingly dumb! Get it? Isn't that hilarious? It gets better - Later, we see the undead cyber version of the character and because of a few misplaced zeroes and ones, now she's incredibly smart yet hideously deformed, because you can't be intelligent and pretty. Ha! Ha!

But the worst part of Moffat's two-parter has nothing to do with sexism or characterization. It's at the very end, when River Song sacrifices her life for the Doctor's - and the Doctor collects her last remaining brainwaves to be stored in a giant computer program. In that way, Moffat tells us, she can live forever; and the camera pans over a vast cyber-meadow inside some giant hard drive, showing all of the lost archaeological team members.

Why Steven Moffat Isn't All ThatS

With that, Moffat casually slips in his belief that the richness of human life can be captured with nothing more than what it takes to power a couple of LEDs. There's no discussion on this from any character, no resistance, no ambiguity in the dialogue - it just is. The Doctor's given her this great gift, something we could all hope for if we didn't bother to think about what it meant: He's simply translated her characteristics into lines of code and flipped a switch.

The line between intelligence and artificial intelligence is a powerful concept in sci-fi; it has sparked countless fantastic books, movies, and discussions. Moffat glossed over all that without a single word. If he'd rather ignore the thoughtful philosophical considerations that sci-fi can inspire, why is he even writing sci-fi?

Science fiction is supposed to be about raising the level of discourse on society by opening up the door to fantastic possibilities. It's supposed to be about hope, exploration, and opportunity - not cheapening what it means to be human, and certainly not subjugating people in the name of great white men. Yes, the first episode of Doctor Who (which aired all the way back in 1963) featured the Doctor as an old white man, cautioning his granddaughter against mimicing the stupidity of "the red Indian." But that racism wasn't something anybody wanted to see in the Doctor Who revival, and neither is Moffat's simplified view of human life or his bizarre seeming vendetta against women. We're in the future now; let's give everybody a chance to be great.

That said, no matter how great you are, you'll still need an editor. Everybody does. Even - maybe especially - the not-so-fantastic Steven Moffat.

Screen captures from time-and-space.co.uk