Has Doctor Who returned to form?

Steven Moffat’s disappointing tenure as Doctor Who‘s executive producer is coming to an end. With Series 10 finishing on a high, is the venerable old programme finally returning to form?

They’re quite creepy, aren’t they, the original Cybermen? It’s probably because they’re quite visibly human, covered with cobbled-together metal appendages, and with cloth sacks stretched taut over their faces. In their first appearance, The Tenth Planet (1966), there’s something quite unnerving about their sing-song voices that place stress on the wrong consonants and lengthen the wrong vowels, and the matter-of-fact way in which they offer to convert all the human characters. Their speech and movement is just a little off, highlighting their own almost-humanity in a way that their more robotic future incarnations do not.

It was, therefore, a masterstroke to bring them back. Steven Moffat was once known for writing some of Doctor Who’s scariest episodes, and in World Enough and Time he returned to form, playing with the body horror element of the Cybermen to create a plausibly frightening story of humanity-gone-wrong, from the shambling, faceless proto-Cybermen created by necessity on a sick world, to Bill’s tragic forced conversion at the hands of John Simm’s Master. Moffat even managed to avoid his typical Doctor-as-messiah story template by shifting the attention onto the very ordinary and human Bill, easily the best companion in many years.

Since taking over in 2010, Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who has become increasingly obtuse and convoluted. Rather than ‘monster-of-the-week’ stories in which the Doctor would stumble upon danger and adventure, the show relies on grand, overarching conspiracies in which a messianic Doctor takes centre stage. Moffat, so keen to show how clever and important his main character is, has the entire universe revolve around him. Compare this to the early days of the revived series under Russell T. Davies, during which the Doctor could pop up in any time and place and be a complete unknown; in fact, it was more likely for characters to be surprised that he – the last of the Time Lords – existed at all.

It’s a problem shared with Moffat’s other property, Sherlock. What started out as a modern reimagining of classic detective fiction has swiftly become a bizarre, masturbatory superhero drama, in which Sherlock Holmes is forced to stop supervillains – without any of the deductive reasoning for which he is famed – whose single motivation is to thwart him. Complex plots executed at break-neck pace are punctuated only by characters stopping to declare how clever and awkward Sherlock is. John Watson, meanwhile, is relegated to the background. That Doctor Who is exactly the same is symptomatic of a fundamental problem with Steven Moffat: he’s not half as clever as he thinks he is.

Doctor Who reveals a fundamental problem with Steven Moffat: he’s not half as clever as he thinks he is.

That’s why this latest series of Doctor Who has been such a breath of fresh air. Perhaps the unfavourable reviews of the last series of Sherlock, and Doctor Who’s own deflating viewing figures have finally knocked some sense into him. Bill Potts, the new companion played by Pearl Mackie, has been delightful, lively, and human; Peter Capaldi, meanwhile, whose own acting chops have helped carry the last two series, has performed admirably, adding real weight and humour to his character. The stories, too, have improved, returning to the tried-and-tested ‘monster-of-the-week’ format of series past.

By returning to this format, Moffat has shown an unusual amount of restraint. There are a whole host of proper adventures, the like of which was rare when Matt Smith piloted the TARDIS. For instance, the pilot episode, The Pilot, introduced a genuinely spooky alien, while Smile used emojis to give the plot a fun, contemporary, yet chilling edge. The university setting revisited throughout the series gave it a human foundation, but the more alien elements, including Matt Lucas’s Nardole, were surprisingly effective. There were weaker episodes, such as the ‘Monks trilogy’, which started strongly but faded out by the third part, and The Eaters of Light, which was simply boring. Overall, however, it was a pretty convincing return to form.

The two-parter finale is emblematic of this transformation. Although its second installment, The Doctor Falls, sadly underutilises the classic Cybermen and its two dysfunctional Masters (played by the superb Michelle Gomez and John Simm), it is nevertheless the finest finale of the Moffat era. Bill’s struggle to accept her transformation, and the slowly dying Doctor, add the perfect amount of pathos and tragedy, masterfully balanced with humour, action, and sadness. Everyone – except Bill’s ludicrously lazy rescue – gets a proper ending, and for once the Doctor doesn’t utilise some sort of magical deus ex machina to save the day.

In the end, Bill’s infuriating cop-out ending is a rare black mark on a hugely satisfying series. Moffat has, ultimately, left Doctor Who in far better shape than it was two years ago, and has set up an intriguing final story for Peter Capaldi with reintroduction of David Bradley as the First Doctor. When Chris Chibnall takes over next year, he ought to be grateful to Moffat for his restraint; the new showrunner no longer needs to rescue a once-great property. Like the Cybermen themselves, Steven Moffatt’s Doctor Who, once in its death throes, has been dragged kicking and screaming back to life, shinier, sleeker and sharper than before.

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