RTD v. Moffat (Not Necessarily a Battle to the Death)

by ladyfan

As the media salivates over the ucoming season 7 of Doctor Who, lauding Steven Moffat’s work on both it and Sherlock, there seems to be a good deal of jumping over the four seasons that actually brought Doctor Who back to life. Yes, we speak (reverentially) of what will surely in the future be known as the Russell T. Davies Dynasty (for you non Who-vians, the RTD Dynasty = Season 1-4 of new Who). Although Moffat was a freelancer on the show before his upgrade to showrunner, the voice and tone of the first four seasons is unquestionably Davies’.

The excellent and painfully truthful book about TV writing he’s co-written with Benjamin Cook reveals just how involved Davies was in the episode-to-episode process of the show – and while we wonder about how he was ever able to sleep (ever) we admire the unity of tone and carefully crafted subtle plot arcs that span from season to season each year. Bad Wolf? Torchwood? Harry Saxon? There is always a little extra credit for paying attention to the details (and if you’re an extra super nerd, like we are, watching the episode that fourth or fifth time illuminated that one reference we missed the first four times. It did! And it was worth it!)

Now that the show is in Moffat’s hands, it’s very clear there is an essential difference in the way Davies and Moffatt have approached their respective tenures. If you currently watch Sherlock and Doctor Who, you know that Moffat is a flash magician of a writer – a fan of nail-biting suspense, jump cuts, and as much action-packed plot as you can stand.

Watching a Moffat season is like watching someone build an incredibly complicated Jenga tower out of aliens and inexplicable mysteries and hoping when it’s built they can step back and admire it instead of wincing as it all falls down around them. What he achieves is the creation of a world where characters are secondary to the magnificence of story and scenery – he often involves characters’ personal lives in the service of a greater plot. (Amy and Rory being the most notable examples).

Davies, on the other hand, rooted his seasons philosophically in this notion of unlimited human potential: his companions, over and over again, are lifted out of ordinary and often unpromising lives: Rose, the shopgirl who lives with her mother at the council estates, Martha, the medical student with the troubled family, Donna, the unfortunate temp, and even Wilfred, the UFO nut stumbling upon real aliens for the first time. The characters that populate Davies’ Doctor Who all have blinders on, even his Doctors, and the journey of the show is watching each character realize more fully who they are and what they are capable of, both good and evil.

The true lesson of watching the show pass from the hands of one to the other has more to do with the resilience of the Doctor Who mythology and the remarkable way the show, like the Doctor, can regenerate within itself (Cheesy? Yes! But true!). There are diehard fans of both Moffat and Davies who would defend until their last breath each approach to the show: and that says more about Doctor Who and the kind of fandom the concept inspires than it does about any particular color – or actor – within the show itself.