Doctor Who: What’s up with the writing?

by William Hohmeister

I do not know what to think about Doctor Who.capaldieyes

I want to greet Peter Capaldi’s Thirteenth Doctor (yes, he’s Thirteen, not Twelve) with an open mind. And I think I can, because I have no special attachment to Matt Smith’s Twelfth Doctor. I am afraid of the new Doctor Who because of the writing; while I hope Capaldi brings a new and interesting take on the Doctor, I have little hope that the writers know or understand what they’re doing.

Many articles point out the decline in quality since Steven Moffatt took over Doctor Who, and lay blame accordingly. I do not agree. People, especially fans, like when there is a single point of failure – just look at how many cried out against Ben Affleck as the new Batman. Moffatt may be part of the problem, but a television show has too many moving parts to lay the blame on any one thing.

The writers do bear the brunt of blame, however. They wrote the show, after all. And while there are not so many terrible episodes, there are few genuinely great ones. Most are mediocre. I examined the writers of series 1-7 and found something interesting: there’s little difference between the two groups. Moffatt and Davies share 6 writers between their eras, not counting Moffatt himself. Davies and Moffatt each wrote about half of their own episodes. And both have close to the same number of two-part stories and single, one-shot episodes. Analyzing the writing from a meta view does not explain the quality of the stories.

Are the writers responsible then? Maybe it really is Moffatt’s fault. He okayed even the bad episodes after all; and he wrote much more after taking over the show. Under Davies he wrote some great episodes, like “Blink” and “The Girl in the Fireplace.” “Blink” establishes the weirdness of a time loop, while “The Girl in the Fireplace” hands a heavy defeat to the Eleventh Doctor (David Tennant… yes, we have to get used to this. Blame Moffat and John Hurt). Compare “Fireplace” and Madame de Pompadour (Sophia Myles) with Amy Pond (Karen Gillan) and series 5-7. Both characters are women who wait their entire lives for the Doctor. Madame de Pompadour dies waiting for him, but Amy Pond is rewarded by traveling with him longer than any other companion.

I think this indicates a shift in attitude. The Tenth (Christopher Eccleston) and Eleventh Doctors were both serious, and their stories often involved heavy lessons and moral defeats. Series 5-7 and the Twelfth Doctor are much more lighthearted, but the subject matter is not. The Silence, the series villains, kidnap and brainwash Melody Pond into an assassin. The Doctor kills and doesn’t look back. In “The Day of the Doctor,” the Moment describes the Doctor as “The man who regrets [Eleven] and the man who forgets [Twelve].”

This attitude toward Twelve as “the man who forgets” might explain why sayings like “Rule one: the Doctor lies” came to be. It absolves both the characters and the writers from ever really explaining themselves. By not offering explanations, bizarre events like Holy Roman Emperor Winston Churchill in The Wedding of River Song can exist just to be cool. A fine line exists between style and fanservice, however, as “The Day of the Doctor”shows. All the Doctors gather together, to reverse the Doctor’s greatest failure. Of course, that failure never really existed because, if it had, the Silence would not have tried to kill the Doctor. Because the Silence try to kill Twelve before he saves Gallifrey, we know that he never actually destroyed it.

Using “timey-wimey” is just a symptom of the attitude the writers of Doctor Who hold. Steven Moffatt has said in interviews that a time-travel show doesn’t need an established continuity. But as we see from the confusing explanation I just gave of the consequences of “The Day of the Doctor,” and the overall quality of series 5-7, this attitude drags the show down. It allows the fanboy side of each writer to run wild; fanservice becomes normal instead of occasional. “The Day of the Doctor” is pure fanservice from beginning to end; therefore, it’s boring. The Doctor’s victory is never in doubt, and the audience goes along with it, because it is just so cool to see thirteen TARDISes (plural?) flying together.

I think that’s what needs to change. I wrote earlier drafts in which I pointed out everything the show did wrong during series 6 and 7. The drafts were several thousand words long. But each came back to the same thing: the attitudes of the writers, the showrunner, and the audience. We’re not innocent: the series 8 premier got the highest ratings since 2010. As long as style triumphs over substance, as long as “are bowties cool?” remains the most morally complex question the Doctor and his companions have to answer, the show remains mediocre.

There is also just some really awful writing.


10 thoughts on “Doctor Who: What’s up with the writing?

    • I know. I drop it in the next review. I get confused myself when trying to update my mental list of each Doctor.


      • 🙂 I tried to come up with something myself, but anything other than just inserting “War” or “Hurt Doctor” into the lineup is too confusing. Thanks Moffat.


        • Moffat’s gone on record saying that the numbering stays the same (with the War Doctor being called the War Doctor, not the Ninth Doctor), if only to make sure that people are consistent when they talk to each other. Otherwise, well, Capaldi’s not really Thirteen – he’s Fourteen, because Hurt is 9, Eccleston is 10, Tennant is both Eleven and Twelve, and Smith is 13 (the Doctor produced by the twelfth regeneration). 😉


  1. While I do agree that under Moffett the writing had gone down hill, I will say that I actually liked The Day of the Doctor. I looked more at the story than the visuals. Having watched Dr. Who since I was a child I was beginning to wonder if there were any stories left to tell. By introducing the truth that Galifrey wasn’t destroyed, they actually capitalized on, and explained how, in the last 2 of Tennant’s episodes Galifrey was brought into existence right above the Earth.

    Now the Doctor has a new targeted goal. Find Galifrey. I just hope that with this 12th Doctor (the War Doctor was 8.5 and was brought about by a witch giving him an extra regeneration) the writing gets much better. Capaldi is too talented an actor and this show is too iconic for fluff and bull stories.


    • I agree it opens up more stories, which I’m excited about. I think the way it was introduced, though, was handled badly.


  2. Moffat can pull of single-shot episodes like Blink, but ask for a consistent story arc or not messing up female characterization, and it’s just so sad. This show could be so much more than it’s become.


  3. I find it strange to be directed here. I’m often honoured to see people use my artwork for whatever purpose, but it I must admit it is odd to see it used to criticise what I loved, very odd feeling indeed.

    I’m one of those rare; old school, fans who likes Moffat, and likes the complex/shuttering story arcs. though RTD was great I hated the typical story arcs that begin in episode 1 of the series and finish at the end of the series. I don’t like that formula in any given series/season but I despise it more in Doctor Who simply because it is Doctor Who, any Time Travel mechanic destroys that approach. And though there have certainly been disappointment for me in the Moffat era, there were plenty of those in the RTD era too, just as both eras have had great moments. — You never hear people complain about how RTD butchered the Master, (I love John Simm and his acting was brilliant, it was how they wrote the Master that threw many old schoolers off) — You never hear complaints about RTD at all, but there was so much lazy and dodgy stuff going on then too. Don’t believe me, ask yourself how many times did the story revolve around a crazy fortuneteller/psychic? Or use the convience of the Time War to explain something? My big hatred to the Moffat era came in series 6, many fans buckled at the obvious Americanisation, and it nearly caused me to quit. But he backed tracked after that, and I’m pleased to say I’m still here.

    So far I love the new Doctor, he certainly is interesting. The last episode I watched I was not very impressed with the story at all (the Moon one) I can usually forgive some bad science, but this one pushed me way too far. Thank God the characterisations saved it.

    — I also liked the idea implanted through the 50th and Christmas Special that he was given a clear purpose (Galilfrey) something to drive him forward, and Moffat said that will drive this series, but there has been zero purpose, no hints at that at all, only some soul searching. And now we’ve also returned to the predictable and boring series 1 to end of series story arc that drives me nuts, because too many people whinged they wanted it. No matter what Moffat does, no matter how good or bad his stories will be there will be a ridiculous amount of hatred towards him. He is doomed whatever he does. And that’s what I can’t stand about the current fandom, it is ugly and disgusting.

    Oh, and I loved the 50th, it was amazing on many levels and not just for the nostalgia level, the only thing I didn’t like about it was the annoying fangirl tribute. Of course we know the Doctor will win in it. You expect something different? As far as I’m concerned the fact he didn’t push the button is fascinating. It provides possibilities for the future series’. And you criticise Doctor Who for that? That just seems bizarre, no other show would’ve provided the shock value you clearly desire. There is no shock value in Game of Thrones anymore, because you know people are going to die, it’s actually boring when it happens. There is no shock value in Walking Dead anymore because you know people are going to die, and that Ric will live, and that if he does die it will be at the conclusion. So everyone else will die around them. I have no idea what you expected from the 50th that would make it “not boring”, if they pressed the button you would say that it was pointless, if they clearly saved Galifrey you would complain that it was inconsistent and convenient. The reality is that you would probably never be happy, just as people are never happy with Dune, or LotR’s, or Mass Effect or the King Slayer series, or any other epic scaled story, it’s because they are epic that they will never live up to human expectation, My advice to you is to enjoy it for what it is, because if you keep looking at all this the way you are than you’ll only ever be disappointed, no matter what is changed. It is a sad truth about the human condition.

    Most TV shows have a life span between 3-7 series. Depending on the genre depends upon how many series they can get before it clearly goes downhill. Doctor Who is the exception to this rule, because it has no real bounds. In my opinion it still has a lot of life, and regenerations can (and have) extended that life. Even when it does die (and let’s hope that occurs on a high, not a drawn out death) than it will come back someday again and again and again, because that’s the power of Doctor Who … that is why we love it, because it is something that can never be killed, even when we end up hating it, it can still come back and make us love it again.


    • oh gee. I owe you an apology for using your art and not attributing you. I actually put the art into this post, and thought I was pulling BBC images. I’ll be happy to attribute you with a link if you want to drop me one, or to replace the image if you prefer. It doesn’t pay to get in a hurry. I’ll be more conscientious next time.

      I’m the opposite on the Moffatt/Davies thing. I liked Davies’ story arcs better, and I’ve been seeing the season arcs as the show’s big weakness for the last couple of seasons. I do think Moffatt has a lot of strengths, though. A lot of his stand-alone episodes rate among my favorites. I had some problems with the latest episode myself. I do Monday reviews for another blog, and I’m trying to figure out what to say about it without being too harsh.


    • Sorry for any confusion my last comment may have caused. I was answering from the comment archive and thought you’d commented on a review we posted on Saturday.


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