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An Open Letter to Steven Moffat

I know how this will go. Well, sort of. I never know how it’s going to go here, but in the wider circle of social media there will be condescension and there will be scorn. I’ll share this little missive, and will receive Facebook comments from people who would use it as an opportunity to tell me how much they hate you. Many of them will not actually read the thing. I can live with that; it gives me the moral high ground. I live in a world of no absolutes; it’s comparatively rare that I get to actually feel right about anything, and thus it’s something I grasp with both hands.
We met, just briefly, in April, at the press screening for The Pilot. I was one of the dozens of attendees at the round tables you did with Brian Minchin and Pearl Mackie. I asked you if the episodes of Doctor Who that you’d written were ever as good on the screen as the ones that played in your head when you were writing them. You answered with a modesty that surprised me, suggesting that “Sometimes it’s exactly what I imagined it was going to be, but very much more often, the actors have taken it to a whole new level, the director has found new ways of handling it, and the design is so much more extraordinary. So actually, it gets a hell of a lot better than in my sad and shabby little head, and then I revise my memories so that the much better version they made of my script is the one I always thought of”.

On the way out, I mentioned that the eight-year-old and I were working our way through Nu Who and that Blink was his favourite episode, and that I’d promised I’d pass it on. You will not remember any of this. Hacks like me are people of no consequence: we live our lives on the wire, sniffing around for straw we can alchemise into gold, checking email at one in the morning, tapping out 300-word quoticles (that’s mine; you can’t have it) in cafes and on trains. Our names are not remembered, unless we’re the people who broke the embargo. There are too many of us these days, too many freelance entertainment reporters producing too much content that is read by only a few hundred people at most. We rely on an inner circle of people we touch – trusted regular readers, people we like – but that’s as far as it goes. The Eleventh Doctor said that in nine hundred years he’d never met anyone who wasn’t important, but that’s a fate we consigned ourselves to long ago.
I write this as someone who has had to straddle the line between fan and professional and found himself coming down on one particular side, after a bit of internal wrestling that – written down – makes it sound far more interesting and dramatic than it probably was. I mentioned when I wrote about this recently that there was no sea change, no defining moment. But something happened that day in April. Seeing you in the flesh – and speaking with you, in any capacity, however limited, had the effect of shearing off the devil horns. You were suddenly and instantly humanised: not a cipher or an egomaniac, but a person, self-effacing and unexpectedly humble. They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but there is a lot to be said for meeting your villains.
I do not believe that this encountering someone in the flesh is necessary to undergo this sort of change of heart; nor do I believe that everyone who meets you will leave similarly enlightened. But a little research has confirmed that I’m not the only one. It is ridiculously easy to harbour hostility towards people you don’t know from the other side of a computer screen and the relative anonymity of an online persona. It is even easier to harbour hostility towards people you think you do know – the public figures, the writers and actors and politicians for whom hate is a way of life that comes with the territory, and who (we’re told, on a depressingly regular basis) need to put up with it because of the money they get.

There is a much-quoted Tweet from Joanne Rowling. It came last year, when she was confronted by an angry Republican over her comments about Mike Pence. “Glad I caught this article on Yahoo,” they said. “Now I will burn your books and movies too.” Rowling responded “Well, the fumes from the DVDs might be toxic and I’ve still got your money, so by all means borrow my lighter.” The message is clear: thick-skinned authors don’t care about the hatred, because they already got paid. Why would abuse bother them? They’re rich and famous. I’m not sure it’s that simple, that the words don’t cut. I’m not sure it doesn’t get to you. It’s endemic, but this is the price we pay for celebrity culture and online transparency. And this truth remains: the hatred you’re receiving is nothing new; it’s just irritatingly public.
You’ve probably seen that image doing the rounds about the Regeneration Cycle: how every new Doctor is at first despised, and then cautiously welcomed, and then adored until the moment they step down. Showrunners and producers are treated with similar contempt: each fan has his own favourite period of Doctor Who, and it is usually not the one that’s currently doing the rounds. At first they came for Hinchcliffe, and I did not speak out, because I did not like this new Gothic approach that abandoned the Brigadier and rode roughshod over the UNIT family. Then they came for Graham Williams, and I did not speak out, because I was sick of the comedy and thought that Tom Baker needed reigning in. Then they came for John Nathan-Turner, and I did not speak out, because he had turned Doctor Who into a grotesque parody of itself, with stunt casting and juggling and ridiculous costumes. Then they came for Russell T. Davies, and…

Well, you get the idea.
It seems a far cry from the days when so many fans saw you as the herald of a welcome new era. Rendered in prose, that concept seems absurdly overstated, perhaps even melodramatic. But I can remember that fifth series, and the way that Matt Smith emerged from the crashed TARDIS, soaked and starving, careering through a hospital window on the ladder of a fire engine and seeing off the Atraxi. I can remember Patrick Moore, Amy’s skirt, and that weird camera effect that looked like something out of Blade Runner. It all seemed so fresh, so full of energy, so… grown up, somehow. It was like the show had been reborn.
It didn’t last. Endings are harder to track than beginnings, and there is no designated point when the rot started to set in, but for me it was probably Series 7, and the image of the shadowy, whispering Time Lord that opened Asylum of the Daleks. The thing had lost its pizzazz, a situation swiftly remedied with the arrival of Clara. Sure, the stories were still ridiculous, but at least Smith seemed to be enjoying himself again. And then came The Day of the Doctor, which read like a love letter to the fans: a strange, almost understated adventure in a year of muted appreciation, where we spent a lot of time talking about and celebrating Doctor Who but not a great deal of time actually watching it. But it worked. It worked beautifully because it was, at its heart, a character piece, and for someone who doesn’t like doing multi-Doctor stories, it must be said you write them very well. I still chuckle at the ’round things’ gag.

We saw our first glimpse of Capaldi in that episode. It’s a scene I really thought we’d revisit; perhaps it’s better that we didn’t. If there’s one thing Doctor Who fans do too much, it’s bridge the gaps. It is not enough for us that a thing happens: every little unexplained event is gifted with a who, why, and what until the life has been squeezed from it. The Star Wars lot are no better. I don’t need fan fiction about the bloody Kessel Run; it’s enough to know that Han Solo broke the record. This may account for some of the contempt towards Capaldi’s Doctor – it’s not that the stories weren’t any good (all right, some of them weren’t) – it’s simply that there’s a pressing need for every plot strand to be resolved in great detail, which is something that didn’t happen. Perhaps people would have been less bothered had it not been a staple of Smith’s time in the TARDIS; you dug your own hole with that one.
But here’s my point, Steven. I’ve decided that much of the hatred that comes your way stems from simple jealousy. It’s a fool’s errand to try and psychoanalyse this properly, and an outright fallacy to leave it there, but this is the truth of things: you are a fan who got the run of the ship. You said as much at the Series 10 press screening – “I complain a lot, but what an amazing experience. It’s my favourite show, and I got to run it for a few years. That’s an amazing thing. In terms of childhood wish fulfillment, I may have the record for the human race.” There was no sense of boasting in this statement, no arrogance, no sense of entitlement. I’ve come to the conclusion that many people resent your success simply because it embodies a wish they’re never likely to see fulfilled themselves. Everyone thinks they can write Doctor Who; it’s just you’re one of the people who actually got to do it. I was going to say you were a fan who got lucky, but I suspect that quite a lot of hard work was involved as well.
There’s more to it than that, of course. There have been numerous accusations of tampering with the show’s legacy (a word we’ll come back to). I’m still not sure how I feel about the retroactive insertion of Clara into the Doctor’s timeline. We might say that it smacks of egotism: this idea of affecting as much of Doctor Who’s continuity (is that an oxymoron? There are days when I genuinely think it is) as is possible for one man within the time he has in the chief writer’s chair. It calls to mind a carrier spreading a plague, or perhaps a vast, multi-tentacled behemoth, a Cthulhu or Hastur, reaching out to consume the world, polluting everything it touches, and I suspect this is the mental image that many people conjure.
But ultimately, I think the reason I penned this epistle is to try and make a couple of things right – for my own sake, perhaps, rather than any assumption that you’ll actually read this. There is a tradition in Hebrew culture that the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, should be spent apologising to everyone you’ve wronged in the last year (Jewish New Year is in September, but it translates). I have written some impolite, unpleasant and occasionally unforgiveable things about you in the time you’ve been in charge. This isn’t a total withdrawal; I still stand by a few of them. The Wedding of River Song is disastrous, The Doctor Falls was bloated idiocy, and I consider the end of Death In Heaven a badly-timed insult.

Still. It was your insult. There’s a certain amount of anger in my response, but a recognition that it was a personal response that cannot speak for everyone. Philip Pullman said (I’m paraphrasing) that writing is not a democracy. That applies to literary criticism as well. It is impossible to make television that pleases everyone. I’ve been writing long enough to be able to pick out a story or tell when one is missing something important, but even I know that every single review I write is the encapsulation of a single mindset, not a collective one. That’s the paradox of the reviewer: the man (or woman) who claims to be able to speak on behalf of everyone, knowing that they never will. It’s a flawed system, but I don’t have an alternative.
I wonder if the empowerment of social media has led to a sense of over-importance, largely from the general public. A few months ago, I wrote an inflammatory opinion column off the back of The Doctor Falls. There were calls for my head on Facebook. One reader told me I should do everyone a favour and kill myself. It wasn’t a total shock. I’d expected resistance, if perhaps not quite so much outright hostility. But one complaint in particular raised an eyebrow. “Why should we listen to you?” the irritable Connecticut resident demanded. “What makes you think your opinion is of any interest?” The obvious response is “Well, I watch know a fair amount about Doctor Who and I can write reasonably well, and these people clearly think so otherwise they wouldn’t pay me.” It wasn’t enough to quieten this particular critic, who (when we distill his argument) couldn’t understand why I was drawing any sort of salary from this when he could clearly do it himself.
And if that’s how it is for me – a low-rent freelance with a guilt complex – then how must it be for you? How must it be when you turn in the best episode of Doctor Who you can and find people shaking their fists in rage? Some episodes work better than others; you’ve admitted as much. But do the flawed experiments really deserve such barren hatred? If I can bristle when someone decries something that took me ninety minutes and next to no effort, what happens when it’s something that’s taken months of writing and rewriting and laboured production? How can we treat things so cheaply? Is this why you stay off the internet?

But it’s a problem, because – as I argued quite recently – a lot of Doctor Who probably isn’t very good, and never was. There is a danger in overvaluing things; it’s the path to complacency and mediocrity. We need to say when it’s written badly (and it is possible to judge these things objectively, it really is: everyone has their own personal tastes but few would argue, for example, that much of the dialogue in Star Wars is a trainwreck, or that the ‘Turkey Time’ moment in Gigli was one of the most excruciating scenes in any film ever). Simultaneously, we need to do so in a manner that’s courteous – that criticises the writing, rather than the person doing it. Put quite frankly, Steven, when I’m hard on an episode, I would like to hope it’s not because I think you’re a twit. It’s because I think you can do better. I’ve seen you do better – frankly, you’re drawing a salary that suggests you really ought to be doing better. The fact that I probably couldn’t do better myself – which is the rebuttal I tend to receive from many people when I bring up poor writing – is beside the point. When you visit a restaurant or a jewellers or a dry cleaners, you expect a certain level of service, often from people who are qualified or experienced in things that you cannot do yourself: there is no shame in decrying a paid member of staff if they mess up your steak, damage the watch you brought in for repair, or fail to clean your suit properly.
Still, there was a time back there – a couple of years ago, I think – when it got personal. You were a figure to be attacked, rather than someone who happened to write for the show. As parents, we’re always taught to criticise the behaviour, rather than the person; the action, rather than the personality. Why should it not be the same here? If you’ve written bad dialogue or instigated a pointless retcon, I’ll tell you so: but isn’t it possible to view that simply as a bad call, rather than the sign of a reckless, uncaged ego? Because perhaps the Emperor is wearing new clothes, or perhaps you simply do the corporate shtick particularly well and I have the word ‘MUG’ tattooed across my forehead, but the man I’ve seen in the flesh frankly doesn’t square with the rampant egomaniac I hear about on the internet.

Simultaneously I wonder whether it would matter too much if it did. It strikes me that there is a place for ego within the world of the writer: that you must believe that what you have written is of value even if no one else tells you that it is. Self-belief is essential – it’s the only way to deal with rejection – and it’s easy for this to be misinterpreted as ego, or indeed to morph and evolve into the manifestation of ego. The difference, of course, is that you have reached the point where you’re no longer fighting to get your work past the script commission team (or however they do things there these days) and thus, one assumes, you ought to have a little more humility. I’m still not sure whether that’s actually true.
It is easy to look at the things you’ve done – the adjusted regeneration count, the Hybrid, the Clara thing – and say that they are the work of an egomaniac. It’s as if you came to the show with a laundry list of Things To Do While I’m In Charge. Introduce gender fluidity? Check. Recast the First Doctor? Check. Reboot the Doctor’s life cycle? Been there, done that. Perhaps that’s not the way it went down at all, but (as a very wise person once told me) there’s a difference between how it is and how it looks. And it is how it looks, and there was a time, in the not too distant past, that I hated you for it. Things have changed. I’m not saying I’m over the Cyber Brigadier – I still find that crass, overwritten and entirely unnecessary – but I’ve accepted a lot of it,
Because ultimately there has to be some room for the showrunner to actually run the show as he or she sees fit, and that’s something we don’t let you do. There is an assumption that as something of a public servant (given that you’re drawing a salary), you ought to produce the TV that we want to see, rather than the best possible show under impossible circumstances. It’s the same skewed logic I hear from people who genuinely seem to think that their £130 a year TV license gives them any say whatsoever in how a show ought to be cast, written, or produced. I don’t understand why the fans think the show is only for them, or why they think they know what they’re talking about. Fans know dick. Fans were clamouring for a Dalek/ Cybermen match-up; it was boring as hell. Fans thought Donna Noble was going to be a disaster. I could go on.

This toxic potency that we call ‘legacy’ is a big part of it. The other week I had a conversation with someone who resented Whittaker’s casting (and a bunch of other things), because they said the direction the show had taken in recent years was moving it further and further away from ‘the true meaning of Doctor Who‘. This is the sort of arrogance I recognise in my sixteen-year-old self, and a poem I’d been analysing (Sylvia Plath’s Wuthering Heights, since you asked). I’d written in my essay about the poem’s ‘true meaning’, something my English teacher – one of the most impassioned, brilliant teachers I ever knew – denied existed. This does not mean we’re in Roland Barthes territory. It’s possible to misread poetry, just as it is possible to get Doctor Who drastically wrong. Simultaneously, the notion that there is a ‘true meaning’ is the sort of unfettered arrogance that leads to unbridled fan wars. It’s the kids claiming territory, and woe betide anyone who doesn’t get it the way that they do.
I once had a conversation with a young man who wondered why you didn’t get this sort of arguing and in-fighting on Walking Dead forums. I explained that it’s a longevity issue: when you have a show that’s been running as long as Doctor Who, everyone has their own idea of how it ought to be made. Doctor Who is not alone in this endeavour: flashback to 2003, and I’m at a birthday party where there was a twenty-minute debate as to whether the first Star Wars film was in fact called Star Wars or Star Wars: A New Hope. Some years later, the Wikipedia editors had a 40,000 word argument about whether or not Star Trek: Into Darkness needed a colon. It would be funny if it weren’t such a colossal waste of resources. You put that sort of collective wisdom together elsewhere, you could probably cure cancer.

It’s mostly harmless, until it becomes toxic, and hurtful – to the people who make the show, and to the fans who disagree. There is a good article playing in The Verge right now that illustrates this, although it’s more about Rick and Morty than it is about Doctor Who. The problem we have is that there’s another, marginally less toxic but no less irritating extreme: the idea that we shouldn’t ever criticise or argue about things because “The essence of Doctor Who is kindness, and can’t we all just get along?” I find this sort of straw man approach ridiculous – and I would argue that the essence of Doctor Who may be one or many things, but it is probably not kindness; still, that’s an argument we can have another time…
No, there is room for debate and there is room for disagreement. But perhaps there’s a right and a wrong way to go about it. Perhaps we can recognise that our conceptualisation of Doctor Who is not absolute and not all-encompassing. Perhaps we can pick our battles. And perhaps we can be critical without being personal. By and large, that’s not something the fans currently do. We let our passion get in the way, and say all sorts of things and figure you’ll have to just take it on the chin because it’s all part of the job, and you probably won’t read it anyway.
But as one fan to another, I would like to thank you – for overseeing the show to the best of your ability, for getting it right more than you got it wrong, and for keeping the aspidistra flying under difficult circumstances and at a time when the BBC is under more scrutiny than ever. I will not say I agreed with every command decision, or enjoyed every piece of writing, but I’ve learned to accept that my voice, while the voice of some experience, is not all-encompassing, and that there is a difference between attacking the writing and attacking the person, and that sometimes the writing acts as a conduit. For every time I’ve done that – crossed that line – I apologise. It’s a singular apology, and not one made on behalf of fandom (for whom I take no responsibility) but I hope it counts for something, however small.
Good fortune go with you, whatever you do next. Oh, and can we please have more Sherlock?

James Baldock

An Open Letter to Steven Moffat

by James Baldock time to read: 16 min
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