And so, Steven Moffat’s reign as showrunner of Doctor Who is coming to a close. Or at least it will be – in reality we still have plenty of time left in his company, with a 2016 Christmas special and a full Series 10 in Spring 2017 yet to come before he departs. But, with the news that he is preparing to hand over the keys of the TARDIS to his successor Chris Chibnall, it seems as good a time as any to look back on some of the Moff’s greatest contributions to the show over the years.
There’s no denying that Steven Moffat has had a profound impact on the Doctor Who franchise, producing some of the standout episodes under Russell T Davies’ leadership, and subsequently taking the series from strength to strength when he took the helm in 2010. He has overseen the introduction of not one but two new Doctors, steered the show towards global success, and also co-ordinated the iconic 50th anniversary celebrations in 2013 – there’s not an awful lot he hasn’t achieved in his five years at the top so far. But, looking specifically at the stories he’s produced as a writer, which have been the best?
It’s a tough one to call, but I’ve managed to whittle it down to my top five Steven Moffat episodes since 2005 (although if you also want to include his 1999 Comic Relief special The Curse of Fatal Death, be my guest!). Please bear in mind that these picks are personal preferences and there’s some truly great stories that just missed out on the cut, so your own mileage may vary – feel free to list your own favourites in the comment section!
So, without further ado… let’s get all wibbly wobbly timey wimey as we set the TARDIS hurtling back and look into the past!
- The Eleventh Hour
While I personally believe The Magician’s Apprentice is Steven Moffat’s highest quality series opener to date, there’s absolutely no escaping the fact that The Eleventh Hour was one heck of a success when it first broadcast. Due to the acclaim of his episodes in Series 1 to 4, there was a lot of expectation on Steven to produce something special in his debut outing as showrunner – and there was a lot of concern too that the series wouldn’t be able to cope following the departure of both Russell T Davies and David Tennant. Needless to say, the expectations were exceeded and the doubts were swept away in this fine piece of exemplary television. The episode cemented Matt Smith and Karen Gillan as household names in just 45 minutes, providing a rollicking good plot and an intriguing ‘crack in the wall’ arc for the rest of Series 5. It was clear that with a new showrunner and new Doctor in charge, there was going to be a brand new direction for Doctor Who – and one we were excited to see a lot more of.
The Eleventh Hour was unquestionably all about getting to know The Eleventh Doctor, but it arguably wasn’t until this fourth episode of Series 8 that we truly got to know Peter Capaldi’s Twelfth Doctor. In one of the most stripped back and unorthodox stories we’ve had from Doctor Who in recent years, Steven Moffat doesn’t set out to frighten us with a brand new monster (or does he?) – instead, he poses a question: is there such a thing as creatures with perfect hiding? Here, we get to see The Doctor in full-on professorial mode, dragging Clara away from her disastrous date with Danny Pink and into his experiment to find out whether there really is something always watching, always listening… but never seen. Preying on the most primal of terrors to produce some chilling sequences, as well as providing a heartfelt speech at the end from Clara about the superpower of fear, it’s a tightly written and cleverly open-ended tale. Not everyone will approve of its implications for the Doctor Who mythos, but it nevertheless stands tall as the highlight of Peter Capaldi’s debut series.
Come on, there was absolutely no way that this wasn’t making the list! Blink and Steven Moffat are all but synonymous in the world of Doctor Who, and as extensively lavished with critical acclaim as it already is, it would be a disservice to ignore its impact on the revived version of the show. Originally airing slap bang in the middle of Series 3’s immensely strong second half, this was another stripped back episode that put concept and storytelling before anything else. And yet, despite being the go-to story from new Doctor Who, it doesn’t actually feature an awful lot of The Doctor at all, barring some DVD playback and a brief appearance at the end. Fortunately, Sally Sparrow is a compelling and convincing alternative – but even she isn’t really the star of the show here. What everyone remembers most about Blink is the Weeping Angels, the only original monster from the past decade that has proven to have the same staying power as classic villains like the Daleks or the Cybermen. Thanks to their terrifyingly plausible nature and their ingenious execution within the story, Steven Moffat has ensured that none of us will ever look at a statue the same way again. Just pray that it isn’t looking back at you… and whatever you do… don’t blink!
- The Day of The Doctor
And now, from the minimalistic to the outright bombastic. There may well have been pressure on The Eleventh Hour but that was nothing compared to the weight of expectations riding on Doctor Who’s big 50th anniversary special. Somehow, Steven Moffat had to pay tribute to the last half-century of the show’s history while simultaneously propelling it forwards onto new horizons, all while telling a gripping and cohesive story. Against all the odds, he pulled it off as well as anyone could have possibly hoped – and he even threw in a brand new, unseen incarnation of The Doctor into the mix! How’s that for a birthday present! The Eleventh, Tenth and War Doctors share a delightful chemistry as they solve their way through a mysterious Zygon invasion and, ultimately, whether or not to destroy their home planet of Gallifrey at the climax of the Time War – the pivotal event that everything has been building from since 2005. With more fanservice than you can shake a sonic screwdriver at (including an unprecedented cameo from the most iconic of all the Doctors, Tom Baker) and some nostalgic imagery that will stay with the fans for a long time to come, this is a defining moment of event television that Steven can surely look back on and be proud of for the rest of his career.
However, for all its bells and whistles, it’s still not number one…
- Heaven Sent
The Day of The Doctor may be Steven Moffat’s biggest crowd pleaser, but this penultimate episode from Series 9 is his most bold, experimental, and downright brilliant script to date. Not everyone is a fan of his time as showrunner but in Heaven Sent he proves he hasn’t lost that sharp talent that made him such a popular writer during Russell T Davies’ era. The scale may not be as grand, but there is still a heck of a lot at stake – cranking up the fear factor to twelve, The Doctor’s journey around the clockwork castle is full of dread as the ominous Veil stalks him at every turn.
In making this an episode all about The Doctor, and for all intents and purposes only about The Doctor, Steven presented himself with one of his greatest challenges since working on Doctor Who – and judging by the sheer amount of acclaim that it received, I think it’s fair to say he succeeded with flying colours. With a dark and poetic fairytale-like quality to its narrative, Heaven Sent is a hauntingly beautiful piece of art that’s intimate in nature and heartbreaking in its implications, all the while providing a definitive justification for the casting of Peter Capaldi as The Twelfth Doctor. Even if nothing else that he produces in 2016 or 2017 is up to this standard, Steven Moffat will always be able to say he did the impossible and made a single-hander Doctor Who episode work. This isn’t just my favourite Moffat episode, this is one of my favourite Doctor Who stories of all.
So, that’s my top picks of the Moffat masterpieces – although honourable mentions should also go to the likes of The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances, The Girl in the Fireplace and Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead, which are all just as noteworthy in their own right. With still another series to offer up though, it’s quite possible that some of Steven’s best work is yet to come. Who knows what his final stint as showrunner will be like? If he plans to go out on a high and is able to reach the quality of some of his previous efforts, we might be in for quite the treat indeed…