No showrunner has left quite as big an impact on the Doctor Who universe as Steven Moffat. With his era at an end and a new dawn on the horizon, join us as we look back on how the writer made his mark on the mythos…
At a BFI event in April 2017, Steven Moffat said of Doctor Who: “I think [it] is television’s first and most successful myth… it will outlive all of you”. And certainly, in recent years at least, a lot of that is down to his own work. Off-screen, Steven’s influence on Doctor Who is not to be understated. He’s written more episodes of the show than anyone other writer in its history. He’s also responsible for some of the finest stories of the modern era. Moffat was the man who gave us Blink, The Empty Child, Silence in the Library, and The Girl in the Fireplace – all before his tenure even began! Indeed, under Moffat’s watchful eye, Doctor Who has flourished into a global phenomenon. The show is bigger and bolder than ever before, and it’s taken the world by storm over the past eight years.
“WE’RE ALL STORIES, IN THE END…”
But that’s not the only influence Steven Moffat has had on the series. What of his impact on Doctor Who itself? It’s fair to say that his stories have often delved into the far reaches of the show’s mythology for inspiration. Sometimes it’s been for the purposes of nostalgia, with callbacks lovingly lined up and displayed like a perfectly packaged set of collectables. And yet, at other times, Steven’s not been afraid to rip open the boxes and make the toys his own. With his era now at an end, we thought we’d look back on some of the most significant changes Steven Moffat has made to Doctor Who lore…
1. Born to Save the Doctor (The Name of the Doctor)
Moffat’s companions have always had a little bit of fairy-tale about them. Amy Pond was the Girl Who Waited. Rory Williams was the Last Centurion. And then, chief among them, came Clara Oswald. The woman twice dead. A mystery wrapped in an enigma squeezed into a skirt that’s just a little too tight. Finally, in 2013’s The Name of the Doctor, we found out who she was. Clara was the Impossible Girl – and she was born to save the Doctor.
To stop the Great Intelligence from undoing all of his victories, Clara splinters herself through the Doctor’s time stream on Trenzalore. In doing so, she pops up to help the Doctor at several key moments in his history. Whether it’s sacrificing herself in Asylum of the Daleks and The Snowmen, or telling him which TARDIS to steal on Gallifrey, Clara has been there to guide the Doctor since the very beginning. How does the show explain such a massive change to its 50-year mythology? Rather simply, in fact: by the Doctor not actually noticing it (except, of course, when he does). Just assume that every deus ex machina in the show’s history is caused by a splinter of Clara lending a hand off screen. It came with its fair share of controversy, but at least it was a lovely excuse to revisit some classic scenes in the run up to the anniversary special.
2. Introducing John Hurt as the Doctor (The Name of the Doctor)
Oh, but we’re not done with The Name of the Doctor yet. Not content with just rewriting the Doctor’s entire life history, Steven Moffat throws his biggest curve-ball to date. You think you know the Doctor? Ha! You don’t even know every Doctor! As Clara gets lost in the time stream, she finds herself encountering a not-so-familiar face. This is the Doctor that even the Doctor tried to forget. The one who fought in the Time War. The one who broke the promise. And it was then that we finally figured out what this episode’s title actually meant. Delicious wordplay at its most deceptive!
It wouldn’t be until The Night of the Doctor and The Day of the Doctor that we fully understood this regeneration’s role in proceedings. And of course we shouldn’t forget that, for all his game-changing nature, he wasn’t just created for the sake of it. The War Doctor was born out of necessity – namely, when Christopher Eccleston declined to return for the 50th anniversary. The fact that he turned out to be played by the late, great John Hurt was just a welcome stroke of luck. Sure, it completely messed up the regenerative numbering, but this Eighth-and-a-bit Doctor was accepted with open arms and became a fan-favourite among many. Not bad for someone who started out as a cliffhanger!
3. Gallifrey Falls No More (The Day of the Doctor)
Thinking back, a lot happened during Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary year, didn’t it?! If Clara’s identity and the War Doctor weren’t enough, Steven Moffat threw another spanner in the works at the end of The Day of the Doctor. Remember how the Doctor destroyed Gallifrey in the Time War, and how he’s been moping about it ever since? Well, guess what! He didn’t blow it up after all. In fact, he did quite the opposite! Completely up-ending everything Russell T Davies had established since 2005, Gallifrey went from “gone” to “only mostly gone”. Now, it’s just trapped – but safe – in a pocket universe. Doing so was no mean feat, requiring the work of all twelve (no sir, all THIRTEEN!) Doctors to #SaveTheDay.
It’s a seismic shift for the series, but again, one it gets away with explaining. Having multiple Doctors on the scene causes timey-wimey problems with his memory, so Doctors 9 and 10 still retroactively think they blew up Gallifrey. Meanwhile, Doctor 11 has a new destination: home. Despite running away from it all those centuries ago, he’s determined to find Gallifrey once again – the long way round.
(Oh, and as the cherry on top of the anniversary cake: Tom Baker’s cameo as the Curator all but confirms that the Doctor can, and will, revisit old regenerations in his future…)
4. Breaking the Rules of Regeneration (The Time of the Doctor)
We’re almost halfway through the list and we’re still in 50th anniversary territory. Rounding off Doctor Who’s celebratory year was Matt Smith’s regeneration story, which actually held greater significance than any of us realised at the time. As a result of the War Doctor’s introduction, it turned out the Time Lord’s original regeneration cycle was up. The Eleventh Doctor was technically the thirteenth incarnation (David Tennant’s meta-crisis also counts), and so by the law of The Deadly Assassin, the Doctor can regenerate no more. Naturally though, we knew that Peter Capaldi was on his way – not least because we saw him in the previous episode! And so, The Time of the Doctor becomes an hour-long get-out clause that sets the Doctor up for (potentially infinite) regenerations to come.
Having little choice but to age himself to death on Trenzalore, the elderly Doctor faces the Daleks one last time. Knowing what this stand-off means, Clara uses the crack in the wall to speak to the newly-restored Time Lords. Based on her word, they decide to help – and just as the Doctor is about to be gunned down, his body ignites with regenerative power. The exact number of new regenerations (wisely) goes unstated, but it’s powerful enough to blast every last Dalek out of the sky. Love from Gallifrey, boys!
5. Fear Makes Companions of Us All (Listen)
Clara, Clara, Clara… she gets everywhere, doesn’t she! Already a stalwart figure throughout the Doctor’s lives, Steven Moffat took her one step further in Series 8’s Listen. The entire episode sees the Twelfth Doctor obsessed with a nightmare from his past – an unseen hand grabbing your foot from underneath the bed. After some timey-wimey exploits involving Danny Pink, his distant descendant, and the end of the universe, the TARDIS ends up on Gallifrey. Specifically, the barn last seen in The Day of the Doctor. Here, Clara unexpectedly finds the Doctor as a child and hides under his bed to avoid being seen. When the noises from the TARDIS disturb the young Doctor’s sleep, he gets up to investigate. Instinctively, Clara grabs out to stop him, and she becomes the very nightmare that’s been haunting him all this time.
Thankfully, she manages to convince him that it’s all a dream, averting any world-ending paradoxes. In a brilliant closing sequence (beautifully directed by Douglas Mackinnon), Clara soothes the Doctor back to sleep. Not only does she set the Time Lord on his way, she repeats his future words of wisdom back to him. Fear is a superpower, and it doesn’t matter if there’s nothing under the bed: it’s alright to be afraid. Fear is like a companion – fear brings us together, and fear can bring you home…
6. Davros Opens His Eyes (The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar)
Series 9’s opening two-parter was full of big surprises. The reveal of Davros in The Magician’s Apprentice was a megaton of unrivalled proportions, and things only got more unexpected in The Witch’s Familiar. As the Twelfth Doctor verbally sparred with his greatest foe, we began to feel sorrow – and dare we say it, sympathy – for the dying Dalek mastermind. Then, in a final bid to steal the Doctor’s regeneration energy, Davros did something rather eye-opening indeed (and we mean that literally!). In the 40 years since Genesis of the Daleks, we’d assumed Davros’ real eyes had been a casualty of the war on Skaro. Now, it transpires, he’s actually just been keeping them shut all this time to block out the pain.
In a scene right out of Return of the Jedi, Davros turns off his blue third eye and looks at the Doctor properly for the first time. It’s a small but poignant moment, showing how far Davros is willing to go to save himself from death. The Doctor may have known it was all a trick, but this was ultimately what convinced him to assist his enemy. The Doctor opens his veins of his own free will, and all the Daleks drink the blood of Gallifrey. And then, right on cue, the sewers start revolting. Davros may have had his eyes open for the first time ever, but ironically, he still didn’t see this coming. One word: moron.
Other revelations in these episodes include the Doctor being the person to instil mercy in young Davros (and by extension, also the Daleks). Plus we learn how the Dalek language works: Cybermen suppress emotion, Daleks channel it to fire their weapons. “Exterminate!” may as well be a synonym for ‘reload’. Oh, and Skaro’s also back in the sky, rebuilt by the Daleks and their strong concept of home. The city might now be drowning in Dalek sewage, but maybe we’ll visit there again someday…
7. I Ran Because I Was Scared (…Or Did I?) (Heaven Sent / Twice Upon a Time)
Much about the Doctor remains a mystery, but one widely-held belief was that he ran away from Gallifrey because he was bored. But, as Davros observes in The Witch’s Familiar, that has always been a lie. “No one runs the way you have…for so small a reason”. It’s not until Steven Moffat’s magnum opus, Heaven Sent, that the Time Lord finally spills the beans. Inescapably cornered by the Veil, he confesses: “I ran because I was scared! Is that what you want me to say? Is that true enough for you?”. But what did he run from? His part in the coming of ‘the Hybrid’. An ultimate warrior – presumed to be half Dalek, half Time Lord – destined to conquer Gallifrey and stand in its ruins. “I confess,” the Doctor reveals, “I know the Hybrid is real. I know where it is, and what it is. I confess, I’m afraid”.
It’s possible that the Doctor was somewhat bending the truth here though. We learn from Hell Bent that the Hybrid is actually the Doctor and Clara together. Everything he puts himself through in Heaven Sent, he does so he can later undo Clara’s death. So perhaps he’s just telling the Veil what it wants to hear in order to win himself a bit of leverage. Indeed, Steven Moffat actually revisits the Doctor’s reasons for leaving Gallifrey in Twice Upon a Time, when Bill asks the First Doctor: “What were you running to?”. The Time Lord explains that he left Gallifrey to answer a question. Good is not a practical survival strategy, so why does good prevail? Maybe, just maybe, it’s because of a bloke wandering around, putting everything right…
8. The Genesis of the Cybermen (World Enough and Time / The Doctor Falls)
For Peter Capaldi’s last ever finale, Steven Moffat gifted him his greatest of wishes: the Mondasian Cybermen. But little did we realise that by going back to the very first Cybermen, we really were going back to the very first Cybermen. As a consequence of the dramatic events in World Enough and Time, plucky companion Bill Potts finds herself having the honour of becoming Mondasian Cyberman #1. We’re teased with the conversion throughout the episode – the “pain, pain, pain…!” scene being the creepiest of all – but it’s not until the cliffhanger that it all actually falls into place. Mr Razor unveils himself as the John Simm Master, who has secretly been orchestrating the whole thing from the shadows. This isn’t an exodus at all. If anything, it’s more like a genesis. Specifically… the Genesis of the Cybermen!
The Doctor Falls helps to fill in a bit of the background. After The End of Time, the newly-cured Master is booted off of Gallifrey by the Time Lords and he crash-lands on this Mondasian ship. At first, he took over the city and lived like a king, but eventually the people rebelled. Since then, he hid away in disguise, quietly using his knowledge of the Cyberman to lay the foundations for the Cyber Foundries. It’s not quite as spectacular a victory as he thinks though. According to the Doctor, the Cybermen would have happened with or without the Master anyway (cleverly side-stepping a retcon of Big Finish’s acclaimed audio, Spare Parts). “They always get started,” the Doctor proclaims. “They happen everywhere there’s people. Mondas, Telos, Earth, Planet 14, Marinus. Like sewage and smartphones and Donald Trump, some things are just inevitable…”
9. I Will Not Change, I Will Not! (Twice Upon a Time)
This one’s less ‘rewriting history’, more ‘filling in a gap’. Due to William Hartnell’s ill health, the First Doctor goes mysteriously absent for a chunk of his swansong, The Tenth Planet. Always one to spot an opportunity, Steven Moffat finally decided to tell us where he went. In many ways, this Doctor’s fate mirrors that of the Twelfth’s. Both are the oldest-looking in their respective regeneration cycles, both meet their end at the hands of the Mondasian Cybermen, and both find themselves caught up in one last Christmas adventure. It turns out that neither Doctor wants to regenerate – the First out of fear, the Twelfth out of fatigue. It’s this double death sentence that puts the universe out of whack, ultimately causing their encounter with both Testimony and the Captain (more on him later).
Over the course of the next hour, the First Doctor realises why he should decide to keep on living. There are some horrifying truths when he learns of his future – never did he imagine he would ever become a hero, much less a blood-soaked warrior. But by the end, through seeing his other self ‘doctor’ the course of history to save the Captain’s life, he understands the good that he can offer the universe. As the Christmas truce breaks out on the battlefield of World War One (what do you mean, One?), the First Doctor makes up his mind and says his goodbyes. The Twelfth Doctor, however, leaves him hanging about his own regeneration. And so, the original (you might say) flies off in his TARDIS, determined to find out the long way round. Collapsing to the floor, events revert to greyscale and the regeneration into the Second Doctor begins…
10. Lethbridge-Stewart (The Wedding of River Song / Death in Heaven / Twice Upon a Time)
And finally, a character that Steven Moffat has dabbled with not once… not twice… but thrice. All without ever (properly) having him on screen! Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart was a recurring favourite in the classic series, and Steven Moffat’s respect for him shines through in his scripts. Following Nicholas Courtney’s passing in 2011, the character was also written out in The Wedding of River Song. Defying his own inevitable demise, the Doctor receives a phone call from a nursing home to report that the Brigadier has passed away. He had a peaceful end, but it clearly breaks the Doctor’s hearts. Putting down the phone and realising the futility of life, the Doctor accepts: “It’s time”. (Until, of course, he fakes the whole thing using the Teselecta.)
The Brigadier isn’t directly referenced again for a while, although his daughter Kate Stewart carries on his UNIT legacy. Then, in 2014 finale Death in Heaven, we get what is seemingly the Brigadier’s first on-screen appearance in modern Who. Unfortunately, it’s in the form of a Cyberman, created by all of Missy’s meddling. Like Danny Pink though, the Brig seems to have fought against the programming. He saves the Doctor’s soul by zapping Missy into dust (or so we thought), before signing off with a salute to his former comrade. Presumably, he’s still out there now, flying around the world, fighting the good fight. It’s a spin-off just waiting to happen.
Last but not least, in Twice Upon a Time, Mark Gatiss’ Captain reveals himself to be the Brigadier’s grandfather. Before he returns to the war, he asks the Doctors: “My family. Perhaps you could look in on them, from time to time?”. Naturally, the First Doctor agrees, and the Twelfth Doctor assures he can be trusted on that. And so, the Lethbridge-Stewarts became part of the Doctor’s life forever…