On Tuesday I shared my thoughts on the Russell T. Davies Era of Doctor Who (the Ninth and Tenth Doctors). Today I’m so excited to share my thoughts on the Steven Moffat Era (the Eleventh and Twelfth Doctors)!
Please remember that the Moffat Era did bring me into Doctor Who, so my personal views/preferences are colored by that. But in sharing certain opinions, I mean no disrespect to any fans, actors, or writers. These posts are meant to be fun expressions of my Whovian thoughts. That is all.
Allons-y and Geronimo!
The Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), Series 5-7
The major difference you’ll notice between this post and the last is that I pretty much just talked about individual episodes of the Davies Era. As a whole, those series are predominantly plot-driven, which is fine. Steven Moffat’s stories, however, tend to be much more character- and theme-driven–and personally, I do prefer this storytelling method. Yes, there are plenty of action-packed tales, but for the most part this period of Doctor Who is marked by 1) well-defined story arcs and 2) a single theme.
This theme can be summed up in a single word–Fairytale–and it’s at its most conspicuous in the Eleventh Doctor’s story.
Besides blatant comments like “Amelia Pond–like a name in a fairytale,” even the look of the show changes in Series 5. Softer palettes and magical locations are the order of the day, from Vincent van Gogh’s cottage to Stonehenge, from Renaissance Venice to pirate ships, from amusement parks on the moon to a village called Christmas. Amy Pond even ends her tenure as the second-longest-running companion with this haunting request for her “Raggedy Man”:
There’s a little girl waiting in a garden. She’s going to wait a long while, so she’s going to need a lot of hope. Go to her. Tell her a story. Tell her that if she’s patient, the days are coming that she’ll never forget. Tell her she’ll go to sea and fight pirates. She’ll fall in love with a man who’ll wait two thousand years to keep her safe. Tell her she’ll give hope to the greatest painter who ever lived and save a whale in outer space. Tell her this is the story of Amelia Pond...
Fairytale manifests itself in two other major heroines, as well. River Song, the bewitching time traveling archeologist, fulfills in many ways the archetype of “Missing Princess.” She isn’t a princess, of course, but the formula of her story is similar: “Princess is kidnapped as a very small child –> Princess grows up in shielded anonymity and/or raised by villains for some dastardly purpose –> Princess’s identity is finally discovered –> Princess must return to her rightful family and/or place.” Sound like Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, or Cinder from The Lunar Chronicles?
Clara Oswald, meanwhile, “born to save the Doctor,” is the closest thing to a “Chosen One” since the days of Donna Noble. This archetype is one of the most popular in all of fiction: we see it in characters like Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Katniss Everdeen, and Wonder Woman. But Clara also plays the role of “Mayfly”–the mortal who falls in love with an immortal–and this archetype goes all the way back to ancient mythology. Psyche especially come to mind (perhaps because I love C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces so much).
But what about the Eleventh Doctor himself? According to Amy, he flies through time and space on whimsy, and the statement is very much on point. The Cambridge Dictionary defines whimsy first as “unusual, funny, and pleasant ideas or qualities,” and then, more negatively, “something that is intended to be strange and humorous but in fact has little real meaning or value.” But as G.K. Chesterton declared in his own brilliant, quirky way,
“Fairy tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember, for one wild moment, that they run with water.”
“Whimsy,” Joy Clarkson elaborates, “helps us recognize the intrinsic goodness of life, which energizes us to protect that goodness…Whimsy turns the world upside down so we can love and cherish it when it is turned right side up.”
The Eleventh Doctor is a protector of goodness as well as humor and hope. His stories run the gamut of lighthearted hilarity, mysterious fantasy, sci-fi suspense, and compelling, history-based drama. And though he often carries a great and terrible grief, he never loses his childlike delight in the simplest of joys.
The Twelfth Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Series 8-10
As joyful as the Eleventh Doctor remained, the Twelfth Doctor’s character development centers around his journey back to joy and whimsy. Fairytale isn’t nearly as obvious in this era for two reasons: 1) the stories tend to be darker and more serious, and 2) burdened with guilt and self-doubt, Twelve starts out deliberately running away from the whimsy.
But he comes back to it because he can’t help it. Fairytale remains part of Twelve’s story, because it’s always been part of his identity.
I won’t spend too much time talking about these three series because I’ve already done that here, here, and here–and at this point, you’re all probably thinking, “Yes, we know, WE KNOW you love the Twelfth Doctor, we don’t need to hear it again.” Merciful as I am, I shan’t wax eloquent this time, haha. But Fairytale remains, often under the broader term of “Story,” as seen in a few poignant examples:
- In “Robot of Sherwood,” Robin Hood describes the Doctor’s past in distinctly fairytale terms before suggesting, “Perhaps others will be heroes in our name. Perhaps we will both be stories. And may those stories never end.”
- The Doctor and Clara’s relationship goes into full-blown Beauty and the Beast Mode (I’m sorry, but it’s true), with Clara’s role shifting from “Chosen One” to “Mentor” as she helps the gruff, self-loathing Doctor embrace kindness, love, and humor all over again.
- In “The Girl Who Died,” the Viking girl Ashildr makes up her own stories about brave warriors in an attempt to boost her courage. The Doctor encourages this and eventually realizes she can save her village with this gift: “You were born for this. Show them a story they’ll never forget.“
- In “Heaven Sent,” widely regarded as one of the greatest Doctor Who episodes of all time, the Doctor fights his way out of a torture chamber while telling himself a fairytale. (And you can read the actual fairytale here!)
- “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” is a delightful tribute to our modern-day fairytales: superhero comics and movies.
- Bill Potts (my sweet summer child) crafts for herself a story about the mother she never met, and it literally saves the world in “The Lie of the Land.”
There are plenty of other examples, but we’d be here a week if I detailed them all. Suffice it to say that in Twelve’s last episode, “Twice Upon a Time,” he’s no longer running from his own story. In fact, he finally accepts that he is the hero of this fairytale–an imperfect one, but a hero nonetheless. “You were right, you know,” he tells his younger self. “The universe generally fails to be a fairytale. But that’s where we come in.”
Thus concludes my reviews of the Doctor Who series I actually own. I could talk about this show, its themes, and its worldview hits and misses for hours, but I figure I’m doing pretty good with limiting myself to two posts, haha. (Feel free to fangirl with me in the comments, though–I love the opportunity to chat!)
Before I close, however, I’d like to share a quick list of my favorite episodes…because I could never narrow it down to just one 😉
My Favorite Stories According to Era
Ninth Doctor: Dalek ~ The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances
Tenth Doctor: The Christmas Invasion ~ The Girl in the Fireplace ~ School Reunion ~ Blink ~ The Unicorn & the Wasp ~ Midnight ~ The Stolen Earth
Eleventh Doctor: Vincent & the Doctor ~ The Lodger ~ A Christmas Carol ~ The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon ~ The Doctor’s Wife ~ The Rings of Akhaten ~ Journey to the Centre of the Tardis ~ The Time of the Doctor
Twelfth Doctor: Robot of Sherwood ~ Flatline ~ The Zygon Invasion/The Zygon Inversion ~ Heaven Sent ~ The Husbands of River Song ~ The Return of Doctor Mysterio ~ Thin Ice ~ The Eaters of Light ~ World and Enough Time/The Doctor Falls