Steven Moffat’s work is more complicated

I read with great pleasure a post by Jack Graham on the multiple failings of Steven Moffat, showrunner for Doctor Who. Though a devoted fan of Doctor Who, I also enjoy shredding it to bits on the grounds of politics, gender, and race. It gives my brain something fun to do. I’m in agreement with Graham’s closing remarks:

The people in power, the privileged, deliver something, and instead of saying “thanks boss”, you say “not enough – do better.”  Moffat has a harder time pleasing everybody because more people are politicised and vocal about stuff like sexism.  The neoliberal feminism of a privileged ‘ally’ isn’t good enough for them.  And that’s as it should be.  Be reasonable, I say.  Demand the impossible.

I also agree with mostly everything Graham says in his post. For instance: “In Moffat’s show, women are overwhelmingly defined by their traditional gender roles or bodily functions.” Yes. That’s very annoying. Also: “I think the reason that lots of people think Steven Moffat’s version of Doctor Who is sexist is because it repeatedly acts and sounds sexist. Yes. I agree. And: “Moffat’s repeated tendency to have him cosy up to rulers, presidents, kings and queens, bosses, presidents, etc., is quite revolting.” Good point, and a disturbing departure from Classic Who. Finally: “He makes Doctor Who safe for neoliberalism.” Whoa . . . hadn’t noticed that, but now that Graham mentions it. . . yeah. A lot of Classic Who is about the rebels beating the empire, and I miss that.

At the same time, though, under Steven Moffat’s direction the show has done some remarkable things with both gender and politics. Here are five things (out of many) I’ve absolutely loved:

1. In “The Beast Below,” an authoritarian is deadlocked by a moral dilemma it can’t solve. It uses a fake kind of democracy to enforce the status quo: those who dissent are thrown into a pit to be eaten. The status quo relies on everybody forgetting the underlying societal injustices. What ultimately solves the problem? Amy Pond forcing the queen to abdicate.

2. Male domesticity plays a key role in the show. Most dramatically, in “Closing Time,” the plot resolution hinges on the bond between a father and his baby.  For example, Rory is the one who wants to settle down and have a baby, and Amy is the one who wants to put off her wedding in favor of having adventures. Rory has a nurturing occupation (nurse).  And Rory’s father is shown doing household chores. In short, men are moving beyond their traditional gender roles.

3. Shows often revolve around women’s issues of every sort. What saves the day in “The Doctor Dances”? A recognition of the plight of unwed mothers during World War Two.

4. Finally, the power dynamics between men and women are complex. The flirtation between River Song and the Doctor, which spans Seasons Four through Seven, is all about power. They’re engaged in a struggle for domination that lasts four seasons, and that they both clearly enjoy. She has power no other companion has ever managed: she can drive the TARDIS and she knows his name. And, although he apparently traps her in an artificial reality at the close of her story, she reappears inexplicably in a disembodied/embodied state.

5. The TARDIS got sentience under Moffat’s watch. She got to tell her own story and explain the role in his adventures that she’s always had. Sweet.

There’s such a wild abandon of creativity in Moffat’s work. It’s stretching in new directions all the time, and it’s offending and delighting people of every political persuasion. Art does that! So, while I’m perfectly happy to criticize him until I’m blue in the face, I’m equally happy to celebrate him.

But not just him — the show, and all the many writers who craft the characters and situations. It’s easy to oversimplify and place the criticism and celebration on him, which does everybody else a discredit. I’ve just started going back to my favorite episodes and seeing who wrote them, and my life is all the richer for it.

Update on June 15th, 2015

I neglected to mention that I found Jack Graham’s post through Philip Sandifer. It was a response to a post of Sandifer’s that I just got around to reading, “The Definitive Moffat and Feminism Post.”  Good stuff in there.

Here’s a quote:

Yes, the Moffat era of Doctor Who is sexist. Because it’s television made in a sexist society. But it has things to say about that society, and they are not kind things. I genuinely fail to understand anybody who claims that the Moffat era is sexist in excess of background radiation. This is a show that’s repeatedly telling girls that they can be as cool as the boys, that the boys don’t always know better than them, and that love and independence don’t have to be antagonistic qualities for women. It’s a show that tells rape survivors that it’s OK to not be defined by the terrible things that happen to them. It’s a show that says that women aren’t done being sexy once they get a grey hair and their first wrinkle, and that tells the Doctor off for thinking otherwise.

My tangential conclusion

Let’s end with a youtube video from the Chameleon Circuit, “Big Bang Two,” and a picture from the video. (Why? Because I like it!) 

big bang two

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