Dear Steven Moffat: World Enough and Time

Dear Steven,

The moment of truth has arrived. It’s winter in the garden of Moffat and the last flower just died. Soon the gate will be locked and a “keep out” sign erected. Chris Chibnall’s waiting, ready to pour concrete.

As the two of us prepare for redundancy, the last grain of life’s meaning ready to drop through the hour glass, there’s just time for me to put my affairs in order and run the warm bath I’ll be bleeding into. For you, there’s one last opportunity to shape the show’s lore. That shape may resemble your face, like the Doctor’s beaming from the vortex in the opening credits of yore, but no one can stop you now, can they? Not now your writer’s room has been sealed and its occupants turned into soup. You love Doctor Who, Steven, but you love your Head Writer’s God-like powers ever more.

“World Enough and Time”, based very loosely on the writings of 17th century metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell, and perhaps not so loosely on the award winning Star Trek original series fan film of the same name that also features a gravimetric distortion and supporting character displaced in time, then brutalised, though I’m sure that’s just a coincidence, was significant because it was informed by your departure. We watched it, conscious that you’d want to make valedictory etchings in the series’ bible, but also, with one eye on the succession, plant seeds based on requests from Mr Chibnall.

In the series bible category, you added to your other zingers like Clara being responsible for the Doctor’s psychological disposition, The Doctor creating Davros’s winning personality, the War Doctor, and many other affronts to established continuity, with the revelation that “Doctor Who” was our hero’s full name. Missy told us he dropped the “Who” because it was too much, literally conveying the mystery a nameless Doctor preferred to imply. In reverse engineering this odd decision, though the Doctor was careful not to confirm it, allowing it to be reversed, we can assume you saw the chance to have one final joke at the expense of pious fanboys who break into uncontrolled rage when a layman (or casual viewer) makes the mistake of confusing the title with the title character.

Your other contribution to the TARDIS wiki was to tell the Cybermen’s origin story, your own version of “Genesis of the Daleks”, which in case we missed the point, was spelt out by John Simm’s Master at the close. I suppose you had the idea when mulling over Peter Capaldi’s regeneration, so thought, why not prequelise the first regeneration story, “The Tenth Planet”? Granted, that serial established pretty much how the mechanoids came into being but it lacked detail. Consequently, you were free to once again make one of your own creations pivotal to the mythos, poor Bill becoming the first canonical automaton.

My feelings for Bill have remained lukewarm throughout this series. She was likable but broad, lacking the spark that elevates the best companions to the status of beloved characters. Perhaps, knowing she was a short term prospect, you designed her to be little more than the Doctor’s undoing. You certainly weren’t interested in developing her in any real sense, not even giving her the chance to meet her dead mother, the one event that might have deepened her character given the importance this imagined matriarch had when it came to Bill’s sense of self. I’d like to have seen that fantasy tested against hard reality, but apparently there weren’t the episodes. This one, quite rightly, was about the Doctor and his hubris – his very own Kobayashi Maru – a no win scenario.

The shock opener, with a notably aged Capaldi trying and failing to hold off a regeneration somewhere cold (The Snowcap base from “The Tenth Planet”? Christmas?) was a great way to kick off the finale, instilling just the right amount of foreboding. Followed by talk of managing Missy – “I know I can help her” – for reasons that were more about shoring up the Doctor’s identity, and a casual dismissal of the risks involved in putting Bill and Nardole in her care, this signalled doom for the current TARDIS crew. I wish you didn’t have to leave the show to toy with the notion of the Doctor making catastrophic errors of judgement, with serious consequences for the main cast, but fuck it – I’ll take what I’m given.

All I ask Steven, is that Bill, unlike Clara, stays “dead”, and that whatever happens to Capaldi in the concluding episode bleeds into his Christmas swansong. Rumour has it you wanted to do something different with regeneration in your final act. I wondered, having seen two Masters on screen, whether we’d get two Doctors for Christmas, the twist being that one of them was a brand new incarnation – a “meet me before you become me”, scenario, mirroring the Master’s experience in this episode.

And so it was, with this sort of impotent speculation in mind, that my thoughts turned to that final Christmas episode and what you and Chibnall might have agreed to do with it, assuming he got a say. In a fleeting but surely important aside, Capaldi’s Doctor told Bill that he couldn’t quite remember who he’d been in his youth. Man, woman, genderfluid blob with tendrils? Damned if he knew. It was all such a long time ago. There was loose talk of Time Lords not attaching importance to gender stereotypes etc, though if I’d once had a different set of genitals I think I’d have made a mental note, whatever my identity.

Now, one can see this as foreshadowing the episode’s double Master plot twist (unforgivably ruined by BBC marketing and last week’s “next time” preview), or it could be a tip off that the next Doctor will be a feminoid. “World Enough and Time” laid the ground with so little subtlety that I half expected the Doctor to reveal his favourite bra to Bill and Nardole. I know you like to prepare the audience for changes television execs see as huge but the audience take in their stride (see Deep Breath) but there no ignoring the timing of this conversation.

But there was another aspect to this rooftop conversation with Bill, before the storm, that made millions of ears prick up. Missy didn’t recognise herself because John Simm’s Master was in disguise, but here in the Doctor and Bill’s late night burger chat was the implication that our hero, even if presented with an openly early version of himself, might not recognise it. We’ve never known a version of the character who called himself “Doctor Who”, that person, particularly if they possess a set of dugs and a fouf, would predate William Hartnell. For a moment I contemplated the awful possibility that Chibnall’s big idea, the risk that got him the job, was to go backwards rather than forwards and hand over the show to a hitherto unseen Proto-Doctor – the forerunner to everyone we know. Failing that, could he be gearing up for a series-long story where Capaldi’s successor revisits his beginnings? For the record I think the former idea is highly problematic and would take a pose a challenge for a writer of much greater depth than Chibnall. If the only thing that happens to the Doctor next year is that he ends up with a clitoris, I think many of us will say we dodged a space bullet.

Still, the climax of “World Enough and Time”, the meeting of Masters, was an excellent denouement, even if all the surprise had been drained away by spoiler-heavy previews. On the basis that a long-lived Time Lord’s memory, nursing so much incident, could fail to recall the time you met yourself (as foreshadowed in that rooftop chat between the Doctor and Bill), Simm’s tease of his identity was a great moment, even if it wasn’t clear how exactly the old Master recognised his future self – he only had a slow, silent moving video image to go on after all, and we know Bill didn’t give the game away as he alluded to a personal realisation. But as cliffhangers go – two Masters, Bill a Mondasian Cyberman, Simms as the first Cyber controller – this was one of your best. Hard to believe you’ve only got one rug pull left before you join Russell T. Davis at the BBC’s retirement home in the Welsh Valleys. It was good of them to let you film the hospital scenes there.

Yours in time and cyberspace,

Ed

The Old Man’s Last Stand

Christmas 2016:

Christmas 2015:

The Old Man and the C: 

The Clara Oswald Show:

Smith – The Dark Suit Jacket Years: 

Smith in his Pomp:

Deep Time:

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