The Glass Teat


Collateral Damage: The Problem With Steven Moffat or,

Another woman in the refrigerator

Doctor Who Christmas special displays new show-runner's moral blind spot

By Geoffrey Dow
Managing Editor, True North Perspective
Originally posted at Edifice Rex Online

There are (at least) two kinds of cheating common in the writing of popular fiction. One is when a plot doesn't make sense, where an apparently intricate tapestry is revealed to be only a bunch of holes where the logic fell through; another is when a story's human logic is lacking, when long-established characters betray their readers' or viewers' previous experience of them.

25 minutes into the 2010 Doctor Who Christmas Special, "A Christmas Carol", I was having a wonderful time, and thinking that the Steven Moffat I'd once loved — the Steven Moffat who gave us the intricate yet humane chills of "Blink" and "The Doctor Dances — had come back to us at last.

But still, I had misgivings, and by the 30 minute mark, they had re-emerged full-blown. The Steven Moffat who concocted last season's "crack in the universe" story-line, and who had first shown his true colours with the popular but hollow and inhumane "The Girl in the Fireplace" was still in charge.

Moffat can be an excellent writer, whose plots are complex and who can create intriguing and believable characters with a few deft strokes of the auctorial keyboard. But as a dramatist, he has one honking big flaw, and it takes centre stage here. "A Christmas Carol" is a grand, meticulously-constructed romp, but a romp with a monstrous emptiness at its fairy-tale heart.

The full review is inside this link. Minor plot spoilers ahead, but unless you've never heard of Charles Dickens, not too many.

Some writers fall in love with their characters, others with their stories. Good writers recognize their tendency and do their best to compensate accordingly. Too often, unfortunately, Steven Moffat forgets the importance of that kind of conscious balance and lets his love of puzzles lead him away from the importance of character.

"Sexism" is a charge that's been levelled at Moffat on a fairly regular basis in the blogosphere, as is is the accusation that Moffat's Doctor Who is less racially and sexually inclusive than was Russell T Davies' version of the venerable franchise.

I long thought the sexism charge especially was wrong-headed. After all, Moffat brought us the likes of Sally Sparrow, not to mention Nancy and the pan-sexual Captain Jack.

Yet, as I watched his unsatisfying inaugural season at the helm of Doctor Who this past spring, it became clear there was something wrong with the show, some emptiness that unhappy viewers tended to fill with whatever particular concerns they had.

Those whose focus is on race found the series' faces less diverse than had been the case during the Davies era. Even after an an examination showed that the numbers didn't support the theory, I still thought the program felt more white than it had been under the hand of Russel T Davies.

Those whose primary concern is sexism or sexuality claimed that Moffat's female characters lacked agency or were more passive than his male characters; yet could easily point to the aforementioned Sally Sparrow or River Song or, indeed, to Nancy from "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances" to show that Moffat's women can be as strong as any of his men.

The evidence on the ground says that Steven Moffat is not significantly homophobic or sexist or racist. So what is it? Why do the accusations keep coming? Why does Moffat make me, and so many others, uncomfortable, forcing us to seek out ... whatever it is we're missing from his stories?

"A Christmas Carol" provides the answer in the form of the episode's central (non-)character, Katherine Jenkins' Abigail Pettigrew, the woman in the refrigerator freezer.

As the episode's title makes clear, "A Christmas Carol" is a reworking of the Charles Dickens classic. In this instance, "Scrooge" is Michael Gambon's Kazran Sardick, a rich and cruel miser who seems to have an entire planet as his personal fiefdom. Among his pleasures is lending money to the poor, while putting a family member into cryogenic storage as collateral. Whether he has hundreds, thousands, or millions of such unfortunates in his cellar is unclear, but it is seems certain they represent a significant "surplus population".

The plot is driven by a spaceship which is about to crash on Sardick's world, if he won't open up the clouds surrounding it (never mind, just accept it). There being no profit in the gesture, Sardick refuses to do so. This being Doctor Who, time travel is the obvious solution and the Doctor hops off to visit Sardick as a 10 year-old boy.

Fine. Rather than random ghosts, the Doctor will literally embody Christmases past, present and future. Sounds like fun. A for a while, it is. Moffat handles the early going with humour and wonder and a deft hand — he even gives us a pretty startling and imaginative monster.

But the real monster is the conceit at the heart of this puzzle, a woman who is only a plot device, not a character.

As with another fan-favourite, "The Girl in the Fireplace", Moffat seems to have become so entranced by his own puzzle and so caught up with the structural romance that must have seemed great in synopsis, that he forgot he is writing an episode of an ongoing series, with characters of long-term interests and traits, with their own integrity, that must be respected if their actions are going to matter.

In "The Girl in the Fireplace", Moffat's Doctor not only forgot that he had already fallen in love with Rose, but also and more importantly, that Rose and Mickey were under his care. Yet, having met Reinette, he abandoned them both to certain death on a derelict spaceship. That is the action not of a flawed and even egotistical hero (the Doctor we all know and love), but of a psychopath or, at best, of a cartoon character whose motivations are entirely dependent on the next joke.

In "A Christmas Carol", it isn't the Doctor's companions who are abandoned, but rather a planetful of people suffering under a monstrous dictatorship, and an individual woman the Doctor blithely uses for his own ends. How? By defrosting her once a year on Christmas Eve for a decade, then popping her back in when he's done with her.

Think about it. The Doctor (our Doctor!) never seems bothered that Sardick has a significant portion of the planet's population literally on ice, or that Abigail is one of them. Note. Just, "Back into the freezer with you, lass! See you next year!"

To Moffat's Doctor, Abigail isn't a person, but only a means to an end; similarly, to Moffat, the Doctor himself isn't a character, but a piece of the latest time-travelling puzzle he (Moffat) has taken such care to construct.

And it is an intricate construction. But as with an architect's drawing, the inanimate structure is detailed and complete, but the people pictured walking about at its base have no personality, let alone agency, but serve only to provide a context for what's really important to the picture: in this case, to Moffat's puzzle.

Steven Moffat leaves a lot of us uncomfortable or unsatisfied not because he's a sexist or a racist, but because he's a writer who all too often treats his characters like chess-pieces on a board, rather than characters upon a stage.

Abusing his characters, Moffat thus abuses his audience, breaking faith with us and our willingness to invest ourselves in a 50 year collaborative project called Doctor Who.