There are good days and bad days and Thursdays and Bank Holidays where it’s wet and miserable but then there are exceptional days. Days like today where someone suggests that you sit down, pop on a brew, and watch all your favourite Moffat-era Doctor Who episodes, and then have them describe all of this watching and slurping (I know, bad habit) as work.
Of course, there are caveats.
Firstly, to keep the world’s supply of adjectives healthy, I’ve been ordered to limit my ramblings to ten episodes (it’s a benign dictatorship, there were biscuits.)
So just encase you haven’t read the title above, this is my Top Ten Moffat era Episodes!
In no particular order, let the debate being!
What better place to start than the beginning but this being a Moffat guide, we’ll start at the mid-point, circumnavigate the beginning, go sightseeing at the end and then land somewhere around a conclusive point where everything will be nice and wrap up with no lingering questions (sorry but why did the TARDIS explode again?)
Start below by wrapping your optic nerves around this selection of ten superb Doctor Who episodes since 2010, and then let us know whether you agree or not in the comments!
The Impossible Astronaut
There are confident, exasperating openings and then there is this, an absolute treasure trove of pitch perfect performances, stunning direction and the kind of scope that deserves to have the word ‘cinema’ portmanteau to its front.
Looking back at it now, the long running argument for much of season six was that it was too complex and scary for its intended audience (particularly the bathroom scene where the universe becomes Joy less) but in fact, the exposition is beautifully parcelled out.
For every breath-taking idea there are expository lines that marshal your thoughts in the right direction – admittedly, there are a bumps along the road, ideas that are raised and then cast by the wayside as well as lulls where densely packed dialogue scenes seem only skim the surface; leaving the viewer at a distance when they should be right there with the characters as they struggle to keep the Doctor from knowing what he shouldn’t.
However, then come the big moments, the moments Moffat thrives on: the Doctor’s fate at Lake Silencio, the ‘oblong room’, the aforementioned death of Joy; there are few television shows that have this level of ambition and there are even fewer that have this level of confidence while strutting its stuff.
In ushering in new long-form storytelling The Impossible Astronaut is as an important opening episode as The Eleventh Hour. It’s that good.
There’s nothing scarier than love.
Hide is a Trojan horse; an almost traditional episode of Who that feels as modern and fresh as anything from the RTD era and a story of the Doctor investigating man’s exploration into new fields that doesn’t end with him lambasting them for meddling with things that have no understanding of or, for that matter burning the whole operation to the ground.
It’s this point that makes the episode so special – Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor for once is amongst equals – while they don’t possess the ability to reach the conclusions the Doctor does, there can be no denying that regardless of the Doctor’s involvement, their conclusions would have been perfectly valid.
It’s because both Jessica Raine as Emma Grayling and Dougray Scott as scientist Professor Alec Palmer are such a strong pairing (There’s a look right at the start of the episodes given by Alec to Emma that is so perfect, and that encapsulates future events so well that I couldn’t help cracking the same winning smile on my first watch through) that Matt Smith is free to do what he does best; steal the whole show.
The pair are such a good anchor that the cartoony nature of the Doctor and Clara’s relationship that niggles elsewhere in the second half of series seven never grates here. Writer Neil Cross finds the right amount of nuance (Alec’s parallels with the Doctor and Emma’s apparent lack of trust in him) to stop proceedings descending completely into a romp around a fairground ghost house.
Cross also showed the same flair for character in the misjudged The Rings of Akhaten and it could be argued that while the Doctor is key in solving the mystery at the heart of the episode; he is surplus to requirements when it comes to character dynamics.
Where other episodes floundered with the characterisation of both Clara and the Doctor together; their giggly nervousness and eventual bone-deep fear (altogether now: “I am the Doctor and I am afraid”), anchored with such strong supporting actors reveal a hidden (pun intended) emotional depth to an episode that probably wasn’t expected.
While its last minute tonal shift doesn’t quite result in the satisfying narrative conclusion it hoped for it does serve to underline what makes the episode great; the Doctor’s constant search for knowledge, both in the people around him and the monsters lurking in the trees, for once results in a perfect happy ending.
The Eleventh Hour
There’s nothing like having your expectations not only met, but exceeded exponentially by an episode that rightly deserves to be called a classic in every sense.
Not only did it usher in a new era effortlessly with the kind of tightly plotted, exceptionally strong narrative and concise sense of character that typified Moffat’s episodes up to that point; it brought us something new from something timeless – a darker, romantic fairy tale setting for our adventures with the Doctor.
Through the eyes of Amy Pond, the Doctor became an idealised figure; fitting in somewhere between a father for the young Amelia and then the perfect partner, a romantic figure who’ll could whisk Amy away on the eve of her wedding to a world she could only imagine existed– it was as if Peter Pan had returned to take Wendy back to Neverland just as she had settled into a quiet life.
Has there been a more physically assured Doctor than Matt Smith?
While Tennant before him hid his eccentricities behind a steely determination and commanded the space around him (there are countless examples, but the one that springs to mind is The Satan Pit, where he literally paces while trying to rationalise the evil before him) here, in his first appearance, Smiths Doctor is a bundle of barely concealed oddness – rather than commanding the space around him, he enacts the Doctor’s thought process in a series of tics and physical bits.
Both fill the space, but in markedly different ways.
At this point the pair weren’t a million miles away from each other in terms of interpreting the character but already you can see the choices made that would go on to mark out Matt’s Doctor as one of the best and an equal to Tennant’s popular Tenth Doctor.
If there is one moment of pure fan service then it comes with the Eleventh Doctor, emerging from holograms of his past incarnations, clad in his soon to be typical tweed, reminding the returning Atraxi that this planet is protected; it’s the kind of gloriously self-serving moment that, in the hands of anyone less astute with the material, would be dismissed as hubristic at best.
Here, it’s an indulgence fully deserved.
Vincent and the Doctor
There are two strong metaphors at work here; the literal ‘black dog’ of depression stalking the streets, a misunderstood beast that if crossed could end your life and the sense that even though everything seems normal at face value and even with no memory of the tragedy that befell her in the previous episode, something persists behind the eyes of Amy Pond.
‘Something’ that can only be seen by someone who has made tragedy and depression their uneasy bedfellow, artist Vincent Van Gogh – here played perfectly by Tony Curran.
Now, ambition might be a quality Doctor Who writer’s need in spades, but here matching Richard Curtis’ edict to tell a story about depression yet still make it the kind of light, fun entertainment you’d expect from an episode of Doctor Who is an almost impossible task.
And yet, despite the cross-purposes of those twin goals, the episode works.
Perhaps, ultimately it isn’t about the message rather, the attempt to tell such a mature story in the most unlikely of ways that gives it such a powerful punch.
You’d imagine that if it wasn’t saddled by some of the demands of the season arc for that year; it might not have suffered such discrepancies in tone. If Amy had been unburdened by a grief she doesn’t understand and had bonded with Vincent despite that missing connection, it might have been a more assured attempt to tell a ground breaking story.
But it’s that final moment; where despite knowing that his work means so much to so many years after he has passed on, Vincent still can’t beat the ‘black dog’ that lives longest in the memory – a genuinely moving and mature episode that deserves to be praised for attempting to tell a difficult, familiar story.
The Doctor’s Wife
Meeting expectations by hoodwinking the audience from the title onwards, The Doctor’s Wife is a triumph. Here the Doctor and his greatest companion finally get to meet each other in the realm of flesh and blood and it’s perfect.
Of course Idris (seriously, you were kicking yourself when you released the significance of that name) would kiss the Doctor immediately, sure she’d have trouble with tenses and yes, with a character who’s empathy can change the course of destiny and who’s social skills are a little rudimentary at times, of course she’d completely and totally understand him more than anybody else ever could.
For the first time we see the Doctor travelling through time for selfish, sentimental reasons; he’s lonely and upon receiving a message seemingly from another Time Lord, he instantly heeds its call. Here we get an opportunity to yet again see how assured Matt Smith when the Eleventh Doctor discovers that he has been had.
The whiplash turn from delight to absolute anguish and fury reminds us of the cost of his existence – mostly at his own hand – and that the very best Doctor Who writers can give us both a rollicking adventure and remind us of the fundamental nature of the character – that even though he can call strangers friends and seeks to unite all kinds of desperate species, he is ultimately alone.
Loneliness isn’t solely confined to the Doctor.
Rory, who after becoming locked in the hollow TARDIS with Amy, becomes trapped down endless corridors, seemingly spends an eternity waiting for Amy; scrawling horrid graffiti across the walls, is a neat twist on the idea of Rory being the ultimate warrior – sure he might wait forever but in this incarnation he embodies the fear lying at the heart of Amy Pond, that even with those 2,000 years alone, he still might resent and leave her.
Neil Gaiman takes a fundamental part of the shows history, the Doctor and his TARDIS, and turns it into a beautiful mediation on the dysfunctional relationships at the heart of the show and in doing so, sparks new life in those familiar unions.
It’s an absolutely stunning episode.
A Good Man Goes to War
There’s something about twist endings that when you write them down or say them aloud, they seem to do the moment a disservice even when they have long since become common knowledge.
“No Luke, I am your father” in no way encapsulates the sheer spine-tinglingly excitement you felt when you saw that moment for the first time. Nothing can help reclaim that moment when, in a daze you relived previous episodes as you attempted to readjust your expectations and challenge that seemingly definitive fact.
Unlike that revelation from The Empire Strikes Back, A Good Man Goes to War’s big revelation regarding the true nature of River Song had been a secret very much in the open, but again the speculation could never really capture that amazing moment when it was finally confirmed as so.
The episode is stunning; it makes it almost possible to take for granted Moffat’s skill in writing economic, witty dialogue and in delivering a truly exciting revelation and then completely subverting it.
However, not all the revelations in A Good Man Goes to War created those moments. The casual way in which Amy and Rory accepted the fact that they would not raise their own daughter in a traditional sense left most fans cold.
Personally, I think it’s more to do with our own expectations when it comes to drama.
We want those moments where the Doctor would return their daughter to them; we want those emotional and conclusive moments, and because we are dealing with a young child, we expect to see them reunited in that traditional fashion.
In attempting to subvert our expectations perhaps Moffat misjudged our willingness to accept that time travel ultimately lets them raise their daughter, albeit in an unconventional fashion.
It’s a device that I admire more than adore; it’s a story of desperate redemption rather than triumph.
The boldness to attempt to upend our expectations with such a sensitive issue, during prime time on a Saturday night, and in such a fashion is a startling reminder of Moffat’s skill with narrative – if not an entirely successful one.
A Christmas Carol
There’s something reassuring about basing your Christmas episode around Charles Dickens immortal text – it’s almost a tradition in itself but no one has attempted to tell the story of the redemption of a miser through time-bending means quite like Steven Moffat, in perhaps the best Christmas episode since The Christmas Invasion.
Some of the finest moments in the episode are also some of the most familiar in both what we’ve come to expect from Moffat and our own familiarity with the original text.
In Matt Smith, we have a Doctor who can bring real pathos to some of the more flippant of Moffat’s one liners such as his reading of: “It’s this or go to a room and design a new kind of screwdriver. Don’t make my mistakes,” and a Doctor who has both a natural affinity with children and an ability to unite two lonely hearts.
Perhaps its best moment is in the breathtakingly simplistic way the Doctor enacts his role as the ghost of Christmas yet to come. What’s interesting is that the Doctor’s early attempts to change the course of Sardick’s life may have changed his experiences but it didn’t change his fate; he still turns towards misery and loneliness.
It’s the Doctor’s final act, to present the young Sardick with a vision of the life he is headed towards that shocks the most.
It’s also reflected in the Doctor’s attitude towards Abigail’s fate as well; he doesn’t attempt to save her life, he just wants her and Sardick to make the most of their time while they are here; it’s a consistent character note that Smith nails perfectly and motivates him to save the lives of those on the seemingly doomed ship that is hurtling towards the planet.
After all: “In 900 years of time and space, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important before.”
The Pandorica Opens
Season Five was all about irresistible traps. Before the Doctor returned, Amy had settled for a quiet life in the village where nothing happens – it wasn’t until her raggedy doctor came back that her yearning to see the stars drew her into the concluding events of The Pandorica Opens.
Likewise with the Doctor, he found himself drawn like a moth to a flame to the awful truth that one day he would destroy the universe.
His trap maybe more literal come the end of the episode but the most of the joy in those final moments comes from the neat way Moffat draws together all the desperate elements from the previous episodes.
It may be a familiar trait now but those opening moments where a series worth of plot pieces finally fall into place felt bold, exciting and above all new.
The highlight of the episode is undoubtedly the Doctor’s speech at Stonehenge – his rousing, thinly veiled threats maybe nothing more than bravado in the face of insurmountable odds but Matt Smith nails it perfectly.
Perhaps the most interesting point is that while the Doctor maybe playing ‘The good wizard’ as River calls him, it could be argued that the army of all his past foes see themselves as the heroes of this particular fairy tale.
How about that for an irresistible trap?
Let’s Kill Hitler
Whereas most show runners at the climax of one complicated storyline might start to answer some of the questions raised in the few episodes remaining; Moffat adds more, and more and then a few more for good measure.
It’s not always a successful or satisfying way to conclude a two-parter (hence my predilection for the first part of most of the major two part episodes in this list) but again Doctor Who isn’t like other show – it can sustain all these new ideas on pure invention alone.
Where I can only admire the idea of Amy and Rory not raising their child in the traditional sense and throughout Let’s Kill Hitler, they readily accept the idea that they do raise their daughter a little too quickly; I can adore the rollicking execution of that same idea.
It’s like an atheist admiring the architecture of a church; you might not share the same beliefs that forced it into existence but you can still love the craft, the man power and the artistry involved.
And Let’s Kill Hitler gets everything else right; the snappy dialogue, the character development, the big concepts and the little moments that surround them.
Despite a misstep, it’s still one of my favourite resolution episodes purely because it has the guts to take on our expectations and then rewards us in ways that we would never have expected.
The Name of the Doctor
What else could it have been? For a list complied mostly of opening episodes to long-form narratives it would be churlish at this final point not to include the most tantalising, fan pleasing opening episode; The Name of the Doctor.
Where criticism of the handling of Clara’s characterisation maybe valid for some of the episodes of Series Seven; what cannot be ignored is that Moffat consistently brings out the Doctors emotional core.
The strongest moments of this episode aren’t the resolutions to the secrets of this season (it rarely is with Moffat’s Doctor Who) it’s in the significance of the Doctor’s final resting place; Trenzalore.
In Matt Smith’s hands; the Doctor manages to pivot from neatly goofy cheeriness to absolute anguish and despair seamlessly. Particularly in the moments where he wanders through the graveyard Matt is able to convey melancholy, fear, and quiet rage all while delivering plot explanations and references to other adventures.
You know that when he looks down at the smouldering, scorched surface of his final resting place that the Doctor genuinely believed that he might just spend his last day’s beekeeping or painting watercolours.
If there is a criticism of this fantastic episode, it’s that it doesn’t really have the spending power for its core idea – it would have seriously taken hundreds of millions of pounds to properly tell just what Clara did to undo the damage done by the Great Intelligence in the multiple Doctor’s life times.
Conversely, it’s because the ideas in this episode are so big and beyond its usual remit that some of the quieter moments get drowned out.
Clara was never the bravest of companions so for her to have to step into the scar tissue and make that change regardless of her own free will was something that wasn’t really give the space to feel its impact fully.
But these are quibbles and nothing more; the episode is stunning, the ambition out of this world and the possibilities it raises, tantalising to say the least.
I can’t wait to see what comes next.
It’s an exhaustive list, but what is your top ten episodes from the Moffat era?