DOCTOR WHO: THE 20 WORST EPISODES OF THE MOFFAT ERA

When "Twice Upon a Time" airs on Christmas Day, it will bring to an end the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who. The showrunner for seven years (2010–2017), six seasons (Five through Ten), and 84 episodes, Moffat retires into the Who Hall of Fame as the venerable institution's second longest-serving executive producer and head writer, a run surpassed only by John Nathan-Turner (1980–1989).

When he was offered the opportunity to succeed Russell T Davies (2005–2009) as showrunner, Moffat—a lifelong Doctor Who fan—described it as "not only a dream job" but as the specific dream job he'd had since he was seven years old.1 Moffat's appointment to the post seemed like a dream come true for most fans as well, as the stories he'd written under Davies' reign were generally considered among the greatest entries in the New Who canon. Many of us anticipated a golden-age of Doctor Who, replete with the intelligence, humor, and mind-bendingly clever plotting that had characterized earlier Moffat stories like "The Empty Child," "The Girl in the Fireplace," and "Blink."

But suppose we could go back in our TARDISes now, and tell our earlier selves what to expect from the Moffat era. What would we say? We would certainly reassure them that there would be tremendous joys ahead: moments that would match, if not surpass, those earlier Moffat-scripted apogees.

But might we not also be tempted to temper expectations a bit? We might remind our earlier selves that every episode can't be "Blink," and that there is a big difference between writing one story a year and being responsible for more than a dozen.

Personally, if I get the chance to go back, I'm going to tell my optimistic, slightly younger self to be careful what he wishes for: that too much cleverness can become a crutch, and that intelligence has a way of degenerating into indulgence. Pay attention to Moffat's treatment of women, I will say. And don't waste too much time obsessing over the season-long mysteries: they're hardly ever going to pay off in any satisfying way. Stepping out of my TARDIS, I will find a younger self who—with the taste of that shit-sandwich "The End of Time" still in his mouth—is gleeful to see the back of Russell T Davies. So he probably won't believe me when I tell him that one day he'll come to recognize that Davies had a superior grasp on storytelling fundamentals, a more authentic understanding of human emotions, and a much defter hand with character development. You're going to miss Davies, I'll say, when Moffat's writing starts leaving you a little unmoved. 

Moffat's run is good, I'll tell him, but we're also going to be very relieved when it is over. 

Friends, Romanas, companions, lend me your eyes. Do I come here to bury Moffat, or to praise him? A little bit of both, I'm afraid. Over the past seven years, I've written over 150,000 words about Doctor Whocovering four-and-a-half of Moffat's six seasons; more than any program but Game of Thrones, Doctor Who has been my critical bread-and-butter, the show I've written about—and enjoyed writing about—the most. So I can't quite let the Moffat era come to an end without doing a bit of retrospective, and that means taking the bad with the good.

"Every life is a pile of good things and bad things," the Doctor said once, in one of my favorite episodes.2 "The good things don't always soften the bad things, but, vice versa, the bad things don't necessarily spoil the good things, or make them unimportant."

The same can be said of Doctor Who. More than most shows, it is a high-wire act, a preposterous, wonderful folly that consistently sets itself challenges no other show would dare to undertake. Thus, it is a show of dizzying highs, and disastrous falls. The frequent crashes do not spoil the beauty of the show's equally frequent flights, but—like the flights themselves—they do tend to be spectacular.

A little later in the week, I'll be posting about my 20 favorite episodes of Moffat's Doctor Who, and of course I'll be writing about his swan song, "Twice Upon a Time." So, rest assured, we will do the celebration up right, and give Moffat the send-off that he deserves. 

For now, however, let's look at the other end of the equation, at the pile of bloody and broken episodes that have crashed spectacularly to the sawdust beneath Steven Moffat's circus tent. These, for what it's worth, are my 20 least favorite stories of the Moffat era.

20. NIGHTMARE IN SILVER

Matt Smith in Doctor Who 7x12 - Nightmare in Silver
I confess, I probably dock this one a few unfair points out of sheer disappointment. But after Neil Gaiman's first Doctor Who story "The Doctor's Wife" (see my forthcoming "Best Of" list), it was a bewildering bummer when Gaiman's "Nightmare in Silver" turned out to be such a nonsensical mess.

This story felt like a two- or three-parter crammed forcibly into 45 minutes, shaving off cohesion, character, and anything resembling a point in the process. Most of the episode consists of the Doctor spouting techno-babble at triple-speed, in the way he does when someone is hoping we won't notice that the plot doesn't make a lick of sense. The rest is the sort of forced whimsy and faux Victorian trappings that typify Neil Gaiman stories in the minds of people who don't like Neil Gaiman stories. I happen to love Neil Gaiman stories, but this felt phoned-in and flimsy, like a Gaiman pastiche by a lesser writer.

19. THE BELLS OF SAINT JOHN

Doctor Who 7x06 - The Bells of Saint John

Though it's no fault of the game and delightful Jenna Coleman, "Impossible Girl" Clara Oswald turned out to be an impossible character, and an impossibly frustrating example of Moffat's problems with writing female characters. Though the longest-serving companion of Moffat's run, Clara was always more of a plot device than a person, and her personality seemed to shift without explanation from episode to episode to meet Moffat's needs. She was a muddled, mercurial, ill-conceived character, and it all began here, with her third (and least successful) "introduction" in a silly, pedestrian, painfully slapdash episode penned by Moffat himself. (We get it, Steven: you hate the Internet.) Read my review here.

18. HELL BENT

Jenna Coleman in Doctor Who 9x12 - Hell Bent

And Clara Oswald's non-existent character arc ended more or less as it began: with Moffat attempting to create genuine emotion out of an incomprehensible mess of conveniences, contrivances, and contradictions.

It will be a running theme throughout this list that Moffat tended to make a hash of his season finales, desperately trying to weave something coherent out of the miles and miles of loose and tangled thread he'd recklessly spooled out all season. All the jumbled nonsense of Season Nine—Moffat's weakest season, by some length—crashed together on the (anti-climactically) restored Gallifrey in "Hell Bent." So, too, did most of my pet peeves with Moffat's writing.

Here we get Moffat's tendency to use death as cheap emotional manipulation, which robs his stories of emotional weight because no one stays dead for more than an episode or two. (Clara is resurrected for—by actual count—the umpteenth time.) We are reminded once again of Moffat's bad habit of seeding season-long questions without ever bothering to come up with satisfying answers. (Don't pretend you understand what that "Hybrid" nonsense was all about: you don't, and neither do I, and neither does Moffat.) And we see the chronically poor characterization of Clara culminate in a bit of fan-service absurdity: after going out of his way for two seasons to insultingly portray Clara as reckless, emotionally immature, and slightly unstable, Moffat sends her out the door with her own TARDIS and her own companion (Maisie Williams' Ashildr, who had been an amoral villain about five minutes earlier).

Sorry, Steven, but giving the two most irresponsible women you have created power over all of space and time is not female empowerment: it's an unearned mockery of actual character development.

17. LET'S KILL HITLER

Alex Kingston in Doctor Who 6x08 - Let's Kill Hitler

And if we're talking about phony female empowerment in Moffat's Who, the conversation would be incomplete without discussing River Song.

River was a great female character when she first appeared in the Season Four two-parter "Silence in the Library" and "The Forest of Dead," and she maintained her dignity (though slightly marred by overly sexualized, femme-fatale clichés) throughout her appearances in Season Five. But, in Season Six, it was almost as if Moffat—having accidentally created a female character on equal footing with the Doctor—felt obliged to undermine her. Season Six was all about the origins of River Song, and every answer we were given was less satisfying and more problematic than the last.

The nadir of this deconstruction project was the character's chronological "first" appearance in "Let's Kill Hitler," a tonally weird farce set in Hitler's headquarters. Only an episode earlier (in the infinitely superior "A Good Man Goes to War"), we had learned that River was really Amy and Rory's child, Melody Pond. It was a clever idea, but with it Moffat wrote himself into a narrative and ethical corner that he hastily (and unsatisfyingly) attempted to wiggle out of here. Now, we suddenly discovered that River actually grew up as Amy and Rory's (never-before-or-again mentioned) childhood friend Mels; that she regenerated into a psychopathic caricature of womanhood (she runs off to weigh herself as soon as she regenerates); and that she only became an archaeologist in a cloying, stalkerish pursuit of the Doctor.

As a feint at dealing with the emotional fallout of the Doctor costing Amy and Rory their only child and the entire experience of parenthood, "Let's Kill Hitler" was a pathetic and unconvincing cop-out. As an explanation for River Song's origins and motivations, it was something far worse: Moffat took one of the only strong, autonomous women he has created in Doctor Who and turned her into a sexist, one-dimensional Timelord Groupie. (Read my more positive review here: this is one that got worse for me in hindsight.)

16. DEEP BREATH

Peter Capaldi in Doctor Who 8x01 - Deep Breath

The era of the Twelfth Doctor got off to a troublingly rough start with the Season Eight premiere "Deep Breath," written by Steven Moffat. After having handled one regeneration perfectly in "The Eleventh Hour," Moffat takes precisely the wrong approach to regeneration here, spending an entire episode cringingly apologizing for casting the brilliant Peter Capaldi. Condescendingly anticipating backlash from fans who wanted the Doctor to be their "boyfriend," Moffat forces poor Clara to be their surrogate stand-in: suddenly, the only companion who has met all the Doctors becomes the only one who can't deal with the concept of regeneration. A Doctor who acted like the Doctor right out of the box (pun intended)—as Matt Smith had done three years earlier—would have been far more convincing than one sheepishly begging for acceptance. Read my review here.

15. THE LIE OF THE LAND

Pearl Mackie in Doctor Who 10x08 - The Lie of the Land

Watching Season Ten's three-parter about the Monks is like the old joke about a man falling from a 10-story building. ("So far, so good!" he was heard yelling, as he passed the fifth floor window.) What began in the excellent "Extremis," and escalated ridiculously in "The Pyramid at the End of the World," ended up a messy stain on the sidewalk in "The Lie of the Land." The Doctor puts himself in service to the evil Monks (to no purpose), traumatizes Bill into "killing" him (unnecessarily, and with no emotional fallout), fake "regenerates" (purely as a tease to the audience), gets a lot of people killed (for no benefit), and somehow still has no plan to defeat the (suddenly de-powered) monsters.

This episode was written by the usually reliable Toby Whithouse, but once again the blame rests solely on Moffat's shoulders: the entire three-parter is a perfect example of Moffat's tendency to let his pen write checks his ass can't cash. As I said on an episode of the "Get Off My World" podcast (plug!), Moffat (who wrote "Extremis") and Peter Harness (who co-wrote "Pyramid" with Moffat) handed poor Toby an impossible stack of nonsense to deal with: it's no surprise the result was such an unholy mess. Read my review here.

14. VICTORY OF THE DALEKS

Doctor Who 5x03 - Victory of the Daleks

My long-time readers will be unsurprised to discover that writer Mark Gatiss features prominently in this list. The episodes Gatiss had written for Russell T Davies (Season One's "The Unquiet Dead" and Season Two's "The Idiot's Lantern") had been passable, middle-of-the-road entries, but his episodes in the Moffat era are generally as bad as Doctor Who gets. (Only one—Season Six's "Night Terrors"—escaped this round-up.)

Gatiss's first episode for Moffat, "Victory of the Daleks," was also the first indication that the Moffat era was not going to be free of wince-inducing disasters: with its Cutesy Churchill, its DayGlo Daleks, its Spacefaring Spitfires, and its testament to the Bomb-Defusing Power of Love, "Victory" was almost a complete misfire. (Matt Smith's performance—in one or two nice scenes—makes this episode more rewatchable than I'd remembered, and elevates "Victory" to the best of Gatiss's worst.)

13. JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE TARDIS

Doctor Who 7x10 - Journey to the Center of the TARDIS

After Mark Gatiss, Steve Thompson is probably the next least successful guest-writer of the Moffat era. (He's responsible for another clunker on this list—#8, below—and his Season Eight story "Time Heistjust missed the cut-off.) Season Seven's "Journey to the Center of the TARDIS" isn't an offensively bad episode, actually—there is a fair number of clever ideas here—but it's the kind of story that makes you realize just how hard it is to handle clever ideas effectively.

The execution is just incredibly muddled: the wibbly-wobbly contrivances and deus ex machinas land with a thud, and a truly weird sub-plot about three bickering brothers doesn't work at all. Furthermore, "Journey" loses a lot of points for squandering so promising a premise: if you're going to delve into the mysterious inner-workings of the TARDIS, we expect you to bring back something far more interesting—and fun—than we get here. Read my review here.

12. THE DOCTOR, THE WIDOW, AND THE WARDROBE

Doctor Who 2011 Xmas Special - The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe

Lulled into easy acquiescence by holiday spirit, holiday spirits, and a turkey-induced tryptophan coma, I tend to be pretty forgiving of the Doctor Who Christmas specials. But even I have to admit that "The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe" is an indigestible dessert of cheesy, sugary fluff.

"For me, Doctor Who literally is a fairy tale," Moffat said, when he took over the show.3 "It's not really science fiction. It's not set in space, it's set under your bed." I agree, but leaning too far into fairy tale tropes and magical thinking—as Moffat does in this Narnia-inspired tale—is almost always a recipe for disaster. (See also: #4, below.) Suspension of disbelief in Doctor Who requires at least an illusion of scientific grounding—however soft and shaky—and "Wardrobe" leaves reality so far behind it might as well be a Rankin-Bass stop-motion confection. (It does have some lovely imagery, which is probably the only thing keeping it from near the very bottom of this list.) Read my (slightly more charitable) review here.

11. DINOSAURS ON A SPACESHIP

DOCTOR WHO 7x02 - Dinosaurs on a Spaceship

I am delighted that Moffat's successor, Chris Chibnall, has cast Jodie Whittaker at the Thirteenth Doctor, and Chibnall's Broadchurch is a show I've enjoyed. So I am trying to remain optimistic about the post-Moffat era of Doctor Who. 

My optimism is made more cautious, however, by my memories of Chibnall's stint as head-writer on the poor-to-mediocre Torchwood, and by his less than illustrious career as a Doctor Who guest writer. A few Chibnall stories (2007's "42" and 2010's "The Hungry Earth") have been acceptable middle-of-the-pack entries, but his latest two episodes—beginning with "Dinosaurs on a Spaceship"—were both fairly wretched. Over-stuffed and under-baked, "Dinosaurs" is a tonal trainwreck, throwing together a lot of mismatched components (dinosaurs, robots, a 19th-century big game hunter, Rory's dad, and Queen Nefertiti, to name a few) in a silly runaround that climaxes with the Doctor straight-up murdering the villain. This sort of reckless mixing of characters, time periods, genres, and tones is the kind of thing only Doctor Who can do well, but when it goes badly wrong—as it does here—the results can be disastrous. Read my review here.

10. THE POWER OF THREE

Doctor Who 7x04 - The Power of Three

And while we're in the neighborhood, we may as well talk about Chibnall's other story from Season Seven, "The Power of Three." These two episodes are neck-in-neck in my personal rankings, but for very different reasons. Where "Dinosaurs" was crowded and chaotic, "Power" is simply dull and lifeless. Chibnall starts with a challenging but promising idea—the Doctor, Amy, and Rory impatiently waiting out a year-long "slow invasion" of Earth by mysterious little alien cubes—but then seems to have as much trouble filling the time as the protagonists do themselves. Jokes fall painfully flat as everyone becomes a sit-com character many IQ points stupider than they usually are, and the plot is not so much slow as stillborn. The episode finds a couple of nice, fleeting character moments, but it manufactures far more that come across as forced and phony.

As its title implies, "The Power of Three"—Amy and Rory's penultimate episode—pretends to be a celebration of the Tardis Trio's friendship. But it turned out to be further proof that Moffat had kept the Ponds around far past the point where they should have left. Utterly forgettable. Read my review here.

9. COLD WAR

Doctor Who 7x08 - Cold War

As I journey into the bottom half of my list—in which five of my 10 worst episodes were written by Mark Gatiss—I feel the need to emphasize that I actually quite like Mark Gatiss. I very much enjoy his work on Sherlock—where he is an actor, a writer, and an executive producer—and I'm quite fond of An Adventure in Space and Time, the TV movie he wrote about the genesis of Doctor Who. And Gatiss's 2017 series Queers—in which he directed every episode—is an exquisite piece of work that will be on my forthcoming "Best TV of 2017" list. I'm even looking forward to his performance in "Twice Upon a Time."

I just happen to hate his Doctor Who scripts. They are all jokey, woefully disposable things, seemingly written—whatever his claims to the contrary—without any true love for the show. "Cold War" is just the least egregious of these most egregious episodes, a pointlessly formulaic piece of filler that wastes an unbelievably good cast (which includes Liam Cunningham, Tobias Menzies, James Norton, and David Warner), and illogically reinvents the Ice Warriors just so Gatiss can execute the unimaginably unimaginative concept of Alien on a submarine. Read my review here.

8. THE CURSE OF THE BLACK SPOT

Doctor Who 6x03 - Curse of the Black Spot

At a svelte 735 words, I think my review of Steve Thompson's "The Curse of the Black Spot" might be the shortest thing I have ever written on this site, and it's still about 600 more words than the episode deserves.

Basically the textbook definition of "filler," "Curse" is a silly and utterly disposable entry in the "Scooby Who" sub-genre, set on an unconvincing pirate ship and assembled from Moffat's junk drawer of tired plot points. (A computer A.I. thinks it's helping, but it's actually hurting people! What an interesting concept to explore...every three episodes. And look, Rory dies and comes back to life again!) The fact that "Curse" is fairly harmless, and the fun of Amy Pond sword-fighting in a pirate costume, are the only reasons this dud doesn't feature even further down the list. Read my review here.

7. KNOCK KNOCK

Doctor Who 10x05 - Knock Knock

A spooky house, a guest-star appearance by David Suchet, and the notion of giving Bill some friends her own age all seemed like good ideas. Unfortunately, those good ideas were lonely and squandered in "Knock Knock," a paper-thin stand-alone story from Doctor Foster creator Mike Bartlett. (The episode never manages to achieve any actual spookiness; Bill's friends turn out to be one-dimensional monster fodder; and poor Suchet is saddled with a cartoonish Scooby Who bad-guy role that boggles believability at every turn.)

With nothing to say and no particular reason for existing, "Knock Knock" is an empty shell around a central mystery—and every revelation of the central mystery turns out to be ridiculous. (Alien termites, summoned by noise, eat people but grant wooden immortality! The father turns out to be the son! The wood nymph has a last-minute crisis of conscience! University students are stupid enough to move into a huge drafty house with no central heating, electrical sockets, or cell phone reception!) Structurally lazy and intellectually vapid, "Knock Knock" is the perfect example of a Doctor Who episode written by someone who doesn't really get—let alone respect—Doctor Who. Read my review here.

6. EMPRESS OF MARS

Doctor Who 10x09 - Empress of Mars

In what one sincerely hopes is Mark Gatiss's last Doctor Who story ever, he went back to the Ice Warrior-well—with, somehow, even diminished returns—for this silly and muddled tale of Victorian soldiers on Mars. As with many Gatiss scripts, there were potentially good ideas here—about colonization, cowardice, and redemption—but they never amount to anything, because Gatiss thinks stating them is the same thing as developing them.

I'm aware that other reviewers and fans liked this one a lot more than I did, but it's the absolute lack of ambition—and the slight air of patronization—that galls me. Gatiss writes for eight-year-olds, and not the particularly smart ones: he seems to think an interesting location, a monster, some one-dimensional characters running around, and a few lame jokes are sufficient to power an episode of Who. (They aren't.) Add to that some truly terrible and reductive writing of Bill, and "Empress of Mars" is an episode I'll skip on every single rewatch. Read my "review" here, though it wasn't really a review at all.

5. THE CRIMSON HORROR

Doctor Who 7x11 - The Crimson Horror

And yet, "Empress of Mars" is only the fourth worst episode Mark Gatiss has delivered. It's with the third worst that Scooby Who achieves a whole new level of awfulness, in the painfully unwatchable "The Crimson Horror." A ridiculously nonsensical runaround, "Horror" doubles-down every five minutes on some new and offensively implausible absurdity, and reinforces my firm belief that Gatiss goes into every script saying "Oh, it doesn't have to make sense, it's Doctor Who."

Tonally, the episode is a trainwreck: with its broad, jokey, slapstick air, it feel almost like a backdoor pilot for a kiddie show about "The Paternoster Gang." But that cartoonish tone is at odds with the dour central mystery about a genocidal Victorian moralist, her emotionally abused blind daughter, and her symbiotic relationship with a breastfeeding alien crawdad. Add to this some casual sexual harassment from the Doctor, a street-urchin named "Thomas Thomas" who gives turn-by-turn directions, and enough plot holes to drive a replica of the Titanic through, and you have one of the most unforgivably bad episodes in Doctor Who historyRead my review here.

4. IN THE FOREST OF THE NIGHT

Doctor Who 8x10 - In the Forest of the Night

There are a hundred ways to screw up a Doctor Who story. Unfortunately, Frank Cottrell-Boyce 's "In the Forest of the Night" exemplifies most of them, while also committing one additional cardinal sin that's relatively rare for this showit's boring. (Say what you will about "The Crimson Horror," but it isn't dull.) The chief sin Cottrell-Boyce commits is one I mentioned earlier: he leans way too far into "fairy tale" mode, delivering a tale that runs completely on faerie logic. (It felt like we were one step away from clapping our hands to save Tinkerbell.)

This would be bad enough by itself, but "Forest" fails on nearly every level. The story, for example, is not just boring: it's also structured so that the Doctor's presence is completely irrelevant, as if this was an old, half-formed idea that Cottrell-Boyce just clumsily adapted for Doctor Who. And while "Forest" pretends to have an ecological message, the actual message it delivers is a terrible one. (Fuck up the planet all you want! The trees will save us no matter what we do!) The direction by Sheree Folkson is absolutely lovely, but both she and Cottrell-Boyce were completely new to Who, and it shows: this feels like an episode of another show altogether, and one I wouldn't choose to watch. Read my review here.

3. ROBOT OF SHERWOOD

Doctor Who 8x03-Robot of Sherwood

There is, I'm sorry, virtually nothing in Mark Gatiss's "Robot of Sherwood" that doesn't constitute a crime against humanity. (Whomanity?) It is a perfect example of a writer becoming overly enamored of a bad idea, and (mystifyingly) being allowed to indulge it to the detriment of the entire brand. (This, I suspect, is why the Moffat-Gatiss collaborations have turned out to be so much worse than the Davies-Gatiss ones: Davies had his faults, but he would never have let a writer get away with this shit.)

Even if we somehow manage to ignore the fact that Robin Hood is indisputably fictional—a truth Gatiss has the Doctor express, to no avail—"Robot of Sherwood" is still one of the all-time embarrassments in Doctor Who's proud history. If you're going to cross that line into treating a fictional character as historical—a line the show has never before crossed, to my knowledge—you better bring back something worthwhile.

But Gatiss just rehashes the most clichéd, cardboard, smugly Disneyfied version of the character possible, telling us nothing about the legend that hasn't been told better a thousand times before. Around this lazy Ren-Faire reject, Gatiss builds a flimsy story of evil robots so generic they don't even get a name, and he diminishes the newly regenerated Twelfth Doctor by having him constantly measuring his dick against Robin's like a petulant 12-year-old.

I'm a firm believer that Doctor Who can do almost any kind of story, but that flexibility should never be abused to generate intelligence-insulting nonsense like this. Read my review here. (It includes a snarky song).

2. SLEEP NO MORE

Doctor Who 9x09 - Sleep No More

Gatiss's writing reaches its absolute nadir in Season Nine's "Sleep No More." It is the rare Gatiss story without a lot of cloying, childish humor, and thus should have been a welcome change of pace. Unfortunately, the absence of Gatiss's usual cartoonish tone just lets through what I've always suspected lurked beneath: a fundamental disdain for Doctor Who and its audience.

A cynical base-under-siege story about carnivorous walking eye-boogers, using a disastrously executed "found-footage" conceit, "Sleep No More" makes absolutely no sense. This in itself isn't unusual, but the real crime is that "Sleep No More" knows it makes no sense, and doesn't care. ("This doesn't make any sense," the Doctor says, in a smug moment of authorial self-awareness. "It's like it's all for effect, like a story.") This unpleasant episode's mysteries climax in a mind-numbingly dumb "twist-ending," in which the villain admits that it was all patched-together nonsense just designed to make us keep watching.

To the viewers, it's a literal and figurative thumb-in-the-eye, an insulting and contemptuous "fuck you" that confirms what I've always suspected about Mark Gatiss: deep down, he doesn't really believe that Doctor Who deserves anything better. Read my (even more angry) review here.

1. DEATH IN HEAVEN

Doctor Who 8x12 - Death in Heaven

And yet, as tempted as I am to grant "Sleep No More" the bottom slot on this list—and as indisputably deserving as it is—the award of Worst Moffat-Era Story must surely go to Moffat himself. "Sleep No More" is at least a stand-alone story, disposable and ignorable. "Death in Heaven," on the other hand, is the second part of a two-parter, the big Season Eight finale, and an episode that crystalizes all of Moffat's weaknesses and self-indulgences into one horrifically awful television abomination.

Moffat has always been at his worst when he tries to go big: big ideas, overstuffed stories, operatic emotional moments. (Think of how relatively small-scale and intimate good stories like "Blink" and "The Girl in the Fireplace" were.) Here, Moffat goes bigger than he's ever gone, in an absurdly huge action-adventure that features The Master, thousands of Cybermen, UNIT, The Brigadier, The Doctor as President of the Earth (huh?), and far more over-scaled and illogical nonsense than could be contained in a dozen episodes.

And all of it is wrapped around Moffat's biggest (and worst) idea of all, as he answers humanity's greatest question: the mystery of what happens after we die. As it turns out, the answer is simple: every man, woman, and child who ever lived, when they died, got uploaded to a phony bureaucratic Heaven, on a magic disco-ball hard-drive, so that they could be downloaded into Cyberman bodies, in order for the Master to give the Doctor a birthday present. (I knew it!)

As a sci-fi explanation, it's insultingly preposterous. As an answer to the mysteries Moffat had recklessly seeded all season, it's woefully unsatisfying. But, as a distillation of Moffat's worst instincts, it's oddly and tragically perfect. Moffat has always had a problem dealing with death effectively: he loves manufacturing the big death scenes and milking them for fleeting emotional effect, but then he can never resist cheapening his own stories—and cheapening their emotional impact—by rendering those deaths meaningless. Here, he cheapens the entire notion of death—and the entire concept of an afterlife—with a story that makes zero sense.

What's worse, he catastrophically bungles themes he had been playing with all season—and throughout his entire run—in order to achieve this sub-Davies-level excuse for an oversized spectacle. Big, shallow, emotionally cheap, and "clever" purely for the sake of cleverness, "Death in Heaven" is all the worst aspects of Moffat's writing made manifest in one gigantic, ridiculous, all-time travesty of a story. Read my review here.

Those are my least favorite episodes of Steven Moffat's Doctor Who: as always, your mileage may vary considerably. (No two Who fans ever really agree about anything, do they?)

But I hasten to assure you that I really do love this show, and that I have loved Steven Moffat's interpretation of it beyond all measure. Tune in next time for a more affirming, joyous, and celebratory retrospective on Seasons Five through Ten, as I discuss "The 20 Best Stories of the Moffat Era."

Read all my Doctor Who posts here.

Notes

  1. In an email to Davies, July 19, 2007, reprinted in Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale, BBC Books, 2008, p. 188.
  2. Season Five's "Vincent and the Doctor," written by Richard Curtis.
  3. In an interview with Gareth McLean, The Guardian, March 22, 2010.

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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10 thoughts on “DOCTOR WHO: THE 20 WORST EPISODES OF THE MOFFAT ERA

    1. Sure. Or, alternately, to go stark raving mad because she was an immortal 12-year-old stuck at the end of the universe for billions of years with no one for company. Either way, I'm still not sure I quite trust these two to be out there on their own muckin' about with the timeline...

      1. Wouldn't it be fascinating to find out? Now that both The Master's and River Song's timelines appear to have closure, The Immortal Girl and the Impossible Girl could be the next wild cards in the Doctor Who universe.

        1. If I were forced (presumably with a gun to my head) to write a story bringing Clara and Ashildr back, it would be a story about the Doctor having to hunt them down and take away their TARDIS, because they've basically become megalomaniacal super-villains doing unspeakable damage to the timeline. That seems, to me, the most logical outcome of "Hell Bent." (But I'm okay with letting it alone.)

  1. There've been more than enough megalomaniacal villains in Doctor Who already. The story I would write would be nuanced, with no easy answers to a dilemma that Ashildr and Clara create with good intentions, and disagreement between the two of them over whether or how to fix it. The Doctor treating them as adversaries would only further complicate things, and the solution would come only through working together.

  2. I'm in complete agreement about Mark Gatiss. Whenever I saw "Written by Mark Gatiss" in the opening credits my heart would sink a little.

    1. Me too. And yet, eternal optimist that I am, I always went into one of his episodes HOPING it might turn out to be good. (Flawed though they were, I enjoyed both "The Unquiet Dead" and "Night Terrors," so it IS possible.) Thankfully, Gatiss has confirmed that he is not writing for Series 11.

      1. As it’s so far above the rest of his Doctor Who work, one has to wonder how much RTD re-wrote the lovely “Unquiet Dead.”

        1. That's definitely possible. As I've said, I suspect Davies kept a MUCH tighter rein on his writers than Moffat did, and would never have allowed Gatiss to get away with stuff like "Robot of Sherwood" or "Sleep No More." I also think—whoever wrote it—"The Unquiet Dead" benefits from being such an early episode, made before the new series really knew exactly what it was going to be: it feels much more like a Classic Who episode than most everything else in S1.

          1. All of S1 also benefits from the writers all knowing that may have been their one and only chance to write Doctor Who TV episodes, so they all beohhht their A-game.

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