The Fairy Tale Monster in “Doctor Who”

How Steven Moffat turned The Doctor into something terrible

Last Sunday at The Way Station in Brooklyn, the bar I happily call my local pub held its weekly Doctor Who screening. That day’s festivities were a little different than usual, though. It had a couple of unexpected guests. It was the season finale, and the steampunk-themed bar with a TARDIS for a bathroom planned three screenings for the day. Fans came and went. The sky was dreary and it had been raining all day that Sunday, but you know how it is: gather a bunch of fans in one place, they’ll find a way to make it festive.

It was sometime past 6 PM, after the scheduled final screening of the day was over, when a man walked in and made everyone’s jaws drop to the floor. It was Steven Moffat.

Moffat’s lovely wife (and Sherlock producer) Sue Vertue was with him, but people were more interested in the young man hiding his familiar chin under a hoodie. He dropped the hood, and though he was wearing a hat and had shaved his head for a movie role, everyone recognized him immediately. How could they not? It was Matt Smith. The Doctor. At this point, all the jaws on the floor melted into puddles.

As it happens, they were in New York to accept a Peabody Award on behalf of the show, and decided to make a trek to Brooklyn just to watch the finale with fans (Smith apparently had not seen the finished episode yet). Obviously, another screening was in order, with the trio set up at the booth next to the stage. Everyone got their drinks, took their seats, and hushed up.

The television on the stage began to play “The Name of the Doctor.”

*  *  *

The Old Doctor: What I did, I did without choice.
The Doctor: I know.
The Old Doctor: In the name of peace and sanity.
The Doctor: But not in the name of The Doctor.

- “The Name of the Doctor”

It was a very tense and intriguing finale to an energetically lukewarm season, reminiscent of the charge the show had last season at the height of the whole “The Doctor’s death” storyline. Its true value, however, can only be appreciated when you consider what it does to the continuing story of the Eleventh Doctor’s creeping end.

As a showrunner, Steven Moffat has been playing a mischievously long game. The finale, if nothing else, unearthed enough information to explain away lingering questions from Moffat’s first two seasons. One of them is why The Doctor’s real name must be kept a secret.

“The question that must never be answered! Hidden in plain sight! The question you’ve been running from all your life! Doctor who?” was the closing line of the 6th season. Seemingly just out of a kick to give the show’s title a heftier narrative importance than a simple running gag, The Doctor’s name has become a plot in itself under Moffat, rather than just a background mystery.

“You’re a man with a long and dangerous past. But your future is infinitely more terrifying,” The Doctor was told. “On the Fields of Trenzalore, at the Fall of the Eleventh, when no living creature can speak falsely or fail to answer, a question will be asked. A question that must never ever be answered.” All that finally came to pass this episode. At a battlefield on Trenzalore, the question of The Doctor’s real name was asked, and he could not lie about it because it was the password that would open his future tomb, but he knew that he must not answer it because it would allow the Great Intelligence to undo The Doctor’s past victories, erasing all the lives and planets he’s saved.

It’s an idea that Moffat seems to have had for a very long time. Even before he took the helm, during the David Tennant years, Moffat wrote a throwaway line for Madame de Pompadour in his episode “The Girl in the Fireplace” that became the blueprint for his future tenure as showrunner: “Doctor. Doctor who? It’s more than just a secret, isn’t it?”

When the “Fall of the Eleventh” phrase was introduced, the immediate assumption was that it referred to the Eleventh Doctor’s end and his regeneration into the Twelfth Doctor. Instead, what we saw was a moral fall: The Doctor nearly let his friends die, just to keep his real name a secret.

I argued in an article last year that Moffat was playing around with the idea of The Doctor as his own worst enemy, but I admit I didn’t really think that he was planning on making it so literal. In the final, head-spinning moment of “The Name of the Doctor,” John Hurt stepped out of the shadows as an unknown incarnation of our hero. “He is me, but he is not The Doctor,” our Doctor ominously explained to Clara. The name he has chosen for himself is a promise, a pledge to be a healer to people, and Hurt is “the one who broke the promise.” Whoever this incarnation end up being revealed as, the clear indication is that he is what all the flashes of darkness throughout the 7th season had been teasing, and it will all come to a head at the 50th Anniversary episode in 6 months.

In that article, I mentioned the one-two punch of The Doctor executing Solomon in cold blood in “Dinosaurs on a Spaceship” and being called out on his new ruthlessness in the following episode “A Town Called Mercy” as Moffat’s deliberate attempt to highlight the consequences of The Doctor succumbing to his darkest nature. I also suspected that The Doctor would only get worse after the Ponds leave him, and we saw a bit of that in “The Snowmen,” with The Doctor in a self-imposed exile and refusing to help people. In this finale, the Solomon incident—among others—are referred to as evidence that The Doctor has “blood-soaked standards.”

The Great Intelligence: The Doctor lives his life in darker hues, day upon day, and he will have other names before the end. The Storm. The Beast. The Valeyard.

- “The Name of the Doctor”

For fans of the classic era, Valeyard was a welcome reference, a villain of the Sixth Doctor who was described as an amalgamation of the darkest impulses of The Doctor’s future regenerations. The Oncoming Storm is also a name that has been used to describe The Doctor many times before. The Beast, however, with its biblical connotations, is a little more interesting. This moniker most closely describes the theme that’s been running throughout Moffat’s run.

The Doctor as a monster.

*  *  *

The Doctor: There was a goblin, or a trickster. Or a warrior. A nameless, terrible thing soaked in the blood of a billion galaxies. The most feared being in all the cosmos. And nothing could stop it, or hold it, or reason with it. One day it would just drop out of the sky and tear down your world.

- “The Pandorica Opens”

One thing Moffat has done that’s pretty unique from previous takes of The Doctor is by making him the ultimate threat to the universe. It’s not something he dropped on fans right away, but the hints were definitely scattered about.

In the 5th season episode, “Amy’s Choice,” The Doctor, Amy and Rory encountered a malicious trickster who called himself the Dream Lord and mercilessly taunted the gang. The Doctor immediately recognized who the mysterious Dream Lord really is, stating that “there’s only one person in the universe who hates me as much as you do.” He was talking about himself, of course, as the end of the episode revealed that the Dream Lord was nothing more than a manifestation of The Doctor’s bad impulses, conjured up by some psychic pollen that snuck into the TARDIS. ”It feeds on everything dark in you, gives it a voice, turns it against you,” The Doctor explained to his companions. “I’m nine-hundred-and-seven. It had a lot to go on.”

In all those centuries, just how dark did The Doctor get for him to accrue such self-loathing? That same season’s two-parter finale introduced the Pandorica, a fabled box that is supposedly a prison for the universe’s most fearsome creature. The biggest threat to everyone’s existence, and The Doctor was to be present at its opening, he assumed, to stop whatever’s inside from wreaking havoc; unaware that the beast mentioned in the legend was himself.

The Pandorica, as it turned out, was a trap built by an alliance formed by The Doctor’s enemies—Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen, Slitheens, etc.—to prevent The Doctor from causing the universe to be erased. The TARDIS was exploding, creating cracks in time that would swallow everything that ever was and will into non-existence, and they believed it was his fault. “Only The Doctor can pilot the TARDIS,” a Dalek reasoned, despite The Doctor arguing that the explosion happened while he’s sitting in the Pandorica.

Who really blew up the TARDIS is a question that has yet to be answered by the show two years later, although many fans are content with assuming that The Silence, the villains introduced in the following season, were the culprit. It made the most logical sense at the time. “The Name of the Doctor,” however, introduced another possibility.

What if that Dalek was right? What if it actually was The Doctor all along? If so, it really hammers the idea that in Steven Moffat’s mind, The Doctor is the dragon of his storybook, not the knight. A minotaur roaming the spacetime labyrinth, hurting those who wander in.

6th season episode “The God Complex” made that metaphor all but explicit, by having The Doctor go up against an actual minotaur. At the end of the episode, as the monster lays dying, there’s this exchange:

Minotaur: *Growl*
Amy: What’s it saying?
The Doctor: “An ancient creature, drenched in the blood of the innocent, drifting in space through an endless, shifting maze. For such a creature, death would be a gift…” Then accept it, and sleep well.
Minotaur: *Growl*
The Doctor: “I wasn’t talking about myself.”

- “The God Complex”

In the same episode, The Doctor opened a room in the labyrinth that’s supposed to show the occupant their greatest fear. We never saw who or what it was, but The Doctor’s cryptic “Of course. Who else?” remark left many speculating. It seems obvious in hindsight, knowing the direction Moffat took him in the next season, that he would have seen himself in that room, or at least the John Hurt version. It would go with Moffat’s fondness for puns and wordplay. Who. Else.

This gives that entire season, and consequently its big bad, The Silence, a whole new dimension. As far as villains go, The Silence were actually not that high on the evil totem pole. They did kill people in their way, but most of the time they just lurked harmlessly. They weren’t deliberately harvesting people like the Cybermen, conquering civilizations like the Sontarans, or outright destroying everything like the Daleks. No, their biggest crime was secretly (silently) influencing human technological advancement and getting America into the ’60s space race—how awful.

Their whole mission throughout that entire season was to assassinate The Doctor, nothing more, in order to silence him from revealing a great secret. That was their endgame, not occupying Earth. By contrast, what The Doctor did to retaliate, hypnotizing the entire human race to kill the aliens on sight, seems much more dubious. Not to mention self-serving.

If, as we saw in “The Name of the Doctor,” the entire universe could have died if The Doctor didn’t stay silent, does that mean The Silence were actually a force working for the greater good all along? They referred to their secret weapon that would kill The Doctor as “hope in this endless, bitter war” against him. That is not exactly the kind of language someone would use if they had waged a war voluntarily.

“Demons run when a good man goes to war,” as the old saying goes, and when it was cited in reference to The Doctor’s war with The Silence, we just immediately assumed which of them was the good man and which was the demon. Despite the fact that Moffat left a huge stinking clue in the middle of the episode why that’s wrong.

The Doctor: Look, I’m angry, that’s new. I’m really not sure what’s going to happen now.
Madame Kovarian: The anger of a good man is not a problem. Good men have too many rules.
The Doctor: Good men don’t need rules. Today is not the day to find out why I have so many.

- “A Good Man Goes to War”

Demons run. The Doctor certainly does. It’s his favorite thing to do, and he’s been doing that all his life. Throughout the 7th season, he ran around eliminating his traces from space and time. “I got too big,” according to him. “Too noisy. Time to step back into the shadows.” In the end, what keeps The Doctor running is not his enemies, but history. Who he is and what he’s done, and who he will always be.

His story.

*  *  *

River: It’s a long story, Doctor. Can’t be told. Has to be lived. No sneak previews. Well. Except for this one. You’ll see me again quite soon. When the Pandorica opens.
The Doctor: The Pandorica. Ha! That’s a fairy tale.
River: Ah, Doctor. Aren’t we all?

- “Flesh and Stone”

After the screening of “The Name of the Doctor,” Steven Moffat climbed onto the stage with a mic and addressed the crowd at The Way Station.

Confirming that the only reason they were there at all was to be among fans of the show, Moffat reminded us that the people who are in charge of Doctor Who today, grew up as fans of Doctor Who. It’s one of the reasons why the show is arguably a British national treasure: its longevity allows for whole generations to grow up and give back to the show by contributing their own ideas of who The Doctor is.

Russell T. Davies, who facilitated the show’s return, was always a massive fan. His other famous TV show, Queer as Folk, contained numerous and significant references to Doctor Who years before the current revival was even in the works. When he finally resurrected The Doctor, Davies borrowed the Superman mythos by making his take an incredibly powerful savior figure, but the last of his race. The Lonely God archetype, essentially. David Tennant’s portrayal of The Doctor is very much in line with this set-up: a man whose brain is so big that he’s capable of anything, but whose hearts are so fragile that they break for others constantly. Like the oft-cited mantra of Superman being more “man” than “super,” Davies’ Doctor was strangely very human for an alien.

Moffat, on the other hand, devised his version of the Doctor as much more otherworldly and queer, and Matt Smith (who at this point has proven himself to be the best actor to have played the part, as far as I’m concerned) marvelously portrayed him as such. Smith’s Doctor is not a comic book superhero who stumbles into evil plots and sorts them out, but a magical figure straight out of a children’s story, like Peter Pan or Santa Claus, whose tricks and wonders others stumble into to be entangled in a journey of weird riddles and Aesop-like morals.

“At best Doctor Who is a fairy tale,” Neil Gaiman once said. “With fairy tale logic about this wonderful man in this big blue box who at the beginning of every story lands somewhere where there is a problem.”

Moffat’s Doctor Who has stressed the fairy tale aspect further than ever, beginning with establishing his Eleventh Doctor in his first episode as the imaginary friend of a little girl, who comes back for her years later, on the night before her wedding, to whisk her away from the real world.

The Doctor, in Amy’s world, was a fable. A “raggedy man” that all her friends and family members know about from her stories about him growing up. It ended up saving The Doctor’s life, in “The Big Bang,” when he’s being rewritten out of existence by the universe rebooting, only to be preserved by Amy’s memory of a bedtime story. Moffat’s Doctor Who is defined by the power of stories, myths, and legends—and how we can be stars of our own. Amy and Rory both received their own myths, as The Girl Who Waited and The Last Centurion. Fittingly, the plot of their departure episode “The Angels Take Manhattan” was all about going against the fates written down for them in a storybook, and the episode closed, yet again, with The Doctor telling little Amelia a bedtime story. This time not just about the raggedy Doctor, but about herself, and the swashbuckling future ahead of her. In turn, Amy becomes a storyteller too, as we saw the young adult novel she would later write in “The Bells of St. John.”

This direction leans heavily on big romantic ideas rather than the nuts-and-bolts; the grand gestures that are incredibly moving in their implications, but don’t usually work as actual plot points in serious science-fiction because they are way too contrived when taken literally. A science-fiction story typically has rules that govern it and requires set ups that pay off as logical consequences. Doctor Who, however, has demonstrated time and again that it is not that kind of show, and it’s never pretended to be.

River Song’s jumbled timeline is not supposed to be a time travel story that makes sense, but a tragic fairy tale about a woman in love with a man who she keeps meeting in the opposite order and knows her less and less with every encounter. There’s never going to be a satisfying answer to how a fixed point in time works on this show and why The Doctor couldn’t find some way back to 1930s New York to rescue a stranded Rory, but if you just accept it as one of those arbitrary time travel rules, Amy’s bittersweet choice to go be stranded with him is devastatingly romantic.

The Doctor: I’ll be a story in your head, but that’s okay. We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one, eh? ‘Cause it was, you know. It was the best.

- “The Big Bang”

This fairy tale motif kept recurring in elements I mentioned earlier: the Pandorica, the minotaur, the prophecy. Name as a source of power. Ultimately, Moffat’s whole obsession with The Doctor’s name is because he’s writing a story about redemption, and how we are often pigeonholed by our titles. That’s the thing about monsters in fairy tales. Belle’s Beast, or the Hunchback of Notre Dame, or the most famous of them all, Frankenstein’s Monster: they succumbed to the roles they were locked into, but are all slaves of their own hearts still.

Whether The Doctor is an angel or a demon depends on the tales he allows to be told about him. How he builds his own myth. That’s what River warned him about when she told him that we got the name we ascribe to healers and wise men, “doctor,” from him. If The Doctor’s not careful about his actions, the same word can easily stand for something else, like mighty warrior, or predator. Or the storm. The beast.

The monster.

That silly theory about the etymology of the word “doctor,” by the way, is something Moffat had saved up for a long time. All the way back in 1995, he was quite active on the old Usenet groups, posting his fan theories on a Doctor Who message board—fan theories that became actual canon a decade later when he inserted them into the show. Moffat’s relationship with the franchise is sort of a fairy tale in itself too. The Boy Who Loved The Doctor, who grew up and continued the story.

Now here I am, writing my own fan theory on that story. I’m not saying that I’m going to be the showrunner on Doctor Who 15 years from now, but hopefully someone will be, and I know that that someone is doing what I’m doing today.

  • Meia

    stumbled across this on Tumblr. You sound like you could be a showrunner.

  • Allison

    This was a fantastic read, and I agree- you definitely sound like you could be a showrunner

  • Pingback: A Man Walks into a Bar ... | Doctor Who Screencaps - It's Timey-Wimey!

  • JMMMMM

    This is the best breakdown of Moffat’s run that I’ve read (or possibly the best commentary on the show that I’ve ever read). I read the whole thing, but bookmarked for when I’m less sleepy. You more or less repeatedly hit the nail on the head… this is everything I’ve been thinking, but couldn’t always put into words.