A few days ago I began counting down my top 10 Doctor Who stories written by Steven Moffat (Part 1 here). Because I wanted to build up suspense and anticipation, and because I’m too lazy to do the whole list at once, I cleverly and conveniently split the list into two separate parts.
So, here it is: my definitive ranking of Steven Moffat’s five best Doctor Who stories.
5. The Eleventh Hour
You really can’t beat The Eleventh Hour as a new Doctor (and companion) introductory episode. There is really no understatement in saying that the first episode of Matt Smith’s run, and of the Moffat era as a whole, is the prototype against which all other introductory episodes will be measured. It does everything it’s supposed to do—introducing the new Doctor and companion, ushering in the new era, and serving as a concise and engaging introduction to the show in general—exemplarily. Sure, the plot itself, about the Atraxi, is a bit insubstantial and generic, but the focus of this episode is, emphatically, not on the plot but on the elements I’ve just mentioned, in particular the introduction of the new leads, which it does sublimely. Its most important moments, therefore, are not the scenes dealing with the Atraxi threat, but the scenes in which we get to learn who our new leads, the Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond, are, such as that magical, timeless scene between the newly-regenerated Eleventh Doctor and little Amelia Pond.
4. Heaven Sent
It’s been over two months since Heaven Sent aired as the penultimate episode of Series 9, and I’m still reeling from how utterly amazing it is, as an entire package—a piece of writing, production, acting, directing, even music—but especially as an outstanding work of screenwriting. As a one-hander featuring (for all intents and purposes) only one speaking character, the Doctor himself, it is possibly the most experimental and avant garde episode of televised Doctor Who, and certainly on Moffat’s resume. You’d have to go back to the most surreal years of Hartnell and McCoy to find something as remotely experimental as Heaven Sent. The gamble undoubtedly paid off, though, as Heaven Sent is a masterpiece of writing and, indeed, in every department. It’s simply a mesmerising 55 minutes of television, a constellation of screenwriting genius with the equally impressive talents of Peter Capaldi, Rachel Talalay, Murray Gold and others. It proves that, even nearing the end of his Doctor Who writing career, Steven Moffat is capable of creating breathtaking and artistic stories.
3. The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances
There was a time when Moffat was known as the master of terror, a sadist among the Doctor Who writers who delighted in terrifying children. The reputation probably stemmed from this skin-crawling pair of episodes in Series 1, which live up to Moffat’s caricature. These episodes traumatised a generation of pre-adolescents, including myself: I saw these episodes when they first aired when I was 10, and they frightened me so much that I was put off Doctor Who for years, and also caused me contract an irrational fear of gas masks (I’m still a bit uneasy around them). They contain some of the creepiest and most unsettling scenes in the show’s history, and it’s clear, watching them, that Moffat is a master of fright and freaky at work. Apart from the fear factor, though, this story is just exceptionally well-written: never mind great Doctor Who, it’s great television, full stop. It’s a totally absorbing and atmospheric story, and features fantastic instances of characterisation, unarguably deserving of a place among the best Doctor Who stories ever made.
If anyone you know is in doubt of Moffat’s abilities as a television writer, just show them Blink. Justly acclaimed as one of, if not the, best Doctor Who story ever made, it’s a timeless classic whose veneration among fans has not diminished with time by one iota. Nearly a decade later and it’s still as chilling and exhilarating as ever. It’s another perfect exemplar of great Doctor Who as great television in general, a fantastic screenplay and a fantastic piece of sci-fi writing. Blink, of course, introduced Moffat’s ingenious creation, the very creepy Weeping Angels, the most successful and popular Doctor Who monsters since the Daleks, and which, at one point, looked like they might even pip the Daleks for the status of Doctor Who’s signature monsters. Somewhat ironically for one of Doctor Who’s most popular episodes, Blink is Doctor-lite, but instead we get the brilliant character Sally Sparrow, one of the show’s great could-have-been companions. In fact, the conspicuous absence of the Doctor’s presence lends the story exactly the atmosphere of claustrophobia and intolerable suspense that makes Blink such a successful episode. It’s an outstanding credit to Moffat’s creative genius.
1. Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead
Why Silence in the Library over Blink (or any of the other episodes)? Good question. I agonised over this choice, trying to weigh the episodes’ respective attributes and consider the varied factors that would play into a choice of what makes “the best” Moffat episode. But I always came back to the fact that whatever my choice, it would always be completely arbitrary and subjective, and there is no objective way of choosing a definitive “best” episode. So, in the end, I just went with my favourite.
Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead is a testament Moffat’s ability to take an idea for a fairly standard base-under-siege story (shadow monsters in a giant library) and develop it into as bold, moody, surreal and emotional a masterpiece as this. Silence in the Library is a perfect showcase of the many tropes of Moffat’s Doctor Who writing that have by now become quite familiar to us. There’s a freaky new monster, the Vashta Nerada, whose fear factor lies in a clever psychological gimmick; intricate and intelligent plotting that ends up blindsiding the audience with a well-executed twist; bold, creative narrative experimentation, including some truly surreal sequences while Donna is stuck inside CAL’s virtual hard drive; and involving and emotional character drama, including the first (and best, at least until THORS) appearance of Moffat’s signature character, River Song, and the beginning of the legendary onscreen relationship between the Doctor and River Song. It all comes together in a thrilling narrative symphony, making for, I believe, the very best of Steven Moffat.
So, in summary…
My ten picks were:
- Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead
- The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances
- Heaven Sent
- The Eleventh Hour
- The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang
- The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon
- A Christmas Carol
- The Day of the Doctor
- The Time of Angels/Flesh and Stone
How does your list compare to mine? Wanna fight about it? If so, leave a comment below.