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Steven Moffat has produced some great Doctor Who. So how did he become so hated?

The self-deprecation paradox.

The only time I ever met Steven Moffat, he made me feel stupid.

This wasn't a recent occurrence, to be clear: I wasn't meeting Steven Moffat, the BBC's biggest hate figure/golden goose, but Steven Moffat, jobbing TV writer. I was 19, making my first appearance at a monthly pub meet up for Doctor Who geeks, and feeling pretty awkward about basically everything. So, to break the ice I decided to tell Moffat how much I loved his kids TV series about a school newspaper, Press Gang.

“You're too young to know better,” he growled.

I was a bit taken aback by this. I think I spluttered something about being in the middle of an English degree, actually, which helped about as much as you'd expect. “Oh, obviously a mature and intelligent critic, then,” Moffat replied.

And there the conversation ended.

“He doesn't like being complimented,” someone told me later. “Makes him uncomfortable.” Moffat wasn’t being arrogant: he was being self-deprecating.

That was about 15 years ago, and many things have changed since. Steven Moffat is now one of the most famous TV writers in the world. He's run Doctor Who for six years, spending longer at the helm than Russell T Davies did before him, and has overseen its first real period of mainstream success in the US. He's also co-created Sherlock, a series whose audience is so global that more people are thought to watch it in China than actually live in Britain – even though no Chinese TV station broadcasts it. If you ever wondered why the BBC didn’t sack him, well, duh.

All this has helped to give Steven Moffat a measure of celebrity almost unknown among TV writers, and make his face almost as recognisable as that of his actors. But he's also become – there’s no other word for it – hated.

In online geekdom, the reaction to Friday's news that the next series of Doctor Who would be his last was reminiscent of the bit at the end of The Return of the Jedi, where all the Ewoks start dancing. A substantial chunk of the fandom wasn't just happy Moffat was going, they were crowing: it was less like a TV writer changing jobs and more akin to the fall of a dictatorship.

All this, to me, seems absolutely crazy.

Partly, my response stems from being rather more invested in Doctor Who than is healthy in a fully grown man. It's not a coincidence that Moffat's stuff has got really, really big: at his best, he's really, really good.

Chris Chibnall, the man who's replacing him, is known mainly for Broadchurch, the ITV murder mystery which has been both original and good, but sadly not at the same time; and Torchwood, a show so bad that it required its own truth and reconciliation commission. I actually quite like some of Chibnall's Who episodes (Dinosaurs! On a spaceship!), but it is nonetheless the case that the show is swapping one of the best TV writers of his generation for a man who isn't, and that bothers me.

But that's only part of the reason I was stunned by the reaction to the news of his departure. The other, bigger part is best summed up as a question:

How did we move from hating someone's work, to thinking he's the devil?

Arguments that Steven Moffat is the spawn of Satan come in two main forms. The first is that his gender politics are iffy. There's a fair amount of truth to that, though my suspicion is that it comes not from any deep seated hatred of women but simply from his background as a sitcom writer. He thinks he's writing a joke; everyone else thinks he's making a statement; hilarious mutual misunderstandings ensue.

But I'm aware that another identikit white bloke is exactly the worst person to say, “Hey, misogyny isn't a thing”, especially when he doesn't actually think that anyway. So let's accept the argument that Moffat's work is problematic and move on to the other hit against him: that Steven Moffat is an arrogant monster who thinks he knows better than everyone else.

I don’t buy this at all. One of the things I really like about Moffat’s work is that you can genuinely see him responding to his critics. He didn't cast a female Doctor (and thank god, given how he writes women); but he did cast a female Master, and he's repeatedly established that a female Doctor would make perfect sense within the fiction.

It’s also hard to read The Abominable Bride, the recent Sherlock special, as anything other than a response to claims his work stereotypes women. Whether or not it succeeded in this is a different question, but you can certainly see the writer listening.

So why does the world still think he's so arrogant? Maybe it’s just a matter of tone. Moffat's predecessor in the TARDIS, Russell T Davies, also went around singing the show's praises, even when it was bad – this is, possibly literally, in the job description – yet he never got tarred with this brush. Maybe it's just easier to blow your own trumpet when you're jovial and Welsh than it is when you're dour and Scottish.

Or maybe it's the way Moffat still uses self-deprecation as his standard register – only now he's doing it in BBC press releases. But, just as in that pub all those years ago, being self-deprecating when you actually are the big shot in the conversation doesn’t come across as humility at all. Somehow, it ends up looking like its opposite.

Or maybe it's simply that I'm not the only one who's become massively over-invested in a silly show about a man who travels through time in a box. Maybe nobody could write it any more, without some of their choices – and as showrunner, Moffat does have to make practical choices – annoying a vocal chunk of the audience.

On Saturday morning, incidentally, both Moffat and Chris Chibnall were coming under attack on a friend’s Facebook page when Moffat himself appeared. He ignored the attacks on himself and his work and, politely but firmly, corrected the factual errors in their attack on Chibnall. Then he apologised in case he'd come across as arrogant.

When I tweeted about this, someone replied:

“Letting them be [rude about him]? That's good of him. He's allowing other people to have an opinion? What a hero.”

Some of Moffat's critics seem under the impression that being able to identify problems with someone's work automatically gives you the moral high ground over them. I'm not altogether sure that it does.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear