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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 Daniel Hannan. 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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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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