Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
25 January 2016

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

The self-deprecation paradox.

By Jonn Elledge

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.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

“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.

Content from our partners
<strong>What you need to know about private markets </strong>
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action

This article appears in the 27 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Should Labour split?