It should come as no surprise to anyone who has read anything I’ve written about Doctor Who over the last few years that I am not a fan of Steven Moffat. I think much of the work he has done on Doctor Who is both ethically and artistically dodgy, and… well, there are a lot of criticisms I could make, most of them ones I already have made in the past.
However, there are some things he’s done right. His casting of the Doctor was always superb (I was unimpressed by Matt Smith at first, but part-way through his first season I realised how good he was, and obviously there is nothing negative one can say about either Peter Capaldi or John Hurt), and I was also impressed by The Day of the Doctor. It’s the one script of his where I can’t really pick any holes — he had a job to do, to celebrate Doctor Who both old and new, and he did it perfectly. Yes, there were things I would have done differently, but he managed to create something that was honestly a good story and which felt like it made sense within the larger series.
So when I saw that Moffat had written a novelisation of the story — one of a handful of novelisations of post-2005 episodes which came out this week, most of which I’m not very interested in reading — I thought I’d give it a go, and actually I’m quite glad I did, with one big proviso (for which, see below).
The Day of the Doctor is an… interesting… book more than it is a good one. It’s especially interesting for me, because its flaws are precisely those flaws I can see in my own work. In fact, to put it bluntly, this reads like me trying to be Lawrence Miles and failing.
I say that upfront, because I’m going to analyse this in a fair amount of depth, and I’m absolutely certain that the half dozen of you who’ve read The Basilisk Murders or Head of State will be thinking, throughout, “I know you are but what about Moffat?” whenever I say anything negative. So just accept up front that any flaws I point out here are ones I know exist in my own work.
Put simply, Moffat is a show-off. Throughout the book, he does quite a few things that are… not innovative, but the kind of tricks with narrative that are fun to play with. Chapters numbered out of order, footnotes referring to books that are only available in alternate universes, the kind of playing with viewpoint and narratorial person that Alfred Bester did in “Fondly Fahrenheit”.
All of these things are fun, but then Moffat tells you that he’s doing them, or that he’s about to do them, and tells you how clever he’s going to be. Now, to an extent, that is a sensible thing to do — partly because at least one of the first-person narrators is himself an ostentatious show-off who likes to tell people how clever he’s going to be, and partly because one can expect this book to be read by people with a wide variety of ages and reading abilities, and flagging up the narrative tricks you’re going to play will help younger children get a handle on what’s going on. But I also suspect that Moffat, who is not known as a prose writer, is simply eager to show people how clever he’s being in case they otherwise wouldn’t realise it.
That’s something that many people are going to dislike immensely about this book, and with good reason. For myself, I like this kind of thing — and I would certainly far rather have ostentatious cleverness than an equally ostentatious stupidity, which is more the cultural norm at the moment — but I can certainly see how it might be wearying, especially to anyone who has read enough literary fiction to find the tricks fairly banal.
(For myself, much as I can listen to competently-performed twelve-bar blues all day without wearying of the formula, so I can happily read knowing, meta-referential, self-satisfied cleverness all day without tiring of it. That’s a personal aesthetic preference, though, rather than a judgement of the work’s quality.)
In the unlikely event that Lawrence Miles were to read this book, I suspect he would be angry, as he often has been, at his apparent influence on Moffat. There are passages in here that read very much like parts of The Book of the War, and more generally this reads like the Eighth Doctor Adventures did during the period where Miles was a major influence on the series. Some of this, of course, is just because any book dealing with a time war will deal with some of the same concepts that those books covered, but there’s also a sense here of Moffat paying tribute to a book range he genuinely loved.
Moffat seems to really be having fun with the book, as well. There are tons of jokes in the novel, of which my favourite is probably one that appears early in the book — “It was a book of complex temporal theory, and he’d already lost several days trying to find Wally. He was starting to think that Wally wasn’t actually in every book, but how could anyone be truly sure?”
There are jokes about Doctor Who continuity, and about the Cushing films — Moffat has the Cushing films (the posters for which appeared in the background of the TV story on which this is based) as films that exist “in-universe”, and has the Doctor and Cushing becoming friends as a result of them (and Cushing journeying with the Doctor, which is why he managed to appear in films after his death) — and there’s a playful meta-reference to the absence of Eccleston from the TV story, in the strange business of Chapter 9.
It’s odd, in fact, reading this book, because the playful metatextuality of it seems perfectly appropriate for the story — and indeed the only way such a story could be told in prose — while reading it, and it’s only after putting the book down and comparing it to the original televised version that one realises that the original story was very, very, far from being this metatextual or postmodern-seeming. Indeed, one of the principal attractions of The Day of the Doctor on TV is how straightforward the story actually is, whereas here it wants to be something much cleverer and funnier.
But here we come to the big proviso. There’s one joke which I’m ashamed to say I missed completely when reading this book until it was pointed out by a trans friend (warning for transphobia in the quote ahead):
‘Oh, forget the play acting, I’m on to you. Sorry, dear, but the performance just isn’t good enough. Even Alison saw through it!’
‘My dear, that horse is male.’
‘Yeah, and he’s called Alison. Don’t box him in, he’s very easily triggered. I was going to call him Trigger, actually, that escalated quickly. He didn’t want to carry us both out here, but I told him it was going to be an Earth defence picnic and that’s the only reason he let us both on.’
I don’t know how I missed that on first reading — the only thing I can think is that I must have actually looked away from the screen for a moment and then looked back at a different part of the page and carried on reading without noticing I’d skipped. At least, I’d rather think that than the alternative, which is that I could read that passage and not immediately notice how dodgy it is…
Yes, that’s the Doctor making transphobic “jokes” (the same one made by the eleventh Doctor in a non-Moffat script, so not even original to him, though it may be that that joke was one that was inserted by Moffat into that script during a rewrite) and also putting in digs about being “triggered”.
There are other things not to my taste as well, but none that make me actively go “Oh God, just stop it…” like that passage. (At least not on my initial reading — who knows what other cringeworthy moments I may have inadvertantly skipped over if I could miss that?) River Song has been inserted into the story because of course she has, and the tenth Doctor’s relationship with Elizabeth I is… a lot more psychosexually odd than in the TV version of the story.
(On the other hand, Elizabeth I is portrayed as far more of a monster than she was in the TV story, as well, and the Doctor’s relationship with her as being based on him trying to extract information rather than necessarily out of a genuine affection for her. This goes some way towards fixing a problem I’ve had with Moffat’s work ever since The Girl in the Fireplace, which is that his Doctor has genuine love for historical figures who committed monstrous acts and who, were he to show any consistency in character, he’d treat in much the same way he treats Davros.)
On matters which will attract strong feelings from other people, Clara is given a little more to do in the plot, and her bisexuality is mentioned without it being the occasion for cheap digs, so people who have strong feelings about Clara will be able to have strong feelings about the book.
So, again, this is a book that is in some ways exactly what you’d expect from Moffat — self-satisfied, ethically dubious at points, and containing jokes that punch down and also just aren’t as funny as its writer thinks. On the other hand, while it’s not as clever as it thinks it is, it’s cleverer than I thought it would be going in, and it shows some signs that Moffat has been thinking about the criticisms that have been aimed at him (not always coming to the conclusions one would hope, but thinking about them), and it also contains some actually funny jokes.
It’s a book that has all the normal first novel problems (Moffat has never written a novel before) as well as all the things I’ve mentioned, and so it’s not a book I can recommend unreservedly — and in fact I’m not even sure I’d recommend it reservedly — but it shows Moffat at his problematic best rather than his unambiguously-awful worst.
But… I don’t think I wasted the five quid or whatever the ebook cost, I’ll probably read it again at some point, and it’s certainly a better last Doctor Who work from Moffat than the egregious last episode of his run on the TV series. It’s the kind of thing that should be an averagely-entertaining Doctor Who story rather than one that stands out from the much lower baseline we’ve had in recent years, but it is an averagely-entertaining Doctor Who story, and it does stand out from the much lower et cetera. So if you like your glasses half-full, then you’ll probably enjoy this half-full final glass of Moffat-era Doctor Who.
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