[Analysis] - Who Could Replace Steven Moffat

[This is the part of a month long series of articles, lists and other features celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Doctor Who.]

Doctor Who is very nearly 50 years old. Well, it's been around for 50 years. In television years, it's had 34 series, and a movie. Which isn't unimpressive either. The trick to sticking around that long is constant creative renewal. Any idea, no matter how good, will eventually stagnant when a single mind is behind it (look at... well, pretty much every other decade spanning franchise, at some point or another).

So, on a regular (but not dictated) basis, the minds behind Doctor Who would leave, and others would step up. Each new script editor or showrunner would bring a new creative vision, a new concept of what the show should be. The results have been a pretty spectacular range of genre constructions. From the history based stories of the early days of the program, to the Earth based military setting of the Third Doctor, to the nostalgia driven serials of the 20th anniversary year. Notable names on the list of driving influences include Terrance Dicks, Robert Holmes, Douglas Adams, Andrew Cartmel, Russell T. Davies and the current incumbent Steven Moffat, who has been leading the program for the last three series, and will be sticking around for at least another one.

This article is not about whether or not Moffat should leave the program. His original pitch of reinventing the show as a dark fairy tale was hugely successfully in his first year, though that vision has clearly underwent some erosion over the past two series. No, this article is about the inevitable day when Moffat announces he is stepping down. It is as inevitable as the actor playing the Doctor moving on to something else. And like the character, with a new writer in charge, the series will regenerate into something entire new, yet oddly familiar.

This article is about, when that comes, who should the BBC hired to fill the position.

It has been said repeatedly by those who have done it, that writing for Doctor Who is one of the hardest jobs in television, and running it is even worse. Moffat has stated that to produce a 13 episode series takes up ten months of his year, which is an enormous commitment directing the overall shape and scope of the series, on top of writing individual episodes and nursing those episodes written by contributors. "What I’m looking for," said Moffat, "All the time – and this sounds terribly snobbish and awful – are showrunner-level writers who’d give their right arm to write a Doctor Who story, and it’s surprising how often we get that and how many of our writing team, if I can call them that, are showrunners themselves."

And thus we have our criteria for those that might serve as Moffat's successor. A writer who has previously written for Who, and therefore knows the limitations that budget and ability can have on a script. But also a writer who has run their own show, an experienced and passionate writer that can also wear a producers hate. Someone who can just as easily deal with the bureaucracy of television production as they can steal themselves away with a laptop and turn out a cracking good yarn. And someone who can navigate the politics of a modern and internet connected fandom.

So, who might it be?
Mark Gatiss

Gatiss is an obvious and immediate choice, for a number of reasons. First, he was one of many who submitted proposals to the BBC when the series was initially being brought back, along with Davies and Moffat. He's clearly had an eye on the top job before. Second, he is to Moffat what Moffat was to Davies in terms of reliability in contribution. Episodes written by Gatiss since the return are as follows: The Unquiet Dead, The Idiot's Lantern, Victory of the Daleks, Night Terrors, Cold War, and The Crimson Horror (it should be noted that this matches the number of pre-showrunner episodes Moffat wrote for the program).

He's also one of a very narrow list of people to have both written and acted on the series. He has written, as a companion to the 50th, the docudrama of the series' creation, An Adventure In Space And Time. Clearly, he has a lot of love for the programme. As for outside experience, he is the current co-producer of Sherlock, along with Moffat, though with Moffat's attentions mostly taken up by Who, Gatiss can be seen as the primary on that series. Is it unreasonable to foresee a time when they might switch positions, with Moffat taking the lead on Sherlock, and Gatiss moving into the TARDIS? Of anyone on this list, I believe his ascension into the position to be the most likely, though his relationship with Moffat might earn the ire of those who believe that Moffat has done more harm then good.

Howard Overman

This one is a bit of a cheat, since it doesn't conform to my own criteria. But rules are made to be broken, and I'm the one typing. Overman has never written for Doctor Who, but he has written for the BBC's other Saturday night rating's draws, Merlin and the current Atlantis. He also has extensive experience in creating and running programming, including the faux-superhero series Misfits, the procedural Vexed, the aforementioned Atlantis, and the short lived Dirk Gently. What makes Overman a viable candidate is how he has approached each of these series. They all take a well established genre, and turn the expectations on their heads. Teenagers get superpowers; are generally rubbish. Buddy cop procedural; thrives on black, irreverent humour. 4000 year old classical mythology; merges all myths together into a giant melting pot of potential material.

Even a straight up adaptation of Douglas Adams' other work became a case of subversion, as specific elements were cherry picked and reconstructed into something new and unusual (if not entirely successful). The prospects of how he might overturn the standard formula of Doctor Who are appealing, as the series might be in need of a shake up as seismic as when the Third Doctor was confined to Earth. Unfortunately, the continued success of Atlantis means his moving over to Who is unlikely.

Gareth Roberts

Another cheat, as Roberts has never run his own show. But he, aside from Moffat and Gatiss, has the most extensive Doctor Who filled resume, which extends back into the Dark Times. His on screen writing credits are The Shakespeare Code, The Unicorn and the Wasp, Planet of the Dead, The Lodger, and Closing Time, but this only begins to scratch the surface. He began his career in Virgin's New Adventures and Missing Adventures line of novels, eventually working his way into the Doctor Who magazine, and penning scripts for the Big Finish audio drama.

After working with Davies on the show proper, he helped establish the Sarah Jane Adventures, where he wrote or cowrote 18 episodes. His familiarity with the show's past has made him a resource in documentaries and commentaries, and he proved himself very capable indeed when he adapted Douglas Adams' Shada script into novel form, merging his own style with that of Adams' almost seamlessly. As much as Overman would take the series into a bold new direction, Roberts could reasonably be expected to streamline the concept and take the series back to it's basics.

Chris Chibnall

Another long term investor, Chibnall's contributions to the series extend back to 1986, when he criticised the programme's quality (not unfair, at the time) on Open Air. His episodes for the returned series are 42, The Hungry Earth, Cold Blood, Dinosaurs on a Spaceship, and The Power of Three, as well as the internet episodes Pond Life and P.S. On top of this however, he was head writer for the initial two series run of Torchwood, writing eight episodes on the darker spinoff.

Outside of the TARDIS, he initially developed a reinvention of the Arthurian mythos for the BBC before they went with Merlin, eventually leading him to set up Camelot at Starz. He also set up and ran Law & Order: UK for it's first series. His most recent success was the ITV drama Broadchurch, with a host of Doctor Who alumni in the cast, which he is currently developing both a second series and an American remake for. His episodes of the series are noted for their whimsical premises, covering more sinister but optimistic ideas. His work outside the series suggests darker interpretations of standard stories, and either premise would serve as a foundation for a new creative direction for the show.

Toby Whithouse

My personal pick for the job, and a favourite on the internet, Whithouse has said of the possibility, "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't intrigued by the idea, but also it would be terrifying. It's definitely something I'd be really tempted by but I'm genuinely not in any hurry to do it." His contributions to the series are School Reunion (which reintroduced Sarah Jane and K-9), The Vampires of Venice, The God Complex, and A Town Called Mercy, as well as an episode of Torchwood along the way. Outside of the series, he created the show No Angels, the forthcoming MI5 drama The Game, and the hugely successful Being Human.

It really is Human that would point to how he might approach Who rather than his actual Who scripts. The very rigid structure and self containment of each series, the complexities of the characters and the ideas the show explores, the detail of the mythology the show operates under, and the balance of weird unexpected humour with very dark moments make for very appealing television. And it helps that The God Complex, one of my favourite episodes of the new Who, is ultimately a revisition of a classic series creature structured around a very tightly and very intelligently concept, that explores an actual idea rather than a Macguffin or timey-whimey nonsense.

None of this discounts a wild card from coming out of the mix and taking the job. And if history has taught us anything, it's that the internet is rubbish at predicting with any accuracy what will happen behind the scenes at the Beeb. But these five writers are viable candidates. And viable candidates, I feel, will be needed relatively soon.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


  1. I've never watched Dr. Who. Is there any advice you can give on where to start? Should one go back as early as possible and just watch whatever exists from the orignal iterations of Dr. Who (knowing just a little bit, that some series/episodes of it has been lost) and march forward? Or can you just kind of pop around, maybe start at the beginning of any Doctor's tenure?


    1. That is certainly a question, and you'll get all sorts of answers from all sorts of folks.

      The easiest answer I can give is that Russell T. Davies was instructed to make the show as accessible to new viewers as possible when he brought it back, considering that it had been off air for 16 years. It introduces the mythology and the older elements in a gradual way, that never overwhelms. So starting at the beginning of "Series 1" with Christopher Eccelston, is a good move.

      I've had equal amounts of success introducing people to the show at the beginning of Series 5, when Steven Moffat took over. New show runner, new Doctor, new tone. He reintroduced concepts, and lets the viewer come into the show at their own pace. New showrunners tend to be better jumping on points than new Doctors.

      The old stuff is good, but there is a lot of it, there is some stuff from the very beginning missing, and it's harder to get your hands on than the new stuff. I own everything that has been released on DVD, and I still couldn't watch the entire show from the beginning. People unaccustomed to stuff from the 70s and 80s can experience a bit of cognative dissonance, based on the production values of the time (the show had a healthy reputation for not aging well, even back then). But, a lot of it is really good stuff.

      You know, I was going to give you a list of the older serials, but I think it's long enough and use-enough-words enough that I might expand it into next week's feature. Thanks for the inspiration, John. For a more-in-detail-than-you-probably-wanted answer, check back next Friday.

  2. Thanks for the considerate response - next week's article sounds great. I look forward to it.