As you may have seen, Steven Moffat is writing for Doctor Who again (and I bet Tumblr are glad Cloud servers exist now). According to showrunner Russell T. Davies’ Instagram, he contacted both his successors/predecessors in the role and Chris Chibnall turned the offer down in favour of writing a novel, whereas Moffat agreed and, Davies teases, wrote a series 14 episode in which “a perfectly ordinary word [is] turned into something TERRIFYING and it’s all in outer space and there’s a woman and OH MY GOD”.

As we saw during lockdown, Davies and Moffat never really stopped having ideas for Doctor Who stories. While it may seem unprecedented to have a former showrunner return to write an episode, it was fairly common during Doctor Who’s original run. If we take the Script Editor role of the original run as comparable to that of the contemporary showrunner (it doesn’t quite match up but it’s close), we find several incumbents that were hired by their successors to return to Doctor Who.

Best. Episode. Ever

The most obvious example is 1984’s “The Caves of Androzani”, the second to last story of the 21st season of Doctor Who, featuring Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor and Nicola Bryant as new companion Peri. It was written by Robert Holmes, who was the show’s Script Editor for four years during the mid-Seventies, working from the end of the Jon Pertwee era to the first three series of Tom Baker’s tenure.

Holmes had last written for Doctor Who in 1978. Then Script Editor Eric Saward had made a point of trying to bring back people who had written for the show before, stymied by an unwilling producer and in need of experienced writers who knew what they were doing. Saward was only allowed to bring someone in for 20th anniversary special “The Five Doctors” (for which Holmes was initially approached before its eventual writer – another former Script Editor – Terrance Dicks).

Pragmatism is almost certainly also a significant factor in Russell T. Davies’ decision to ask Chris Chibnall and Steven Moffat to write for the show again. Davies knows that he will have to do less work on their scripts, freeing him up to work with writers who are new to the show, and, of course, to develop his own stories.

There’s also the fact that returning Script Editors have produced some of the best stories in the show’s history. “The Caves of Androzani” came top in the 2003 Doctor Who Magazine poll, and again in 2009. It came second in the 2003 Outpost Gallifrey forum poll. Holmes would be an integral part of the writing team in the years following “Androzani”, until his death in 1986.

While it isn’t entirely Holmes’ script that makes “Androzani” great, Holmes demonstrates – apparently effortlessly – how to make Eric Saward’s vision of a grimdark Doctor Who work by having the Doctor clearly reject brute force and cynicism, to try to escape the politics and gun-running and simply rescue his friend. It doesn’t hurt that Holmes’ ability to depict whole worlds and histories with a few lines of dialogue is all present and correct. This script was written with an extremely sharp pencil.

“The Caves of Androzani” reuses quite a few elements from Robert Holmes previous script for the show: 1978’s “The Power of Kroll” also features an inhospitable planet, gun-running and the natural world as a resource/antagonist. However, in the 2009 poll that “Androzani” topped, “The Power of Kroll” was 174th. Moffat, as noted by Russell T. Davies, is another writer who reuses ideas and tropes, usually improving on them as he goes.

The Rescue

The first Doctor Who story to be written by a returning Script Editor was “The Rescue” in 1965, the third story of the second ever season. It sees the introduction of new companion Vicki after the departure of the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan in the previous story, and was written by David Whitaker, and script edited by Whitaker’s successor Dennis Spooner. Whitaker, who significantly shaped Doctor Who’s early years, would also write “The Crusade” for Spooner later in the same season. Again, pragmatism: no one else knew the show like Whitaker and it made sense to ease the transition with his experience.

When Spooner left at the end of season two, he also wrote the first story for his successor, Donald Tosh. “The Time Meddler” closes out Doctor Who’s second series and is an innovative gem that invents an entire subgenre (the ‘Pseudohistorical’ – stories with a historical setting that bring in anachronistic elements such as modern technology or aliens or Peter Purves). Spooner also found himself working on the second half of “The Daleks’ Master Plan”. The story was initially conceived as six episodes but the BBC asked for it to be extended to a whopping twelve parts. With Terry Nation, the writer who came up with the Daleks, increasingly busy, Spooner completed the story based on Nation’s outline and stuck the landing when it came to the ending.

Super Subs

Terry Nation was indeed increasingly busy, mostly with The Baron for ITV, and so when producer Innes Lloyd decided that the Daleks would help audiences to accept Patrick Troughton’s brand-new Doctor in 1966, he was unavailable. In came David Whitaker, whom Nation had collaborated with on 1964’s The Dalek Book. However, Whitaker was unable to perform requested rewrites on “The Power of the Daleks” due to taking other work, and agreed another writer could rewrite his script providing he retained the screen credit. So then Script Editor Gerry Davis turned back to Dennis Spooner. The result is, in my opinion, the best story from Sixties Doctor Who, making the Daleks into far more devious creatures than Nation would have, and expertly ratcheting up the tension before the inevitable slaughter.

Why Do Human Beings Stan Other Human Beings?

Terrance Dicks, Doctor Who’s Script Editor during the Jon Pertwee era, returned to write “The Horror of Fang Rock” for Robert Holmes in 1977, another classic story for Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor. The return of a previous writer, though, is in no way a guarantee of a hit. While David Whitaker’s next Dalek story, “The Evil of the Daleks”, is highly thought of, his 1968 Cyberman story “The Wheel in Space” is less acclaimed (the general consensus being that the characterisation is strong but the story as a whole is very padded). Whitaker’s final credit for the series is the 1970 Third Doctor story “The Ambassadors of Death”, was largely rewritten by an uncredited Malcolm Hulke, his approach for the show now out of time.

Likewise, Gerry Davis returned to write for Tom Baker’s first season, hired a full seven years after his last work on the show in the 1967. His approach to Doctor Who hadn’t changed much in the interim, and so Script Editor Robert Holmes found himself writing and rewriting large segments of what became “Revenge of the Cybermen”, having already rewritten “The Ark in Space” after John Lucarotti – another mainstay of Sixties Doctor Who – had his scripts rejected.

Given these were experienced writers, and Holmes still had to do extra work on the scripts, you can see why Davies would want a nigh-on guarantee of scripts requiring minimal rewrites. It also generates headlines: Steven Moffat returning to Doctor Who is an actual news story. People are excited.

And yet there’s a perfectly reasonable dissenting opinion here, which is that Doctor Who also needs fresh voices, and that while we will almost certainly get a good episode here, there’s a concern that the show is treading water. Sure, it’s doing so in a heated swimming pool rather than shark-infested waters, but nonetheless, there’s a sense of preservation rather than evolution. It’s understandably frustrating for viewers who want to see a new take on Doctor Who. The future is slow in arriving, but it must arrive soon. surely? It’s not going to be Davies and Moffat forever; it’s not like anyone ever worked on Doctor Who literally until they died, right?

Robert Holmes

Robert Holmes was working on the final two episodes of 1986’s “The Trial of a Time Lord” when he died after several years of ill health. The serial’s final episode was written by Eric Saward based on Holmes’ outlines, and then rewritten by Pip and Jane Baker when producer John Nathan-Turner decided not to use Holmes’ ideas, which prompted Saward to resign.

When Doctor Who returned it was with Andrew Cartmel as Script Editor, and under Cartmel the show saw a creative resurgence with a largely new group of writers. It was also quietly cancelled by the BBC after being shunted around the schedules for three years.

So, given this, perhaps treading water is a sensible option at the moment? Maybe Moffat, who has written some of the show’s most popular and/or acclaimed episodes ever and thus has nothing to prove in Doctor Who terms, can deliver something stunning that renders these issues moot?

Who knows, eh? Who knows.

Doctor Who series 14 arrives at midnight on BBC iPlayer on Saturday May 11 in the UK, and on Disney+ in the US at 7 p.m. ET on Friday May 10.

The post Moffat’s New Doctor Who Episode Could Be His Best Ever – There’s Precedent appeared first on Den of Geek.

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