Doctor Who has put Steven Moffat back where he belongs

You could probably consider it a law, like gravity: any popular entertainment lucky enough to amass a fandom will eventually find that fandom at odds with at least some of the creative team. Star Trek probably invented it (who cares, it invented every other modern pop culture fad), but almost every fanbase has experienced it. In the realm of the 21st century Doctor who Fandom in particular centers this connection between passion and anger around writer Steven Moffat.

At the time, best known for the BBC sitcom To linkMoffat quickly began to build a reputation as one of the most exciting writers working under then-showrunner Russell T. Davies’ 2005 revival Doctor who, a guy who dropped by every season for a standalone episode or two-parter that reliably brought things down. When Moffat took over as WHO showrunner in series 5, at the start of Matt Smith’s tenure as Eleventh Doctor, it didn’t seem like there was a better choice.

However, the grass is always greener, and while the man responsible for two-thirds of the SuperWhoLock era of internet fandom had amassed a zealous following, he fared a lot better as the man in charge. Moffat fell out of favor as audiences tired of his reckless, plotted vision and smug voice Doctor who entered a fallow period – only to be resurrected by Davies. And so, twenty years later, an old dynamic arises again, with Russell T. Davies steering the ship, and – surprisingly – Steven Moffat back as his ringer.

Image: Disney Plus

“Boom,” the third episode (the fourth if you count the Christmas special, which Disney Plus does) of the Davies 2.0 era Doctor who is such a return to form for Moffat that it is truly astonishing. With the exception of a brief prologue, “Boom” is a bottle episode the true meaning of the wordwhich takes place on one set and revolves around a very simple problem: The Doctor (Ncuti Gatwa) has stepped on a sci-fi landmine on an alien world and can’t move without detonating it.

What makes “Boom” such a gripping hour of television is the way it takes its premise and adds layer after layer of thematic and dramatic tension, loading the dilemma with almost unbearable levels of stress. The planet that the Doctor and companion Ruby Sunday visit? It is engaged in an endless war. The soldiers are Anglican Marines, a faction of religious soldiers WHO fans will remember Moffat’s stint as showrunner. They will never stop fighting even if they don’t know why, and that’s true Certainly reason to doubt why. A girl’s father goes missing, and she thinks the doctor knows where – oops, that’s a life in danger because she doesn’t realize the doctor’s predicament. Leveling things up worse is a small fleet of AI-controlled robots designed by a weapons manufacturer to keep the battle running smoothly profitable.

In “Boom,” Moffat’s long-standing tics – flashy, biting dialogue and a tendency toward sentimentality – are again strong points here. Like many of the best WHO Writers, Moffat understands that the Doctor doesn’t feel most special when he’s just smart, but when he to communicate; when he tries to talk his way out of trouble by showing empathy, not just by being smart. Moffat’s worst moments of excess result in a doctor smug about being the smartest in the room, arrogant in his own intellect. But at its best, in the hands of a talented, emotional actor like Ncuti Gatwa? It’s remarkable theater, in which a man desperately tries to connect with people who have no reason to listen to him, that conditioned against anything he might have to say.

And of course there’s a bit of classic Moffat devilry in the affair, a joke and a challenge in the episode’s premise: an alien who can travel to all time and space, stuck in one place. Shall we watch again?