The screening of a new Steven Moffat show is an event like no other. Doctor Who and Sherlock both have this astonishing grip over the psyche of middle England, as seen by anyone who follows a lot of middle-class English people on twitter: these shows are completely prevalent, almost everybody seems to watch them, get really exciting about the fact they are coming up, etc. And then these people are usually almost universally disappointed. Because, of course – something that the sharper ones have worked out long ago – Steven Moffat’s shows are actually really shit and his worldview, utterly prevalent in all of them, is a really shitty one. And yet, there is still this deep drive in these people to discuss these shows; and they cannot abandon them, no matter how constantly disappointed with them they are. I want to work out why this is.
On the one hand of course, these shows are so popular just because of what they are. Doctor Who and Sherlock are both manifestations of things that are very much English/British ‘national institutions’. It is hard to imagine, thus, that these shows, being what they are and being shown on TV at the time that they are (in prime time on Saturdays, often around Christmas, etc.) that they would be anything but popular. But of course, there are lots of Sherlock Holmes-type shows (and films) that are nowhere near as popular as Sherlock. I’ve never once observed anyone mention or think about the contemporary Robert Downey Jr-starring series of movies, or say anything about Elementary, the other recent television re-imagining of Doyle’s stories, which wasn’t either outrage or befuddlement about how Watson was being played by Lucy Liu. Doctor Who, yes, was extraordinarily popular when Russell T Davis was running the show, but Moffat was already one of its most prominent writers, and in fact it was his episodes that I remember people discussing most back then, when most of them were still just campily fun tea-time fare which people didn’t seem so psychotically compelled to have an opinion towards.
Thus I would suggest that both shows have become what they are today precisely through the way that they feel kind of ‘Moffaty’, or, what might be a better way of putting it: the way in which they an exemplify an ideology which we will call ‘Moffatism’. Moffatism is not just something that we see in these two shows; it was already present in a protean form Moffat’s early work as well, for instance in the dreadfully clunky early-00s Friends-clone sitcom Coupling. Coupling is a good place to start here, in fact, if we want to understand Moffat. In Coupling we see Moffat’s image of the world in perhaps its most straightforward form: it is a world that is almost uniformally white, middle-class, and professional, populated by men so boring and thick they might as well have just stumbled out of an advert for easy-cook meals and quirkly ‘strong’ women, whose lives are primarily focused around sacrificing themselves in order to assist aforementioned male idiots in every aspect of their lives presumably up to their bathroom functions, chewing and swallowing, etc. Generally speaking the men in Moffat’s world are overgrown children, and all the women are idealised mother-figures. They are also by and large people who do not dream of spending their lives doing anything particularly significant but are rather focused on either one day settling down and having kids and living happily ever after (even if presently adventuring through space or driving around in a van solving mysteries) or (as is the case with the men in Coupling a lot of the time) satisfying their immediate sexual impulses.
Moffat is a poor psychologist, as any of the horrible dialogue in Coupling immediately shows, but there is certainly an obvious psychological drama constantly unfolding in his world. In Coupling this is really just ‘mummy-me’, but Doctor Who and Sherlock both add a ‘daddy’ to this trinity, in the form of the one central male character in any of these shows with their wits about them: Sherlock and the Doctor themselves. Sherlock and the Doctor are both very much of a type: emotionally distant, manipulative, but with some sort of special insight into reality that always means they can come and save everyone, usually contingent on the self-sacrifice of one of the women.
They are also both peculiarly sexless. This means that they can fill a really ideal role in the oedipal drama that Moffat has set up here, since although daddy remains to make everything OK and ‘me’, the idiot male son who does seem I think in some sense to always stand in for Moffat himself (this was at least explicit with Jack Davenport’s character in Coupling), doesn’t have to grow up, he still gets to be the one who fucks mummy.
And certainly, with Moffat we normally find characters (those who aren’t Sherlock or the Doctor or one of the ideal-mothers) placed in an infantilised role. In Doctor Who especially, the day is always saved when someone cries hard enough to bend reality in line with their sadness. The message is, uniformally: your sadness is a weapon, and if you cry hard enough, you will get what you want. This is, of course, only even sort-of true for one tier of our population: new-born babies. But, as I have discussed elsewhere, it is one of the tendencies of capitalism as it is presently constituted “to treat mentally competent adults like children, and for them to be accepting of, comfortable, and happy with, this.” Moffat’s shows thus march to the same beat as ukulele-strummed mobile phone adverts and signs next to napkins saying ‘Please Only Take One Of Me’: they are manifestations of the present tendency towards infantilisation.
This is where Moffatism really becomes a total world-view. Its advert-alike world of male idiots and strong women whose telos is to get happily married of course relates somehow to the self-image of middle England, but it does so because this self-image is importantly an infantilised one. Steven Moffat is, in a sense, a poet – the most important poet of middle England in the early-21st century – in that he poetises that world, as what it is: an infantilised one. This explains, I think, why people just cannot let these shows go, no matter how consistently they are disappointed by them. Because, the experience of these shows has become, I think, in a very real sense constitutive of what it is to be a middle-class English person right now (Moffat is of course himself Scottish, which seems strange, but then maybe you need to stand relevantly outside any national or indeed sub-national psyche to truly shape it).
If this is true, then we can see further: that dissatisfaction with Moffat’s shows goes much deeper than the fact that some people just didn’t enjoy a television show and are talking about it on twitter (certainly the BBC would have nothing to worry about on this score, since at least if my reading here is the correct one this will not in any event result in any significant erosion of ratings). Dissatisfaction with Moffat is, rather, dissatisfaction on the behalf of middle-class English people with their world as such, or, to put it another way: dissatisfaction with the present conditions of infantilisation (which would amount to the same thing).
This must be the case, since what Moffatism is, is precisely the poetry through which this world is disclosed. Yet just through their being poetry, this means that the viewers of these shows do not have to deal with their dissatisfaction with their world as if it was with reality. Thus, this allows a central dissatisfaction with infantilisation to always remain unspoken in discourse about Moffat’s shows (on, for instance, twitter). This is ideal for the infantilised subject, since infantilisation is able to perpetuate itself precisely through the fact that it is a comfortable state for the subject to remain in (likened to lying in a cot crying, or curled up in a ball). So, they are able to get an image of their own dissatisfaction that they do not have to confront head-on but which can be comfortably dissolved into endless blather about plot points, and prospects for the hope that maybe next week Moffat will be back to the form of that thing he wrote about Carey Mulligan and the Angels (of course, by these lights, the parallel tendency, towards declaring that, for all the haters on twitter, you enjoyed what Moffat did this week, is merely a voicing of satisfaction with infantilisation).
But then we must ask ourselves, why is Steven Moffat doing this? Maybe, of course, he is just a television writer trying to make a living, who has found whether advertently or not that his worldview is, for a certain sort of English person, a very appealing one, and he can make money from it. But perhaps there is something deeper going on here.
I like to imagine that the real story runs something like this. Steven Moffat is not a human being at all, but rather, a sort of alien force, come to our world. Not a malicious one – although he initially seems malicious – but in fact a sort of alien child, ancient yes going by our understanding of time, but by the standards of his own species still a child, since his race grows vastly older than ours do, as old as the stars. But he has not come to our world deliberately: Steven Moffat the alien child has wound up here, trapped, after getting separated from his alien mummy and daddy and becoming lost. And everything he does, now, is just mewling for them to come back.
But this alien does not communicate like we do, of course not. In order to cry for his mummy and daddy the alien Moffat must launch a sort of psychic ‘pulse’, that can only manifest itself through the discourse of lesser beings, like humans. He must focus enough of the world’s conversation on one particular thing for a certain message to register as significant. And in this case, the regular message is coded in discussions about two BBC drama series, Doctor Who and Sherlock, and the Moffat-entity has become incredibly adept at getting a certain sub-section of the world’s population to talk about them, especially on social networking websites. The psychic energy is thus quite significant. But still it is not enough: Moffat’s parents are not coming, the alien-child remains in distress.
The Doctor arrives at the relevant point in time just as the psychic effects of the distress signals are beginning to trouble the people of Earth (which of course, for Doctor Who, is always precisely identical with England). Working quickly, the Doctor finds out what is really going on, that the evil effects of the Moffat-force are in fact being produced by a helpless baby child, and he uses the TARDIS to somehow direct the psychic energy produced by the chatter regarding the episode that is currently being shown and that these events unfold in itself towards the alien force Moffat’s parents, who are themselves trawling the universe desperately looking for him, and then they come to Earth and are reunited with him, and the alien is so grateful that the love unleashed brings Rory (who has died during the proceedings) back to life, and the Doctor sheds a single tear. And then after that, we are free from Moffat entirely, although having said that, it will have only been by means of the most hacky Moffatism that we were able to expel him. But then, I am a middle-class English person myself, and thus cannot think in anything but his terms.