With all due respect to some very brilliant writers — Terry Winter, Matt Weiner, Vince Gilligan, the Kings, the Davids (Milch/Simon/Kelley) and several others who keepnturning out brilliant episode after brilliant episode — I’ve come to the conclusion that there is one whose work I would rather watch than anyone else’s, who seems to have an iron grasp on all the pleasures serial narrative has to offer, who understands how to use television structure as if he invented it, whose imagination seems boundless, whose work can make me laugh and cry, often at the same time… and who can write a scene so brilliantly conceived I want to stand and applaud.
And who also, before he turned to drama, created the funniest sitcom since Fawlty Towers.
To watch one of Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who episodes is like taking a master class in television writing. And he only seems to be getting better — there’s a scene in The Snowmen in which Clara needs to convince the Doctor’s friends to persuade him to help her, but they will only allow her to speak in one-word sentences. That’s clever enough, but the whole thing turns out to lead up to a single-word answer which happens to be not only the logical response to the question, but in a different way (and without her knowing it) the only possible thing Clara could say that would bring him back to himself. (I’d give you the line, but it would only make sense if you’ve already been watching the show — because his episodes build on each other, staggering set-ups and payoffs sometimes an entire season or more apart… which is part of his mastery of serial narrative.)
The Snowmen is probably still rerunning on BBCAmerica, but to make sense of it, you really need to see some earlier episodes. You could start with the first one that Moffat did as showrunner, “The Eleventh Hour,” which was the first episode of season five. Or you could do what I did after many years of refusing to watch the show because of exposure to its earlier, cheaper incarnation and start with 2005’s Season One Episode One “Rose,” written by then showrunner Russell Davies, and then watch the next 115 episodes (all but the last handful of which stream on Netflix) in a couple of months. Moffat was contributing all along, and his episodes always stand out — but the other ones are pretty good, too.
I can’t find that Snowmen scene online, but here is another one of my favorites, from Moffat’s miniseries Jekyll. Claire Jackman, whose husband is descended from Dr. Jekyll and shares his curse, finds out why he has pushed her away when she meets his alter ego Mr. Hyde for the first time…