Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Five old things scripter Steven Moffat makes new again

Posted By on Tue, Feb 15, 2011 at 5:03 PM

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  • BBC Warner
For some pop culture skeptics, Doctor Who and the Belgian comic book Tintin might seem as far removed from the concept of "cool" as little bowties. But as Matt Smith, playing the 11th and newest incarnation of The Doctor repeatedly asserts, "Bowties are cool," and the newest season of "Doctor Who," under Scottish screenwriter/producer Steven Moffat, achieves a quirky panache. Moffat has shown kind of a genius for investing new vigor in some highly familiar characters and genres, and is currently breaking out to a bigger audience in the United States and worldwide. Here's five of his big successes:

1. "Doctor Who." Russell T. Davies deserves credit for his canny, whimsical reboot of the "Doctor Who" franchise beginning in 2005, with actor Christopher Eccleston being quickly replaced by David Tennant, who became one of the most popular actors ever to play the nearly 50 year-old role of a time-traveling alien who uses wit and intellect to fight the forces of evil. Moffat penned some of the best episodes under Davies' tenure (including the suspenseful, head-spinning "Blink" with Carey Mulligan) and took over the show when Davies and Tennant left. Faced with a textbook example of a hard act to follow, Moffat and Matt Smith rose to the occasion, and last year's fifth season, if initially unsteady, proved highly entertaining while establishing its own voice.

Moffat and Smith's "Doctor Who" is scheduled to return for a sixth season this spring. Incidentally, Moffat's career with "Doctor Who" began when he wrote the 20-minute comedy sketch "Doctor Who: The Curse of Fatal Death," which featured Rowan Atkinson, Richard E. Grant, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent and Joanna Lumley all as The Doctor.

With Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol, released on DVD today, Feb. 15, Moffat and Smith reveal how they've made the show their own. As a largely self-contained story free of kitschy aliens and monsters, it's a great introduction to the franchise. On a futuristic Earth colony, The Doctor butts heads with Kazran Sardick (Michael "Dumdledore Gambon), a miserly figure who refuses to grant a crashing spaceship refuge on his world. The Doctor uses his gift for time travel to go all Jacob Marley on Sardick, for a clever, ingeniously constructed variation on Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol. Written by Moffat and superbly played by the hyperactive but worldly-wise Smith, the show features a bittersweet ending, fresh takes on Christmas and Scrooge, and, best of all, a soon-to-be iconic Christmas shark.

2. "Sherlock." In "A Christmas Carol," The Doctor deduces Sardick's deeply-rooted daddy issues simply by noticing the placement of the furniture in his study. This fast-paced feat of observation may have been Moffat's shout-out to his other, hipper TV project, "Sherlock," which updates Sherlock Holmes for the early 21st century. The three movies of "Sherlock's" first season pair supergenius "consulting detective" Sherlock Holmes with Afghanistan veteran/medical doctor John Watson (future Bilbo Baggins Martin Freeman), and offer a terrific blend of 19th century melodrama, "CSI"-style procedural and mismatched buddy comedy-thriller. Moffat co-created "Sherlock," and its next season may be produced before the end of 2011.

3. "Jekyll." In 2007, Moffat established his affinity with updating classic, aggressively intellectual characters with a miniseries about a contemporary ancestor of Henry Jekyll contending with an emerging personality, Edward Hyde. James Nesbitt superbly plays both characters, with "Dr. Jackman" being a mild-mannered, ordinary scientist and family man, and Hyde proving to be a brilliant Hannibal Lecter-style genius sociopath who could represent the next step in human evolution. Moffat's Hyde, Sherlock and the Doctor all like to show off their smarts through intricate, one-step-ahead dialogue. "Jekyll" concludes with some twists that may not stand up to scrutinity, but raise all kinds of fascinating implications.

4. "Coupling." Moffat hit it big in 2000-2004 with a situation comedy about the sex and dating habits of a group of young people. Called an English version of "Friends," but just as influenced by "Seinfeld," "Coupling" was inspired by Moffat's relationship with producer Sue Vertue. I confess I haven't seen a lot of "Coupling," but it masters the set-up/punchline structure of classic sitcoms while sending it in new directions. The American remake, alas, failed quickly.

5. The Adventures of Tintin: Secrets of the Unicorn
. Moffatt will draw the attention of movie fans with his latest project, having co-written the newest film by Steven Spielberg. Moffat collaborated with Joe Cornish and Shaun of the Dead's Edgar Wright for the adaptation of the Belgian adventure comic book, produced by both Spielberg and Peter Jackson. Motion capture animation has had a spotty record in Hollywood, but the early images look appealingly faithful to the original. Tintin is due in theaters Dec. 23.

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