While we were all still speculating about whether Russell T Davies was stepping down as Doctor Who showrunner and about whether Steven Moffat would replace him, a popular opinion arose that this couldn’t happen too soon, as Davies relies too much on a set of repetitive tropes (romance in the TARDIS; evil entrepreneurs; the folly of relying too much on technology) that had run their course. I think that’s overstating the case a bit–I’ll miss Uncle Rusty tremendously, at least in part because his cheese-o-meter is so closely calibrated to mine–and although I’m as excited as the next person that Moffat will be the replacement, his fourth whack at New Who shows that he can be just as repetitive with his themes. He likes to rely on spooky catchprases and creatures who are scary because of their lack of facial expressions as much as Davies likes to give us evil CEOs.
The thing is, it works. The other string Moffat plucks over and over–more often and more effectively than any other New Who writer–is the idea of time as “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.” In previous episodes, the audience has experienced the narrative in a linear fashion while the characters don’t. In “Silence in the Library,” though, we get the warped narrative, too, from the mind-boggling teaser suggesting the Doctor and Donna might be in a little girl’s head (are we warping space now, too?) to the confusion we share with the Doctor over who River Song might be. It’s the inversion of his relationship with Reinette in Moffat’s “The Girl in Fireplace”–this time it’s the Doctor who has to walk the slow path, waiting to see how the future with River unfolds since his own spoiler rules prevent her from telling him.
Playing with the shape of things in this manner allows Moffat to underscore how people “ghost” through the Doctor’s life, leaving an impression and then flickering out. Reinette’s entire life flits by in a matter of hours. The placement of “The Girl in the Fireplace” right after “School Reunion” underlines how Season 2 is largely about Rose trying to persuade the Doctor permanence is possible and his understandable but ill-fated urge to believe her right up until the moment she’s erased from his world (and isn’t the way she’s ghosting across this season interesting?). I fear he’ll never see Sally Sparrow again. It might take next week’s episode and clarification of River’s place in the Doctor’s life to determine whether knowing something important but intermittent and impermanent is coming is more or less lonely than a normal relationship (whatever Moffat’s selling, I’m buying, because I’m dying to know who she is). I’m not too worried that Donna’s going to be stuck in the Library’s flesh bank forever, but the fact that River knows of her but doesn’t know her makes me very anxious that instead of walking in the dust, Donna’s been walking on the beach–and the tide is coming in.
I guess we’ll have to see next week’s conclusion to find out if the oodles of plot still left to resolve actually gel, but as long as they’re engaging questions this big, and as long as they’re doing it in a fashion this gorgeous–beautiful new Murray Gold score! The little girl floating across a planet! A journal that looks like a TARDIS! That library!–they’ll keep us intrigued. That’s going to be Moffat’s full-time job now, after all.