Sci-Fi · TV & Movies

The Doctor and Sherlock are Mary Sues

This isn’t a Moffat hate post, but I have a complaint, and it’s with something Steven Moffat’s done… He’s turned Doctor Who and Sherlock into shows about Mary Sues. I don’t know the man, maybe they aren’t really his Mary Sues as such, but both the Doctor and Sherlock tick some important Mary Sue boxes. (Or Gary Stu boxes, if you feel the need to differentiate). Let’s not get hung up on definitions of Sueness though… Let’s talk about the problem.

Wholock Benedict Cumberbatch and Matt Smith

The two properties are somewhat different, in that Moffat took over an existing franchise with Doctor Who, but Sherlock was his from the start. Some of the issues with Doctor Who predate Moffat’s leadership, but I’ll be focusing on his era (seasons 5-7) and the things that I feel have gotten out of control in that era specifically. And, just to get this out of the way, I love Doctor Who with every fiber of my being. Matt Smith is my favorite New Who Doctor. I want to love Sherlock. I’m not a hater. I just think it’s a problem that in both stories, we started off with the possibility of really interesting universes and narratives, and then they slowly spiraled inward until EVERYONE, EVERYWHERE is entirely obsessed with the Doctor/Sherlock.

  • Everyone’s lives must be subordinated to adoration of the Doctor/Sherlock. Clara started off maintaining her own separate life in between trips with the Doctor, but by the end of season 7, there she is existing to sacrifice herself for the Doctor. Look at River Song, a woman who was presented as a fascinating, mysterious character equal to the Doctor, but who has been turned into an obsessive girlfriend with no thoughts except how wonderful he is and how he must be appeased. Look at Irene Adler, a lesbian woman who just can’t resist Sherlock for some unknown reason. Heck, look at Watson. Any assertion that he might want to be separated from Sherlock for a moment is treated as ridiculous and out of line.
  • Plots center around the Doctor/Sherlock’s importance to the entire universe. This is especially egregious in Doctor Who, since the entire universe can literally be made to spin around the Doctor, and it’s happened in all three season finales so far. (Granted, this trend did start under Davies with his constant escalation of stakes, but it got personal with Moffat). On Sherlock, it’s more subtle, and mainly manifests in terms of Moriarty’s obsession.
  • You can be angry with the Doctor/Sherlock as long as you eventually do exactly what he says. Note Watson and River Song again…
  • Both “good” and “bad” characters adore the Doctor/Sherlock or otherwise center their lives around him. All these characters are expected to receive audience acclaim. The only “bad” characters, the ones the audience is supposed to hate, are the ones who criticize the Doctor/Sherlock. Moriarty, a mass murderer and crime boss of epic proportions — audience loves him. Hey, I like him too, he’s funny, his actor does a great job. But Donovan or Anderson, cops who express legitimate concerns about Sherlock’s presence and react to him with annoyance like any sane human being would — the audience is pretty nasty to them.
  • Supporting characters’ love interests are fine as long as they also love the Doctor/Sherlock and don’t interfere with the supporting character’s worship of him. Note Rory and Amy, and Molly Hooper and her Sherlock-clone boyfriend who literally only exists to be the butt of a joke.

Molly Hooper and boyfriend

Why is all this a problem? Aside from plain old bad writing, it guts the show and it turns it into a constantly self-referential mess, instead of a chain of satisfying stories. It means the Doctor is (almost literally) knitting the universe together on Doctor Who, which is ridiculous for a show that claims to encompass the whole of time and space. It means no one is allowed to be as interesting as the Doctor or Sherlock, so no one else really has personality or agency. Is Moffat anti-feminist? I don’t know… All his women are completely obsessed with the Doctor/Sherlock, but so are all his men! The Doctor isn’t a helpful stranger anymore, or an equal to the people he meets, or even a mentor. He’s a whirlpool made of quips and meaningless threats. Sherlock doesn’t “solve mysteries,” he’s enticed into them, because he’s apparently the only person in the world of Sherlock who can “detect.” Apparently being a jerk to everyone is totally mesmerizing.

I’ve been focusing on character interactions and I feel like that’s the most important aspect, fueling the others, but just try taking the Mary Sue Litmus Test with the Doctor or Sherlock. (Actually you don’t have to take the test, I took it for the Doctor/Sherlock and got 128. That’s without assenting to anything involving Moffat’s clothing or personal life, because I don’t know that stuff). Special powers/abilities/weapons not used by anyone else (sonic screwdriver), using vague assertions of mental illness to justify self-indulgent behavior (“high-functioning sociopath”), repeated references to the coolness of the costumes (bow tie, scarf), sudden skills/gadgets that save the day with no foreshadowing…

It’s a problem that Moffat is writing the same character in two places, is flubbing it the same way in both, and is not, apparently, doing it for any effective thematic purpose. A good writer can use tropes and cliches to great effect, but Moffat’s Suing isn’t a purposeful story choice, it’s harming the quality and variety of both shows. The fact that he’s done it to both of them in the same way is the main reason the Doctor and Sherlock look less and less like characters, and more like Mary Sues.

Wholock Benedict Cumberbatch and Matt Smith


17 thoughts on “The Doctor and Sherlock are Mary Sues

  1. I had no idea what at ‘Mary Sue’ was until now, so thank you for that education.

    I’m a massive Doctor Who fan but have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the show at the moment. I would rather cut off my own head than miss a single episode (slight exaggeration perhaps) but I do find it frequently frustrating. I really liked Matt Smith in the role and yet .,.. I don’t know, so many of the stories weren’t quite up to standard. It always felt like it could be so much more. Sometimes it’s superb, but too often it just seems that bit too pleased with itself. Keeps trying to be too slick, too cool, too funny, and forget the power of just telling a damn good story. Moffatt of course has written some of the best stories in the show’s recent history.

    I do think the Capaldi era looks promising already though – his view that the show needs more gravitas, and promising he won’t flirt with or kiss his companion, is a welcome relief. The companion-hopelessly-in-love-with-the-Doctor routine was becoming very tiresome.


    1. You’ve captured my feelings exactly… I love it so much, Who has been an important fixture in my whole life and mental landscape, but there are some problems that really bother me.

      Here’s to Capaldi and the future!


  2. “But Donovan or Richardson, cops who express legitimate concerns about Sherlock’s presence and react to him with annoyance like any sane human being would — the audience is pretty nasty to them.”

    That’s funny, I was just talking to my girlfriend about how I actually really like Doakes from Dexter BECAUSE he’s onto him. But apparently Doakes was so anti-dexter that the audience hated him. I’ll have to look for this pattern in other shows now, too…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t seen much of Dexter but that’s a really interesting comparison. I was also thinking of House, another case in which a big jerk is the one the audience is rooting for, but that show at least does a slightly better job of establishing that House is a jerk, and the audience doesn’t automatically dislike people who argue with him (because everyone argues with him).

      Also, I’m a dummy, I meant Anderson. I think I started thinking about Richard Dean Anderson and ended up with “Richardson.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s why I liked House; he really was a jerk and a fuck-up, not just flawed in pretty, fandomy ways. That’s also why I like real, legit villains like Hannibal; there’s really no defending him, unlike Dexter who at least kills bad guys. I don’t appreciate a show trying to tell me which characters I should and shouldn’t like; that’s for me to decide, right? And honestly, MOST main characters have that Mary Sue thing going on. Side characters are almost always more interesting because they’re not as bound by the writers’ worries and expectations.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I do agree that a lot of main characters have mild Mary Suisms, just not to this degree. 🙂 And yeah, don’t tell me who to like, I’ll make up my own mind! That was a big problem with Sherlock s3 for me, constantly being informed that Sherlock is cool.


          1. I’ve heard that. Haven’t seen any Dr. Who but I have seen that with Sherlock. Too bad Moffat doesn’t have the balls to even make Sherlock outwardly asexual. ANYTHING would be better than nothing.


          2. This is the man who said “Asexuals are boring,” after all.

            Doctor Who used to have Jack Harkness, and now has Vastra and Jenny who are an awesome lesbian couple. But in general, anything queer is a joke. It kind of sounds inclusive until you notice that it’s ALWAYS A JOKE. Sherlock is probably worse though because of Johnlock, there’s an actual workable couple right there in every single episode. If he said “Sherlock is asexual and in love with John” it would fit exactly with what we’ve seen so far, but I don’t really believe he’ll actually do it, he’ll just keep teasing it and the fans will eat it up.


          3. Jack Harkness, yeah… the one who fell in love with the boring and incredibly annoying female lead. 😛

            Hell, he could say “Sherlock is asexual and aromantic and doesn’t want anything more than to have John be his platonic life partner forever” and it would be AWESOME.


    2. I hated Doakes as a character, too, but it was less his being onto Dexter than his general demeanor.

      I always liked House because he was such a well-drawn, complex character, and it was easy to see both why people were frustrated by him and were drawn to him. I had a difficult time seeing why people would be drawn to Dexter, though, why anyone would maintain a relationship with him, even if I did like to watch him on screen.

      And I do love Hannibal in pretty much any incarnation. He’s nasty and funny and very, very scary.


      1. I liked the first few seasons of House for the same reasons. I eventually quit watching — not coincidentally, it was right at the same time that I would have quit working for House if I was one of his team members. He is fascinating as a person though and really comes off as a whole character, not just “a jerk” or “a genius” or whatever. It’s really interesting how the audience relates to “the main character” though. (Especially since you mention Hannibal, who started off as more of a general villain rather than a villain protagonist.)


      2. I’m not a big fan of Dexter (the character) but I think that may be because I like Hannibal so much. XD I prefer the pure, legit evil sociopath to someone who sometimes seems like a sociopath, but sometimes has emotions, but sometimes doesn’t… But I can’t pass judgement yet as I’ve only seen the first season.

        Honestly, I’m not sure why I like Doakes so much. He’s just SO. ANGRY. ALL THE TIME. I find it hilarious.

        Liked by 1 person


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