It’s been years, even over a decade in the making, but Steven Moffat‘s TV adaptation of Audrey Niffenegger‘s influential novel The Time Traveler’s Wife is finally becoming a reality at HBO. The thing is, Moffat was always adapting The Time Traveler’s Wife during his 3-season run on Doctor Who. And even before that.
To be clear, Moffat was already adept at writing timey-wimey Doctor Who stories long before he read and became a fan of The Time Traveler’s Wife. Even during the 1990s, his first short story for the Virgin Doctor Who books Decalog 3 in 1996, “Continuity Errors” had a timey-wimey story about the 7th Doctor changing the past of an officious librarian’s life to make her happier so that she would be the type of decent person who would help him with a single gesture that would prevent a war. Moffat would end up adapting and changing “Continuity Errors” into one of his Doctor Who Christmas Specials, “A Christmas Carol” in 2010. In 1999, Moffat wrote The Curse of Fatal Death, a half-hour spoof of Doctor Who that was an affectionate ribbing of the show that was all about the timey-wimey. And we’re always happy to have the slightest excuse to link to The Curse of Fatal Death.
What The Time Traveler’s Wife gave Moffat was a framework for a melancholy time travel love story. When he was commissioned to write “The Girl in the Fireplace” for the revived Doctor Who series in 2006 under Russell T. Davies’ watch as showrunner, he took the opportunity to take the framework of the novel into less than an hour. Here, the Doctor (David Tennant) fell in love with Madame de Pompadour (Sophia Myles), only to be thwarted by the messiness of time travel. It was during the new show’s third season in 2007 that Moffat planted the seeds for his seasons-long riff on The Time Traveler’s Wife with the introduction of River Song (Alex Kingston) in “Silence in the Library”. The Doctor meets his wife for the first time, but she is meeting him for the last time as her story comes to an end. This sets off a seasons-long arc for Moffat to pursue when he took over as showrunner and Matt Smith took over as The Doctor and carried over to a conclusion in Peter Capaldi’s run as the next Doctor.
Instead of a librarian and an itinerant wanderer as the lovers, Doctor Who pits the story of The Time Traveler’s Wife with a pair of time-traveling adventurers as the lovers. River is a con artist, occasional assassin, and archeologist while The Doctor is an itinerant do-gooder. Moffat’s arc for their love story actually follows a similar trajectory from the book’s: their love story is nonlinear and somewhat backward. He’s experiencing their love story in reverse order, forced to discover her life literally from her infancy to her adulthood while she’s almost always two steps ahead of him because she has met his future selves ahead of him. It’s more gleefully pulpy than The Time Traveler’s Wife, but the nature of Doctor Who is to lift ideas and tropes from anywhere it feels like, classic literature, books popular movies, and other TV shows. Moffat makes the Doctor-River romance look like the long game he was playing all along across seasons, though you might suspect some of it was probably improvised due to scheduling, budget and production shifts to just pull it all off by the skin of his teeth. Moffat is a geeky romantic at heart and clearly enjoyed playing that arc as a screwball comedy with snappy one-liners and repartee with the Doctor as the bewildered foil to River’s flirtatious helper and occasional hindrance. Moffat used Niffenegger’s book as a template to go hog-wild with his favorite romantic tropes.
And now we have Moffat going to the source of his romantic time travel inspiration, the book itself. It should be interesting to see how he does a straight adaptation of the book he lifted from so overtly. Would it cancel him out or will he find new and clever ways to tell the story? This being Moffat, who is restless when it comes to finding new wrinkles, we’re probably in for the latter. It’ll be interesting to see how far he takes it while staying faithful to the book.
The Time Traveler’s Wife premiere date will be announced sometime in the future. Meanwhile, Americans can stream the Doctor and River Song story on HBO Max.