Steven Moffat, Executive Producer of Doctor Who

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Alex Kingston, Arthur Darvill, Matt Smith and Karen Gillan on the new Doctor Who.

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Steven Moffat
Steven Moffat has had a very busy year. Not only did the prolific television writer take over as Executive Producer for the long-running British series Doctor Who, he also helped guide a highly successful modern retelling of the Sherlock Holmes stories (Sherlock) to the small screen. The sixth season of the restarted Doctor Who returns to the air this weekend on BBC America—for the first time episodes will air in the UK and US the same day—and we sat down with Moffatt before the very well attended premiere to talk about similarities between the Doctor and the Holmes, why the show is so popular with kids in the Britain, his insanely busy schedule, and just how much of the Doctor's story he knows.

Not sure what all the fuss is with this Doctor Who? The show, about an ageless Time Lord who travels through space and time with a companion or two in a blue box called a TARDIS ("it's bigger on the inside"), has been entertaining audiences on-and-off since 1963. Since it was restarted in 2005 it only gotten bigger—and in many ways better. In fact, since Moffat, whose written many of the best modern Who episodes and is best known to American audiences for the show Coupling (which was like a British Friends, but funnier), took over the show has been on a creative roll with a new Doctor (Matt Smith), new villains and an even deeper (and arguably darker) mythology. But don't take our word for it. The first four seasons of the new Who are all on Netflix Instant and BBC America is running the fifth season pretty steadily in the run-up to Saturday night's premiere. But let's get to Moffat, shall we?

So, you've got two seasons under your belt. I haven't! We're still making it.

Ok, sorry, you're about to shoot the last episode. Yeah, we are.

How is running a show like Doctor Who different from writing an episode or two each season? Well, it's an extra job. And also I write six episodes a year and a Sherlock. I go across every script and, but it is nice not competing with the other writers anymore. Back in the day, I absolutely was. I'd think 'What's he doing, I'm going to do better!' Now you have to love them all equally as your children, as it were. Which was an effort at the beginning...'What the fuck is he, no no no, this is my episode, too.' It is insane. My schedule is a just a nightmare—a nightmare. There isn't any good word for it. People ask, 'How do you cope?' I don't!

But are you having fun at least? Who wouldn't have fun doing this? It's two dream projects, the two big dramas in British television at the moment. But it's also brilliant. I'm not sure anyone that I know of, as a writer, has had the year I've just had, so I'm not really complaining. The only thing is, it's relentless. It's the fact that you work every single day. You take Christmas Day off.

Well, you do, but the show doesn't. [Ed. the modern Who has made a habit of a Christmas day special.] Right. Then you're worried about that, thinking what the rating's going to be, what it's up against. But no, this sounds like I'm complaining. I love both the shows so much and I hope that shows.

What is with you and children and/or creatures with the childlike voices? It seems like your major episodes have pretty consistently had them as a theme. It's just that I'm a parent. Also I think there's a very, very important connection between Doctor Who and children, I know it's not so much here—which I think is a mistake—but Doctor Who is very much...it's bigger than a children's program, but you know, it's...the connection between the Doctor and children is huge. If you ask on the playgrounds of Britain, 'what is your favorite show?', I'm not sure there's a second place, it's Doctor Who. They are completely in love with it, completely besotted with it. I just like getting the child's perspective. Also, there is something very charming about the Doctor with the child. He's the most basic Doctor when he's with them, he connects with them so well.

And, there is something [in the current incarnation] I think is quite obvious in the way that Matt and Karen play it—the doctor has never really thought of Amy Pond as anything other than seven, which is why he's all the more freaked on when she comes on to him.

At the same time as you have that going on, you have this interesting relationship with River Song. You don't see many younger men with older women on TV these days.
Older man with a younger woman, technically. He's old enough to be her ancestor.

When you are writing the seasons and episodes, how much do you plot in advance? Oh, quite a lot.

You'd have to, I guess. The Silence were mentioned in the last season, did you know the arc for this season last year? I had a whole bunch of things I wanted to do, and I was thinking, as I neared the finale, we're not going to do that very well, we haven't enough space for it. And I knew something was going to fall out into the next series. I thought it would be something else, actually. It's much more fun to not reveal the Silence at the end and just leave that. Because, it was quite neat, I thought, that fifth series—you think it's all resolved but then you remember who did it. The whole mystery is the same...all the consequences of the explosion are tidied away. I'm not going to stop doing that. I always say, every episode should start like a movie so you don't have to have any prior knowledge, and end like a serial. Start like a movie, end like a serial. You always want to be saying, come back next week, you haven't had the whole story yet, the good episode is about to start.

You do a good job with that! When you're crafting an episode, do you map them all out or does it just flow? I'm very strict, I only write a script in order. I will never even let a line of dialogue or plot idea go until I get to it in the script. I worry that if I do, I won't have the strength to discard it. You always have to be alive with the script, you always have to be saying, I could change the whole thing right now. If I look carefully at the structure and realize, 'Actually, this strand is better,' I'm going to do that instead—I've done that so many times, and hopefully it looks like it's intricately worked out.

It really does look like it's intricate. It sounds intricate— but I'm making it up. I think it always has to be like that. It's like with River, who began in "Silence of the Library" as a gimmick just for me to get past the fact of, 'Why didn't the archaeologist break into the library and arrest the doctor?' The psychic paper isn't going to cover it because he's in a deserted library. So one of the archaeologist's knows him, so that's a bit lame, but it wouldn't be lame if he hadn't met her yet? And suddenly that plot completely overwhelmed the rest of the episode.

How much of the other genre, time-travel, fiction have you read? The Time Traveler's Wife seems to be... Oh, I quite purposefully used it. Actually, particularly in "Girl in the Fireplace".

Really? You know she [Audrey Niffenegger] referenced Doctor Who in her second book [Her Fearful Symmetry]? I know...I think "Girl in the Fireplace" is the one where I'm really doing Time Traveler's Wife because it's about longing and loss and all of that. I said to Russell Townshend, 'we should do a Doctor Who version of that, because that's a perfect fit for us.' Structurally it ended up being different though.

As you said, the Doctor is very popular with kids in Britain. How do you get kids in America to watch this show? That's a very good question. Don't get me wrong. You probably know the review: it's the children's program that adults adore. That's what I think it is. He's a children's hero.

I always worry that it's pretty scary for kids. The Silence [a villain in the new season] was freaky. It's very scary for kids. And sometimes they don't understand it and have to talk to their parents. But that's good! That's quite good if you've got a whole interacting family, mom and dad explaining the plot, sometimes the kids explain the plot to mom and dad. The kids hiding behind the parents. It's not a children's program in the sense that most children's programs are children's programs, not at all.

It's not Hannah Montana. No, it's not, it doesn't feel like that, but it has an incredibly special connection to children, the way Stars Wars does. It's closer to...this is a bad comparison, but you know The Incredibles? That is as good as a portrayal of a mid-life crisis as you're ever going to see and yet it's a children's cartoon.

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Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and Martin Freeman as Watson on the BBC's Sherlock.

Are the similarities between the way you've written Sherlock and Doctor Who on purpose? It's not on purpose by me. It's the other way around. When Sydney Newman, who created Doctor Who, was looking at the early episodes, he said to Verity Lambert, 'You're getting the Doctor wrong, he's too nasty'—if you remember he was quite unpleasant—'the Doctor is Sherlock Holmes, that's who he is.' So there has been a parallel between the Doctor and Sherlock Holmes since the very beginning.

Hm. There was even one line in the first Sherlock, something about "What must it be like to see the world through your eyes" or something like that, that was echoed in one of your early Who scripts. There are genre similarities in Doctor Who and Sherlock Holmes, no question about it. The Doctor is Sherlock in space, and Sherlock Holmes is the Doctor on Baker Street. But, then you look at it a bit more closely, and Sherlock Holmes is cruel, lonely, loveless, and the Doctor is lovely and flopsy and embraces all the things that Sherlock runs away from.

Indeed, your Holmes is not a nice guy. Sherlock Holmes should never be a nice guy. And also we're doing a young Sherlock Holmes, in a way. This is before, twenty years before he becomes Basil Rathbone.

And there are more Sherlocks coming? Three more. We just started.

So Benedict Cumberbatch is done with his Frankenstein now? Yes he is, and Martin [Freeman]—we have an agreement that he'll be flown home to be Doctor Watson again from The Hobbit. Sherlock was so enormous we actually have that negotiating perk because it's been so big.

But you're not going to go back to do a Jekyll II or anything? Well, you see, I think Jekyll is a good show but it didn't cut through.

I thought the lack of special effects were excellent. I don't know, it's an interesting thing, I was talking about this...Sherlock, before even people had seen it, was a hit somehow. 9 million turned up to watch the first episode—they hadn't seen it yet, they didn't know it was going to be good. It was the right time for the idea. Nobody turned up for the first episode of Jekyll.

Well, I did. You did, and I think it was good, but people weren't desperate for a modern-day Dr. Jekyll. But somehow, they were desperate for a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, I don't know why.

Have you seen the [Guy Ritchie] movie? Yes I have, which I really, really enjoyed.

Very, very different take on the same topic. Yeah, but actually, isn't that powerful? They're actually a lot more respectful and mindful of the original stories than people assume. There's an interesting take on the English accent though.

Well, you guys have some interesting takes on the American accent. [laughs] We've done that, very badly, usually with genuine Americans.

You start this season off in America—was there a reason to pick Nixon beyond the space race? Nothing other than it was 1969. It's the last president you'd want, but I thought actually that's quite funny, and I looked at some footage of him and he's quite funny.

He's an interesting character. And he wasn't a completely terrible person. There was some good stuff, there was. What he did was utterly beyond appalling, Vietnam was just appalling. But it did overwhelm some stuff that he was obviously serious about, and a very, very clever man. And so clumsy!

You had an fun take, I'm excited to see how the rest of America sees it. As for the rest of the season, how much do you know where you want all these characters to be? A fair bit, a fair bit, yeah.

Is there a big board somewhere? No, there's no big board, it's just in here. [Points to his head]

State secret? My head is very sticky.

When you are creating a new character on a show like Who, do you come to the creative team with an idea for what things should look like? It varies radically. For instance, "The Clockwork Man" didn't end up looking at all like I thought it should. But The Silence is very much—it's the work of a genius, not me—But I did say, that painting [Edvard Munch's The Scream], that one. It should look like that, and a little bit like the Grays, it should be as if that idea is filtered through our consciousness for all these years.

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Matt Smith as the Doctor, with a flying shark, in the last Christmas special.
And with something like the flying sharks in the last Christmas episode, is that an image that someone suggests beforehand and then you shoehorn into an episode? No, no, that was just me.

You thought it would just be fun to have Santa's sleigh being led by a flying shark? I used to have nightmares that sharks would leave the sea and come after me. I mean I did, so I did put a shark through a bedroom window.

With historical places—you picked '69 because it has space, and with "The Girl in the Fireplace" I assume that you wanted to have clockwork. How do the eras the Doctor visits get picked? These days I pick them. Back in the day, [former show runner] Russell [Davies] would ask me. He'd say 'do World War II,' and sometimes I would suggest something—I want us to do library! It's still like that, it's a combination between me saying, 'Can we have this,' and things like [Richard] Curtis wanting us to do Van Gogh [in last season's "Vincent and the Doctor"].

So did Neil Gaiman [who has written an episode this season] say he wanted to do the Tardis-focused episode or somesuch? Whatever it is, yes, he wanted to do something. We do all that. It's probably, it's quite nice, I used to be a guest writer...It's nice to come to the room and someone hands you something and says, 'Make something out of that.' I quite like that. Most writers do.

Will any of the Russell T. Davies characters, like Jack Harkness [John Barrowman], come back? There's no rule against that. People talk as if somewhere there's been some schism.

Well, you seem to have drawn a line. There isn't an intentional line at all. I do think there's a danger, if you're always harkening back. Are you saying the show used to be better?

No, just some of those characters are ones people are attached to. I mean, Jack, who I wrote in the show, I'd love to have him back. I was thinking he should really be here recently but he's busy [making the next season of the Who spinoff Torchwood for Starz].

And I mean there are references to Davies' characters—we just had a reference to Rose, in fact. In my head there is a continuing story. There's no idea that we're abandoning anything. There is an element that the Doctor moves on from people in a rather scary but inevitable way. He won't be nearby forever.

So you don't tell the actors anything about their characters? On the form, no. But then I was in persuading Alex [Kingston] to come back and do more episodes this year than she'd done previously. She's a very in-demand actress. I was saying, 'This is what we're going to do.' I was saying, 'You're not just good to be...' Having said that, I think she was well up for it anyway...I don't feel like I needed to do the pitch.

Given that there were going to be details in the performance that could use the story, I told her. But I saw no reason to tell the others, partly just to wake them up. I like the fact that when I walked on set, Alex would come hurrying over and put her hand over her little radio mic and say 'Does this mean I'm...not telling.' and Matt would be standing there going, 'What? What?'

So when does the next batch of Sherlock come? Today was the first day of production. I haven't written mine yet. Steve's and Mark's are in. Been worked on, in very, very good shape, in very good spirits. But once that's done we're right back to this.

So you're already thinking about the Christmas special? God, yes.

No rest for the weary. That's the thing. That's the thing. You aren't used to that in your life. You work really hard and then you'll stop for a week...

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Comments [rss]

  • key

    wow, he's a real douche. so full of himself. and to think he's such a great writer, maybe he should not make so many interviews, kind of ruin the magic.
    although he created river song, one of the worst characters of tv. maybe he's a modern day jekyll, half good writer, half douche.

  • Not sure which interview you were reading, but it can't have been this one.

  • Given how much of a fringe thing, even among scifi geek circles, Doctor Who was through my childhood it's still weird as hell to go into town and see billboards and subway posters and such. I grew up watching the reruns on PBS. I hunted down imported tie-in novels back when the Web wasn't a thing that could help. Even six short years ago I still had to explain to visitors what the hell the deal was with that rack of videos in my house and the robot dog action figure on my computer desk. Now, Doctor Who is a thing that kids play in the schoolyard, and its cast and crew rate red-carpet treatments and interviews like this. It really feels like the geeks have won in a big way.

  • Michael Ellis Day

    Not only that, but they took over the comments section of Gothamist as well.

  • wronged

    Can't wait for Saturday! I'm so excited for Gaiman's episode, as well.

  • Michael Ellis Day

    Speaking as a Doctor Who geek since the days it aired in syndication on WOR back in the Seventies (and may I say, much love to the family of Elisabeth Sladen) and as a hardcore fan to this day...this interview had bits of information I'd never heard before. I'm really impressed; well done!

  • S.D.

    The new season (series?) will be great, can't wait for new 'Sherlock'...

  • Minabee

    SQUEEE!!! I am so excited for more Sherlocks!! The DVD of the first season is currently winging its way to me from amazon.
    As for Dr. Who, I suspect that once I start, I will be unable to do anything but watch as many episodes as possible. So I'm saving it for when I have a few days I can afford to be a sci fi hermit.

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