Doctor Who: The Moff

EXCLUSIVE Special series six preview: all-new Steven Moffat interview

“ Doctor Who is half Hammer Horror, half The Generation Game .”

Warning: Some spoilery images below, but all official BBC PR releases

So your second year as showrunner is upon us. What did you learn from your first?

“The trouble with Doctor Who is that it’s so story-specific. There isn’t a set way of making Doctor Who . With a lot of shows, like Press Gang or Coupling , you think, ‘Well, that’s how we make it, that’s what it looks like and generally speaking there’ll be a scene like this…’ That sounds very reductionist and awful, but my favourite series of all time, The West Wing , falls into that category. Most of them are pretty much the same. You could, pretty much, take various different episodes of The West Wing and stitch them together in a different order, graft the sub-plot of one onto the main plot of another. It’s a genius work of art, but you do realise at a certain point you know how to make it. Doctor Who isn’t like that. You’re doing pirates one week, and then you’re doing a spaceship – possibly in the same episode!”

And you never get a sense of confidence making it?

“I think we’re much, much more confident now than we were in the beginning, just because at the very start you’re simply flailing. It’s like being strapped to the front of a train and trying to shout instructions to the driver. You have no idea how fast it’s going to go, the speed it’s going to go…”

You cast the Doctor spectacularly well. What strengths did you see in Matt’s performance last year that you wanted to capitalise on this year?

“That was a very, very gradual process. It was obvious from the get-go, from the very first scenes he did where they’re on the beach in the Angels episodes and he’s perfect as the Doctor. He’s not as good as he is now, but he’s perfect. He came through the door tonally perfect. He absolutely got what sort of show it would be. Quite purposefully, and sensibly, I said that if this new Doctor is a bit David Tennanty at the beginning then that makes perfect dramatic sense. I was still probably writing him a bit David Tennanty. David had made such a huge impression in the role that it made sense. But also, a few minutes before he meets little Amelia Pond, he was David Tennant, so why would he immediately not be like that? So Matt stretched into the part and took it over and made it his own, and sort of obscured his predecessor. It’s instinctive but he becomes much dafter, much sillier, and curiously more the old boffin than David ever was, in a way, even though he’s the younger one. Just more sort of basically mental!”

Did you spot stuff like Matt being really good with kids, and think, “That’s something that I can use”?

“Well, that was purely by accident. I’d already written the scene where he meets Amelia. But he’s fantastic with children. When I started writing it I was vaguely writing the Doctor as I roughly wrote it for Chris and for David. At a certain point you realise that you are writing stuff that you would never have written for Chris and David – the daffiness, the fact he forgets things, the fact he’s hopeless with women and flirtation and all that stuff, which David’s Doctor and Chris’s Doctor were very, very good at. All that gangliness… you get influenced by his weird body language, and the fact that he does seem like a completely different creature from a young, good-looking 28 year-old, which is, in fact, what he is. He’s resurrected the idea of the Doctor being mad. Not just eccentric but properly mad. I think Gareth Roberts’ episode ‘The Lodger’, which was the last one we did in the first series, was the fullest Matt performance. All that stuff where he’s doing the air-kissing because he thinks, “Is that how we talk?” – you sort of buy it. And he drinks wine and just goes bleurghh and spits it out. And even though that’s in direct contradiction of things that we know about the Doctor being a sophisticate, it completely sits with him, and those are moments that you would never have bought with Chris or David.”

“The Beast Below” had a particularly jolting moment where he suddenly lashed out in anger. But that wasn’t something that you seemed to revisit.

“We do revisit it. You will see scary Doctor again, without doubt. That wasn’t a particular decision. I quite like writing a grumpy Doctor. It just didn’t really come up in the stories. It wasn’t moving away from that at all. And we do have proper grumpy Doctor returning. And moments of scary Doctor, as well. Because he’s very, very good at them. It’s quite alarming – I’m used to the Doctor’s anger, and indeed his sadness being, in a very good way, quite theatrical, whereas Matt’s not that sort of actor, so when he does anger or tragedy or any of those big emotional things it’s quite visceral; it’s quite serious and heartfelt. It’s horrible to think that you’ve brutally disappointed this sweet man. And he is. Let’s not pretend otherwise about the Doctor, he is fundamentally incredibly sweet and incredibly kind, and all the things that he has to be to be the Doctor. But there are moments when he loses that, or he can’t sustain it.”

Is it quite a collaboration between you and Matt in shaping the Doctor?

“I don’t think we’ve ever – or certainly not for a very long time – had a proper sit down conversation about it. It’s more a collaboration in the sense that I’m writing stuff, seeing what he’s doing, instinctively following him, and then he’s following the script. Oddly enough, like David before him, he’s absolutely punctilious about dialogue. He never paraphrases. If he wants to change a line he’s on the phone. He’s very, very precise, very exacting, never ‘make it up’. But I do think the show is the Doctor, so you have to leave a blank space in a way and let the new Doctor, the current Doctor, occupy it.”

Can you talk about the decision to split the series in two? What drove that creatively?

“I think there was a very, very odd shape to last year, because we had nothing but event episodes for a while. David’s last year was occasional specials, and every one of them, of course, was promoted as an event. And then you had the huge event of David’s last two episodes, and then you had the huge event of Matt arriving. And then you think ‘And now it’s just on television…’ That’s good, but it starts to feel routine. And I kept saying, ‘We need a mid-season finale.’ It’s a long time to expect people to follow a big old arc plot, 13 weeks. You need something in the middle that makes it big. But of course the term mid-season finale literally means nothing. You can say that as many times as you like. It’s not a finale. It’s bollocks. It’s on next week. In fairness the idea has been floated several times for Doctor Who , and this time I thought let’s have that, let’s just do it twice. Because there’s a moment in the middle of a series where everyone just thinks ‘Well, it’s been back on for a few weeks, you can rely on it, it’s always there…’ So they think if they miss an episode it doesn’t matter so much, it can’t be a very important one this week. I know people think that way, because I think that way about some other television series, that I really, really like, but I don’t completely love. And the interesting thing about Doctor Who , and the challenge of it always is, if we do a special episode with all this publicity and all guns blazing, we can get 11, 12 million viewers. That’s a fact. But the core audience, the audience that we don’t ever drop below is probably around 6.5 million. And I would like to know how we can more often access those other six million, and try and keep them onboard. And say to them ‘Don’t just leave because Christmas is over. Maybe you want to see the next one too? And maybe the one after that?’ Just lure more of them in.”

So how does that impact on your storytelling? Is it as simple as chopping the season in two?

“Well, no, because it forces you to say ‘Well, there’s going to have to be a finale.’ You can’t just pretend that episode seven is going to be just another episode, and it will suddenly stop. No, there has to be a big va-voom, and then there has to be another va-voom that reintroduces the series.”

How did you want to kick off the series?

“My big thing was starting with a two-parter, and starting with quite a dark, quite an actiony, quite scary one, as opposed to our traditional approach of starting with a romp.”

And you filmed in America for that one.

“It does make more difference than you feel morally that it should. You suddenly see them standing in the desert, and you can see miles to the horizon. It feels properly American that two-parter. I think it’s a very, very convincing America that we pull off.”

Can you talk about the diversity of stories that you’re giving us this year?

“Curiously enough, I never really believe that you approach a television series by balancing it all. Would you want it to be properly balanced or have all of them just be really good? In other words, if you had two historicals in a row and they were both fantastic, who’s going to write in and complain? How many people are going to do that? How many people noticed in the second series of Doctor Who that ‘Tooth And Claw’ was only two weeks away from ‘Girl In The Fireplace’, and they were both celebrity historicals? Who cared? Did anybody care? So you don’t worry about that. So, yes, there’s diversity because it’s Doctor Who , but frequently the diversity is about the genres you move into. Matt Graham gives us quite a dark one, a dark, clever, very funny a two-parter. And I’d say Matt Graham’s Doctor Who is slightly different, it’s more like a police procedural somehow, in a way! You’ll throw those words back at me when you see it, but he takes a different angle on it.”

Most Doctor Who writers have just absorbed the style of the show in childhood, haven’t they?

“I think they have. I mean, you can try and define it – are you entertaining eight year-olds, are you exciting 14 year olds, are you making 40 year-olds laugh their heads off? You could answer all those questions yes and still not get it right. You have to be engaging every age group by all possible means. I’m no longer in touch with online fandom but I remember when I was – when I was just writing for the show, not running it – I did think at times, on some of those forums, that these are the people in the whole world who understand Doctor Who the least. They’ve stared at it so long, and invested so much in it that they no longer understand what it is. They can’t see it for what it is. Everyone else in the whole world gets it better than they do. That in itself is unfair, because loads of them aren’t like that at all, but you know what I mean? You just think ‘No, it’s not that kind of show, it’s not like that…’”

How much joy do you take in keeping secrets from various members of your cast? Matt tells us he’s frustrated that Alex Kingston knows more than he does, Arthur doesn’t know what’s going on at all…

“It was fun. It was just a laugh. It wasn’t anything serious. We wanted Alex to come back to be River again, so I thought I’d phone her up as I didn’t know how she was feeling about it. She’s a very successful, very glamorous actress and we make her film at night in the mud. At some point you think ‘Hm, maybe she won’t want to…’ I phoned her up and said ‘Look, I’ll talk you through what’s going to happen with River next year…’ And I realised quite quickly into that conversation that she was just going ‘Ooh, hooray!’ and had no idea why I was telling her, because she was perfectly happy to come back. Now I do have a general belief that if you want to have a secret, keep it. Don’t ever tell anybody who doesn’t need to know, because you’re not only trusting them, you’re trusting everybody that they trust, and everybody that those people trust. So I just didn’t tell the others. And then it became funny. I’d turn up on set and Alex would come over to me and cover her radio mike and have a whispered conversation with me, while I could see out of the corner of my eye Matt standing there going ‘But… I’m the star of the show!’ So that was just a laugh. At the same time, he should learn when the Doctor learns, which was when he read the script.”

I did wonder if it was you trying to feed the performances…

“You wouldn’t need to. Matt’s good enough that he could have done it anyway. But if they don’t need to know, why tell them? Poor old Arthur! This became a running joke. I’d be talking to Karen and Matt about Doctor Who , and he’d always be walking in just as I’d be finishing a very, very long spiel. And it happened the other day, at a readthrough; I was filling in all the principals on what was going to happen in episode 13, how it was going to end, how we were going to get out of the problem that we’d set ourselves. And I realised as I ended that the door had banged and in walked Arthur. And we all just fell around laughing, saying ‘Oh, I’m sorry, you’ve missed it… again!’”

When you got the Doctor Who gig did you have the long game fully formed? Or is it something that changes year by year?

“It changes year by year. The danger of a long game or a big old plot arc is that you can start sacrificing the current episode because you think ‘Ooh, this’ll pay off later.’ And that’s no use in a show like Doctor Who . You can’t say ‘Well, it’s rubbish now, but wait til you see how it pays off.’ You can’t be driven too much by your big story idea. In truth, the big stories we tell tend to be very, very lightly sketched in. It’s more great, grand allusions rather than a great big masterplan. You have a sort of idea but I would throw it all out tomorrow if I suddenly thought of a great new story idea. If it contradicted it I’d just get rid of it. It’s about satisfaction every Saturday.”

How is Doctor Who seen by the BBC these days?

“I think all of us as fans probably don’t appreciate just how utterly loved Doctor Who is at the BBC, because no show performs like Doctor Who . Alright, there are shows that do slightly better, but not after this number of years, and not shows that sell all over the world. Think how many people have now seen ‘Rose’, that first Christopher Eccleston episode. Never mind who saw it in the first week, or even the first year. People are still watching that for the first time. Just imagine if we were able to add up everybody who eventually, over a period of years, watches an individual episode of Doctor Who , which unlike The X-Factor , unlike EastEnders , unlike any of those shows, continues to exist on your shelf. We’d be the biggest show in the country. One of the biggest shows in the world. If they measured book sales this way we’d be saying, ‘Well, it only counts if it sells on the day!’ Doctor Who carries on gaining new viewers. I’d love to know what percentage of Britain has now seen Christopher Eccleston’s first episode, say, or David Tennant’s first episode. I’m sure it’s way, way over half. That’s what we don’t quite appreciate, especially as television is going to change and we’ll be more like publishers than broadcasters, because the time of transmission is now just the date of publication, isn’t it? You know you can catch it on iPlayer, on iTunes, you know you can see it later… There’s no impetus, or not the same impetus, to see it at the time. And that’s the world in which Doctor Who will triumph. Which is why I got so ratty at the time they were saying our ratings were down when they weren’t. I remember yelling at some journalist, which I shouldn’t have done, saying do you even know that iPlayer isn’t counted in the ratings? You know there’s a whole 2 – 2 ½ million we’re not even allowed to mention, in typical BBC style. The only absolutely verified members of the audience, the only ones who are definitely there, aren’t counted in the ratings! We just use the big guess. But anyway, that’s me ranting on…”

Do you think Doctor Who embodies the best of the BBC? Is it a flagship for values that are under threat?

“Yes. I think it’s the most BBC show in the world. I can’t imagine anything more BBC than Doctor Who because I can’t imagine anyone else who would make it, and continue to make it, and continue to cherish it. It can look like madness to a tiny mind, as indeed the BBC can look like madness to a tiny mind, but that’s just what genius looks like if you’re an idiot. It’s not madness! It’s utter brilliance. This is one of the very few characters entirely created by television and for television and sustained by television, that is a legend alongside James Bond and Sherlock Holmes and Dracula. It is an extraordinary thing. I’m not even trying to be mean about American networks, but can you imagine them doing Doctor Who ? It’s half Hammer Horror, half Generation Game , a genuinely frightening horror series aimed at young children. It’s all those mad conflations of ideas. But at the same time while it is the most wondrous and magical and fairytale thing, it’s born out of a scheduling decision. It’s born out of them saying, and how clever they were, ‘We need to join the children’s audience here to the adult audience there, and let’s have a show that everybody watches’. A problem they solved so brilliantly in 1963 that it still works now! Who else and where else would it ever happen? It’s all of the BBC in one barking mad show.”

Nick Setchfield