Doctor Who Week: A major, all-new interview with new showrunner, Steven Moffat in conversation with Nick Setchfield
SFX : You must be excited to finally get your hands on the show…
Steven Moffat: “It’s incredibly exciting. And I suppose it’s exciting now because it’s public. It’s been like making a show in secret – or what we laughably call secret. I think the point about Doctor Who , and why it’s brilliant, is that it’s not like one of those boring shows that occasionally changes a star or a producer – it changes with every ruddy story, and that’s why it’s good. It’s a very, very simple format that hasn’t really changed very much since the mid ’60s, quite honestly. What you do with Doctor Who is change it every time the TARDIS lands somewhere new. You step out of the doors and it’s a different genre, it’s a different style. And we sit there and have meetings about how we’re going to do it this week – are we comedy? Is it a romance? I think that every time you start a new episode you ask, ‘What show is it this time?’ That’s why it’s been around so long and still feels new, even though it’s ancient.”
SFX : What was the first thing you wanted to change?
“I didn’t come in thinking that. It’s about making it terrific – it’s not about rushing in and trying to alter things. It’s not so much, ‘What do I want to change?’ That sounds like you want to get rid of something. You don’t ever think that. You think, ‘What else can we do this time? What’s a new thing to do?’ And that’s story by story, which is why it’s exciting. And the spine of Doctor Who hasn’t changed that much. The Doctor, his friend or friends, go to different places and have fantastical adventures. That hasn’t altered. It wouldn’t take much tweaking to take ‘Tomb Of The Cybermen’ and make it for the current cast. That fundamental part of the show doesn’t change much. So I didn’t come in thinking, ‘I’m going to change all the curtains.’ Ultimately, we changed absolutely everything! Everything’s different about it. But that wasn’t because we were fixing it. I suppose the one thing I wanted to do – and it’s pure indulgence, but I’m allowed one, surely? – was to make the police box look like the one in the Peter Cushing movies! For no other reason than that I thought it was prettier. And it had a St John’s Ambulance sticker on the front. And I wanted that! So there you go.”
SFX : What was it that always appealed to you about the show – the drama, the humour, the mystery? Do you remember what attracted you?
“I think a very, very big part of Doctor Who – which feels a wicked thing to do, in a way – is that it would scare you. Properly scare you. There are very, very, very few horror movies aimed specifically at children! There’s this and Harry Potter and they’re both quite big. And children love ghost stories and love scary things. Although it became regarded by fools a long time ago as this sort of camp thing, left over from a bygone era, at the time, when you were a kid watching Doctor Who , Doctor Who was anything but that. It wasn’t silly. It was the show that frightened you. It was the bad boy of children’s television. Blue Peter would make you make things out of plastic but Doctor Who would give you nightmares and make you wet your bed, and that made it feel properly, scarily different. You’d talk about Doctor Who with your school friends and say, ‘I lasted the whole episode… and I was in front of the sofa the whole time!’”
SFX : You’re noted as the horror writer – will your series play up the scares?
“I’m noted as that, and like most things that people notice it’s not particularly true. I didn’t write ‘Midnight’ or ‘The Satan Pit’. I did write ‘The Girl In The Fireplace’, which isn’t scary at all. Is this series scarier? Sometimes, when it’s appropriate to be scary. If it was scary every episode that in itself would be boring. In a way it’s like humour; one of the tricks of humour is that if you’re funny all the time then you stop being funny at all. You have to surprise people with scares. Scares are surprises. Frights are surprises. So it’s not always scary, but when it’s scary it’s properly scary. The thing about Doctor Who is that it goes full-bloodedly after whatever it’s doing that week. If it’s a romance it’s the most romantic romance, if it’s a comedy, like ‘The Unicorn and The Wasp’, then it’s proper full-on funny. It’s entertaining by any means possible. Other shows limit themselves to one place and one genre. We do them all.”
SFX : Is it quite difficult to achieve that balance between child and adult audiences?
“I think it’s hardwired into my head. I don’t really know that I’ve got much of a choice but to think this way. No, I don’t think that’s hard, because I think the most popular form of entertainment, of fiction, is the children’s story. Star Wars is for children, but everybody loves it. Toy Story is for children, but everybody loves it. Doctor Who , fundamentally, at its heart, is for children, but everybody loves it. There are far more adults who watch it than children, because there are far more adults than children. I think oddly enough if Doctor Who got too grown up – and it is a grown-up show – if it became about Doctor Who going to cocktail parties and exchanging witty banter the adults would be the first ones to wander away bored. You watch Doctor Who with your inner eight-year old. Or possibly your outer eight-year old. If you’re watching Doctor Who with a child then you get it, in a way, sometimes, that you don’t get it on your own. I think it’s a big, fabulous fable – it’s a fairytale. Fairytale sounds weak and insipid but fairytales are actually scary, dark and terrifying, and everybody loves those.”
SFX : We’re told this series has a dark fairytale vibe and the words Tim Burton have been thrown about…
“Well, I said dark fairytale because I had my arm jammed halfway up my back in a radio interview to say something. And I think Doctor Who has always been that. But yes, I suppose we have really pushed the fairytale side of it. I think when Doctor Who first came back in 2005 – and I was there, I was part of it, so I’m not saying this as an outsider – you can look at that series now and it seemed so vibrant at the time but now it seems quite earnest… ‘Honest, Doctor Who ’s a proper, sensible drama series! Look, he’s got a sensible haircut AND a leather jacket!’ One year later he’s got a stupid coat and ridiculous hair, and it’s back to being Doctor Who !
“One of the big differences between doing Doctor Who now and Doctor Who in 2005 is that in 2005 there was no fantasy television, or it didn’t seem as though there was any in this country – it was all about people having arguments about the government in the rain, and it was boring. And then Doctor Who came along, and in order to fit in to that landscape, you can see that first series saying, ‘Oh look, it’s a bit Hollyoaks , it’s a bit tough detective, it’s all that.’ But as fantasy becomes part of the mainstream again Doctor Who has to be more fantastical. It has changed the landscape into which it once tried to fit. It now has to be the most fantastical of the fantasy shows. So yeah, we are pushing that fairytale feeling. It’s not like Star Trek – which I love – or Battlestar Galactica , proper heavy sci-fi things. Doctor Who can be that, but it is always the story of a fantastical man in his amazing space-time machine. And all this has to be more bonkers than everything else, without ever losing the mainstream audience, because that’s the critical thing about Doctor Who – it’s one of the very few shows of that genre that people who don’t like that sort of thing like.”
SFX : So does that filter down through every department – the sets, the lighting, the costumes?
“Oh yeah, absolutely. We sit in rooms and discuss endlessly.”
SFX : So that’s a brand new tone that you’ve established?
“I think it’s a modulation but yes, I suppose so. It’s not like one day you go in and say that and everyone says right, tear up that one and put ‘dark fairytale’ there! But yes, I think you’ll see it and feel it in every episode.”
Part two of this interview tomorrow, when we'll be talking Daleks, among other things
Read our interview with Matt Smith, Piers Wenger and costume designer Ray Holman on creating the 11th Doctor’s image