Steven Moffat reveals the superhero secrets behind the Doctor Who Christmas special

This year's Doctor Who Christmas special is looking, well, super as the Time Lord travels to New York where a hero called the Ghost rules the skies. In an exclusive interview in the brand new issue of SFX magazine, Doctor Who writer and showrunner Steven Moffat spills the heroic secrets behind the Doctor's foray into the world of comic books with 'The Return of Doctor Mysterio.'

So why superheroes?

We’d been trying to solve the problems of another script, during the run. I’d pitched the idea of the Doctor meeting a superhero. It didn’t fly at all and was happily forgotten. And then Brian [Minchin, producer] said, 'That idea you had – if we made that the Christmas special, kids would love it. I like superheroes – I’m not a huge aficionado, I don’t know my comic books that well, but I like them.

What appeals to you about the superhero myth?

The secret identity thing! I’ve always loved the idea of the guy who’s apparently a wimp who’s secretly a god, in love with a girl. He cannot admit that he’s the man the woman he loves loves, because he loves her too much. I’ve always adored that. The tone of this special, I suppose, comes from that original Christopher Reeve Superman movie, which is unashamed. Sometimes your modern superhero movies feel as though they’re made by people who don’t really like superheroes. They’re dark and gritty and oh, isn’t it a sombre and difficult thing to be a superhero… of course it arsing isn’t! It’s great! You’ve got superpowers, and a Bat Cave, so shut up!

Were the Christopher Reeve Superman movies a touchstone for you?

I went back and I watched the first two. They’re so happy and unashamed. With modern Superman they’ve toned down his costume and Lois Lane knows who he is, and you think well, that’s all so wrong! You can’t do Superman as if you’re ashamed of it. Superman is inherently absurd. You’ve got to wear that damn costume and stand there and look impressive.

Superheroes and Doctor Who always felt like two worlds that could never collide. How do you make them fit?

The joy of it is that they don’t fit. There are comic books in the Doctor Who universe – he’s heard of Batman and Superman, he knows about them. He just thinks of them as fictional characters. We do address all that – it’s not like we suddenly announce that this is a physical reality of his world. Of course, because of the particular nature of Doctor Who as a show, we’re probably more interested in the Clark Kent half of things than the superhero half of things. But then I always think that’s where those films really triumph. It’s not the second unit material, where someone in a tight costume flies around, it’s actually in the guy who’s having to manage a life where he’s a part- time god. That’s always been the fun part of it, and when they lose track of that it’s not as much fun.

The flying sequences are always crucial in superhero movies. Was that the biggest FX challenge, given you don’t have a Marvel-style budget but you still have to deliver Christmas Day blockbuster spectacle?

You don’t have to do a superhero movie to be stuck in this predicament with Doctor Who. It’s automatically and unironically compared to the big budget movies. The moment we have a spaceship or a monster we’re in that situation. We cannot do it on the scale that a major movie can – but that does mean that our action scenes aren’t hideously bloated to the point where you’re nodding off during them. Our limitations are how much effects work we have, not how good they will be, because they will be good. I say that with the confidence of someone who hasn’t seen a frame of it yet… but it will be good. And now there’s the technology to do these things pretty damn well without costing the earth. If you look at the original Christopher Reeve Superman it was amazing at the time but it comes down to 'You will believe a man’s costume will turn green when he flies…' Brilliant at the time, but nowhere near what they can routinely do now. In fact Peter Bennett, our producer, worked on the flying sequences on the original Superman movie! He said it was very boring, actually. You don’t know you’re making cinematic history at the time – you’re just hanging a handsome unknown actor from a rig!

For more sci-fi and fantasy news, previews and features, pick up the brand new issue of SFX magazine out now. Alternatively, subscribe to future issues here

Images: BBC

Nick Setchfield
Editor-at-Large, SFX Magazine

Nick Setchfield is the Editor-at-Large for SFX Magazine, writing features, reviews, interviews, and more for the monthly issues. However, he is also a freelance journalist and author with Titan Books. His original novels are called The War in the Dark, and The Spider Dance. He's also written a book on James Bond called Mission Statements.