Warning: contains spoilers for Doctor Who series 8.
When an opportunity arose to hear Steven Moffat dissect Doctor Who’s recently concluded series 8 over the course of a ninety-minute Q&A, we straightened our imaginary bow-tie and went along. Not only did the RTS Anatomy Of A Hit: Doctor Who event include the showrunner, but also producers Nikki Wilson and Brian Minchin, director Ben Wheatley and Millennium FX artist Rob Mayor.
Chaired by Heat Magazine’s Boyd Hilton, conversation ranged from Missy, to Daleks, lying and the absolute joy that is Peter Capaldi as the Doctor. We learned that Michelle Gomez turned down the first series 8 role she was offered before accepting the part of Missy, that Peter Capaldi used clips of Billy Connolly’s “ranting old man” phase as an early reference point for his Doctor, that Samuel Anderson was the best of 12 potential Danny Pinks, and that the list of writers for series 9 is all sorted, not that they’re telling us who’s on it.
A highlight was seeing the series 8 scenes each panel member chose as their favourite, with two from "Deep Breath" (selected by Ben Wheatley and Nikki Wilson – the Doctor emerging from the dino-saliva-covered TARDIS and he and Clara meeting for lunch in the restaurant respectively), one from "Listen" (the blanket on the bed moment, chosen by Hilton), and one from "Dark Water" (Clara and the Doctor in the TARDIS immediately after the volcano scene, chosen by Brian Minchin and unbeknownst to him before that evening, also by Steven Moffat).
As the venue wouldn’t hold all of you (Time Lord tech being notoriously tricky to get hold of), we’ve pulled out Moffat’s salient chunks for you to chew over below…
On the promise of “longer scenes” in series 8:
I think I’m going to come clean on the longer scenes thing. I just fed that into the discussion at the beginning and said ‘oh, there’s going to be longer scenes.’ There aren’t. Have you watched Day Of The Doctor? John Hurt and Billie Piper are in that barn for what seems like a year! We’ve always done long scenes in Doctor Who because frankly the budget runs out and people have to get involved in some urgent standing.
On how writers and directors get involved in making Doctor Who:
We approach people and a surprising number of people turn us down - I say surprising, I mean shocking and scandalous! [laughter]. We look at people whose work we like. Sometimes people approach us but most of the people at the level we are looking at, because it’s not a job for a beginner, are very, very established.
On who comes up with the ideas for episodes, him or the writers:
It’s both. Peter Harness pitched the moon is an egg a couple of years ago, so that came from him and I liked it, the Orient Express came from me because I liked it. Most of the time we’re pitching ideas to writers and getting them to do them, because you have to have a variety across all the episodes. But absolutely people come in and pitch. It’s the same way as Russell [T. Davies] did, I think two of the stories I did for Russell were his ideas and two of them were mine, that’s roughly how it works.
On how his showrunner role has changed since he started the job:
The terrifying thing about Doctor Who is that you discover at the start of every new show that you have learned absolutely nothing at all, that it’s brand new. It always makes you feel completely like ‘oh, I thought I’d got the hang of this but I have no idea what to do”. There isn’t a paradigm episode that you keep remaking, they’re all very different, the scripts, the effects, the sets, the design, the casting, everything is different every time, that’s what makes it a great show. I feel genuinely as inadequate and amateurish today as I felt on my first day.
On the “Clara Oswald never existed” red herring in Death In Heaven:
You’re always trying to think, how do you grab people in the first few minutes, who are just leaving - because they’re fools and they’re leaving to go and meet someone in a pub and fall in love or something happy - you want them back in the room. She’s not the Doctor, she’s kidding on, but I thought we could just lie in the title sequence, swap their names around and put her face in the effects. Either you think, ‘my god, they really have done it?’, or you think, ‘oh that’s cheeky’.
On the scene between the Doctor and Clara immediately after the volcano in Dark Water:
I loved the scene. The acting is extraordinary and that is what I think has powered this series. I’m also proud of a line – I’m very rarely proud of anything I write – but I’m proud of the line ‘Do you think I care for you so little that betraying me would make a difference?’ because I got obsessed when I started to write this that Cybermen have no emotion, so it starts with Clara unable to find a way to say I love you and ends with Danny unable to find a way to say I love you, there are two phone calls that book-end it, and in the middle, the cracked old Caledonian gets it exactly right, he says I love you perfectly. [...]
He’s surprised he has to say it. That’s the truth about him, he says lots of horrible things all the time, that’s because he assumes all the other stuff is taken for granted and it’s only in that moment Clara realises just how much he’s assuming is taken for granted, absolute monomaniacal devotion to her. He absolutely loves her.
On the necessity of lying about the return of the Master in Doctor Who:
If you tell the truth all the time, there’s no variety, there’s no creativity, so we just make stuff up. I know that sounds terrible that I lied so completely and utterly, I didn’t hint a lie, I just said, no, we’re definitely not [bringing back the Master]. Look, if I were organising a surprise party for you, I would deny it. If you said ‘Are you organising a party?’ I’d say ‘No!’ because it would spoil the surprise party.
[…]It is impossible to keep a secret because so many people know, it’s everywhere. So you have to rely on people playing the game and the press this year and the websites and so on were just brilliant, they absolutely played along every week with what we asked them not to mention.
On deliberately trying to mislead the public to keep Doctor Who’s secrets:
Whenever I arrange skulduggery, no bugger ever notices. I had [Michelle Gomez] say she was a Random Access Neural Interface - which spells Rani - and we thought ‘everyone’s bound to overhear that!’ deaf bunch of… In The Day Of The Doctor, we went to the trouble of having John Hurt’s character referred to as Omega throughout – is nobody stealing scripts these days?
When she did the actual line [revealing her to be the Master], she whispered, and what you hear was recorded later. Even the bit where Peter turns around and says “Easy if you’re a Time Lord,” that was all just mimed so it could be sorted out later.
On the leaked episodes:
To be honest, I don’t blame the guys who went and looked, cos I would’ve. I would’ve as a fan. It would have ruined it for me but a new Doctor? I’d have had to go and have a look. They have at least learned something, which is what episodes look like when we sign off on them, like "Into The Dalek," it just looks ridiculous! It’s some people running around some rooms that have an extraordinary fixation with green curtains. It’s nothing at all!
On regenerating the Master as a woman:
The idea came before the casting. I thought ‘And she’ll be a woman’ then having said that, I then got lost for several months going ‘and what does that mean? So what?’ That’s exactly the kind of gimmick I’m always saying you shouldn’t do, so what does it mean? I’ve always said in the past we cast the person, you cast an individual, you don’t cast a gender, that’s bananas – as she would say.
Fortunately, I was grumping around the office one day and I found a list for another part and Michelle Gomez was on the list and I thought ‘oh my God that would be brilliant, Michelle is the perfect person, I can write it now. I know what she’s going to be like’, only to discover they’d already offered her the other part. Fortunately she turned it down because she was busy - you assume when someone turns a part down because they’re busy that they’re lying and just don’t want to work with you, because I know her and that would be a reasonable reaction - but then she sent me an email about a week later that said ‘I’m so horrified I had to turn it down, I really really want to be in Doctor Who. If you ever have a part for a razor-cheekboned villainess…’ and I thought right, that’s so happening. I wouldn’t even discuss anybody else. It had to be Michelle, and I think, going by the response, that was right.
That made sense of it, what really mattered is that we got an arch-enemy performance that I think matches the amazing Roger Delgado and John Simm, those are stellar performances and that’s another one that’s every bit as good. She’s alarming and she’s scary, she’s extremely funny, and you still vaguely side with her when she kills harmless, likeable, defenceless people.
On why fan avatar Osgood had to die in Death In Heaven:
I was aware that the Master as a character gets cuddly very fast, even the Roger Delgado version is one of the chums quite quickly. I thought if we’re going to bring that character back, she’s got to kill somebody you really like in the most merciless, horrific way and be really horrible about it. You’ve got to really lay it on the line that she’s a truly awful, evil person, otherwise she just becomes a sort of comedy alternative Doctor who’s a little bit naughty. You could say River Song was that in a way, but you’ve got to say no, this person is a really evil person. I don’t know who the fan base are identifying with so I don’t sit around thinking ‘I’ll lure them into… and then kill that character!’ That would be rude, and I wouldn’t do it. It’s someone who really wanted to travel in the TARDIS and then never got the chance because she got offed by the ex. It’s not a sinister plan.
On whether Missy being wheeled around on a trolley was a Hannibal Lecter nod:
I was just thinking of the Doctor in "The End Of Time," because I only have Doctor Who as a cultural reference!
On series 8’s use of the horror genre:
We’ve always aimed for Doctor Who to be quite scary. That’s not a new impulse. My memory of Doctor Who as a child is that I was absolutely terrified of it, a huge part of its mission statement is just to scare children senseless. Ben isn’t just a frightening director, and man, he’s also a Doctor Who fan so he knows how far you push that and how far you don’t.
On Deep Breath’s use of the clockwork androids from The Girl In The Fireplace:
The idea there was just that the Doctor gets to encounter an android that’s rebuilt itself so completely, it no longer remembers what it originally was, so he gets haunted by that. I also quite liked the idea that we would reference an old episode of Doctor Who for the people who would remember it - which turned out to be quite a few - and then have the Doctor unable to remember it himself. It sort of reminds you that he’s lived a very long and complicated life and not every detail we might remember is in his head. Also, there’s something about giving Capaldi the idea that he doesn’t remember the slushy episode when he fell in love with the girl, that’s gone. That was really all I was aiming for. We’re not going back to the clockwork droids… unless we are!
On the current ratings for Doctor Who:
The figures are the same - they're just the same. If by 'ratings', you mean the number of people who watch the show... they are the same. The headline - boring though it is - is that they've barely changed since Doctor Who came back. Since Matt Smith took over Doctor Who - the time I've been doing it - the number of people that watch the show on iPlayer has trebled. The way people watch it has changed. People watch it on catch-up to a much greater degree, but there is no drop-off in the ratings. For the record, if our overnights were our final rating, that would still count as a hit. I would be working hard, even as a Scot to be disappointed by that!
On whether future Companions will all be young women:
As to changing it up with the companion, we actually have changed it up quite a lot, look how different those girls have been. Wait and see.
What we have is probably the most enduring form of the show and I think will always tend back to it for whatever reason, but there’s no reason you couldn’t tend away from it and there’s no diktat or special rule book left by Verity Lambert or something. We absolutely could vary it. The times they’ve varied it, it makes them work hard - you can see them struggling with Leela. She was a great character but they had to civilise her fast because it was getting hard to fit her into stories - but it’s not a hard and fast rule at all.
On whether the future companion could be a shape-shifting penguin:
I’m going to go on record and say I didn’t like the shape-shifting penguin. I didn’t like it.
On whether he feels obliged to use the Daleks every series:
You certainly don’t wheel the Daleks out because you’ve got a contractual obligation to provide Daleks.
On whether the Doctor will ever run out of regenerations:
To be honest with you, so long as Doctor Who is a success - which it’s going to be forever - the Doctor will successfully regenerate. It is never, ever going to get in the way.
Read more about the Royal Television Society, who hosted the event, here.