Doctor Who: The Magician’s Apprentice Steven Moffat, Brian Minchin Q&A

After a fan screening of The Magician's Apprentice at this year's Edinburgh TV festival, Steven Moffat and Brian Minchin gave a Q&A...

It’s not long until Doctor Who takes its place again as a staple of Saturday night television. Peter Capaldi is back to helm the TARDIS into his second run with Jenna Coleman’s Clara by his side and in the two-part opener, Michelle Gomez makes her comeback as the Master’s female incarnation, Missy.

At this year’s Edinburgh television festival, an audience of fans were screened The Magician’s Apprentice, the premiere episode written by Steven Moffat and directed by Hettie Macdonald. Following that there was a Q&A session hosted by journalist Andrew Collins with Moffat himself and fellow executive producer Brian Minchin in attendance. We nipped along with our trusty recorder and scarlet-lined Crombie coat to see what went down.

As for the episode itself? Well, we can confirm that Peter Capaldi is in it. Perhaps the TARDIS too, but that would be telling. We’ll stop there before we give anything else away. The Q&A that followed the screening was terrific fun with a very funny Steven Moffat on top form and Brian Minchin offering some interesting titbits about the coming series. The conversation ranged from a few musings about The Magician’s Apprentice (excised to stay spoiler-free) to why we seriously need to protect the BBC, and more…

On The Magician’s Apprentice being shown to the press and fans, on the behind-the-scenes making of series 9:

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Andrew Collins: Seriously, how was it, watching the episode with everybody? It’s got to be nerve-wracking.

Steven Moffat: Uh, yeah, well it is. Yes, yes! I am of the opinion that everyone here wants to be brutally murdered by Michelle Gomez, which is a strange thing… but there you go.

AC: Have you seen it on a big screen before?

SM: Yeah, we saw it in the dub and I saw it with the listings and the magazines a few days ago but this has been the most exciting version because it’s the first time we’ve watched it with fans so that’s the cool one.

AC: I think you can probably guess the bits that you mustn’t talk about. And now you’ve seen it you can guess why everyone’s so uptight about it. The weird thing I think about whenever we do Doctor Who is that all we have to do is watch it, that’s all we have to do, and like it and criticize it but you have to actually make it. You have to continually make it and continually keep the standard up and find new ways of surprising everybody, find clever ways of bringing back things that have been in it before and especially with the first episode…

SM: The difficulty has not eluded us…

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AC: I mean, honestly, it’s an amazing thing. I think genuinely from the bottom of our hearts we thank you for putting yourselves through what must be an awful lot of agony to get that thing out there.

SM: Well, the funny thing for us is that we’re still thick in it. We’re still making episode 12, we’re about to make the Christmas special; we haven’t stopped. We had one notion to show episode 2 as well tonight but it’s not quite finished… [laughter] so it’s not about to stop.

AC: You were talking early on before we came up that there’s a point in the day when you need to look at it all the stuff that everybody’s been doing. You get sent stuff to look at.

Brian Minchin: Every day we get sent more Doctor Who.

SM: Today’s pictures were particularly good, I thought, but we’re not going to talk about them…

AC: But at the same time that allows you to get excited because it’s being done by people that you trust and lots of them and then you get to have a little look at it at the end of the day. So have you had a good day today?

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SM: Yeah, today’s been good. Has it?

BM: They’re filming in Fuertaventura today, which is why Peter Capaldi can’t be here tonight and he did want to be here but it’s been good.

AC: So where was the scene at the bottom of the steps? Where was that filmed?

BM: That was in Tenerife.

AC: So, a bit of a travel. You don’t get to go, it’s lucky for some…

BM: We’re here in Edinburgh, I don’t know what you’re saying. [laughter]

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AC: Slightly different weather system. So, the big thing really… [spoilers redacted]. That’s part one and the next episode’s part two of that story and that’s a different attack this time round. When did that come upon you?

SM: We did it once before with The Impossible Astronaut/Day of the Moon and it worked very well, I have to say but we didn’t do it again. I don’t quite know why we didn’t… we just sort of didn’t! And we wanted to do more two-parters this year and it does let you unfold a story in a slightly different way. There’s more detail and [lots more spoilers redacted]….

AC: Are they all two-parters in this run?

SM: We’re being a bit cryptic about that. I mean, there’s two-parters, there’s linked stories, there are ones that will surprise you in either direction…

AC: Dare we assume that there is an arc?

SM: There is an arc, yes.

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AC: Just checking, I’m not trying to trick you into saying something… [laughter] You’re too clever for that. So the relationship between Clara and the Doctor is presumably going to develop in this series?

SM: Well, it’s sort of lovely now. They’ve got to the point where they are… well, as a direct result of interaction with the Doctor, her boyfriend’s dead so they’ve got more free time to travel [laughter]. That’s the way life goes by the way, when you’re finished, that’s roughly what’s going to happen: ‘Well, that’s a little bit more time in the diary.’ [laughter] I’m very Scottish today. The friendship, which we sort of see happening in the last Christmas special, has become much… well, there was a sort of stand-off with Clara as a slight control freak whose best friend turns into somebody else entirely – you don’t have to be much of a control freak to think they’ve gone a bit off the range – and the Doctor trying to sort of pretend he’s an aloof alien whose not really interested in human beings and doing it very badly. They’re not bothering with that, they’re just the very, very best possible friends. And in a non-sexual, non-creepy way the Doctor has a tremendous crush on Clara, he just thinks that she’s the best thing ever so all of that is to the fore now. I suppose the way before he was sort of in denial about that. We got a lot of fun out of that for a whole series but we’re not doing that anymore.

On how to measure the success of the show:

AC: We were chatting earlier about how to actually measure the success of the show. I mean, obviously, you had very good ratings for the first episode of the last series when it premiered on the BBC but that’s something you can measure. It’s not so easy to measure it around the world and there are other ways people get hold of things nowadays and it’s quite hard to quantify, a lot of it is felt, isn’t it?

SM: What was your stat on the sales of t-shirts?

BM: 4 million t-shirts.

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SM: There’s evidence that people might occasionally – and I don’t know if you’ve heard of this kind of thing – be watching it by other means… [laughter] … There’s a thing called the Internet, it’s really going to catch on. I have no idea about that kind of thing but we don’t know how many people have seen the show. Nobody really knows those kinds of stats and they shouldn’t be doing it illegally and we hate them all. But it is an epically successful show. The thing is, I was thinking, sitting down here tonight, the fact that we’ve had the fiftieth anniversary quite recently obscures the fact that the new show is quite old. It’s ten years old and we put these tickets on sale and they sell out in no time at all. It’s still huge, every newspaper still writes about it. Shows don’t do that after ten years. I mean, they gently decline and Doctor Who has gently declined to gently decline… [laughter]. We carry on but it’s amazing, it’s an astonishing thing.

On protecting the BBC:

AC: I spent a couple of days at the TV festival over at the conference centre and there’s a kind of mood as I’m sure people have picked up on just by reading the newspaper of people being staunch about their defence of the BBC. I can’t think of a bigger advert for the BBC than Doctor Who. What more could the BBC do?

SM: And yet they do so much more! Come on, let’s be clear, there is only one broadcaster that would come up and transmit it as a good idea. Doctor Who: ‘what’s the spaceship going to look like?’ ‘You’re going to love this!’ [laughter] Pitch that at NBC! ‘Is he going to be a young dashing hero?’ ‘Sometimes!’ Yes, it is a wonderful example but as is Bake Off, as is everything David Attenborough has ever done, as all those things. There is no other broadcaster so madly varied and so genuinely mad. Can you imagine what the world would be like without all of that? Insane variety. What will be big next? Baking! And you can’t even taste the cakes.

Yeah, I think a very small number of people think the BBC is a bad idea and a huge number of people think the BBC is a wonderful idea but sadly the small number of people are all in government… [laughter and just one boo] That’s giving us a slightly unbalanced version of things but if you haven’t heard or read Armando Iannuci’s speech… I wouldn’t normally go around saying read the McTaggart because I like you but this McTaggart speech, which he gave at the beginning of the TV festival is epic. It’s incredibly funny and it is so on point and it’s so insightful, you’ll be both laughing and air-punching, which is what I like to do when reading a speech. So, I strongly recommend it [applause]

AC: I would like the government to see us all here today.

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SM: I bet they are watching. I bet they are! Damn government people. They’re not efficient but, hey…

AC: John Whittingdale is listening now.

At this point, the floor was opened up to audience questions. We’ve cut out one or two questions that explicitly refer to The Magician’s Apprentice and a couple more giggly, jokey queries.

Audience member 1: Do you find it harder making single episodes or episodes that are joined together?

BM: I think we become more ambitious when we do two joined together because we wouldn’t have gone abroad for just one episode [some scenes in The Magician’s Apprentice were filmed overseas] but then again it makes it harder because you’re only abroad for four days. I think we’ve done a lot of it [two-parters] this year because it’s been a new challenge for us, it’s given us a new excuse to do all this storytelling with big cliffhangers and it does let Michael Pickwoad, our designer do bigger sets…

SM: It allows us to make a movie but it also requires us to make a movie… [laughter] It gives and it takes.

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Audience member 2: Film the next episode in Perth. [laughter]

SM: And where do you live, young lady? [laughter]

Audience member 2: Perth.

SM: Now that’s an amazing coincidence. Not only do you live in Perth but you’d like to see a Doctor Who story set in Perth. Well, we hardly ever leave Cardiff but I shall circle Perth on the map.

AC: That wasn’t a question, that was an instruction, and it seems to have worked.

Audience member 3: Do you prefer writing episodes that are set in a historical period, in space or in the distant future?

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SM: Generally speaking, I can answer that. I quite like setting them in the present day, in the future or on another planet because you don’t have to do any research… [laughter] But nonetheless I do force myself to do it because I’m always right on science. Science is totally my thing. We never get that wrong. I remember, I had never done a lick of research in my entire life until I got the gig of writing Doctor Who and I got the story given to me by Russell T [Davies] saying, ‘Second World War’ and I thought, ‘I’m going to have to look stuff up! I don’t know this. Is there a film? Is there a Ladybird book?’ [laughter] Then I got Madame de bloody Pompadour. I actually slightly prefer the future ones but do you know, I think visually, when we put them in the present day, when we put them in the past… it tends to look better. Big, clanky monsters in Victorian times or Roman times or whatever: it looks kind of great. Also, we’ve got a very, very realistic Earth set, better than anything else we’ve got so we like to use it. It’s several million years in the making and we want to get the value out of it.

Audience member 4: After all the initial elation in casting Peter Capaldi, did you ever find yourself a bit daunted by having to work with somebody whose knowledge of the show and love for it possibly exceeds your own?

SM: His love, we can compete on that, but let it be understood that in a face-off, in a head-to-head, he is nowhere bloody close… [laughter] You know that conversation about Mondasian Cybermen? I keep shouting at him, I keep saying, ‘look, the ones with the metal faces were also from Mondas!’ So, you now know what an artistic conversation between the showrunner and the actor is like. But no, I’m ahead with knowledge. He, at a certain point, because he thought it would be great to go and some kind of a life, used to dash around Glasgow being handsome and dating women and I thought, ‘pfft… to hell with that! I’m going to collect Doctor Who trading cards and not make eye contact with anybody.’ And I was right. [applause] Ah, the applause of the lonely. I am one of you.

Audience member 5: I was just wondering, with people talking about Netflix and Amazon Prime where the episodes get dumped in one, would you ever consider that with Doctor Who because it strikes me as something that people just want to watch the next part of but there’s also the excitement of waiting.

BM: You’d have to wait longer to get them, I suppose. We don’t actually finish the series until two weeks before it goes out so you’d have to wait an extra nine weeks.

SM: You mean, make it specifically for binge-watching?

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Audience member 5: If TV is going the way we think it might go, the way to engage audiences now is to make something and then just drop it in one. Would you want to do that with Doctor Who?

SM: These things happen and you go with them but I can tell you, I can make one accurate prediction about the way television will go, it will not go the way people think it will go. I’ve been coming to the Edinburgh TV festival for many years and first of all, it’s always the end of television. I remember the first time I came to Edinburgh was in ’89, and I’d just got into television, saying, ‘well, it’s all just wrapped up’ and I slowly realised that they say that every year. And we get all these young people involved in the Edinburgh TV festival, the new bright talents and we tell them, ‘this industry’s fucked, you might as well leave’ but it’s not, it’s not. Heaven knows how it will change but as Armando says in his speech, ‘the manifest of Netflix is to deliver exactly the kind of thing we already have but by very slightly different means’. So, as revolutions go, it’s not absolutely gobsmacking. Who knows how we’ll end up? I kind of think Doctor Who probably belongs once a week. It’s big and it’s loud and it’s mad… [applause]

AC: I agree, I think that if The Great British Bake Off was available all in one go, you could sit and watch it all but then it would be all over. It’s on once a week, Gogglebox is on once a week, Doctor Who is on once a week.

Audience member 6: Looking back on your tenure on the show, on your own episodes, apart from The Eleventh Hour, are there any in particular that you’re most proud of?

SM: Do you means the ones I exec, the ones I wrote?

Audience member 6: The ones since you took over as showrunner.

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SM: Well, that’s a good question to ask me in ten years cause I’m still in the job. There is a moment in the making of every single Doctor Who episode where I think, ‘this is going to be the best thing ever made’ and another moment not distant from it where I think, ‘this is going to be an unutterable disaster, I’m going to have to fake my own death’ [laughter] Obviously, I was hugely proud of Vincent And The Doctor, I thought that was an amazing episode and a huge and difficult subject beautifully handled by Richard Curtis in an early evening slot. I was very proud of The Eleventh Hour because that was seen as a difficult task. I have to say that it was the single most miserable professional engagement I’ve ever had but The Day Of The Doctor… well, that sort of worked, people did like that, that was good. It was hell to do but I’m proud of that. Just generally, the thing you’re proud of on Doctor Who is that you keep getting the shows out. I think there’s a sense in which – we’re always talking about this – people take what we do a little bit for granted, that we just make those all the time. Look at the number of different locations, sets, effects, characters you get… even if you hated Doctor Who, a legitimate thing to say would be ‘how the hell do they do all that in that amount of time?’ So, I think the main thing I’ll be proud of ten years in the future when I’m just in a jar would be that we kept making them, we make a new one every two weeks. It’s really hard. That’s a really vague answer but maybe The Day Of The Doctor because it was really, stupidly difficult. And it’s over, I suppose [laughter]

Audience member 7: In your experience, when an author turns a script in, how often does the name that they’ve turned it in with, make it to the screen?

BM: Well, this year it’s been different.

SM: Well, it’ll emerge that we’ve messed around with the titles a bit this year but, um, maybe just under a half?

Audience member 7: And is the final decision with you?

SM: Uh, yeah [laughter]. That’s not a big revelation, you know, it would be slightly odd if it wasn’t. But I would listen if someone was really keen on their title. Frequently the title on the front of what I hand in doesn’t make it either because sometimes it’s a long time later in the edit when you start to realise what the show’s really about and what it should be called. So, titles are slightly more important than you think and they set a tone and create an expectation. I don’t think you should ever finalize what that title is until you’ve seen it, you’ve heard it and you’ve felt it.

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BM: Most of them just arrive with an ‘X’.

SM: Yes, an ‘X’. Our script editors take my titles off. I hand in what I think is a lovely title and it arrives with ‘X’ on the front and I think, ‘was it just marked wrong?’ I live in hope of a tick.

AC: It’s weird how nothing is uninteresting, there’s no question that isn’t interesting. Even something about titles is incredibly fascinating.

Audience member 8: Earlier you mentioned that it’s going to be ten years since ‘new’ Who, are there any special plans in November that you can share with us?

SM: Um, no [laughter] Look, in all honesty, we can’t, even on Doctor Who, irritate the entire viewing public with the fact the show is 50 years old (so long as you don’t count the 16 years it wasn’t actually on) and have a fiftieth anniversary and then a couple of years later say, ‘and now it’s the tenth!’ People would wander off in confusion. I suppose I can say this now that it’s over and was a big success: I found the fiftieth from many different points of view alarming, it was very difficult to do but I also keep saying, ‘is it really right that you’re making a television show, an actual television show about how great you are?’ That’s wrong, you shouldn’t really be doing that. I thought that if I was watching an episode of Breaking Bad and it said, ‘this week’s episode is going to be all about the fact it’s the one hundredth episode’, I would think, ‘I don’t really want to watch that, I just want to see him make meth and [spoilers for Doctor Who redacted, not Breaking Bad]’. No, we’re not going to keep hitting the anniversaries and the truth is, we had a party with loads of Doctors together and all that, they all appeared and saved Gallifrey and now that goes back in the box. That’s something that you have to keep special and very rare otherwise it’s just phoning David [Tennant] up and saying, ‘bring the suit with you’ [laughter] Once you realise that’s all we’re doing, the magic goes away so we can’t. It’s about powering forward, it’s about making sure we get to the hundredth and I have already informed the BBC that I won’t be writing it.

AC: And that episode will be called ‘X’.

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Audience member 9: So, are you grooming somebody else to take over from you in the future?

SM: Am I grooming people?! [laughter] I didn’t expect it to go so dark.

Audience member 9: Are you just making sure everyone else is a little bit shit so you look good?

SM: That went from grooming people to deliberately sabotaging them. I can confirm that I’m doing neither of those. When the time comes, it will all be taken care of, it’ll all be marvellous but no, part of my job is not about grooming people [laughter] … or deliberately sabotaging them. ‘Right, I’m going to change all the spelling in this script, they’ll never give him a job now!’ I do that sometimes.

Doctor Who returns to BBC One on Saturday the 19th of September with The Magician’s Apprentice.

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