Steven Moffat is a name not every household in America will recognize, but he’s a man on top of his game right now, in charge of some of the best television around. With his name attached as an executive producer, show runner, writer, and all around brain child for programs like Doctor Who, Sherlock, and many other BBC namesakes, Moffat is a force to be reckoned with. The recent recipient of a coveted Peabody award, Moffat is gearing up for the second half of this year’s Doctor Who season which kicks off in a day, on March 30th. We joined in for a tele-conference with Mr. Moffat to talk about companions, the big Doctor Who 50th Anniversary, popular creatures, and all things TARDIS.
Hi Steven and congratulations on the Peabody.
S: Thank you, thank you that’s very exciting.
I wanted to talk a little bit about Jenna [Louise Coleman] and what she brings to the series; to the relationship with the Doctor and with Matt [Smith].
S: Well Doctor Who is almost more in a way about the story of the companion. It’s her take on the Doctor, it’s her adventure. While the show revolves around the Doctor, it’s the companion, the other characters who change more than the Doctor ever does. So what Jenna in particular brings; she has a tremendous speed and wit and a sort of unimpressed quality that makes the Doctor dance a bit harder I suppose, he works a bit harder with Clara.
Clara is always just a little bit out of reach. She’s secretly devoted to him, but a little bit harder to impress. She’s tough, she’s fast and she’s hard to impress, exactly the way the Doctor generally speaking doesn’t like them, but of course he’s absolutely devoted to Clara. That’s very much driven by Jenna’s particular style, which is a very, very fast, snappy style. A very, very beautiful girl; but there’s a real sense of toughness in the face of someone that can be a real adversary if she wants to be.
Is this Clara different than the other two Clara’s we have already met?
S: Well, we’ll have to wait and see that play out, but you will notice on Saturday’s episode
significant resemblances yes. Just as there were significant resemblances between Clara and Oswin there are significant resemblances again that are consistencies. This time they might be pointed out in a slightly more obvious way.
With The Bells of Saint John are you trying to tell us that we’re too tied to technology with the Spoonhead?
S: No I’m trying to make up a really, really good adventure about the Doctor really. What Doctor Who often does is grab hold of whatever is omnipresent in your life and turn it into a monster. There’s no grand plan what you tie to technology I love it all.
What can you tell us about these new advisories, the Spoonheads?
S: Well I’m not going to tell very much because you’ll learn all about them on
Saturday, but suffice to say, Wi-Fi covers every civilized country now. So if
something got into the Wi-Fi that would be a problem for us all; a new way to
invade us, beyond that the Spoonheads are for Saturday.
Do you have a favorite episode or Scene in this upcoming season?
S: Well, you know, I would say that my favorite episode is next Saturday’s
episode and that’s probably always true. It’s probably always true that the next
one on is the one I’m most focused on and I’m most excited about.
I think they’re a number of highlights. I think The Bells of Saint John is a
great episode, I think Cold War is a terrific traditional episode, The Ice
Warriors, and I think we’ve got a great finale. We’ve got some new Cybermen,
but you know I change my mind all the time about which my favorite is and
it’s almost invariably the next one.
Americans now have finally embraced Doctor Who the way that the British always have, what do you think it is that makes the story so universal now that everybody can get in to it?
S: Accessibility in a way. You can start watching Doctor Who
at any point in its history. You don’t have to catch up with the rest of it. It’s a
very simple myth. It’s a man that can travel anywhere in time and space inside
a box, bigger on the inside. That’s as much format as we have. You can join it anytime, absolutely get a hold of it and, dare I say, I just think it’s one of the great pieces of
television entertainment that’s ever been.
That’s why we latch onto it; it’s terrific, it’s simple to understand what it’s
About, and it’s hugely entertaining and every so often it completely reinvents
itself to feel at home in its new era, which is really the key ingredient.
It always feels at home in the present day because it always adapts itself. We
are after all at our eleventh leading man.
The show always starts out with some great action and guest stars. I see this year you have Dame Diana Rigg on the show, how did you manage that?
S: It wasn’t me, it was really Mark Gatiss who wrote that episode and who works
on Sherlock with me. He was appearing in a play with Diana Rigg’s daughter
Rachael Stirling. He was writing a Doctor Who episode at the time and he said to Rachael,
“Look, I think you and your mom should play the mother and daughter parts in
this Doctor Who I’m writing,” and they were up for it. So it was all done through Mark. Mark and his little black book; he knows absolutely everybody.
What is it about Jenna, that when you watch her work you think, “Damn I really made the right decision in hiring her?”
S: Well she’s terrific. The most obvious answer to that is she’s a terribly, terribly good actress. I know that sounds like a terrible dull thing to say but it’s the truth. You can be as beautiful and charming as you like, if you’re not terrific at acting it will mean nothing on the screen, but she’s a terrific actress.
In addition, she looks great, and she has great comic timing. She looks like she
belongs next to Matt Smith. When the two stand together, it looks like an instant team. They have enough in common and yet, have enough sharp contrast that it’s an instant poster when you stand them together.
You grew up loving Doctor Who like many of us did. What’s it like to go from behind the sofa to behind the curtain as it were? It’s got to be a lot of fun.
S: It sort of happened so long ago. I’ve been involved in this for quite a long
time, nearly ten years, so I’m starting to forget. It’s very exciting and it’s massively demanding. I don’t have any doubt that Doctor Who had always been and will always be
that. That fan feeling remains intact, you stay excited by Doctor Who and the idea of Doctor Who always remains thrilling.
I think you couldn’t function on the show unless that was true. It’s a terrible thing to say in a way but I’ve been on the other side of the curtain for quite a while now and I’m starting to forget that this used to be a show that I wasn’t involved in. One day when I’m not involved in it again, it will all come rushing back but, right now it feels as though I have always worked on it. You know, it retains its excitement, it retains its shine, that’s the main thing to say about that, I think.
We all loved Amy and we’re all very excited about Clara, but I wanted to know in more general terms, why do you think it is that the companion is such an important element of storytelling in Doctor Who?
S: It’s the person to whom the story happens. A hero is somebody who
saves the day and is extraordinary and you stand back and admire, and that’s
the Doctor. Though, in storytelling, the emotional connection has to happen to somebody.
The Doctor himself has to “happen” to somebody. So you very often in
Doctor Who the companion is sort of the main character, not the hero, not the
one with all the cool lines, not the one with all the cool moments, but is the hero.
The person whose story it is, and how this experience changed them. We never see how the Doctor began his journey, we will probably never see how he ends it, we’ll probably never know why he embarked on it but we know all those companions. We know who they were before they met the Doctor. We know why they ran away with him and we know roughly where they
end up. Those stories are complete, the Doctor is the enigma that enters their
lives and changes them. The story is always about the person who changes the most rather than
necessarily about the person who does the most; who effects those changes.
With the Weeping Angels, the Silence, the Vashta Nerada, and now the Spoonheads, you’ve created some of the most recognized iconic monsters on Doctor Who, but in all the episodes you’ve written, which monsters were the most fun to write and why?
S: tempted to say Weeping Angels because I’m standing looking at one, because it’s in my back garden. The one I got the most kick out of might have been the Silence. I loved the gimmick of the Silence, how you couldn’t remember them. I just thought finding ways to employ that and finding ways to make that frightening. I very much enjoyed writing the Silence.
The Weeping Angels are of course by far the most popular adversary I’ve invented and I’m sure will always be the most popular of the ones I’ve invented. However, they are a bugger to write because they don’t move and it’s always really hard to work out how you’re going to do a chase scene each time.
How do the Spoonheads really compare in terms of scare factor against villains like the Silence and the Weeping Angels?
S: Well that’s not really for me to say, I don’t know. I never really know which ones are going to be the big scares and so on, but I would say that I suppose The Bells of Saint John is an action roller coaster, where the Weeping Angel stories and the Silence story were more consciously designed to be sort of scary adventures. So I think it isn’t really up to me, it’s up to the kids to say which one gives them nightmares; so won’t prejudge it. I think they’re quite creepy, and I think it’s a cracker of an episode, but let’s wait and see what the audience thinks.
I’m looking forward to the return of the Ice Warriors in the upcoming episodes and I just wanted to find out what was your impetus for wanting to bring that particular villain back and what were perhaps some of the challenges in reimagining that old foe?
S: The impetus really was Mark Gatiss. I wasn’t that keen initially on bringing the Ice Warriors back. They’ve never been any special favorite of mine in the old series. I thought they were good but I never quite got into them, but Mark Gatiss kept nagging me about bringing them back and then he came up with an idea. I’m going to leave that as a surprise for the episode, Cold War, which really made them come to life for me. So at that point I really got into it, but that was thanks to Mark’s creativity rather than mine. There were a number of challenges I can’t talk about, but one I will talk about is; they are far, far less familiar to the general audience than say the Dalek, or the Cybermen, or any of those things. We had to bring in changes a bit with the look of those adversaries because, they’re very familiar. With the ice warrior we wanted to create a really good super duper version of the one that’s already there. So it’s a design classic buffed up a bit for HD, rather than a change or revise I would say, and that was the challenge to make.
So as you look at these upcoming eight episodes, as a writer and a producer what would you say were your biggest challenges and surprises?
S: Well every episode is a challenge, and I suppose one of the most challenging in one of the episodes is the monster. You’re always a heartbeat away from the monster looking ridiculous.
So they’re always hard. Surprises, I’m not sure? I mean Doctor Who is the most exhaustingly planned show on earth. We have so little time to make one. We make them in a couple of weeks really, two weeks. So everything is planned to the last detail and it’s relatively rare for something to surprise you because you’ve tried to factor in every single thing that could go wrong.
I was very pleasantly surprised with how effectively and realistically and compellingly I think we were able to create a submarine for the episode Cold War. I think they did a stunning job on that and just really, really convincing you that you’re on board a sub. At every level I just thought that was a bit of a design triumph. It’s one of those things that you always wonder, will it just look like some corridors, but no, the art department really sold that. Michael Pickwood had a field day with that and it was brilliant.
A big conflict of your era is that the Doctor needing to not be alone. People keep telling him that he shouldn’t be alone because he’s not himself when he’s not with a companion. Why does he seem to resist that idea at times?
S: Well, if you were told the way to heal yourself, to make yourself a better person, to function better was to permanently endanger another human being; you might be hesitant too.
He is aware that he causes damage to those people, or can cause damage to those people he travels with, and he puts them in terrible danger. He’s also aware that a relationship or a friendship for him, like it or not, is a postponed bereavement, and it’s not even postponed that long. He knows he’ll outlive them. They will die and he will be roughly the same age. So I think those two factors make him very, very hesitant about taking someone on board.
Also, the fact is, he’s a Doctor. Can you imagine trying to tell the Doctor something, trying to put him right, trying to explain something to him and have him believe you? Generally speaking, he may not know something better than you, but he always thinks he does.
You’ve talked about the companions in general, and you talked a little bit about, what Jenna brings to the game, but I was just curious specifically with the character of Clara how you decided that this was the companion that you wanted to use and what the dynamic was that drew you to her character specifically?
S: I think when you start with a character who is going to be the companion; you can’t think of the word companion, you can’t think that they know that they’re a supporting character in a TV show.
You have to think this is somebody A, who would fly away in that TARDIS and B, the Doctor would want to fly away in the TARDIS with. The Doctor is quite picky. he doesn’t like everybody. He’s a difficult man to deal with, so it’s not anybody that he actually formed a proper friendship with.
I don’t know what sort of person would run through those blue doors. A lot of people would run the other direction probably, including me to be honest; when I discovered how dangerous it was.
So you have to imagine somebody who’s ready to say yes to running away with a clearly insane man, and ride in a time machine, that is your starting point with that character. What point in their life are they, what decisions have they made, what worked out and what hasn’t worked out for them that leads them to respond positively to a travel request from a lunatic in a bow tie.
The new episodes have a prologue on the internet that had the Doctor encounter Clara as a small child. That encounter made me think back to the Doctor’s first encounter with Amy; the precocious child who talked to the Doctor and he treats them as equals. Was that a parallel that you purposely wanted to draw for long time fans of the series?
S: I liked the idea because he had such an odd introduction to Clara, having met her twice and lost her twice in such exotic surroundings; once as a Dalek and then the governess who was also a barmaid. I sort of thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we just did something quite sweet and ordinary, something that specifically goes back to Amy,” which I’ve done twice now. It sort of keeps up the fact that that relationship, whether he likes it or not, is coming back.
There are resemblances I suppose. I’m only a bit interested, maybe too interested I’m sure some people would say, in the fact that the Doctor’s lifespan and time traveling ways means, when he knows somebody, he probably knows them over a huge amount of their life span, yet in a tiny span of his. I’m always quite interested in exploring that. He can know them as a child, he could know them as an adult, and he could know them as an old person. I’m absolutely fascinated by that, possibly, too fascinated I’m sure. I should stop repeating myself but I think that’s probably why.
Can you talk a little bit about how Neil Cross came to be a part of this season and what he’s brought to the show?
S: Neil Cross is a writer I knew of, but I’ve never met. He’d done Luther, and some books, and is a terrific, terrific writer. I’ve actually read a script he’d written a few years ago, we’d never quite got it together. When Caroline Skinner came on to the show she said she’s an old friend with Neil Cross She’s said, “I’m going to chase him and see if we can’t work out the scheduling.”
He’s a huge Doctor Who fan, and even though in both occasions this year, he did not have the time to write an episode, he leapt at the chance to shove everything out of the way, to help us. That’s sort of what I’m looking for all the time. This sounds terribly snobbish and awful but I’m looking for show runner level writers who’d give their right arm to write a Doctor Who story that’s what I’d like. It’s surprising how often we get that, how often many of our writing staff, if I can call them that, are show runners themselves. So it was a gift to us, and Neil took to it like a duck to water so it was brilliant.
I think it’s so cool that the Doctor has this long-term arc of the companion as his big mystery this season, or is part of it. Did this season’s arc factor into what you have planned for the Doctor’s 50th upcoming anniversary?
S: Not seriously. I mean you always want to make it special, and huge, and big. One of the things that I’m concerned about this year, and I think you’ll see that I’m concerned about it is that the show must be seen to be going forward it’s all about the next 50 years, not about the last 50 years. If you start putting a full stop on it, if you start thinking it’s all about nostalgia, then you’re finished; it’s about moving forward.
The Doctor is moving forward, as he always does, and he wants to solve the mystery of Clara. He’s not thinking about all his previous incarnations and his previous adventures, he’s thinking about the future. That for me is important. The show must never feel old it must always feel brand new and a 50th anniversary can play against that.
Obviously though, any anniversary is going to make one look back at the beginnings of whatever it is you’re celebrating, and one of the big components early on in Doctor Who were the purely historical adventures where there was no extraterrestrial monster or villain. The bad guy was someone that actually used to exist. Do you think a purely historical adventure would be possible in the new series?
S: I don’t think it’s impossible, but I’m going to put my cards on the table and say, I didn’t think those historical adventures were very good, I never liked them; I thought they were dull. So far, as I remember them as a kid, I couldn’t wait for them to be over so we could get back to proper Sci-Fi. Just to be honest, they weren’t my favorites. That doesn’t mean that we won’t come up with a story that is historical but, I think they were discarded for a reason, and even before they were discarded, they were always reduced to only four-part stories.
They were regarded as the lesser element of the show. I think if you’ve got this glittering man and his extraordinary space time machine, just having him visit the past isn’t enough; I don’t think it is.
There has to be something as extraordinary as he is, otherwise it’s like Sherlock Holmes investigating crimes, it’s just not enough for our hero.