Steven Moffat interview: Doctor Who, television, directors and more

Steven Moffat chats to us about Doctor Who, the changing face of television, and the internet culture around it...

Ahead of the release of Doctor Who series 10 on DVD and Blu-ray – it lands on Monday, and is available digitally now – outgoing showrunner Steven Moffat did a select few interviews to chat about the show. And he saved one for us.

It was refreshing that, having got lost myself on the way to the interview venue in the depths of London, Moffat himself managed to as well. Apologetic for arriving ten minutes late for our chat, he insisted on adding those minutes to the end of our time, and that’s not something that happens very often with interviews.

With that in mind, we settled down for a long chat about the show, the environment it exists in, and series 10 itself…

I was just watching the DVD extras before, and there’s a lovely bit where writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce is sat in the middle of a read through for his episode, Smile. He’s just got this big beaming grin, watching his Doctor Who story come alive. Does that happen a lot, and do you still get the same feeling?

Ad – content continues below

It can vary, it can vary [depending on] who’s doing it. Most people who are doing Doctor Who are doing it because they really love the show. And a lot of them being of a certain age will have grown up watching the show. So most of them are pretty excited to see the TARDIS, yeah! At a very minimal level, they’re seeing something they saw on the telly a lot. And they saw it when they were kids.

Director Rachel Talalay talks of when she makes Doctor Who, she doesn’t see them as television episodes. That she’ll go to America and make an episode of Riverdale, or The Flash, and the job is over in 30 days or so. She comes to Doctor Who, and the involvement spans months for just one episode. She calls her episodes ‘mini-movies’. 

Where does that come from? Is that the collaborative nature of Doctor Who? Is that the environment you wanted?

It’s slightly comes from the format from the show and if you are being ambitious with it, then you have to treat it that way. By which I mean that outside of the TARDIS set, and actually including the TARDIS set, everything is up for grabs. You have a new world to create, a new cast to choose, a new lighting plan to contemplate. You’ve got a whole new world to design the aesthetic for. Whether that world is contemporary Earth or a new place, we only have one standing set on Doctor Who, and the principal has always been you can light it how you like. You can do that. You can light it completely differently if you want to.

In that sense it is like a movie. If you do an episode of something brilliant, there’s nothing more brilliant than The West Wing, you are essentially shooting the same sets with the same lighting plan.

An ambitious director comes onto Doctor Who and I go ‘I don’t want to see anything on your showreel except this episode!’

Ad – content continues below

That’s what I say to directors coming into the show. Every trick you’ve ever done. The film you wanted to make when you were eight. Not the film you wanted to make when you were at film school. That’s Sherlock! A show-offy adolescent of a movie. With Doctor Who, there are never too many hero shots, never too many jumps or frights. Everything. It’s Spielberg in his heyday. It’s big, flashy, simple, fun, bold storytelling. And we are not a home to Mr Subtlety.

So you get a director like Lawrence Gough coming in for his first episode, The Pilot, and he runs a wire across the TARDIS set to do the extraordinary shot of Bill discovering it for the first time?

Yeah, yeah.

That’s presumably what you’re looking for? Someone to come and be a velociraptor at the fence, testing the boundaries, trying things?

Yes. What’s your new shot in the TARDIS going to be, given that it’s a circular set? What are you going to do with it this time? And how are you going to light it? All that.

Ad – content continues below

You talk about making the film you wanted to make as an eight year old. Presumably that extends to writers like yourself too on Doctor Who?

Of course. I know you get into tremendous trouble when you say it, but it’s a children’s show! Of course it is. Of course adults like children’s shows and films. Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Hobbit. The odd James Bond film, except where they get silly! These are big, colourful, boisterous children’s stories. That’s what’s great about them. That’s why you never grow out of them.

Children’s stories too that children aren’t having to sneak in underage to watch. In my kids’ classes, most of them have played the likes of Grand Theft Auto, for instance.

Yeah. But the joy in Grand Theft Auto is that they’re stealing something from the adult world. They should enjoy that. They’re rehearsing to be adults. They should be watching adult shows!

But Doctor Who is a show they think they own. That’s a different thing from the thrill of going and playing with the grown-up’s toys. Which is why we can be weak when it comes to the adolescent audience [with Doctor Who]. Adolescents sometimes ask that terrifying, hilarious question: is Doctor Who a bit silly? No it’s not a bit silly: it’s extremely silly.

But when you’re an adolescent you’re serious, and you want to be a grown-up and do grown-up things! I think it’s one of the thrills of Doctor Who, that it’s a bit silly. Underneath that it’s big, and emotional, and wise. But at a surface level, yeah, it’s bonkers. If you’re worried that the moon’s an egg, you’re really not getting it. The phone box is a time machine! That bloke’s got two hearts! Where do you want to start?!

Ad – content continues below

I always watch Doctor Who with my children, and it’s fascinating watching them watching it. I’ve touched on this with you once before, but I wonder if you can talk a little more about it. Because Doctor Who is reachable for them. You told me in the past that one of the things you look for when writing Doctor Who is what the playground game will be, even as you don’t shy away from sharp edges. How difficult, though, is making it reachable? What does that entail?

I think it’s having a very clear idea of who you’re addressing.

Doctor Who can address pretty much anything. It can address depression and suicide. But it has to be clear and relatable to a child. That doesn’t mean it has to be patronising. Some people think that. It doesn’t have to be simplistic at all: what makes you think that kids are dumber than you? They’ve got literally more neurons than you have. It has to be accessible to them. It has to permissible for them to watch.

Daily Mail readers, who are hardcore traditionalists and want to leave their kids in front of the television, must not think ‘I shouldn’t have done that’, or ‘they were using language that is inappropriate’ or ‘they were being too sexual’. I don’t want any conservative person saying that Doctor Who is not a safe programme to watch. It must be in their terms, clear.

The only thing you have to do to make everything clear to an eight year old is write better. That’s all. Just better. Not more simplistically. More clearly, and more heartfelt. You mustn’t ever try and make yourself seem clever. You must make them feel clever.

You should be demanding. You should be complicated. Kids are demanding and complicated. You must be aware that they don’t watch television out of the corner of their eye, chatting to somebody. They watch television with their eyes being sucked towards the screen. They devour it. They give it complete attention, even if they are playing Angry Birds at the same time. You have to make your television, your show, work in their terms.

Ad – content continues below

It’s like there is a thing that Jerry Seinfeld says about comedy. When he’s touring, and he’s got new material, he’ll use a lot of swear words to get the laughs. He knows that as he’s refining the joke, the swear words drop out. He’s not prudish. He just says that if you’re still having to say fuck, you haven’t appraised it right yet. It’s a cheap fix, what’s the sophisticated fix?

I think if you expand that idea in a bigger way – how do you frighten people without horrifying them? How do you harrow people but reassure them? – to make it work for a child audience, you just have to do your job better. Just as Jerry Seinfeld has to make his joke funnier without relying on the cheap fix, or the cheap thrill of a swear word. That’s what I mean by it: just do it better.

Every time I go to a Doctor Who Q&A, I’ve almost given up asking questions, because I just want to hear children ask them instead.

Yes!

Children ask the best ones. Journalists? Terrible. Children? Brilliant. I remember watching The End Of Time Part One, and a child put his hand up after the screen had filled with John Simm, and asked Russell T Davies if there were five billion Time Lords now, at a stage in the show of course when we were apparently down to two. And Russell’s face was of a man who never saw that coming! Do you have a favourite that’s been put to you?

[Laughs] They’re always just so tremendously engaged with the story. They ask great questions, and they also appreciate it if you can answer them back! Like, how could Rory in The Pandorica Opens jam a sword through a Cyberman? How could he be that strong?

Ad – content continues below

Is that a good question?

It’s a great question.

But! Rory wasn’t a human at the time! He was an Auton!

You’re proud of that one!

[Laughs] I remember it! I remember saying to him “Was Rory human at the time?” and he quickly realised and said “He was an Auton”. I went “That’s right!” It’s fun, it’s fun.

Is that the level of interrogation you put yourself through too?

Ad – content continues below

Oh yeah! I worry about stuff. I worry about stuff like a child! And sometimes the answer has to be ‘because it’s more fun’. But I can usually answer a question that I’m asked! Because of the compulsive way my mind works, I tend to have some kind of answer!

I remember watching The Eleventh Hour on the big screen when that was officially launched. And it struck me that during your tenure on the show, the format and demands of television have changed more in the last seven years than any seven year period in recent memory.

Absolutely. And it’s only getting started. Call that a ten year period and include the next three years, God knows what we’re looking at. I have no idea. It’s going to be so different. Which is why the question of the overnight ratings makes me want to scream!

I’m not asking that, don’t worry! But I want to talk about the physical format. Colm McCarthy goes from directing The Bells Of St John, for instance, to doing a full-on feature, The Girl With All The Gifts, which gives an idea of the level of people behind the camera. But how do you choose which trends in television to follow? And which do you say ‘we’re Doctor Who, we don’t follow that, we go over here’?

I don’t know, I don’t know. Because I am leaving and Chris [Chibnall] is coming in to tackle a new era of television that will be different again.

I suppose the one that I would eye at the moment is how serial television has become. Serials such as Line Of Duty and Broadchurch, and several others, make no concession at all to the fact you didn’t watch it last week. None. Stranger Things: no concession to you if you don’t know what the plot is. That sometimes is damaging to me, because I didn’t understand a word of the opening episode of Stranger Things series 2!

Ad – content continues below

Ask a child!

Yeah! But how does that map onto a show like Doctor Who, which is incredibly story of the week, and the arc will be largely cheating? [An arc that’s] dropped in, dropped in, dropped in, and now it’s paid off. That’s an interesting challenge for the future, and I don’t know what the answer to it is. But I don’t have to know the answer to it! Chris can figure that out!

You sought very cinematic directors though. No disrespect to those who came before, but very widescreen-driven directors, where the subject is no longer in the centre of the screen the majority of the time, where the pace can dramatically change? How conscious is that change?

Well, look how television was roaring around our ears all the time. Doctor Who comes back in 2005 and there is absolutely nothing else on television like that. Therefore it’s not easy, in fact it’s incredibly hard, because you don’t have the skillset around you to make that show. But you’re getting away with stuff you’re never, ever going to get away with again. Rose Tyler, hanging from a balloon over a picture of London isn’t something we’re going to do again. Back then, though, that looked amazing.

And this is again a challenge for the future: Doctor Who versus the early series of Game Of Thrones. Obviously they’ve got a bigger budget, but we’re alright. We’re looking pretty good.

Ad – content continues below

Later on, their budget is through the roof, and where are we? That’s the terrifying thing.

You have to get visually more literate. You have to get visually better. There isn’t such a thing anymore as this is just shot like television. What’s shot like television now?

Not even a sitcom.

Yeah. It will be shot beautifully. A sitcom will be actually well made. The moment you get a single camera, it’s sensational. Only the soaps look like television, and even they, when they choose to push the boat out, they really, really can.

The reason you just can’t make it look like television now is there’s no such thing. Everything looks like a movie now. The best of the Game Of Thrones action scenes look better than a lot of movies; they’ve exceeded what cinema has managed in that area.

What’s Doctor Who got to do except not just really compete, but try and find ways to lead? And what’s really difficult about that is we don’t have as much money as anybody. As anybody!

Ad – content continues below

The trick we always go for in Doctor Who is aim for a visual that nobody else has done. We can’t do a dogfight in space, because you’ve seen a dogfight in space. If we do a city on fire, other people have done this better. Forget those.

Even when we do Doctor Mysterio, we’re thinking let’s deliberately make it slightly Christopher Reeve-level special effects, because we can’t compete. We had to find new visuals, things you hadn’t seen before. A farm on a spaceship! It’s cool for no reason I can even think of.

Back in the day, Rose Tyler in her Union Jack top during the Blitz. It’s a visual you haven’t seen anyone else attempt before, therefore we can do something without comparison.

Appreciating I put myself a little in the firing line here, I do think that the position you’re in, you don’t always get much of a right to reply. How do you feel about the clickbait culture that’s also surrounded the show in your time? You’ve worked it in some ways to your advantage, but also, it strikes me that the online press can be quite feral and cruel.

[A note to any website thinking of lifting this for a bit of clickbait: there was no rampaging or anger or anything here. Don’t start with that ‘Moffat rages against clickbait culture’ stuff, because he answered all of this calmly, and no tables were banged].

I think it’s damaging.

Ad – content continues below

I don’t think we should be relaxed about this at all. It’s created an atmosphere of nastiness and bitterness. The personal attacks… I remember at the Radio Times covers party I went to, having to persuade a nice lady I was talking to that I wasn’t an actual Donald Trump voter. Really! That’s not what I’m like. I’m fairly obviously from my work so wetly liberal.

You talk about right to reply: what about a right to my opinion? Am I allowed to express my opinion and not have it invented for me by hacks? That’s the thing I find difficult.

I think probably the real damage is what it does to Doctor Who fandom itself. Because Doctor Who fandom is actually kind and lovely and funny and creative. But you have to warn everyone who comes on to the show to be wary of it. A tiny strand of it, and some of the websites I’m afraid, who think it is smart to be cruel. It drives a wedge between the fandom and a TV production team who should be close to each other.

I’m just a superannuated fan. I’m very happy to talk to Doctor Who fans. As I keep saying, the storyteller should sit at the same campfire as the audience. This is a terrible thing that we have separated those people out. It’s wrong, it’s wrong.

But how can I tell writers and directors who come onto the show to allow themselves to read the stuff on social media when I know that it is going to be cruel? It is going to be personal? It is going to be hurtful? It’s only a small number of people, but how many drops of poison do you need in your soup before you decide to eat at a different restaurant? It’s not good. It’s not a healthy thing.

And it’s not said often enough, that this hatred isn’t even as honest as hatred. It’s hatred for money. It’s clickbait. It’s demonising me, someone else, many other people, for clickbait, that [the website/writer] gets paid for.

Ad – content continues below

That slightly leads onto casting, I think. Because you talk about casting, and bringing people in to this environment. Andy Pryor, your casting director, does talk about finding Pearl Mackie on the disc extras. You’ve hinted there about warning people what they’re moving into. But what preparation do you give? And appreciating comments you’ve made about your time being up on the show, is there a little frustration that you can’t continue Bill and perhaps Nardole’s stories? It seems from where I sit that there’s lots left to tell.

Well, clearly if you’re not feeling that when you leave something, then you’re leaving too late. You should leave feeling there’s more you can do. I feel that Doctor Who setup of the Doctor, and Bill, and Nardole: you could have that for five years. You absolutely could. I miss we never got to see the Doctor getting involved in university politics! He’d be serious about it, the Doctor. He’d be a good lecturer!

But with Pearl Mackie, she instantly became a star, but she only got to do one year on Doctor Who. Of course, her agent is jumping up and down with joy. She gets all the advantage of being in Doctor Who, whilst only having to be in it for a year!

It won’t do her any harm. She has all that love invested, and now she can go and do lots of other amazing things, which she will. People notice when you’ve discovered a star, so it’s alright!

If I’ve got the maths right on this, as we’re talking it’s a few weeks over ten years since you first sat down for the dinner where Julie Gardner and Jane Tranter all but offered you the Doctor Who job. Do you remember how you felt before that? And how has the reality measured up? Did it pan out how you expected?

It’s one of these odd things, and I put Chris [Chibnall] in the same predicament. And as I said to Sue [Vertue, Moffat’s producing partner and wife] when I got back that night, [Chris] hasn’t said yes yet, but there’s no way you can say no. Why would you say no to that? Of course you’re not going to say no, but you’re not ready to say yes.

Ad – content continues below

I knew from the moment I was offered it… one way or another, I’ll square it with Sue, square it with Hartswood Films. Therefore, I’ve now been thinking about Doctor Who for ten years!

Do you think the format of the show will always be television?

Whatever television is. I’m sure, in a good hearted, sentimental way that cinema will continue to exist. I think it’s a slightly bizarre idea to spend all that money to go to a big room, to watch it with other people, and you can’t pause it to go to the loo.

But have you noticed how good your television is? You used to have to go to the cinema because otherwise you were watching things in 4:3 with shit sound. My television, I sometimes consciously think that I’ll wait for that film to come out where I can watch it in my comfy living room with a glass of wine!

What is your television like? What kind of television does the man who oversees Doctor Who have?

It’s just a television! [Laughs] A big one with good sound! And we’re getting a better one, and going for a bigger one. Because I never think a television can be too big!

But look at what’s happening to posh cinemas, Big wide chairs, with maybe a place for your wine glass, and a bit of food. They’re building your living room. They’re terrified that your living room is a nicer place to watch cinema! And now that the screen and the cinema and sound can be every bit as good… but then there’s a stage beyond that.

I remember once finding my older son sitting watching a film on his bed on his iPad. And I said “do you want to come down and watch it on the big screen?” And he said “Dad”, and he took me downstairs, sat me in my chair and held up my iPhone in front of the television, to my face, covering the TV. And he said “You’re watching television on your iPhone! I’m watching it this size,” he said [holding up his iPad]. “And this is the big screen, and by the way, the iPad screen is better than any television you’re ever going to buy! So why would I come downstairs and watch it on that silly thing over there, when I could watch it on my iPad?!” 

That’s what’s coming. I’m an old man. My son doesn’t think that going to the cinema is necessarily a very clever idea, when you can wait and watch it on your bed, on your iPad.

I talked to a film director a year or two back, and they had been offered a TV film with the criteria being that it only matters what’s in the top two thirds of the screen, because the backers anticipated people looking at their phone or iPad as they were watching it.

Yep. [looks horrified]

One of the things that I think really comes out of binge watching is people are, as they always have done, watching the show in very different ways. But in 2005, as you said, we all sat and watched it on Saturday night, and maybe bought the DVD.

I found a belated comment on our site about Lie Of The Land. I think the reaction the the episode on the Saturday night when it was shown was mixed to good. But I found this comment from a reader who had just suffered a loss, and watched lots of Doctor Who series 10 that day. And he got to Lie Of The Land, and he wrote that “it moved me a lot more than I think it would have done the day it actually aired”, and talked of how the memory of a loved one was so devastatingly strong for him, and how much he loved that episode as a consequence of that.

Does that go to viewing habits? Do you notice changes to the way people react to episodes, as a consequence – if you can gauge it – of the different ways people watch the show?

The trouble is we used to not know anything is the truth.

I’ll know in a few years. The ratings are fine. The AIs are fine. Gradually over time, you realise that stuck in someone’s memory, that didn’t. Nowadays, everyone reacts at once and very loudly, and you can mistake that for the reaction of the audience. It is not the reaction of the audience, any more than a conversation in a pub is the conversation in someone’s living room. It is not. It’s a loud clamorous competition to say the most outrageous thing.

That may not be a bad thing, it’s a social event. But you’re not doing audience research.

I know a very famous TV executive – who I’ll not name! – in America, who fired a showrunner because she said he was responding to what they said on Twitter. She said I’m just not having that. If you want audience research, we’ll do it. But we’re not doing things that people say at Twitter.

For me, I always remember the line “Just this once, everybody lives.” That’s the one that broke me, and still does. We talk about the emotion of an eight-year old. But the emotion of an eight year old is still inside an 80-year old.

Oh God, yes.

Just the 80 year old tries to hide it.

Yes, yes.

If we can quickly touch on Christmas. One thing that was said about Christmas episodes was that they were broader, you can have a lot more fun with them. But hasn’t that changed? Lots of people don’t watch a Christmas episode on Christmas day.

Okay, I’ll finally be honest about the Christmas episode! You know what’s different about the Christmas episode? It mentioned Christmas! That’s it! It’s just an episode of Doctor Who, and we’re going, can we get some snow in there or something? It’s all bollocks what we say about it!

It’s a bit more broader than the normal Doctor Who. Well fuck me! That’s a big thing to say! Have you seen the rest of the show! [laughs] I mean, really? It’s more broad than Robots Of Sherwood?! It’s just Doctor Who on Christmas Day with some version of Christmas in it. I think Last Christmas is one of the darker, scarier ones we’ve done, but it does have Santa in it!

I get trotted out every year to advertise the Christmas special. What’s different? Well, it’s more this, it’s more that. You have to take into account that some people are watching Doctor Who who don’t normally watch it.

Exactly like every other episode of Doctor Who! It’s just an episode of Doctor Who, on Christmas day. Nothing else!

I’m going to go to the Q&A at Christmas now and just ask exactly the same question, just to see if it irritates you!

It’s me! I perpetrate the lie! Or rather, I continued it after Russell started it, for the sake of having something to say! And then people say “I don’t like the Christmas ones as much”. But I wonder: what are you talking about? They’re not similar. Last Christmas versus The Christmas Invasion? Do they have anything in common apart from the fact they mention Christmas? Nothing! All bollocks!

How do you feel, then, about series 10 now? Do you have sufficient distance from it to cement your own feelings?

No. It seemed to have gone down very well. I was very pleased that people seemed to be keen on it. I was pleased people thought my last run was a good run. I was really pleased with the finale episodes. I’m not always pleased, but I thought they were really good.

But it’s funny, the progress through Doctor Who. People said that “season 10 is a return to form”. So I thought I’d just go and see what they said about the last one. “Season 9 is a return to form”! Season 8? “Return to form”! When was it off form? Wednesday?!

One last thing. One thing we try and do with our site is try and talk to people who are in a difficult place at the moment, and maybe struggling a bit. I’m always conscious that words from someone else will travel further than if they were from me, not least because Doctor Who fandom is so special. If there’s someone out there feeling like that, making a writer who feels the world doesn’t believe in them a little bit, is there a line you could direct to them?

Yes. You are mistaken in thinking that anybody else feels different than that. That’s exactly what the condition of being alive is.

I want to leave it just there, because that’s lovely. Steven Moffat, thank you very much.

Doctor Who series 10 is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Monday. You can order it here. The packshot looks like this…