Steven Moffat Talks DOCTOR WHO, His Favorite Upcoming Episodes, Writing the Doctor and Sherlock Holmes, the 50th Anniversary, and More

     March 27, 2013

steven moffatt doctor who

When Doctor Who returns to BBC America on March 30th, the Doctor (Matt Smith) kicks off this new run of adventures through space and time by searching for his companion Clara (Jenna-Louise Coleman), a mysterious girl that he’s already lost twice.  Together they find themselves battling monsters on distant alien planets, trapped in a Russian submarine with a deadly passenger, chasing terrifying ghosts, delving into the heart of the TARDIS, facing the Crimson Horror in Victorian Yorkshire, and coming face-to-face with an army of upgraded Cybermen.  The action grows and the Doctor’s oldest secret threatens to be revealed, as the world’s longest running science fiction series builds toward its highly anticipated 50th anniversary in November.

During this recent interview to promote the upcoming episodes, executive producer/lead writer Steven Moffat talked about what Jenna-Louise Coleman brings to the series, what made Clara the right companion for the Doctor, his favorite upcoming episodes, which monsters were the most fun to write, the impetus for bringing the Ice Warriors back, his approach to writing characters as iconic as the Doctor and Sherlock Holmes (he’s co-creator on Sherlock with Mark Gatiss), the biggest challenges and surprises in this set of upcoming episodes, what makes Doctor Who so universal, and the fact that he’s pretty confident that they’ll be able to deliver something great for the 50th anniversary.  Check out what he had to say after the jump.

Question:  What does Jenna-Louise Coleman bring to the series, with her relationship with the Doctor and with Matt Smith?

doctor who steven mofattSTEVEN MOFFAT:  Well, in a way, Doctor Who is almost more the story of the companion.  It’s her take on the Doctor.  It’s the adventure that she goes on with the Doctor.  That’s the story that we tell.  The companion changes more than the Doctor ever does.  So, what Jenna, in particular, brings is that she has a speed and wit and an unimpressed quality that makes the Doctor dance a bit harder, I suppose.  He works a bit harder with Clara.  Obviously, she’s secretly devoted to him, but she’s a little bit harder to impress.  She’s tough, she’s fast and she’s hard to impress, which is 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 very, very fast and snappy.  She’s a beautiful girl, but there’s a real sense of toughness, and she’s someone who can be a real adversary, if she wants to be. 

When you watch Jenna-Louise Coleman work, what makes you realize that you made the right decision in hiring her?

Doctor-Who-Jenna-Louise-ColemanMOFFAT:  Well, she’s terrific!  The most obvious answer is that she’s a terribly good actress.  I know that’s a dull thing to say, but it’s the truth.  You can be as beautiful and charming as you’d like, but if you’re not terrific at acting, it will mean nothing on the screen.  She’s a terrific actress.  She looks great.  She has great comic timing.  She looks like she belongs, somehow, next to Matt Smith.  When the two stand together, they look like an instant team.  They have enough in common, and yet have enough sharp contrasts, that it’s an instant poster when you stand them together. 

How did you decide that Clara was the companion you wanted to use now?

MOFFAT:  When you start with who’s going to be the one who goes on board the TARDIS, you can’t think of the word “companion.”  You can’t think that they know they’re the supporting character on a TV show.  You have to think that this is somebody who would fly away in that TARDIS, and that 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.  It’s not just anybody that he actually forms a proper friendship with.  And what sort of person would run through those blue doors?  An awful lot of people would run the other direction, probably including me, to be honest.  So, you have to imagine somebody who’s ready to say, “Yes!,” to running away with a clearly insane man who has a time machine.  That is your starting point with that character.  What point in their life are they?  What decisions have been made that leads them to respond positively to a travel request from a lunatic in a bow tie.  

Is this Clara different from the other two Clara’s that we’ve already met?

MOFFAT:  Well, you will notice significant resemblances that are consistent.  This time, it might be pointed out, in a slightly more obvious way.

In “The Bells of Saint John,” are you trying to tell us that we’re too tied to technology with the Spoonheads?

Doctor-Who-Matt-SmithMOFFAT:  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.  That’s the idea.  There’s no grand plan.  I’m not trying to say we’re too tied to technology.  I love it all! 

What can you say about the Spoonheads and what sort of nemesis they’ll be?

MOFFAT:  Not very much because you’re about to learn all about them on Saturday.  Suffice it to say, wifi covers every civilized country, so if something got into the wifi, that would be a problem for us all.  It’s a new way to invade us.  Beyond that, the Spoonheads are for Saturday. 

Do you have a favorite episode or scene, coming up?

MOFFAT:  I always say that my favorite episode is next Saturday’s episode, and that’s probably always true.  The next one on is the one I’m most focused on and most excited about.  As for highlights, I think “The Bells of Saint John” is a great episode.  I think “Cold War” is a terrific traditional episode.  And I think we’ve got a great finale.  I change my mind, all the time, about which my favorite is.  It’s almost invariably the next one.  

How did you manage getting Diana Rigg on the show this year?

jenna-Louise-Coleman-doctor-whoMOFFAT:  It wasn’t me.  Mark Gatiss, who wrote that episode and who works on Sherlock with me, was appearing in a play with Diana Rigg’s daughter, Rachael Stirling, and he said to Rachael, “I think you and your mom should play the mother and daughter parts in this Doctor Who that I’m writing,” and they were up for it.  So, it was all down to Mark and his little black book. 

During the course of discovering the mystery behind Clara, do you think this Clara is ever going to remember her other incarnations?  Will viewers get to see that?

MOFFAT:  Well, I would know the answer to that question, and certainly wouldn’t give it to you.  You will uncover the mystery of Clara, in the next eight episodes.  All will be made clear, and you’ll get your answer that way.

Why do you think the companion is such an important element of storytelling in Doctor Who?

MOFFAT:  It’s the person to whom the story happens.  A hero is somebody who saves the day, and who you stand back and admire, and that’s the Doctor.  But, for the story to have an emotional connection, it has to happen to somebody.  The Doctor himself has to happen to somebody.  So, very often in Doctor Who, the companion is the main character.  Not the hero, not the one with all the cool lines and not the one with all the cool moments, but is the person who has this experience, and we get to see how it changes them.  We never see how the Doctor began his journey, we’ll probably never see how he ends it, and we’ll probably never know why he embarked on it, but we know all those companions, who they were before they met the Doctor, why they ran away from him, and roughly where they ended up.  Those stories are complete.  The Doctor is the enigma that enters their lives and changes them.  The story is always about the person that changes the most, rather than necessarily being about the person who affects those changes. 

Doctor-Who-Matt-Smith-Jenna-Louise-ColemanYou’re tasked with writing stories for some of the most iconic characters on television and in literature.  Do you find it easier, more difficult or the same to write about established and iconic characters, like Sherlock Holmes and the Doctor, as opposed to writing about characters that you’ve originated?

MOFFAT:  With both Sherlock and Doctor Who, those are characters that we originated, so we’re doing both, all the time.  Even with a character that you’ve created of your own that evolves, after a very short while, that’s an existing artifact and you have to write for them.  So, it’s not a lot different.  You have to treat the characters you create as if they’re real, in a way, so they have to start calling the shots, and you have to handle characters like Sherlock Holmes and the Doctor, who were given to you fully formed, as if they’re your own, otherwise you’re not writing them properly.  I keep saying to writers or directors that come onto Doctor Who or Sherlock, “Treat it like you own it.  It’s not an heirloom.  You have to be authorial.  Even though you know, in your heart, it’s not really yours, you have to behave as though it is.”  So, the slightly dull answer is that there isn’t a lot of difference.  I don’t feel a huge amount of difference. 

You’ve created some of the most recognizable and iconic monsters on Doctor Who.  In all the episodes you’ve written, which monsters were the most fun to write?

matt smith doctor whoMOFFAT:  I’m tempted to say the Weeping Angels because I’m standing and looking at one that’s in my back garden.  The one I got the most kick out of might have been The Silence because I love the gimmick of the fact that you couldn’t remember them.  I thought finding ways to employ that and finding ways to make that frightening was a very exciting thing.  I hugely enjoyed writing The Silence.  The Weeping Angels were, by far, the most popular adversary that I’ve invented, and I’m sure will always be one of the most popular ones that I’ve invented, but 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 this time.

How did the Spoonheads compare, in terms of scare factor, with villains like The Silence and the Weeping Angels?

MOFFAT:  Well, that’s not really for me to say.  I don’t know.  I never know which ones are going to be the big scares.  But, “The Bells of Saint John” is an action roller coaster, whereas the Weeping Angels story and The Silence story were more consciously designed to be more scary adventures.  But, it’s really not up to me.  It’s up to the kids to say which ones give them nightmares.  I’ll not pre-judge it.  I think they’re quite creepy, and I think it’s a rollicking adventure ride.  I think it’s a cracker of an episode.  But, it’s best to wait and see what the audience thinks.

What was your impetus for wanting to bring the Ice Warriors back, and what were some of the challenges in re-imagining that old foe?

Matt-Smith-Jenna-Louise-Coleman-doctor-whoMOFFAT:  The impetus really came from Mark Gatiss.  I wasn’t that keen, initially, on the idea of bringing the Ice Warriors back.  They’d 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 get nagging me and Caroline [Skinner] about bringing them back, and then he came up with an idea, which I won’t tell you – I’m going to leave that as a surprise in “Cold War” – but he really made them come to life for me.  It was brilliant.  At that point, I really got into it, but that was due to Mark’s creativity and not mine.  There were a number of challenges that I can’t talk about, but one I will talk about is that they are far less familiar to the general audience than the Daleks or the Cybermen, or any of those things, where you feel that you have to bring the changes a bit with the look of them because they’re very familiar.  With the Ice Warriors, we wanted to create a really good, super-duper version of the one that’s already there, rather than changing or revising it.  So, the challenge was making the one that they designed for the fuzzy old televisions work for these other, less forgiving HD cameras of today. 

As a writer and a producer, what were your biggest challenges and surprises in these eight episodes coming up?

Doctor-Who-Matt-Smith-Jenna-Louise-ColemanMOFFAT:  Every episode is a challenge, and what’s challenging in most episodes is the monster.  You’re always a heartbeat from the monster looking ridiculous.  You really have to work so hard to make them not look like ridiculous when they turn up on the set.  Doctor Who is the most exhaustingly planned show on earth.  We have so little time to make one, so everything is planned to the last detail.  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 we were able to create a submarine for the episode “Cold War.”  I think they did a stunning job on that, in just really, really convincing you that you’re on board a sub.  At every level, that was a bit of a design triumph. 

A big conflict of your era is the Doctor needing to not be alone because he’s not himself when he’s not with a companion.  Why doesn’t he just always get a companion?  Why does he resist that?

MOFFAT:  Well, if you were told that the way to heal yourself, make yourself a better person and 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, and he keeps them in terrible danger.  He’s also aware that a relationship or friendship for him, like it or not, is postponed bereavement, and it’s not even postponed that long.  He will outlive them.  They will die and he will be roughly the same age.  So, those two factors make him very, very hesitant about taking someone on board.  There’s also the fact that he’s the 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?  He, generally speaking, does know better than you, but he always thinks he does.  How like a man!  He’d be a hard man to advise.

How did Neil Cross come to be a part of this season, and what has he brought to the show?

Doctor Who posterMOFFAT:  Neil Cross is a writer that I knew of, but had never met.  He’s done Luther and written some books.  He’s a terrific writer.  I’ve also read a script he’d written a few years ago.  We never quite got it together when Caroline Skinner came onto the show.  Neil Cross is an old friend of hers and she said, “I’m going to chase him and see if we can’t work the schedules out.”  He’s a huge Doctor Who fan, but he did not have the time to write an episode.  This time, he leapt at the chance to shove everything out of the way and do it.  What I’m looking for, all the time – and this sounds terribly snobbish and awful – are showrunner-level writers who’d give their right arm to write a Doctor Who story, and it’s surprising how often we get that and how many of our writing team, if I can call them that, are showrunners themselves.  It was a gift to us.  Neil took to it like a duck to water, so it was brilliant. 

One of the big components of Doctor Who, early on, were the purely historical adventures, with no extraterrestrial monster or villain, and the bad guy was someone who did exist.  Do you think a purely historical adventure would be possible now?

MOFFAT:  I don’t think it’s impossible, but I’m going to put my cards on the table and say that I didn’t think those historical adventures were very good.  I didn’t like them.  I thought they were dull.  Insofar 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.  I’m just being honest.  They weren’t my favorite.  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.  Even before they were discarded, they were always regarded as the lesser element of the show.  If you’ve got this glittering man in this 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. 

What do you think it is that makes Doctor Who so universal?

Doctor-Who-Matt-SmithMOFFAT:  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 in a box that’s bigger on the inside.  That’s as much format as we have.  You can join it at any time and absolutely get ahold of it.  Dare I say it, I think it’s just one of the greatest pieces of 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 like a whole new era.  It always feels at home in the present day because it always adapts itself.  We are, after all, on our 11th leading man.

Since you grew up loving Doctor Who, like so many people did, what’s it like to go from watching it to making it?

MOFFAT:  It happened so long ago now.  I’ve been involved with this for quite a long time – nearly 10 years – that I’m starting to forget.  It’s very exciting!  It’s massively demanding, not that I had any doubt about that.  Doctor Who has always been there, and will always be there.  The fans remain intact.  You stay excited by Doctor Who and the idea of Doctor Who.  It always remains thrilling.  You couldn’t function on the show, unless that were true.  It’s a terrible thing to say, but I’ve been on the other side of the curtain for quite awhile now and I forget that this used to be a show that I wasn’t involved in.  One day, when I’m not involved with it again, it will all come rushing back, but right now, it feels as though I’ve always worked on it.  It retains its shine.  That’s the main thing. 

Did the upcoming 50th anniversary affect how you planned the arc of this season, at all?

Doctor-Who-Jenna-Louise-ColemanMOFFAT:  Not really.  You always want to make it special and huge and big.  One of the things that I’m concerned about this year 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 thinking it’s all about nostalgia then you’re finished.  It’s about moving forward.  The Doctor is moving forward, as he always does.  He wants to solve the mystery of Clara.  He’s not thinking about all his previous incarnations and all 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. 

How much pressure do you feel to deliver on the 50th anniversary, and is there any way it can possibly live up to the hype and excitement?

MOFFAT:  I don’t know.  Right now, I’m going to stick to talking about Saturday and this series.  We’ll deliver a good show.  But, more on that later.  Right now, I want to concentrate on what we’re going to do on Saturday, which is a whole eight episodes before we even have to worry about that.  But, we’ll deliver.  I’m pretty confident.

Doctor Who airs on Saturday nights on BBC America.