What’s this? Father Christmas meets Doctor Who? “I haven’t gone off my rocker,” Steven Moff at tells Nick Setchfield
SSteven Moffat has one very important stipulation for SFX.
“Look,” he says, as our chat begins with the Doctor Who showrunner. “Kids are bound to read this. So you have to remember. Father Christmas is real. You’re not allowed to say that he’s not.”
It’s an unusual request. Has the pressure of masterminding the nation’s greatest television show finally broken the man? Of course Father Christmas is real. All sentient beings know that ( kids – sentient beings is just a grown- up/ show- off way of saying you, your mum and dad, the cat, everyone… well, maybe not your nan after her third cheeky Malibu on Boxing Day). Come on, Steven. You may as well ask us to remind people that doors are useful and gravity’s a good idea.
Yes, we know this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special sees the lord of time face to face with the lord of gift- wrap, brought to the screen in all his big- bellied, be-whiskered pomp by the mighty Nick Frost. But we imagine that inspired piece of casting involved months of delicate brand management negotiation with Claus’ people. Or else the cry “Get me Saint Nick!” somehow mutated into “Get me Nick Frost!” Stranger things have happened in Cardiff.
So yes, of course Father Christmas is real. Just don’t tell us the Doctor isn’t. Deal?
Matt’s Doctor always seemed to be Christmas personified. Peter’s Doctor strikes us as a Doctor who doesn’t really do Christmas. Is that the case?
The Doctor always loves Christmas. The fact that he’s putting on a slightly different front from the one he used to doesn’t mean anything. He is no more really a grumpy old man than he was a flopsy young man. Fundamentally Christmas is such a sugar rush of bright lights and excitement and rollercoasters that the Doctor couldn’t help but love it. Of course he does. He just has fiercer eyebrows now.
You’ve got Father Christmas in this. Does that feel like you’re pushing the boundaries of what Doctor Who can do?
We do it properly. Rest assured, I haven’t gone off my rocker and forgotten what kind of show it is! His companion is not going to be a Teletubby or anything like that. That’s not going to happen. There’s a proper sci- fi explanation for the presence of Santa Claus in the Doctor’s life. So you can relax on that score. In some ways, of the Christmas specials we’ve done, this is the one that’s most like the normal run of
Doctor Who. The normal Christmas specials are the over- sugared, sentimental version, and this one isn’t quite that. It was lovely to have Father Christmas in the show, because that took care of the Christmas element. The rest of it is very tense sci- fi Doctor Who. Do you see the Doctor existing in the same sort of mythic realm as Santa?
I think in little children’s minds he does. I always thought of the Doctor and Santa and Robin Hood and Eric Morecambe as all existing in the same world, the same place in my heart, somehow. It’s a moot point as to which is more absurd, the Doctor or Santa. Which of them breaks the most rules of credibility? They do have a sort of absurd- off in the show itself, because neither of them are particularly credible! What does Nick Frost bring to the role of Santa?
He’s perfect. He’s not only perfect for Santa in that he physically looks like Santa – younger, but he looks like him – but he’s exactly what Santa should be, within the
Doctor Who universe. He simultaneously subverts it and is sort of definitive. He’s the cuddly old Santa but he’s a little bit spiky too, and he feels modern. He feels like a modern
“There’s a proper sci- fi explanation for Santa”
Santa in the way that our current Doctors feel like a more modern version of Doctor Who. But he also has all the traditional trappings. He’s exactly what Santa should be. He will not disappoint you. And he has the perfect name, of course. Nicholas! Frost! Perfect.
How do you go about writing Santa? What’s your way into that character?
Well, I feel as though I’ve always known him! It doesn’t feel as though that’s a new one for me to do. If you got to meet Santa, what would you ask him – how do you get around all those houses? How do you know everybody’s address? We cover all of that. And of course, because he regards himself as a real person – and quite rightly, because he is - he’s bemused that anyone would think it was their mum and dad who put the presents out. He regards that as a fanciful fairy tale. Of course it’s him. So there’s a line – “How do you think those Christmas presents got there every year? By magic?” He doesn’t regard himself as any kind of mythical figure. He’s a hardworking man. At least once a year. Do you feel a special responsibility writing Santa and bringing him to kids on Christmas Day?
Yes. You want him to be a great Santa. And when I was a kid I would’ve loved to have seen Santa on the TARDIS or Santa and the Doctor battling together, Santa and the Doctor snarking at each other… I would have loved those things. So you get all of that. I hope it delivers everything you would want of that. This Christmas special follows a series that was fairly dark. How does that tone square with Christmas Day?
Well, not all the series was very dark. That’s been slightly talked up. People are forgetting “Robot Of Sherwood” or “Time Heist” or “In The Forest Of The Night”. We did lots of silly, silly things. Just because Peter frowned at you during them doesn’t
mean that we’re any less barking mad than normal. We certainly pick up the threads of where we were. We don’t just say oh, we’re stepping aside for Christmas to have a party and then we’ll pick up the plot again in episode one. To be fair sometimes we’ve come close to doing that with the Christmas specials. This time you’re going to see the consequences of the last things you saw on screen, and it’s played out quite seriously. The darkness really comes from the complexity and the danger in the friendship between the Doctor and Clara. A lovely and wonderful and warm and serious friendship though it is, if occasionally explosive, it’s a troubling one. It would trouble you if you saw it. If you were Clara’s best friend, you’d be saying “He looks barking mad to me…” Dan Starkey says there’s a touch of an MR James ghost story about this one…
Don’t tell Mark Gatiss, but I’ve never read any MR James! I know Mark’s read all of it. It’s tattooed on his body or something. I must go and read MR James. And watch Sapphire
And Steel. These are the things people keep telling me I must know a lot about. I don’t know anything about either of them! There is some creepy stuff in the Christmas one. It’s a bit of a fake- out. At the beginning you’ll think it’s more of a quite traditional Doctor Who, but we do something more complicated than that. But yeah, it’s the scariest one we’ve done. There isn’t any question about that. Even though Santa’s in it, it’s a full- on scary one. You introduced Michelle Gomez as Missy this year. What appealed to you about the idea of doing a female Master?
To be honest, it was initially sort of a gimmick. We were going to bring the Master
back because the Master always has to return at some point. And I thought okay, this time it’s a woman. And then I paced around the house thinking “What does that mean?” The Master never paid the slightest bit of attention to the fact that he was a man, so why does making him a woman make anything different about the show? It’s the very thing I always say you shouldn’t do – you mustn’t be led by the gimmick, you have to have something else there. But for quite a few weeks I was being led by the gimmick. And then I saw Michelle Gomez’s name on the list for another part. And I thought, “Oh my god, never mind about casting a woman and whatever that means for the Master… Michelle Gomez as the Master! Now I get that! Now I know what we do with the part, because I know what she can do.” And, unusually for me, I was terribly emphatic. She had to turn down the other role because she was busy, and I wasn’t sure if she really meant that or if she was just being nice to me. But she wrote to me and said, “I would love to be in Doctor Who and I’m really sorry I had to turn it down. If there are ever any other opportunities…” And immediately I thought right, let’s get her in for the Master. I was utterly dogmatic about it from that point on. No one else was considered. Just cast her. And I’m not usually like that. I’m usually much more consensus- based. But I just got it into my head that that’s who it had to be.
You must have known people would leap on that as proof that a future Doctor could be female…
Well, there are several things we’ve done there. There’s been quite a lot of groundwork prepared in the time I’ve been on the show. The very first thing Matt says is “I’m a girl!” I put a line into “The Doctor’s Wife”, I put
one into “Night Of The Doctor”… In another, slightly more insidious way, you have River Song running around basically being a female Doctor, flying the TARDIS and zapping people with the sonic. And this year you’ve had Clara doing a bit of that in “Flatline”. So you’ve been softened up. That’s what it would look like. It’s not so strange after all, is it? So the groundwork has been laid. Whether it ever happens or not, I don’t know. But it’s certainly a great deal more possible for a mainstream audience to go with it now than it used to be. And that is absolutely true. If you just sprung it on people out of the blue, I wouldn’t be so sure. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think now we’ve had all that it just makes it less alarming. It’s really quick, isn’t it, when you stop being bemused by the fact that Michelle’s female and you start thinking she’s great at playing the Master. And given that they’re two asexual characters, does it matter that they’ve switched reproductive organs? They don’t seem to use them anyway! You’ve just started writing the next series. What do want to build on?
Obviously Peter and Jenna. Well, if Jenna’s in it… [ laughs]. Just the depth of that companion relationship. We took the Doctor/ companion relationship to a place that’s much more real, much more damaging and with more consequences. And whoever the companion is, you want to continue that idea. It can be a thrilling, exciting relationship but actually it can be a dangerous one too. That felt quite powerful and potent. What we did this year felt like what it would be like if a young girl got into a very intense friendship with an older time traveller. It’s not the romantic version, it’s not the thwarted romantic version, it’s not the friendship version, it’s not the fairytale version or the imaginary friend version. It’s probably the version that would actually happen. And when you’re a
“the cosier A SHOW gets the nearer to death it gets”
few years into the show, once you’re actually secure in its fundamentals, you can do that. You can actually play it out as if it’s real – often exciting, sometimes a bit dangerous. And of course Peter’s Doctor is established now. Where do you want to take him?
In a way we can stop shocking the audience with him. I was looking for the Capaldi moments every episode, saying “We need a Capaldi moment, that moment where he’s not Matt Smith, he’s not David Tennant, where he’s a dangerous, unpredictable, volatile character.” Because that slaps the audience awake, in a way. The longer you do a show the cosier it gets, the cosier it gets the nearer to death it gets. You really have to say to people “Pay attention. He’s far more unpredictable than that.” So now, having done that, and having blasted our new Doctor at them, we can go other places with him. We don’t have to work at that anymore because people just accept him. I won’t be looking for the Capaldi moment next year because the whole show is a Capaldi moment. “Last Christmas” airs on BBC One on Christmas Day.
“Forget ‘ Am I a good man?’, mate. The question is: have you been naughty or nice?”
Elf service: Misfits’ Nathan McMullen ( left) and Dan Starkey.
Clara was so excited to open her presents she didn’t even get dressed.
The Doctor’s one Christmas concession: his holeridden “snow” jumper.
Will this be the last Christmas for Clara?
The Christmas walnuts were getting out of hand.