He’s just an idiot with a box trying to have as much fun as possible
So these are the glory years for the Doctor and Clara. Does that shape the kind of stories you’re telling this series?
It’s more their attitude to the stories. Obviously Doctor Who is all about death, destruction, terrible villains, huge threats, fear… So what do you think about that? Are you having an argument about the moral implications? Or are you diving in and getting an adrenaline rush from it? Clara, in a Steven Moffat thinks outside the box.
Not just any old box. This particular box is blue, battered and beloved, maybe just a little obsolete and incongruous around the edges. Outside its doors you’ll find the future and the past, possibly the present. There’ll be something nasty in the dark, just you see. Terror, dread, dire peril, all that good stuff. Daleks? You never know your luck in this cruel and merciless universe. The sane response, naturally, would be to high- tail it back inside the box and hit the dematerialisation switch.
But it’s Saturday. It’s BBC One. No one wants to watch the sane response.
“This year it’s more about the glory years of the Doctor and Clara,” the showrunner tells SFX, teeing up the TARDIS’s imminent return. “It feels tonally quite different, in a way that a new series of Doctor Who should always feel tonally different from the one you’ve just watched.”
The latest series – the ninth since the show returned a decade ago – will hurl Peter Capaldi’s Time Lord and Jenna Coleman’s human go- between into a breathless run of adventures. We’re promised Vikings, highwaymen, ghost- haunted seas, global threats, new worlds, old worlds, fresh monsters and familiar fearsome favourites.
“They’re having the best of fun, but they earned that friendship through the last series. Now they’re doing what you really ought to be doing if you’ve got access to a time and space machine: having the time of your bloody life…”
dangerous way, has acknowledged that beneath that prim and proper teacher is a proper thrill- seeker. And that’s what the Doctor has always been. They surf along on all these terrible events – properly morally engaged, but still enjoying the living hell out of them. You’ve said you’re writing the Doctor as a funnier character this year. Were you looking to lighten him up or is that just the way the scripts came?
I say these things and they get hung around my neck for the rest of time! He’s more relaxed about certain things, more relaxed about his relationship with Clara. He spent series one trying to deny that he is sort of besotted with her. In a lovely, non- sexual way, of course, but he properly crushes on her – again, in a non- creepy way. So, now that he’s acknowledged that, he’s more relaxed. And he’s no longer worrying about whether he’s supposed to be a good man or whatever. He’s just an idiot with a box and he’s trying to have as much fun as possible. Still in his grumpy, unsociable way. You really played with that brusque, prickly side of the Doctor last series…
Yes, and it’s still there – he’s still like that. He doesn’t understand that people find that offensive. He wasn’t intentionally being rude to anyone – he was just wondering why everyone got so upset! If you look at the previous Doctors they were also socially inept. They were just socially inept in slightly different ways. Matt’s Doctor would turn up naked at Christmas and kiss the wrong people. There’s a sort of social disengagement with the Doctor at all times. And this time around he sort of got bored of being charming all the time. Does that feel like a risk, given most TV is powered by charming characters?
There are characters who are actually being charming and there are characters who charm us. We’re charmed by House in House, even though he is charmless. People who have no clue about that kind of thing are fundamentally interesting. Sherlock is an example of that too. The lack of filter on them can be bemusing and exciting. It gives an illusion of honesty, I think – it isn’t really, it’s just another set of neuroses. I didn’t really worry about it because I don’t think that’s how the Doctor operates. There’s possibly less of a filter with Peter’s Doctor. The charm – especially to children – is that the Doctor always behaves like some variety of kid. Capaldi’s rudeness is the rudeness of a child, who hasn’t really understood that’s not what you say to people. And Clara’s still having to be his human interface. This year she gives him little cards that he can use as prompt sheets for when he gets things wrong – how to talk to the bereaved and so on. In a way the other Doctors needed them too. They might have needed to have different things written on the cards… Jenna Coleman really came into her own last year. What does this series give her?
It’s an amazing series for Clara. She’s in a different place. Last year she was – in her quite controlling way – saying, “There’s my boyfriend and my job, there’s my Doctor and my time machine, and I’ll just keep them in their separate boxes.” And now she’s thinking,
“You know what, teaching’s just what I do for a living – I’m good at it, that’s fine, but really my heart is in running away in time and space and having huge adventures.” She gets on hugely well with the Doctor but at the same time she’s slightly irritated by him. He keeps saying that he has a duty of care to her but she’s saying, “I’m not actually asking you to – this is what I want. I want to have the adventures.” That’s about the only remaining tension. And, you know, she sorts his head out from time to time, which is nice for both characters. You’ve got the return of Missy in the opening story. We take it you couldn’t wait to bring her back?
Obviously I thought she was such an amazing hit that I wanted to write her again, but the truth is, as I was planning the first story I realised she fitted into it really well, and would give us a different way of looking at her, so I was automatically excited about that. But
Doctor Who has always capitalised on its successes. That’s what it does. If we roll out a good monster we roll them back in again. Missy’s been one of our biggest hits in recent times so yeah, of course you’re going to see her again. And I wanted to get back to the idea that the Master isn’t a character who comes in and has a story every now and then. That character should turn up quite often, causing trouble – but in different ways.
You’ve given us a female Master, a secret incarnation of the Doctor and shown us the soul of the TARDIS, all of which would have felt like forbidden territory once. How brave can you be with the show? Is everything fair game or do you feel like the temporary custodian, terrified of breaking something?
I think there’s a duality to that. You have to treat the show like you own it. I don’t just mean me – I mean every writer, every director and every actor that comes onto this show. I’m always saying, “It’s not a fancy heirloom. You’re not carrying this carefully to the next room. You’ve got to engage with it like you own it, otherwise it’s not a TV show, it’s a perfectly tended mausoleum.” At the same time I actually feel quite strongly that there is only so far you can go. Secret incarnation of the Doctor? That’s the one that gave me an anxiety attack! The moment I pitched it, everyone else involved in the show immediately leapt up and down and said, “This is great! You can do this! This is the thing that can make the 50th special!” And I was the one going, “Oh no! I’m changing the numbering! What are we going to do? What if someone’s got tattoos with numbers on them of all the Doctors? What’s going to happen to them?” [ laughs]. I sweated blood over that one! You gave us some cheeky hints at the Doctor’s childhood in “Listen”…
There were moments in “Listen” where I thought “How far can you go here?” I was very careful that we never saw the little boy’s face or, indeed, said that it was definitely him. You
I actually feel quite strongly that there is only so far you can go
The great thing about Doctor Who is that it’s a chaos of a series
don’t know. If you choose to reject that as an idea then you can fantasise that it’s somebody else. The boyhood of the Doctor is something I’ve always definitively rejected from everybody else. You’re not supposed to know. I wrote that scene several times, just trying to get it right. You don’t see his face. You know very little about what he’s doing, why he’s there, what he’s crying about, any of those things… they all have to remain secret. So we don’t really tell you anything more than you’d hear from Jon Pertwee, talking about the hermit on the hill in “The Time Monster”. That feels right. You can’t reveal his name, you can’t reveal what set him on his way, you can’t do those things, because if you tried the audience would simply reject them as not true. You’ve got more two- parters this year. What does that do to the rhythm of the series?
The 45- minute format served us incredibly well for 10 years – let’s not decry them – but you almost had a muscle memory of where those 45 minutes would go. You’d think, “Ah, it’s time for the hero music, time for the Doctor to have his epiphany, time for the running to start…” Aside from having a lot more two- parters this time, we blur the lines between what’s a two- parter and what’s not: taking one strand of plot over two stories, that kind of thing. So you don’t quite know that everything is going to wrap up when you hit 43 minutes. I thought that was becoming predictable. The only thing I ever missed in the 45- minute version of Doctor Who was that first episode feeling from the old series, where it’s sort of slow and ominous, like the first episode of “The Ark In Space”, where the Doctor wanders around and nothing really happens. It’s utterly creepy, utterly involving, and yet the story doesn’t start for the full 25 minutes. With 45 minutes you have to be quite definitive. By the end of the pre- titles you’ve said, “This week it’s going to be like this.” With a two- parter you don’t know which way we’re going to jump for a longer period, which is quite exciting.
Does it shake you up creatively?
It refreshes us all. It changes our heads. If you do the same thing every year you get better at it but you also get duller. You get very expert, and expertise, while reassuring, is also slightly boring. The moment the series feels reliable isn’t the point where you think, “I have to watch it again.” The great thing about Doctor
Who is that it’s a chaos of a series. You never quite know which one you’re going to love. You’re never sure which one you’re going to hate. With most other shows you think, “I know what this show is like, and it will be like that again this week – I know who’s going to be in it, what sets I’m going to be looking at, how many guest characters there will be…”
Doctor Who is a madness. So you have these extremes of reactions. You say “I absolutely hated that episode” to your best Doctor Who fan mate whose favourite it was. That, I think, typifies Doctor Who. It’s chaotic, it spikes and troughs all over the place. You don’t know what you’re going to get. And that’s not something I’m trying to suggest that we brought to it. That’s something that’s been true of Doctor Who since it started.
Doctor Who returns to BBC One on 19 September. Read an exclusive, in- depth interview with Peter Capaldi next issue!
Jenna Coleman’s Clara Oswald will be getting out and about even more this time around.
Osgood ( Ingrid Oliver) is back from the dead. No wonder she’s smiling!
At least he hasn’t landed in the middle of a motorway.
Michelle Gomez’s Missy returns, purpler than ever.
Resting between being one of the most evil beings in the universe.