Doctor Who is future-proof, says Steven Moffat. But is he? The showrunner tells Nick Setchfield about this year’s special, next year’s new beginning and the pain of “clickbaiting monsters”...
The Doctor Who Christmas Special comes but once a year… Steven Moffat tells us what’s in store and what the future holds for the show.
There was a real chance this would be the last Doctor Who I’d write
steven Moffat sips a Coke and contemplates this year’s Doctor Who Christmas special, the sixth he’s placed beneath the nation’s tree. Is the festive season the gift that keeps on giving for a Time Lord, asks SFX, or is it a struggle to find yet another frosty, tinsel-hearted tale to tell?
“I didn’t really bother this year to come up with a seasonal angle,” the showrunner confesses with a smile. “It’s frontloaded with a lot of Christmas imagery: Christmas Day, TARDIS covered in icicles, a snowy street, Christmas lights. But then once we get into the action you sort of forget that it’s Christmas. It’s Christmas in the sense that it’s a fast-moving comedy romp Doctor Who.”
By all accounts it’s officially more of a hoot than the Queen’s Speech, teaming Peter Capaldi’s Doctor with spoiler-shushing old flame River Song while finding room for Brit comedy stars Matt Lucas and Greg Davies. Moffat has more on his mind than this Christmas gift, though. He’s here to unwrap the future of television, the future of Doctor
Who and his own future as the man who holds the TARDIS key… You’ve paired River Song with Peter’s Doctor. Did you always intend to put the two of them together or did you genuinely think her story was done?
I pretty much thought we were finished with River but I always loved writing her. It’s quite hard not to write her anymore. I was very tired when I came to write this. I thought there was a real chance that this would be the last Doctor Who I’d ever write. I thought, “Oh, River would cheer me up. And if it cheers me up maybe it’ll cheer other people up.” That perked me up – and also the idea of the Doctor meeting River when this is the unlicensed regeneration cycle. River doesn’t know it’s him for quite a long time so that’s quite a lot of fun. Imagine turning up and meeting your wife and your wife doesn’t know it’s you! How does she behave? There are many hints throughout the time they’ve known each other that she doesn’t behave as impeccably when he’s not looking. So this is full-on River Song.
Can you keep River’s timeline in your head?
I did have to go back and bone up on a number of elements – you’ll be able to tell which ones when you see it. It actually slots in shortly after “The Angels Take Manhattan” from her point of view, and we make that explicit in the show, for people who are taking notes! It’s not as hard as the dialogue delights in making it seem. We see it in the wrong order but you can put it in the right order quite easily. You have to keep these things functioning in the moment. What do people remember? Slightly more than you think they will, and less than you would wish that they would.
So you came close to not carrying on with Doctor Who?
When I was first asked how many years I wanted to do it for I said three. And I was quite emphatic that I’d only do three. So why am I still here? I think there was a blurring – I did three years and then there was “The Day Of The Doctor” and before you know it you’re planning a regeneration and you think hang on, I’ve just cast somebody else, what’s going on? And also the fact that I love the show. I thought, I suppose – and I now realise that this will never happen – that I would become tired of it or tired by it. And I’m not tired of it. I find it as exciting and as challenging and as limitless as I ever did, if not more so. The more you get to grips with what it can do the more things you think you haven’t done yet.
You said you were tired by the time you came to write this…
I find it awesomely knackering every year – by the end of the series I’m quite mad, we all are. I left a note for myself this time saying, “Remember not to trust your own judgement – by around episode 12 you’re probably mental.” Not in terms of the art of it but in terms of worrying about things. All sense of proportion has gone by then. But I’m not five years more tired than I was five years ago. It just doesn’t work that way. So I know I’m not going to leave because I find the show boring, or that I hate it. It’ll be because I’m not doing other things. Waiting for myself to drop off the perch in an elegant and natural way isn’t working for me. It’s going to have to be a decision to go. And a decision, indeed, to stay. But after the first three years it’s a conversation every year. And I do say to the BBC, “I’m not going to take offence or be upset or go in a huff if you say it’s time to bring somebody else in.” I really won’t. Just give me time so we can make it a good transition.
There’s so much chatter about the future of Doctor Who, about ratings, about schedules. More than any other TV programme gets.
More than any other hit television show our imminent cancellation is discussed…
How do you make a TV show under that kind of scrutiny?
Fortunately you don’t have to. We disappear into a bubble for months on end – people do talk about us but we’re not bothering to keep up because our profile doesn’t matter to us when we’re just making the show. It only matters to us while we’re transmitting. I entertain the fantasy that it would be much more fun if we just made it and didn’t show it. You could just make it, it would be lovely, and put it in your garage, and visitors could see it now and then. That would be quite pleasant. But you have to do all this bit. You have to show it to people.
Does it get to you?
Clickbaiting monsters make up all sorts of nonsense about you just to try and get the words Doctor Who and, god help me, Sherlock into the same headline, saying they’re both doomed and made by evil people. That means you get a lot of clicks on a website. I’ll be honest, I find that quite grinding. I mean, everybody knows what the consolidated figures are. They’re a little bit down because we’re scheduled a bit later than we should be. Everyone knows this. Internationally we’re doing colossal business. We’re one of the biggest money-spinners in British television. Everyone knows we’re in no danger whatsoever and by any standard – by any standard at all – it is a huge hit. And yet you walk into this wall of deceitful nastiness about it crashing and burning. It isn’t. I don’t think it impacts on anything in the real world. It might impact on the quality of my day, which matters a lot more to me than it does to anyone else.
Television’s clearly changing. Given things like the Netflix model, where 12 episodes drop at once, can you see Doctor Who evolving? Is it future-proof?
I am thinking quite hard about a radically different way of kicking off
Yeah, I think it is future-proof. But what’s interesting – and this is just me speculating, like any other media tosser – is that the part of the audience that is going to be of interest in the new world of television isn’t the casual viewer. It’s the dedicated viewer. Game Of Thrones doesn’t need to be the highest rated show in the world. It needs to be the most talked about and most lucrative show in the world. What I think is interesting about Doctor Who is even if the promotion isn’t quite on form, even if we’re scheduled around rugby and put on too late, it still gets those people. If we release a minisode on YouTube it’ll get four or five million viewers. I think four or five million people would watch it if you put it on at four in the morning. That kind of viewer is more important than the casual viewers. I think that the era of the casual viewer driving television might be coming to an end.
We’ve just lost Clara, who was almost the platonic ideal of what a Who companion should be. How do you follow her?
By somebody who doesn’t ever think that they should be a Doctor Who companion. That works as well. The word we inevitably use is companion and it’s completely wrong. Structurally, within the show, the Doctor is the companion. It’s always her story. And it always has been. The origin shows of Doctor Who, “An Unearthly Child” and “Rose”, focus entirely on the companion character. They get more screentime, more lines and you know more about them. So it’s starting the story again from a different point of view. And when you change the point of view character you change the flavour and style of your show. You also get a glorious thing – you can absolutely legitimately call it chapter one. You can start here. This person is going to walk with you into the Doctor’s life, and you’re going to discover that blue box is bigger on the inside. He’s got two hearts. Maybe one day you’ll discover he can change his face. You’re going to see that all again. You can call that repetitive if you like but when have we ever got tired of James Bond introducing himself?
So that’s where your head is right now?
And in Sherlock! Yes, I am thinking quite hard actually about a quite radically different way of kicking off. Because you can approach it from any angle. You can come diving in. We know where we’re going to end up. We’re going to be inside the blue box and it’s going to take off and we’re going to go everywhere in the universe. But what road we take to get there will define the new flavour of the show.
Where do you think you want to take the Doctor next year – and where does Peter want to take the character?
We haven’t sat and had that discussion yet because we’re still reeling after the end of last year. We discussed it a lot between series eight and series nine. Peter was very articulate and clear about what he wanted to do. We’d left “Am I a good man?” behind and “Am I the Doctor?” behind. I remember he wanted the electric guitar. The thing he said to me that was music to my ears was “I don’t want to play the Twelfth Doctor. I feel as though I’ve been playing the Twelfth Doctor. I want to play the Doctor. Just the Doctor. All of him.” It always happens in the second series, with every Doctor. That’s the moment where he took it over, where it was just him. There was no other.
This year’s Victorian era Sherlock special is a format buster. Could you do a Doctor Who special that was equally unexpected?
What, the continuation of the Peter Cushing movies? That’s not half-bad… I quite like it [laughs]! The answer is you can do anything you like. It does strike me as quite funny to do a Doctor Who Christmas special which is just the movie version of Doctor Who – Hollywood got hold of the true story of the Time Lord and made a slightly distorted version [laughs]! Yes, you could. Possibly people would be disappointed… oh, I don’t know. If it was funny it would be good!
The Doctor Who Christmas special is on BBC One on Christmas Day.
The Christmas special will be the fifteenth episode featuring River.
If Greg Davies loses his head he’s still got plenty of body.
Reminded of the robots in “Dinosaurs On A Spaceship”?
Is that a Sonic Screw?
A good co-pilot to have. The Christmas bauble thief: revealed!
Well, it certainly looks Christmassy.