Doc­tor who

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”...

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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.

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