Interview: Steven Moffat Has Next-Leveled ‘Doctor Who’

Helming the sci-fi classic, head writer brings beloved time traveler to new round of earthlings

SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 09: Writer/producer Steven Moffat attends the "Sherlock" panel during Comic-Con International 2015 at the San Diego Convention Center on July 9, 2015 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Writer/producer Steven Moffat attends the “Sherlock” panel during Comic-Con International 2015 at the San Diego Convention Center on July 9, 2015 in San Diego, California. (Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Steven Moffat needs you to know something. If you’re not watching Doctor Who, you’re a foolish snob. Mr. Steven Moffat, the showrunner, writer, and producer of Doctor Who—he is also a co-creator and writer of Sherlock—is a lifelong fan of the characters he now gets to re-invent. Mr. Moffat – who’s won a constellation of Nebula and Hugo Awards – began writing for television with a show called Press Gang and later created Joking Apart and Chalk. When Doctor Who came back to television in 2005, it was Mr. Moffat’s writing that ushered in its Aureate Age of Glory. Five years later, he was in charge of Doctor Who and had invented Sherlock.

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Since Mr. Moffat took charge of the show in 2010, Doctor Who has become the crown jewel for the BBC. Those who grew up on the show now watch with their children. In America, Doctor Who has more teen viewers than dramas on network and cable television, and is regularly among the top ten most discussed shows on social media.

“The Girl in the Fireplace”: A Steven Moffat masterpiece, veering between the 51st century and the Paris of the beautiful Madame de Pompadour. Set during the time of Louis XV, this episode has beautiful costumes, sets, and it’s romantic as well. One of Mr. Moffat’s greatest triumphs.
“The Girl in the Fireplace”: A Steven Moffat masterpiece, veering between the 51st century and the Paris of the beautiful Madame de Pompadour.

It’s become a fad to ask Moffat about the state of women in his shows. It’s a stupid trend. Steven Moffat is a writer who loves women. Example: his gorgeous “The Girl in the Fireplace.” His version of Madame de Pompadour is one of the most exciting, fully-realized characters on television in recent years. She’s dazzling, of course, but the character is also brilliant, deeply perceptive (she is the only character who ever sees inside the Doctor’s mind), and courageous when faced with death. Mr. Moffat’s award-winning “Blink” rests solely on Sally Sparrow; the Doctor barely appears in the episode. It’s Sally (played by Carey Mulligan) who saves the day as well as the TARDIS. And why isn’t there a female Doctor yet? Because there already is! Kind of. If you’ve been watching, you know that the character of The Master, who is a Time Lord, is now played by Michelle Gomez. That doesn’t make her a Doctor – only the main character is the Doctor and all twelve generations have been male. But still, women can clearly do what men can do and now we can call The Master Mistress, or Missy.

I began watching Doctor Who during its early days. We had a long, skinny wood-paneled room with a flowered couch, a stereo, and a black and white set that got four channels. This is where my mom and I would watch TV together, sometimes for hours. She would be reading her textbooks from law school while I read, sipped Pelican Punch tea, and watched everything from Masterpiece Theater to Laverne and Shirley. Not a lot of viewing options for a single parent and her loner kid back in the mid-70s. Doctor Who was always on PBS. Yes, it was the era of Tom Baker (scarf guy), the Fourth Doctor. The sets were absurd; the Daleks appeared so ridiculous I assumed they were made from bubble wrap. Exterminate!! But we watched it anyway.

The Daleks run riot in the British science fiction television series 'Doctor Who', 28th September 1964. (Photo by Ronald Dumont/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The Daleks run riot in the British science fiction television series Doctor Who, 28th September 1964. (Photo: Ronald Dumont/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

READ: The Best Doctor Who Episodes for Beginners

Now I binge watch Doctor Who, gorging on the brilliance of the writing and the acting. Even the once-ridiculous sets have been replaced by sophisticated props (the Daleks are much improved) and impressive cinematography. Still, my favorite episode, “Midnight,” is perfectly low-tech and takes place on a stranded bus. Most of the action is small and unsettling: a few knocks on a bus wall, a woman who won’t move but simply echoes the dialogue (the brilliant Lesley Sharp as Sky Silvestry), which makes the cramped setting even creepier. When Sky begins to control the conversation, it is genuinely shocking. It’s like watching the horrible moment when RNA takes over for DNA during reverse transcriptase. This is how a retrovirus gets made: when the falconer cannot control the falcon. This is how a perfect episode is structured.

OBSERVER: You’ve pointed out that Doctor Who in the UK is a family show, and is shown at a family time. But in America, it’s sort of marginalized to science fiction geeks. Do you have any idea why that might be?

MOFFAT: None at all. You’ll probably have to ask the schedulers. I think in the end, it could be nothing more than it goes later there, doesn’t it? But there aren’t enough sci fi geeks to account for the very good ratings we’re getting on BBC America, so it’s not marginalized entirely to them. But maybe it’s a cultural difference, in that we perceive it to be a quite children’s family show but is an adult drama over there. I don’t know. At the moment in the UK, we’re going out at 8:25, which I think is a bit late, so there you go.

OBSERVER: I’m fascinated that Americans tend to cling to the same actor year after year, to the point where someone like Captain Kirk is practically in a walker, but it’s perfectly acceptable for Doctor Who to change every few years, and everyone loves it.

MOFFAT: Well, first of all, there have been TWO Captain Kirks, and they’re both very good Captain Kirks, Chris Pine and William Shatner. As for Doctor Who, I think we’ve got the same tendency to cling in the UK. I don’t think we like it when unaccountably someone turns up with a different face and nobody notices. In the case of Doctor Who, in order to honor that need to cling to the original actor, we developed all those years ago a brilliant idea for re-casting that allows you to accept a different pattern, a different performer, and a different face in the same role. And in a way, the fact that Doctor Who has had to alter its entire mythology to account for recasts points to the fact that we are just as nervous as a group as everybody else is.

OBSERVER: In “Waters of Mars” and “Vincent and the Doctor,” two of my favorite episodes and very big fan favorites, the Doctor has such a wave of compassion for humans, to the point where in “Waters of Mars” he truly breaks the rules with devastating consequences. But why is he essentially incapable of real love?

2. “The Waters of Mars”: The Doctor lands on Bowie Base One (no Major Tom on board) on the day the base will be mysteriously destroyed.
“The Waters of Mars”: The Doctor lands on Bowie Base One (no Major Tom on board) on the day the base will be mysteriously destroyed.

MOFFAT: Well, we don’t know the answer to that question. We don’t know the extent to which he’s capable of real love. This is a thing we have to discuss sometimes on the set, about what he is feeling right now. What did he feel for River? What did he feel for Rose? The answer always has to kind of be, we don’t know. That’s all locked in a box somewhere. We know that he’s wired like any other Time Lord, and they all do that sort of thing. We know that as an incontrovertible fact that he’s been a father in his life, and it’s not something you can dismiss or ignore. He’s capable of all that. I think he just doesn’t. This is my theory, and just the fact that I write it right now doesn’t make it more important than anyone else’s theory. I don’t think he’s incapable of feeling real love at all, in fact I think he’s quite badly susceptible to crushes, but he doesn’t seem to do anything about it. He seems to have taken the position that that is no longer what he does. He’s something of a gentleman, really, and to do all that would mean proper commitment, in his book, and he’s not really good at proper commitment. He can’t even stay on the same planet. It’s hard not to assume that there’s tremendous heartbreak from way before we knew him, since we first encountered him traveling with his granddaughter and nobody else. It’s reasonable to assume that there’s something awful back there. The answer I tend to prefer is not that he’s incapable, but that’s he decided not to, but at times those hearts are at war with each other. He wants what he thinks he shouldn’t have. It’s much more dramatic if it’s that way. He’s made a decision that as much as he might fall in love now and then, he never does anything about it. I think you see him fall in love quite a lot. You don’t see him embark on a fool relationship and all that that entails. As far as we know. Heaven knows what he gets up to between episodes—I’ve never asked him.

OBSERVER: What do you think attracts you to shows in which someone is emotionally distant?

MOFFAT: I’m not sure the Doctor is emotionally distant. He’s romantically distant, perhaps. He’s quite emotional, in fact terribly driven by emotions. He’d like to occasionally pretend that any of his incarnations are aloof and above it all, but then he loses his temper or bursts out crying. He’s quite an emotional man, and he doesn’t particularly think that emotions are a bad thing. He’s got nothing against them. Sherlock is also an emotional man, but he decided not to be, to clarify his mind. But as regards me, I’ve got no feelings about the matter. I’m certainly not an emotionally distant man at all. Like most people, I very terribly emote. So I’m not especially attracted to that, no. I think what’s interesting in both cases, with the Doctor and Sherlock Holmes is that they’re both emotional people, they just handle it in different ways.

OBSERVER: There’s a wonderful moment in Extras where Andy Millman heroically quits his show and he keeps being offered a role as a slug on Doctor Who, which he finally accepts. Does it ever bother you that other shows ignore the brilliance and the seriousness of the themes and the writing on the show?

MOFFAT: That’s not true. I loved “Extras,” but that joke was sort of out of date. Look at the guest stars we’ve had. People are falling over themselves to be on Doctor Who. It’s completely untrue that people regard us like that. People get very excited when they walk onto the TARDIS set.

OBSERVER: That’s because it’s bigger on the inside.

MOFFAT: Yeah. It’s not at all true that people regard our show as slumming it. It’s the one job they can ever take that will impress their kids. That’s simply an untruth. I don’t think Ricky has actually watched Doctor Who. They’re talking about it maybe in the days of old, maybe in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it would seem that way. It was a much-loved show even then. But now it’s BBC 1’s flagship drama. It’s not seen that way at all.

OBSERVER: Is there a big David Bowie fan in the writer’s room? I was thrilled that “Waters of Mars” takes place on Bowie Base One. I read that Peter Capaldi also asked for the Thin White Duke to be cast next season.

MOFFAT: “Waters of Mars” wasn’t a show I had anything to do with because it was before I took it over. I’m sure there is somebody else. People could sneak millions of references past me and I wouldn’t even know. I don’t know music that well, I’m sorry.

OBSERVER: I must ask: Are we going to see Missy again?

MOFFAT: Well, yes, I would think so. We’ve officially re-installed that character as the quasi-archenemy who turns up now and then.

OBSERVER: Sometimes she’s a friend.

MOFFAT: She’s never exactly a friend. She’s just never exactly an enemy. She’s complicated. That’s nothing new that I’ve introduced. You can go right back to the first appearances by The Master and they clearly get on. That’s just the weird thing about them, they just happen to be on different sides. That’s not new. What’s new is Michelle Gomez.

OBSERVER: She’s just the most marvelous character, wonderful. Her interaction with the Doctor crackles, she’s just delightful.

MOFFAT: She is.

OBSERVER: What hope does a young Steven Moffat have? How would an aspiring Doctor Who writer get to be where you are?

MOFFAT: First of all, by becoming a writer. I did want to write for Doctor Who, that was absolutely my ambition. But what actually happened is that I got to write my own shows. I wrote my own stuff for years and was actually doing quite well by the end of that. That’s the point at which somebody from the Doctor Who office might get a whiff that that person is a Doctor Who fan and they might say yes to a Doctor Who episode. The wrong ambition to have is to only write Doctor Who. You should want to write everything and then Doctor Who is something you might get as an extra surprise. I was writing television for a long time before I wrote for Doctor Who.

OBSERVER: Does the Doctor sleep? I’ve seen him eat on occasion, and Rory once asks him where his room is, but the Doctor doesn’t answer.

MOFFAT: Yeah, he does sleep. We’ve seen him sleep in the show actually. He does like to have a nap. I don’t think he sleeps in the same pattern we do because he lives much longer. It would be odd if he did. Yes, he sleeps. He more or less, generally speaking, except for the very obvious exceptions, seems to be at human prowess in most things. He needs to eat, sleep, drink water. He’s not physically much stronger than a human being. He doesn’t run faster. Essentially, if he’s horrifically injured, he can turn into a different actor. But that sort of is the extent of his superpowers. But otherwise, he’s kind of in the story the function of a human. But he has to do all of these things. So yes, we work with the assumption that he does all of those things. He does like to preserve his mystique, the Doctor. So he might not wish to admit that he’s off for a snooze.

OBSERVER: It must be wonderful to write two different shows with a character you’ve followed your whole life.

MOFFAT: It’s very exciting. You can sort of claim that tiny bit of the picture I’ve filled in, look at that tiny bit over there. That’s my piece in the mosaic.

OBSERVER: I have a superfan question. Are we ever going to see the sonic screwdriver again? At one point, many seasons ago, River Song has a very advanced screwdriver, so clearly it has to come from the future. Will we ever know which Doctor gives it to her?

MOFFAT: Well, I’m not answering your second question! That has to be the answer to that. As to whether or not we’ll see the sonic screwdriver again, of course we will!

OBSERVER: I happen to like the sunglasses, but I’m sure others are wondering.

MOFFAT: It just occurred to me with the sonic glasses, you know, it’s kind of cool because that means every kid with glasses has now got a superpower. Every kid whose parents don’t want to run the expense of a toy, they just have to go get some sunglasses. Even more importantly, every celebrity tosser who thinks they’re looking cool because they’re wearing sunglasses is now cosplaying as Doctor Who. It tricks pomposity, it confers magic on an everyday household object, and it turns an eye defect into a superpower. How much more Doctor Who do you get?

The screwdriver will be back. We’re just messing about and having some fun. Surely that’s allowed.

OBSERVER: I thought the line about “wearable technology” was quite hilarious.

MOFFAT: It’s the sort of silly thing that Doctor Who would do. And it sort of resurrects the old joke that we’ve all forgotten about. The words “sonic screwdriver” together are ridiculous. Why would you make a screwdriver sonic? Well, sonic sunglasses is just going back to that. The ones that care about this kind of stuff enough to get angry are insisting that our sonic sunglasses are silly but sonic screwdrivers, well, that makes perfect sense. Are you mad? This is about a man with two hearts who lives in a telephone box — can we just straighten ourselves out here a bit. Get with the program.

The infamous Sonic Screwdriver.
The infamous Sonic Screwdriver.

OBSERVER: Is there anything you’ve been especially proud of in the most recent season?

MOFFAT: Well, what have we done lately? I’m proud that we get to the end of the series and it all looks pretty and is nice. I’m just embarking on the new one and it’s terrifying. I have to make all that again. We got some new writers in who I thought were really great. Jamie Mathieson and Peter Harness, and thank God for voices of new people writing. I love that, having new writers this year. Sarah Dollard, Cat Tregenna, so it’s always good getting people who are new to the show. I like that we did a show called “Listen,” which is about the only show we’ve made in the modern series that you could absolutely have made in 1963, because it was so low tech. I loved “Mummy on the Orient Express.” I’ll just say this, I shouldn’t, but I thought it was the best mummy ever put on film. I thought it was terrific. A brilliant mummy. All the things you’d expect me to be fatuous and proud of, it’s a bit of a trap because you always end up with a big head. Those are things that I love.

OBSERVER: Is there anything to say about the Christmas episode?

MOFFAT: I think that you probably know that we’ve got River Song back at Christmas.

OBSERVER: That’s exactly what I was hoping to hear.

MOFFAT: We confirmed that a while back. We’ve shot that one with the 12th Doctor. That’s been a riot to do. And that’s been sort of a big fun chase episode, really. Just Mr. and Mrs. Who battling their way past nonsense and that’s been great fun. They’re lovely together, they are. Alex [Kingston] is always great value. It’s time we saw her back being a kick ass hero instead of playing mums and sisters and all that. It’s a waste of her.

Interview: Steven Moffat Has Next-Leveled ‘Doctor Who’