Here’s Steven Moffat talking to the BBC about his initial work on Doctor Who and his experiences (so far) on the upcoming season five starring Matt Smith. The nature of this blog tends to preclude spoilers, but this interview has ONE VERY BIG SPOILER which you should probably avoid if you want to go into the new series ‘fresh’. There are also some indications of the direction that the next season will take, so I’ll say it again: SPOILERS AHEAD!
Q: Doctor Who was once a secret obsession for die-hards, a love that dare not speak its name. Now it’s a national obsession, with 11 or 12 million viewers per episode. Is there any margin for error in this job?
A: I’d worry if I said I worried about that too much, because I was a die-hard and because I loved it for all those years that fools didn’t. I knew it was brilliant, I knew it would be a success. I never had the slightest doubt when I heard that it was coming back, and that Russell was running it.
Q: But is there any way up from 12 million viewers a week?
A: I don’t know, let’s find out!
Q: At the end of the last series, the Daleks attempted to explode reality itself. The Christmas story is called The End of Time. After that, ideas for the series have to be more local, don’t they? How else do you navigate this sort of narrative hyper-inflation?
A: Well, first of all don’t assume that we’ve faced the biggest threat yet. I believe we do have a good one, which is great. One of the great advantages of Doctor Who is that the menace can at times, and very compellingly, be very very small. In The Empty Child, there was no big enemy and the major fear factor was a little boy looking for his mummy. Doctor Who can be small and domestic, and brilliantly effective.
Q: That’s been the case in many of your episodes so far. You don’t really do the end of the universe, do you?
A: Well I think you have to save the end of the universe for the end of the series. You can’t do it in episode six. There’s a tradition, not just in Doctor Who but in other shows, of building to a big finish, and one of the things you can do is end the universe. But there’s other things you can do. There’s other kinds of story.
Q: But in your stories, people tend to survive. I’m just trying to tease out an idea of how your version of the series might differ from what we’ve got used to in the last five years or so.
A: I think the critical thing about Doctor Who is that when it’s working, when it’s really on form, every story differs from the last one. The basics of the series, a man and his best friend travelling the universe and fighting evil. I realised, after writing six episodes of Russell’s new version, that I hadn’t killed anybody in those six episodes. A remarkable run. I didn’t manage that in Press Gang, I killed loads of people in Press Gang and that was on at 4.45.
Q: So are you saying that we won’t notice any difference in the new series?
A: Well I’ve killed some people in the new series. Not actual people, just fictional people. Killing is ever so frowned upon, especially in the new BBC. You can get into terrible trouble.
Q: For killing them in a graphic way, or…
A: No, no, for killing actual people. It’s almost as bad as an overspend.
Q: So what changes will there be, tonally or philosophically, in your series?
A: That’s hard for me to say. I suppose my view of it has always been more of a dark fairytale. It’s very much a fairytale, Doctor Who. I don’t think that’s a new perception, it’s quite literally a fairytale, it’s a way of telling our children to be wary of the world, that there are dangerous things out there.
Q: Your episodes have been among the more gothic of the new series. They’ve been darker.
A: Well dark is a complex word. Scooby Doo’s dark at times, and Doctor Who’s got some of that Scooby Doo darkness. Russell’s a tremendously dark writer under some of it.
Q: But you’ll have less froth?
A: The scariness is what I like, I suppose, that’s true. I watched The Empty Child recently, because I’m an egotist and I like to watch my own stuff, and there’s a lot of jokes in The Empty Child.
Q: What difference will it make having a younger Doctor?
A: Truthfully, it makes absolutely no difference at all, because the man is 900 plus. William Hartnell was too young for this part, they’re all too young. Matt Smith isn’t playing an especially youthful Doctor, you can’t play him as an ingenue, you can’t play him as a young man. Matt Smith plays the same man you’ve always seen, an adventurer, a scientist, a man who’s been around for hundreds of years, as sometimes you can tell. So no, actually, I don’t think it makes a hell of a lot of difference.
Q: But it sounds like you’re saying it doesn’t make a difference who’s playing the part and who’s in charge?
A: It makes a difference every single week which story you’re telling. I think that’s what keeps Doctor Who fresh. Each week, we aren’t thinking of our house style, or our rules, we’re thinking about the rules for this story, what is the Doctor like in this story? I think it’s so close to an anthology at times, that’s what keeps it alive, that’s what keeps it fresh.
Q: Russell T. Davies said that in the future, Doctor Who is the programme that researchers will look back at when they’re analysing how television works, because it’s the most documented programme in television. Does that affect the way you conduct yourself?
A: Doctor Who secrets don’t even last after the show. Doctor Who Confidential comes on straight after and spends forty-five minutes telling you how the previous forty-five minutes worked. Especially at the start of coming in to the show, when Matt was coming in, every time you opened a door there was a television camera pointed at us. It was a quite extraordinary feeling, and yes, it’s the most extensively documented show of all time.
Q: Can I ask you about the succession? Was there some type of Granita-type deal between you and Russell T. Davies?
A: You mean that I was bound to one day take over? Russell sent me an e-mail about two and a half years ago, asking if I was interested in it, which was the first time it had been aired. We’d never talked about it before.
Q: Doctor Who is an industry now, with Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures. Mark Thompson has been talking about limiting the commercial expansion of the BBC. Can you sustain this level?
A: It’s not like any of us sit around saying ‘We must have a certain level of peripheral output’. It’s not like ‘Our quota for spin-offs is this’. Russell had a good idea for Torchwood, he made it. He had a good idea for Sarah Jane, he made it.
Q: So you don’t involve yourself in the business of it?
A: Not really, no. I look at everything, to make sure everything is proper and right and Doctor Who-y, but I don’t sit and make business plans. I’m not thinking in terms of commercial exploitation, I’m thinking of what will be a great fat treat for everyone.
Q: Is part of your job the control of information? It’s closely guarded, and it comes out in dribs and drabs, doesn’t it?
A: I don’t think I control the information, I think up to this point I’ve just been stemming it. Something that no-one outside the production team knows right now? The Weeping Angels are coming back.