The stakes are high when you’re creating two of TV’s biggest dramas, but screenwriter Steven Moffat tells Paul Whitelaw why he wouldn’t have it any other way
AS TIRELESS overseer of the multi-award-winning Doctor Who and Sherlock, two of Britain’s biggest – and in the case of the former, most globally successful – TV dramas, Steven Moffat’s pre-eminent position within the cultural firmament is at once impressive and unenviable. “I never find any time to relax,” he sighs. “At this very moment I’m supposed to be at a big lovely, boozy lunch that I had to call off because I haven’t finished this Doctor Who script that I’m very late on.”
Not that he’s necessarily complaining, you understand. Like his predecessor on Doctor Who, Russell T Davies, the Paisley-born writer has been a devoted fan of the series since childhood so it’s little wonder that his slight edge of weariness pales compared to his evident enjoyment of the job.
Although he admits there are days when he wants to run screaming from the room, he claims it’s not because of the programmes themselves, “but all the stuff that surrounds it can be... not so much bad as relentless. I have one of those jobs that a lot of people have, where I check my emails in the morning with trepidation. You know, is there a bomb in here, what am I unwrapping today? But in the main I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t love it.”
Although Moffat can often come across as rather prickly in interviews, the man I speak to makes for amusing and avuncular company. At the risk of sinking into armchair psychology mode, he exhibits that not uncommon combination – at least amongst creative types – of shyness, self-deprecation and utmost confidence. The latter is hardly surprising, and certainly deserved, since he’s one of the most fêted screenwriters of his generation, renowned for his sly wit, quicksilver dialogue, vibrant imagination and structurally ingenious plotting.
It was that very audacity which led several otherwise intelligent adult critics to complain that the most recent series of Doctor Who – Moffat’s second in the showrunner chair – was far too complicated for children. But he’s having none of it.
“When you say ‘adult critics’, there’s about three,” he jokes. “The truth is we don’t have any audience feedback about it being desperately hard to follow. All the kids got who River Song was, all the kids knew that the little girl regenerating would turn out to be River. It really isn’t that hard to follow.”
There has been some confusion surrounding the scheduling of the next series, with conflicting reports suggesting not all of the 14 episodes will be shown in 2012. Can he clarify? “I can clarify that we start shooting in mid-February, but I can’t tell you what the schedule is. What headlines are you planning for that time of year? I’ve only just found out what the transmission schedule is for Sherlock, and I’ve finished making that. I’ve barely started writing Doctor Who. Loads of things are in flux, all for good reasons actually.”
Moffat hasn’t yet seen the headlines revealing that Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond will meet a “heartbreaking” end in 2012. He can confirm, however, that the next series is part of his grand plan to remove Doctor Who from its usual spring/summer slot and back to the wintry habitat it enjoyed when he was growing up. “It’s done very well in the summer, it’s not like we’ve ever suffered from it, but it’s almost like an aesthetic thing. If you’re having to close the curtains so you can see the screen, that’s not a good time to be watching a show that’s largely about tunnels and torches. I think it’s a show you watch in the dark.”
As for the 50th anniversary in 2013, Moffat has already promised an appropriately special episode, although when pressed he teasingly replies, “Why talk in the singular? Again, genuinely, the plans are at an early stage, but we have some very clear ideas about some of the things we’re doing, and I think Doctor Who fans and kids will think it’s the best thing ever. We’ve got a load of very big plans – the mere fact that we’re talking about this two years before the event should tell you how seriously we’re taking it.”
Fans are clamouring for an anniversary special featuring current incumbent Matt Smith alongside many of the previous Doctors, I venture. “Apparently,” he shrugs with a laugh, with nothing more to say on the matter.
Extracting new information about the revived Doctor Who has never been easy. A magnet for rumour and misinformation, the series attracted confusion again recently when Harry Potter director David Yates claimed he was making a rebooted movie version with an entirely different cast and mythology. “It’s completely inaccurate!” says Moffat. “There’s nothing there. I mean it would be lovely, yes. If anything, the only good bit about this is that it might actually focus our minds on thinking that we actually should do a film. But to state the bleeding obvious, it’s not going to be a different version of Doctor Who with two different Doctors at the same time. Of course not, we’re not that silly. That would be no way to run a franchise, would it? I’d love it to happen, but that version you heard was just a guy getting cornered on the red carpet and not really being on-message.”
When asked what it is that attracts him to such flamboyant characters as the Doctor and Sherlock Holmes, he unequivocally cites their brainpower and thirst for knowledge.
“The thing that unites both those shows is that they absolutely fetishise intelligence. In the Clarkson-isation of television I think it’s rather good that we have two very popular drama series that expect the audience to be intelligent, and are right in that expectation. The only superpower those two heroes have is the fact that they’re smarter than anybody else in the room. It says you don’t have to be the fastest, the best-looking, the sexiest, you can just be smart. You don’t often get the message, especially in American movies, that smart is good, that smart doesn’t have to be geeky and silly, it can actually be amazing and powerful. And particularly in the case of the Doctor, he’s such a moral man, he’s a good, clever man, that’s all he is. I think that’s about as positive a message as you could possibly give.”
The Doctor and Holmes aside, Moffat also previously reinvented the tale of Doctor Jekyll And Mr Hyde for the BBC, and recently wrote the Tintin movie for Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson. Are there any other iconic fictional characters he’d like to get his hands on? “When Mark [Gatiss, co-creator of Sherlock] and I get together we discuss Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond, and I keep saying, ‘Oh, we can’t do James Bond because there has to be something left that’s still fiction for us!’ I love those films, but I think I shouldn’t write that because then I’ll ruin James Bond for myself.”
It’s probably just as well, as he wouldn’t have the time. Nevertheless, it looks as though he’ll be steering the adventures of the Time Lord for at least a while yet. “I genuinely haven’t got a plan,” he claims, “except I’ll probably have to stop at some point or I’ll die. And dying would be bad. But my main concern is not so much how long I do it, but that I absolutely, definitely am going to be handing it on to somebody else. I want it to be in great shape, and some day I want somebody else to come in and knock my socks off with what they do with it. You don’t want to be the last person in the relay race, do you?” v
• Doctor Who – The Doctor, The Widow And The Wardrobe, Christmas Day on BBC1 at 7pm. The new series of Sherlock begins on New Year’s Day on BBC1 at 8.10pm