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Time Lad scores with sex and Daleks

THE curly-haired man sitting opposite me has a secret that millions would kill for and some - sporting home-made Dalek rig-outs with sink-plungers and egg-whisks for limbs - would exterminate for.

Steven Moffat, a former schoolteacher from Paisley, is currently hard at work dreaming up new and fiendish ways for Earth to be imperilled, and new and zany ways for Doctor Who to save it.

He knows he’s got the best job in TV right now. "Every soul on the planet was applying to do it," he says.

The main writer on the BBC revival is Russell T Davies and Moffat is one of his hired guns, or ray-guns, entrusted with new Time Lord Christopher Eccleston and the hopes and dreams of all those fans.

He knows, too, that the job is one of the toughest. "TV doesn’t bother trying to target entire families any more," he says. "If 10-year-olds aren’t talking about the show in the playground on Monday morning then we’ll have failed."

But, frustratingly, he’s giving away little about the two episodes he’s been scripting at his Richmond home, round the corner from the bistro where we meet. He refuses to crack when I interrogate him about setting (Earth or Zob?), foes (old enemy or new menace?) or sexual intrigue involving the Doctor, his assistant (the just-installed Billie Piper) or indeed any of the aliens. Not for the first time in my life, I wish I was a Cyberman: it was the silver foil-suited panheads that the young Moffat feared most.

I ask about the sex for a very good reason. Davies was the man behind Queer As Folk, which featured lots of man behinds, a gay Channel 4 drama provoking a storm of protest from Daily Mail readers, the letters stained with spilt Horlicks. And Moffat is the creator of Coupling, the British Friends, which he admits is based on his own sexploits. Before getting married, he was the inspiration for the most sexually active character in the sitcom, when he "shagged his way round television studios like a mechanical digger".

Yes, there will be sex in the disinterred Doctor Who, or at least the hint of it. "There always was," he says. Really? "Patrick Troughton had pretty girl, and boy, assistants, both in skirts. Russell is quite keen on an element of sexiness and, anyway, all TV now is cast with this question high up the list: do we want to go to bed with these characters? But that will never be the central element of Doctor Who. The show is still about saving the universe. You can’t be thinking about lovey-dovey stuff when there’s that level of jeopardy involved."

Phew, thank goodness for that. Moffat is 43, which means he was too young for William Hartnell, but, bafflingly, claims to have watched Doctor Who right through to Sylvester McCoy. By then I thought no one was watching, behind sofas or slouched across them in boredom. "One of the reasons Doctor Who survived for so long, and a rival like Blake 7 was so risible, is that it was funny," says Moffat. "The Doctor was in on the joke, he knew the show was cheaply made and that some of the storylines were nonsensical."

But while we, the grown-up kids, didn’t know that the 1960s and 1970s incarnations of Doctor Who were string-and-sealing-wax affairs - or if we did we didn’t care - won’t today’s generation demand a level of sophistication and special-FX that TV simply cannot provide? "I don’t think the fact we’re in the post-Star Wars era is an issue - matching Buffy is. Doctor Who was never a space opera anyway, it was about horror: dark shadows and creepy monsters lurking just around the corner."

Hmm, we’ll see. Forty years ago, with only two channels available, no one had heard of attention deficit disorder; remote-controls weren’t even a twinkle in a boffin’s eye so no one knew about repetitive strain injury either. But maybe we should listen to Moffat when he says that kids will watch Doctor Who again; as the inspiration for Coupling he’s already proved he understands the impulses of those in another of TV’s target-audience age categories.

After some foreplay on BBC3, and despite an American remake bombing last year, the clever sitcom about six friends in various states of romantic fulfilment is returning to BBC2 with Steve (Jack Davenport) and Susan (Sarah Alexander) - the couple loosely based on Moffat and his wife, also Susan, the producer of the show - awaiting the birth of their first child. Jane, played by Gina Bellman, is the fantasist, often handed the best lines, like this from the new run: "You can’t expect to come in for a few drinks and end up in my bed like some kind of taxi driver!" Sally (Kate Isitt) is the needy one.

"I don’t know how well women come out of Coupling," says Moffat, the son of a headmaster, who taught English in Greenock before following his original writerly instincts and scoring his first success with Press Gang. "There’s this issue you’re not allowed to discuss: that women are needy. Men can go for longer, more happily, without women. That’s the truth. We don’t, as little boys, play at being married - we try to avoid it for as long as possible. Meanwhile women are out there hunting for husbands."

Not that I study such things, but this seems to contradict the findings of at least one recent survey, suggesting it is women who cope better on their own. We’re all weekend relationship-psychologists now, of course, but since Moffat - now a dad of two - has subjected his own entanglements to special scrutiny for the benefit of the sitcom, maybe his opinions on the sex wars rate better than most.

"I used to have Patrick’s life, minus the large accoutrement," he says of his days impersonating a road construction vehicle. "I had a fantastic penthouse flat in Glasgow and put it to the best possible use. It was tremendous fun." But it was his first meaningful relationship in ages that inspired Coupling. When he and Susan started living together, he says he was confronted with a "completely different set of life priorities": suddenly there were cushions everywhere. Or, as his alter ego in the show puts it: "Tiny picture frames, toilet-roll holders, toilet-roll ... "

So, post-New Man, post-Lad, where does the male of the species stand now? "Well, the world is vastly counted in favour of men at every level - except if you live in a civilised country and you’re sort of educated and middle-class, because then you’re almost certainly junior in your relationship and in a state of permanent, crippled apology. Your preferences are routinely mocked. There’s a huge, unfortunate lack of respect for anything male."

Crikey. Who wants to grow up and be a man, accompanied by an accoutrement or not? Best to stay a boy and look forward to the return of - cue scariest theme music of all time - Doctor Who. Moffat is loving the writing process, a dramatic change from three-laughs-per-page in every sense. "There’s no need for character development, or chat, it’s straight into: ‘There’s something wrong here, let’s look into this deep, dark hole.’"

So how about a sample snatch of dialogue, then? "Doctor, no! ... "

Coupling returns to BBC 2 on July 5 at 9pm. Doctor Who is back on BBC1 early next year.

 
 
 

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