Doctor Who’s New Show-runner Remains Tightlipped
Jul 01, 2008 Web Exclusive Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern
“When the time is right to talk about series five, I’ll talk about series five, but I’m not talking about it now.” Steven Moffat is staying mum. Having written some of the most acclaimed and award-winning episodes of Doctor Who (such as The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink), Moffat will be taking over from Russell T. Davies as show-runner when the beloved British sci-fi show returns for it’s fifth season in 2010. But sitting on a patio at San Diego’s Comic-Con, Moffat is reluctant to spill too many beans. Doctor Who’s original series ran from 1963 to 1989. It was revived in 2005 and currently screens in the U.S. on both the Sci-Fi Channel and BBC America. For the uninitiated, The Doctor is a 900-year-old Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who travels through time and space in his ship the TARDIS, usually on adventures with a twenty-something female companion from Earth. “Doctor Who is essentially about The Doctor walking out of the TARDIS’ doors and finding completely new stuff he doesn’t understand yet. That’s the paradigm Doctor Who story,” explains Moffat.David Tennant, the current Doctor, is the 10th actor to play the part. In what Moffat calls “a clever way to solve a staffing problem,” The Doctor doesn’t die, but regenerates into a different body, allowing the producers to recast the role every few years. Ever since he took the part, the British media has been rife with speculation as to when Tennant will be leaving the show. “I know who’s going to play The Doctor,” replies Moffat, when asked if it’s a challenge to be writing the fifth season not knowing who will play the title character. “I’m not going to tell you.” Moffat later adds: “Whether that day is now or in ten years, somebody [else] will [play The Doctor]. I’ve checked with David and he’s, in fact, mortal. He’s not going to live forever. So there will be other Doctors, but who knows when.” Alas, in October it was announced that David Tennant would be leaving the show before Moffat takes over in 2010.
Moffat says that he plans to write “roughly half” of season five’s scripts, but won’t comment on the rumor that Neil Gaiman might be writing an episode. Fan-chatter has also speculated as to whether Sally Sparrow, a beloved character from Moffat’s Blink episode, would become The Doctor’s new companion. “An awful lot of what was great about Sally Sparrow, I have to be absolutely honest, was [actress] Carey Mulligan,” responds Moffat. “You’d always want to work with Carey, but there’s no specific plans.”
Throughout the interview Moffat drives home the point that change is an important component to Doctor Who. With such a rich history of villains to mine, the show could get trapped in its own time-loop. “A change is actually stitched into the fabric of Doctor Who,” he says. “You could end up very easily with a whole season of Doctor Who in which there’s something from the past in every single episode and it would be wrong.”
Moffat has also written the first script for a trilogy of films adapting the classic Belgian comic strip Tintin, to be directed by Stephen Spielberg and Peter Jackson. “Your eyes will pop out when you see this. It’s going to be extraordinary,” promises Moffat.
But Moffat seems skeptical about the rumored idea of spinning off Doctor Who into a theatrical movie at some point. “I’m contemplating the nightmare of 14 episodes of Doctor Who to get made, I’m not worried about a movie….Any offshoot from it must play second fiddle to that central thing, because it is a television series and it could run for another 50 years if you get it right.”
Below is the full transcript of our interview with Steven Moffat, which was conducted at the San Diego Comic-Con in July 2008.
Mark Redfern (Under the Radar): Have you already been planning for season five? Have you already been writing scripts for that?
Steven Moffat: Yep, yeah, we are getting an early start. It’s still a year away before we start making it, but an early start just makes sense. It’s a huge complicated show, with a new team…so we’re getting an early start and yes, we have started.
UTR: Are you involved at all in the special episodes that are going to come out?
Moffat: Well, you know, we have a sort of big mish-mash moment where both Russell [T. Davies] and I are there for about a year, and he’s doing the specials and I’m doing the subsequent series. Obviously, we talk to each other and we’re friends, of course we talk to each other, but, in fact, I’ve got no official status at all in the specials beyond the fact that I’ll know all about them. And Russell wants to know absolutely nothing about series five, he wants to go home and watch it, and I don’t blame him. After all these years, he just wants to be able to watch it again. Because he’s a fan too and he’s the one fan for whom the show has not yet come back. Because he’s known everything. He’s spoilt it all.
UTR: Obviously you have to make sure the specials lead in well to what you are going to do for season five.
Moffat: Uh yeah, I mean, that’s not difficult to do, it takes a bit of coordinating but, you know, it’s not as if Russell and I are meeting for the first time, you know, we’ve had that problem before.
UTR: Is it hard to be writing and planning for season five, when presumably you’re not sure who’s going to play The Doctor?
Moffat: You may presume that if you want. I know who’s going to play The Doctor.
UTR: You know who’s playing The Doctor?
Moffat: Of course I know.
Moffat: I’m not going to tell you.
UTR: Well that’s interesting to know.
Moffat: There’s nothing interesting there, I promise you.
UTR: Well, I’m hoping that it’s still David [Tennant], but if not, I’m sure it’ll be somebody great.
Moffat: I think, I mean, the really really important thing, I mean, maybe I should have said this wider and louder, Doctor Who motors on surprise, you know, surprise is the reward of fiction. Wasn’t it great, well, you haven’t seen the cliffhanger to episode 12 yet, have you.
Moffat: Well, you know, if you don’t know what’s coming it’s much more fun. I’m simply never going to tell anyone anything about what’s going to happen to The Doctor, because it’s the most important thing they have, surprise. Forget it.
UTR: Well, I remember when Christopher Eccleson left, and I was like “No! He was so great.” And I didn’t really know David Tennant and David Tennant, for me, is the ultimate Doctor. And, obviously, people consider Tom Baker one of the best of the old- school and he was, I think, the fourth one, so you never know who’s going to come around the corner and play the role.
Moffat: Well, some day, somebody else will. Whether that day is now, or in ten years, somebody will. I’ve checked with David and he’s, in fact, mortal. He’s not going to live forever. So there will be other Doctors, but who knows when? [After this interview was conducted it was announced that David Tennant would be leaving the show before Moffat takes over in 2010.]
UTR: OK. If the sky was the limit, is there an actor that you could see playing The Doctor, one day, somebody, it could be a huge star, it could be even somebody that’s an old-school star, passed away, somebody…
Moffat: Uh, there’s a lot, you know the world if full of Doctors, actually, or people who could be brilliant at it. Um, you know, I’m not even going to name people because it gets me into the big David thing, which I don’t want to.
UTR: Sure. Sure. I understand. I remember when you did the Comic Relief thing and you had all the different actors, like Hugh Grant, and Richard E. Grant, which was pretty cool. Obviously, Russell has done a fantastic job so far, but is there anything about this show that you have your mind set on definitely changing something you feel like you want to differently or needs improving?
Moffat: Every episode you think that. I mean, Russell thinks that. We all think it. You know, is it time to change that? Have we got stale? Are we repeating ourselves? Is this idea, that was once incredibly new, now quite an old idea? So that’s not a special new thing happening because I’m taking over, that happens at every point along the way of Doctor Who. That can’t help but happen.
UTR: But there’s nothing specific you can think of that.
Moffat: There’s lots of specific things, but I’m not talking. [Laughs] But these are not implicit criticisms of the show. I just think you keep it moving. A change is actually stitched into the fabric of Doctor Who. It needs to change. It needs to change in a way just for the hell of it. You know, lets shake it up, lets do this differently. So you change and you make sure that you aren’t getting lazy and just keeping things the same.
UTR: Well, what’s great about the show obviously, is that every week you never know where they are going to end up, or what’s going to happen.
Moffat: Well, it’s exciting. It’s an exciting thing.
UTR: And there’s so many TV shows that you know every week it’s going to be the same type of situation you’re going to get, but Doctor Who’s not like that. A lot of people loved the character of Sally Sparrow in Blink, do you think that you’d ever think about bringing her back?
Moffat: You know, there’s no law against bringing anyone back. An awful lot of what was great about Sally Sparrow, I have to be absolutely honest, was Carey Mulligan. I mean, it’s a well-written part, but it was a superbly played part. And so, you know, you’d always want to work with Carey, but there’s no specific plans. I think you always end up having to say, certainly at fan events: Doctor Who is about being new. You have a very limited amount of sequels. You could end up very easily with a whole season of Doctor Who in which there’s something from the past in every single episode and it would be wrong. Because the brand new kids who’ve just never watched it before would be saying “Who’s that? And who’s this? And why are you talking about that?” It really is about the future. Fresh and new.
UTR: Along those lines, I think I read before, you’ve said that most of your favorite Doctor Who episodes are where they have a new villain, doesn’t bring back an old villain. Having said that, do you think that you are going to rely less on the Daleks and Cybermen and some of those old villains?
Moffat: I think it is in the DNA of Doctor Who that the best monsters return. And there’s a buzz when they do. When I say, I think essentially there’s a dichotomy, I suppose, a dilemma, Doctor Who is essentially about The Doctor walking out of the TARDIS’ doors and finding completely new stuff he doesn’t understand yet. That’s the paradigm Doctor Who story. At the same time, you do want encores for the big successes. You just do. So, you’re going to manage that. I think you always want the new to outweigh the old.
UTR: Definitely. I think the challenge with the Daleks is always finding a new way to use them.
Moffat: There are always new ways. [Laughs]
UTR: Are there any classic villains that haven’t been used in the new series that you’ve thought about bringing back at some point?
Moffat: Um, yeah, but I’m not going [to tell you]. [Laughs] And that’s not a guarantee that I’ll bring any back. You know, there are no guarantees about that.
UTR: Sure. You’re probably not going to answer this one either, but do you think that you will ever have The Doctor interact with a former Doctor, like you did in Time Crash, but actually in the show?
Moffat: There’s no rule against it, there’s no law against it. But it would have to be a good enough story. The thing about Time Crash is, I mean, the thing about the novelty value, or the stunt value of having two Doctors on the screen at the same time is, I think, the idea of the amount of time you get, the amount of energy you get of that is eight minutes, that’s why Time Crashis great. Because you’ve just got that fun and then it stops. And at a certain point, the plot has got to kick in. You have to say, “Why is it interesting that this man is having this adventure several—from his point of view—several times.” Why is that interesting? If that question can be answered, I can answer that question, someone else can answer that question, then it’s a possibility. I’m not ravingly keen. One of the things I always worry about, especially those titles—The Three Doctors, The Five Doctors, The Two Doctors—there is only one Doctor. It’s the same man, he just changes his look. It’s one man. And I don’t like the idea of playing the game of saying that he’s ten men, he’s not ten men, he’s one man who gets a refit now and then.
UTR: Right. The problem I always found with the old ones was the actor, the older actors have aged so much sometimes that it’s just completely jarring to have the first Doctor. Do you have a favorite actor who played the Doctor in the previous series?
Moffat: I like them all. I really did. I mean, I certainly, not in this job am I going to start conferring honors on people, but I think it was an extraordinary string of leading men and they were all brilliant, I really did think that.
UTR: Do you think that we’ll ever get to see more of The Time War in sort of flashbacks or anything?
Moffat: Not on my watch. I mean, and I don’t think on anyone who knows their stuff’s watch. That’s nonsense to do that. The Time War is exciting, precisely because you haven’t seen it. It’s exciting because it’s just this mythic thing and you can imagine it. It’s like in the original Star Wars when they mention The Clone Wars and that was so exciting, finally when they turned up, it was just a bunch of meetings, you know what I mean? You want it to be mythic, this mythic thing that you did not see. And I think Russell has done a genius job of just tossing in little references to it.
UTR: Definitely. Do you think The Doctor will travel to other countries outside of the U.K. more? I guess it’s dictated by the story, I suppose, but can you envision doing like, obviously, they had Daleks in Manhattan and a few stories in America, but most of them have taken place…
Moffat: It depends if there is value to be gained in that. This is a British series, and markets itself as a British series. When we do London, we do proper London with red buses and Big Ben. I always think it’s a slightly odd thing to say, “Oh how exciting, we’re going to do an adventure in America.” He can go to Skaro, he can go to other planets. Who gives a toss about the fact that he can do what I can do, is get in a plane and go to America. Yeah, if it suited the story. Our default condition is always going to be the U.K., because frankly we open the door and there it is. Yeah, the question is: Is it worth the money? Very often the answer would be: No.
UTR: I was impressed with the Daleks in Manhattan, how it really seemed like New York.
Moffat: They did a good job on that. I mean you have to be limited on what you do. Spent a lot of time in the sewer [in that episode], but yeah, it’s good. It’s good. Good job. Very good job.
UTR: Are there any historical figures that you’ve always wanted The Doctor to interact with, that he hasn’t yet?
Moffat: Vaguely, but it’s never been a passion of mine. I think there will be times when that’s going to—that’s a staple that Russell has introduced to the show, and I think it has it’s value and it’s place. Again you have to watch not being repetitive—who’s this year’s historical celebrity—but I think it’s got to be interesting, as long as you can do something interesting with it. I mean, above all else: Is it a good story or is it not a good story? If it’s a good story, you do it—if it’s not a good story, you don’t do it. There really isn’t any other guiding light to it.
UTR: What are you looking for in a companion? What do you think is the right elements of a companion to The Doctor?
Moffat: Someone you want to be with, really, it’s really important of every single television show, it’s not just true of the Doctor Who companion particularly, it’s true in every television show. You’ve got to want to be with these people because that’s all there is of the show, is these people. That’s all there is. It’s just being with these people. Do you enjoy them or don’t you? So it’s someone you love being with. Someone you love, and if they’re kind of sexy and gorgeous and quirky and interesting, that’s good too. You know, there’s a whole range of, again, different ways of doing that.
UTR: Sure. With the last three companions it has been very much about their journey with The Doctor.
Moffat: Yeah, it tends to be, yeah.
UTR: Is that something, do you ever see a companion whose maybe older or more his equal in the future?
Moffat: It’s hard to be equal with The Doctor, I have to say, because he’s 900. It makes no difference to him whether you’re 82 or 21. That’s a blink of an eye for him. It’s never going to be a show about two people equally competent traveling in time and space, because he’s obviously the boss, isn’t he. You take it on the case by case. There’s no such thing as the Doctor Who companion, there’s: you create a character, and you get someone to play them, and they become vital and interesting, and someone that you love being with.
UTR: There was talk a year or two ago, and you may not know anything about this, of maybe doing aDoctor Who movie at some point. Is that something you can envision them doing within the series, kind of like they did with the X-Files movie back in the ’90s.
Moffat: I suppose it could happen some day. I mean, I have to say, I just don’t care at this moment, I’m contemplating the nightmare of 13, probably 14 episodes of Doctor Who to get made, I’m not worried about a movie. And the most important thing with Doctor Who is now, and will always be, the series. The television show is what it is. Any offshoot from it must play second fiddle to that central thing, because it is a television series and it could run for another 50 years if you get it right.
UTR: Definitely. But I can envision them to take a year off and do a big movie.
Moffat: No, I doubt it, but yeah.
UTR: Why do you think The Doctor has endured for so many decades?
Moffat: Well, I’d say, it’s a great mythic character. It’s a great fantastical hero, but there are many great fantastical heroes. Why do some survive and some not? The answer is, generally speaking: it’s how well does change work for it? The Doctor can change brilliantly. You can have a new kind of Doctor every so often, as you will, obviously. No one will ever play that part forever. It will always change and therefore it is capable of adapting itself very exactly to the current moment, it doesn’t have to be a retread of what it used to be. It can always be, in a strange way, Doctor Who can always be new. And that is true of James Bond as well. You know James Bond films, every so often, just start again. You know they have recently, actually explicitly, started again, so forget all the other ones, it’s brand new, he’s a new man, he’s a different man. And that again is, when you see Casino Royale, you don’t think it is the—whatever film it is, the 20th film—you think it’s a brand new film. With Doctor Who, with its capacity for change, new companions, new cast members, it can become new. The one disadvantage of an old series is it can feel old. Doctor Who never has to.
UTR: Yeah, exactly. Do you ever envision actually rebooting the series. Do you think they would ever do that?
UTR: You think they would just continue on?
Moffat: Absolute nonsense. Why would they ever do that? You don’t have to. If you were doing Sherlock Holmes of course you’d reboot it, of course you’d start again, but with Doctor Who he changes his face anyway. It would just be confusing to people. Absolute nonsense. Absolute nonsense.
UTR: I agree. Isn’t there a limited number of regenerations?
Moffat: Only because someone said there was. So someone else comes along and says there isn’t a limited number, like that! One line. Doctor mentions that I used to be limited to twelve regenerations or thirteen regenerations, but uh, well Time Lords are gone, all rules are off. Done! It’s not worth spending 20 seconds over. It’s only a staffing difficulty, that’s all it is. It’s a clever way to solve a staffing problem. It’s not real. We just make this nonsense up, you know.
UTR: I know. I know. Now that you’ve started to take over the job of actually writing the whole show, what’s been the biggest surprise of actually running things, compared to just being a writer?
Moffat: Well, I’m not, I mean, you know, I’m in the very very early days of just tackling the series and the episodes, first episode, and last one I’m doing. I’m not in the white heat of where Russell has lived for all these years. I’ll be surprised when I find out what the surprise is, and then it will be a different thing from the thing that surprised Russell, it’ll be a different thing every year, a different thing every episode because it’s that kind of show.
UTR: Has Russell given you any kind of advice about how to….
Moffat: Yeah, I mean he’s very reticsine about advice, because he very rightly says that advice is always out of date. You know, it always is. So, yeah, advice is something I’d always be interested in the opinion of, because he’s brilliant, and I adore him as a writer and as a person, I just value [him]. But you’ve got to find your own way of doing things. You want to be clear why you are doing something, and that means you can’t do something because somebody else did it. You’ve gotta know why you’re doing it. I’m a very different man than him. Things will be different.
UTR: Sure, sure. Russell’s obviously written a lot of the scripts, and on some of your previous shows, you wrote a lot of the scripts, like Coupling.
Moffat: I wrote all of them.
UTR: How much do you anticipate you actually writing the scripts and how much do you anticipate other writers coming on board?
Moffat: Staying about the same balance as it is at the moment. I mean, I’ll write a fair number of them. You know, that will change as things emerge. Brilliant writers become available so you knock one of your own episodes out of the way to get that writer in, or three scripts fall apart the same day, so I write three more, you know, I don’t know. I mean, I suppose it will always work out, these things tend to, about roughly half, I don’t know. I don’t know.
UTR: How many different writers tend to pitch? I mean is it a lot of writers?
Moffat: They don’t pitch. We don’t ask them. Everybody wants to do this show, so we just sort of say: “You.”
UTR: Right, right. Are there any writers that you’d really like to be involved in Doctor Who ideally. I think there was talk of Neil Gaiman, maybe being involved?
Moffat: Um, I’m not talking about that. I’m really not. When the time is right to talk about series 5, I’ll talk about series 5, but I’m not talking about it now.
UTR: That’s fine. That’s fine. Can you tell me, a little off topic, but can you tell me anything about the Tin Tin script that you’ve written?
Moffat: Do you know I really honestly can’t and for a very simple reason.
UTR: You’ve signed a confidentiality agreement?
Moffat: You know I don’t think I have. I don’t think I’ve signed anything of that kind. And I don’t care. It wouldn’t matter to me because the fact is I don’t know, on that project, what is embargoed and what is not. I have no memory of what I was told was secret, and what I was told was not. So I’m saying nothing. Except, well I will say I think it’s going to be fabulous. Fabulous! Amazing! And not because I wrote it but because well, you’ve got two extraordinary directors [Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson] working together and your eyes will pop out when you see this. It’s going to be extraordinary. I’ll say that.
UTR: Yeah, I used to read Tin Tin when I was a kid. I don’t remember it that well, but is it fairly faithful to the tone? You’re not going to tell me…that’s fine. Well, I guess the last question I have is, you’re obviously a long time Doctor Who fan, and you’ve said that this is kind of your dream job. Do you feel any kind of pressure from all the different fans out there? Obviously, in England Doctor Who is an even bigger deal.
Moffat: I don’t feel any pressure from the fans at all, because that, and I’m sorry to say it, I’m a fan myself, but it’s a fact, they don’t matter. There aren’t enough of them. There never will be enough of them. I am under the pressure about taking over the BBC One’s #1 show, and I feel the pressure about making the children of Britain think that that is the best television show ever. No, but the fan thing does not enter my head. I’m sorry, it can’t. And I think, if you took a poll among fans they would absolutely agree with what I just said. They’d say, “Don’t listen to us. It’s not about us.” I have no doubt in my mind.
UTR: Because they’d all want different things.
Moffat: And they’d all want different things. It’s a different experience. It’s for a mass audience and I think Doctor Who fans have always understood that it’s for a mass audience. They are very smart about that. Our mad little world, and it is a mad little world, and I’m part of it, cannot control Doctor Who. It’s for the kids. Come on!
UTR: But it’s amazing what you can do with that. It’s for the kids, but it also appeals to…
Moffat: Yeah, but it has to, because there are more adults than children, but there is something very very simple and pure and wonderful to the fact that at it’s heart—in all it’s imperatives and all it’s decisions and all it’s limitations and permissions—it belongs to genre you call “children’s fiction.” It is the Narnia and Toy Story,it belongs to those things.
UTR: Great, great. Well thanks a lot for your time.
Moffat: My pleasure.
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