[Interviewed on stage at the Fairford Festival of Fiction on Saturday, 3 June 2017. Transcript posted here by kind permission of Steven Moffat. Thanks also to Paul Cornell and the team at Fairford Festival.]
|Steven Moffat and me|
at Fairford Festival of Fiction
Photo by Pea Green Boat Books
Steven, I think I'm right in saying that this year's Doctor Who Christmas special has begun production.
No, we've got the read-through on Thursday. I'm just doing a new draft at the moment, which I hope to finish tomorrow. I'll get that to the production office for Monday morning and then probably fiddle around with it a bit. Then I think we start shooting a week on Monday.
I've misunderstood. So pre-production started a couple of weeks ago.
Once you've finished this draft, what else is there for you to do as head writer on Doctor Who?
Oh, we have to make the show! I mean, it's not that I write it down and we just sort of stop at that point. We've got to get the whole show made. The actual shooting of Doctor Who is monstrously complex. It's the most complex show I've ever worked on. Every day you've got something like green screen, prosthetics or a stunt scene. There's hardly ever just people sitting round tables talking – which I intend to write for the rest of my life. That's much easier. So it's a long, complex process and the script keeps... Well, it's hardly my only job but the script will have to stay flexible throughout that process as things fall out or don't work, or as new ideas happen. So there's quite a lot to do. And then there's endless post-production. On Doctor Who, that's like making a whole other show. The show we actually shoot can look terrible – just Peter Capaldi shouting at a green curtain. That's what you get for an hour and you have to sign it off and say, “Yeah, that looked fantastic!” Then all the CGI comes in, they grade it and score it and eventually it looks like proper television. But the Christmas one won't be that terrifying because, unusually for us, the new team take over after that and we've got really quite a lot of time to work on this one. But Episodes 11 and 12 of this series of Doctor Who going out now are nowhere near completion. Episode 8 is on shortly – I expect you all to leave this interview at a designated moment to go watch it. Episodes 9 and 10 are finished, and then with episodes 11 and 12 we're still getting effects through, and we're still scoring them. It's very close to the wire.
Do you know when your last day will be?
Yes, but I've forgotten. I think 11 July is when we stop shooting but that's hardly the end of everything. If I were to nominate the very last time I turn up and do a showrunnery thing for Doctor Who, that will be the press screening of the Christmas episode. By then, Chris [Chibnall] will be working with a new Doctor and a new production team, so I'll be like a live archive, a fossil, revived and lurching round the place, hanging desperately on to former glory and launching the Christmas special. I think that screening might be on 15 December, and that will be me absolutely finished – in every sense.
What do you know about what's to come after that?
Oh, practically nothing. One of the very few bits of advice I gave to Chris was, “It's almost impossible to keep a secret on Doctor Who but rule 1 is that you don't tell anybody anything unless they absolutely need to know.” In this case, I don't need to know what they're up to. They're zeroing in on their casting choice, scripts are in the works and, to be honest, Chris is already really the showrunner and I'm the relic. I've got one episode to worry about but he's got years of Doctor Who ahead, so he's really doing the job now. I'm just going round waving at the crowd. When I first took over from Russell [T Davies], he was doing all the public stuff and I was doing the job. I remember thinking – as I think now – that that's a good division of labour. One person can go round being fatuous in interviews and the other person can do the actual work. I prefer the fatuous bit.
As if Doctor Who wasn't hard enough, you thought, “Let's do another show at the same time...” But Sherlock has come to a natural break if not an end, so what are you going to fill your time with?
Holidays. Drinking... I don't know that Sherlock has finished. People keep saying that, and that it's come to a natural end. But what does that mean on a show that we hardly ever make? Just that it gets marginally slower in production. I kind of assume that at some point we'll show up again, but that's what I assume at the end of every series. When Sue [Vertue, his co-producer – and wife] has to reassemble Sherlock, it's like arranging a reunion party. It's, “Hello, how are you? What's your diary like?” When you're talking to [stars] Benedict and Martin that can be an issue. But I assume we'll go again. We didn't end it on a big cliffhanger this year. I suppose that's the only difference. But more or less everyone's alive that needs to be, so if we want to go again we absolutely can.
Is there a project waiting for you that's not Doctor Who or Sherlock?
It would be pretty grim if there wasn't, wouldn't it? But I haven't a specific one. I've had a particularly hard year on the two shows. I've done three new Sherlocks and 14 new Doctor Whos in the space of about a year. That's madness so I just want to go and lie down. I do have a few things in mind, though I haven't chosen one yet. Mark [Gatiss] and I have a project that we won't do next, either of us, but that we're very excited about. We've spoken to various people about that and they're pleased with it. That's not the same as Sherlock or any part of his world but I suppose you could view it as a a stable-mate. So we have another project, another joint piece of absolute nonsense, that we both fancy working on, but neither of us will work on that next. Our brains need a bit of a rest.
Can I take you back to when you started work on TV Doctor Who? What happened in December 2003 – did Russell ring you, or speak to your agent, to see if you were free for the Christopher Eccleston episodes you wrote?
Around the time that Russell was announced as doing the new series, I got his email address from Paul Cornell and emailed him my congratulations in the hope that he would remember my address. He emailed straight back saying, “Look, if it goes for more than six episodes” – ha ha, six episodes! – “then I'd like you to write some.” I didn't take it that seriously but thought, “Well, that would be great.” Then I got the phonecall from my agent – it's about the only time my agent has been the person to tell me I've got a job. I was asked if I'd do the two-parter, which became The Empty Child and The Doctor Dances. That was thrilling. I can tell you exactly when that was: it was 10 December, the night of the British Comedy Awards, which we were just leaving for when I got that call. A long time ago now. I was genuinely so excited.
You won an award that night [Best TV Comedy for Coupling].
And also met Doctor Who.
That's right, I also met Peter Davison that night. But I couldn't tell him, or anyone, that I'd just got this job. I couldn't tell Doctor Who, so I just came across to him as a slightly crazed fan – an opinion that I don't think he's ever had occasion to revise. So yes, that was a brilliant night and as you say we won an award. But it was nothing compared to, “I'm actually going to write, 'Interior: TARDIS'.” I was properly excited about that. Above all, more than getting the big job on the series afterwards or anything else, it was that moment, when I knew I was actually going to write proper television Doctor Who. I'd done The Curse of Fatal Death, the Comic Relief sketch, many years before – again, with Sue. One of the main reasons I went hell for leather on that was that I thought it would be my one and only chance to write Doctor Who. In a lifetime of bad predictions, that might have been my worst. But yeah, that was a brilliant night.
I remember speaking to you in a pub in 2005, about three weeks before the first episode of new Doctor Who went out. We asked how you thought it would do, and you said something like, “Well, we're proud of what we've done and the hope is that by the time we get to my episode, Doctor Who hasn't been shunted to Sundays – that it's gone down okay and is still on a Saturday night.” How surprising was its success?
That's probably a better question to ask Russell, Julie and Phil [the executive producers of the 2005 series], who were much more in the firing line in those days. I sort of had the absolute conviction that it would be a success because I wasn't right in the firing line in the way that they were. I'm sure they were properly terrified. I think we all knew that the first episode would get a big audience because every time they hauled out anything with the name Doctor Who on it, it would get, I don't know, around 10 million viewers. So it felt like it was going to be a hit. But it became bigger than we thought it would. I remember Russell saying at the press screening for the last episode, The Parting of the Ways, “Oh, we'll get 10 years out of this.” We're at 12 years now, which is fairly extraordinary. And yes, by the time it came to my one, it wasn't on a Sunday and I'd already done a draft of my next Doctor Who. And we'd already lost a significant cast member. That kind of thing was terrifying – again, more for Russell and Julie, who knew more about it. They had this huge monster hit and they knew they had to find a new lead. Nowadays, we're all used to the idea – everyone is used to the idea now of regenerating the Doctor. But can you imagine? You're one series in and you have to change the lead! Absolutely terrifying.
Speaking of changing leads, when did you know, or first start hearing whispers, that you'd be the one to replace Russell?
Honestly? I'd worked it out. Sue kept saying, “Oh, they're going to make you do that bloody job.” I think that was around the time of The Empty Child. I was like, “No, why would they ask me?” I sort of didn't want to think about it. But as I looked around the room, I thought it would probably be me. That sounds grotesquely conceited, but I just thought, “It's me, isn't it?” Then I stopped thinking about it because I was really, really enjoying the job of showing up just once a year on Doctor Who, doing a lot less work than Russell. I'd watch him being shunted out of rooms and into other rooms. Just as he'd be walking towards you, saying “Hullo!”, he'd be dragged off to do some other work. That's my life now and Chris's life in the immediate future. So I thoroughly enjoyed those days. But I just didn't get it when it came. I think they spoke to me twice before I really tuned in on what was being said. Jane Tranter [the BBC's then Controller of Drama Commissioning], I think at the read-through for Voyage of the Damned [which took place on 2 July 2007] came up to me and said, “At some point, you and I will have to sit down and talk about the next five years...” Again, I told Sue this. I said, “They're very keen on me at the BBC.” But I hadn't realised that of course she meant Doctor Who and I was being offered the job right there. Then Julie Gardner started talking about Russell leaving and what they were going to do next, all while looking very hard at me. That was in LA at some point – I think it was the TCAs [the ceremony for the 23rd Television Critics Association Awards was held on 21 July 2007]. But it wasn't until I got the enormously long, persuasive email from Russell that I realised what was actually happening and I had to start thinking about it. You'd think that would be an incredibly easy choice because it was the job I'd wanted all my life, I already loved the show and it was a huge hit. But it paralyses you when that email arrives. You're aware what it's going to do to your life – and I wasn't wrong about any of that. I remember that about a week before getting that email I saw David Tennant at a concert and said, “It must have been great when you were offered Doctor Who. You must have been so excited.” And he said, “Um... It's more complicated when it's real.” “Oh, bollocks,” I said, “you were just thrilled, weren't you? You just said 'yes' straight away and were on to designing your costume.” He said, “I didn't, I didn't – I was just confused.” About a week later I was in the same state of confusion. I don't know that it's meant to happen, that when you're in your 40s – as I was then – the job you specifically wanted when you were eight shows up. That's ridiculous. That's like discovering that, yes, you can be Santa's elf. It's unusual.
You said most of your predictions about the job were right. What do you wish you could have told or warned yourself at the time?
I'm not sure because I had watched Russell go through all of that. For him, I think some of it probably came as a bit of a surprise. For me, I was at reasonably close quarters and saw someone I knew reasonably well going through exactly what I was about to. Helpfully, he'd written his utterly terrifying book, The Writer's Tale, with Ben Cook. If you've not read it, it's about his time making the show. That was like moving into a really creepy mansion and discovering the diary of the previous occupant, and it's like, “Dear god, they were never found again!” I suppose there was part of me that was so shocked and horrified at all the work I would have to do that I kind of just did as I was told. I slightly worry that – he says, sitting here – keeping a lower profile might have been more agreeable for someone like me. You get very visible in a job like this and I'm not absolutely sure how much I like that. But I say that in front of an audience. When it comes down to it, I've been through this thought experiment. I sat with Chris on the night I was talking him into taking the job, saying, “Here are the things you will really need...” I'm not telling you what they are but they're all very dull, just how to organise your life a bit – or how to fail to organise your life but in the most constructive manner.
You had to recast the Doctor. Was it a given that David Tennant was leaving?
It was. The first thing I was told was that David was leaving with Russell and Julie. They had – as they put it, cheerfully – a sort of suicide pact. That was great: “Welcome in, we've got a suicide pact and there'll be plenty of space for you.” But then that got taken away again because David phoned me up and said, “So, you're taking over...” I said, “I thought you were leaving.” He said, “Well, maybe. But maybe I'm not.” He went through a huge, prolonged wobble, really. I chatted to him a lot and in the end he listened to my ideas and decided not to do it. (Laughs) He went and did a show by Chris Chibnall instead – and quite right. I think he'd 90 per cent made up his mind but because we're quite good friends there was a moment of thinking, “Should I or shouldn't I?” Eventually he decided that it was time for him to go. Three years seems to be the amount of time Doctors do these days – and I suppose mostly it was in the old days as well. But that does mean I took his resignation. I was the person who received David Tennant's resignation. And Matt Smith's resignation. And Peter Capaldi's resignation. There should be some sort of special therapy for a grown-up Doctor Who fan whose heroes resign to him. I don't want any more Doctors to quit. It's terrifying. It's like Santa saying, “I've had enough!” “No, Santa, that's terrible – come back.”
Are the resignation letters long? I'm sure you can't share what's in them.
They weren't letters but meetings. I had a phonecall with David, I went out for a boozy lunch with Matt and I had dinner with Peter. Obviously, in Peter's case I was already off so that was slightly different. But it is quite a thing when you have to sit opposite someone who is tearing themselves apart about leaving this role they love so much. But you're saying, in all three cases, “Are you sure? What else will be as good? It'll all be despair and misery after this. You'll just be doing ads. You'll be doing Tom Baker's voiceovers. Think again.” None of them has not regretted it.
Let's talk about the casting of Matt Smith. He auditioned for the part of Watson in Sherlock.
Yes, the first time I met Matt Smith, I think he was the very first person through the door for Dr Watson on Sherlock. We'd already cast Benedict and Matt came in. He gave a terrific audition but of course he's far more Sherlock Holmes than Dr Watson. He just doesn't seem like a Dr Watson. But I was looking for a new Doctor at the time, and the idea of him as Doctor Who did flit through my brain a little bit. But the thing about Matt is... Well, Mark Gatiss said at the time, “Matt's absolutely nuts. He's completely barmy.” Of course, he fitted the other role on Sherlock perfectly. So the very first time I met him, I turned him down. A few days later, he was either the second or third person through the door for Doctor Who and just stormed it. He just romped it. There was never a question after he gave his audition. We should have stopped at that point because it wasn't going to happen again with anyone else. And he'd barely seen the show! He just came in and he was Doctor Who straight away. I'd been bracing myself for months of it and there he was, on the first day.
At that point you'd written at least some of The Time of Angels – the first episode you shot. That has all the stuff between the Doctor and River Song, so were you thinking of an older Doctor who'd be more of a match for Alex Kingston?
I assumed that we would go older. But remember, David was in his 30s when he did Doctor Who and nearly 40 by the end. It's not like the Doctor is incredibly young or anything. I think by then I'd written almost three episodes – The Eleventh Hour, The Time of Angels and most of Flesh and Stone. Yes, you are thinking, “What's it going to be like?” I think I sent an irritated email to everybody about the names we had on the casting list saying, “Look, you're sending me all these youngsters. There isn't a 27 year-old on the planet who won't look as though he'll just get stuck in Alex Kingston's teeth.” And there wasn't – it was a 26 year-old. I was like, “Is that going to be okay? I don't know.” But then it's meant to be a ridiculous relationship and it sort of works. And such is the schedule of Doctor Who, Matt only looked 26 for about two production blocks. You go look at him in The Time of Angels and compare him to, say, The Vampires of Venice, and you'll see the truth of our schedule etched savagely on his face.
When Matt left, I was working on a kids' magazine and we did a spread of all the regenerations. What that means is you see, right next to each other, all the Doctors when they began and when they left. You go, “What have they done to these poor men?”
One of the very last things that David Tennant did as the Doctor was some promo photographs for his last episodes. He was telling me this, I think at a Radio Times party. He said to them, “Ah, come on, why am I doing this? I just do this [strikes a pose], then I do this [strikes another pose] and then I do my hands in my pockets. I've only got three poses so why are you bothering to photograph me again? Just put a different background in.” And the photographer said, “But David, you look so much older. Look at your face.” David's standing there going, “That's my life you're casually referring to!”
Matt Smith's first series ran from April 2010, and Sherlock started later that year, so were you making the first series of Sherlock at the same time as Doctor Who?
Yes, and that's an incredibly bad lifestyle choice. Yes, there was a moment where – I had it last year as well – I was doing both. It's horrific. There's nothing good about it. By the time you get to the end of your rushes – you watch all the rushes from Doctor Who and then all the rushes from Sherlock – half the day is gone. I always tried to be really careful about rushes, which is the stuff we shoot on a daily basis. I found it very difficult. There's nothing clever about doing that.
They were shot in the same studios, so were Matt Smith and Benedict Cumberbatch meeting up, going for drinks...
What a lovely impression you have of the studio we shot in. I suppose they could have nipped down to the garage and bought a Topic together. It wasn't really like that. It was a big blue shed on a wintry hill somewhere and I assure you that neither Matt Smith nor Benedict Cumberbatch socialised much in that area. But there were two great things I remember about that. There was the TARDIS in one studio and in the neighbouring studio had 221 Baker Street. I remember Mark and me wandering from one to the other and he grabbed my arm and said, “It's a map of our brains!” I've also got a really bad photograph of Benedict and Martin sitting in the TARDIS – but it's really atrocious. And then I've got the only photograph that exists of Benedict in costume and Matt in costume together, with me spoiling it in the middle. We were doing a photo shoot for Sherlock of all of us, but mainly of Martin and Benedict. This was long before we knew Sherlock was going to be a hit, and before Matt had been on television. And Matt came through the studio in his full regalia as Doctor Who heading for his set. I knew it would be the only time it ever happened so I said, “Can I have a photograph?” So I've got a photograph of me standing there between the two of them, spoiling it. That photograph is regularly available on the internet, but do you know what they do? They cut out my face so you can put your face in. Not Benedict's face, not Matt's face, just my face, carved lovingly out. A space for anyone. A disposable element to this photograph. I was so proud. Thank you, the world.
I'd put my face in there. I'm glad to learn of these photos, because there's a photo from the 1980s when there was a fire alarm at TV Centre, and Sylvester McCoy and the Doctor Who cast are mixed up with the cast from Allo! Allo! But my favourite example is the film Frankie and Johnny, where they wanted Al Pacino to open a door and react with surprise. So they went into the next studio and got Kirk and Spock from the Star Trek film shooting there to stand, in costume, behind the door. So Al Pacino opens the door and does a brilliantly confused face...
Yeah. And nobody thought to take photographs, so I'm very glad to hear there are photographs of this meeting. Anyway, Matt Smith was a very successful Doctor and you then had to recast him. Peter Capaldi visited the set of An Adventure in Space and Time in, what, January or February 2013 and had a long chat with David Bradley about having always wanted to visit the TARDIS. Did you know at that point Capaldi was going to be Doctor Who?
He was in our minds but he certainly had no inkling of it. I think we had the first, vague conversations about who it was going to be... I independently asked Mark to give me a list of people. I'd thought of Peter Capaldi and Mark drew up a long list with Peter's name at the top and a big space underneath because he thought it should be him. But Peter had no clue nor any suspicion that he was under consideration while he was farting about posing with Daleks and the TARDIS. Obviously, I knew he was going to have plenty of opportunity to do that.
I should be handing this over to the audience, and I'm sure there are people who'll want to ask about Bill, the companion from this year. Where did her character derive from? I assume the first thought with a new companion is that she must not be like the last one. But Bill being a black gay woman made headlines, so at what stage did that come in?
It didn't arrive like that. Honestly, as most writers would attest, it started with a tone of voice. I wasn't thinking of a contrast with Clara particularly but I thought there was something about Peter's Doctor and Jenna's Clara that was, in a very attractive and charming way, quite rarefied when they were together. They were quite regal, these two super-brains off being rather refined. They probably read poetry at each other, albeit she'd do it in a Blackpool accent and he's Scottish. But you had that slight sense so I wanted an earthier tone of voice. Before I thought of anything else, I wanted somebody like that. So I started messing around, writing scenes. Separately, looking at our record, our skinny white cast, I also thought, “We can't keep doing this so let's just make the decision that she is not going to be white. Just not – we won't even look at anyone who is white.” But that wasn't an element of the character, it was just, “Come on, we have to sort ourselves out on that.” As for the gay thing, it would have been an absolute cliché to say, “Let's cast a black lesbian.” I never thought of it that way. I'd written a scene for the audition where she talks about a boy she fancies but that didn't feel right. I didn't know why it didn't feel right so I kept on messing around with it. The way you hone in on a character is like that. I tried making it a girl she fancies – and the scene worked. It was actually quite good. So for that reason and no other she became gay. But what we said at that point was, “We don't even use the word.” She's completely relaxed and casual about it, as most young people are. They're much smarter than we are and have ceased to worry about any of this nonsense. I was worried at the very beginning because it became a newspaper story when Pearl happened to mention it in an interview. It caused far more of a storm than we intended or planned. Anything that happens, you can more or less be certain was not what we planned. I thought maybe that's what would happen: people would just write about Bill as “the gay one”. But they didn't. Well, the Daily Mail did but that's what the Daily Mail does. Every other paper did exactly what we hoped, which was to mention she was gay but she wasn't “the gay one”. She is Bill who is funny. I don't think I've seen the word gay applied to her for weeks now, so that's great. And she's absolutely charmed the nation, she's become a star in a few weeks. I saw Pearl presenting a BAFTA just recently. That's astonishing when you see that happening – absolutely amazing.
I could carry on nattering but I'll open it up to the audience. Is anyone feeling brave? There's a very keen hand over there.
I don't mean to make everyone's hands go down, but there are two questions that we're not doing. No, there will never be a Doctor Who/Sherlock crossover and I have absolutely no idea who the new Doctor is going to be – or what they're going to be. It's not my business. So those two, you're not allowed to ask!
[Question] Have you ever considered making the Doctor a woman?
That's what I just said – I'm not answering. (Laughs) Listen, I'm quite serious about this. Obviously, I made the Master into a woman and so it's part of the continuity of the show. But can you imagine for a moment being Chris Chibnall right now? I know what it's like so I don't have to imagine. The entire world is shouting in your ear about who or what or why should be playing Doctor Who. Shut up and let him get on with it! It's really stressful. If you get that decision wrong, you're beheaded – by the Queen. That's the law if you get the wrong Doctor Who. So let them get on with it and I am not expressing any opinions out of deference to my good friend and successor. It's his problem.
[Question] Do you think you'll ever come back to write an episode or two of Doctor Who down the line?
I can't predict the future but I probably won't. I'm quite surprised to be saying that but it feels like an ending, like I'm done. Maybe in a few years I'll suddenly want to. In the short term, which is really quite long, Chris has to get on with it. Imagine if you've been the boss of something for a while and someone else takes over. You can't loiter round their office saying, “Can I do that bit?” You let them have a fresh take and get away from the relic from the archives claiming that everything has gone to crap now they've left. You don't want that. So maybe some time in the future.
You made a point of asking Russell to write for you, didn't you?
Yes, and Chris has been on at me. Look, the moment you're stuck with the prospect of having to get all those Doctor Who scripts in, you're not saying no to anybody you think might be competent or able. You say, “Please, for god's sake.” Russell's a genius so I wanted him but he was tired and made it clear from the outset that he wasn't going to do it again. I thought, “You bastard.” But now I'm in the same position, I'm thinking, “Well, time's up.” I've done my bit. I don't know that I've got anything else left. Such as it was, that's what I have.
[Question] Do you have any plans for what you're going to be doing after Doctor Who?
Hawaii. And probably quite a lot of gin and tonic.
[Someone shouts out] What about LA [for conventions]?
I don't know. I will be in LA and I'll be in San Diego. In terms of projects, I've got the thing with Mark that might happen when we want to do it. But I was trying to work out with Sue when the last time was that I didn't have a deadline. It's certainly over 10 and probably over 12 years ago. When I say “have a deadline”, I mean “find myself already late for a deadline before I start”. I arrive at the beginning of a script saying, “How many days late am I already?” So I'm quite looking forward to that not being the case, and a chance to just sit and think. There are things in my head and I'm looking forward to writing something that isn't either Doctor Who or Sherlock – because that will be the first time since about 2008.
[Question] How did you come up with the names for the Sycorax, the Adipose and Raxacoricofallapatorius – if you did come up with them?
Well, I didn't. Russell did. Do you mean how did he think of the names, or the ideas for those monsters? The names. Adipose, Sycorax, Raxacoricofallapatorius – I said it! Russell loves a tongue-twister – and that's not just scandalous gossip, I'm referring to the words. You just think of cool names. I haven't come up with any names as good as those so the next time I see Russell I'll ask him how he came up with those ones. I'm much more prosaic: Weeping Angels.
[Question] Will you watch the new series of Doctor Who with Chris Chibnall as showrunner?
Of course I'll watch the new series of Doctor Who! I know why you ask. Will it suddenly seem like I've been displaced and what the hell is this show doing without me? I was fairly used to watching it before I did it, so that's not a problem. But yes, I think there'll be a few moments where I go, “Oh god, I was that dispensable.” Of course, you wouldn't be human if you didn't do that. At the same time, Doctor Who, personally and professionally, has always meant far too much to me for me to allow it to become some sort of open wound that I can't ever go anywhere near again. I want to get back behind the sofa and watch it with the rest of you. I want it to be something lovely in my life because it has been, as a show both to watch and to make. I'd like it to be the show I used to make that I still love. So yes, you bet I will.
[Question] How do you make the decision to do something scary – the behind the sofa thing – without it being too terrifying for children? I watched the episode with the statues and, frankly, I was petrified!
Well, I'm a coward. I can't actually watch properly scary movies. Mark Gatiss loves them and is always recommending really scary films to me. I'm always saying, “Why would I watch that? I'd be frightened and I don't enjoy being frightened.” So I think if it's scary for me, that's probably all right for an eight year-old. You're referring to the Weeping Angels in Blink, and I suppose they're not scary to me because I made them up and yes, people seem to have been scared. But at the same time with the scariness in Doctor Who, it's not just about monsters. It's about the man who fights monsters without becoming one. Now, that's a very important story to tell children. Children already have monsters in their nightmares, whether or not Doctor Who is on. All that Doctor Who adds is a man who fights them without being one. I think that's the most important story you can tell. We haven't added monsters. And honestly, pull yourself together – it's for eight year-olds. Really, sort yourself out. The Weeping Angels, are you kidding? “We'd invade Earth but a moth saw us and everything's off. Don't look at me! Too late!” Ridiculous.
[Question] Do you think you'll do any cameos in Doctor Who?
No. It would spoil it for me and for you. I am really terrible at acting. It would be an offence to me. Many years ago, I did a kids' show called Press Gang and they made me go around in the background in a couple of them. Oh, I hated it. They make you do stuff over and over again. I just got so bored. I kept trying to escape. Then Peter Davison made me “act” – I use the word in its broadest definition – in his beautiful The Five(ish) Doctors. I was in that as myself, a part that proved to be out of my range. I hated doing that. I discovered I couldn't learn lines. I spent the entire thing with a clipboard that I pretended to consult, which had all my lines written on it. But I did discover something else. The people around me on that had worked for me for years – years! – and it was the first time they ever called me “sir” or got me a cup of tea. Being an actor was much nicer in that sense. It was suddenly, “Mr Moffat, would you come to set now?” It was like, “You've known me for years! A cup of tea? Wow!”
[Question] I always enjoy the historical stories – Pompeii, Shakespeare, things like that. Is there a historical period you would have liked to have done an episode about but never got round to?
Well, I always try to avoid the historical ones because they meant I had to go and read something – you couldn't just make it up. Of course, the first two I did were World War Two and then Madame du Pompadour. I had to read, oh, several lines – it was shocking. Even then, I think I got everything wrong. I think they were great great settings but I was always that particularly lonely kid who only wanted Doctor Who to have more spaceships in it, more silvery things, robots and uniforms, and people going, “Stop those robots!” But without doubt, some of the best episodes are things like Vincent and the Doctor.
[The person who asked this question] That's my favourite.
Yes, it's a beautiful episode by Richard Curtis, it's wonderful. You're right to like them but I was never desperate to do the research.
[Question] Would you consider returning to sitcom?
Possibly. I did quite a few years of that, and I've now done quite a few years of Doctor Who and Sherlock. I'd quite like to write something completely different, only because – it's a weird thing – expertise makes you dull. The longer you do something, the more on-the-shelf solutions you have to all the problems you face. You get very expert and slick but you also lose that becoming rawness you had when you were just messing about at the beginning. I vividly remember writing The Empty Child, which was the first non-sitcom I'd written in probably a decade, and having absolutely no idea what I was doing. I was wondering how a fright worked, how you constructed a fright, how you did this kind of exposition, how you constructed a scene without a punchline, and trying to use what limited comedy skills I had and apply them. I was thinking, “Well, you need a punchline but it's not a funny punchline.” I remember working out that a fright is like a joke: it's concealed set-up, concealed set-up, predictable but surprising result. That's how a fright works, with exactly the same structure as a joke. I'd quite like to do something so different that I'm floundering again, that I have none of my microwaveable meal plot solutions. That's making me sound really cynical and I don't mean to be. The more you do something, the more expert you get but you can get duller as well. I'd like to test myself again.
[Question] How do you start scriptwriting?
Do you mean how do you start writing a script, or how do you become a scriptwriter? In one sense, you've never had it so good if you want to make a film. If you have an idea for a script, you were always able to write it – just write it. But now, if you want to make it, you've got more camera and editing equipment on your smartphone than we used to have to make Doctor Who until quite recently. If you make a really good film, you've got somewhere to put it. You don't have to get a distributor, you can go to YouTube or any of the other online services. Look at me, talking about the modern world as if I knew anything about it! You can do all those things, so don't hang about. The measure of being a writer, a scriptwriter, a film-maker or TV-maker isn't whether you get paid for it but whether you make it. If you want to do it, what's stopping you? Why are you sitting there listening to me? Go and do it. I used to make little films on 8mm. They were rubbish, absolutely terrible, but they did feature a Doctor Who/Sherlock crossover – the only one I'm ever going to make – with my sister playing both parts. Go do it. In one sense, you've never had it so good. In another sense, you've got a lot of people who aren't really experts lecturing you from the internet every day. Turn that off. But go make it.
[Question] Where did the idea for Heaven Sent come from, a Doctor-only episode?
Heaven Sent was a Peter Capaldi solo episode, where he's trapped in a giant castle and has to punch his way through a diamond wall for 4.5 billion years. Now I say that out loud, what was I thinking? It had always bothered me about teleporters in sci-fi that it seemed you just got burned up and a copy of you was made. But then that's what happens in real life anyway, over time. You're not made of the same stuff you were a mere seven years ago, so that's kind of okay. I'd also always had the idea of repairing yourself with a teleporter. And I started to think, “What can we do with Peter? What's specific about him?” I'd written the big speech he makes in The Zygon Inversion and I thought, “If there's ever a character who could be on their own for an episode just talking to themselves, it would be the Doctor.” The Doctor's always talking to himself, whether or not there's someone else in the room. I felt that if anyone could pull that off, it would be Peter Capaldi. He could suffer enough for an entire cast, with one anguished look from beneath those brows. So I thought that could work. And again, a little like I was saying earlier, I wanted to do something so difficult I didn't know how to do it, so I'd have to invent a way to write it in the hope that it would be good. I'm not saying it was but it was different. It's one of those episodes no one ever gave a bad review to because they were frightened. They just thought, “It looked awfully difficult so I can't criticise that. That person worked tremendously hard: well done. But I hope it's normal next week.”
[Question] Who do you prefer out of Smith and Capaldi?
[After a horrified “Oooh” from the audience.] There is no possible preference. They are better than each other. No, you don't need to make a list. You're going down the fan route. Don't ever make a list of preferences, just say they're all brilliant. They're all equally great. Or, if you must have a preference, how about a different one every day? Today is a Jon Pertwee day! Today is a Tom Baker day! You don't have to have one. Personally, I could never choose between them. They're all brilliant and the genius of Doctor Who is that it allows the character to change so much that it is maximised for each successive Doctor. Genuinely, hand on my heart, my favourite Doctor is Doctor Who. Have you seen the other doctors? They all just cure illnesses and hang around hospitals, and never fight marauding aliens. They wouldn't know what to do with a robot. So no, no preference. I couldn't have one. They're both amazing.
[Question] What's your favourite monster that you created and what was the inspiration for it?
I'd have to say the Weeping Angels because they were so successful. That's an influence. I really liked the Silents and the idea of monsters you can't remember. And I quite like the monks that we're all missing on television at the moment. But no, I think it's the Weeping Angels. Where did I get from? We were at a hotel in Dorset and there was a graveyard next to the hotel. The church was closed down and the graveyard gates were all chained up with a big sign saying, “Unsafe structure.” That seemed really frightening. I went over and looked inside, and saw all these leaning gravestones and one lamenting, weeping angel. I thought that was really creepy and strange, and wondered if that was the unsafe structure. So a few years later I wrote it up as Blink, including the chained-up gate which we had at the very beginning. A few years after that, I said to my son Joshua, “When we're back at that hotel, let's go and look at that graveyard because in there is the original Weeping Angel.” But it wasn't there! I'm not making this up. It was gone – oh no! Now, there are two possible explanations. One is that Weeping Angels are real and we're all doomed – unless a moth sees them. Or, I misremembered and in my fake memory created the Weeping Angel in that graveyard. Maybe I saw it somewhere else. Assuming that was the case, I looked up “weeping angels” on Google Images. But all I ever get are pictures from shows I've made. So I don't think I invented the Weeping Angel, that idea of the angel with wings, and its holding its face in its hands. I saw that somewhere but I can't find it now because I cannot get through the forest of Doctor Who photographs to the original. So that's where it came from – or possibly it's real. She [the woman who asked the earlier question] would be in trouble.
[Question] Can you describe what it was like being the showrunner during the 50th anniversary and writing the special?
It was hell. It was awful. I remember going to a meeting where I said – and if you're ever at a meeting like this, don't say this – “It'll be this year's Olympics!” But without the money.” The level of expectation from just about everybody was so insane. The BBC were saying, “Well, obviously, this is going to be huge – but you can't have any more money.” Every fan in the country – and I know a lot of Doctor Who fans – was raging at me about not including William Hartnell. I was trying to explain that he just doesn't answer his texts. He doesn't; I've tried to get in touch. I was so stressed and miserable when trying to write that episode, trying to make it both a party and a decent story with some dramatic integrity to it, and trying to satisfy all the different Doctors. Matt and David had very big roles, but David would say, “Am I just the comic relief in this?” And Matt would say, “David's got all the jokes!” So I'd say, “Do you want to swap?” And they'd say, “No!” I can't remember anything so stressful. There was a moment one evening when I was going to phone up Ben Stephenson [who'd succeeded Jane Tranter as Controller of Drama Commissioning] at the BBC and say, “I can't finish this. I don't know what I'm doing.” Sue persuaded me to wait until the next day. Sadly, I listened and continued to work. I can just about watch it now without wanting to vomit but it was terrifying. I was very relieved that it went down so well. That was a lovely thing.
[Question] Do you have a favourite episode from your time in charge?
Oh god. I love Vincent and the Doctor. That's a wonderful episode. There are lots I really like. Maybe I'd choose Vincent and the Doctor because it was such a tremendous thrill to get Richard Curtis to write Doctor Who. But there are quite a few... Tonight's! That's my favourite. Get out and watch it. Go and watch tonight's – the one that's on right now, which I am competing with. Me and Britain's Got Talent are ranged against Doctor Who tonight. Please all watch it before 2 o'clock in the morning because that will count in the overnights.
[Question, from a child] What's your second most favourite monster?
Okay, right. I haven't actually told you what my favourite monster is. I said that my favourite monster I've created is the Weeping Angel but my favourite monster overall is of course the Daleks, because they're best. And they're here and I don't want to argue with them. My second favourite monster isn't the Weeping Angels, either. The Cybermen are my second favourite monster. I'm a traditionalist, you see. I don't hold with all this new Doctor Who malarkey, I like the old show. What's your favourite monster?
[The child] It's either a Weeping Angel or a Dalek.
You're wrong: it's the Dalek. No, thank you. I'm very flattered and pleased that you think the Weeping Angels might be as good as the Daleks. They're not but I'm glad you think so. What do you think of Cybermen?
[The child] I don't really think I've watched that one.
[From next to the child] He's only just starting watching.
Oh right. But they're all on iTunes. Come on!
[From nearby] He's only seven.
Yeah, that's enough time.
[From nearby] Could you choose one for him?
Oh. Maybe The Tomb of the Cybermen, with Patrick Troughton from 1967. Yes, Cybermen are great. They'll be on in a few weeks, the Cybermen. That's quite a good episode. Look out for Cybermen. And watch lots more Doctor Who. Education? No, Doctor Who.
[Question] Were there any episodes that didn't turn out how you originally envisaged them?
Well, I suppose that's true to a greater or lesser extent of all of them. At some point, every writer on Doctor Who envisages 18 million clanking monsters coming over the hill. And then it's one monster coming over the hill, saying “You 18 million, stay back there – and keep your helmets on for no particular reason. I will go and discuss this with the Doctor.” So to some degree all of them. But the amazing thing about the Doctor Who production team is that they pretty much do anything we ask. Very often, things come out better than I thought they would. As I was saying earlier, it's hard on Doctor Who. When they finish just shooting and editing it, it looks terrible because it then needs so much repair work from the CGI, the lighting, the sorting and grading, and the music to make it the bold and brilliant show that we know. There have been some, though I'd never name them, where I felt they weren't what we set out to make. If I say what those episodes are I'd upset people – including me. I'd probably just cry in front of you. But there are other episodes that came out much better. They soared. I remember being worried about The Doctor's Wife for a while and suddenly it just zoomed to the front. So mostly it's better than I think and those occasions when it's worse I'm not telling you. I'll leave a note after my death.
We've time for one last question, so can we hear from Doctor Who right at the back?
His beard isn't canonical.
[Doctor Who] The beginning of this year's series didn't have monsters in, it had oil that wanted to get home and badly programmed robots. Was that a concious decision, not to have a monster-of-the-week?
Well, it did have monsters. It had a rationale for the monsters. If you saw a puddle that followed you home, you'd think it was a monster, Doctor. If you saw smiley-faced robots that turned you into skeletons, you'd probably think that was a monster, too. I've never really understood the idea – and think it's bad writing – when you say the monsters are just evil. When as a writer you decide the monsters are just evil, you have not shown up to work. A monster wants something that it probably shouldn't want. Why and what for and what's happening? If monsters are essentially just coming in and shooting everybody, the Doctor has to become a soldier and that's his least interesting look. If the monsters seem to be soldiers rolling and clanking over everybody else but the Doctor is clever and says, “No, look at it from over here, from their point of view,” and you see that while what they're doing is evil they are something much more interesting and intractable than evil, then they have a point. Understanding that the people opposed to everything about you and your way of life may have a point is far more terrifying than believing in evil, and puts the Doctor at the heart of the story as opposed to just running around blowing things up. Which I also like. But also, at the beginning of this series he offers the universe to Bill. He says, “Come with me, I'll show you the wonders of the universe.” And it occurred to me that in most Doctor Who stories what he then does is lead companions down tunnels where people try to kill them. So I thought it would be fun if she saw the nicer face of the universe first and the Doctor in his most loveable form, where he's the man who repairs that which has gone wrong, before we introduced her to really, really nasty stuff. Again, I always say, I want to know why the monsters want that. The stupidest fairy tale of all is evil. It's not that there aren't evil things happening but saying that people or monsters do evil things just because they're evil isn't writing and isn't clever, because that's not how anything ever works.
Thank you very much, Steven Moffat.