Steven Moffat Interview
I caught up with Steven Moffat ahead of the premier of series 7b and this is what he had to say about Clara, the Doctor and the Ice Warriors, amongst other things!
What does Jenna bring to the series and her relationship with the Doctor?
In many ways Doctor Who is more the story of the companion than that of the Doctor… It’s her take on the Doctor, it’s her adventure she goes on with the Doctor, that’s the story we can tell. The companion, the other character, changes more than the Doctor ever does. What Jenna in particular brings is a particular vim and wit, a sort of unimpressed feeling, she makes the Doctor dance a bit harder, I suppose, with Clara. Clara is always just a little bit out of reach. Obviously, you know, secretly, devoted to him, but a little bit harder to impress. She’s tough, she’s fun, she’s hard to impress. Exactly the sort of person the Doctor absolutely doesn’t like, but of course, he’s devoted to her too. And that’s very much driven by Jenna’s particular style which is a very, very fast, snappy style, she’s a very beautiful girl but there’s a real sense of someone who can be a real adversary if she wanted to be.
Is this Clara different from the other two Claras we’ve already met?
Well things have still to play out, but you’ll notice on Saturday’s episode significant resemblances, yes. Just as there were between Clara and Oswin, there are significant resemblances again , that are consistent, and this time they might be pointed up in a more obvious way.
Do you think Clara will remember her other incarnations? Is that something we’re likely to see?
Haha, well, I KNOW the answer to that, I don’t have to think… but you certainly won’t get me to SAY. But you will uncover the mystery of Clara. All will be made clear and you’ll get your answer that way.
So why did you choose a character like Clara specifically?
I think when you start with a character who’s going to be the companion who’s going to be on board the TARDIS you can’t think of the word “companion”, you can’t think that they know they’re a supporting character in a TV show, you have to think a) this is somebody who WOULD fly away in that TARDIS and b) the Doctor would want to fly away with. He doesn’t like everybody, he’s a difficult man to deal with so it’s not just anybody that he’d want to start a friendship with. What sort of person would run through those blue doors? An awful lot of people would probably run in the opposite direction, probably including me. So we imagine somebody who’d ready to say yes. Running away with a clearly insane man in an impossible time machine. And that is your starting point. What point in their life are they? What decisions have they made? What’s worked out and what hasn’t? What leads them to respond positively to a travel request from a lunatic in a bow tie?
So what makes Clara unique? Did you cherry pick traits from other companions?
No, it’s someone to throw the Doctor into a new light, Amy had done it in one particular way, and he just needed someone who was slightly less willing. The thing with the Doctor is that he is always the remote, inaccessible, mysterious one and the companion is always the fluffy friendly one, although Amy tested that theory from time to time, whereas this time it’s Clara who’s the slightly difficult to get to know one, who’s probably going to be slightly more difficult to hug, and because the Doctor is so haunted by her, and has met her twice before – or so he thinks – he’s the slightly needy one, so I like her in that role. She’s the unsolvable mystery, the enigma, and he’s the one chasing after her, it’s a reverse from the normal Doctor/Companion dynamic which I’ve been rather enjoying.
So what was it that made you think when you watch Jenna that you made the right decision in hiring her?
Well, first of all she’s terrific. She’s a great actress. I know that sounds a very dull thing to say but it’s vitally true. You can be beautiful and charming as you like but if you’re not a terrific actor you’ll do nothing on the screen and she is. In addition she looks great, she has great comic timing, she looks somehow like she belongs to Matt Smith, and when the two stand together it looks like an instant poster, they have enough in common and yet have enough sharp contrasts, it’s instant poster when you stand them together.
Are you aware of the similarities between Clara and the Big Finish companion Charley?
Of course I know about Big Finish, but I haven’t caught up with them in a lot of years, so no, none at all.
Why do you think the companion is such an important part to the story telling of Doctor Who?
It’s the person to whom the story happens, a hero is somebody who saves the day, who’s extraordinariness we stand back and admire, and that’s the Doctor, but for the story to have an emotional connection it has to happen to someone, the Doctor himself has to happen to somebody, so very often in Doctor Who the companion is, sort of, the main character, and how their experience changes them. We never seen how the Doctor began his journey, and we’ll probably never see how he ends it, we’ll probably never know why he embarked on it, but we know, all those companions, who they were before they met the Doctor, we know why they ran away with him, and we know roughly where they ended up. Those stories are complete. The Doctor is the enigma who enters their lives and changes them. The story’s always about the person who changes the most, rather than, necessarily, the person who affects those changes.
One of the cool things about Bells is the prologue where the Doctor encounters Clara as a child… is that a deliberate mirroring of Amy Pond’s story?
I like the idea of mirroring Amy as Clara has had such an odd introduction having met her twice, and lost her twice, in such exotic surroundings, as a Dalek and the Governess who was also a barmaid and all that, I felt we should do something sweet and ordinary, and something that specifically called back to Amy, which I’ve done twice now with the Ponds going, something the tees up the fact that that relationship, whether he likes it or not, is coming back, and the fact that I’m interested in – maybe too interested some people might say – is that in the Doctor’s timeline and lifespan he really only knows somebody over a huge amount of their life span but a tiny span of his and I’m always quite interested in exploring him known them as a child, as an adult, as an old person. As I said, probably too fascinated, I should probably stop repeating myself, but I think that’s probably why.
So in The Bells of Saint John is there a message? Are you trying to tell us perhaps we’re too tied to technology with the Spoonheads?
Nope, I’m trying to make up a really interesting adventure about the Doctor really. Haha. What I tend to do, too often really, is grab hold of what is omnipresent in your life and try and make it into a monster. This time it’s wi fi. There’s no grand plan, I’m not trying to say we’re too tied to technology, I love it all!
So what can you tell us about the Spoonheads?
Well I’m not going to tell you very much, cos you’ll learn all about them on Saturday. But suffice to say wi fi covers every civilised country now so if something’s got into the wi fi that would be a problem for us all and a way to invade us. Beyond that, the Spoonheads are for Saturday.
How do you think the Spoonheads compare in the scare factor next to the Weeping Angels and the Silence?
I don’t know! I never know! What I can say is that The Bells of Saint John is an action rollercoaster where the others were more consciously designed to be scary. So it’s really not up to me, it’s up to the children to say which ones give them nightmares. I think they’re “quite” scary, but it’s not up to me.
Do you have a favourite episode this series?
I always say that my favourite episode is next Saturday’s episode and that’s probably always true. The next one on is the one I’m more focussed on, most excited about. As highlights, I think Bells is a great episode, I think Cold War is a terrific, traditional episode, I think we’ve got a great finale, we’ve got new Cybermen… You know, I change my mind all the time. It’s almost invariably the next one.
With America now catching on to Doctor Who, what do you think it is that makes the concept so universal now?
Accessibility in a way, you can start watching Doctor Who at any point in its history, you don’t have to catch up with the rest of it. It’s a very simple “myth” as it were – it’s a man who can travel anywhere in time and space in a box that’s bigger on the inside, that’s it. That’s as much format as we have. You can join at any point and dare I say it’s the greatest piece of entertainment television there’s ever been. That’s why we latch onto it, it’s terrific. It’s simple to understand what it’s about and it’s seriously entertaining and every so often it completely reinvents itself and you feel at home in its new era, but the key ingredient is that it always feels at home in the present day because it always adapts itself. We are on our eleventh leading man.
Guest stars are huge this year – I mean, Dame Diana Rigg is guesting for instance… how did you manage that?
It wasn’t me. Really it was Mark Gatiss who wrote that episode and who works on Sherlock with me was appearing in a play with Diana Rigg’s daughter, Rachel Stirling, and he said to Rachel, “Look, I think you and your mum should play the mother/daughter parts in this Doctor Who I’m writing,” and they were up for it so it was all down to Mark. Mark and his little black book. He knows everybody. Absolutely everybody.
So with you growing up as a fan of the series… what’s it like to go from behind the sofa to behind the curtain, so to speak?
Well it’s sort of happened such a long time ago – nearly ten years now – that I’m starting to forget! It’s exciting, it’s massively demanding – and I don’t doubt that Doctor Who will be and always has been that – but your fan gene remains intact, you always get excited about how Doctor Who is so thrilling – you couldn’t function on the show unless that was true. You know it’s a terrible thing to say, in a way, but I’ve been on the other side of the curtain for quite a while now that I’m starting to forget that it’s still the same show I love and am devoted too. One day when I’m not involved again I’m sure that’ll all come rushing back. But right now, you know, it feels like I’ve always worked on it. It retains its excitement. It retains its shine. That’s the most important thing.
You’ve been tasked to write for one of the most iconic characters in television, with the Doctor, and one of the most iconic characters in literature, with Sherlock. Do you find it easier, more difficult, the same, to write about established characters like those, or is it easier to write about characters that you’ve originated?
In both Sherlock and Doctor Who, we write about characters that we’ve originated too, so I suppose we’re doing both all the time, but I don’t think there’s any difference, is the dull answer, because even after you’ve created a character after a very short while that’s an existing artefact and you have to write FOR them so, you know, it’s not a lot different. I think you have to treat the characters you create as real, in a way, so they have to start calling the shots, but I have to handle characters like Sherlock Holmes and the Doctor, the ones that were given to you fully formed, you have to treat those characters – and I’ll get into trouble for saying this – as if they’re your own otherwise you’re not writing them properly. I keep saying to writers and directors who come onto Doctor Who, or indeed, Sherlock, treat it like you own it. It’s not a heirloom.
You’ve created some iconic monsters – the Silence, Weeping Angels, Vasta Nerada… but from all the ones you’ve written, which were the most fun to write?
I’m tempted to say the Weeping Angels – I mean, I’m looking at one, cos it’s in my back garden – but probably the one I got the most kick out of might have been the Silence, I loved the gimmick of the fact that you couldn’t remember them and I thought finding ways to employ that, to make that frightening, was exciting. I hugely enjoyed writing for the Silence. The Weeping Angels are of course, I suppose, by far the most popular, but they are a bugger to write because they don’t move and it’s always really hard how you’re going to do a chase scene.
We’re looking forward to the return of the Ice Warriors… what were the motives for wanting to bring that villain back and what were the challenges in reimagining them?
The impetus really came from Mark Gatiss, I wasn’t really that keen, initially, on the idea of bringing the Ice Warriors back, they’d never been any special favourite of mine, I knew they were good but I never quite got into them, but Mark Gatiss kept nagging me about bringing them back, and then he came up with an idea, which I won’t tell you, as you’ll find out all about it The Cold War, which really made them come to life and we thought that could work so at that point I got into them, but that was down to Mark’s creativity, not mine. The challenges? Well, there were a number of challenges, but I can’t talk about loads, but what I will talk about is that they are far, far less known to the general audience than, say, the Daleks or the Cybermen or Davros or any of those things, where you feel quite like you have to ring the changes a bit with the look of them because, you know, they’re very familiar. With the Ice Warriors we wanted to create a really good, super-duper version of the one that was already there. So it’s a design classic, buffed up a bit for HD, rather than changed or revised, and that was the challenge, to make the one they designed for the fuzzy old televisions of the past work for the rather less forgiving HD channels of today.
So what, in these eight episodes, were the biggest challenges and surprises for you?
Well the challenges, I suppose, are the monsters! I mean, you have to work so hard to not make them look ridiculous when they turn up on the set. Surprises? I’m not sure. I mean, Doctor Who is the most exhausting show on Earth, we have so little time to make one, we make an episode in two weeks, give or take, so everything is planned to the last detail, and it’s relatively rare for something to surprise us, because you’re trying to factor in every single thing that could go wrong. I was, though, very pleasantly surprised how realistically and compellingly I think we were able to create a submarine for the episode Cold War. I think we did a stunning job on that in really convincing you that you’re on board a sub, I think that was a bit of design triumph, I thought they’d have just thrown up some corridors, but no, they’ve really sold it, the art department had a field day with that.
One of the themes of your tenure has been the Doctor’s inability to be alone – he’s always a better person when he travels with someone – given that, why does he resist?
When you’re told the way to heal yourself and make yourself a better person is to put someone else in mortal danger another human being you might be hesitant too. He is aware that he’ll probably damage those people travelling with him and put them in terrible danger. He’s also aware that a friendship or relationship for him, like it or not, is so brief, it’s not even that long, he knows he will outlive them, they will die and he will be roughly the same age. So I think those two factors make him very, very hesitant about taking someone on board. And also the fact – he’s the Doctor! Can you imagine trying to tell the Doctor something? Trying to put him right? Trying to tell something to him and have him believe you? He generally speaking DOES know better than you, but he always THINKS he does. How like a man! He’d be a hard man, I think, to advice.
So we have returning writers like Mark this year, but also new writers like Neil Cross… can you tell me how that came about and what he brings to the show?
Neil Cross was a writer I know of but I’d never met, he’d done Luther and Spooks, and is a terrific, terrific writer, and we’d never quite got it together, but when Caro Skinner came onto the show, Neil Cross was an old friend of hers and she said “I’m going to chase him up and see if we can’t get him on the show”, and the thing about Neil is that he’s a huge Doctor Who fan and, on both occasions he did not have the time to write an episode, he leapt at the chance to shove everything out of the way and do it, which is sort of what I’m looking for, haha, which I’m sure will sound terribly snobbish and awful, but I’m looking for showrunner level writers who’d give their right arms to write a Doctor Who story. That’s what I like. And it’d surprise you how often I get that, how many of our writing team are showrunners themselves, and Neil took to it like a duck to water.
With any anniversary it’s natural to look back at what started the journey, and one of the big things at the beginning of Doctor Who was the purely historical adventures. Do you think it’s possible we might see one of those in the future?
I don’t think it’s IMpossible, but I’m going to put my cards on the table here and say I didn’t think those historical adventures were any good, I didn’t like them, I thought they were dull, and as far as I remember them as a kid I couldn’t wait for them to be over to get back to proper sci fi. I’m just being honest, they weren’t my favourite. That doesn’t mean that we won’t come up with a story that is a historical, but I think they were discarded for a reason, and even before they were discarded they were always reduced to only four part stories, they were regarded as the lesser element of the show. I think if you’ve got this glittering man in his extraordinary space/time machine just having him visit the past isn’t enough. I don’t think it is. There has to be something as extraordinary as he is otherwise it’s like Sherlock Holmes investigating local crimes ,it’s just not enough for our hero.
Does the fiftieth anniversary factor into the arc of this part of the season?
I think there’s a danger to talk too much about the fiftieth anniversary when we’ve got eight whole episodes to go before it. We always wanted to make it special and huge and big, and I think also, and this is one of the things I’m concerned about this year, and I think you’ll see that I’m concerned about it but have responded positively about it, is that the show must be seen to be going forward, it’s all about the next fifty years, not the last fifty years. If you start putting a full stop on things you start thinking about nostalgia before you’ve finished. It’s about moving forward. So the Doctor is moving forward, as he always does, and he wants to solve the mystery of Clara, he’s not thinking about all his previous incarnations, or his previous adventures, he’s thinking about the future so that for me is important. The show must never feel old. It should feel brand new. And a fiftieth anniversary can play against that.
Do you feel under pressure to deliver?
We’ll deliver. We’ll deliver.
Thanks to Steven and Alexis
Doctor Who returns at 6:15 GMT on BBC One this Saturday, and 8:00 on BBC America in the US.