Gaspode Interviews The Author Of Tonight’s DOCTOR WHO!!
Published at: Oct. 20, 2006, 1:43 a.m. CST by hercules
I am – Hercules!!
Steven Moffat wrote the episode of “Doctor Who” televised tonight on SciFi, as well as two earlier episodes. He also created the “Friends”-ish Brit sitcom “Coupling.” Longtime AICN spy “Gaspode” chats him up:
Gas Masks, Bisexual Action Heroes and Dead French Girls
[Okay AICN readers, you wanted an interview with Steven Moffat- or maybe I should say Hugo Award-winning writer Steven Moffat now- so here it is. There’s not an awful lot to say by way of introduction that hasn’t already been said a hundred times already. His first Doctor Who story was actually the painfully satirical Comic Relief sketch, featuring Rowan Atkinson in the lead, and his two-parter for the newly-revived series became an instant highlight. And as American viewers are about to discover, his second-season script for ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ is if anything, even more of a gem. Moffat is one of those rare writers who can juggle different genres with ease, and his newest project is an update of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which is now in production back in London.
This conversation was originally conducted just before ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’ made its BBC debut, but there are a few minor spoilers, so you may want to see the episode first before reading ahead. And yes, the interview took place before the aforementioned Hugo win, so belated congratulations to Mr. Moffat for a job well done.]
Your first brush with Doctor Who was actually the 1999 Comic Relief sketch starring Rowan Atkinson, wasn’t it?
Steven Moffat: That’s right. My wife Sue Vertue was producing Comic Relief that year, and obviously they go around trying to get anyone to anything for free that they can, so we all duck out of sight just in case Richard Curtis phones us. But knowing I was a Doctor Who fan, they figured they could get me to do what I thought would be a two-minute Doctor Who sketch, which turned into 20 bloody minutes! Inevitably being a comedy writer married to the producer of Comic Relief, obviously I was going to have to do something, and that was the most tempting offer they could make me.
That sketch certainly made the fans sit up and take notice.
Moffat: Well, to be brutally honest, anything would, because at that time, there was no Doctor Who on the telly, and there hadn’t been until 1996 I think, when there had been a reasonably good American film, so it was something to talk about. It was new and different, and generally speaking, they liked it. They took it far too seriously of course, but it was fairly obviously a very affectionate piss-take, so they were generally happy. You can’t be too informed, otherwise you chase away your real viewers, but it had to be a decent sort of re-creation of the show, and Richard Curtis’s point of all these spoofs is they always have to be affectionate and you give your little frisson of what it would be like if Doctor Who was back, so it was quite a authentic re-creation, and we cast it quite authentically, with a bunch of people you absolutely could picture playing the Doctor, so you got to see a bunch of extra Doctors, including Rowan, Hugh Grant, Richard E. Grant, Jim Broadbent and Joanna Lumley, so that all felt fun and good.
And a few of those actors had reportedly up for the lead role in Doctor Who over the years, hadn’t they?
Moffat: I think they all had been. There’s a category of actors that had broadly been considered to be right for that kind of part, so they were all there. I think we deliberately went for people that had pictured or imagined as the Doctor, so as a fan, you got to see what it might be like if Hugh Grant was the Doctor, and he was a rather splendid Doctor in fact.
Since that sketch was later released on home video, did you raise a lot of money for Comic Relief?
Moffat: I have no idea how much money it made but it was a very successful evening, and the most successful item on it, the biggest rated item was the Doctor Who sketches, which was good for Doctor Who as well, because at that stage, the show had been off the air for ten years, but could still command an audience of ten million. Every time it switched to Doctor Who that night on Comic Relief, the audience went up to ten million, so it was one of the indicators of its comeback trail, that it was still substantially liked and people were still really aware of it, which is very unusual for a show that had been dead as long as it had been at that stage.
When you heard the news that Doctor Who was coming back, did you get in touch with Russell T. Davies about maybe contributing to it in some way?
Moffat: I didn’t do anything as vulgar as pitch; I just e-mailed Russell and congratulated him. I would be far too reticent ever to pitch, but obviously I was hoping that he would then remember that I existed. And also, an indicator that I was open to being approached, this sounds terribly assy, but at a certain level, people sort of assume that you won’t be doing episodes of other people’s shows, and that’s probably true, so I thought I would just check it out and see if they were interested, but I didn’t say so; I just said congratulations, and he very quickly shot back with, that he would be asking me, it was going to go to more than six episodes, which obviously it did.
Do you find you sometimes get identified for a particular kind of work, and can that be a limiting factor?
Moffat: I’ve done mostly comedy, so I suppose so, but I have to say, I’ve never had much of a problem. I don’t know where the problem would come up since generally speaking, it’s usually me proposing an idea, so I can’t know if it’s true. I have a very simple theory about television, which is that good scripts get made, and I have never seen anything to contradict that. Sometimes bad scripts get made too, but generally speaking, good scripts get made with very few exceptions, so whether you’re a comedy writer or a plumber, if you hand in a good drama script, chances are it will get made.
Was it decided from the beginning that your first assignment was going to be a two-parter?
Moffat: I was simply told that’s what I was doing. I wasn’t part of the decision-making process. The night that the offer came through, Russell e-mailed with his original treatment and indicated what he wanted me to do, and that was it, really. I have no idea what the decision-making process was. There are obviously other writers that have two-parters now, but yes it was quite quick.
Russell has claimed that of the season one writers, you were the one who could do a two-parter.
Moffat: That’s definitely a compliment, and it’s probably true that I had written more television scripts than the others, but that’s because I’m so much older.
What was the premise he gave you for ‘The Empty Child’ and ‘The Doctor Dances?’
Moffat: The treatment he sent us has been published as part of one of the Doctor Who magazines and that’s all we got and it wasn’t more than that. It was an alien child, and Captain Jack was meant to be his keeper and it was set in the London Blitz and there was a gang of kids who I think he imagined were going to be more central until it crashed into the idea of having kids working at night, which is pretty much impossible, so that’s why they were quite marginalized in the final episode.
Where did the tone come from?
Moffat: People always think of television as a series of very clever decisions you make, but sometimes it just happens. There are certain things about the tone of those assessments that are inevitable. If it’s set during the London Blitz, that means it’s at night and you hear explosions as well, so you can more or less assume it’s not going to be a musical. It’s also Doctor Who-does-the-Blitz, which is it’s a very romanticized view of the London Blitz, so I think these things become inevitable if you’re going to tell that kind of story: it’s going to be creepy, it’s all going to be at night, and just looking at the photograph, which is where I got the idea for the gasmask, it’s a scary-looking bleak time. It’s was almost impossible for it to be not be, as we called it, ‘Who noir.’ It was going to be forties clothing, nighttime and bombs, so you’ve got ‘The Empty Child right there.’ You don’t really need a lot else other than that.
Did you realize that you were creating one of the first catch-phrases for the new series?
Moffat: You have to strongly remember children in Doctor Who, because however many adults watch it and plenty more adults watch it than children, at its root and its heart, it is a children’s program. It behaves like one, it’s got the pace of one, it’s got the style of one, so it’s very important to remember children and the specific niche for Doctor Who, which is a kind of domestically scaled menace. You try to make the ordinary weird and strange, by taking ordinary things and giving them one little twist to make them suddenly weird, so a little boy asking for his mummy is something you hear all the time. It’s easily imitated, which is very important for Doctor Who monsters, because children have to be able to imitate them in playgrounds, and children are also very aware of the plight of other children. They’re very bound up in the plight of children when they watch fiction, and an abandoned child is something tremendously moving for them, because that’s their biggest fear, is being abandoned by their parent, so all of that is quite evocative for children, and for adults, what can be a greater signifier of a world gone wrong than a child in a gas mask? It’s a horrible sight, and there’s nothing science fiction about it. It actually happened.
When did you realize you had struck a chord with those two episodes?
Moffat: I don’t think you ever realize that. I have to be modest and say they did go over exceptionally well, but you never know, and you end up doing these television interviews in which you explain how brilliant you are and how you thought of all these great ideas, but it’s not like that at all. You really have no idea if it’s going to be the biggest slop or the biggest success. I didn’t know it was going to be as powerful as it was and I had no idea there would be kids saying, ‘Are you my mummy? And I didn’t know it was going to be as big as it was, so that was very exciting.
You also launched the character of Captain Jack, who became quite popular.
Moffat: I was asked to introduce Jack, and that was quite fun.
How does one deal with the element of ambiguous sexuality on Doctor Who?
Moffat: Well, easily. There’s nothing to it really; you’re looking for stuff to put in the scenes; you need people to talk, and this is modern-day Doctor Who. It’s not old Doctor Who, and if you look even at children’s programs these days, issues of sexuality are addressed. If you look at teen programming, my god, it’s there, so obviously Doctor Who always needs to fit into the landscape in which its been deposited. It was mostly for the humor actually, and just to have some interesting twists and turns and gags basically.
The fundamental situation in those two episodes is very doom-fraught, so there’s lots of tension and suspense and running and fear and terror, so you’d better get some lightness and fun in, because it’s a 7:00 on a Saturday show. It’s a game show slot, so you don’t actually want full-on The Exorcist at 7:00 in the evening. Even if you were allowed to, you wouldn’t want to watch that, so you need humor and fun and the flirtation between Rose and Jack was great fun for that, and then you get to see the Doctor’s appalled and jealous reaction to that. We see his very huffy and petulant reaction, and then you get the additional twist that actually Jack is a little bit more flexible than she first supposed, which is all lovely stuff to bubble along and keep things lively and funny at the same time as them being threatening and menacing.
When you came back for season two, did Russell give out the episode premises as he did in the first season?
Moffat: From my point of view, I’d say it was scaled back a little bit. Maybe it was different for the other writers, but I was just given Madame du Pompador and the possibility of a clockwork man was the extent of my brief for series two, but then the series document he wrote that Russell wrote the first time, that we were working around was also the funding document. It was ‘This is the kind of scale we’re talking about and the kind of things we need to be able to do.’ He doesn’t have to do that now, because everyone knows what Doctor Who entails. The BBC will still part with quite a lot, because it’s a flagship show and all of that, but having said that, we don’t make expensive shows over here for the most part. They’re very much cheaper than their American counterparts.
So armed with that basic brief, where did you go with ‘Madame du Pompador,’ as it was originally called?
Moffat: It was never called Madame du Pompador actually; they just kept putting that on the cover until I got impatient and said, ‘It’s not Madame du Pompadour!’
Which sort of ruins the ending.
Moffat: Not really, because you know it’s about a woman called Madame du Pompador from very early on; it’s just a very boring title I thought, and kids will turn off: ‘This week, Doctor Who meets some dead Frenchwoman!’
Did you base some of the characterizations on some on real-life historical settings?
Moffat: Historians will faint all over the place I’m sure, but in Hollywood biopic terms, it’s pretty accurate. She’s the right age, but the fact is, a 37 year-old woman in 18th century France would not look like Sophia Myles does at the age of 22, but hey, it’s show biz. I think the characterization of Reinette, again in the broad cartoony strokes in which Doctor Who works, I think it’s reasonable. She was a bit like that I think, and an interesting contradiction of a woman in reality, because she was tremendously good fun, but also quite cold and quite ambitious and she just seemed like somebody that the Doctor would like, because he has some of those qualities himself.
It’s also a period piece combined with a spaceship story.
Moffat: That’s one of the things that Doctor Who can do, and I think one of the unique, iconic things about Doctor Who is there are certain moments that say ‘Doctor Who’ and somebody in old-fashioned clothes walking down a metal corridor is very Doctor Who, so the moment we see Madame on the spaceship, you suddenly realize there is one series that does this, so it’s very iconic and straightforwardly Doctor Who. It feels like Doctor Who and I think when we did ‘The Empty Child,’ we really liked those moments where the period detail clashed with the space detail on Captain Jack’s ship. There seemed to be something really pleasing and really right for Doctor Who about that.
You added an element of grisliness as well, with remains of the original crew members being used as part of the ship.
Moffat: And you can smell them cooking. Again, looking at it from a child’s point of view, Doctor Who is a scary program. Maybe some of us started to think of it as a daft or funny or camp program, but that’s only in our adult heads. In our child brains, Doctor Who is scary. Terrifying things happen in it, and the Doctor saves you from it. I do think that a threat has to be nasty and horrible and frightening, and the monsters have to be scary. The idea has to be scary, and the Doctor has to be wonderful and kind and brilliant and fix it all, because kids have nightmares. Kids have nightmares whether they watch Doctor Who or not, but if they watch Doctor Who and have nightmares, they have a moral context in which to view their monsters.
There was some talk that the clockwork men had some potential to become recurring monsters in the series. How do you feel about that?
Moffat: I suppose you could bring them back, but I’d be slightly puzzled, because they were robots that went wrong. Generally speaking, and maybe Russell wouldn’t agree with a word I’m saying right now, but my favorite Doctor Who story is the one with brand new monsters that you see once and once only. The moment you start crowding the universe with familiar monsters, I think it’s less interesting. Two of the words that you could reasonably apply to the Daleks are ‘reliably defeat able.’ You know those guys are going to lose at the last minute anyway, and you always know what they’re up to, so the best bit about bringing back old monsters is the reveal. After that, it’s all downhill. It’s like Agatha Christie deciding that the butler should always do it, because it was successful in the last book, so that’s not my favorite kind of Doctor Who story. I like brand new monsters.
Was ‘Girl in the Fireplace’ a good episode one to do?
Moffat: I really enjoyed this one actually. Without the slight nervous of the first one and the unfamiliarity of working on someone else’s show and all the things that were slightly strange for me, it was actually extremely enjoyable and I really enjoyed the script.
You’ve also got a series called Jekyll in development at the moment?
Moffat: It’s a modern-day version of Jekyll & Hyde. I’m doing six parts of that, with James Nesbitt as Dr. Jekyll, so that’s my main thing. I’m also doing a six or eight-part if it comes off, which I think it will, a romantic comedy thing for BBC1, so one of those of those is definitely happening, and the other is looking very healthy.
Is Jekyll in production?
Moffat: It’s inching towards production. We couldn’t get Jimmy Nesbitt our star until September, so it was a bit delayed, but it’s definitely happening. It’s modern day, and it’s a descendant of the original guy, so it’s not the original guy so we can do a completely different story. The reality is, a lot of people have already gone to that well, but do you know what nobody’s ever done? They’ve never actually done Robert Louis Stevenson’s original story ever. They completely ignore it, and so have I. But it’s one of those great folk stories; I think it’s become rather more than the story that’s spawned it; in fact nobody actually knows that story, which is extraordinary, that nobody has used it at all.
Is it an ongoing series?
Moffat: We’re doing one mini-series at the moment, and then we’ll see what happens, so we’re happy either way. I’ve written the first six, but if it was to carry on, I can’t see me doing that every time. Apart from anything else, you start wanting to do something else. We want to get it sorted first. I’d stay on the show, at least for a while, but I wouldn’t write all of it forever. I’ve done that before - I’ve written all of a show forever, so suddenly five or six years of your life has gone by while you’ve basically been repeating myself.
Did that happen on Coupling?
Moffat: I wasn’t hugely involved in the American version to be honest. It was the British one that took up my time, and it was a very successful show, so that was great, and I really enjoyed being involved in that, but you do look up and it’s five years later, so you can’t do that too often.
Does it feel strange when something like an episode of Doctor Who gets a disproportionate attention compared to the rest of the work you’ve done?
Moffat: You sort of know that Doctor Who will always get that because of the genre to which it belongs, but to be honest, I’ve had a lot of that kind of thing over much smaller projects than Doctor Who. I’m fairly used to it.
What was it like doing your first American convention?
Moffat: I’ve only done one British convention and I’ve done one American convention, and these things are always a bit surreal. I’m not necessarily the biggest fan in the whole world of doing those kinds of things, but it’s interesting to go and do them. I think there’s probably something in the American character that is more at home and is less filled with doubt and shame about being at a Doctor Who convention than Brits, so I thought on the whole, it was probably a slightly more enjoyable experience in American than in Stockton or wherever it was, but that’s probably completely unfair. It was fine. I never went to a convention as a fan; I’ve only done two of them based on the fact that I wrote one story- two stories now. I think it’s something you can only do very infrequently. I wouldn’t care to do it too often, nor would anybody be that interested if I did them too often. I’m just a writer; it’s the stars they want to see. Yeah, I might do another one if lots of people I like are going, than I’ll go and have fun with them.
8 p.m. Friday. SciFi