What are Steven Moffat’s Desert Island Doctor Whos – and why did Matt Smith “punch his pillow in frustration”?

In part three of our exclusive interview, the showrunner reveals the highs and lows of his tenure – and why he never approached JK Rowling

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Which individual episode are you proudest of from your time as showrunner?
It’s hard to narrow it down but I’d say The Day of the Doctor [the 50th anniversary special in 2013]. It was an impossible commission – to meet the expectations of the audience and the BBC, given that they wanted it to be that year’s Olympics without the money. Yet it did achieve all that. It wasn’t fun to do, but it was a rare occasion where I bigged something up and it lived up to it.

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Apart from the Doctor, which character have you most enjoyed writing for?
Maybe River Song. She’s quite close to the Doctor, so is that a cheat? Partly because we never wore her out; she wasn’t there all that often. And of course Alex Kingston is awesome and beautiful. Also, I bloody loved writing Missy, and I’m conceited enough to think I did good job. And Michelle Gomez was the only casting decision I took entirely on my own – I just insisted it had to be her – and I’m incredibly proud of the result.

What was your happiest moment or experience on the programme?
Oh, there were a lot of those. I suppose in terms of a single moment the day after the 50th and realising that it had actually worked. The ratings and reviews were through the roof. Everybody everywhere was happy. That was one of the rare moments where I actually thought I know what I’m doing. It lasted about four seconds.
But it’s also the friendships that you make. I remember reading a review when the Weeping Angels two-parter came out [in 2010] and it referred to Matt Smith’s “amazing new Doctor”.

He was a hit from the word go really, wasn’t he? Certainly was for me.
That may be how it seemed on the outside but on the inside we were more fraught. David had been the face of Doctor Who and when we announced Matt, people thought he was too young, too pretty, his chin is ridiculous. Matt went through a year of being hated, before the show went out. He still talks about it. He used to go to bed and punch his pillow in his frustration. He couldn’t believe in himself or that it was going to work. But then it did – everybody realised what we’d known for year, that he’s not just a young pretty actor, he’s an awesome actor. And, yes, that was instant.

What was your biggest nightmare? You can’t say The Day of the Doctor.
But it was. The level of expectation. The email I was getting in my inbox. People were savagely cross that we didn’t have William Hartnell in it and I’m saying, “He’s just not responding to my phone calls…” Um, what other nightmares were there? Around the middle of the last series when my mum was dying and then died – that was awful. I was writing [episode six] Extremis and still had the two-part finale and this Christmas special to go. And I was thinking that the only thing that’s keeping me going at all is that I can see the finish line. I’m just crawling towards that.

Who was your biggest casting coup?
It has to be John Hurt [as the War Doctor, below]. That was awesome.

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When we knew that Chris Eccleston wasn’t going to be in the 50th, I came up with the idea – to my own horror – of the extra Doctor that we didn’t know about and I wrote a direction in the script: “…and the most famous actor in world turns round.” And who else could it have been? Not Brad Pitt – not that we could have got him – no one would accept him as the Doctor, brilliant though he is. If John had said no, I don’t know what we’d have done.

Any writer or actor you wish you’d signed up but didn’t?
I’d have loved David Renwick to write one but he just isn’t a fan. Most of the other people I asked, like Richard Curtis and Neil Gaiman, said yes, but David was fairly firm in his no as were a number of writers I approached who were firm in their nos.

What about JK Rowling?
I didn’t approach her. She’s great – what a clever woman. But she’d never do it. Why would she? She’s already got Harry Potter.
As for actors, I wish I’d found an excuse to get Bryan Cranston in. I loved Breaking Bad. I think he’d be awesome in the programme as a villain. That voice and the grace of his humour.

What are your Desert Island Doctor Who stories? Just one from 20th-century Who.
The Ark in Space [1975]. There’s something primally perfect about it.

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[A 1975 RT illustration for The Ark in Space by Frank Bellamy]

You could have handed it to any cast throughout the history of Doctor Who and they could do it. That could be the first Doctor, Ian and Barbara; that could be the 11th Doctor, Rory and Amy; that could be the 12th Doctor, Bill and Nardole and it would just work. And you wouldn’t have to change anything, just details. It’s the perfect script – as I’m sure they thought when they made Alien. It’s not the world’s best production, it’s not even the best production that year. I’m never entirely convinced by the stars you see out of the Ark’s windows, and the monster is a bit s**t. But it’s so well written and beautifully plotted by Robert Holmes. It’s Tom Baker, Lis Sladen and Ian Marter [as companions Sarah and Harry] – all the greats.

One of Russell T Davies’s…
Russell’s scripts outdistance all of us and his work is always so clear and clever. Because I cannot pick a best, I’ll pick the most significant and go for the very first, Rose [2005].

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[Rose (Billie Piper) runs to join the Tardis at the end of episode one in 2005]

It’s not the most convincing alien plan ever but he absolutely – in a sensible, hands-on, practical way – made Doctor Who work in a modern form. And he did it by changing almost nothing. He didn’t introduce a lot of annoying new things. He just made the show work for now and gave it the best dialogue that it has ever had. I remember reading that script for first time more vividly than I remember watching the episode.

And one that you’ve written…
One of mine… out of perversity, because I’m breaking my own rules and I don’t think it’s what Doctor Who is really like, I’m going to say Heaven Sent [2015].

WARNING: Embargoed for publication until 00:00:01 on 24/11/2015 - Programme Name: Doctor Who - TX: 28/11/2015 - Episode: HEAVEN SENT (By Steven Moffat) (No. 11) - Picture Shows: ***EMBARGOED UNTIL 24th NOV 2015*** Doctor Who (PETER CAPALDI) - (C) BBC - Photographer: Simon Ridgway

But I had so many letters and emails, people writing to me about how it helped them cope with grief, that I’ve got to take it seriously. So I was very moved because it was my attempt to write about grief in a Doctor Who setting because Peter’s Doctor had just lost Clara. The only way to do it was to make the grief the jeopardy, to make the grief the monster, the trap he was fighting. He could never sit still too long or it would come and find him. He punched that wall for four and half billion years.

If you were a companion for a day, which of all the Doctors would you most like to travel with?
Absolutely none of them. He’s an adrenaline junkie. He’s erratic, he’s not safe. I’m a coward. I would not journey with any of those unreasonable men.

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Come on, if you were to wander into that police box, which Doctor would you most like it to be?
They’re all maniacs. OK, Jodie Whittaker, because I don’t know how mad she is yet. What I think all the actors have got absolutely bang to rights is you don’t look into that Time Lord’s eyes and feel any sense of reassurance. He’ll say, “There are some monsters in cave. Let’s go and find them.” “Shall we take some weapons?” “No. I’ll take my handkerchief.” No, I’ll say Jodie Whittaker because she might be more reasonable. Bet she won’t be though!