Steven Moffat on his early years, overcoming his shyness, and the pressures of running Doctor Who and Sherlock

Part one of a revealing interview with the showrunner

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RT: I love that often published photo of you as a boy reading an early Doctor Who book [below]. What age were you then?
Steven Moffat:
That’s the year Doctor Who and the Daleks came out in paperback [Target Books, May 1973]. I must have been 11 or 12 although I feel as though I was younger than that. I look younger. All those years there’d been Star Trek books but no Doctor Who – I didn’t realise there’d been a few Doctor Who ones back in the day.

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I remember vividly the experience of finding that book in a shop and I was astonished that suddenly without fanfare there were three Doctor Who books: Daleks, Zarbi and the Crusaders. And then being rather snobbish that they’d put out one of those historical ones – “Oh no, I want the monster ones!” Those three are good books, well written and I read them endlessly.

Who took that photo – your dad?
I assume so. He was keen on photography back when it was interesting and you had to go into a dark room and develop it.

Can you paint me a picture of the young Steven Moffat back home in Paisley in the 1970s?
This is going to be so stereotypical Doctor Who fan. Quiet. Bullied at school. Read a hell of a lot. Very bookish. But rubbish books. Huge Doctor Who fan. I liked anything magical. I loved the Narnia books and entirely missed the Christian allegory. I think I knew it was there but I didn’t care.

If you could time-travel, what advice would you give that boy now?
Since it all worked out quite well, I think I’d probably forbear from saying anything. I think he’d be alarmed and terrified at me turning up from the future. 

I read that your father Bill was a primary school headmaster [in Johnstone, Renfrewshire]. And you studied English at University?

English and philosophy. It was easier to do a joint honours. 

And then you became an English teacher for a few years. How was that?
I feel faintly fraudulent. I didn’t complete three full school years. I joined late in my first one, did two more and left. My father was passionate about teaching, and if you are, then it’s one of the most fascinating jobs in the world. But I was frustrated by it. I didn’t want to be a teacher – I wasn’t especially bad at it; I was good with the kids and reasonably popular. But it’s not what I wanted to do – not that I ever imagined I’d get to do what I wanted to do.

Educating and entertaining people with the power of the English language – that must have parallels with what you’re doing now?
Telling stories doesn’t feel the same as educating people. For all Doctor Who’s briefly surviving educational ambitions, once Verity [Lambert] got hold of it, it became the bad boy of kids’ television. It became the scary one. It was the only children’s programme in the history of children’s television that was unsuitable for children. That’s why we loved it. I still feel Doctor Who has to be pure entertainment; it’s not just teaching you lessons in life. It does sometimes, I suppose – but is always entertaining. I hope.

You said at the Radio Times Festival you’re quite a shy person at heart.
Not at heart. At every level a shy person. But I’m 54. I’ve got the hang of it. 

Can you elaborate on that? It must make it difficult when you’ve got such a high-profile job.
It’s easier somehow. I’m quite relaxed about getting up on stage and talking to a crowd for ten minutes and might even make them laugh. I’m OK with that. This is, my son tells me, typical of introverts. But stick me in a room with a bunch of people I don’t know and I go, “Oh God!” and I try to hide behind Sue all the time. [His wife Sue Vertue is a fellow executive on Sherlock.]

Does that mean people misread you sometimes in social situations?
I don’t hear about myself much in social circles. No, in common with my father, my friends and people I know professionally, the desperate desire to find something to say and not sound like an idiot just makes you do jokes all the time. Jokes are a nervous reflex. Sometimes you can end up being irritating or seeming facetious or like you’re showing off, and all you’re trying to do is justify the fact that you spoke at all. I’ve come to understand that charm isn’t being funny. Charm is finding other people funny. 

What are the literary influences in your own writing? Who are your favourite writers?
Doctor Who and Sherlock were tremendous influences on me. Quite seriously, Arthur Conan Doyle’s storytelling is amazing. People don’t talk about that enough. He’s been obscured by his own creation. It’s very pure, brisk and to the point. The screenplays of William Goldman are amazing. His storytelling is so vigorous and in the moment. If you want to know about comedy, there isn’t anything missing from Neil Simon’s stuff. Slightly obscured by the operatic nature of his work, but Quentin Tarantino is an astonishing writer. Those scenes would work on the radio, they’re so good. Aaron Sorkin. I wouldn’t be grand enough to call them influences though.

Some things you see are so bad, you think you shouldn’t write for a week in case you’re contaminated. In case it’s got into your head. The sheer rubbishness of the dialogue and awfulness of the story construction. You have to detox. But you read a Russell [T Davies] script and suddenly everything makes sense in an immaculate clean way. So they’re huge influences and pick-me-ups. I read Cucumber years ago for the simple reason that I was stuck on Doctor Who, really tired and having a miserable time rewriting someone’s script. And all I was doing covertly was saying, “Could you send me some good writing I haven’t read so I can remember what it’s like?” It doesn’t mean you then write like that but you go, “Yes! That’s exciting.”

You’re renowned for your complex narrative structures. Do they just flow, do they evolve as you’re writing them, or do you sit down and carefully chart them out?
The chart would be worse than the script. Most of my stuff is much simpler than people credit it for being. The one with a flow chart that would drive anyone mad – though people probably wouldn’t think this – is The Day of the Doctor. Just try and do that from the Doctor’s point of view. Nothing is in the right order. It’s the most complicated thing I’ve written, yet it’s the big friendly multiplex version of Doctor Who.

How do you go about planning and structuring a whole new season?
Well, you know where your high points are going to be. It’s quite a basic plan because the plan is going to change without doubt as each of the scripts comes in and you realise the way to make that story best takes it away from the original plan.

This year I didn’t expect Sarah Dollard’s story to go where it ended up. It’s episode ten but was meant to be earlier. When it came in, a terrific piece, I thought, “If we just change this bit around, that’s what could lead us into the finale.” It was an extra commission because I fell in love with the storyline and what she was doing with it. So that knocked my other idea out.

Do you plan a new series alone first then present it to your fellow executives?
We always start in a room and see if anything happens and some days nothing does. So there’s no point in flogging it and everyone goes home. The other day we had a meeting for next series and it was puttering along and then we came up with something we got very excited about.

But what do you do when you’re stuck for inspiration? Take a break, a walk, have more coffee?
Depends where I am in the cycle. Sometimes I’ve been stuck knowing the tone meeting is at the end of the week, and you just have to sit there and find it. There’s no other way. No magic will occur, so you have to force it out. When I was writing comedy, I used to say, “Stare out the window until you make yourself laugh.” With Doctor Who, it’s: “Stare out the window until you surprise yourself and think, ‘Oh that would be creepy.’ ” 

Where do you write mostly – at home, in the office?
I’ve got a house in London and in Wales, both with offices. That’s where I do most of it but the reality is I’m all over the place, I can be writing in a room at Roath Lock – where I don’t even have an office – or on the train. I prefer, especially if it’s the first draft, to be in my office, because it’s hard enough to get started. I wrote the last few bits of Listen on the set of Deep Breath. That’s how close I was and then finished it on the train home.

What do you do to shut off distractions at home or calls from the production?
I don’t know. If you’ve got two kids and a whole life going on and two TV series in production at the same time – that’s happened to me – there isn’t anywhere to hide, and if you hide, the problems stack up. It’s like an air traffic controller taking a couple of days off. The planes are still circling. They don’t give you time off. Brian [Minchin] is very good at keeping things away from me if I’m under the gun, but there are some calls that I’m there to make.

Do you tend to go through lots of drafts?
All Doctor Who scripts do. It’s complicated because people are confused about what a first draft is. That’s the first draft you hand in, not necessarily the first draft you wrote. 

You’re the boss, so who do you hand over a first draft to?
Well, initially to me and I might send it back to me. And I usually do. There’s no place to hide as a showrunner. 

How do you juggle the demands of being a writer and an executive producer?
A lot of this was advice from Russell. The single most intractable trouble that bites us in the arse on Doctor Who is getting 12 or 13 scripts together that are good and makeable, with the right amount of CGI and not too many prosthetics in them, and so on. That’s the No 1. That’s why this is a well-paid job. That’s what you’re there for. My job is almost entirely editorial, creative. I’m involved in the edits, the tone meetings, the dubs… 

How hard is it rewriting other people’s work?
I was more worried a few years ago than I am now. I’ve got slightly less nice. I remember Russell telling me you’ve just got to do the work. Sometimes you get one in which is quite fully formed, quite rare, and there’s not a lot for me to do on it. That’s great when that happens. From Toby [Whithouse] and Chris [Chibnall] or Mark [Gatiss] you’ll get incredibly polished first drafts. It’s like having a day off. And you think maybe you’ll see your kids this weekend. 

How does it work, sharing co-writing duties and credits on screen?
I get involved in all the scripts at some level, sometimes quite substantially and at a sufficient level that it would be silly all round if I didn’t put my name on it as well. I’ve only started doing that with the third series of Sherlock and the last series of Doctor Who. Where it’s a bigger job and I’m more involved. 

Don’t all the episodes start off as your ideas or do writers come to you with ideas?
It varies. Zygons was an idea I pitched to Peter [Harness]. Which is possibly in the end why I got more involved in it, whereas Kill the Moon was something he pitched to me.

I’m in the thick of this process right now with the next series. It will vary from moment to moment. A writer we’re interested in or hoping to nail to a script will come in, and I’ll talk about what I’m looking for this year and they might have a fab idea they pitch to me. It’s probably 50/50. Two of the stories I did for Russell were him pitching to me and two of them were me pitching to him. It’s the idea that gets everyone excited before they leave the room, the one they want to go home and work on.

I mean Jamie [Mathieson] has just been in and pitched a brilliant idea, a brilliant new monster. I just read his first pass at a storyline for that and I’ve no idea where we’ll end up going with that story. But that’s him. Being Jamie, he came in with 20 ideas and this one is just a belter. 

How often does someone say to you, “No we can’t do that”? Are people free to say to you if something doesn’t work?
Yeah, and do all the time. That’s not an offence. God knows, you want to know if your joke’s not funny before you stand in front of your audience. So you want people to tell you what they didn’t understand. Sometimes, if I think I haven’t had enough notes, I’ll send a script to Mark [Gatiss] or Russell to get some feedback. Ben Stephenson [departing BBC drama chief] sent me his notes for the 50th and he’d helpfully numbered them 1 to 50. 

But given that you’re in a position where you wield some influence, if not power, how do you deal with sycophants or at least people ready to say yes to everything?
That doesn’t happen. Within the bubble of Doctor Who or Sherlock everyone’s nice, polite and honest. There’s not much in the way of sycophancy. It’s very amiable. I would not be regarded within that bubble as a figure of awesome power and significance. I’m the man who forgets to eat and has to be fed when he arrives at the office, the man who forgets his reading glasses.

Part two: Steven Moffat talks about Missy, Ashildr, Clara, the next companion and his plans to leave Doctor Who…

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Steven Moffat was photographed at his home in London by Richard Ansett – exclusively for Radio Times 

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Photos © Radio Times