Steven Moffat on Doctor Who and The Time Traveler's Wife
The former Who showrunner opens up on the familiar themes in his time-displaced romantic drama.
When Steven Moffat read The Time Traveler’s Wife, he’d just written his first episode of Doctor Who. Like millions of readers, the Scottish screenwriter devoured Audrey Niffenegger’s 2003 novel about a reluctant time-traveller and his long-suffering wife - and promptly borrowed the idea.
The result was The Girl in the Fireplace - a 2006 episode of Doctor Who in which David Tennant’s Time Lord falls in love with King Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour. “It’s very similar in mood if not in detail,” explains Moffat, who went on to become the showrunner of the sci-fi series and also created the hit BBC dramas Sherlock and Dracula.
“It’s about a time-lapse relationship, and I did it quite consciously - knowing I was doing The Time Traveler’s Wife. In my time on Doctor Who, I was more interested in the time travel aspect than most people probably are - I loved time conundrums and paradoxes.”
Moffat didn’t realise that the Chicago author had rumbled him until she published a second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry. “She has a character in the book actually watching The Girl in the Fireplace on television, so I knew she was onto me. At which point I could be more obvious, so I made Doctor Who a wife - River Song."
Played by Alex Kingston, River Song encounters several incarnations of her extra-terrestrial husband-to-be - just as the ill-starred couple in The Time Traveler’s Wife meet at various ages.
Moffat finally met Niffenegger at the press launch for River Song’s last appearance in Doctor Who and has now come full circle: he’s written HBO’s version of The Time Traveler’s Wife, which marries his penchant for sci-fi and spiky rom-coms such as his pre-Who comedy Coupling.
He admits he’s “nervous” about comparisons to the novel and the 2009 film adaptation, which cast Rachel McAdams as the long-suffering heroine. “People are very invested in the book, and a lot of people love the movie.”
The TV show stars two Brits: Theo James is Henry, a Chicago librarian who involuntarily travels back and forward in time, often dropping in on his younger self and wife-to-be Clare. She’s played by Rose Leslie, who made her name as free-spirited Ygritte in Game of Thrones and a housemaid in Downton Abbey.
“There’s a storm going on inside Clare, and Rose Leslie was the only person who got that - who made it fiery," explains Moffat.
There was a small complication, though: Leslie was heavily pregnant. “When we finished the last round of auditions, I said, ‘Literally the only question we’ve got here is: How do we handle the childcare? We have got exactly one Clare.’”
How did they handle the childcare? “I think Kit Harington would like to have a word,” he jokes. “He handled the childcare. We tried to be as accommodating as we humanly could given the monstrously long hours and sheer size of the part.” Harington is, of course, Leslie’s Game of Thrones co-star and real-life husband.
While Moffat initially picked up The Time Traveler’s Wife because of its title, it wasn’t the time-defying plot that he found fascinating about the book. “It’s an ordinary love seen in an extraordinary way,” he explains. “One of the most difficult things to write about is a perfectly happy relationship because it seems a bit dull. But by viewing it through the prism of time travel, you remind everybody that love and loss are inextricably linked: love means loss.
“It reminds you that tragedy underpins every love story, and that every day is valuable. There is no such thing as happily ever after - there’s happy for a bit. I was reading it thinking, ‘How can Henry stand the fact that he knows he’s going to die? Oh yeah, I know I’m going to die too - why am I relaxed?’”
Unlike Doctor Who’s monster-bashing Time Lord, Henry is no superhero. “He can’t change time; he’s a victim of it. It’s not like Back to the Future - nothing is going to alter. He’s not got a superpower.”
Although set in Chicago, HBO’s version was mostly filmed in and around New York. Moffat was only on set for the final week of the six-month shoot, partly because of COVID travel restrictions and partly because he was busy shooting his upcoming thrillers Inside Man and The Devil’s Hour in Farnborough, which both star former Time Lords.
David Tennant is a vicar in Inside Man, which will land on the BBC and Netflix later this year; Peter Capaldi plays a reclusive nomad in Amazon Prime Video’s The Devil’s Hour, which Moffat and Sue Vertue are producing. All three shoots had to be paused due to positive COVID tests.
“I honestly didn’t think we’d get to the end of any of them. There were a lot of challenges, and a lot of the joy, frankly, was taken out of it.”
While he waits to see if viewers will fall in love with his take on The Time Traveler’s Wife, Moffat is already working on a follow-up: "I'm in optimism writing the second season right now."
Is he a romantic? “I’d like to think so. Are there really people who aren’t? There’s 7.5 billion people in the world - they came from somewhere. I think there’s still a certain amount of enthusiasm for the subject out there.”
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The Time Traveler’s Wife begins on HBO on Sunday 15th May, and Sky Atlantic on Monday 16th May. Find out how to sign up for Sky TV here.
You can also order the original Time Traveler's Wife book on Amazon. For more, check out our dedicated Sci-Fi page or our full TV Guide.