Steven Moffat talks ratings, misogyny, casting Missy, Ashildr's end game, the next companion and leaving Doctor Who
Part two of our exclusive, revealing interview with the showrunner
First published in December 2015
RT: Who are your own heroes from Doctor Who before your time on the show?
Steven Moffat: As far as writers, it’s habitual among fans to dismiss Terry Nation but he’s amazing. In the first year [1963/4], he invents how to do an alien planet story [The Daleks], an alien invasion story [The Dalek Invasion of Earth] and a quest story [The Keys of Marinus]. He invents the all-time best sci-fi monster in the Daleks and, a short time later, the best villain, with Davros [Genesis of the Daleks].
I admire David Whitaker in terms of his grasp of the kind of hero the Doctor could be. Terrance Dicks is consistently brilliant and has a handle on the Doctor, not just as a hero but as a man, a fully rounded person you could write for. Robert Holmes for his understanding that it’s a horror movie with gags. Such a good writer. In modern television he would not have been left to languish. They’d say, “Who is that guy and what series does he want to do?”
And apart from writers.
Obviously [original producer] Verity Lambert is amazing and sort of invents how you’re going to do it. No disrespect to any of the other Doctors, but Patrick Troughton is kind of the one that counts. William Hartnell is lovely but Troughton comes along and says, “This guy could be the hero, couldn’t he?” (They’re the only two Doctors I never met.) The idea of the unassuming comedy-hero bumbler who turns out to be a genius was brand new.
Every single one of the actors who came along after referenced him, including Matt Smith, as a way into the part. Matt didn’t know how to play him until he saw Patrick in The Tomb of the Cybermen. He’d already accepted the part but then realised Doctor Who was great and saw how to play it. Matt’s Doctor is the closest you can be to Pat Troughton if you happen to be Matt Smith, a young, insanely handsome man.
If you had a quiet rainy Sunday afternoon, which Doctor Who DVD would you reach for?
It would depend on the day and I quite often do that and haven’t lost my enthusiasm for watching Doctor Who. Heroically, I got all the way through Colony in Space  recently. That’s a test. I loved it at the time. Day of the Daleks  is extremely good. The Philip Hinchcliffe years [mid 70s producer] are extremely good – they nail it every time.
If you were on a desert island and could save only one episode that you’ve written, which would it be?
I’d rather choose somebody else’s... I guess everyone wants me to say Blink  but it’s never felt like real Doctor Who. It’s an episode of Sally Sparrow. I really like The Night of the Doctor  with Paul McGann. It’s tiny. It’s only six minutes long but it doesn’t feel like there’s 39 minutes missing.
Earlier this year you told me how 2014 was on reflection a rather wonderful year. What have been the highlights of working on Doctor Who this year?
I didn’t realise until I was uploading all [my wife] Sue’s photo files for last year. I was feeling quite depressed but I saw the photos and I thought, “No, that was a brilliant year! I wish I’d enjoyed it at the time.” So the lesson I’ve taken into this year is try and enjoy it at the time. It will not be for ever. Doing a show like this and Sherlock, it’s not gonna happen again. It’s amazing. I’m making a proper effort not to be so f***ing Scottish about everything.
Were you perturbed by the dip in the ratings towards the start of this series? Is it solely attributable to stiff competition from the Rugby World Cup and The X Factor?
There’s loads of things. I don’t want to get on anyone’s case but that wasn’t our best-run launch. This year is not a new Doctor year, it’s not an anniversary, or a new companion year. We can just concentrate on making Doctor Who, which is quite nice in a way. But it’s dangerous when you don’t have that special extra bit to launch a show with. The way it always goes is our highest episode is the first one, but this is the first year we’ve gone up mid-season – after the rugby died down. Our ratings went up with episode five.
Can we discuss some of the recurring themes in your Doctor Who and why you return to them? You often focus on a little boy or girl in danger.
Limited imagination! I’m a parent. Nothing so haunts me as a child in danger. At an utterly primal level, that’s who Doctor Who connects with most. Children. It may be loved by everybody, but it belongs to them. To put a child in danger – it’s not ruthless. It’s automatic. An element of Doctor Who going right back to An Unearthly Child.
And you’ve often introduced a strong woman with an enigma at her core.
It’s hardly something only I’ve done. And I’m married to a very powerful woman.
Trying to find someone who puts the Doctor on the back foot is hard, but worth doing. He’s a bluff-meister, a travelling showman masquerading as a great warrior. He’s not Gandalf in space; he’s a man who stole a time machine. So I like to find people who can cut through and by the end of this series Ashildr has completely figured him out and has him on the rack. She’s someone with enough perspective to say, “I know who you are and what you do. I know you’re amazing but I know you’re not superhuman.”
The idea was he first meets her as a young girl; he meets her again as someone formidable and gone off the rails; he meets her again in episode 10 and she’s very different; and by the end she’s way ahead of him. She’s much older than him and she can nail him and understand him.
What are the other themes or key points of this latest series?
I knew this time for real Clara was leaving and I was interested in shining a little light on what that means for the Doctor. It’s a huge event for him. He doesn’t recover quickly. Doctor Who does that form of bereavement rather well. We have an emotionally engaged hero and those women he knows are not like James Bond girls. They don’t just disappear between movies. When the Doctor ends a friendship, it tears him apart. I like that. That’s a good thing to recognise. Friendship is a huge thing. And he’s so familiar with that, he can sense it on the wind. It’s coming again.
Where does this accusation of misogyny come from? I know I’m just another bloke but I think you give women great roles and material. Nearly all the key people in the Dalek and Zygon episodes this year were women.
It’s a big and complicated issue and I never quite know how to respond to it. The general point being made by these people is correct. We need better female role models and representation on screen. We need all of that. Maybe this is my dimwittery but I do not understand why Doctor Who of all shows is singled out as a misogynist show. And I’m really not like that. I’m sure I’m to the left of a lot of my detractors, but I don’t want to argue with them because I think generally they’re right. We do need to do better.
It’s important to me that the little girls watching see Amy or Clara or Rose and want to be like them. People object and say you’re turning it into The Clara Show but that’s always been the case from the beginning. The Doctor’s always been a co-lead. He’s the hero figure but he’s not any more than a co-lead. Elisabeth Sladen was not less important than Tom Baker. Katy Manning was not less important than Jon Pertwee. Ian and Barbara frequently eclipsed the Doctor. Rose Tyler was the star of modern Doctor Who for the first two years. Every time any paper carried a photo of Doctor Who, it wasn’t Chris [Eccleston] or David [Tennant], it was Billie [Piper]. And that’s a strength.
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I can take a fair amount of credit for that. She actually was up for a different part last year. And I was mooching about the office and saw her name on the list for that part and I said, “No, no, no! Hold off. That’s exactly who we should have for Missy.” But we’d already offered her the other role. I suddenly saw exactly how to write Missy if it was going to be Michelle.
A couple of days’ stress later I had an email for Michelle saying, “I’m so gutted to be turning down this part in Doctor Who you’ve just offered me. I’m unavailable but if there’s ever anything else in Doctor Who even remotely suitable for me, I’d love to do it.” I went into the office the next day and said, “This is it. We are definitely casting Michelle as Missy.” We then let Michelle in on that secret and she was gobsmacked. What a performance! She eats up that screen.
She’s a force of nature and an incredibly nice person. You sort of assume she’s going to be scary but she’s so lovely and so happy to be playing the part. I got this award the other week in Glasgow for Great Scots and Michelle flew over just to hand it to me. Bless her!
She’s the wife of Jack Davenport so you must have known her for years, going back to when he was in Coupling.
Yes. She recalls – and I do not – when we were all out in Montreux in 2001 and Coupling won the Silver Rose [at the Rose d’Or Light Entertainment Festival]. We all went out and partied, so drunk we could hardly speak, and I said, “I swear I’m gonna make Doctor Who one day.” I do like the fact that this conversation took place between the future showrunner and the future Master.
You’re obviously an intelligent chap but when you’re writing, how do you get into the mind of a superior intellect of someone like the Doctor or Sherlock, way brighter than we mere mortals?
I take it seriously as a problem because you have to simulate genius while not being one. I try to work out what the Doctor is really up to and never tell you what it is. What’s he really up to in The Magician’s Apprentice?
How does it work with Sherlock?
Doyle told us how to do it. His cleverness was laid out for us 100 years ago. Those deductions are hell. They’re very hard to write but as a demonstrated intellectual skill, it’s pretty unstoppable. Doyle’s first point about detectives was: you can’t just say they’re clever, they’ve got to be clever. Every episode we try to have a new cool deduction that makes sense. Now, if you deconstruct most of them, Sherlock has a lucky knack of always guessing right, but let’s leave that aside, it’s the deductions that make him clever. Very often in the stories we tell of Sherlock are the days he fails or gets too emotional, because the most dramatic tale to tell about a clever man is that being clever isn’t enough.
How did you work to develop Peter’s Doctor this year?
My big note this year was, “You’re the raddled old rocker.” If you want to play your electric guitar on top of a tank, you damn well do it. If you want to look like an insane dad, do it.
Initially, from Peter’s between-season email. Which was him saying things he’d like to explore with the Doctor. He was basically saying, “I want to be more playful, I don’t just want to be the 12th Doctor, I want to be all the Doctors. Every Doctor coming in a mix.” And he thought maybe in his lonely moments in the Tardis he could play the guitar.
Which clicked into what I was thinking, watching Peter on the  World Tour with his shades on, waving to the crowds and being such a rocker. That’s what he once was, rocking round Glasgow in his younger days when the whole world wanted him. I wanted to see that in his Doctor. It’s also the last thing you’d think his Doctor would do after last season, pick up a guitar and think, ‘Do you know what, I’m a bit of a rocker.’ The last thing you think he’d do is just what he should do.
Have you already got someone in mind for the new companion?
I’m beginning to have an idea of the kind of person, specific ideas but not a specific actress. A new companion gives us the chance to launch the show again. It began in 1963 with the story of Ian and Barbara and then in 2005 with Rose Tyler. Arguably it begins again with the story of Amy Pond. You can recruit new viewers when somebody else meets the Doctor. And I think we’ve got a really cool new idea about how to do that.
So it would be a new person.
Yeah but anything can change.
Would the dynamic of male and female companions work with Peter’s Doctor?
That’s still being discussed. We’re definitely looking for a different dynamic.
You’ve been in the job for six years now. How hard will it be to give up? Is the end in sight?
I take it a year at a time and that’s the only answer I’ll ever give on that one. How hard, I don’t know.
You’re still happy doing it?
Yes, but I don’t expect to get unhappy doing it. I won’t be leaving because I’m suddenly miserable. It’ll be because I want to do something else.
You told me once you wouldn’t leave until the right person emerged to pass on the baton to.
That is an issue and one I’m actively engaged in but I can’t say much about that. Everything is difficult in Doctor Who, including leaving, and I would never do anything to harm it. I would never leave it in the lurch because it means too much to me. Yes, it’s a problem. Let’s not pretend it’s not a big problem. But there will be a solution. In terms of the emotional difficulty of leaving, it’s hard.
Russell’s drawn a line under Doctor Who and refuses all your entreaties to return and write. Would you do the same?
I’ve no idea until I’m there. I mean, I can understand Russell. I’m gobsmacked by how much Doctor Who I’ve written – an insane amount.
Steven Moffat was photographed at his home in London by Richard Ansett – exclusively for Radio Times
Photos © Radio Times