In the second instalment of an extensive and wide-ranging three-part interview, Radio Times’s Patrick Mulkern talks to outgoing Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat about his successor, the first female Doctor and what the future holds for him…
Patrick Mulkern: It seems like you’ve actually been building towards the idea of the Doctor becoming a woman for a very long time. After all, you did cast the first female Doctor on British telly in 1999 in your Comic Relief spoof – Joanna Lumley.
Steven Moffat: I always used to ask at conventions and talks: “How many of you would like that?” Or not. And making it clear this is not about your politics or feminism. It’s just about would you like it. At the beginning very few people were that keen, but every time I asked, more people liked it. At a “wisdom of crowds” level, it was moving that way.
If we’d replaced David Tennant with a woman, that wouldn’t have worked. It was too early. Maybe if we’d replaced Matt Smith with a woman, given that his Doctor was more sexless, and less of a lad… but then I got obsessed with the idea of Peter Capaldi being the Doctor. I wanted to see Capaldi in the Tardis. No regrets about that!
And you paved the way with the Master and Missy.
And everybody went with that. It seemed to me the last piece of the puzzle because no one has any problem at all that being the same character. Everybody accepted that Michelle Gomez was the new Master. We did the Time Lord general regenerating into a black woman and we’ve had several references to the Doctor not being entirely clear whether he’s always been a man and on occasion whether he’s a man at the moment.
We have to worry if our Daily Mail-reading viewers are going to say, “That’s not the same person!” This isn’t a show exclusively for progressive liberals; this is also a show for people who voted Brexit. That’s not me politically at all – but we have to keep everyone on board. We can’t just write for the progressives; it has to be something everybody, across the spectrum, accepts.
But it was Chris [Chibnall], and only Chris, who made the really big decision, and all credit to him. It’s going to work, I know it is. More and more of the audience were asking for it. It is absolutely the right choice. Now is the time. I’m not convinced that any previous time was.
Have you met Jodie Whittaker?
Only recently. A few weeks ago I bumped into her at the theatre. I wondered if she was going to be a bit serious, because the Doctor has to be funny, but when you meet Jodie, she is a fireball of mischief and irreverence. I think she’ll be brilliant as the Doctor. I’ve obviously seen her tiny bit at the end of the Christmas special.
Woe betide the first person who changes her back to a him.
I’d like to think that in the distant future we’ll stop worrying about such things. What we’ve done is potentially double the number of people who can play the part.
How has the transition worked in practice between your team and Chris’s?
We all left and they arrived, in brutal terms. For a while they were just down the corridor and I would go and see them sometimes and they were lovely. Last time in 2009 it really was the case of Russell [T Davies] and Julie [Gardner] going and me already being there with largely the same team. This time it’s mostly a new team.
When we spoke two years ago you said you were “actively engaged” in finding your successor. How did that actually work?
I had a conversation about leaving. I said I wanted to go and then there was a conversation about who would take over. I suppose I hadn’t quite realised they expected me to express an opinion. So I was slightly thinking, “Hey, thanks, it’s not actually my job.” My memory of the timeline is a bit confused now. I think before I fessed up to them that I was leaving, I took Chris out to dinner socially to work out what his schedule was, but I didn’t ask him about Doctor Who. It was: “Are you doing a third Broadchurch? When does that happen?” So I went back home thinking if I did one more run of Doctor Who then he’d be in a position to take over after I leave. Because for quite a long time I thought series nine [in 2015] might be my last.
At that point it became about Chris talking to the BBC about his plans and what he’d want to be in place to take it over. I wasn’t part of those discussions, so immediately a future started forming of which I had no part.
Will you follow your predecessor Russell T Davies and refuse all invitations to write for Doctor Who again?
I think I will draw a line under it. I mean I’ve written more than anybody else, not even by a small margin now. More than Russell, more than Terrance Dicks in terms of actual televised minutes. But what fogs it up is all the rewriting. Terrance might seem quite low on the list if you look at the ones he’s credited for, but he rewrote all the Jon Pertwee stories. I also did tons of rewriting, as did Russell. Whichever way you slice it, I’m probably the one who’s written the most. So that seems enough.
Have you achieved everything you wanted to on Doctor Who?
If someone demanded that I write a Doctor Who tomorrow I’m sure I could think of one. I have some form. But the fact is I’m not going to live for ever. I’m 55, for Christ’s sake. I’ve done enough Doctor Who. Also Chris has to have enough time away from his predecessors so I can’t turn up now and do one. I’d just be looming around the place. They wouldn’t want me around. It would be awful. In a few years’ time, would I want come back? Well, I can’t predict the future. I don’t think so. I’ve done my bit. I’ve absolutely bloody loved it. It’s been my favourite job. But there is no part of me that wishes I were in Cardiff doing the next series right now. Not at all.
I survived it. I got out the other end. I don’t know what it’ll be like when the show goes out, and I’m no part of it. I keep wondering about Christmas Day and thinking, “It’s not me!” for the last minute. Am I going to be cross about it? No, I won’t because I’ve seen the last bit, and it’s GREAT.
So you’re optimistic for the future of Doctor Who?
Absolutely 100% optimistic. I don’t think we’re anywhere close to halfway through the new series run. Or close to a third. People talk a lot of bollocks about ratings and stuff. They’re not adding on iPlayer. The only way you make Doctor Who a failure is if you accidentally forget to add iPlayer. It’s doing brilliant business internationally. There’s a huge amount of excitement in Jodie as the new Doctor. It’s going to pep things up. It’s going to be around for ever. There may be times – and these will not be bad times – when it goes off the air for a bit, but I’d almost be in favour of that now and then. To remind people that they miss it. I think it’s here for good. And it’s about to enter into a golden period.
About to? Above and beyond what you and Russell have achieved?
Hopefully, what we did was relatively golden, but onwards! Chris is an extraordinary talent to get to be the third showrunner. On a show that’s been going for 12 years. Normally someone like Chris wouldn’t dream of being the third showrunner of an aged series. That wouldn’t happen on any show except Doctor Who.
Of course it helps that he’s a Doctor Who fan.
Of course. It’s what will survive the longest of all the silly things we’ve done. I speak to Russell often enough to know that he hasn’t had a heartbeat of regret about doing Doctor Who. And I don’t. It’s an exciting thing to have done.
And you’ve had extraordinary success with it.
Yes, and a success that – even though you’re not doing it any more – carries on. You get to be one of the guys who did Doctor Who, just as all the Doctors are still the Doctor.
Are you expecting it to be radically different?
I shouldn’t speculate. But I think Chris is going to be bold. That’s his nature. And he knows Doctor Who very well and he’d think the time has arrived to be bold.
It can take it.
Oh God yeah! I said to Chris, “I will not assume change is implicit criticism. If you change everything, that’s fine.” And it’s what the show always needs. I know very little about what’s coming but I think it will be amazing. People will be shocked by it and fall in love with it all over again. Excellent people work on it. You’re not going to get Chris Chibnall screwing it up. He’s too good. Jodie Whittaker is a brilliant actor. They’re going to make really good Doctor Who, and really good Doctor Who, whatever someone invents about the ratings this week, will always do really well.
What’s it like winding down after eight years as the showrunner – a wrench or a relief?
This sounds horrible but at the moment it’s more of a relief because in particular my last year in the job was colossal. I did three Sherlocks and 14 Doctor Whos in about a year and if you just do the sums for that, that’s a grotesque amount of work. So I’m still marvelling at the idea of having weekends off, not getting up at four o’clock in the morning to start typing. There’s only so long you can live like that. Probably the time that I’ll feel it is when the show comes back on air and it’s bugger all to do with me and I’ll think, “What happened?” Right now I’m still marvelling at the idea that I’m not in a state of gut-churning panic every second about Doctor Who.
My mum was dying during a considerable proportion of my last year on Doctor Who so that was horrific. And I was flying up and down to Scotland. There were scripts that weren’t working and I was rewriting them. It was kind of monstrous. After a particularly difficult tone meeting, my car dropped me off at my house in Cardiff and I was making my evidently wobbly way across the road to my house and my old script editor Helen Raynor just happened to be walking along. She took my arm and said, “Are you all right? I’ll just get you to your door.” I remember thinking, “I’m putting the marker here – that’s how tired I am. That’s what I have to remember next year if I have any regrets.”
You’ve been able to have some proper holidays.
I’ve always had holidays but Sue has always booked an extra room to be my office. And I’ve just worked all day.
So that hasn’t happened this time.
No. Seven days after we finished filming I jetted off and I’ve been to San Diego, Hawaii, LA, Edinburgh, France. I’ve been all over the shop and I bloody loved it.
What are you working on now?
Possibly futilely, but as an exercise, I’m writing a play. It’s not been commissioned by anyone and therefore may never see the light of day. I just wanted to prove to myself that I’m still a writer, by which I mean the job of a writer is to make things up and write them down, not to get paid, not to run a show but just to write something. Without a deadline and without money.
Can you elaborate on what the play is about?
Not for now. Very vaguely it’s about how people bully each other. I’m trying to write something, and probably failing, which doesn’t rely on any of the tricks I’ve been relying on for the past ten years. There are no monsters, no murders, no mysteries, there’s no timey-wimey, no huge plot twists. Its place in my life may only be as a brain cleanser after many years of Doctor Who and Sherlock. So it may never appear anywhere and if it doesn’t, that’s fine.
Have you written a complete early draft?
I’d say I’m a third of the way through the second of two acts. I know where I’m going with it. I know that I’ll finish it and I think there’s some good stuff in it and a couple of good characters. Whether anything ever happens with it is not the point. [Since our interview, Steven has finished his play.]
There’s been talk of you revamping Dracula with Mark Gatiss. How far has that project come along?
Not very. We’re going to have a meeting quite shortly, as soon as he’s free, and we’ll start writing January-ish.
Are you adapting the original book or is it going to be more of a series featuring the character of Dracula?
We’re keeping schtum about what we’re going to do. We’ve got an idea of how we’re going to handle Dracula but we’re not saying what it is.
So you won’t say if you’re bringing the character up-to-date like Sherlock?
Correct, I won’t.
You’ve received lots of awards and accolades throughout your career. How do you stop it going to your head? Keep your ego in check?
I don’t think I’ve got that kind of ego. I don’t think of awards as ego boosts but as a kind of reassurance against the ravenous pit of my insecurity. I think once you retire and you’re never going to write anything again, then you can feel confident. They say you’re only as good as your last project but that’s far too optimistic. You’re only as good as your next project, is more correct. So I’m just in a constant state of worry. I’ve never met a writer who isn’t in a constant state of worry. I’m trying to think of a genuinely successful person I’ve met who is egotistical. Egotistical people tend to be twats who’ve never done anything. You meet successful people and they’ll probably be a bit neurotic. So I have no problem keeping my ego in check, but I have problems keeping my insecurities in check. My fear, my paranoia, my panic, although not so much at the moment because I’m not face-to-face with failure. But throughout my Doctor Who time I felt I had my nose pressed against the next disaster.
Have you had that many disasters? One or two episodes were pretty dreadful but generally they were great.
I haven’t put a show out that I considered to be a disaster. But I haven’t put a show out that I didn’t think was going to be. Every single one was reeling towards the precipice at some point.
Where do you keep your awards?
In the living room, on display. To hell with it. I’ve got no problem with that. I think you should enjoy those things.
What did you do with your Radio Times Hall of Fame award?
My office is being renovated right now so I’ll get it up there. I was delighted with it. I like the stat that over the years I have the No 1 total of covers – for Doctor Who and Sherlock.
April 2017: Steven Moffat was inducted into the Radio Times Hall of Fame by (former) editor Ben Preston
You and Frank Skinner were very witty and impassioned up on stage for 90 minutes at the Radio Times Festival earlier this year. You’re always good at these events but two years ago you told me you’re a shy person. Have Doctor Who and the surrounding press hoopla helped you overcome your shyness?
Shyness is fundamentally different from whether you can speak in public. That’s a different skill. I’m quite articulate and I can be funny so I can do those two things. I’m not that worried about standing up in front of an audience. If they’re expecting somebody who’s great, then I’d be worried, but if they’re just expecting some writer, I can probably exceed their modest expectations. But the business of going to a party and talking to a lot of people I don’t know, that would take me more effort. There are times I’m not up to it and I just hang behind Sue. I like there to be lots of people I know there. If I go to a party in my official capacity as the Doctor Who or Sherlock showrunner, I can switch into that different tone of voice quite easily where you just boom away and make jokes. I imagine that’s why many people seem to have a view of me as tremendously arrogant, but I’m not at all like that socially and would happily retire into the background.
One of the bonuses of the Doctor Who world for me is the great friendships you forge along the way – have you found this and who do you stay in touch with?
There are different levels for me because there are people that I’ve become very good friends with because I worked on the show and some of those are very strong friendships. I’m very good friends with Matt and Peter. Actually all the actors are really good friends. But because I’ve had a very long time as a Doctor Who fan, I still meet up with guys like Tom Spilsbury and lots of tragically ageing Doctor Who guys. It’s more like the Last of the Summer Wine every time we meet up. But that’s quite fun because I just turn back into a whingeing Doctor Who fan. As opposed to the showrunner or former showrunner.
So it’s been relatively easy to stay in touch with Matt, even though he’s gone off to do things.
It’s harder to see Matt because I’ve been insanely busy with Doctor Who and he’s been jetting around being incredibly handsome and dating the most beautiful woman in the world [Lily James]. I get Cardiff and he gets all of that. But every time we get together it’s brilliant and I saw him very recently in LA and he’s on great form. Such a cool guy.
What do you do to relax?
I watch Doctor Who. Actually I’ve been watching quite a lot. I’m cycling round Richmond Park. I’ve been doing a lot of that. I’m the oldest, slowest, wobbliest cyclist going round Richmond Park. I really love it.
Are you unwinding while you’re doing that or getting the creative juices flowing?
Sometimes I’m being creative, sometimes I’m just thinking, “Isn’t it pretty here?” Sometimes I’m listening to a podcast or some music. I’ve got to the point now where I can easily go twice round so I’m quite impressed with myself. As an ageing fogey.
Do you have a routine when you start to write or a ritual you must go through?
Not really. Because I have the regimented life of a family man. I get up, Sue goes to work and I go to my office at home. I sit there from about eight o’clock until about seven. Back in my Doctor Who and Sherlock days that would be filled with panic and speed-writing. Watching rushes. Now I’m progressing more slowly through my play. But that’s my working day.
What do you do when you’re stuck for inspiration?
Lots of different things. I go for walks, I cycle. I read something really good that makes me excited. There’s nothing quite like finding a book that you really want to read. And I don’t ever do this but Mark does – he has baths if he’s stuck. With a cup of tea. I think it’s worth recording but the man has been known to have more than one bath in a day.
What glimmer of hope can you offer Sherlock fans?
Well, I’ve just been to a Sherlock convention and I told them all I’m unemployed and cheap so I’m not the problem here. Everyone else is busy. I vaguely assume we will do it again at some point. I don’t think it will be very soon. I think it’s due for a bit of a longer gap. It is still so enormously and disproportionately successful. It’s successful enough in Britain but if you look at it internationally it’s ludicrous. It’s massive so there will always be a demand for it, I hope. And there is no upper limit on how long we can do it. Holmes and Watson can be 60 or 70. So I think we will do it again but I could be utterly wrong. We all do love it and we all like each other. It’s a small team of very nice people.
Years ago, you were being drawn towards Hollywood and working with Steven Spielberg – do you think that might happen again?
Probably not. It’s been a very busy time over the past few years and it’s set us up very well. So I’m not concerned with massive ambition or with making tons of money. Those are two things that don’t bother me. I’d like to do something I haven’t done. I’ve never written a play so I’m writing a play. I’d like to write short stories. I’ve never written a book so I’m writing a book. [He tells me what but it hasn’t been officially announced yet.]
It’s also worth remembering that my two biggest successes by far happened by chasing my own ridiculous enthusiasms. And let’s not forget that not that long ago Doctor Who and Sherlock were not bywords for instant easy success. Following my own geeky enthusiasms has been what’s worked for me. Giving in to my childish enthusiasm to write The Empty Child for Russell [in 2005] was probably the most significant thing I’ve done in my career.