The BIG Interview: Doctor Who’s Steven Moffat

Doctor Who Boom

by Tom Spilsbury |
Updated on

We sit down with the returning writer to chat about keeping secrets, being interrogated by Kirsty Wark, maintaining tension, remaining unspoiled, and reaching 'Number 50'…

Doctor Who: Steven Moffat & Russell T Davies
Doctor Who: Steven Moffat & Russell T Davies

Hi Steven! We’re welcoming you back to Doctor Who for the first time since 2017, but it’s quite a long time ago that you wrote your new episode, isn’t it?

Steven: Oh, it was! It’s surprising how long. It was two-and-a-half years ago that I was suggesting the outline, I wrote it about two years ago, and it was made about a year ago. Extraordinary!

There are always secrets around Doctor Who, but was this the longest you’ve ever had to keep one? People have been asking if you’re coming back for years!

Steven: Yeah! I didn’t really know what to say, as I demonstrated quite regularly. Quite honestly, I was slightly embarrassed, because I’d only just left. And here I am, back in the playpen! Russell [T Davies, Doctor Who’s showrunner] said, ‘Oh, let’s keep it a secret for a bit longer! It will be huge!’ And I said, ‘I don’t think it will be huge, that a bloke who wrote a ton of Doctor Who has now written even more of it.’ But I didn’t want to tell a direct lie, because it seems slightly dodgy to do that. So, every time I was asked about it, I kept avoiding a direct answer, by increasingly Byzantine means. At the beginning, it was, ‘It’s far too soon for me to come back.’ Which is true! And then it was, ‘I’d be insane to go back in a junior position on a show that I used to run.’ Well, that’s true as well. And then it was, ‘Doctor Who fans would kill themselves if I came back so soon.’

You were even asked about it by Kirsty Wark on Newsnight!

Steven: Yes! And I was particularly grumpy that night, because it meant I wasn’t allowed to drink, and I do like my glass of wine in the evening. Also, I was getting up very early the next morning, to go and do the tone meeting [for his episode, Boom]. So, I knew I was getting on a train, really early. And then Kirsty just ram-raided me with that bloody question!

Did she catch you off-guard?

Steven: I really didn’t think she’d ask me that question. I was fumbling my way through it, and I ended up saying, ‘It’s not like I’m getting on a train to Cardiff tomorrow morning.’ Well, I was! I was exactly getting on a train the next morning.

You couldn’t even keep up the fib, as you added, ‘Unless I am’!

Steven: Yes, I was being fastidious about not actually lying. A pointless activity. There’s no way to keep that kind of thing secret, insofar as anyone gives a f***. Which isn’t very far.

Do you feel guilty if you tell an outright lie?

Steven: I don’t think it’s really guilt. It’s just fastidiousness. It’s indecorous. It seems clumsy just to lie.

But if you’re asked a direct question, you either say ‘Yes’, which spoils a surprise, or ‘No’, which is a lie – or you answer in a ‘clever’ way that makes it clear the answer is ‘Yes’ anyway.

Steven: Actually, I did tell a direct lie once. It was at the beginning of season eight [Peter Capaldi’s first series as the Doctor in 2014]. I was asked, ‘Are you going to bring back the Master?’ And of course, we were bringing back the Master, in the form of Missy [played by Michelle Gomez]. I just didn’t have time to think, so I said, ‘No, we’re not.’ And I sat there, thinking, ‘Yeah, it’s not technically the Master anymore. It’s the Mistress. So, that’s kind of alright, isn’t it?’

Do you worry that people will be cross with you if you fib?

Steven: I don’t think anyone got remotely cross. A fairly small number of people give a damn about any of it, even in Doctor Who’s vast audience. A small number of people know whether Russell and I are different people or not! Quite a few of them get confused. Those who paid any attention at all had figured out from the fact that I refused to say, ‘No’, that I was clearly doing it. Because – obviously – if I wasn’t doing it, I would just say, emphatically, ‘No’. Chris [Chibnall, another former Doctor Who showrunner] was saying emphatically ‘No’. I thought, ‘That’s not a great comparison.’

Let’s take you back to 2021, when you found out that Russell was returning as Doctor Who’s showrunner…

Steven: It went like this. Sue [Vertue, Steven’s wife, and producer of many of his shows] and I were out for dinner one night. We had a fairly merry time at the local Indian. We came home, and I was a bit p*****, and I looked at my phone, and there was an email from Russell saying, ‘I’m going back to Doctor Who!’ I thought, ‘What?! I don’t know if that’s real. Is that real? I’ll wait and see if it’s still there tomorrow morning.’ I checked in the morning, and it was still there. So, I phoned him up and said, ‘Have you read The Writer’s Tale [Russell’s book about writing the show between 2005 and 2009]? Are you out of your mind?’

Did he ask you about writing an episode straight away?

Steven: In the email, he was mostly just telling me the news. But because he’s Russell, he was getting excitable about it. So, when I phoned him, we just chatted away about his various ideas. God knows, I wasn’t pitching. He was vaguely asking, ‘If you ever have an idea, that’d be great.’ I was thinking, ‘Well, I’m not sure that I’ve got any left!’ I did it for so long, and quite recently. But inevitably, because we were always chatting away about Doctor Who, we started discussing it. Things like: ‘I never did the Silence quite right – we could bring them back.’ Or: ‘Is it time for another go at the Weeping Angels?’ And we quite liked the things we were suggesting to each other. Although, on one occasion I accidentally pitched to him the plot of The God Complex [2011]. He said, ‘Steven, you’ve done that. Toby [Whithouse] wrote that one!’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right!’ [Laughs] And then I suddenly had this thought, which I think is vaguely true, that Doctor Who almost never does tension. It doesn’t do nail-biting tension. It does romance, adventure, comedy, love stories, everything… but it doesn’t do tension, because the Doctor turns the tension off. He’s obviously going to win.

That’s true – unless the Doctor is absent entirely, as in Blink (2007).

Steven: Yeah, the absence of the Doctor can create tension, and Blink exploits that hugely. It’s scary because the Doctor has to say, ‘Sorry, I can’t make it this time, You’re on your own!’ They’re the most terrifying words, because he’s not there. But if you’re going to keep it Doctor-centric, how do you keep it tense? Well, I ripped the idea off the first episode of Genesis Of The Daleks [1975]. I said, ‘What if he runs out of the TARDIS, stands on a landmine, and can’t move an inch for the whole episode?’ Meanwhile, he has to turn off a war, work out what’s really going on, save everybody, unmask the aliens… but he can’t turn his head, or twitch, or even let his blood pressure get too high, because it’s a smart mine, that will detect anything. So, he’s in constant danger of immolating, basically! He just can’t do anything. And with a lovely, lively Doctor like Ncuti [Gatwa], that’s quite a dynamic difference – that he can’t move!

Meanwhile, are there other elements going on elsewhere, with Ruby and other characters?

Steven: As you’ll see, it’s pretty focused on that mine, because it’s very hard to pull the plot away from the Doctor about to blow up! But anyway, I sent this email to Russell, and he replied within 30 seconds. It was the fastest reply I’ve ever seen. ‘Oh, my God, yes, do that!’

Your first Doctor Who episodes were back in 2005, when Russell was in charge originally. Has the experience been different, compared to two decades ago?

Steven: It’s different in lots of ways. And it’s much the same in a lot of ways. All those years ago, I barely knew those people. I didn’t know Russell very well. But now, Phil [Collinson, executive producer], Julie [Gardner, executive producer] and Russell are old friends. They’re very mindful of the fact that I ran the show for a few years, so I’m treated like that. I get the old title back, so long as I’m in the building!

So, you’re an executive producer on this episode?

Steven: Yeah, I’m an exec on the episode. That just means that they made me do most of the work! But that’s fine. It hasn’t felt like I’ve gone back in as the office junior at all. In fact, at the tone meeting, because the others weren’t there, I was pretty much running it. It felt like going back to the old job, but on a ‘day-release’ basis.

But presumably, you were able to just focus on the episode you had written, without having to think about dozens of other things?

Steven: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I mean, it would be interesting to hear Russell on that subject too, because the truth is, when I was showrunning it, if I had a writing day, I would try to think of only that episode, otherwise you’re in danger of short-changing it. You have to behave as if this is your only responsibility, or you might not be focussed enough. But at that tone meeting, where I was playing at my old job, we were in a discussion about an element costing money, and I said, ‘We can pull something from another episode. What have we got later?’ And then I thought, ‘Hang on. I don’t know anything about the other episodes! I haven’t a clue! This isn’t my show anymore!’ I literally forgot in the moment that this wasn’t my job. It’s so familiar to me, those problems, those conversations. I’ve had a million of them. So, you just blur into a different time, like a confused old soldier. ‘The war is still going on!’ [Laughs]

When you sat down to write the first draft of this episode, did it flow well?

Steven: It flowed very nicely at the beginning. And then I realised the Doctor was taking absolutely ages to get anywhere near the bloody landmine! So, I threw it all away and started again. I made the rule that he had to be on the landmine before the opening titles. I wrote pages and pages and binned them, because it just didn’t work. Other than that, the challenges were mainly that it’s quite complicated for a show like that to be stuck in one place so much. And to be in real time, and to arrange everything so that everything happens in this one spot. I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t fall back into writing Doctor Who fairly easily, though. I wrote a storming amount of it, so I do know how it works, and what the style is. Or, what my style of it is. It’s quite different from Russell’s style. It’s going to be a bloody shock, this one, I tell you, after the first two episodes!

The first two episodes were huge showstoppers!

Steven: Yes – big, boisterous, very funny, very loud, and full of running. It’s Russell in that mode. Terrifically good fun. Massive, crowd-pleasing, gorgeous stuff. People will love them, I’m absolutely convinced. It’s basically saying, ‘The show is here, and it is the best fun you’re ever going to have.’ And it’s all about giving Ncuti and Millie [Gibson, who plays Ruby] the space to make us fall in love with them. And then – boom! Literally, Boom. It’s probably the most grim, dark one I’ve done, because he’s standing on a f****** landmine! It’s not laugh-a-minute.

But even in your darker episodes, you always find the humour…

Steven: There are gags. There are lines that are jokes, yes. But it’s a tough one. There was a very brief moment early on, when Russell said, ‘We could do that as episode one!’ I hadn’t written it at that point. I said, ‘I don’t think it’s right for episode one. You don’t want to take Ruby to an exciting alien planet, and then get nearly blown up! Yes, it’s an accurate taster of what she’s going to experience, but…!’ When we first brought Bill Potts on board [in the 2017 series], she had some nice adventures where the monsters weren’t too frightening, and then we gave her Oxygen, with the zombies of death!

Did you know Ncuti Gatwa had been cast, or where you writing for a generic Doctor?

Steven: No, I knew who I was writing for, because Russell told me straight away. He sent me an email, saying, ‘You are the fifth person to know. If this leaks, it’s you!’ So, I sat on that information. Sue knew that I knew, and I wouldn’t tell her. I just decided I was telling nobody.

And did you know about Millie Gibson, or just that the character was called Ruby?

Steven: I knew it was a character called Ruby. Russell was saying, ‘It’s the classic companion. She’s not a quirky “different” one. It’s an Amy/Rose one.’ Which she is, but through the prism of a very different actor, that becomes very different. I think she’s very, very good. She absolutely gets it.

Now, as a Doctor Who fan, you were able to stay unspoiled for the Jodie Whittaker era. But are there episodes of this series you can watch without any pre-knowledge?

Steven: I’ve read the scripts for the first five episodes, including my own, but the last three I know nothing about. I have not read Kate [Herron] and Briony [Redman]’s script [episode six, Rogue], and I have not read the finale [The Legend Of Ruby Sunday and Empire of Death, both written by Russell]. Although, bizarrely enough, I have read the finale of the following season – for reasons that will become apparent… he said cryptically!

Wow! Everything is being done so far ahead!

Steven: It’s mad! It’s never been like this before. They’re shooting the finale for next year! We’d shot this year’s Christmas special before last year’s Christmas special went out. I know that of course, because I wrote that one as well! Russell and I talk about that on the ‘in vision’ commentary for Boom

Wait, there are ‘in vision’ commentaries?!

Steven: Yes, you can go onto the Whoniverse on iPlayer, and there are commentaries for all the new episodes. And just in case you haven’t got enough physical beauty in your life, you can actually see us doing them. We’re ‘in vision’, which very exciting for young people, I think. ‘Oh, look, some fat, old geezers, wobbling away in chairs and chortling at their own jokes.’ People love that.

Now, you’ve previously had quite a lot of success with one-word Doctor Who titles beginning with B. Are you braced for the reaction to Boom?

Steven: The reaction I get, invariably, is ‘not as good as Blink’, which is probably true! Actually, when I proposed the landmine episode, Russell said, ‘We’ve got to call it Don’t Move.’ And I said, ‘Isn’t that a bit too much like Blink?’ He said, ‘No, that’ll be great!’ But I ended up calling it Boom, which is even more like Blink.

As of right now, you’ve written more episodes of Doctor Who than anyone…

Steven: Yeah, but I must be about to lose that title?

Up to the end of the 2024 season, Russell is on 41, and you’re on 49 – including co-written episodes. How do you feel about that?

Steven: Really?! 49? I don’t have any strong feeling about the fact that I’ve written more than anyone. It does feel slightly embarrassing. There’s an element of ‘What’s your favourite TV show?’ ‘Oh, it’s that show that I’ve written more of than anyone else.’ OK. That’s kind of unhealthy. [Laughs]

Well, it does mean that your next one – which airs this Christmas – will be number 50.

Steven: Oh, right, yes. I should probably introduce the episode from an armchair. [Adopts ‘old man’ voice] ‘Here we are, number 50.’

Do you think you’ve written your final Doctor Who episode?

Steven: Well, that’s the thing. It is entirely possible that I won’t write Doctor Who again. I don’t know. I mean, after Christmas, I’m not lying. I’m not involved in series two. My contribution, in effect, is the Christmas special. I’ve got quite a lot of things that are coming in for me to do, so I might never write Doctor Who again. What I feel slightly sad about is, even if I do another one, I probably won’t know when I’ve done my last one. I thought I knew how the story ended. I thought I knew how that chapter of my life expired. I thought it ended with Twice Upon A Time [2017] – which I didn’t love. I thought it was OK…

Oh, really?

Steven: I think it’s soft in the middle. The ending is good. But anyway, I remember thinking, ‘Well, at least I know how it ends.’ And now I don’t. I mean, I’m not against doing another one at all, but I don’t have any tremendous visceral need to do another one. As I got to the end of Boom, and as I got to the end of Joy To The World [his upcoming Christmas special], I did think, ‘Is that it? Is that the final moment?’ I think they both have quite good final moments for the Doctor. I was thinking, ‘Yeah, that could be goodbye.’

Well, if it is – and let’s hope it isn’t – it’s nice to finish on number 50!

Steven: Number 50, I’ll take that!

Doctor Who continues on BBC iPlayer and BBC1 on Saturdays

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