Doctor Who's alien time traveler can go anywhere, and any time, in the universe, but he needs Steven Moffat to steer his course. We talked to Moffat about taking over as Doctor Who's showrunner, and secrets of the Time Lords.
We actually did this phone interview a while ago, but we held off on posting it because we'd just had a video interview with Moffat from the U.S. launch of the series. So there are no spoilers whatsoever for any of the recent episodes. And if you want more of our conversations with Moffat, we also sat down with him one-on-one with him at Comic Con 2008.
You've described the new series of Doctor Who as a dark fairy tale. Do you think we still love fairy tales, in the era of video games and everything else? Do they still have the same power?
There are two things to say to that. One, with my arm up my back I came up with "dark fairy tale" — and the word dark is entirely redundant when it comes to fairy tales, at least until Disney makes a version of them. And do fairy tales still have power? Well, look at the movies that have been made. Yes they do.
But when I say "fairy tale," a better way of saying it would be "modern fairy tale." It's not that it's like the old fairy tales, or that it resembles them, it's the modern equivalent. It's the way we teach our children that there are things in the world that might want to eat them. It just feels like a fairy tale: A man who fights monsters but never becomes one.
It's not that it's a bit like Red Riding Hood. It isn't. But it occupies the space that fairy tales occupy. Children have nightmares and monsters all the time, so we take that fact and spin yarns out of it, the way fairy tales always have. And just the way that fairy tales of old would use the real world around them of forests and villages, and make them dark and mysterious and reveal dangers in the shadows, so Doctor Who does that at its best. Because a lot of Doctor Who takes the real-life world around you and twists it a bit.
I'm always saying — to everyone's boredom, I'm sure — that Doctor Who doesn't take place in outer space or the future, it takes place under your bed.
Do you think the fairy tale aspect is at odds with the science-fiction aspect, where everything has to have a scientific explanation? Or do you think those things go together?
That's just how you justify it. It's a mechanism by which you justify what happens. There was magic in fairy tales back when people believed in magic. That's just the machinery of it. That's not a problem. There isn't magic in Doctor Who — there are sometimes [laughs] token scientific explanations for everything, yes. But I mean, you know, he lives in a box that's biger on the inside than on the outside. When he regenerates, he turns into somebody with a new hairstyle and sideburns a particular length. Explain that, science! When Doctor Who's really, really good, there's a feeling of magic about it. It's a magical-feeling show. We've got a justification for why this time machine looks like a battered old blue box with all the wonderful panels. But the explanation doesn't matter so much as the aesthetic of it. It makes it feel like a wizard's box.
One of the things I love about your stories in particular is the mystery aspect of it, where there's clues and there's puzzles. And puzzles in particular seem to be a big part of the texture of what make it like a fairy tale. You have to solve these puzzles to move on.
I think kids love that sort of thing. I watch Doctor Who with my children, and they're always trying to figure it out. That's a thing they enjoy. They're not cynical, like adults who'll just sit there and say, "Oh, it'll all be explained in the last scene." They'll sit there and theorize out loud about what's going on. So I think it's an important thing. But also, if you make it a puzzle or a mystery, that's a great way of making sure the Doctor's at the heart of the action. He's not a warrior. He's not that kind of hero. If there's a great big fight scene, he probably won't be at the heart of it, because that's not his style or his skill. But if you make it a mystery to solve, if you make the clinching thing for him to put all the pieces together and figure out what's going on, then he's at the heart of the action.
Speaking of action, we talked to you before about the lack of people being killed on-screen in your stories. Compared to Russell T. Davies' stories which had a lot more bloodshed. Are you trying for a more subtle menace that's just outside the frame?
As I said before, it's not a deliberate decision on my part or on Russell's, that he should have slaughtered millions and I shouldn't. We didn't have that discussion. We were shocked at our respective roles. I think if you met each of us, you'd put it the other way around. No, it's not really. I think Doctor Who can get on, can do remarkably well with very, very small amounts of jeopardy. I love the big jeopardy stories, but "Girl In The Fireplace" hinges on a threat to one woman. And it's not even an evil threat, it's just some robots that seem very stupid. And yet it's not as if that feels less substantial than another story.
You've said that Doctor Who isn't the Doctor's story, it's the companion's story. But we're coming off a year of David Tennant stories where he didn't have a regular companion. And the previous years, Martha and Donna didn't feel quite as central as Rose did in her time. Are you making an effort to bring the companion back to the center stage with Amy?
I think Doctor Who just goes that way. I think you can't stop it. I can make that sound like a decision. But I think it's the natural resting place of the show. The Doctor's the hero, the guy with the best lines and grandstanding moments, but it's really the story of the people who come on board. Never mind looking at "Rose," look at [original pilot] "An Unearthly Child." Doctor Who does not start with the Doctor running away from [his home planet] Gallifrey because he's bored. It starts with people finding the blue box. Actually, episode one in 1963 is just the same kind of episode one as "Rose" is and "The Eleventh Hour" is, it's where the story naturally begins is with a new person discovering the Doctor and how it's going to change that person. How their life is going to alter as a result of their encounter with the Doctor. And that is a thrilling, amazing story, and one that you can imagine yourself in. Imagine one day that the blue box landed in your garden, that would be exciting. What would you do? Where would you go? How would you react?
In a way — in a vague way — I suppose it's kind of the story of the Doctor, but you know he's 907. He changes a lot in one way, and not at all in another. He's not probably going to settle down, get kids and a Volvo. He's probably going to carry on doing what he does. So it's the story of the people he meets and the lives he changes. He's made his decisions, and he can't really go back on them.
That's a really interesting way of looking at it. In the modern era, it seems like the companion has the hero's journey, where they start out as somebody ordinary and then become something quite different.
I think you've almost defined every story every told when you've said that. The transformation of an initially ordinary person into something different almost defines every story. And obviously, in the lovely comic strip world of Doctor Who, that tends to be the journey to great heroism. Or anyway, to great understanding. Or something like that.
Both Rose and Donna had moments where they became almost god-like figures. I won't ask if that's going to happen with Amy. But do you think there's an element of becoming post-human with the companions?
I think it's a danger. Because I think you'd lose the person to whom the story is happening if you did that. You want them, in a way, in a very basic way, to be your representative in the TARDIS, experiencing the story as you would experience it. The Doctor is extraordinary enough. Do we need other extraordinary people? I think anyone who agrees to go aboard the TARDIS is clearly a bit of a loony, but aside from that, you want it to be ordinary, recognizable people.
How is it different writing humor in something like Doctor Who, versus in a comedy show like Coupling?
I never really think about the humor. I like writing comedy, and humor comes fairly — I hesitate to say this — it's not a stretch for me. I'm good at funny. Because Doctor Who's a funny show, and you always want to keep it funny. Apart from anything else, the Doctor himself is bloody hilarious. I think it derives naturally. The only big difference is really in something like Coupling or in a sitcom, humor is all that you're doing. You have to make sure it's funny all the time. Whereas I'm quite relaxed about humor in Doctor Who. If the scene lends itself to comedy, I'll take it quite far down that road. If it doesn't, I don't worry about it. I don't worry if I haven't had a joke for 20 pages, that's fine. I'd worry if I hadn't had a joke for half a page on Coupling.
Your stories often revolve around time travel, much more than the show has in the past. Is there a danger in making Doctor Who too much about time travel, in that it becomes too meta or self-referential?
I think there's a danger of having too much time travel, I do. On the other hand, it's a show about a time-traveler and that's kind of fun. But me popping up once a year and doing a story that's centered a bit more on time travel is different from me popping up six times a year and doing the same thing. You wouldn't want to do it all the time. At the same time, an absolute underlying — I hate to use the word "theme" because it's rubbish — an underlying strand of Doctor Who is that he is a time traveler and his companions, as passengers on the same vehicle, have an odd relationship with time, because it's not passing in the same way for them. I think it would be strange not to foreground that, or at any rate not to make it a strand of the story when uniquely, your entire regular cast don't just have a time machine, they live in it. It's a very different kind of thing.
So are we going to get more of a sense of what it's like to live aboard the TARDIS?
Not this time around. I've made it clear there's a lot more inside that TARDIS. But the truth about Doctor Who. When it's really working, you're out those TARDIS doors as fast as you can go and into the adventure. That's what you do. You don't want to hang around people having chats about decorating their rooms. You want them to be fighting giant electric slugs. That's what you paid your money for.